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Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World Paperback – September 1, 2004
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If the US continues with current policies, the next decades will be marked by war, economic collapse, and environmental catastrophe. Resource depletion and population pressures are about to catch up with us, and no one is prepared. The political élites, especially in the US, are incapable of dealing with the situation, and have in mind a punishing game of "Last One Standing."
The alternative is "Powerdown," a strategy that will require tremendous effort and economic sacrifice in order to reduce per-capita resource usage in wealthy countries, develop alternative energy sources, distribute resources more equitably, and reduce the human population humanely but systematically over time. While civil society organizations push for a mild version of this, the vast majority of the world's people are in the dark, not understanding the challenges ahead, nor the options realistically available.
Powerdown speaks frankly to these dilemmas. Avoiding cynicism and despair, it begins with an overview of the likely impacts of oil and natural gas depletion and then outlines four options for industrial societies during the next decades:
- Last One Standing: the path of competition for remaining resources;
- Powerdown: the path of cooperation, conservation, and sharing;
- Waiting for a Magic Elixir: wishful thinking, false hopes, and denial;
- Building Lifeboats: the path of community solidarity and preservation.
Finally, the book explores how three important groups within global society-the power élites, the opposition to the élites (the antiwar and anti-globalization movements, et al: the "Other Superpower"), and ordinary people-are likely to respond to these four options. Timely, accessible and eloquent, Powerdown is crucial reading for our times.
Listen to an interview with Richard Heinberg from WRPI.(2004-04-20)
About the Author
Richard Heinberg is widely acknowledged as one of the world's foremost Peak Oil educators. A journalist, educator, editor, lecturer, and a Core Faculty member of New College of California where he teaches a program on "Culture, Ecology and Sustainable Community, he is the author of six previous books including The Party's Over and Powerdown.
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Top customer reviews
The magnitude of the impending disaster is a function of population buildup (6.4 billion, well beyond the carrying capacity of the earth), resource depletion, declining per-capita food production, global climate change, and economic and political instability. "Taken together, they constitute the most severe challenge our species has ever faced. They represent not merely a likely culmination of human history; in their ongoing and potential environmental impacts, they also may collectively signal one of the most momentous events in all of geological time."
Alarmist nonsense? The sky is falling? Some say so. The energy well is bottomless, some say. For Heinberg the writing is on the wall and it is past time to respond. He lays out four possible responses: 1) Resource wars, 2) Global self-limitation, 3) Denial, 4) Small-scale sustainable communities. Option one is the destructive path our current political leaders are pursuing. Option two will simply marginalize self-limiters unless there is global cooperation (tragedy of the commons). Option three is a non-starter. "Our real problem is that we are trapped in a perpetual growth machine." We are degrading the long-term carrying capacity of the environment, so more cheap energy (if it could be found) would only delay, and exacerbate the inevitable. Option four is the prudent choice those who have the will to work toward a local community that can preserve our highest human values and ideals.
Heinberg is not the only one sounding the alarm, but his account is compelling, his tone is human and his writing is fluid. Powerdown is an excellent introduction to the topic of peak oil.
He thinks and believes that policy makers and politicians are not paying attention, however; that is, by not paying attention, they are behaving irrationally. Well, duh. Then what is the importance of "rational" "powerdown" "life-boat" strategies?
The result? I thought this book was watered down and apocalyptic political science, with some power data interspersed. His other book, The Party's Over, was better.
The author puts the end of cheap oil in the larger context of other depleting resources (water, ocean fisheries, agricultural resources such as topsoil); population growth; declining food production, global climate change and ecocide; unsustainable levels of US debt; and international political instability.
The author is severely critical of all politicians in general, and brutally scornful of the neo-conservatives that have captured the Bush-Cheney-Halliburton-Exxon Administration (Enron being an invisible partner now). He actually itemizes, rather effectively (a half page for each of the following), what Bush-Cheney have done in eight years that is against the interests of the Republic. According to the author and his sources, they have 1) Stolen an election; 2) placed convicted felons and human-rights violators in positions of power; 3) facilitated 9/11, blocking its prevention, as a means of justifying the war on Iraq and a consolidation of domestic police power; 4) Lied to the American people, the UN, and other publics about Iraq, a war of choice not need; 5) Undermined international law; 5) applied indiscriminate force against civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq, killing tens if not hundreds of thousands; and 6) subverted the US Constitution.
I take the above at face value--it is less of an angry diversion from the book's theme, and more of a critical current assessment showing that in the face of these larger strategic shortfalls that face us, Bush-Cheney were exactly the WRONG way to go. I of course acknowledge that the American people chose to return them to office; hence we get the government we deserve.
Across the book the author takes great care to cite the work of others and point the reader to useful resources. On pages 94-95 he gives us the key seven needs in a powerdown scenario: 1) Stabilize human population; 2) Increase resource efficiency; 3) Shift economics from production to services (including full employment); 4) Reduce pollution; 5) Divert capital to food production (one might add, basic food production like beans, instead of frivolous food production like exotic mushrooms and out of season fruits); 6) Shift agriculture to a sustainable model; and 7) Improve the design of all hard goods to make them durable and repairable.
I am absolutely fascinated with and respectful of the author's focus on Cuba as a model for a powerdown scenario. He does a tremendous job of showing how Cuba adjusted to the US embargoes and the collapse of their Soviet sponsor by going to organic agriculture, mass transit and use of bicycles and animals for much individual transport, and so on. It is be a compelling and fascinating turn of events if the Cuban organic full employment model ultimately triumphs over the immoral profligate US model of consumer capitalism and double deficits (debt and trade). Espero, con respeto, ese dia en el qual Cuba podra declarar su exito moral y nacional.
The other model that the author recommends is the Amish model, where there is a very high reliance on human labor and smart farming without tractors or pesticides.
The author debunks hydrogen as an alternative fuel, points out that hundreds of nuclear plans could be a 50 year solution, but that we will run out of uranium in several decades, and that solar and wind power are now very viable, but will be slow to scale. He emphasizes two aspects of any plausible positive scenario: 1) it will need deliberate commitments at the community level to re-engineer entire counties toward sustainable models, with locally produced food and limited energy demands, massive conservation of water; and 2) it will require considerable government intervention--large scale government intervention.
The author ends with a retrospective on the decline and fall of the Roman and Mayan civilizations. The latter experienced population growth, then tribal fights over scarce resources, a "surprise" drought with cataclysmic impact; and finally, a political leadership engrossed in short-term objectives and unwilling to focus on strategic planning for the long-term. This sounds all too familiar.
A final note that I really admired: the author emphasizes that in the future we will need to return to the employment of "primitive" technologies that are not dependent on fuel, and that there will be a need for a new order of monks or knowledge transmitters, who can re-teach entire generations, entire populations, how to powerdown while ramping up communal agriculture and self-sufficiency.
I will end by saying very candidly that my family is going to cash out of the Northern Virginia area. We are going to sell our home, my office building, and my business, and we are going to move to a community on a robust river in the mountains where communal self-sufficiency can be achieved. This is one of several books that have had a life-altering impact on my family. I do not trust our politicians to be responsible at the federal or state level. I am therefore moving us down to a county-level of personal integrity and interaction, where honor might be assured by a combination of kinship and mutual dependency. I cannot think of a more serious means of ending my review of this book than by stating how it has directed me.