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Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.









Richard Heinberg*
August 2004


Power-down \ \ n. 1. the energy famine that engulfed industrial nations in the early 21st century;
2. the deliberate process of cooperation, contraction, and conversion that enabled humanity to survive . . .


Chapter 6. Our Choice

The Choice of the Elites
The Choice of the Movement
The Choice of Us Folks
Looking Ahead


Again, in that day each little tribe will live by itself and to itself and go its own way, and their differences will soon be more than they were even in the first days of [humankind], according to the accidents of survival and of place. . . . In the distant years after these first years, the tribes will grow more numerous and come together, cross-fertilize in the body and in mind.

George R. Stewart, Earth Abides (1949)


[P]erhaps our mission now is like that of the Native Americans at the height of the genocide in the nineteenth century. At that point there was no question of winning the battle. What remained to be done was to keep hold of what it means to be human.
Stephanie Mills, Epicurean Simplicity (2002)


In the preceding chapters I have outlined a series of four options for industrial societies, and individuals within those societies, as the new century wears on — given the context of increasing population pressure and resource depletion, and the myriad of symptoms issuing from those fundamental dilemmas. Of course, this cannot be an exhaustive examination of the subject. What actually transpires in the decades ahead will probably be a surprising mix of the various possibilities outlined.

Many people will be unhappy with my delineation of these four options, and will say that I should have proposed others.

People on the right side of the political spectrum will likely regard my description of the Last One Standing option as a cynical view of the “War on Terror,” and as a misrepresentation of America’s noble aims in the Middle East.

People who identify with mainstream environmental, peace, and human rights organizations will say that I have made the Powerdown scenario sound far too difficult, thus dissuading readers from making efforts in that direction.

People from both ends of the political spectrum are likely to feel that my description of Waiting for the Magic Elixir is too pessimistically framed. I have subtitled it “Wishful Thinking, False Hopes, and Denial”; but what if some hopes are not false? More than a few readers will disagree with my unenthusiastic assessment of the hydrogen economy, or will choose to believe that a new invention will soon appear to solve humanity’s resource problems.

Surely many readers will regard the very proposal of the option of Building Lifeboats as defeatist and gloomy. Suggesting that any of humanity’s problems may be insoluble is bad form. When engaging in public discourse it is permissible to say, “If we don’t do thus and so, terrible things will happen.” This is the way in which discussions of global warming, nuclear proliferation, overpopulation, and other worrisome topics are typically framed. But even if the prescribed action is not being taken, and the world is in fact headed at top speed in the opposite direction, it is unacceptable to assume that the foreseen consequences will in fact appear, and to make plans accordingly.

Many readers will wonder why I didn’t include a chapter on “Muddling Through”: after all, humanity has heard dire warnings before, and yet we’re still here. Others will be disappointed that there is no chapter on “Global Consciousness Change,” describing how all our material difficulties will melt away if only we all adopt an enlightened spiritual worldview. I didn’t include these chapters because “Muddling Through” is simply a variation of Waiting for the Magic Elixir, and the only Global Consciousness Change that would matter would be one that results in Powerdown; thus advocating Powerdown is advocating consciousness change. I suppose there could have been a chapter on the most obvious response to global resource depletion: eat, drink, and be merry. If there is little that we can do to reverse present trends, why not ignore them and have a good time? This is indeed an option, but it hardly deserves lengthy discussion. Those so inclined will be able to figure out the details of this strategy on their own.

There is of course quite a large group of people that believes the future will be far better than the present, and that no painful transition will be required. For them, my entire presentation is hopelessly wrongheaded. They might like to have seen a chapter on “Endless Economic Growth through Technological Progress,” but that is for someone else’s book. I simply do not agree that this is a likely outcome. It is easy to see why that message is always and everywhere welcome: we all love cheery news and an optimistic outlook. But the idea that we industrialized humans are immune to the natural laws that have restrained growth in other species, and humans in previous social regimes, is to me so self-servingly blind as to be morally reprehensible.

It is theoretically possible that our future will be shaped by unexpected revelations about space aliens. There are people who earnestly believe that this is true, but I do not have enough substantiated information on which to base any fixed opinion about the subject.

Then again, perhaps resource competition will never occur because the world will first be wiped out by an overwhelming natural disaster, such as a collision with a comet or asteroid (yes, it could happen, and eventually will — though likely not for thousands or millions of years). This eventuality is of low probability in the short term, while the probabilities of the events I have been discussing — oil and natural gas depletion, tendencies toward increased geopolitical competition, widespread denial on the part of the majority of citizens, and the mounting of cooperative survival efforts by the few — have a probability so high as to approach certainty.

Is this fatalism? Far from it. Fatalism implies the absence of choice, while the entire point of my outlining these options is to highlight the choices available to us. True, our options are restricted, as they always are, by circumstance; wisdom ever lies in knowing the limits of choice and choosing well given those limits. Some limits — habits of mind and certain cultural barriers — we tend to accept too readily, and we need the courage to surmount them. Other limits — the ecological kind — we tend to ignore, all the while congratulating ourselves on our cleverness; these we must learn to respect.

In this final chapter we will examine these four options from three perspectives: that of the elites (governments, financial institutions, corporations, wealthy individuals); that of the organized opposition to the elites (the environmental, human rights, anti-globalization, and anti-war organizations and their allies); and finally, that of individuals who must sort out their alliances and interests on their own, and choose accordingly.

The Choice of the Elites

There is no need to belabor the point: the people of this world whose opinion counts the most — the people with the power to command armies, economies, and governments — have already made up their minds. The cards are dealt and the bets are on the table. For them, the coming decades will constitute a fatal game of Last One Standing, a brutal contest for the world’s remaining resources.

To the interested observer, this may seem patently insane. Even the nation that “wins” the game will be utterly devastated. In the end oil, natural gas, and even coal will run out, and not even the wealthy will be able to maintain their current way of life. And in the meantime, hundreds of millions — perhaps billions — will have violently perished. Why would anyone choose this path?

It is possible to understand the reason for the current course of events only by looking at who is choosing it and the incentives and constraints to which they are subject.

The elites — corporate owners and managers, government officials, and military commanders — are people who have been selected for certain qualities: loyalty to the system, competitiveness, and hunger for power. Often they are literally bred for their roles. Like George W. Bush, they are people born to wealth and power, and raised to assume that privilege is their birthright. These are people who identify with the system and the status quo; they are constitutionally incapable of questioning its fundamental assumptions.

Moreover, the elites are guided day-to-day by a set of incentives that are built into the system itself. Managers who pursue immediate gain get ahead, while those who make short-term sacrifices in order to preserve long-term stability are often at a disadvantage. Likewise, managers are rewarded who keep up appearances, who generate good news, and who exude confidence. Confessing errors accrues no benefit; instead, managers are encouraged to deny shortcomings and to blame competitors or subordinates.

Such conduct is hardly unique to elites; everyone behaves in this fashion from time to time. But the system, in grooming its most prominent caretakers, selects for these behaviors; it carefully fosters some personality types and excludes others: assertive individuals who think concretely come to the fore, while creative dreamers fall by the wayside.

Leaders are often good liars: they are people who have learned how to tell others what they want to hear. We voters tend to elect and follow such people. Even if we know at some level that we are being lied to, we are flattered and pleasantly illusioned (we hate being dis-illusioned). The best liars are able to convince themselves of the truth of what they are saying, so that, in their own minds, they are not lying at all; as a result they can be eminently convincing. J. P. Morgan (who knew something about power and influence) once said that “A man generally has two reasons for doing a thing: one that sounds good, and a real one.” Some of us are very good at deluding ourselves that the reason that sounds good is the real one.1

Such elemental human foibles shape not just the details but also the grand arc of history. President Clinton exhibited a highly developed ability to lie convincingly (perhaps even to himself) in his creative redefinition of extramarital sex; of far more consequence, during the buildup to the recent American-British invasion of Iraq, the neoconservative policymakers of the Bush administration were widely observed to select and publicize intelligence reports that supported their worldview, and to disregard others that challenged it. They were evidently more interested in furthering their preconceived agenda than in gaining an accurate picture of the world and of the likely effects of their actions. This attitude came back to bite them when forecasts of an easy invasion and a friendly reception by the Iraqi people gave way to the reality of protracted guerilla war: early warnings of the latter outcome from CIA and State Department analysts had been shunted aside by neoconservative policymakers who refused to think that the invasion could turn sour, and therefore failed to plan for the possibility.

Moreover, the war had been “sold” to the public as necessary in order to root out illegal Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which UN weapons inspectors were purportedly too incompetent to locate. When, following the invasion, a massive search by US military and intelligence officers likewise failed to uncover banned weapons, the rationale for the invasion shifted retroactively: it had never really been about WMDs; the purpose had always been to rid the Iraqi people of their hated dictator. The mendacity was breathtaking. As Dennis Cass put it in his article “Whoppers of Mass Destruction” (Mother Jones, June 23), “When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says, ‘I don’t believe anyone that I know in the administration ever said that Iraq had nuclear weapons,’ it astounds the senses on a cellular level.” Yet in hearing members of the administration deliver their ever-shifting explanations during the autumn of 2003, I was struck by the perception that these people often seemed to believe what they were saying. It was as though they had developed uniquely flexible mental muscles that permitted them to earnestly hold as true whatever view of reality seemed convenient, profitable, or necessary in the moment — regardless of its utter incompatibility with the view had been held the day previously.

While the neoconservatives may have an extreme (perhaps fatal) case of this curious self-deception syndrome, it is a common malady of those in power — hence the fairy tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and the old tradition of killing the messenger who brings bad news.

There are always plenty of messengers available to tell the elites what they would like to believe. The late economist Julian Simon made a career of it, and his spirit is alive and well among legions of futurists who proclaim that a continually burgeoning human population is not a problem but an advantage, and that our particular civilization is uniquely immune to resource limits. Their message always has an audience — often a well-paying audience; after all, a general atmosphere of optimism is good for both voter approval ratings and share prices.

Managers know that if they try to alter the basic parameters by which the system operates, the system will simply eject them. Leaders can make adjustments, but only minor ones. This is less the case when systems are new and still in the process of being designed; but once a social establishment has been in place for many decades it becomes highly resistant to change — or, more accurately, change of certain kinds. Dramatic change that merely exacerbates ongoing trends (such as a steeply increasing accumulation of power and wealth by a tiny minority) can often be tolerated, while moderate change that undercuts fundamental trends (such as an effort to seriously limit resource usage) is typically vigorously discouraged.

And so we find ourselves in a social system that knows only how to grow, and would rather violently explode than deliberately contract; and with leaders who have been selected precisely for their willingness and ability to carry out the system’s operating instructions, however ultimately self-destructive they may be. The system needs petroleum, but indigenous reserves are quickly depleting. There is more oil elsewhere. For the leaders, there is only one possible solution: get that oil, whatever the cost. Never mind that the cost may include invasions, military occupations, and eventually, perhaps, total war.

There are disagreements among the elites. Billionaire investor George Soros has said that it is currently his life’s goal to unseat the neoconservatives in. He evidently believes that the current administration is pursuing the growth imperative far too recklessly; as a result, the system may come apart at the seams sooner rather than later.

Even within the Bush administration there have allegedly been rifts. With Afghanistan and Iraq in turmoil, and with the 2004 elections looming, power appears to be shifting from the neocon hawks in the Defense Department to “realists” in the State Department, who advocate wrapping up the Iraq fiasco, withdrawing as quickly as possible, and moving on to other business. However, abandoning Iraq now would merely require further military intervention in the region later, so it is likely that a compromise will be worked out — or that a stalemate will ensue . . . or that the area of disagreement is actually smaller than some have suggested.

In addition, elites in many countries smaller than the US are showing signs of unease with the Last One Standing strategy and have announced that they might wish to undertake some form of Powerdown. For example, as noted in chapter 3, the government of Iceland has declared that it intends to wean itself from petroleum entirely within the next few decades. No doubt the Icelanders would like to see international treaties enacted that would set the rest of the world on the same path. But they have indigenous geothermal energy resources that could enable a relatively gentle energy transition in their country; the US is not in so favorable a position. Iceland has a tiny military; America’s is formidable.

George Soros may be successful in rendering jobless the current occupant of the White House; even if Bush stays for another term, the influence of the neoconservative hawks may be on the wane. But the new leader or advisers will undoubtedly pursue policies similar to the current ones in their ultimate goals, if gentler in their execution, simply because US policymakers are not even contemplating a serious Powerdown strategy and, in the end, the only alternative to Powerdown is more competition, which will eventually lead to more war and more repression. Meanwhile the quiet voices of countries, like Iceland, that may wish to lead the world toward a cooperative Powerdown, will almost certainly be drowned out by the war cries of incomparably more menacing countries that have decided to maximize their energy flow-through rates and ruthlessly compete for the resources needed to continue increasing consumption rates for as long as possible. While the US and China remain on a collision course, what everyone else does is beside the point. Only after the inevitable cataclysm might the advantage go to the meek.

For now, from the vantage point of the controlling elites, whether by deliberation or by default, cutthroat competition is the order of the day, and whoever flinches first merely seals his fate.

The Choice of the Movement

The world’s environmental, anti-war, anti-globalization, and human rights organizations (which came to be referred to as “the Other Superpower” during the vast anti-war demonstrations of the spring of 2003 — but which, for the sake of brevity, I will refer to simply as “the Movement”) have a radically different view of the situation from that of the ruling elites. The Movement’s primary interest is in dispersing power and wealth, rather than further concentrating them; in preventing war and countering political repression; and in protecting the Earth’s fragile ecosystems.

Unfortunately, the tide of history is currently moving the other way — toward more consolidation of power and wealth, toward the development and dispersal of ever more horrific weapons, and toward increased rates of resource extraction and environmental destruction. The Movement’s response is not to give up, but to push harder, while maintaining the moral high ground. The task of changing the direction of events may appear hopeless; nevertheless, in the view of Movement leaders, opposing war and oppression is the right thing to do, regardless of the odds. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King confronted entrenched patterns of social inequity, and at first their efforts to change these patterns seemed hopeless to many. But by perseverance, and by moral example and persuasion, they prevailed. The leaders of the Movement take the same attitude today: however daunting their undertaking may appear, the alternative — allowing the world to slide further into war, tyranny, and environmental ruin — is simply unacceptable.

The Movement has a blind spot, however: while it addresses a wide range of issues related to militarism, inequality, environmental depredation, and injustice, it cannot easily speak to resource and population issues. That is because Movement leaders — like the leaders of established governmental, economic, and military institutions — are vulnerable to political incentives and constraints that prevent them from coming to grips with the most fundamental facts about our species-wide ecological dilemma.

For Movement leaders, the primary incentive must be to attract the interest and loyalty of multitudes. Since the Movement lacks formal political power, only the support of the masses can give it potency. There is a further incentive: it is highly desirable for all of the various issue organizations of the Movement (organizations to clean up toxic waste, to save endangered species, to ban land mines, to promote minority rights, to oppose military aggression, and on and on) to work together, and to present a united front. United, they are powerful; divided, they are like so many gnats pestering the elite-driven Leviathan.

However, some of the organizations making up the Movement — principally the human rights and environmental organizations — actually have diverging interests. Human rights workers deal with immediate, concrete instances of repression and atrocity. They take a principled stand, but with a very few exceptions are disinclined to take a long view with regard to population and resource issues. Environmentalists often have a better understanding of population and resources: they see how nearly every impending ecological catastrophe is related to the burgeoning human population. A few environmentalists go further in their thinking and draw connections between population pressure and resource depletion on one hand, and war and economic exploitation on the other.

This difference in emphasis may seem fairly trivial when stated this way, but, as we are about to see, it is crucial. The nub of the problem is this: The population issue is problematic from a human-rights perspective, because no one has yet been able to envision a way of significantly reducing the total human population of the planet over the course of the next few decades without resorting to some method that would compromise what many regard as the most sacred of human rights — the right to reproduce. So, for the sake of solidarity and mutual support, the two sets of organizations tend to downplay their differences. But this requires that environmental organizations refrain from speaking frankly about one of the central problems of our era.

By any reasonable assessment, the Earth has already exceeded its carrying capacity for humans: every basic means of life-support (including the world’s oceans, topsoils, and fresh water systems) appears to be in the beginning stages of collapse. The depletion of fossil fuels will put much more pressure on the global ecosystem’s ability to sustain a large human population, since currently much of that population is supported by industrial agriculture and the long-distance transportation of food and other resources from regions where they are abundant to where they are scarce; and, as we have seen, transportation and industrial agriculture are highly vulnerable to reduced fuel inputs. As mentioned in the Introduction, just since 1998 (when the global population reached six billion) we have added yet another 400 million to the total — nearly the population of North America. Where is the support system for these people? It is ludicrous to think of the world finding a North America’s worth of resources, and building a North America’s worth of infrastructure, every six years in order to support the human lives added through current rates of population growth. Thus more population growth just means more poverty, more misery.

Ultimately, ignoring the population issue will be a catastrophe for human rights, since population pressure is reliably one of the primary drivers of environmental destruction. With continued population growth, ever more resource competition will become inevitable, even in the face of heroic efforts to fairly redistribute whatever resources are still available. The Movement seeks peace, freedom, equality, and justice. But with too many people trying to inhabit a finite planet, the ecological conditions for these desirable conditions will vanish. Ecologists familiar with human history (and historians familiar with the principles of ecology) know that peace, cooperation, equity, and justice are most easily realized in a condition in which population is low relative to the available resources (though there have been exceptions).2 The industrial revolution simply added a new twist to this rule: the drawdown of fossil fuels temporarily enabled us to extract and transport other resources at a faster rate, so as to create “phantom” carrying capacity. As the remainder of Earth’s finite gift of fossil fuels is burned, that new, temporary carrying capacity will disappear; and as biological support systems are further damaged by the demands of overpopulated industrial societies, we may see Earth’s baseline carrying capacity for humans plummet to a level considerably below what it was at the time fossil fuels began to be used.

But the best the Movement can do is to plead for a “stabilization” of human population at around 7.4 billion — the low range of UN estimates for 2050 — through the means of educating women and distributing birth control information and devices. These methods should certainly be pursued, but will they be enough to prevent a human and environmental catastrophe? As we have seen, the Earth is barely — and only temporarily — able to support the current human population, even with the gift of cheap fossil fuels. A mere “stabilization” of human population is no solution.

Environmentalists typically agree to soft-pedal the population issue not only because it conflicts with the views of human-rights activists, but also because population reduction is hard to sell to the general public. People just don’t want to hear about it. The simple distribution of birth-control devices and information is already politically problematic because of pressures from the Catholic Church and US political reactionaries. Thus even population “stabilization” is a contentious issue and tends to be downplayed. To speak of an actual reduction of human population — exactly what is needed if the world is to avoid unprecedented human dieoff through famine, pestilence, and war — is unthinkable and unspeakable, at least in polite company. Not just Catholics and conservatives, but liberals as well become positively apoplectic if the subject is broached.

And so a discussion necessary to understanding our ecological dilemma, and dealing effectively with it, never occurs.3

The Movement also, though to a lesser degree, soft-pedals per-capita resource consumption issues. The current level of economic inequity in the world, and within many countries, is astonishing. A mere 500 people — the world’s richest — control as much wealth as the poorer half of humanity. The Movement rightly highlights this inequality and demands some sort of wealth redistribution. Sometimes Movement leaders go so far as to say that the wasteful lifestyles of people in the industrialized world — and here they refer principally to the US and Canada — must change, because the world doesn’t have enough resources to enable everyone to live like a typical North American. This is a point that needs stress. Human impact on the environment is not measured by population levels alone, but by population multiplied by per-capita resource consumption. If we are to navigate the next few decades peaceably, we must both reduce population and reduce per-capita resource usage in both the wealthier countries and the wealthier segments of poor countries.

But this latter message doesn’t always go down well with North Americans who have grown accustomed to their consumptive habits. And it is North Americans and Europeans who provide most of the funding for the Movement’s various organizations. And so the politically acceptable prescription from the Movement’s more mainstream organizations tends to be, raise living standards in poor countries. This benign-sounding strategy goes by the name “development,” and it is virtually sacrosanct among non-governmental organizations. In practical effect, development has meant turning poor nations into shabby imitations of rich ones, building cities on the industrial model while undermining traditional subsistence agriculture. It has been a tragedy for indigenous, sustainable cultures worldwide, and the resulting teeming urban centers will likely be sites of immense human tragedy in the decades ahead. What is needed is not the further “development” of the poor countries, but the systematic and intelligent de-industrialization of both rich and poor ones.

If we were living in a world that weren’t on the brink of resource depletion and environmental collapse, then we might envision a win-win scenario in which rich nations could keep their two-car lifestyle, while countries like China and India could gradually come up to speed, with formerly poor families gradually acquiring washing machines, cars, and microwave ovens until they, too, lived a version of the American dream. But that is a fantasy world. The reality is that no country will be able to maintain a quasi-American lifestyle for its citizens past the first or second decade of this century. Someone must tell the Chinese to abandon their dreams of owning BMWs, and someone must tell Americans to ditch their SUVs and start growing backyard gardens.

But woe to the messenger. People in the poorer countries understandably resent being told that they will never enjoy the riches that Americans and Europeans take for granted. And of course Americans prefer to think that, as their president has told them, their present way of life is “non-negotiable.” Whenever the population/resource discussion begins, it tends quickly to devolve into a bout of finger-pointing: North Americans highlight the overpopulation of poor countries of Africa and Asia, but tend to overlook their own unsustainable levels of resource consumption. Meanwhile, Movement leaders from the poorer countries tend to focus on the global inequity of per-capita resource consumption, and to ignore the population issue. Each side is correct in its criticism of the other: Americans’ and Europeans’ rates of consumption contribute to making their own countries dramatically overpopulated (since overpopulation, like human environmental impact, is a function of sheer human numbers multiplied by per-capita rates of resource consumption); meanwhile, the overpopulation of a country like India is not due simply to the fact that rich Westerners are soaking up most of the world’s resources: India’s ecosystems are collapsing and famine appears increasingly likely as food production in that country begins to decline.

The world must do both — reduce human population and reduce per-capita resource consumption in the industrialized regions — if society is to power down rather than collapse in chaos. The Earth cannot afford rich people, nor can it continuously support six billion humans at any standard of living.

But this news pleases no one. If the Movement were truly to embrace it, the elites would pounce. It would be the easiest PR takedown in history. A few well-paid public relations firms would place some ads and op-ed pieces, and an “authoritative” study or two would be issued saying, in effect, “Nonsense! There is plenty for everyone; technology and the market will fix everything.” Broadcast commentators would pile on, polls would be taken, and the foolish notion that humans actually face ecological constraints, just as all other organisms do, would be thoroughly discredited and banished from serious conversation. Imagine how the talk show hosts would rant: “Reduce our standard of living? Now ‘they’ are trying to take away your car!” — a car that will cease to run anyway when oil becomes prohibitively expensive. “Reduce population? Why that sounds like genocide!” — which, ironically, is exactly what the elites themselves are preparing through their investments in nuclear bombs and genetic bio-weapons.

And so the needed message is muted and truncated. The Movement tailors its utterances for maximum public-relations effectiveness, just as the elites do. Politics trumps truth.

Even though the Movement calls for Powerdown, what is being suggested is not a strategy that could actually succeed; rather, it is Powerdown Lite, a soft and toothless version that, if enacted, would only slightly postpone the human dieoff. Instead of calling for a massive reduction in energy usage by industrial societies, Movement leaders sing the praises of the illusory hydrogen economy. They promote the reasonable idea that that there will be enough for everyone, as long as goods are fairly distributed — but omit the other necessary conditional phrase: if human numbers are kept within the long-term carrying capacity of the environment and human demands are kept modest.

I am pounding on this point because it is not an incidental one. Population pressure and resource depletion are not side issues; they are the issues. The Movement largely ignores the core dilemma facing humanity because it has no politically agreeable solution for it. The elites have no solution either, but they do have a fallback strategy: competition, repression, and war. It is a terrible strategy, and someone needs to propose a workable alternative. Instead, what we get is a greenish version of Waiting for the Magic Elixir.

Perhaps I am being unfair. The Movement is at least pushing more or less in the right direction, and what it proposes is better than nothing. But I find it disappointing to watch many leaders of the Movement subject themselves to a pattern of self-deception similar to that prevalent among the elites. In this case the incentives and constraints are different, but in one respect the result is the same: almost no one speaks frankly about the crisis ahead of us.

The Choice of Us Folks

The great majority of people in the world today are sympathetic to the views either of the elites or of the Movement, because these are the views presented via the mass media. Of course, the elites have the upper hand in this regard, because they control much of the media content.

Individuals — especially in the US — who feel a strong sense of loyalty to the governing elites, or who harbor profound feelings of “patriotism” (which these days means the same thing), or whose primary incentive is to preserve current social conditions, may understandably gravitate toward leaders who promise to protect and preserve the status quo by maintaining access to resources and defeating foreign groups that threaten that access. This group is largely made up of people from the wealthier social strata, those who are old enough to have families and to have built up a reasonable pile of possessions, and people of all ages and wealth strata whose worldview is shaped primarily by television. These folks will reflexively respond to the strategy of Last One Standing.

Following the elites’ lead, they will find themselves in a world that doesn’t respond the way it is supposed to. Wars of “liberation” may continue to devolve into long, bloody military occupations and endless “terrorism.” The economy will unwind even though those in charge claim to be doing all of the right things. The only way to make sense of the events will be to assume that malevolent groups and individuals are foiling the well-laid, beneficent plans of the elites. Thus the preservation of civilization as we know it will require the rooting out of these evil ones; and since their wickedness knows no bounds, our fearless leaders will be justified in using any and all tactics to oppose them. We citizens will have to sacrifice much of our humanity, and many of our ideals, in order to wage this great holy battle. Folks who follow the elites will have to give up a great deal — but they will get to keep their sense of entitlement and righteousness.

Those who have reason to question the elites’ strategies — including some people from poorer social strata, leftist intellectuals, and those most directly affected by environmental collapse — will respond to a set of incentives that draw them in the general direction of the Powerdown strategy, though they are likely to contemplate only a watered-down version of it.

The folks who choose the Powerdown path are in for disappointment on two sides: the elites will likely refuse to change course; meanwhile, the world will continue to fragment. They will know that they have answers to the world’s problems, but will see few of their solutions implemented. They will commiserate among themselves at how inept and self-serving the elites are, and will pay rapt attention to the deepening poverty and environmental ruin around them. The more radical of these folks will be demonized and persecuted by the elites. They will also be subject to burnout, as they make heroic efforts to stop the violence and aid the victims. But they will get to keep their idealism, and any victory they achieve along the way will be worth savoring.

The majority of both groups will feel attracted to the path of Waiting for the Magic Elixir. Everyone wants solutions — the easier the better. Even an unworkable solution is better than none at all. However, those who anticipate salvation from technology or the market will find themselves waiting . . . and waiting. The solution will seem obvious — why hasn’t it been adopted? As the years go by they will wonder whatever happened to the hydrogen economy, or the Canadian tar sands, or methane hydrates, or thermal depolymerization. Seeing the world situation worsen, they will look for scapegoats either among the elites (“those wretched oil companies are polluting the air and commandeering our foreign policy — while suppressing promising new technologies that could save the world!”), or the Movement (“those damned environmentalists are keeping us from developing nuclear power and are weakening our national resolve!”). In order to continue believing in easy solutions, these folks will have to sacrifice their capacity for critical thinking. But they will get to keep their optimism.

A small minority — people who are at the margins of the system and who are thus able to observe it as if from outside, who are not tied into any of the major influence groups, and who have learned to seek out alternative sources of information and think critically — will gradually come to the conclusion (if they haven’t already) that the entire system of industrial civilization is inherently unsustainable. Of that group, most will simply watch helplessly and cynically as the world disintegrates. Only a small subset of this already marginal group will have the wherewithal to actually build effective cultural lifeboats.

Lifeboat builders will face their own challenges. The elites will see them as outsiders and therefore as potential “terrorists,” while the Movement will view them as self-absorbed survivalists (which, in some instances, will likely be true). The lifeboat builders will be trying to construct small, local, sustainable social systems in the context of a world that is tearing such systems apart in its futile attempts to push the strategy of globalization to its bitter conclusion. They will have only a small constituency of supporters and will have to overcome tendencies toward cynicism. But they will get to keep their realism, their creativity, and their autonomy.

The situation is not cut-and-dried, however. Many people will be drawn in more than one direction, seeing evidence that our current brand of industrialism is unsustainable but recoiling at the thought that it cannot be salvaged in some form. These folks will likely be drawn toward some combination of lifeboat-building and Powerdown — working for change within the system while also making other plans.

I personally am drawn to this combined strategy for the following reasons. I believe that the building of cultural lifeboats is essential if there is even a moderate likelihood of the collapse of industrial civilization. And, as should be clear by now, it seems to me that the likelihood of this is more than moderate. However, if any shred of the Powerdown strategy succeeds, it will help make the collapse slower and gentler, thus reducing suffering and environmental damage, and buying time for more lifeboat building. I also believe that a good case can be made for taking the moral high ground and fighting the good fight for peace, social justice, and environmental protection even if many of the battles along the way are sure to be lost.

I am reminded of events in Cuba during the Special Period: a small group of agronomists had been advocating ecological agriculture for years previously with no success; but when oil imports fell and the Cuban economy teetered, the nation’s political leaders called on these marginalized ecological agronomists to redesign the country’s food system. Something similar could happen globally in the years ahead. Perhaps when economies are shattered by the effects of oil and natural gas depletion the prophets of Powerdown who are today relegated to the fringes will be called upon to implement some of their plans for conservation and redistribution. Then all of their previously thankless analysis and planning will finally pay off.

I am reminded also of friends in several intentional communities and ecovillages around the world who have likewise decided to pursue Powerdown and lifeboat-building strategies simultaneously. While they engage in activism on many fronts — participating vigorously in the anti-globalization, peace, and environmental movements — they also have established rural bases where they save heirloom seeds, build their own homes from natural and locally-available materials, and hone other life-support skills that they and future generations will need. I admire these people unreservedly: if there is a sane path from where we are to a truly sustainable future, these people have surely found it.

Looking Ahead

We face the most important and difficult choices in human history. It would be reassuring to think that we are making them with our eyes open, the options clearly laid out, and the consequences of various paths well understood.

For the vast majority of the world’s people this is far from being the case. I hope that this book can be helpful in clarifying our situation and the alternative actions available. Of course, in the end this is just one person’s attempt to survey a vast, complex, and shifting terrain, and I have inevitably oversimplified it. The view I have offered is unavoidably partial, even though my goal has been to set aside personal prejudices as much as I can.

Assuming one has opted to avoid denial and wishful thinking, there is a tendency to view our collective prospects with fatalism, pessimism, or despair. But these attitudes are of help to no one. A keener awareness of our dilemma is of little use unless we are able to employ that awareness constructively. I hope that the analysis in this book will enable activists to direct their efforts more strategically; and community leaders to make more realistic and immediate plans for disaster preparedness, and to begin rebuilding an infrastructure for local food and energy self-sufficiency. I wish that all who read this book will be motivated to make personal life choices that will lead them to survive and be of service to others during the transition period we are entering.

I also hope this book can help people better understand the context of their lives, so that they can respond intelligently and compassionately to the emerging challenges, rather than falling prey to finger-pointing and scapegoating. As we enter what are likely to be the most difficult of times, we must make deliberate efforts to preserve our highest human values and ideals. When the ratio of human population to available resources becomes less favorable, human life may begin to appear cheap and superfluous, and fear and hate may seem justified. Sadly, we are already beginning to see an increase in these attitudes. In America especially, hate has been palpably on the rise for the past dozen years or so. It is not unusual to hear “shock jocks” on talk radio advocate “head shots” when speaking of certain politicians, or the equivalent of ethnic cleansing or religious war when discussing people of Middle Eastern descent. The shrill voices of these disturbingly popular commentators appeal to the ugliest aspects of the human character, and media moguls have unfortunately discovered that hate sells.

We learned from the Nazi experiment of the 1930s that, in a modern industrial society, hate — if supported by governmental authority and the use of modern communications media — can become a kind of mental virus that can afflict nearly an entire population. We learned that hate can kill, and that, when it infects an entire society, it can kill in mass numbers.

Intense stress sometimes brings out the worst in people — and sometimes the best. There is no path ahead that does not entail extraordinary cultural stress, and we must choose how to deal with it. May we choose not only with eyes that are open, but with hearts that are strong and open.


SIDEBARS (in original text).

Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC)

Combining Powerdown and Lifeboat-Building Strategies

Located 65 miles north of San Francisco in western Sonoma County, the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) was founded in 1994 by a group of biologists, horticulturists, educators, activists, and artists seeking innovative and practical approaches to the pressing environmental and economic crises of our day. Part intentional community, part biodiversity preservation center, part activist training station, OAEC offers classes on Starting and Sustaining Intentional Communities, Democratic Decision-Making, Ecology, Permaculture Design, Storm Water Management, Sustainable Forestry, School Garden Teacher Training, and Activist Leadership Training.

The organic gardens at OAEC grow thousands of rare and heirloom varieties of food plants; the garden staff, led by Master Gardener Doug Gosling, save seeds each year and offer periodic plant sales to the general public as a way of helping preserve otherwise endangered varieties by increasing the number of growers.

Many of the structures on the property incorporate both traditional and visionary ecological building methods — cob, straw bale, thatching, clay plasters, and passive solar.

OAEC Director Dave Henson is a veteran activist in campaigns against corporate globalization, genetic engineering of food plants, and related environmental and human-rights issues. He is a contributor to the book Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (Island Press, 2002), and a member of the think tank, Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy (POCLAD).

Henson and others offer periodic trainings to “organize people and communities around strategic campaigns that go to the root causes of the destruction of watersheds, biological diversity, local economic sustainability, and human communities.”

OAEC members manage to serve the surrounding community, preserve life-sustaining knowledge and skills, and foment social change simultaneously — while also having a rollicking good time: the yearly schedule also includes parties, plays, and concerts.

For further information: < www.oaec.org >.

New College of California

Education for Social Change and Cultural Renewal

New College of California is an accredited school founded in 1971 whose mission is to “integrate education with the creation of a just, sacred, and sustainable world.” Among the offerings at the main campus in San Francisco is a program in Humanities with an emphasis in Activism and Social Change, “designed to address the educational needs and social concerns of both aspiring and engaged activists.

The North Bay campus of New College, located in Santa Rosa, focuses especially on ecological issues in its programs on Culture, Ecology, and Sustainable Community, whose purpose is to help students

     Overcome alienation and heal both people and the Earth;
Resist further destruction of people and planet;
Build sustainable, alternative ways of living;
Create a shift in the culture’s consciousness to a more holistic, ecological paradigm; and
Build community in an increasingly isolating and individualizing culture.

The North Bay Campus offers a Green MBA program, in which students learn how to create and manage sustainable local enterprises, as well as concentrations in eco-dwelling, ecological agriculture, renewable energy, nutrition, and consciousness, healing and ecology.

Undergraduate and graduate students at New College North Bay gather on weekends to learn theory and skills, and go on to design their own year-long, depth-learning project.

MFS note: For related items on the MFS Website, see "The Environmental Movement’s Retreat From Advocating U.S. Population Stabilization (1970-1998): A First Draft of History" and "How and Why Journalists Avoid the Population – Environment Connection"
* Used with permission of Richard Heinberg.
Heinberg, Richard, 2004. Powerdown. New Society Publishers, Canada.
Available at:
New Society Publishers
P.O. Box 189
Gabriola Island, B.C. V0R 1X0, Canada.
Telephone: 1-800-567-6772
Website < www.newsociety.com >.


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