The End of Growth – Thoughts on Richard Heinberg’s Book, and the Idea

Cross-posted on Energy Bulletin

How many books can you say the following about:

“If the thesis is true, every assumption we have taken for granted regarding what the future holds is wrong.”

Or, more to the point:

“If the thesis is true, my generation is, royally, screwed.”

I can’t think of many, but I did just read one, Richard Heinberg’s “The End of Growth.” The thesis of Heinberg’s book is fairly simple: we live on a finite planet, yet we have an economic system based upon infinite growth. Thus, at some point, when we have reached our limits of natural capital, growth as we know it will end. Richard Heinberg argues that that point is now.

Heinberg is no fool. He knows that prediction is a risky business. And, to his credit, he somewhat hedges his bets. He states the end of growth has begun now – we may witness a decade or more of relative growth, where inchoate nations achieve high levels of growth due to untapped resources in their surrounding areas, but traditional growth is, in Heinberg’s view, over.

Even though Heinberg remains positive and refrains from painting a bleak picture in detail, it’s easy to imagine degrowth unfolding violently. Debt-based financing, which is to say, all financing as we know it, could unwind in a global economic meltdown. Electric grids could fail. Food and energy systems could come to a hault. And all the other Mad Max scenarios you can imagine could, possibly, ensue. More resource wars. Mass starvation. The leveling off of the human population.

But, come to think of it, after suggesting those topics, I can now think of two other authors whose works contained theses that, if correct, would have radically disproven our preconceptions of the future: Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich. Indeed, Richard Heinberg’s thesis is not new; it simply has never been argued this convincingly.

Or, it’s quite possible that I was simply not around when those works were published, and that I hold predispositions for gloom that would have had me celebrating those books as well. Such is the argument young people face when reading ‘The End of Growth.’ Our lack of years on the planet makes it harder to confidently contextualize phenomena.

I agree with Heinberg’s thesis, and have for several years now. Yet predicting the timing of when the degrowth transition will occur is inherently difficult; acknowledging its inevitabilty, however, seems to me to be irrefutable. But more and more academics and researchers are starting to place a (relatively close) date on it. And that is terrifying. Our institutions have not prepared us in the slightest for this new, uncharted era.

I had my ‘aha moment’ while reading the 30-year update to the landmark publication of ‘The Limits of Growth.’ I was finishing up the conclusion of the book in a park on a sunny day in Santa Monica – and the conclusion was so striking the moment is still with me to this day. To summarize, the authors stated that their original 1972 findings were correct, and that furthermore they believed that the beginning stages of indefinite economic contraction were imminent. And they stated, in 2004, to check back with them in ten more years and see how the economy was doing. By the time I was reading the book, the ‘great recession’ had already begun.

Well, here we are in 2012, nearly ten years later, and the economy hasn’t ‘fully recovered’ by any stretch of the imagination. And as each year of poor economic forecasts passes by, as more well-researched books like Heinberg’s ‘The End of Growth’ are published, it’s hard not to conclude: this is the new normal.

Yet I’m still somewhat hesitant to stand up like Richard Heinberg and declare, this is it! Some will call that refusal denial, but it’s more complicated than that. I’m unwilling to make definite conclusions because I have done so in the past, and have been wrong. And I know that I am not alone in having made those mistakes before.

I remember looking out of the window of my dorm room during my freshman year at the University of Texas at Austin, taken aback and unprepared for the dominance of the Southern greek fraternity system. I spent most of my weekends in that dormitory, not straying far from my room, or my hall, staring out the window at social experiences I didn’t plan on joining, but did plan on judging.

I was bitter.

And perhaps that’s why my understanding of peak oil, climate change, and resource depletion in general became undoubtedly doomer. I looked out at the large SUV’s, driven by what I deemed to be incognizant aristocrats, knowing, just knowing for certain, that oil production would soon enter its inexorable decline. Just wait a few more years, I thought, and those SUV’s will be obsolete relics of extravagance.

Needless to say, SUV’s are still operational, and, I imagine, dominant on the west campus of the University of Texas. Liquid fuels will most likely surpass, if they haven’t already, 90 mbpd this year. When I switch my lights on in my studio, the electric current flows.

But does that misjudgment of timing really matter when discussing such important and defining issues?

Sounding the alarm early is far better than not sounding the alarm at all. In fact, those who do are the true pioneers of ecological conciousness. Heinberg may be early, or he may not be, yet he has engaged us all in a very necessary conversation, arguably the most important conversation my generation will have in our lifetimes.

For as the economy contracts, if we wish to retain our humanity and morality, we will need to place the blame upon ourselves, our consuming habits, and our overarching economic structures; and not, as has been done repeatedly throughout human history, on a vulnerable other who is prone to scapegoating. Degrowth, as Heinberg repeteadly states, can and should be a positive transition if we prepare correctly. But it will not be easy.

In Aesop’s fable ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf,’ the wolf does end up coming, and eating the damn sheep. Let’s not forget that. Heinberg has spotted the wolf roaming in the pasture. Whether or not it turns to eat the flock now, or later, is essentially irrelevant. Soon enough, its stomach will growl.


  1. Rhisiart Gwilym

    This old guy says: don’t judge things on the hasty timescales of brief-lived humans. Geophysical processes take their own pace, whatever our impatience says, especially the hyper-impatience of the young of our species. The damned sucker-trucks will indeed be salvage scrap soon enough — thank god! And the end of growth is now.

    John Michael Greer, another clearseer of the same pre-eminent calibre as Richard Heinberg, is very good on getting the timescale right. Go to his blog ‘The Archdruid Report’ and click on the link to his blog-novel ‘Star’s Reach’. That gives you a very absorbing insight into both the timescale and the inexorability of the Long Descent.

    • concarlitosblog

      thank you for reading, and writing.

      i’m definitely familiar with the work of John Michael Greer. i recently read his summary of the DC aspo conference – very interesting! thanks for the recommendation re ‘star’s reach.’

  2. ptfalconer

    Hi, thanks for the review. I would like to offer a slightly different perspective for evaluating the book. That current systems are unsustainable I believe is self-evident. The issue though is not so much a question of when they are going to collapse, but rather a question of what behaviours and systems are going to replace them. It’s really a question of emergence.
    Emergence takes time and at the begining it’s only a few who are involved, the leading edge, innovators and early adopters. These are the people who recognise the inevitability and dedicated their efforts to creating (trial and error) new ways of thinking and behaving. This most often is thankless and deeply challenging work… but we do it anyway, becuase that’s where we get our thrills.
    The price we pay for not doing this is epitomised by what is currently happening in Egypt: The overthrowing of one government only to have it replaced by a similar or worse one [USA foreign policy often relies on this]. The reason is that there was just not a lot of thought, or preparation, put into what comes next. Remember, that if what comes next is more advanced it’s going to be more complex and this takes time to develop both as a way of thinking, behaving and organising.
    Let me use an example. The money system has to change, of that there is no doubt. But change to what? What emergent systems are there and available. So part of the work the leading edge does is intentionally and deliberately play with creating new types of money systems based on radical new perspectives of what money could actuall be and mean. Most of these experimens will fail, this is evolution, but some will work and it’s these that will be used or synthesised in the future. Evolution is littered with the corpses of all the experiments that did not work.
    As for timing, no one really knows except that however we look at the future we must include not only the default linear logic, but include the newer exponential logic. However the easiet way to look at it is given that it takes time to experiment with and develop new emergent behaviours, and given that in many cases they create better qualitative results, can it ever be to soon [within reason].
    Think of the consquences of delaying. That time that it takes to change the way we think and experiment with new systems just can not be rushed in a time of crisis. In crisis there is usually a massive contraction and people grab whatever [informational and systemic] technology is laying around. This is most often the more coherent and less complex traditional narratives [let's point again to the Egypt example]. That’s why in so many of these cases fundamentalism emerges, because it is more coherent and developed.
    What Richard does is argue why fundamental systemic transformation is going to happen, but we know that already. It is happening, 100′s of millions of people across the planet are embracing a new trans-national value structure and experimenting with new ways to organise and collaborate. They are for the most part doing it intuitively, but I believe its really important to also clearly understand both the limitations and strengths of earlier systems. I point to the tragedy of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
    These are some of my thoughts in response to your article, so thanks a million for writing it and inviting this conversation.
    Hugs, Paul

    • ptfalconer

      If I may, one other thought on emergent systems. It may be that if new emergent systems are developed earlier enough and become strong and vibrant enough, they may in fact come to dominate simply by making the older systems redundant. The challenge is not with the older less useful systems themselves but rather lies in developing new systems which make the older systems obsolete. This would be a very healthy way for socio-cultural development to proceed. The problem however is that systems even older less coherent ones always benefit some, and it’s those who benefit who are reluctant to let go.
      Hugs, Paul

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