Richard Heinberg on Collapse

30 09 2012

The seemingly endless expansion of economic growth, the engine driving global capitalism, has died. The futile and short sighted effort to resume this expansion – an idiocy embraced by nearly all economists – means that we respond to mirages rather than reality. We waste energy into bringing back what is gone, forever. This odd twilight zone moment, in which so called experts and “systems managers” squander ever diminishing resources in an attempt to resurrect this previously expanding economic system that is now mummified, will inevitably lead to collapse. The grinding depletion of the Earth’s resources, particularly fossil fuels, along with the spectacularly accelerating pace of climate change, will, with crippling levels of debt, thrust us all into a global depression that will make any in the history of capitalism look like a picnic in the park….. And very few of us are prepared.


“Our solution is our problem,” Richard Heinberg, the author of “The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality,” recently said when he visited the Sunshine Coast. “Its name is growth. But growth is no longer economic. We are worse off because of growth. To revive growth now means more mounting debt, more pollution, more loss of biodiversity and the continued destabilisation of the climate. But we are addicted to growth. If there is no growth there are insufficient tax revenues and jobs. If there is no growth existing debt levels become unrepayable. The elites see the current economic crisis as a temporary dilemma. They are desperately trying to fix it, but this crisis signals an irreversible change for civilisation itself. We cannot avoid it. We can only decide whether we will adapt to it or not.”

Richard Heinberg, is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.  He argues that we cannot even begin to understand the true state of the global economy by the metrics we normally take for granted…. GDP, unemployment, housing, durable goods, national deficits, personal income and consumer spending.  All these measures point to severe and chronic problems anyhow, no matter how you look at them…. Rather, he says, we have to  examine the fundamental flaws that, like ticking time bombs, are enshrined within the accepted economic structure….. “U.S. household debt enabled the expansion of consumer spending during the boom years”, he says, “but consumer debt cannot continue to grow as house prices decline to realistic levels. Toxic assets litter the portfolios of the major banks, presage another global financial meltdown. The Earth’s natural resources are being exhausted. And climate change, with its extreme weather conditions, is beginning to exact a heavy economic toll on countries, including the United States and Australia, through the destruction brought about by droughts, floods, wildfires and loss of crop yields”.  It’s only a matter of time before Australia begins to feel the pinch…..

“The US government at this point exacerbates nearly every crisis the nation faces,” he said. “Policy decisions do not emerge from deliberations between the public and elected leaders. They arise from unaccountable government agencies and private interest groups. The Republican Party has taken leave of reality. It exists in hermetically sealed “ideaspheres” where climate change is a hoax and economic problems can be solved by cutting spending and taxes. The Democrats, meanwhile, offer no realistic strategy for coping with the economic unravelling or climate change.”  Sounds familiar?  Here I suggest you can interchange Democrats/Republicans with ALP/Liberals…..!

The collision course is set.

“It could implode in a few weeks, in a few months or maybe in a few years,” Richard said, “but unless radical steps are taken to restructure the economy, it will implode. And when it does the financial system will seize up far more dramatically than it did in 2008. You will go to the bank or the ATM and there will be no money. Food will be scarce and expensive. Unemployment will be rampant. And government services will break down. Living standards will plummet. ‘Austerity’ programs will become more draconian. Economic inequality will widen to create massive gaps between a tiny, oligarchic global elite and the masses. The collapse will also inevitably trigger the kind of instability and unrest, including riots, that we have seen in countries such as Greece and Spain…. The elites, who understand and deeply fear the possibility of this unravelling, have been pillaging state resources to save their corrupt, insolvent banks, militarise their police forces and rewrite legal codes to criminalise dissent.”

If nations were able to respond rationally to the crisis they could forestall social collapse.  They would need to reconfigure their economies away from ceaseless growth and debt. It remains possible, at least in theory, to provide most people with the basics – food, water, housing, medical care, employment, and education. This, however, as Richard points out, would require the abandonment of nearly everything we take for granted. It would necessitate a massive cancellation of debt, along with the slashing of defence budgets.  Comprehensive regulation and restraints would have to be placed on the financial sector; and high taxes imposed on oligarchic elites and corporations in order to rid ourselves of unsustainable levels of inequality. Richard said that while such economic restructuring would not mitigate climate change and the depletion of our natural resources it would create the social stability we need to deal with the new post-growth system. But, he says, it’s doubtful such a rational policy is forthcoming. He fears that as chaos accelerates there will be an increasing push from the power elite to “cannibalise society’s resources in order to prop up megabanks and the military”

Survival will be determined locally. Communities will have to create Transition Towns to grow their own food, provide education, and self-governance, efforts that Richard said he suspects will “be discouraged at every turn, at least initially.” This process of decentralisation will”, he said, “become the economic and social trend of the 21st century.” It will be a repudiation of classic economic models such as free enterprise versus the planned economy. The restructuring will arise not through ideologies, but through the necessities of survival forced upon us all as we run out of oil and supermarket food. This will inevitably create strife as decentralisation weakens the power of the elites and the corporate state.


Archeologist Joseph Tainter, in his book “The Collapse of Complex Societies” provides a useful blueprint for how societies unravel. All of history’s major 24 civilizations have collapsed, and the patterns are strikingly similar, Tainter writes. The big difference this time though is that we will unravel at a global level. Tainter notes in his book that as societies become more complex they inevitably invest greater and greater amounts of ever diminishing resources in increasing complexity. This has always proved to be fatal.

“More complex societies are costlier to maintain than simpler ones and require higher support levels per capita,” Tainter writes. The investments needed to maintain overly complex systems become too expensive, and they yield smaller and smaller returns. “The elites”, desperately trying to maintain their own levels of consumption and preserving the system through which they have gained their power, start using repression and austerity measures to squeeze the masses harder and harder until it all collapses around them…… This collapse universally leaves behind decentralised and autonomous pockets of human communities.

Richard believes this is our fate. The quality of our lives will utterly depend on the quality of our communities. If community structures remain strong, we will be able to endure. If they are weak we will succumb to the bleakness. It is important that such structures be set in place before the onset of the crisis, he believes. This means getting to “know your neighbours.” It means setting up seed banks and farmers’ markets. It means establishing local currencies, creating clothing exchanges, establishing cooperative housing, growing gardens, raising chickens and buying local. It is the matrix of neighbours, family and friends, Richard says, that will provide “our refuge and our opportunity to build anew.”

“The inevitable decline in resources to support societal complexity will generate forces that will break up existing economic and governmental power structures. Localism will soon be our fate. It will also be our strategy for survival. Learning practical skills, becoming more self-sufficient, forming bonds of trust with our neighbours will determine the quality of our lives and the lives of our children.”

To see long excerpts from Richard Heinberg’s “The End of Growth” and Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” click here and here.