Special Report: Peak Oil

Interview with Richard Heinberg

Richard Heinberg kindly agreed to an interview with Raise the Hammer on the effects peak oil production is likely to have on cities.

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 14, 2005

Interview with Richard Heinberg

See also: The Oil Depletion Protocol: A New Interview With Richard Heinberg

Richard Heinberg, author of The Party's Over and Powerdown (see reviews in this issue) kindly agreed to an interview with Raise the Hammer on the effects peak oil production is likely to have on cities in the coming decades.

Ryan McGreal, Raise the Hammer (RTH): Since you wrote The Party's Over, a flood of similar titles have repeated and amplified your message. In addition, news reports, from Royal Dutch-Shell's sharp reduction of its reserve forecast to record oil prices, are appearing as if on cue. Even oil industry executives are admitting, however quietly, that future prospects don't look good. Do you find that people are more willing to accept either your thesis or the stark conclusions you draw?

Richard Heinberg: Actually, Hubbert's Peak [by Kenneth S. Deffeyes] and The Coming Oil Crisis [by Colin J. Campbell] came out before The Party's Over, but you're right that public attitudes have shifted dramatically in the past two years. There is much wider awareness of the phenomenon of peak oil, with prominent articles appearing in many newspapers and magazines. There has even been an episode of "West Wing" entitled "Hubbert's Peak." Of course, the big run-up in oil prices during 2004 hasn't hurt in this regard! These days, the evidence for a near-term peak (2010 or earlier) is so complete and convincing that most people who take the time to study it are convinced rather quickly.

RTH: Have you seen any indications, in America or elsewhere, that politicians are starting to take notice?

Heinberg: Yes and no. There certainly are people in government who understand the situation, but they don't often talk about it in public. It's not hard to understand why they don't.

I recently re-read Jimmy Carter's speech of April 18, 1977. He laid out the situation with amazing clarity. He said, "With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly." He proposed radical conservation and the development of alternatives. And in three years he was gone.

People do not want to hear bad news; they don't want to hear that they might have to limit their consumption - especially when there is a 225 billion-dollar-per-year industry telling them that if they don't buy and consume in ever-greater quantities they can never be happy. The cognitive dissonance would be overwhelming. There are some politicians in other countries-the Greens in Germany, for example-who are making some noises about peak oil, but so far the message even there is quite muted.

RTH: Here's the age-old question: should citizens focus more on convincing politicians that there's a problem or finding ways to build alternate social and political structures that can withstand a collapse?

Heinberg: They should do both. We do need to alert officials, because they make decisions that affect us all. But our efforts are most likely to bear fruit at the local level. The national electoral system in the US is beyond dysfunctional; it is clinically dead. I assume the situation in Canada is better.

In any case, people can still accomplish a great deal in their local communities. Run for city council. Create co-ops and intentional communities. The Post-Carbon Institute (http://www.postcarbon.org) is working on a systematic set of plans that people anywhere can begin to implement.

RTH: Is there any hope for cities as a viable social organization in the post-carbon era?

Heinberg: That depends. Lots of food can be produced in urban areas. A good example is Havana: when Cuba experienced an energy famine as a result of the collapse of the Soviet economy, the government promoted organic urban gardening as one of the solutions. Now the city produces most of the vegetables consumed there. But some cities that have no local sources of water or that lack other necessities for food production are probably going to be hit hard. People who live in Los Angeles, Phoenix, or Las Vegas should rethink their options.

RTH: What do you think a truly sustainable city might look like?

Heinberg: My friend Richard Register has given a lot of thought to this. He wrote a book called Ecocities: Building Cities In Balance With Nature. He has come up with a number of design criteria that would enable densely populated urban areas to thrive with less energy.

For one thing, cities need to be organized into dense neighborhoods surrounded by green space for food production. Increasing density helps reduce heating needs during the winter and reduces the need for building materials. Look at traditional villages, where most walls are shared. Of course, density also makes urban areas walkable. Energy-efficient mass transit can then connect the neighborhoods.

RTH: If the most important macro decisions for Powerdown must come at the federal and even supranational level, can individual cities take significant steps to prepare for powerdown?

Heinberg: Yes. We must do what we can at every level of scale. If there is a roadblock at the national or international scale, it will have nasty effects all the way down the line; nevertheless, regardless what happens in parliaments or at the UN, people in cities or villages will be much better off if they do what they can to prepare.

RTH: Alternately, can cities take a leadership role in pushing for needed federal initiatives?

Heinberg: Yes again. When the people lead, the leaders follow - sometimes, at least. But even if the federal government doesn't respond, cities, towns, and regions must do whatever serves their survival rather than simply following along with a program of continued globalization that is suicidal in the long run.

RTH: What will happen to cities that don't adapt?

Heinberg: Go rent "Road Warrior," "Brazil," or some other good dystopian futuristic sci-fi film. A picture is worth a thousand words.

RTH: Hamilton, Ontario, has traditionally been an industrial city. In recent years, the economy has moved toward biotech (clustered around the university/medical research centre), shipping (via an airport and seaports on the Great Lakes system), and information technology. What kinds of distinct challenges will these sectors face as oil becomes scarcer?

Heinberg: I was hoping you'd say that Hamilton is now the world's leader in natural homebuilding or the production of solar panels. The industries you named are not ones likely to foster prosperity in a low-energy world.

The sort of biotech we will need is the old-fashioned art of seed saving. Herbalism will be in demand, too. Some aspects of modern medical practice do not require lots of energy, and these will survive. But biotech labs with their PCR machines and other sophisticated powered equipment will hardly be the basis for a growth industry.

Shipping will mostly occur within regions, mostly by biodiesel- or alcohol-fueled small trucks.

Information technology will be scaled back considerably due to the limited availability of electricity. How legible is your handwriting?

RTH: Canadians are the highest per-capita energy consumers in the world (our northern climate makes for a ready excuse). How can Canada powerdown without freezing? Will straw bale homes and solar heating be adequate if the grid becomes unreliable?

Heinberg: People have lived in cold climates for a long time. It's not pleasant to do so without fossil fuels, but it certainly can be done. Extreme insulation and heat sinks help enormously. A really well-designed and well-sited house should be able to make it through an Ontario winter with very minimal heating. Ground-source heat pumps are worth investigating: these draw heat from beneath the Earth's surface. They use energy, but usually they are much more efficient than other heating systems.

RTH: Like most North American cities, Hamilton has invested heavily in low-density residential sprawl around its perimeter. Is it even possible to retrofit suburbs for a low-energy economy?

Heinberg: This will be very difficult. Suburbs are designed for high rates of energy flow-through. With less energy, they will be very bad places to live. People may be able to grow gardens on their front lawns, but those 2,500 square-foot McMansions are going to be damned expensive to heat. And with gasoline at astronomical prices, how will people get to the store, or get to their non-existent jobs?

Somehow, folks will have to invent a new kind of economy that works in this dwelling pattern, absent cheap energy. But I have no clear idea what that will look like. Peter Calthorpe made some suggestions in this regard in the film "The End of Suburbia," [see the review in this issue - Ed.] but it seems to me that the redesign solutions he came up with would require considerable investment and new construction in order to give suburbs a sense of structure that they otherwise lack.

RTH: Today's globalized economy is made possible because of cheap transportation. It's simply cheaper to manufacture goods in less developed countries and then ship them to affluent markets, even though this is hollowing out the labour base on which those markets are based. Do you think a dramatic increase in the cost of shipping could lead to a revival of efficient local manufacturing? (I'm thinking here of the Latin root for the word "manufacture" - literally, to make with one's hands.)

Heinberg: Yes, but the transition is likely to be difficult. Here in the US, as the dollar plummets in value imports become more expensive and domestic production becomes more economically feasible. However, we have already destroyed all of the old shoe and clothing factories, most of the steel mills, and so on. We sold the machines and machine tools to China. Also, many of the older hand-production skills have been forgotten.

For a glimpse of the variety of these, I would recommend the books on self-sufficiency by John Seymour in Great Britain, especially his The Forgotten Arts and Crafts. Throughout the 1970s and '80s he documented and taught the practical arts that were already being lost at that time. Now Seymour himself is an octogenarian and most of what he wrote about seems positively medieval. Yet these were the kinds of trades that people engaged in to support themselves and their communities only decades ago. Now we just push buttons or go to Wal-Mart and expect our needs to be met as if by magic, so long as our credit card isn't maxed out. The work is done either by fuel-fed machinery or by low-paid workers on the other side of the planet.

This system does not function without cheap petroleum.

RTH: Some good news for a change: in The Party's Over, you suggested that a post-carbon culture might actually offer a much richer quality of life than the current industrial culture. Would you mind elaborating on that?

Heinberg: We have become accustomed to a very high level of ugliness in the modern world. Nearly everything is made by machine, and so our environments are designed to be machine-made the most efficiently and cheaply ways possible. One doesn't become aware of this ugliness until one travels to an older or more traditional culture, where the humanly designed environment is still mostly the result of hand production, and where design elements have arisen from centuries of adaptation to particular climates, ecosystems, and natural materials.

The human psyche responds to beauty like a plant to sunshine, but we have sacrificed beauty to utility, efficiency, speed, and power. Power is intoxicating, after all, and most people assume that the bargain was and is a good one. Of course, life in traditional cultures was hard in many ways; people didn't have all of the conveniences we take for granted. But they did have time, and they had a sense of being embedded in a community that was stable and that was itself embedded in nature. There was an intergenerational solidarity, too, that came from the apprenticeship system.

This is a rant that could go on indefinitely. Read Wendell Berry or Kirkpatrick Sale: they talk far more eloquently than I can about what we have lost in the Faustian bargain with modern technology. The point is, we can regain much or all of what we traded away. But doing so will require some coordinated effort.

Richard Heinberg, from Santa Rosa, California, has been writing about energy resources issues and the dynamics of cultural change for many years. A member of the core faculty at New College of California, he is an award-winning author of three previous books. His Museletter (http://www.museletter.com) was nominated for its "Best Alternative Newsletter" award by Utne Reader in 1993.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.


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By Jamie (registered) | Posted None at

I think, in addition to conservation stategies, we can address some energy supply problems by building both bio-diesel plants and ethanol plants. Such initiatives use corn/soybeans as the raw materials to turn them into fuels. Corn and Soybean prices ARE EXTREMELY LOW, making this a viable and wise option. What is Biodiesel? Biodiesel is the name of a clean burning alternative fuel, produced from domestic, renewable resources. Biodiesel contains no petroleum, but it can be blended at any level with petroleum diesel to create a biodiesel blend. It can be used in compression-ignition (diesel) engines with little or no modifications. Biodiesel is simple to use, biodegradable, nontoxic, and essentially free of sulfur and aromatics. What is Bioethanol ? A liquid fuel made from renewable plant resources known as biomass, such as grain, corn or sugar.

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By David (anonymous) | Posted None at

The problem with bio-diesel is that at the present time, you can make a statement on the relative use as "a few people playing with it". And could production ever reach the millions of gallons necessary to make a big enough dent in oil usage? Is there enough farmland left to feed people and cars too? Certainly people can't afford additional debt to convert. Will attritional conversion be fast enough? It seems more likely that inertial forces will keep oil the major player until the economy runs into a brick wall, and the conversion can't then happen fast enough to prevent total collapse, if such total conversion is possible. The high density green cities idea seems warm and fuzzy until you realize how many decades it has taken to move far from jobs - we seem to be out of time to reverse that. Also - how are you going to operate these new cities when the infastructure to support them (trucking, electric generation, etc) will be out of business? It would be a rare city indeed that could exist as an island. I think the most plausable scenario is opposite. Everyone agrees that suburbia will be the first major problem. But could enough walk-to-workers exist to keep the economy afloat by themselves? Doubt that - the economy has elasticity but we are talking about the rubber snapping here - most incentives will be gone to work for the collective good - crime for food might make cities very dangerous. It is more likely that both cities and suburbs will contain many homeless starving people, and only those who OWN rural homes and modify to an extremely low consumption Mother Earth News type lifestyle might make it. It surely does seem dumb in hindsight - configuring life on the whole planet to dependance on a vanishing resource.

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