Book Review: Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, by Richard Heinberg


May 25, 2006


Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes


Will leaders in government and business ever muster the courage to publicly acknowledge that our resource-consuming, polluting way of life is a ticking time bomb of catastrophic proportions, with a fuse that is shorter than most people want to acknowledge? Author Richard Heinberg thankfully lives in reality, unlike most politicians and corporate CEOs. Heinberg's message is refreshing for its candour and courage, despite the dire future that he foresees.

I believe that Heinberg's predictions of global economic collapse, vast famines, and resource wars instigated by the developed world are valid, and likely to come true, given the headstrong arrogance of so many persons currently holding positions of power.

Heinberg is skilled at drawing inferences from insights into what is really taking place here early in the 21st century. He states, for example, "Trying to tell the public truly awful news is considered impolite - unless it is news about something that can be blamed on an opposing political group or some foreign enemy". Heinberg cuts through the lies and deceit that are dished out, almost unconsciously nowadays, by our world "leaders".

Heinberg provides a balanced assessment of the roles played by all groups, including NGOs that are presumably pro-sustainability. He points out that many NGOs shy away from addressing the single biggest challenge facing humanity and the planet - overpopulation; they see it as politically incorrect and|or immoral to consider limiting the ability of individuals to reproduce.

Heinberg and James Howard Kunstler are both featured in the documentary The End of Suburbia - Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream. Kunstler's book, The Long Emergency, carries the same dire yet realistic message as PowerDown. I strongly recommend both books, although it's easy to feel depressed and anxious about the future while reading either book.

It is important, however, for each of us, regardless of the extent to which, if at all, s|he will try to `power down' (as Heinberg puts it), to at least live with a clear conception of current reality, as well as of what is possible down the road. I am persuaded, for example, that holding out hope for the "Magic Elixir" of a hydrogen-powered planet is a dangerous game of self-deception. I share Heinberg's belief that our best hope as a species lies in the creation of "small-scale, decentralized, sustainable communities capable of providing a high level of human satisfaction ... while degrading the environment to only a relatively minor extent over time." If, for example, commercial aviation is to disappear, and if the federal government is going to become irrelevant, then we will be well-served by learning to live locally, and developing and supporting bodies of local governance, sooner than later.

Heinberg is not a fatalist. Fatalism, he reminds us, implies the absence of choice. Today, Heinberg sees humankind as having a handful of choices; all are fraught with challenges, yet some are more promising than others. The "Last One Standing" approach of the militarily bolstered developed world will likely leave only losers, longer-term. At the other extreme, the "Powerdown" approach, which embraces self-limitation, cooperation and sharing, has the best chance to ease us into the post-carbon world with the least amount of pain. However, people may be unwilling to give up on their individuality and material wealth.

If one buys into Heinberg's prognosis, then the time is now for anyone who aspires to be a true leader to talk straight about just how dire our situation is likely to become. The sooner we scale back per capita pollution and resource consumption, and the sooner aid from the `developed' nations to the third world takes the form of birth control means, the better the prospects will be for whoever is going to survive the next uncertain generation.