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An interview with Richard Heinberg: “We should be spending more time negotiating the hard work and sacrifices that lie ahead, and less time hallucinating”.

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By Praveen Gupta, Richard Heinberg

· 5 min read


Introduction

In exploring Polycrisis, readers may recall Praveen alludes to “The Great Unravelling: Navigating the Polycrisis of Environmental and Social breakdown” by Richard Heinberg and Asher Miller of the Post Carbon Institute: Climate adaptation step one: insurers to shed silos & linearity!

“Because we have adopted our collective behavior and assumptions to economic opportunities opened by vast amounts of energy unleashed via fossil fuels, we have adopted unrealistic expectations for the levels of human population and consumption to be sustained over the long term...”

Here Praveen talks to Richard and picks some candid thoughts and a tough prescription.

Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute, is regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for shifting away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He is the author of fourteen books, including some of the seminal works on society’s current energy and environmental sustainability crisis.

The interview

Praveen Gupta: Why is it important to find the agency and means to navigate the unraveling of environmental and social systems?

Richard Heinberg: If we don’t squarely face the limits to our agency, we will hallucinate unreal solutions to our proliferating problems. In my view, technologies to capture carbon from the atmosphere are an example of such a hallucination. Same with fusion power. Actually solving problems often requires hard work and the sacrifice of some previous benefit. We should be spending more time negotiating the hard work and sacrifices that lie ahead, and less time hallucinating.

PG: How do you foresee society and nature evolving?

RH: It is impossible to pin down an exact scenario because the world (human and non-human) is a chaotic complex system, and therefore difficult to predict. However, there are constraints on how society and nature will evolve over the next few decades – including climate change, resource depletion, and increasing loads of toxic chemicals in the environment. These constraints will make continued economic growth more difficult to achieve with each passing year. Since global society uses economic growth to avert financial collapse, the end of growth will have profound consequences.

In my view, technologies to capture carbon from the atmosphere are an example of such a hallucination.

The most likely trajectory is toward chaotic and episodic global economic contraction, a peak and decline in human population, social distress, further political polarization, and geopolitical conflict. Meanwhile, natural systems will be severely impacted, further reducing human carrying capacity. The worst-case scenario would result from a series of self-reinforcing feedbacks in which environmental collapse and social collapse would feed on each other, perhaps triggering nuclear war. However, that worst case can still be avoided.

PG: “Fortifying resilience at the community level will be especially important”?

RH: When disasters happen, the first responders are members of the affected community (i.e., neighbors). Soon, help arrives from outside. In the future, however, “outside” will increasingly be dealing with its own disasters. So, more of a burden for disaster response will fall on local communities. Also, supply chains and transport systems will likely be in at least a partial state of disarray. The good news is that building community resilience increases everyone’s quality of life. Having good neighbors and lots of friends makes life more enjoyable as well as more secure.

We will need lots of cooperation to survive the challenges ahead, and extreme inequality destroys the incentive to cooperate.

PG: Why must rationing scarce resources be prioritised?

RH: Resources will inevitably become scarcer in coming decades – including both renewable resources like timber and fish, and non-renewables like minerals and metals. If we don’t learn to ration (i.e., fairly distribute) these scarce resources, the world will fall into deadly competition. Reducing inequality is also vital: when inequality increases (as it has been doing in recent decades), the social fabric becomes strained. People who are on the losing end say to themselves, “Why should I continue to support a society that treats me this way?” We will need lots of cooperation to survive the challenges ahead, and extreme inequality destroys the incentive to cooperate.

Richard’s latest book traces how humans have come to overpower the earth’s natural systems and oppress one another…with catastrophic implications.

PG: How should the money-pipeline be relaid to ensure resilience?

RH: The entire monetary-financial system will have to be rethought. I offered some suggestions along those lines in my book The End of Growth, including more restrictions on the charging of interest on loans. Charging interest works (more or less) in a growing economy; indeed, it adds fuel to the fire, helping economies grow at unsustainable rates. But, in an economy that’s shrinking, charging interest results in steep and growing economic inequality and widespread deprivation and suffering. That’s why traditional cultures often banned it (they called it usury). In general, we will need to meet human needs in more direct, cooperative ways that don’t involve money.

In an economy that’s shrinking, charging interest results in steep and growing economic inequality and widespread deprivation and suffering.

PG: Is climate fiction (cli-fi) inspiring enough?

RH: I see climate fiction as not just a source of inspiration, but as a means for using our imagination and emotions to process what’s happening to us. Without some opportunity for processing, the natural human response is simply denial – and we see plenty of that. So far, denial is winning, but for young people especially, cli-fi is increasingly playing a useful role in enabling them to cope.

PG: Many thanks for your candid assessment and tough prescriptions, Richard. Hoping this will serve as a wake-up call.

This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Praveen Gupta was the second most-read author in the environment and sustainability space for illuminem in 2022. A former insurance CEO and a Chartered Insurer, he devotes his time to researching, writing, and speaking on diverse subjects. His blog www.thediversityblog.com captures much of his work.

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Richard is Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He is the author of fourteen books, including some of the seminal works on society’s current energy and environmental sustainability crisis.

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