Chances are, when you think about gasoline, it crosses your mind in an abstract way — as if where it comes from and how much of it exists is someone else’s problem. Thanks to “peak oil” expert Richard Heinberg, Americans’ naive attitude toward fossil fuels may be changing. Heinberg is the author of eight books; his most recent, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, warns that civilization as we know it will come to a screeching halt unless we plan for a post-carbon future.
On Thursday, the Californian touches down in Vermont to discuss peak-oil issues with citizens, legislators and representatives from local nonprofits and businesses. His tour culminates in a public address at Montpelier High School on Thursday evening.
Heinberg spoke with Seven Days last week while baking cornbread in his solar oven.
SEVEN DAYS: You’ve written, “The very fabric of modern life is woven from illusion.” What explains our bad trip?
RICHARD HEINBERG: What we’ve done is entirely understandable in retrospect. We discovered a fabulous new energy source a couple of hundred years ago in the form of fossil fuels, and we’ve been digging those fuels out of the ground and burning them as fast as we possibly can. Biological success depends on energy, and so finding the technological means to harness and harvest fossil fuels made societies that acquired that ability far more formidable . . .
Using these fuels has created enormous environmental problems, not the least of which is global climate change. So we find ourselves in a situation where the countries that are most dependent on fossil fuels, like the U.S., are at the greatest disadvantage.
SD: So our problems are a lot bigger than high gas bills?
RH: Absolutely. That’s just the immediate symptom. We’re seeing high food prices and food shortages and riots erupting around the world; these things are not unrelated. One of the reasons is that diesel prices are high, and so farmers are having to pay higher costs for production, but also for transporting, refrigerating [and] processing food.
Lurking in the background is the fact that having access to cheap, abundant, concentrated energy has enabled us to increase our population from fewer than a billion to nearly seven billion, and, of course, all those people want to eat. So we’re putting unprecedented pressure on global ecosystems to provide for all of these people.
SD: The U.S. tells other countries to reduce carbon emissions but hesitates to come on board itself. What’s with the double-speak?
RH: People in the environmental and human rights community would say that China has every right to industrialize, and the U.S. should voluntarily reduce its fossil-fuel consumption so as not to create a climate catastrophe. Well, [that is a] perfectly sound [argument], but people in power don’t even begin to listen. Taking that kind of argument seriously would, in effect, be ceding the contest to the other side; it would be like unilateral disarmament.
SD: The title of your lecture, “Navigating Our Energy Future,” is ironic in Vermont, where the transportation sector accounts for about half of total carbon emissions.
RH: There needs to be an upsurge of public concern to support change at the policy level. Policymakers are unlikely to have the courage to do anything unless there is that kind of support, because they’re facing enormous pressure from the existing transport lobby.
Now, if you look at how much is being spent on roads, and compare that with what would be needed to begin putting in an electrified public-transport infrastructure, it’s really quite heartening. I mean, we could be doing a lot with that money.
SD: Obviously, there are naysayers. The Financial Times, for instance, says that Russia’s “peak oil” woes stem from a lack of investment, not supply.
RH: The amount of investment that they’re talking about in order to meet demand over the next couple of decades is absolutely gargantuan — it’s in the range of 10 to 20 trillion dollars. The fossil-fuel industry is not prepared to do that. Of course, the assumption is that if you pump in money at one end, then oil flows out the other. And that’s true to up a certain point. But the world doesn’t always work the way economists expect it to.
SD: Policy aside, you suggest that local foods and “village life” actually make us happy.
RH: We’ve paid an enormous price — individually and as a society — for the benefits we’ve gotten from fossil fuels. We have a much faster-paced society now, but it’s also a much more individualistic society. We have less of a sense of community. The middle class has grown dramatically over the last 100 years, but many of us find ourselves doing things for money that are only marginally interesting. We no longer have the sense of using our hands to make things; we end up in front of computer screens pushing buttons all day. I certainly do that a lot.
SD: So what do you do when you’re not pushing buttons?
RH: [Laughs.] Well, I play the violin. I’m a pretty avid amateur classical violinist, and I try to play in local ensembles and orchestras. I spend a lot of time in the garden — it takes a lot of time to keep a decent garden.