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Finding our Way: Richard Heinberg and the New Economic Reality

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By Ruth Ann Smalley, member of the Transition Albany Initiating Group.

Back in 1909, British novelist E.M. Forster imagined a technology-saturated future world, an impersonal civilization detached from nature and direct experience.  The population Forster depicts has been forced into an underground existence, tapped into a virtual world that prefigures the internet. They depend on a vast machine for all their needs and desires.  Kuno, the young male protagonist, struggles to find his way out and his way back to full humanity.

I recently taught this short story, entitled “The Machine Stops,” to a group of bright 12-15 year olds.  Observing how most of Forster’s characters had so fully adapted to their circumstances, one student characterized adaptability itself as a human trait that could work for or against us.  Indeed.  This astute comment keeps coming back to me as I consider Richard Heinberg’s  March 27th UAlbany lecture on his new book, The End of Growth, with its apt subtitle: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality.

A deep look at ourselves reveals the extent to which we in the west have adapted to a petroleum-based lifestyle.  It is a vast machine, an engine driving our infrastructures, our housing, our food, our transportation--just about all of the big, and most of the little, details of our daily lives.  Heinberg’s talk mapped out how we got here.  And, how quickly it all happened.

This map is crucial to our awakening from what eco-theologian Thomas Berry called our “technological entrancement,” brought about by the “Petroleum Interval.” It has been easy to adapt to consumerism, convenience, and “cushy-ness,” especially when sold to us in ways that conceal the dark human side-effects and the ugly environmental trade-offs.  However, it takes much greater effort to adapt to challenging times.  Here we need, using Berry’s words again, to be able to draw on enough psychic energy to make difficult changes as a species.  For this, we need to be awake and aware.

Heinberg’s big picture analysis of how our oil-dependency developed can be a helpful first step in our struggle, like Kuno, to find a way out of the machine.  Equipped with lots of statistics and graphs, Heinberg led us through the industrial revolution, population growth, the growth of debt, and the rise of the financial sector, as well as the rise and peak of oil discovery and production.

As Heinberg laid out this history, I kept thinking of Berry’s phrase, the “Petroleum Interval.” It has been such a short period of time--a mere interval--during which “cheap” fuel enabled a portion of the population to diverge so substantially from all earlier human experiences.  This, as Heinberg argues, is not a sustainable trajectory, given the limits of a finite planet.

So, it is vital to recognize ourselves in this picture, to find the “you are here” marker on this map.  Vital to recognize that, adaptable species that we are, we’re facing a new path.  Adapting to our new economic reality isn’t going to be easy, especially since there are now so many of us.  There were 1 billion humans on the planet when Thomas Berry was born, and within just a few years of his death, we have reached 7 billion. 

After seeing where we’ve gotten ourselves, we may need to retrace our path, to retrieve some abandoned skills.  Because the flip side of the brief duration of our fossil fuel economy is this: much of what seems necessary to our lives we only recently lived without, within the lifetimes of the octogenarians among us.  Just as massive population growth occurred in one man’s lifetime, there were also massive lifestyle changes.  I often marvel at the fact that my mother’s childhood task was to clean the oil lamps, and that my father, who now communicates with me by email, was born at home, as were so many of his generation.  From oil lamps and outhouses to internet avatars in the span of one life!  Mom and Dad, and their moms and dads, managed in a much less oil-dependent time.  Maybe we can, too.

The next individual level shift is for all of us to get the conversations going in any way we can.  Until we talk about what’s happening and what we want to happen, we’re stuck in the machine.  In Forster’s story, Kuno contacts his mother, first to tell her he has ventured outside the machine, and later to tell her “the machine stops”—both truths which she attempts to dismiss or deny.  We’re bound to run up against similar attitudes.  But if we keep trying, we’ll raise our chances of igniting what Tina Clarke of Transition USA calls the “collective genius,” the enhanced intelligence and creativity that arises out of the synergy of combined minds.  

Heinberg’s work can also help provide a starting point for these conversations.  He offered the audience examples and ideas, such as community currencies, the Transition Town movement, and community economic laboratories, where things like a credit union, a free clinic, food co-op, and car-sharing could be brought together as a “one-stop shop” in centralized locations. 

These paths to resilience hold out a tantalizing possibility: in the face of our challenges, we may find greater a sense of fulfillment, more connection to what matters, more joy.  As Heinberg put it, we’re going to be “learning to live within nature’s limits once and for all, and it’s going to be enormously freeing.”

Ruth Ann Smalley is a freelance writer and holistic educator.  Her areas of interest are earth stewardship, wellness, fair trade, and education.  Her new children’s picture book from Tilbury House Publishers, entitled Sheila Says We’re Weird, is a light-hearted take on green living for families.  She offers workshops, consultations, and classes on energy healing, as well as school programs on eco-friendly practices such as composting. She may be contacted by comments to this blog or through Member email.

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