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Richard Heinberg on The End of Growth

Posted By on November 9, 2012

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Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute visited New Zealand, where he has a large following, at the beginning of October. Two hundred fifty people attended his presentation at the Tauranga (pop 121,500) Environment Centre on October 1st.

The main focus of Heinberg’s talk was his recent book, The End of Growth. In it he challenges the mythology surrounding economic growth – specifically assertions that growth is a longstanding and essential cornerstone of human economic activity that needs to continue indefinitely into the future.

His talk starts with some really interesting graphs revealing that global GDP (gross domestic output) was virtually static prior to 1871, when the harnessing of fossil fuels made the industrial revolution possible. Even then, global GDP increased at a minuscule pace until 1980, when it suddenly rocketed upward. Heinberg shows other graphs linking this sudden uptick with a spike in both world population and energy consumption.

He goes on to praise the Club of Rome’s controversial 1972 Limits to Growth, which he describes as the best selling environmental book of all times. The book makes predictions, confirmed by more recent studies, that world industrial and economic output will begin to decline during the first half of the 21st century. Heinberg himself sees major economic disruption occurring before the end of the decade for three main reasons: energy scarcity, debt and an epidemic of extreme weather events (like the Midwest drought and now Hurricane Sandy).

He follows a lucid and compelling explanation of why high oil prices always suppress economic activity with data linking the high price per barrel with stagnant production (since 2005) in the face of increasing global demand.

However his discussion of the origins of the debt crisis, which he separates into household and government debt, is the most interesting part of the talk. It’s Heinberg’s belief that consumer credit was almost as important as cheap fossil fuels in enabling the 20th century economic boom.

I highly recommend that people watch the entire video. Heinberg has a gift for presenting complex technical concepts in ordinary language, and has some excellent suggestions for how communities can prepare for the bumpy economic road ahead. Be sure to watch the question period, where he describes humankind’s 24 civilizations. All but the current one have collapsed, owing to depletion of water and topsoil. He stresses that the current rapid depletion of these resources is far more ominous than fossil fuel depletion.

If you go to the Tauranga Environment Centre page, there’s a PDF of the slides he presented.


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