Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival by Richard Heinberg, 2021
Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival
POWER is Richard Heinbergs latest book and is a departure from the kind of books he has authored in the past. His previous books have dealt with humanity’s relation to the use and extraction of our finite natural resources and what that is doing to our planet. Primarily he has focused on the primary resource: fossil fuels, most especially Oil because it is the most utilizable, portable and possesses the greatest utility of the three. The others of course: gas and coal. I have read every book of Richard Heinberg and his writing has been clear and informative and extremely broad based covering the role of energy in the development of civilization. This role has been primarily economic but goes far beyond just economics. Fossil fuels beginning with coal were the raison d’etre of the Industrial Revolution which began about 250 years ago altering not just how performed work shifted from animal and human muscle to fossil energy energy powered tools. More importantly this abundant, surplus and almost free energy freed up our muscles to to engage in new professions, activities and pursuits. New inventions and technologies exploded into being utilizing this new miraculous energy source resulting in massive expansion of the ability to do work from the power provided by energy driven tools. There are always consequences to a new technology. both intended and unintended and it is the array of unintended consequences that are coming home to roost just as these transformative energy sources are showing signs of depletion. The reserves of these fuels are finite because the planet is finite. These resources will never be depleted but the amount in economically recoverable reserves certainly will.
Heinberg has chosen to cone in on the Power these energy sources have conferred to individuals and societies and now that we have burned through the cheap “lower hanging fruit” into the less expensive reserves, the world is coming to a reckoning which Heiberg calls “The Great Unraveling.” The use of these fuels has primarily been thermodynamic. Combustion of oil, gas and coal releases carbon dioxide and water as its price to liberate heat and energy and we have over a short time released enough C02 to warm the planet which is having an array of unintended consequences beyond just changes in the climate. We have created an economic system, a civilization addicted to fossil fuels. More explicitly we have an economy addicted to the energy and power from fossil fuels . We have had the emergence of a small alarmed populace fearful of continuing down this destructive path, primarily the youth who want to see a change in how we use energy. Many feel that we can attenuate or reverse the damage to the climate by moving to non fossil energy, to so called renewable energy. I do not want to enter that debate which I have covered for years in my energy blog, reliant as I have been on writers such as Heinberg, Friedeman, Orlov,Hagens and Tverberg, to name just a few. This would be an unwelcome diversion from reviewing Richard’s book which is coming at a crucial phase in human history. It is an important book that deserves broad distribution and discussion if there is any hope of taming the unintended consequences of our fossil energy powered industrial civilization.
Heinberg traces the role of energy in the evolution of primitive life forms up to the present in great detail. He does the the same analyzing the power relationship from proto humans of the Pleistocene 2.5 million years ago to the Holocene period beginning about 11000 years ago when hunter gathering blended into horticultural and then agricultural activity with the establishment of states and kingdoms. This in simplistic terms marked the beginning of civilization. Heinberg follows how power evolved influencing the trajectory of civilization. Because energy and power was limited,changes to civilizations tended to be gradual. The utilization of fossil fuels began in earnest about the middle of the 18th century with the steam engine and really took off with the discovery of oil about one hundred years later. Oil energy through the distillation of kerosene came just in time to replace the whale oil in lamps which was disappearing just like the whales. The other components from those primitive distillation or refinery outputs like gasoline and asphalt were just thrown away, buried or drained into rivers where they sometimes caught fire on their way to the sea. It wasn’t long before some bright engineering minds saw the energy potential of these fuels using contained burning and explosions within machined blocks of steel to drive spinning shafts. And you know the rest: weapons of mass destruction, the chemical industry,the automobile and tractors, ships and planes all powered from oil. And importantly powering generators and turbines releasing electrons into grids powering motors doing work and transforming communications, transforming food production allowing vast increases in population and spawning all manner of new technologies with those electrons as the their lifeblood. As I previously mentioned there are consequences to new technologies and unintended consequences and the biggest and most unexpected consequence has been the sheer rapidity of change which has far outstripped humanity and the planet’s ability to respond to those consequences. There have been many: increasing income, racial and gender inequality, pollution of the air and water, extinction of species and forests, globalization and elimination of middle class jobs, increases in interpersonal conflict and shattering of communities and the social contract.. Polarization of the body politic is a fact of life now worldwide. This is Heinberg’s “Great Unraveling.” Are we seeing the beginning of the end of this experiment of the Holocene now renamed the anthropocene? Has the world outgrown its “carrying capacity?” Will the end be hothouse earth this century and could we primates go extinct? These questions form the real meat of the book and Heinberg really shines here as he explores possible options for humanity which now at almost 8 billion souls has been renamed the “Superorganism”.
I will not detail all his bullet points and fortunately Heinberg does not descent into an“optimism bias” so common with books on collapse. He is hopeful that we humans have mitigating strategies which can soften our transition into a different world using what energy we have more efficiently, with less waste and pollution. He points out that for this path to have a chance we must consume less using less energy renouncing power, and grow our economy less. We must reduce world population. If we fail to do this voluntarily, it will be forced upon us by circumstances too horrible to contemplate.
The book is fairly long with some digressions which some readers might find not relevant to their lives but the abundant annotations were a delight. There are 27 pages of notes underpinning his treatise. This is an exceedingly important book which lays out the desperate predicament we face. I will spare my reader(s) my opinion of the outcome.