The magical thinking of Richard Heinberg

I heard Richard Heinberg speak last night in Adelaide, and was amazed at the extent of his delusions.  He spoke about the end of growth – the combination of energy, debt and climate as factors in the demise of the industrial system.  He was going well until he started on solutions.  His conclusions did not follow from his arguments.

Is acknowledging the implications of the end of growth a taboo topic, that no one dares speak of?  Or are we all so well educated to the myth of growth and progress that we are not capable of imagining an alternative?  Or is it just that books that offer simple but impractical solutions to all the world’s problems sell better than honesty?  I suspect the second, but all three are possible.

I find it odd that people who claim to oppose growth still promote it as the only option.

It makes no sense to say that it’s growth in consumption that is causing a problem, and the solution is to maintain consumption at a steady rate.  Consumption requires destruction of the earth that feeds us. If we want to survive, we can’t afford any consumption.  The very concept that the earth is a resource to be consumed, rather than a living community to be a part of, is not sustainable.

The same with population.  To suggest stabilising the population as a solution is ridiculous.

Population is already in overshoot.  A population that eats from its land faster than the land can regenerate will very soon starve to death, and destroy every living thing on the land in the process.  Hardly sustainable.

Right now is not a good time for this magical thinking.  We’re at a point where 99 per cent of old growth forests are gone, and the arctic ice cap is only a few years away from disappearing completely.  There’s nothing left to consume.  Any more destruction will catalyse a sudden collapse of the biosphere.  It’s not just an easily expendable economy that’s at stake here.  It’s all of life on Earth.

With this flawed logic, I can say that if I drive a car at a steady speed of 100km/h, I’m not consuming any fuel, and will never run out of gas.  My driving is sustainable.  I can go on like this forever.  It’s only if I continuously accelerate, and double my speed every hour, that I will have to consider the possibility of the gas tank becoming empty.

The earth is not infinite.  A car’s fuel tank does not have an infinite capacity.  The only way to avoid coming to a sudden halt a long way from home is to not drive the car.

This analogy could be quite useful.  Let’s stretch it further.  Is a car (a global economy, a large population) a useful way to get anywhere?  Where are we going with this anyway?  Are we even looking where we are going?  Why are we so keen to go anywhere?  Why are we so scared of home?  The myth of progress decries any steps towards home, to the forest, to community and connection, as backwards, unthinkable.

Most of those who challenge the story of growth and progress advocate for maintaining the existing structures of power and consumption.  Keep the car going.  No-one dares call for going home.  Just slow it down a little.

Let’s turn the car around.  I want to go home.  I don’t want to spend my whole life in a speeding machine.  I want to live in the world.


He mentioned during the Q&A session that he aims to save the earth and civilization, as if it were possible to have both.  Civilization in its very nature destroys living communities.  Choosing to save civilization will lead to the death of everything, which will mean the death of civilization.  It’s not worth the bother.  Civilization doesn’t benefit anyone, I reckon we’d all be better off without it.


Here’s my notes from Richard’s talk.

Economic growth has only been going on for a few decades.  It’s not the way the world has always been.

Growth requires constantly increasing consumption, which means increasing energy consumption.

The CSIRO has predicted that the global industrial system will collapse partway through the 21st century.

There are three factors that are relevant to the end of growth: energy, debt and climate.


The amount of work embodied in a litre of oil is the equivalent of one month of hard labour for a person.  A litre of oil costs around $1.50.

The discovery of new oil peaked in the US in the 1930s, and globally in 1964.  Very few new oil fields have been discovered since 1980.

A price of around $100/barrel is required for it to be worthwhile to develop production of new oil fields.  A price of $100/barrel is also likely to trigger a recession.  That’s checkmate on extracting more oil.


After WWII, the excess production from factories required buyers, and this led to advertising and planned obsolescence.  Then consumer credit (debt) became the tool to get people to buy more stuff.

Outsourcing labour to the global south made production cheaper.

A factory worker’s wage now is the same as it was in 1973, so this worker does not have an ever expanding wage to feed the ever expanding economy.  The economy deals with this by giving the worker an ever expanding debt.

Consumer spending is 70% of the economy.

Debt is growing at three times the rate of the economy.  Debt feeds the growth of the financial industry.

In the 2008 global financial crisis, trillions of dollars disappeared.  Bailouts were seen as the only option to prevent the economy from imploding.  $16trillion was pumped into the global economy by the US.  This is larger than the US annual GDP.

US deficit spending is now $100billion/month.

We have hit a limit to debt.


Drought has decimated the US Midwest corn and soy crops this year.

Polar ice caps are melting, and are likely to be gone completely by 2020, and possibly as early as 2016.

This will lead to a positive feedback loop, of ever expanding climate chaos.

Climate will impact our capacity to grow the economy.


China is currently experiencing economic growth of 7-10%pa, which gives the economy a doubling time of seven years.  So every seven years, China’s economy doubles in size.  China is currently using half the world’s coal.  China exports to Europe and North America, and as those economies collapse, China will have no buyers for it’s products, so will itself collapse.  As China is the primary customer of Australia’s mining industry, the Australian economy will soon collapse too.  It’s a domino effect, and once it has started, nothing can stop the collapse.


These are Mr Heinberg’s tips for getting off growth.

Develop indicators of wellbeing other than GDP, such as Bhutan’s gross happiness index.

Alternative currencies.

Worker ownership of industries.

Population reduction.

Halt the growth of consumption, ie keep consuming at the rate we are now.

Develop renewable energy industries.

Probably a few other things I didn’t write down because I was trying to make sense of the last two.


What I’ve written is probably not an accurate representation of what he said, and may not make much sense on it’s own.  Read The End of Growth to get the real story.  I’m not promoting the book, I haven’t read it, just guessing it might explain my notes in more detail.



3 responses to this post.

  1. I think your review is pretty much spot on. There would be very few people who have really thought through just what the end of growth means.

    People like Richard are, broadly speaking, on the right track in presenting the case for this but most have a vested interest (selling books, speaking engagements, livelihood) in telling others what they think they would like to hear rather than the logical conclusions to the arguments they present.

    The opposing poles to this argument, in my view, are:

    Growth <<<<>>>> Collapse

    And there is not much in between those two states. Much like throwing a ball in the air. It goes Up …and when the limit of its momentum is reached… it comes Down.

    Not much opportunity for ‘Steady State’ in that scenario, except perhaps at the limit of collapse (if there is one), or as someone else has said, ‘When the rocks stop rolling’.


  2. Posted by Johnny on March 3, 2013 at 9:36 pm

    Hi Kim,

    I agree that Heinberg does not go far enough and, specifically, fails to call for a new economy. We need to replace market capitalism with simpler, localised, co-operative economies. But, i also have a problem with your critique. Talking about ‘civilization’ and ‘consumption’ as the problem is simplistic and unhelpful. Apart from the fact that you will never convince anyone (beyond a few deep greeners) to campaign for ‘the end of civilization’ or ‘consumption’, more importantly, neither of these things are at the root of our ecological (and social, political) crisis. We can still have civilisation – defined in terms of urban settlements and high culture – in a ‘sustainable’ or earth community (whatever you want to call it). And a viable economy will HAVE To have SOME consumption (unless u are proposing complete self-sufficiency which is a recipe for fairly brutal hardship!). Of course, consumption will have to be far reduced from contemporary levels. And this cannot be done inside the growth economy – hence we need to starts to build the alternative localised, simpler, co-operative economies here and now. The ‘deep green’ narrative proposes ‘solutions’ that are so extreme and unviable that I wonder whether adherence are really serious about actually achieving their ends. In any case, I think you need clear, specific, hard-headed thinking about what the problems are, viable solutions and practical ways on how we can get there.




  3. I should add that I believe it is possible for us to create systems that supplant the existing one making it so obsolete that it is abandoned en masse. It will require our collective intelligence to create such systems.


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