(retouched from a post on the old Green Alliance USA forum)
Richard Heinberg's The Party's Over: An Ecosocialist Critque
Richard Heinberg's The Party's Over is typically cited by left neoMalthusians as the ultimate source of information about a coming energy crisis. At any rate, Heinberg's book indeed offers an encyclopedic review of the pessimism of oil-geologists as presented on websites such as those connected to http://www.hubbertpeak.com/. It is difficult to argue with his assertion that, if all things remain constant, there will be an energy crisis, of steadily increasing severity, in our middle-term future. Part of the difficulty in questioning such an energy-crunch thesis lies in the data Heinberg uses to compose it -- data on things such as oil reserves is difficult to possess and to know exactly. But, beyond that, such a thesis depends upon the assertion that all things about our society will remain constant, and history has shown time and time again that societies do not remain constant, nor do societies necessarily provide much warning of the times and places at which they will experience social change. This is especially so under capitalism, which is capable of unpredictable shifts in its structure due to the fast-paced nature of its transactional infrastructure.
Heinberg's discussion of social change seems to be limited to the documentation of two untested assertions: 1) social change in a society depends upon the availability of natural resources in that society, and 2) the two main forms of social change are a) growth and b) collapse. Little attention appears to have been paid to the social factors in social change that do not depend upon the availability or management of natural resources. Heinberg's theory of social collapse is derived from Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies, which is itself derived from an analysis of agricultural civilizations, most prominently that of the Roman Empire.
Understanding Tainter's analysis of Rome will, then, connect us to a monochromatic dimension in Heinberg's analysis of the present. Heinberg quotes Tainter as saying:
The establishment of the Roman Empire produced an extraordinary return on investment, as the accumulated surpluses of the Mediterranean and adjacent lands were appropriated by the conquerers. Yet as the booty of new conquests ceased, Rome had to undertake administrative and garrisoning costs that lasted centuries. As the marginal return on investment in empire declined, major stress surges appeared that could scarcely be contained with yearly Imperial budgets. The Roman Empire made itself attractive to barbarian incursions merely by the fact of its existence. Dealing with stress surges required taxation and economic malfeasance so heavy that the productive capacity of the support population deteriorated. Weakening of the support base gave rise to further barbarian successes, so that very high investment in complexity yielded few benefits superior to collapse. In the later Empire the marginal return on investment in complexity was so low that barbarian kingdoms began to seem preferable. (Tainter, qtd. in Heinberg 35)
This monochromatic version of history doesn't recognize the social tensions within a society that would lead to its collapse. Rome at the time of the collapse of the Empire in the West (the East lasted a millenium longer, a phenomenon which Tainter doesn't consider) was a society in constant civil war between competitors for the post of Emperor. And the various forms of class and cultural warfare that characterized its lower strata grew more severe as the Roman Empire collapsed in the West. Conflicts between the Greek East and the Roman West, between polytheists ("pagans") and Christians, between Christians of different sects, between old wealth, the Army, the Church, between big and small landholders, and between slaveowners and slaves divided third and fourth century ancient Rome quite severely, and these conflicts came to a head at the time of the barbarian invasions.
So it can be shown that Roman society itself facilitated the barbarian invasions as an outcome to the conflicts which pitted Roman against Roman. It wasn't "marginal return on investment in complexity" that felled Rome so much as an explosion of internecine conflicts between "investors," "investments," (i.e. slaves, coloni, and other workers) and other participants. In the end, the Empire survived where these conflicts were least explosive, i.e. in the East. (See, for instance, Michael Grant's History of Rome for such a version.)
So what, to Tainter, appears as a "weakening of the support base," appears to the polychromatic historian as a free-for-all struggle for control of the support base, involving the class struggle of labor versus ownership, as well as the struggle of various potential owners/ rulers against each other. Roman slaves and Army deserters, for instance, would escape into the armies of the barbarians, swelling their ranks and making them more formidable than they otherwise would be. (This was apparently a contributing factor in the Roman defeat in the Battle of Adrianople, 378 AD, causing the first successful barbarian invasion, as well as of the first sack of Rome in 410.) The barbarian armies were themselves considered a "natural resource" by the Roman Emperors, for it became easier to recruit barbarians in the army at that time than to recruit enculturated Romans, and such armies were constantly needed to fight usurpers for the post of Emperor. Barbarians could also be Romanized, and in many cases they made useful taxpayers for the Empire as a whole. At any rate, what Western Europe saw in the 5th century was a parting of the ways. Wealthy Roman polytheists had no need of an Empire that banned their religious practices, the Church didn't need an Empire when its main concern was saving souls, the prosperous East didn't need a troubled West, new money didn't need old money, slaves didn't need masters, etc.
And it can even be shown that Roman civilization persisted in the West past the fall of Rome, that the barbarian invasions were themselves not the whole of the collapse of Roman civilization. Students are often asked to memorize the year 476 AD as the year in which the Roman Empire collapsed in the West, for it was then that the last Roman Emperor (Romulus Augustulus) abdicated his power over Italy, Pannonia, and southern Gaul to a Scythian named Odovacar. Yet nothing of civilization-shaking importance occurred in Italy in 476. Roman civilization continued on, producing literary figures such as Boethius and Cassiodorus into the sixth century AD -- it was only the later warfare between the East and the West, between Belisarius and Witigis (followed by the further invasion of the Lombards) that ruined Italy. And then in Gaul under the Franks (we call it "France"), as one can tell from a reading of Gregory of Tours' 5th century History of the Franks, the intense fighting between the Franks themselves finished off a society that had merely been brought into decline by their invasion.
The point in dredging up all of this ancient history is to show that there are plenty of ways to show that the "process of collapse" of a civilization is not (as Heinberg says) "analogous to the phenomenon of population overshoot and die-off within a colonized ecosystem" (35). Civilizations do not follow overshoot and die-off models, because, among other reasons, they are not like the "populations" that supposedly exist independent of culture. Roman civilization persisted for quite a term beyond the massive die-offs (due to plague) that struck the Empire in the 170s and the 250s, though it's easier to blame Classical civilization's ignorance of sanitation than any "population overshoot" for these dieoffs.
Perhaps Heinberg's assumption is borrowed from the model of the civilization of Easter Island typically used in most descriptions of "overshoot" and "dieoff". The Easter Island civilization was, one might recall, a civilization which was confronted with a very limited set of resources using a very primitive mode of production, much more so than the Roman Empire. At any rate, when one looks at complex civilizations in the world, even as applied to thousand-year-old societies, the model of overshoot and dieoff begins to lose most of its explanatory force, because it trivializes the forces of internal conflict within societies.
So, to apply a polychromatic understanding of history, we must look to the conflicts within a society, and how these conflicts coalesce around social forms, for clues as to the direction social change will take. This wisdom applies to the analysis of any civilization one cares to name, including (most importantly), ours. But Heinberg seems more interested in the "oil" part of the equation, given our society's voracious habits of oil extraction and consumption, than in any actual understanding of capitalism's potential for social change. In fact, the lopsidedness of his presentation of evidence causes him to make fabulous claims, as follows:
If there is any solution to industrial societies' approaching energy crises, renewables plus conservation will provide it. Yet in order to achieve a transition from nonrenewables to renewables, decades will be required. (164-165)
My immediate reaction to reading this was to ask: why decades? Is revolutionary change supposed to be like waiting in a dentist's office? Should we wait "decades" for social change for some perfunctory reason? The Soviet Union/ Eastern bloc didn't really take all that long to collapse, depending upon when one charts the beginning of the collapse itself. The antiglobalization movement of today appears in the history books as if it sprung up "out of nothing," with the anti-WTO protest in Seattle in 1999. Today's civilization can move information with lightning speed, thus the rapidity both of the Establishment's mendacious news broadcasts and the antiEstablishment's announcements of global protest. So it's not the speed of information that will require any revolution in social organization to take "decades."
In fact, it can be shown that our society has plenty of social movements that are primarily concerned with the preservation of human life and with the environment, over and above the impetus of capital expansion that ordinarily dominates our society's social priorities. And it is this form of conflict, profits versus people, that most characterizes the First World's hidden agendas. If organizational commonalities can be used to change their ideological forms so as to make them into a common interest in radical change, and mobilize them into a force for social change, that this would create a revolutionary impetus to bring immediate progress in the directions Heinberg suggests in his book.
What's more, the potential for change is there, in reactions (including global protest, but expanding outward from there) to the increasing impoverishment forced upon humankind by the capitalist system. Rapidly increasing numbers of people are left "out of the loop" as regards having that which capitalism once promised to all: a secure job at a living wage, health insurance, retirement money, vacation time. With time, as capitalism fails to grow "up to speed" while the global public's debtload spirals upward, the world's publics will be increasingly focused on the non-viability of a system that does not seem to be for anything besides the short-term profit aspirations of its financial backers. What I think we can expect at some point, then, is a powerful push to change the terms of the class conflict.
With the triumph of the Washington Consensus, the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, and "free trade," it may appear that the wealthy owners of the corporate world have "won" the class struggle -- but at the cost of a world economy which stands today on the verge of collapse. (A recommended text dealing with the hard facts of the present economic juggernaut can be found in Robert Brenner's The Boom and the Bubble.) We may, therefore, envision a conflict within today's society which could explode prior to the resource shortage predicted by Heinberg's cited experts. The will to effect social change doesn't have to conform to his timetable, therefore.
Perhaps Heinberg assumes that creating the will to change will take decades. That may be so, but it also might not be so, depending on what one counts as a potential for social change. As I've said already, nowhere in Heinberg's text does he analyze the dynamics of social change under capitalism. At no point does he look at the conflict between consumers and producers within our global society, wherein the consumers reap the benefit of cheap goods at Wal-Mart etc. whilst the producers (i.e. cheap labor) must keep the will to produce alive at the cost of the bodily desires to sleep and eat, Nor is he more than trivially concerned with the great disparities of wealth that mark global society. Instead, when it comes time to discussing solutions to the social problem of resource overconsumption, Heinberg focuses upon a thin recipe for social change that looks much like a guide to individual financial investment for the American middle classes. He gives this recipe in his last chapter, titled "Managing The Collapse." Indeed, a collapse is to be managed, the collapse of the order represented by "industrial growth" (190), although Heinberg panics on a later page and calls it "global societal collapse" (201). Something new must be created to replace that which has collapsed, though Heinberg will only mention a "new energy regime" that will have to be in place. My look at Heinberg's recommendations will try to fill in the blank spaces where I feel his new energy regime is not specific enough.
Heinberg starts giving advice under a heading (208) titled "You, Your Home, and Your Family." Heinberg's recommendations are green, yet survivalist: cut your energy usage, use alternative energies to power your home, redesign your home using ecological principles, adopt do-it-yourself strategies, adopt "voluntary simplicity," try to grow food locally. Though when he recommends for people to "reduce your debt," one must wonder if he's got a fund set up for helping his readers do just that. At any rate, all of this is doubtless beneficial, yet I do not think it goes far enough.
In his survivalist laundry-list of personal options, Heinberg does not discuss the most important aspect of personal life; one's job. It's all very well to plant a few plants in the back yard and improve the energy-efficiency of one's home, but working (and related functions -- preparation for work, driving to work, etc.) occupies the lion's share of one's waking life under the conditions of declining empire. What's more, under the current system, most jobs have to pander to the forces of capital (and its local manifestation, "effective demand," calculated by multiplying customers by amounts of money). In general, Heinberg is recommending an energy-saving regime focused upon maintaining "an unlimited potential for non-material cultural, social, and individual growth" (Bossel, qtd. in Heinberg 207). That is to say, instead of pandering after money, people should all work directly to improve themselves, their societies, and the natural world.
First of all, changing society in such a direction means cutting down on all of the jobs engaged in unnecessary production. Say goodbye to all unnecessary luxuries. Fast cars, caviar, airplanes, tobacco? Consumers will still be free to consume them, but nobody will be obligated to produce them (given the end of the profit motive), so they will dwindle.
But what's more, it means that (lacking a profit motive) everyone will want to be occupied doing something that directly benefits the world, and not just manipulating money so that each of us will assure ourselves some of it. Many jobs could be eliminated -- banker, cashier, insurance representative, lawyer, advertiser, ticket-taker, casino operator etc., and for each job eliminated there will be something worth doing for the unemployed: environmental cleanup, garden organizing, alternative energy development, etc. I'm sure that such a change would drastically improve the living conditions of all. But for many people, changing this reality would have to occur at the social level -- discussions of "voluntary simplicity" aside, living in a particular place often means paying rent to participate in a situation where one has little individual control over energy-saving and food-producing systems, and paying rent means taking up a job that pays, which means following money (and not people, or nature) wherever it happens to be under the current, collapsing, order. The opportunities for individual change, for survivalism especially, are severely limited for many who live under the current system.
What's needed, then, is large-scale social change, directed toward allowing the small-scale to live in peace in places where it can't do so today. This is another area in which I feel that Heinberg falls short. Heinberg seems to seems to equate social change with the sort of piecemeal reform that occurs in the halls of Congress, or the community organizing efforts that local communities have adopted to resist corporate takeover when the local Wal-Mart moves into town.
And in discussing these things, he often writes disparagingly about the ability of the system to "resist fundamental change at all levels" (232). None of his suggestions seem to have anything to do with the real program of class struggle (by the rich, against the rest of us) that forms the backdrop to our present-day economic lives. Heinberg seems to float away from the matter of resettling the class struggle by assuming, arbitrarily, that neither the Left nor the Right will solve the problems of resource-depletion that he thinks are so paramount. (188) Once again, Heinberg assumes that nothing beyond the current horizon for social activism is likely to occur tomorrow or the next day.
His idea of social change appears to be predicated upon the notion that resource management determines all, pitting the naturally human desire to consume against environmental limitations. His disparaging depiction of a Left solution is as follows:
A few rightists acknowledge resource limits but argue that, since existence is a Darwinian struggle anyway, it is the fit (the wealthy) who should survive throgh economic competition while the unfit (the poor) are culled by starvation. A few leftists acknowledge limits but believe that, if humanity is made aware of them and empowered to deal with distribution issues democratically, people will decide to undertake a process of voluntary collective self-restriction that will enable everyone to thrive within those limits. Typically, when either leftist or rightist regimes actually encounter resource limits, some aspect of ideology (democracy on the one hand, the free market on the other) is sacrificed, at least to some extent. (187)
In real life, of course, the right-wing concept of "limits" enforcing poverty on the many is a daily reality observable in most of the world, and one the the Right apparently enjoys for all of its love of (class) warfare.
Anyone reading the 1999 UN Human Development Report can tell you of the enormous disparities in global income that has been the result of the Right's imposition of the "Darwinian struggle" (not a natural phenomenon) upon the world. (And it doesn't save a whole lot of energy, either.) On the other hand, the Left, in Heinberg's parodic conception of it, will have to undemocratically demand "voluntary collective self-restriction" of everyone in order to save energy. First of all, Heinberg places everyone in the role of consumer, forgetting the (fungible) economic pressure placed on energy producers to do the hard work that makes consumption possible for energy consumers. And then he assumes implicitly that consuming energy is what we naturlly like to do. As if we in the First World needed to voluntarily "restrict" ourselves from consuming the services of lawyers, advertisers, military corporations, landlords, insurance representatives, etc. (rather than freeing ourselves from the systemic obligation to use their services at great energy cost). As if energy conservation required "self-restriction" rather than being something we'd do if we had the option.
Does Heinberg look out each day upon the traffic jams of urban America, car after car filled with only one driver, engines all idling with irreplaceable fossil fuel, and imagine that each and every one of them wants to be there, and wouldn't rather be doing something else, somewhere else? Heinberg needs to imagine that it would not take too much goading for many energy consumers to learn to enjoy less-pressured, less-consumptive lives, saving lots of energy in the process.
His conclusions, then, seem to reflect his difficulty in imagining a solution occurring under present-day conditions, or that a solution would be prompted by anything other than ecologically-determined resource shortages. He tries to put teeth into his pronouncements of civilizational doom by asking himself, "is it too late?" His answer:
If by, "is it too late?" we mean "Is it too late to make the transition painlessly?" then the answer may well be yes. By now, we almost certainly face a "discontinuity," as renewable-energy expert Ron Swenson euphemistically put it in a recent phone conversation with me.(238)
In reading the above paragraph, please be sensitive to the weasel-wordings ("may well," "almost certainly") that qualify Heinberg's predictions. Being unable to predict the future with any certainty (and sharing this quality with the smartest of his readers), Heinberg retreats from his crystal ball to stage-manage his sense of impending doom:
Am I being fatalistic? Or simply realistic? Our cultural obsession with good news, promises, and hope is humanly understandable, but there comes a time when the best thing to do is to accept that a bad situation has developed and to find intelligent ways to manage it.(238)
So instead of getting a clear picture in the crystal ball, we are being counseled as to what to feel about all this data, with its high reliance on variant probabilities. The peak of global oil production will come soon -- we don't know when, but we should be worried anyway.
I feel obligated to remark at this point that a message that emphasizes "doom and gloom," the hopelessness of humanity before its inevitable plight, is likely to encourage people to build the sort of future described in Octavia Butler's novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. That would be a future where the rich live armed to the teeth in gated communities surrounded by great seas of poverty. To his credit, Heinberg doesn't recommend the sort of survivalism practiced by isolationists who shut the world out. It must be considered, however, that living on a thin recipe for social change is likely to drive one to despair of changing society, and thus to forsake society altogether in just the manner that Butler described in her novels.
Heinberg's purpose, though, is to stage-manage the perceived threat to humankind seen in potential resource shortages, so as not to encourage the middle class reader to retreat into a castle. In reflecting upon his thin recipe for social change, Heinberg asks:
Are these recommendations for national and global change unrealistic? Past experience would suggest that national leaders will be unlikely to act on the basis of warnings like those contained in the book. (238-239)
Having scared himself away by comparing "national and global change" with pleading before the Emperor, Heinberg then retreats to the "decades" refrain:
A successful transformation of even one of these three aspects of any single industrial society -- its energy infrastructure, its political system, or its economic system -- represents a daunting task probably requiring decades of work by many thousands of people. (239)
Which of course makes one wonder -- if billions are involved in social change, and not just "many thousands," does that shorten the time span required? At any rate, the problem implied in Heinberg's discussion is one of how a thick discussion of the social dilemma facing us, as we compete each day for dollars and resources on the freeway of capitalist life, would help us solve the ecological problem which Heinberg brings once again to our attentions.
One solution to the political dilemma, faced by activists pleading with nation-states in an undemocratic world, has already been put on the table by the journalist/ activist George Monbiot. In an article titled "How to Stop America" (http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0612-05.htm ), Monbiot argues that the people of the world should aim to create a network of democratically-elected representatives, to replace the current undemocratic framework of nation-states and the UN. Monbiot's genius in this regard is to think past the status quo, to imagine a structure without the defects of the current system and a way of making it happen. As Monbiot said, our alternative framework for global government will not have the power that the nation-states or the UN have, but it will have something they lack; legitimacy.
Once this framework does acquire power, though (which will have to occur alongside a revolution in social affairs), it will set to work establishing "radical social, ecological and economic democracy," basically, by withdrawing police power from the corporate and class structures as they currently stand, and by granting power over the earth directly to the people. This is not precisely what Monbiot had in mind, but I am adopting his idea to a purpose which would be more fitting than any notion of "fair trade" (which Monbiot may recommend), because nothing less than such a grant will account fully for capitalism's devastation and its necessary remedy. Such a mass grant will have to be accompanied by the across-the-board elimination of unproductive and unnecessarily-productive jobs and their replacement by fulfilling tasks that care for society and the earth. We will, in short, be creating a global intentional sustainable community, a co-operative of co-operatives, a co-operative commonwealth, or, in short, socialism.
Oh, sure, not even a revolution will avoid the "discontinuity" that the neoMalthusians see in their crystal balls. But at some point it will be easy to confuse that "discontinuity" with the discontinuity which will be created by the revolution's disruption of internal social structures, as the old is torn down whilst the new comes into being. Possibly, one "discontinuity" may accompany the other in such a way that we won't be able to tell which is which. Before the world is remade, at any rate, we can certainly expect humanity's internecine struggles to intensify quite drastically. We can see this already beginning in the Bush Administration's coddling of the rich and attack on services for the poor. Revolutions have never been candy-coated, flower-scented, hand-holding things -- or easy acts to pull off, for that matter. But none of the neoMalthusians can see any way in which our resource-consuming civilization can be forced to drastically reduce its energy expenditures short of revolution or dieoff. So I'll leave it to the ecosocialists to point the way.
What's more, since folks like Heinberg see resource management as civilzation's motor, they can't seem to imagine that conflict within a society could be the driving force of a social change that would also change that society's modes of resource management. So we're not going to get any calculations from them as to what energy savings a socialist society could make over the current capitalist system. But it will never be too late for people of good will to experience paradigm-changes. Let's try to do the math, shall we?