Richard Heinberg: We Need a New Myth


[Extracted from an interview in Acres USA, March 2007 – DS]

Over the past 200 years the human population has grown from under one billion to now over 6.5 billion. That’s an extraordinary rate of increase—completely unprecedented in all of previous history. There are various ways of explaining how and why that has happened, but certainly it could not have happened without cheap fossil fuels with which to grow more food and to transport that food from where it’s abundant to where it’s scarce. I think it’s fair to say that there are somewhere between 2 and 4 billion people alive today who probably would not exist if it weren’t for fossil fuels. That’s a little worrisome to think about when one realizes that oil production globally is set to peak any year now, and global natural gas production will not be far behind. If we’re going to avoid to die-off of much of humanity through starvation and disease, we’re going to have to find ways of feeding people without fossil fuels or with a lot less fossil fuel use—and that really means redesigning out entire food system. It means growing more food locally, for local consumption, it means using smaller farm machinery and less of it, it means more people being involved in the process of producing food, and it means growing food with fewer chemicals and fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Fortunately, over the past few decades we have developed information, knowledge, experience and techniques that are capable of growing food intensively, organically and ecologically. Those techniques, those methods desperately need to be expanded and replicated and made the basis for our national and global food system.

The whole chemicals industry arose starting with coal, but natural gas is now the basis for the modern pharmaceutical and agri-chemical industry, and that’s a very worrisome situation here in North America because we’re seeing natural gas production turning down. Therefore we’re seeing high natural gas prices, and therefore high fertilizer prices, because, of course, fertilizer is made from natural gas. Most of the North American chemicals industry is fleeing for other shores where natural gas is cheaper. We’ve lost something like 100,000 jobs in the chemicals industry over the last two years, but we don’t read that on the business pages of the newspapers.

What [leaders] most need to understand is our systemic dependency on fossil fuels and the fact that fossil fuels are about to become much more scarce and expensive. I don’t think that simple fact has penetrated the consciousness of our officials. They have been led to believe that business as usual will continue indefinitely, that the way we are doing things now is somehow the way they’ve always been done and always will be done, which is simply not the case. We live in an extraordinary moment in history.

The best estimates of the timing of global oil production peak are converging around the year 2010, which means we’re virtually there. That doesn’t mean that suddenly all oil production will vanish or collapse. We’ll start to see about a 2 percent per year decline in oil production from that point. Here in North America the decline in natural gas production will probably occur with greater speed, so we may in fact have a much more severe natural gas crisis at least in the early years, starting within the next few years, than an oil supply crisis. That’s going to affect electricity production, home heating, the chemicals industry and the entire American economy. Probably by the year 2015 or 2020 we’ll see an American economy in tatters compared to anything we’ve known over the past few decades, simply because we’ll no longer have the fuel to make it work.

If we were smart, we would [order land reallocation]. My concern is that what’s very possible instead, even likely in this case, is that land will be held onto by banks and large corporations, while the growing hordes of jobless people will be hired as agricultural workers and become a new class of serfs… Instead of having the Jeffersonian vision of agrarian democracy realized, we will see instead a new feudalism with millions of Americans reduced to serfdom.

Much of [the problem with food quality] relates to fossil fuels, too, because growing food cheaply and in large quantities is a recipe for producing poor-quality food. Now we’re seeing an epidemic of obesity in the United States, and that’s not because people are over-nourished, it’s because people are overfed, with food of poor nutritional quality. Soil minerals have been declining in quantity for decades now. I think the USDA has actually kept records of this, showing that the mineral content obtained back in the 1940s was in some cases 40 or 50 percent higher than it is today, so we can eat the same quantity of food and yet we have a hidden hunger.

Agriculture is the farthest thing from the consciousness of most urban American’s minds. They go to the grocery store, and they buy their food. They assume it’s always going to be there for them, and that’s about as much thought as they give to the matter… Many of them have never tasted anything really nutritious—a carrot straight from the soil, something that they’ve grown themselves, or simply something that has been grown without chemicals and fertilizers.

You know we have taken agriculture to high nitrogen use, not only in the United States, but worldwide, and this nitrogen is mostly wasted because it goes off into the air—especially anhydrous, less so with natural nitrogens—where it locks into the oxygen and becomes one form or another of nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide, in turn, is 183 to 212 times more polluting in terms of global warming than carbon dioxide. Yet we find that Al Gore doesn’t even mention it in his film, An Inconvenient Truth.

The average age of a farmer in the United States is currently over 55, so one has to wonder who will be growing our food in 10 or 20 years. As energy sources become more expensive, that whole system is going to start to come apart at the seams. The cost of food will go up, and gradually there will be more incentives for people to go into farming. But unless we undertake that transition proactively and with some sense of a plan and goal, it’s going to be a very chaotic and nasty kind of transition.

The sickness of civilization is not merely abstract or general. It impacts each of us directly and specifically, turning—to varying degrees, depending upon the situation—what was potentially a free, creative, wild being into a slave or ogre. The nature of the impact partly depends on the socioeconomic stratum one happens to occupy: Participation in industrial-electronic mass culture tends to turn the wealthy person into a speculator, predator, and parasite; it makes the middle-class entrepreneur a frenzied, opportunistic competitor; it transforms the average worker into an obsequious wage slave; and it renders the jobless person a useless drone—a sort of social waste product, and perhaps a literal prisoner.

In the simplest analysis, the system reproduces various forms of authoritarianism and dependency. Toward anyone higher on the pyramid than ourselves, we are obliged to be obedient—whether the one who is “higher” happens to be a boss, a customer, a prison guard, or an IRS agent. Toward anyone who is lower in the pecking chain, we feel justified in acting as a demanding authoritarian—whether the individual concerned happens to be an employee, a store clerk, or a child. People at the bottom of the ladder have a tough time finding someone to boss around, but often have an intense psychological need to do so; hence spousal and child abuse, hierarchies within street gangs, and random violence. Ultimately, we are all helplessly dependent on the system itself, and we all take an authoritarian stance toward non-human nature. Individual personality differences may moderate the effect, but even inherently independent, generous people often find their natural inclinations compromised because dependency and authoritarianism are built into the system we all rely on for our food, water, housing, transportation, electrical power, clothing, entertainment, and so on. Because we are so dependent, we do things we otherwise wouldn’t, or we curtail behavior that might jeopardize our continued participation in the system. And to the extent that the system itself is unfair or unsustainable, we thereby forfeit our moral integrity.

Meanwhile, we become ever more incompetent and alienated. Experts do nearly everything for us: Few of us can heal ourselves, produce our own food, or build our own houses. Thus out of necessity our attention is continually fixed on the human system. The non-human world, perforce, is either hidden from view (while it is turned into manufactured goods or waste products) or preserved in bounded enclaves as a therapeutic spectacle…

Clearly, any genuine alternative to this insane status quo must begin by cutting our cords of personal dependence on the ephemeral human system of money and markets, bureaucracies and corporations, manufactured products and fossil fuels; and it must bring into great clarity our fundamental personal dependence on the natural systems of land, water, weather, and living beings. It must provide a remedial education in the sorts of things every child in a sustainable culture learns—how to build one’s own house and provide for one’s health and nutritional needs with a minimum of time, materials, and environmental damage. From this modest beginning, one can envision a complete reorganization of society, including a profound mass psychological shift toward attunement with nature’s rhythms and balances. But this society-wide transformation is likely to remain a mere pipe dream as long as we individually remain utterly at the mercy of the present regime…

Tens of thousands of years ago, human beings subsisted by gathering wild plants. These ancestors of ours were nomadic and lived in a magical interdependence with their surroundings; the animals and trees were their friends and spoke to them. To be sure, they faced challenges—sickness and accidents, for example—but generally enjoyed good health and a stable and rich communal life.

While other creatures’ adaptations to their environment were physical and instinctual, human beings had developed large brains that allowed them to adapt and develop socially, spiritually, and linguistically in ways that were unique. This capacity for inner development and thus for cultural invention allowed people to respond quickly to environmental changes. And the environment did change—ice ages following warm periods; floods following droughts—sometimes over the course of millennia, other times in the space of hours or days.

The most dramatic climate shifts were brought about by occasional massive comet or asteroid impacts. On at least one occasion, still tens of millennia ago, the planet’s atmosphere was darkened for years by dust raised from such a collisions. So many plants died out during those years that humans resorted to hunting animals for food. Later, they retained the habit.

Then, between ten thousand and twelve thousand years ago, another series of catastrophes inspired more human adaptations. Up to this time, wild game had been plentiful—so much so, that the human population had burgeoned. But now many of the big game animals were being hunted to extinction. In addition, climates everywhere were fluctuating rapidly and sea levels were rising, drowning densely populated coastal areas. Suddenly the world had changed, and people would have to change too in order to survive.

The tribes that had been most deeply traumatized by these events tended to live in a perpetual state of emergency, to blame themselves for provoking the gods, and to pass their felt trauma on to their children in the form of abusive discipline. Whereas before human groups had been egalitarian, this new crisis seemed to call for stern leadership. Men—especially the strongest and most driven ones—became dominant. Tribes began to fear and fight one another, and to fear the sky and the elements.

One further social adaptation to catastrophe had to do with the basic ways in which people related to their environment. Every creature, and every culture, must survive both by adapting to its environment, and by altering its environment to suit itself. But there are relative degrees of compromise between these two courses of action. In the case of our crisis-ridden Paleolithic ancestors, some apparently chose the former, deciding to learn more about the natural world so that they could accommodate themselves better to it. They dreamed myths that encoded meanings having to do with protecting populations of wild animals, with keeping the numbers of humans within bounds, and with honoring the diversity and inter-connectivity of the webs of life.

Other people, however, decided to concentrate on adapting the environment to themselves. They domesticated plants and animals; they cleared and plowed land. They chose the best places and built permanent settlements. The populations of these groups continued to grow unchecked. As settlements increased in size, social arrangements became more stratified and classes developed. A few individuals became wealthy and powerful; the rest tried to make themselves useful. As their territory expanded, they came into conflict with other settled groups, with whom they fought or formed alliances; or with food gatherers and hunters, whom they killed or enslaved.

Wherever they settled, they exhausted the land. After a few generations, famine would strike and they would move on. Eventually, however, their populations and territories grew so large that there was nowhere else to go. Meanwhile, virtually all of the peoples who had taken the first option were now absorbed within the lands of the planters and herders. Huge cities sprang up, and devices were invented for every imaginable purpose—for communication, transportation, manufacture, cooking, cleaning, personal hygiene, mass killing. The feeding of the masses in the cities and the production of all these new devices required increasingly intensive farming and mining, and the ruthless regimentation of human labor.

As the whole Earth began to cry out in fatigue, as cities began to disintegrate in factional warfare, and as hunger gripped the poorer classes of the planting-and-herding groups, the youth of the latter began to seek out the few remaining peoples who had learned to adapt themselves to the land. The planters, who had been so arrogant, began to humble themselves before their cousins, from whom they had departed so long ago and whom they had butchered and enslaved at every opportunity. They began to humble themselves before the wild things and the wild places of the Earth. They vowed to heal and renew the land and to forge sacred ties of mutual respect and aid between species and cultures. And they vowed to remember, so that they would not make the same mistakes again.

All together, gradually, they came to understand and release their ancient fears. They began to use the wisdom and knowledge they had accumulated and preserved through the previous millennia to begin to build a new way of life, different both from their primordial food-gathering ways and from their later planting-and-herding ways. Realizing now that they were all deeply wounded, they together resolved to heal the deep effects of trauma, and to renounce violence. They learned to limit their population, and to satisfy their basic needs by ever-simpler means. Their social groupings became smaller and more democratic. The crisis they had just been through had deeply impressed them with a new sense of morality: Whereas before they had celebrated unbridled consumption and accumulation now they knew the perils of excess size, speed, and sophistication. They had learned that it was only by respecting all life that they could live again in magical interdependence with their natural surroundings. Now, as long ago, they began to see the land as sacred, and to hear the voices of the trees and animals. Once again, life was good.


The much-dreaded “die off” may be an inevitable and necessary part of our readjustment as a species. Constant predictions of imminent armageddon aside, like so many other aspects of the changes we all face it will likely play out over time. So far no one lives forever, and environmental factors already appear to be reducing fertility rates. Poverty and disease are ever with us. Maybe common sense will kick in too. What we’re doing now is obviously unsustainable in the long term.

Ever hear of the Georgia Guidestones?

Wise and humane governments—global, national, state, local—would make population reduction the highest priority and hasten such through a system of rewards and penalties. Why Heinberg and so many other theorists leave population reduction out of the discussion is both puzzling and telling. I agree with Izzy that “die off” is not only inevitable, but already underway; and we need to seriously question why the discussion continues to be about better ways to feed seven billion people instead of about timely and non-violent processes for reducing the number of people needing to be fed.