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Transcript of episode with Richard Heinberg.
[00:01:59] Rachel Donald: Thank you so much for joining me on the show. It's a pleasure to have you on Planet: Critical.
[00:02:02] Richard Heinberg: Thank you, Rachel. It's a pleasure to be speaking.
[00:02:05] Rachel Donald: I seem to be sort of making my way through all the fellows at the Post Carbon Institute. I feel like I've found my brethren, but you're all across the pond. We emailed a little, very briefly, about what we were going to discuss, um, and I've changed my mind, if that's all right. I would love to go through, um, your recent essay on social cohesion, what's happening politically and how that relates to the climate crisis and what we need to change democratically in order to best tackle, um, the energy, economic and ecological crisis that we face.
[00:02:38] Richard Heinberg: Okay, sure. I'm up for that.
[00:02:45] Rachel Donald: All right. Fantastic. So maybe first of all, before we dive into that, if you could give a brief background, your bio for listeners, and then we'll delve into that.
[00:02:56] Richard Heinberg: My day job is, uh, as senior fellow for Post Carbon Institute. And so, basically that involves doing a lot of writing and public speaking, so on. So I've written 14 books, mostly on energy and climate issues, uh, everything related to the environment. I don't have the, any specific educational background to help me with that. I, I was trained as an artist and musician. But starting when I was in my twenties I realized that society was on a basically unsustainable path and I've spent my entire adult life trying to figure out why that is and what we should do about it.
[00:03:35] Rachel Donald: Oh, how interesting. Do you think that not having, um, a particular academic background gives you a certain advantage when dealing with the research?
[00:03:45] Richard Heinberg: There are advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of course, is that I'm, I'm less likely to get caught in sort of a silo of thinking. Um, it's easier for me to sort of transgress boundaries of disciplines. But on the other hand, you know, I suppose credibility is, is reduced somewhat. It always helps if you can say, you're, you have a PhD in, you know, uh, climate science or something like that, uh, you get asked more often for your comments by, uh, I think probably by mainstream publications. But I try to make up for that with volume.
[00:04:32] Rachel Donald: 14 books, that's a hell of an output.
[00:04:35] Richard Heinberg: Right, and hundreds of essays, you know, so it's, it's all on my site, richardheinberg.com.
[00:04:42] Rachel Donald: I think it's interesting because, um, I mean, everybody I speak to is sort of getting to that stage of like, don't trust us experts. We have not done enough to, to stop the, the, you know, headlong rush towards destruction, the atomisation of studies is part of the problem.
Um, and then on the other hand, you know, you've got people like Naomi Klein, she such a famous example of somebody that, um, she didn't even graduate as far as I remember correctly, um, because she just kept being a fantastic journalist and so leaving university to go off and do that. So I think you're in a great position to be one of the researchers and sort of truth tellers of our time. And I would hope that the mainstream would pay more attention.
[00:05:29] Richard Heinberg: I hope so, too. Thank you.
[00:05:31] Rachel Donald: So as far as I can see from having googled you, um, what you became quite well-known for was the peak oil and peak energy stuff um, a few years ago. And I had, I had a question. Hang on, let me, let me slow down and think about this. How energy relates to the economy seems to be sort of the critical intersection, um, when dealing with ecological crisis um, and yet it seems to be the place where people disagree the most as well.
Um, so you get degrowth scholars talking about, you know, just switching over to renewables, um, without talking about the fossil fuels that that would take, or, you know, the fact that renewables can never produce the amount of energy that we need. You also get some people talking about peak oil and others saying that peak oil hasn't happened, or, you know, it's, it's a very, very confusing, um, space and it makes it very difficult for the layman, yeah, to establish.
I mean, could we discuss briefly, before we get into this social cohesion thing, um, what is going on with our energy demand? Because another thing that, and this is what I wrote down, is that um, you wrote in a recent essay about limits to growth, the energy, uh, the growth of energy use is actually slowed in recent years. It's only 2% compared to, I think, 5.4, decades previously.
Well, what is going on with our energy demands? How does it correlate with GDP and what can we do?
[00:07:07] Richard Heinberg: Wow. That's a huge topic. Well basically, um, most of our energy, about 85% of our energy comes from fossil fuels, um, coal, oil and natural gas. Actually, in order of the highest to the least it, oil is, is our, our biggest source, uh, single source of energy.
So, uh, fossil fuels are of course a finite, depleting, natural resources. Uh, nature isn't making any more of them, at least in, at any speed that would make a difference to modern industrial society. So with every unit of coal, oil or natural gas that we take out of the ground and burn, it gets harder to access what's left because we, we harvest the stuff using the low-hanging fruit principle.
You know, we go after the oil, natural gas and coal. It's easiest to get the highest quality stuff first and leave the nasty, dirtier, harder to get stuff for later. What we've been doing this for so many decades now that it really is getting later, uh, especially when it comes to oil. Um, new oil discoveries last year were at their lowest level since well in, in 75 years. So, now, we're at a point where really, if we need new supplies, we have to go to extreme lengths, like the Canadian tar sands or, uh, fracking in the U.S which is extremely technology intensive and, and not very profitable for the companies that specialize in and so on.
So the, the cheap, easy stuff is gone. We're at the end of a certain era of, you know, cheap, abundant energy that made the 20th century what it was, this period of, of unprecedented economic growth and technological invention and all this stuff, you know, this is what we grew up in. This is what we take for granted as being, you know, reality, the normal, this is normally how people should live.
You know, we should all be driving cars and watching television. But that's not how people lived before fossil fuels and it's not how people will live after fossil fuels. Fossil fuels made all of this stuff possible because they're, they're these magical sources of energy that were created by nature without any effort required on the part of human beings.
Now the question is where do we go from, from here? And that's not an easy question to answer because, um, we would all like to be able to continue living the way we are just by, by somewhat other means, you know, build some solar panels or wind turbines and electrify everything, and we can go on pretty much the same. But it's not- even if, and that's a, that's a huge IF, these alternative energy sources are capable of supplying that much energy, you know, at that scale, making that transition is an enormous job. When we say electrify everything well, you know, that's, it's two words, but it implies, you know, trillions of dollars and decades of, of effort and technologies that in some cases don't even exist yet for high heat industrial processes and things like that.
So, you know, policy makers are stuck. You know, their constituents require them to, you know, supply more economic growth, which requires more energy. And at the same time, they know that burning all of these fossil fuels is causing a climate emergency. And that, you know, somewhere in the back of their minds is the recognition that, you know, fossil fuels are finite and we can't keep doing this forever. So there's this idea of the energy transition. We have to transition away from fossil fuels and that, you know, in, in policy circles, that's kind of a, it's a mantra now, the energy transition has to happen. But nobody has, you know, a real plan for how that will actually work. It's all, it's just a phrase.
[00:11:39] Rachel Donald: Well, and as far as I understand, as well, having spoken to some of your colleagues, um, even if, even if there was an energy transition, uh, it doesn't really mean anything because we will still have to reduce, massively reduce energy consumption in order to use renewable energy.
And the fact that renewable energies require a huge amount of resources, finite resources, and fossil fuels in order to build, to be built and then to be rebuilt every 20 years is often never factored in as well. But there's something you said that I want to nitpick on.
You said, um, you said constituents demand from policy makers continued economic growth. Now, is that true? Is that what constituents demand? I mean, constituents want a job, constituents want access to certain health services, um, or basic universal services. But I mean, as we're seeing the accumulation of wealth in the world does not trickle down. So surely a lot of constituents would be happy for, um, redistribution rather than growth.
[00:12:49] Richard Heinberg: Right. But that's not how the choices are framed for them. Um, when was the last time you saw a politician run on a platform of degrowth, say, and say, well, you elect me and I'll make sure that the economy contracts in a manageable way. We'll, you know, we'll, we'll make sure you have uh, healthcare and food and, and the necessities, but you know, we're going to have to give up, uh, a lot of, uh, perks on the outside and change our habits, and maybe we won't be able to fly in airplanes anymore and so on, but, you know, life will be okay. I mean, that's, that's what the policymakers should be saying because that's the reality of the, you know, the choices we have in front of us and so on. But none of them do, because economic growth is what they have been relying on for decades to, uh, make the system work just in terms of, of economic inequality, for example. More economic growth tends to lead to more economic inequality. The people at the top of the economic pyramid do better than the people at the bottom. And it's, it's a natural process in there. It would take a little while to explain why this wealth pump is continually pumping wealth up to the top of the economic pyramid, unless, and unless we have some kind of redistributive programs or, uh, progressive taxation, you know, pretty soon the, the super wealthy basically take it all. Okay.
So how do policymakers propose to, to deal with that? Through economic growth. If the, if the pie is continually growing in size, then even if you only have a tiny piece of it, well, that little piece will be growing too. But if the whole economic pie is shrinking, if we don't have economic growth, then that forces some hard choices. The only way you're going to keep the common person from really losing out is if you start taking a lot away from the super rich and redistributing it, and the super rich really don't like that idea. So that the policymakers are stuck, you know, constantly having to promise more economic growth, even as they, you know, actually most of them don't even realize that the fact that it's, that economic growth is making the problems that they're trying to solve worse.
[00:15:24] Rachel Donald: I've started to think recently about, um, Trojan horse policies. Because I think that a lot of, um, the propositions coming from degrowth are really, really cool, um, almost sexy, you know, four day workweek and job guarantee and all this kind of stuff.
[00:15:43] Richard Heinberg: What's not to like?
[00:15:45] Rachel Donald: Well, degrowth, that one word, that's what's not to like, that's what makes people panic in this sort of paradigm. Um, and even thinking about the climate crisis and energy and all these things, they're really, unless something has a tangible impact on your life, um, it's very, very hard to sort of navigate the abstractions that is the climate crisis is coming and we're all going to be screwed in 10 to 20 years, you know?
So I've started to think about these Trojan horse policies. Like how can you, um, create policies that, uh, really, really speak to the most precarious of society, i.e. A job guarantee, i.e. Universal basic services- I'm stealing all of this from degrowth- but you don't mention growth, you don't mention degrowth, you don't even mention the climate crisis. These are just sort of positive repercussions of, um, implementing policies that put people first and therefore planet.
[00:16:43] Richard Heinberg: Right.
[00:16:43] Rachel Donald: Um, because it's as you said, like that we're sort of stuck in this, um, uh, paradox, this paradoxical paradigm. And so surely the only way to get out is by using the same kind of language. But by slipping in progressive action. I don't know.
[00:17:02] Richard Heinberg: Well, that's, it's, uh, it's a thought that has occurred to many others also, and there's, there's a whole school of environmentalism that says, please do not emphasize the hard choices we have to make. Please do not say degrowth. Just say, you know, circular economy. I mean, that's a good thing, right? Uh, uh, or reforestation as a way of dealing with climate change, everybody wants more forests. So rather than talking about, uh, you know, how we would need to burn less fossil fuels, which might have some implications for, you know, my uh, my planned vacation in Belize or something, uh, instead emphasize, you know, planting more trees, everybody wins. What's not to like?
Um, and you know, there, I think there's a lot to be said for, for that kind of policy jujitsu, you know, um, I have nothing against it, except for the fact that at some point, you know, the people will, will figure out that, in fact, if we, if we do these things, uh, then the reality is the economy will start to shrink and we will face tough choices. And the people with the most power and the most wealth will be forced then to start giving some of it up, big chunks of it up, actually. And that's, you know, push, push eventually eventually comes to shove.
[00:18:37] Rachel Donald: So degrowth actually depends on that redistribution clause.
[00:18:41] Richard Heinberg: Yeah, absolutely. It w it doesn't work without it, because if the economy shrinks and we don't redistribute wealth, then the people with the least just get shoved right off the table. Uh, they have nothing. And, uh, and of course that destabalises, I mean, aside from the obvious moral quandary, uh, uh, that also makes it harder for policymakers because they, uh, they, they start losing constituents and they, and people get very angry. And this is when revolutions happen, you know, when food gets too expensive or people can't afford it, when you have an affordability crisis for the things like food and energy and housing people get really pissed off.
[00:19:29] Rachel Donald: Well, aren't we kind of seeing that anyway? And this is a nice segue into social cohesion. Uh, people are pissed off. People have access to less, despite seemingly um, you know, the huge amount of, of growth and wealth that does exist in the world. So what direction do you think that we're headed in? Uh, cause I keep wondering, you know, I keep thinking about that fact, that little nugget which is that, um, there is seven consecutive missed meals between peacetime and a revolution. Um, and given what's going on in Russia and Ukraine and, you know, the fact that they're exporters of the cheapest wheat to the most vulnerable nations, um, I think it's very likely that this is going to trigger a wave of revolutions around the world, whether there'll be socialist or whether there'll be, um, you know, that grasping of the patriarchal authoritarian figure to, to come in and clean up the mess, um, I'm not sure.
What do you think? I mean, for us modern, developed Western nations. Yeah. It took me a while to get to the right word there. What do you think? What changes would we need to see culturally and socially between people in order to, to, to tackle the crisis without it involving a secondary crisis?
[00:20:57] Richard Heinberg: It's tough because we've, we've put it off so long that the choices are really difficult. You know, there, there's no way forward that's peaceful, that's equitable, that doesn't involve a climate catastrophe, that doesn't also require, you know, massive redistribution, you know, just basically canceling a whole lot of debt for people at the, toward the bottom of the economic pyramid and taking a bunch of wealth away from people at the top and using it to, you know, build the kind of infrastructure we'll need for a lower energy and more sustainable, uh, way of life.
That's ultimately that's, that's what would have to happen. How we get there, god knows, you know, I mean the, the, the... When you put it that way, you know, there are a lot of people who would say, yeah, that's, that's right, that's what we need to do. But when you, when you ask, you know, who is, who in public life is, is calling for that? You know what politicians are calling for it? Nobody because they're just too, - it's a minefield out there
[00:22:11] Rachel Donald: Hmm. I think it's also, um, inherently divisive as a, as a concept, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just stating the truth of the matter, because what I found so interesting to see a few years ago was, um, a chart detailing global wealth. And to realize that me, my friends, you know, all of us, that are earning more than what we would consider very, very meager sums of money, we're in the 1% globally.
[00:22:44] Richard Heinberg: That's right.
[00:22:45] Rachel Donald: So, you know, it's not just them.
[00:22:48] Richard Heinberg: It becomes personal, doesn't it?
[00:22:51] Rachel Donald: Yeah. It's not just about going for the billionaires um, after they come back from their space ejaculation trip. Um, you know, it's also about you know, if you apply those policies to other people, you have to start applying them to, to self because- and I wonder if that's the, the reason behind why socialist revolutions in the past have often failed. If you look at France- you know, the old one, not the May 68 one, the off with their heads one- um, how power and wealth became concentrated again at the top because people always think that there's somebody above them, right?
[00:23:33] Richard Heinberg: Um, and, and, uh, you know, when people are living in big groups, nations, whatever, I mean, it really requires some kind of complex organization to make those things work. So you inevitably end up with some kind of social hierarchy. And I don't think social hierarchy in and of itself is a terribly evil thing, but it tends to get out of hand.
You know, the people at the top tend to make rules in such a way as to benefit themselves over the long term. And so the wealth, the wealth pump is created and the wealth, wealth starts flowing upward again. You know, you can level the whole thing out as happened in the 1780s in France, but then it just, you know, before long you have Napoleon. It happens again and again through history.
Now, there, there are better systems than others, obviously. Uh, I mean the U.S has extreme wealth inequality. Someplace like Denmark has much less. Uh, and that's, there are historical reasons for that, but there are also policy reasons and we can do much better in terms of, of maintaining kind of a level playing field.
After all, you know, people in the U.S and Western Europe are accustomed to a certain level of consumption that's way beyond the average per capita consumption of people in the global south. So what do we do about that? I mean, do you do make direct wealth payments from the wealthy countries to the... I think that's extremely unlikely to happen because if, you know, while that would be happening, the, the the country, the wealthy countries of the north would be downsizing. So imagine yourself living in, you know, Great Britain or the, or the United States and you're feeling the pressure of degrowth, you know, things, some, some of the perks are starting to fall away. And then the government says, oh, well, we have to take even more and ship it down to, you know, Africa or South America or India or someplace so that they can improve their per capita consumption. That wouldn't go over very well. So it makes it, it makes it very, very difficult.
[00:26:09] Rachel Donald: Is there a school of thought that you're particularly excited by when thinking about these big picture problems?
[00:26:20] Richard Heinberg: Well, there's a policy that I think would be really helpful and I've, I've actually written about that lately and it's, uh, it's cap and ration. And the word ration is not very popular these days. People don't like the idea because of course it brings to mind the idea of scarcity. But that's the reality. We are entering a period of scarcity and rationing is the most rational way of dealing with, with scarcity. And it has a long historical, you know, a precedent for doing that successfully. Rationing hasn't been successful every time it's been tried, but, you know, uh, in Britain, after world war II, people were better nourished under food rationing than they had been before the war, and better than they were after food rationing ended in the 1950s.
Yeah. And that's pretty typical. As its, food rationing is, is, is, is used not only as a way of dealing with scarcity, but also as, as an antipoverty measure in many places, like the U.S has food stamps uh, and that's, that's basically a food rationing program. Nobody calls it that, but, you know, that's, that's what it is, and it keeps, you know, several million people, uh, from starving to death. It's, it's a very successful program. Nobody would want to cancel it.
Well, we're going to have to do something like that with energy, because energy is the, is the master resource. On a day-to-day basis, of course, it's not as important as, as food and water, but energy is what enables us to produce and deliver our food and water. Uh, so if we don't have energy then basically all modern society falls apart very quickly. And we are, because of climate change, and having to deal with that, and because fossil fuels are finite and depleting, we are approaching a period of energy scarcity. And we're starting to see that already with, with oil as a result of the Ukraine invasion, the international energy agency is saying that Russian, about 3 million barrels a day of Russian oil are probably going to not be available to the market, and there are no likely sources for replacing that much. So the international energy agency has just published a 10 point, uh, set of, of, uh, things that policy makers to take up from, you know, uh, banning, uh, driving on Sundays to, you know, incentivizing people not to fly in airplanes and all these sorts of things that are kind of emergency efforts.
But over the long run a much better policy would be energy rationing, and that can take, uh, several different forms. A British economist named David Fleming came up with a really good set of, uh, policy recommended recommendations he, he called tradable energy quotas. And there's been quite a lot of study of that. He, he came up with the idea of back in the 1990s, but, uh, it's, it's still being studied and discussed and I it's, it's one of the best I've seen so far.
[00:29:41] Rachel Donald: Could you explicate that a little bit?
[00:29:43] Richard Heinberg: Sure. Yeah, everybody, um, every household would get uh, a, a free set of energy rations for each week. Right. And then there would be a national committee to decide, you know, the total cap on, on it, on energy fossil fuels, what's what's available, right? And, and with climate change in mind so the amount of fossil fuels available to be rationed would constantly be declining. But you'd get your free ration each week. You'd still have to pay for the fuel, but you could trade your ration if you, if you, uh, decided, well, I don't really need to drive in a big SUV, I can walk or I can ride a bicycle or I can do this or that, you'd have extra rations and you could, you could sell those. And so you'd actually get a benefit from using less energy.
Now, of course there are, there are poor people who really don't have those options. They're kind of stuck in, uh, ways of using energy that are not as conservative as, as it could be. And those that, there are ways that you could use the system to help subsidize those people while you find them other ways of meeting their basic needs that are more, you know, energy, uh, uh, energy conservative. So there's a plan. And, uh, it's, it's been, it's been studied, uh, in, in Britain and Ireland. There's an Irish organization, FEASTA, that, uh, is also looking at energy rationing, capping energy and rationing it. And, uh, a number of climate scientists are thinking along these lines now. Um, so it's, you know, it, you don't see it being written. I wrote, I wrote an essay about that just a couple of weeks ago, right. And, uh, and I had basically been invited by, uh, I won't name the name, but a big, uh, environmental website uh, to write this piece for them. And I wrote it and they said, oh, well, that's not a good fit.
And, and the reason of course is that they just don't want to talk about rationing. They all, you know, you look at their website and it's all sort of good news stuff about energy from volcanoes or, you know. But they, you know, the, the tough choices nobody wants to talk about.
[00:32:29] Rachel Donald: How interesting. Energy rationing. The thing that always frightens me about policies like these though, whilst individually fantastic, amazing, and you even have the benefit of, um- another little fun fact, about world war II is they did a long longitudinal study of, um, Britain's happiness and found that over a period of 50 years Britons were happiest during world war II because they had a common enemy and a common goal, and they all had purpose and they all had to ration and come together, uh, to defeat the enemy- so there's even, I think, I think there would be a very positive sense of, um, national capability and resourcefulness, if everyone were to agree to, to ration their energy and sort of do it collectively.
[00:33:17] Richard Heinberg: That's the one thing we need more than anything else, the sense that we're all in this together. It's going to be a difficult time, we'll have to sacrifice, but we'll be doing it together and it will be fair. If we have that, we can do it.
[00:33:33] Rachel Donald: Well, I think if we can get there, fantastic. And I think the positive benefits on mental health would be actually amazing. However, what I worry about is if we don't sort of fix the financial system and the little loopholes and the, the inequality alongside that, then essentially you'll see very precarious, you know, you'll see an illegal market for energy rations, um, and you'll see.. What else would you see? You know, yes, you would see wealthy people buying the energy rations of, um, those who actually need them to power their home, but being forced to do something else, I dunno, eat in summer or whatever. Um, undoubtedly you would see an illegal energy market spring up as well for energy itself.
So, the thing that slightly worries me when we speak about, um, climate change policies and all of the things that need to be implemented, it's like, well, we need to fix the corruption that's present in the current system too. Otherwise we will just delay the inevitable, which is, you know, the impeding collapse of a dysfunctional oligarchic system.
[00:34:48] Richard Heinberg: Right. And, and that's, that's why, uh, rationing systems, that's one of the reasons rationing systems sometimes fail is because people don't trust. They see too much cheating going on around them and they don't, they don't trust the system. They think it's being gamed and, and therefore they, they refuse to participate in various ways and they find ways to cheat themselves. So, yeah, you're exactly right.
And, you know, when we started this conversation, I think you wanted to talk more about social cohesion and that's basically what we are talking about. If we're going to solve climate change, uh, without global catastrophe, it's going to require social cohesion. We're going to have to work together and be willing to sacrifice together. And we're going to have to have levels of social trust that are much greater than they currently are. Right now our social trust is actually evaporating, especially in countries like the U.S where, you know, there's so much political division that it's hard to get anything done, much less take on a huge, huge challenge, uh, like climate change.
Sorry, I keep talking about problems.
[00:36:07] Rachel Donald: No, no, that's what this podcast is all about. And just thinking of the, how do we keep pushing down that problem? Barring a crisis event, how do we heal, um, or improve social cohesion in nations like the United States?
[00:36:29] Richard Heinberg: That is such a, an important question and such a difficult question. Um, well, first you look at what causes the decline in social cohesion, and one of the things is increasing economic inequality. Um. As inequality worsens, uh, people stop trusting the system. They get cynical and they think, well, the people at the top are just serving themselves, which is mostly true, and that the system is working against me. And, uh, and then they, you know, if somebody comes along and says, well, it's, it's that group that's causing this to happen, and you know, if you, if you listen to me, follow me, I'll get rid of those people or, or, you know, reduce their social power and increase yours and everything will be fine again.
And it's not, uh, often sadly that's, that's framed in ethnic terms. Or in terms of other sort of arbitrary designations of social groups that actually have nothing to do with the real problem. You know, it's hard to go after the, the super wealthy and actually get them to pay their fair share. It's much easier to go after, uh, an ethnic group or other social group that's relatively powerless anyway and say, well, it's all their fault. And, you know, Uh, pile on them and then that will somehow make things better. Uh, but that's, that's the root of the, the populace demagogue. And unfortunately we're seeing more and more of those around the world because it's the, the ingredients are there to make, make it easy for them. So somehow we have to defeat that process of social demagoguery.
Another thing we need is, is just a set of, of shared facts, information, uh. And there again, there's some trends are working against us. Artificial intelligence is, um, becoming so sophisticated that it's very difficult to tell truth from simulation, uh, and, and more so all the time, uh. I saw just, uh, two or three weeks ago, I was in Berkeley, California at a social gathering, and there was an AI researcher there and he had just an ordinary laptop and he was able to demonstrate right on the spot, you know, taking about a minute to.. You know, he, he said, well, what, what would you like a, uh, a piece of artwork on? You know, and you could say, well, uh, how about a piece of artwork that's showing, um, you know, a volcano with a, uh, a Greek hero and, you know, just arbitrary stuff and, he tapped keys for a minute or two and out came this actually, you know, uh, uh, an artwork piece of artwork that would have taken a, a highly trained commercial artists, you know, probably three or four days at least to produce. And this, this was 30 seconds. So on one hand, you know, imagine how many people, this kind of technology could put out of work producing, not only artwork, but also text, articles, essays, um, news items, but also fake photographs, fake videos.
[00:40:07] Rachel Donald: Deep fake.
[00:40:08] Richard Heinberg: Deep fake. Exactly. And it's cheap and it's fast and it's really hard to detect. So that's, that's, that's one, just one factor that's, that's preventing us from moving in a direction of having, you know, a sense of shared understanding of where we are, where we're going and what we have to do.
[00:40:31] Rachel Donald: Maybe we can make AI via the great enemy, the global enemy to come together against.
[00:40:38] Richard Heinberg: Right.
[00:40:38] Rachel Donald: You think climate change is intangible? Well, how about this thing that nobody really understands?
[00:40:45] Richard Heinberg: I know. How do you regulate it? It's, it's, it's hard because you know, it uses a technology that we all love and we all want more of. You know, we all use computers all the time.
[00:40:58] Rachel Donald: Yeah. I think, um, I have the vague hope that in terms of AI and like art and research and these kinds of things, that maybe that social demagoguery will kind of work in our favor because we only can, we can only really appreciate a thing, I think, there's an element of only being able to appreciate a thing if there's that feeling that it came from somebody who is a fellow human being and therefore, in a way, just like you, and therefore you could achieve that too, if X, Y, and Z hadn't happened, you know. So there's a sort of simultaneous narcissism and, and victimization um, that I think creates that sort of mystical quality around worshiping, you know, our artistic idols. Um, and so I think people won't care as much when things come from AI, you know, how, how can you have a relationship? Like a computer made it, cool. Once you get over the thing of like, oh, computers can make art now, wow. You know, and?
[00:42:00] Richard Heinberg: Yeah. I, yeah, I agree. I, I would much rather listen to handmade music, than computer generated music.
[00:42:12] Rachel Donald: Handmade. That's that's the term we're going to go back to. Um. Oh, how interesting. We're sort of going off in all, lots of directions here. It's great fun.
I'm trying to think of like a kind of final topic to, to wrap up. Okay. I have a difficult question for you actually. Um.
So you've been with the Post Carbon Institute for awhile. There's been a lot of organizations like this that have been trying to preach the climate message for a long time. And, you know, the first big book, at least as far as I can think, um, would be Limits To Growth as well by Donella Meadows, um, and her coauthors. What have you guys been doing wrong for us to still be in this stage?
[00:42:58] Richard Heinberg: Oh, well, I'm sure there's a long list. Uh. You know, we're, we're like Sisyphus pushing the rock up hill, uh, cause we we've chosen a particularly difficult, uh, angle in this whole thing. I mean, you could say of the whole environmental movement, you know, w why are, you know, after uh, 50 years since the Limits To Growth, why haven't we, why haven't, hasn't the world awakened and, and dealt with all of these environmental issues? Well, of course the reason is that people don't want to, in the final analysis, because it's hard, it would require sacrifice. It would require giving something up.
We've been experiencing and it's still going on, uh, although we're, we're getting toward the tail end of it, we just been experiencing a period in human history, unlike anything ever before. Because of cheap, abundant fossil fuels we've been able to do things that were literally miraculous in comparison with what people took for granted as normal human life in previous millennia.
You know, it's pointless to try to enumerate all these things, but just having, having cheap food and the sense of security that, uh, you know, comes with modern, urban existence and so on. It's it's, uh, it's easy to take all this for granted and then to feel that it's, it might be threatened to because of climate change or because we might have to change our way of life somehow, it's uh, it's, it's really an uphill battle. So we at Post Carbon Institute have even made that worse by insisting on pointing out the tough choices, rather than trying to finesse them. And, you know, I respect the environmental organizations that try to finesse them by saying, oh, well, all the solutions are there. We don't have to really sacrifice anything. All we have to do is just build a bunch of solar panels, really fast. That'll create, you know, millions of jobs and everybody will be happy and so on. But, you know, we're the ones, we're the ones over in the corner saying: yeah, but, but, but you know, where do, where do all the minerals come from for all those solar panels?
What do you do when they, when they're worn out and you have to throw them away? But you know, you know, if there really are trade-offs, we really do have to make some hard choices. So I'm just amazed that Post Carbon Institute is still around, frankly, after we started in 2003, so, what's that, 15 years. Uh, somehow, uh, you know, there there's been an audience for this message that's just large enough to keep us going. And, you know, I think, uh, I'm proud of the work we do, uh, and hopefully that audience will grow. But it's a tough message.
[00:46:09] Rachel Donald: I really like, um, Post Carbon Institute for the, the toughness of the message and for the reality of the message, um. Because of the, the wealth of information that is on the Post Carbon Institute website, now, when I go on any other kind of climate organization and see, um, promises based on things like renewables, I'm like, Nope, don't trust you, nope, bye.
But I do wonder if generally the environmental movement needs to provide people with not more hope, but genuinely positive, realistic vision for the future. That yes, hard choices will have to be made, that, yes, you know, EasyJet and Ryanair and hopping around to different countries um, all the time might not be possible. But you could be, have, uh, more time with your family. You could have pursue creative things. You could, um, come to find a sense of purpose or, or I don't know, sort of escape the precarity of modern life, nonetheless.
[00:47:11] Richard Heinberg: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, our website, our public website is resilience.org. And I would say half the stories on resilience or are exactly along the lines of what you've just been saying. You know, how using less, but developing more of a sense of community actually makes you happier, you know, and developing that sense of social cohesion, which is what we'll need to get through this, that's that's really, you know, it's its own reward. Sometimes social cohesion comes about as a result of war time or natural disaster, whatever. So we may be, we may have some of that in store for us one way or the other, but if we, if we have the attitudes of willingness to engage with others and, and put ourselves out there and be willing to start the conversation, then it's even better.
[00:48:07] Rachel Donald: Yeah. I have, um, one final question that sort of popped up and you may not have any data on this to, to answer it, but um, gen Z have done a fantastic job of highlighting the climate crisis. And there's such a things as, you know, climate change influencers or, um, climate change activists and all this kind of thing. Um, Because of the nature of their, um, MO, i.e. disseminating information through tick tocks and through short blasts of, of, um, content. Do you ever worry that the younger generation has not quite grasped the severity or the complexity of the situation that we find ourselves in? Um, and therefore is perhaps doing damage to the movement?
Um. Because just to caveat this to, to listeners, um, a big thing that climate activists call for is the immediate stop of fossil fuels, which would send the entire world into chaos overnight. And would see millions starve and millions more freeze to death, et cetera, et cetera. So it's just not possible, but that's one of the main things they call for.
[00:49:16] Richard Heinberg: Right, yeah. I mean, it is a complex situation that has history and has a complexity in terms of social dynamics and economics, all of these things. So, you know, people, if they, if they get involved in climate change, uh, communication really need to do some homework and, and, and study all that stuff. But study it from a, from a systems perspective. I mean, it's, you can, you can take a course in economics and just get dumbed down as a result, you know, because economics as a discipline has, is, has a lot of false premises built into it.
You know, I've, I've spent basically my whole adult life trying to get to the truth of, of all of these things that we've been talking about, uh, how, how, how the economy and climate change and energy and physics and all of these things relate to each other. And it's, it's been a full time job and I'm still learning a lot. So I don't expect that everybody's going to get that right away, but it is, uh, it is a process and I think environmental organizations owe it to their constituency to try to improve their literacy on all of these subjects, rather than just, you know, as you say, you know, finding a, uh, a simple message that, you know, may instantly appeal to some part of the reptilian brain, but doesn't really address the complexity of the real situation.
[00:50:53] Rachel Donald: Hmm. That's interesting. And yet I wonder how else, um, to get people on board, uh, without appealing to the reptilian brain, because essentially, you know, in a society of consumerism, that is essentially the feedback loop, um, that we're in.
Education, education, education.
[00:51:12] Richard Heinberg: I know. Fortunately we human beings are, are curious critters. So it is possible to, to, to get people to, to want to learn this stuff.
[00:51:23] Rachel Donald: I agree. I have a huge amount of faith in people, increasingly so as I learn about this kind of stuff. Really, increasingly so. Um. And I think it's our, I always like to think that, um, our evolution is, you know, sort of self-aware conscious beings came- we lost instincts, but gained the ability to ask questions. Um. And I think that capacity for asking questions is key. And I think getting people out of precarious economic systems, Uh, and situations so that they have the time to reflect and ask questions and be creative is also key. Um. People will, people find a way.
[00:52:01] Richard Heinberg: Yeah, yeah.
[00:52:02] Rachel Donald: Given the opportunity.
[00:52:03] Richard Heinberg: And most of us still have that luxury now. I mean, once you're actually in a survival situation, there's not that much time to try to reflect on, you know, why is this happening and what are the structural issues and what are the best policies and so on. You're just fighting for your life. Yeah. So while, while we have that, that space and time, uh, it's, it's good to use it.
[00:52:30] Rachel Donald: Absolutely. Richard, who would you like to platform?
[00:52:34] Richard Heinberg: Somebody I've been recommending lately is, uh, my friend Stan Cox, who wrote a book on rationing and also has written a book on the, uh, the green new deal and beyond. So he's a, he is, he's a fascinating individual. He works at a place called the land Institute in Kansas and they've, uh, they've been working for decades on creating perennial grain crops. Because if we had perennial grain crops, then we wouldn't be plowing every year. And yeah, I mean, it would have absolutely transformative, uh, implications for climate change and other lots of other environmental issues. So, I mean, he's, he's into lots of great stuff and he's, he's a brilliant guy, so he he'd be terrific.
[00:53:28] Rachel Donald: Oh, I would love to speak with him. Could you put us in touch?
[00:53:32] Richard Heinberg: Absolutely.
[00:53:33] Rachel Donald: Fantastic. Richard, thank you so much for your time. This was thrilling.
[00:53:38] Richard Heinberg: Oh, well, thank you, Rachel. I really enjoyed our conversation.
[00:53:42] Rachel Donald: Good, I'm glad to hear it.