“The End of Growth” by Richard Heinberg

ISBN 978 1 905570 33 1. “The End of Growth – Adapting to Our New Economic Reality” was written by Richard Heinberg and published by Clairview Books in 2011. This is a “living book” and updates can be found at www.endofgrowth.com (although this just takes you to http://richardheinberg.com/!). For your money you get 322 pages including Acknowledgements, an Introduction of ten parts followed by 7 chapters broken down into 48 topic-based sections, Notes and Index. The inside cover bristles with “advance praise” (how does that work?) from the likes of Herman E Daly, Lester Brown, Bill McKibben, Caroline Lucas and James Gustav Speth. This is Heinberg’s sixth major outing in print. His seminal work “The Party’s Over” has been a springboard for countless thousands of people who previously didn’t comprehend what Peak OIl meant for them.

Colin Campbell may have given us the plot but Heinberg’s gift is to write the story of our time; the narrative of resource depletion. He reached deep into our past and far into the future to gives us perspective and a set of colourful scenarios for our sustainable (or less-sustainable) development. He joined the dots for us like no one else has done. The picture he painted became even clearer in his follow-up work “Powerdown” which will have been instrumental in the formation of the Transition Movement. Indeed, the very term “Powerdown” is itself now used in its own right. We owe everything to Heinberg. He has opened our eyes and given our prospects shape and form.

His latter books have not sparkled as much (maybe he peaked early). “Blackout” was work-man-like but hardly poetry. So has “The End of Growth” picked up the pace again? Yes, certainly. Indeed, it is almost impossible to fault this work. It does veer quite close to the territory of the “Crash Course” by Chris Martenson but is perfectly complementary, not samey. “The End of Growth” really brings us full circle. Increasingly Heinberg has moved away from the peak oil scenarios and towards a more holistic over-view of where-we-are at the end of the age of oil. And it sparkles! THIS may well have been the book he was born to write. The acknowledgements showed that he had to consult widely in its formation, it may not have been always inside his comfort zone, but he has mastered the topic. So if you need to only read two books on our sustainable use of resources make them “The Party’s Over” and “The End of Growth”.

So, why will growth end? Heinberg lists them all: the origins of financial bubbles, unsustainable debt, physical limits of natural resources, the limitations of efficiency gains, the role of China and India, the problem with our currencies, inequality, and so on… All is explained in terms the reader will easily understand. There are numerous break-out points in the book when the author diverges into a related topic. There are also quite a few graphs to illustrate the point Heinberg is trying to make (not always successfully though).

Any gripes at all? Maybe one; the subtitle implies a book of “adaptations” but this doesn’t appear until page 231 chapter six where Heinberg moves on to alternative money schemes. It is all good, if a little late in the book. Before this point you do get a most excellent (and highly readable) over-view of our growth problem and WHY we have failed to tackle it. Sure we may have read it all before but THIS work brings it all together. It makes this a great summary of the state-of-the-art circa 2011. And, unlike some similar books, Heinberg writes a sub-section about the Transition Movement. It may be three pages but he sums it up well before moving onto a similar scheme hailing from the USA called “Common Security Clubs”. (His perspective fails him in that he doesn’t go back to the inter-war Distributionists from Britain. We’ll forgive him this minor oversight as his focus is rightly on the here-and-now.)

The last book we reviewed was the Totnes Energy Descent Action Plan “Transition In Action” – this disappointed us as it was wishy-washy and hard to apply to the real-world. Heinberg, on the other had, is under no delusions about how sustainability can be achieved and how we get there. Indeed he is blunt. From page 265:

“The depletion of non-renewable resources ensures that humankind will eventually base its economy on renewable resources harvested at rates of natural replenishment. But that revolution will be driven by crisis.”

Despite this ultra-realistic pessimism Heinberg always returns an air of optimism; for him it is important that we lay our cards on the table. From page 267:

“Our collective global conversation about the economy needs to change. We need to be thinking and talking about how to adapt to the end of growth.”

We need to face those “inconvenient facts” and even the irony that our actions could lead to the collapse we are preparing for (ie, getting our of debt, withdrawing from consumerism, etc). This moves us neatly onto Transition and (on page 272):

“There are limits and obstacles to the Transition strategy. In the worst instance, Transition can manifest as merely another talk shop for lefties and aging former hippies. However, Hopkins recognises that it must be something very different from this if it is to succeed, and that Transition must address practical matters having to do with infrastructure and practical economics.”

Even so Heinberg’s closing thought about Transition was that it was asking the right questions, had the right aspirations but is “not yet entirely up to the task“. Maybe too many “lefties” and “hippies”? We concur. If so, how do we put the “New Economy” on the map? Heinberg helpfully suggests a highly visible manifestation right in the middle of Town. Right there on the High Street; a Transition Shop he calls CELs: “Community Economic Laboratories”:

“The mission of a CEL would be to increase personal and community resilience by bringing together in one place elements of a new local, resilient economy.”

He goes onto list example elements including a food co-op, community garden, health clinic, credit union, tool library, recycling centre, local-currency HQ, education centre, local-transport enterprise incubator and so-on. Clearly this so is so much more than a simplistic ‘environment centre’ buried in the suburbs and dedicated to some basket-weaving courses and art classes on sketching wildlife. This is a hub for the new economics. It may not have that romantic association with mother-earth or the “sacred” but it will give people direction for the future of their livelihoods.We must all become eco-entrepreneurs.

Some towns have parts of this new vision but Heinberg’s big idea is to bring them together. It is certainly something we agree with. We have tired of the inability of our culture and local government to draw the dots between initiatives. Instead we put them all in the own little pigeon holes. We lack the vision-thing don’t we? And this is what Heinberg suggests we bring to our communities. He is, as usual, spot on. These maybe the lifeboats he wrote of in “Powerdown” but without those tiny spots of futurism in our communities our people will have no idea what the alternatives are to the growth-at-all-costs economy.

As you can tell, we loved this book. Let us hope that it becomes as influential through our communities as “The Party’s Over” and “Powerdown”. Let us hope it launches a thousand community projects based upon that physical manifestation of the work of social entrepreneurs. Let us free this process from the dead-end strategies of the lefties, hippies and environmentalists-stuck-in-1971-forever. This is the direction we had hoped to see in the Transition Movement. Heinberg has swooped in with a guiding hand. His timing is excellent.

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