Review: Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines

5 Star, Consciousness & Social IQ, Culture, Research, Economics, Environment (Problems), Environment (Solutions), Water, Energy, Oil, Scarcity
Amazon Page
Amazon Page
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Primer, Narrowly Focused, Provokes Reflection
October 16, 2009
Richard Heinberg

I was tempted to limit this book to four stars because it fails to properly recognize, among many others, Buckminster Fuller, e.g. his Critical Path and it provides only passing reference to such foundation works as Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update and Human Scale, but place it at five stars for two reasons: 1) excessive negativity by other reviewers; and 2) a superb primer for the public ready to get past Al Gore’s hysteria, the venom surrounding The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, and connect in a very easy to read and understanding elementary counterpoint to The Resilient Earth: Science, Global Warming and the Fate of Humanity.

Another important reason for attending to this book and respecting its author, apart from him many prior works including the globally recognized The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, is the endorsement of two of the top ten (in our view) in this arena, Lester Brown (Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (Substantially Revised)), and Bill McKibben (Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future).


For the lay reader–the normal person not steeped in the environmental and catastrophic literature, this a first-rate overview book.

The author opens by pointing out that it is not just oil that has peaked, but also natural gas, coal, grain, uranium, fresh water, arable land, wild fish, and strategic minerals such as copper, platinum, silver, gold, and zinc.

In a light-hearted effort to offer some good news, the author points out that inequality goes down when excess goes down. As we wean ourselves from many petroleum, plastics, and chlorine-based additions, we will become more like the Amish, with a sufficiency of essentials for all.

The author provided a good discussion of the outrageous difference between Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that measures evil production as well as good production (e.g. hospital waste and prison-slave labor) and the Genuine Progress Indicator. I will post his chart at Phi Beta Iota, the Public Intelligence Blog (Amazon deleted over 350 of my images posted here, I no longer trust Amazon).

In the author’s view the central task of this and the next generation is the transition from fossil fuels to more balanced energy sources. This section is almost poetic. He talked about an awakening that is occurring, a multi-dimensional emotional, political, and cultural catharsis, in which the definition of “normal” is about to change BIG TIME.

“Awakening is an on-going visceral as well as intellectual reassessment of every facet of life–food, work, entertainment, travel, politics, economics, and more.”

The chapter on tools distinguishes among four classes in relation to their use of energy. The author discusses how the creation of tools, and powered tools especially, led to techno-politics and in now leading to a decline in innovation. I would point out, as Michael O’Hanlon does in Technological Change and the Future of Warfare, that the author is missing the ONE huge area where innovation is truly revolutionary, C4I (command and control, communications, computing, and intelligence). The author makes the connection between new forms of energy and technology and the destruction of old forms of society and family.

The chapter on 50 million farmers (we have 3-4 million now in the USA) is most fascinating, discussing the implications of the looming fuel shortage for mega-agriculture. He points out that US agriculture uses twice as much fuel as the US military. We have a shortage of farmers and a scarcity of fresh water, as global climate change creeps up on us. I am most impressed, Jeffersonian that I am, to read the author’s views on how we must move back toward farming preserves, the de-industrialization of agriculture, to engage in permaculture (see Yeoman’s Priority One: Together We Can Beat Global Warming, biointensive farming, re-ruralization, and LAND REFORM, which I take to mean the expropriation of mega farmlands from those we just bailed out at taxpayer expense, and a massive planned return to family and county farming.

The chapter on arts and crafts and on the five axioms of sustainability are of passing interest to me. The author does point out that there is no axiom for social equity–I would point him to Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.

Note: Below information, and links, not available in Amazon’s constrained review space.

The chapter on Parrots & Peoples was quite fascinating. examining both the natural state of cities and all that lived with them, and the relative captivity that we have placed ourselves in, but creating cities and tools and job specialization.

In the chapter on “Population, Resources, & Human Idealism” the author makes the point that we must not only rediscover our ethics (public philosophy) but that we must have a startegy for the stabilization and reconstruction of the whole earth if we are to achieve human dignity and achieve peace.  The latest book by Charles Perrow, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters is highly recommended in this context.

The chapter on the psychology of peak oil and the end of peak oil is intriguing.  The author is sensitive to mass psychosis and social cognitive dissonance, and makes multiple references to the importance of creating a collective mind that is able to achieve collective action.  While he is not familiar with the literature, this book is a good witness to the NEED for developing Collective Intelligence as a discipline, something the Earth Intelligence Network, sponsor of this website, tried to do with COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace.

The author makes an effort to pursue the addiction theme and propose that in coming off our addiction to oil we are going to need a massive psycho-social reframing.  He neglects completely the central role of corporations and the entire literature on Green to Gold, Cradle to Cradle, Natural Capitalism, and so on.  He recommends a speciific book, Environmental Disasters in Global Perspective, to which I would addAfter Collapse: The Regeneration of Complex Societies andCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed as well asCatastrophe & Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster.

As the book winds down I sense both its limitations–no idea on solutions such as water desalination, where the price point is now extraordinarily affordable; no dialog on information pathologies that perpetuate our condition; and a strick focus only on the interrelationship of energy and global warming without any understanding of how electoral reform, to take one small example, or foreign policy reform (stop supporting dictatators) are part of the holistic mosaic that must be considered.  He makes a stab at suggesting that activists must build bridges, something Paul Hawkins has been doing for decades, and best understood through his capstone work,Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming,

To end on a positive note and reiterate the five-star ranking, the two big insights for me that conclude the book are these: 1) technology is not a pancea because technology CONSUMES energy, it does not PRODUCE energy; and 2) in a time of extreme scarcity the extremist ideologies that replaced religions have nothing to offer–only deep real public philosophy and public choice will do.

The last chapters are somewhat fanciful replies from the future, worth a serioius read.  The author covers a great deal of ground, including how language has been used to obfuscate, confuse, and mis-direct.

I am impressed by the Resources for Action section and the author’s mention of over 150 Post-Carbon groups.  Some of these will be added to the Righteous Sites blogroll.

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