5:  Book reviews

1. Power Down – Options and Actions for a  Post-Carbon World

Richard Heinberg Clairview Books, December 2004 £10.95

Coming less than two years after his  last book, The Party’s Over – Oil, War  and the Fate of Industrial Societies, which I  reviewed in SustEc 11/4, July 2003,  this book is an update, reviewing  further the options for a near-future  which will inevitably experience  collapse of the world ‘economy’, and  demand adjustment to this, either  through intelligent, informed, cooperative means or through destructive  competition for the diminishing  resources.

As in his last book, he realises that the  collapse will have many causes, but  regards the imminent peaking of oil  supplies, and the inability of alternatives to fully replace it, as the most  likely one to precipitate it. With the  ongoing pollution and exhaustion of  the environment, he estimates that if  humanity is to survive far into the  future, its population must be reduced  one way or another, to an eventual  global figure of about 2 bn.######He then posits four possible, likely  strategies for survival and coping with  the collapse:
 1/ Last One Standing: competition  for remaining resources – with the  powerful fighting ruthlessly for control  of these;
 2/ Powerdown: cooperation, conservation and sharing – to achieve a  controlled reduction of pressure on  the environment;
 3/ Waiting for a Magic Elixir:  wishful thinking, false hopes and  denial; and
 4/ Building Lifeboats: attempting  community solidarity and preservation  of knowledge, artefacts and tools.

While his clear preference is for the  second option, he is clear that there  are many obstacles, which he sets out,  making this a difficult, if not most  unlikely route. He commends aiming  for a combination of this and ‘building  lifeboats’.

Having explored these possibilities,  and acknowledging that they are not  mutually exclusive – in all probability  the future will contain elements of all  – he then looks at the likely responses  to these options of three groups: the  ‘power elites’, organised opposition to  these, and ordinary people. His hope  is that this book will contribute to  positive action in support of options 2  and 4 above.

Overall, he makes a convincing case  that collapse of the world ‘economy’ is  imminent, noting that increasing cost  and diminishing supplies of oil will  make impossible the continued  ‘economic growth’ needed to avoid  collapse of the debt-driven economy  (debt-driven, as he notes, because of  the nature of modern money-creation).  Development of renewable alternatives cannot even near-fully compensate, to avoid this, while exhaustion  and poisoning of other natural  resources add to the need to  ‘downsize’.

In general, he paints a well-informed  and convincing picture of possible  futures, and these are not rosy.  However, on some points I believe he  is over-pessimistic.

It is certainly true that modern  agriculture cannot continue without  major inputs of oil for power, fertilisers, pesticides etc., and to feed the  present world population will require a  rapid change to organic/permaculture  methods, for which he considers the  current farming population inadequate.  However, the example he quotes, of  the Cuban experience, coupled with  the (all-too slowly) growing acknowledgement of the benefits of organic  methods in government and conventional farming circles, with consequent  growing support for it, I think give  more grounds for optimism than he  finds. Various trials indicate that  organic farming methods can near-match, if not considerably exceed the  output of orthodox methods, while  improving the nutritional value and  soil condition; and a change to  near-vegetarian/vegan diet would  allow far more to be fed adequately,  than continuing with a high meat- content (this message is especially  important for Americans!).

He also does not contemplate the  possibility of changing the debt-money  system, or of issuing Citizens’ In- comes, which in combination, would  allow a rapid change of production to  concentrate on efficient production of  basic needs, with durable, easily  repairable goods and elimination of  waste. The need for these changes,  while still strongly resisted by the  vested interests benefiting from the  present system, is becoming more  widely recognised, and so more  hopeful of implementation. To  further the move to this, the  ‘Simultaneous Policy’ movement, to  bring citizen pressure on those  standing for election to pledge support  for such measures ‘when all/most  other countries do so’, potentially  could transform the situation.

The corporations’ influence on  governments and media ownership/ control are major problems, but even  despite this, Green Parties are a  growing force, and if they will ‘stick to  their guns’ in daring to recognise  population-growth as a problem, and  take on board the issue of monetary  reform, while continuing to gain  popular support, there is more hope  of following the ‘powerdown’ path to  the future than Richard thinks possible or probable.

The growing support of the Establishment for the proposal for Contraction  and Convergence put forward by the  Global Commons Institute for the  global reduction in emissions of CO2  in a way that gives financial benefit to  the Third World is another ray of  hope.

The increasing vulnerability of the US  to economic collapse due to its  massive debt, and the threat posed by  the Euro, especially as an alternative  for oil trading, could bring the issue of  monetary reform to the fore as a  means of saving the situation. It was  widely discusses after the crash of  1929, and influenced the changes that  followed, even if only partially.

Despite these caveats, with which not  everyone will agree, the book deserves  the widest possible readership, by  everyone with a concern for the  future.

His website,http://, is well worth a  look at, if not a subscription to his  Museletter. As a taster, try http://


 2. The Natural Step – Towards a Sustainable Society

David Cook Schumacher Briefing No.11 Green Books November 2004 £6 ISBN 1 903998 47 6 210

The Natural Step is an idea dating from 1989, when its originator, Karl-Henrik Robèrt, started promoting it in Sweden. Since then, The Natural Step International has developed teams in 10 countries including the US and UK, and activities in many others. There are three main programmes: research and development, advisory services, and outreach.

Its aim is to promote the application of systems theory to the promotion of deeper understanding and commitment to ‘sustainable development’, especially among decision-makers, throughout society.

It claims success with several large corporations in Europe and America, as well as with small and medium-sized enterprises, communities and the public sector; the book cites examples of its work starting with Carrillion (formerly Tarmac) in an early example of a PFI project, the building of a new hospital which opened in Swindon in 2002; with Starbucks, reducing its environmental impact by increasing its use of organic, fair-traded tea and coffee and of recycled paper in its packaging, among other changes for the better; and the Canadian resort town of Whistler, planning to co-host the Olympic Games in 2010.

Promoting the concept of ‘sustainable development’ to top management in business, government and civil society and the need to incorporate it from the start, as a fundamental need, into planning decisions is a necessary step toward the changes urgently needed. It is good to learn of the growth and influence of this organisation, and it is to be hoped that it can eventually reach a majority of decision-makers.

It is a variation on the idea of CSR – Corporate Social Responsibility. The spreading of these ideas among decision-makers is a necessary process, though inherently limited in potential to achieve the fundamental changes needed. Like CSR, it does not address the built-in causes of the unsustainable nature of the current world ‘economy’ covered in previous Schumacher Briefings, notably its usurious debt-money basis, nor the psychopathic nature of corporate ‘persons’, as highlighted in the recently released film, ‘The Corporation’. These impose severe limits on how far any personnel within corporations can work toward ‘sustainable development’. Nor does the book envisage the breakdown of the world economy, which ‘Powerdown’ and The Party’s Over – Oil, War  and the Fate of Industrial Societies' predict, and so the extreme urgency of preparing to cope with this.

– Brian Leslie

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