4:   Beyond the Peak

Richard Heinberg

Excerpted Closing Address, by Richard Heinberg, to the First US Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions, Yellow Springs Ohio, (for the entire speech go to

So what do you do if you are living at the end of an empire? I suppose one rational response would be to eat, drink, and be merry. Why not? It sure beats worrying oneself to death over events one can't control, and thus squandering whatever moments of normalcy and chances for happiness may remain before the end comes.

Somehow, I think that you here have other ideas about what to do. I suspect that if you had been passengers on the Titanic, you would not have been drinking yourselves into a stupor at the bar; you'd have been strapping deck chairs together, finding a way to increase the signal strength of the ship's radio, or inventing waterproof buoyant suits that could be remanufactured from hemp ropes using equipment commandeered from the ship's machine shop.

I probably can't tell you anything you should be doing that you are not already doing about as well as you can under the circumstances. We all know the drill - grow more of your own food, conserve energy, become active in your local community, learn useful arts and skills, stock up on hand tools.

In essence: we must plant the seeds for what can and will survive, for a way of life as different from industrialism as the latter is from the medieval period, a way of life whose full flowering we ourselves may never see in our brief lifetimes.

However it can be helpful to know that there are others thinking the same thoughts, grappling with the same challenges, and finding different but complementary strategies; and it seems to me that this conference has helped immeasurably in this regard. We know each other now, and we know that we are in this together. We know also that we have passed a few recent signal events and are approaching another very important one. It's helpful to compare notes.

Somewhere this weekend I heard the inevitable comment that we are preaching to the choir. That's not the way I look at it. To bend that metaphor, I feel as though in this moment I am addressing a council of preachers.

We have only a dwindling amount of time to build lifeboats - that is, the needed alternative infrastructure. It has been clear for at least 30 years what characteristics this should have - organic, small-scale, local, convivial, cooperative, slower paced, human-oriented rather than machine-oriented, agrarian, diverse, democratic, culturally rich, and ecologically sustainable. We have known for a long time that the status quo -- a society that is machine-oriented, competitive, inequitable, fast-paced, globalized, monocultural, and corporate-dominated - is deadening to the human spirit and ecologically unsustainable.

Sustainable. Unsustainable. What do these words really mean?

Perhaps peak oil at last provides the word sustainability with teeth.

People now speak of "sustainable development," "sustainable growth," and "sustainable returns on investment." That, my friends, is sustainability lite. The word has been diluted and denatured almost beyond recognition.

But if you can't do it without fossil fuels, by definition, it ain't sustainable.

And that includes most of what we do in North America these days.

What we here are saying is that a transition to a lower level of social-technological complexity need not be violent, need not be chaotic, and need not entail the loss of the values and cultural achievements of which we are most proud as a society. And the end result could be far more humane, enjoyable, and satisfying than life currently is for citizens of this grandest of empires.

Even though this conference is spectacularly well attended from the standpoint of the expectations of the organizers, we are comparatively few.

And the message we are communicating is not being heard by the great majority of our fellow citizens. It is probably optimistic to think that it will be understood by more than one or two percent of the population.

However, if that seed nucleus of the total citizenry really gets it, we may have a chance. We all know what seeds are capable of.

I'm reminded of the Populist rural movement of the late 19th century, which altered America's political landscape and very nearly diverted the US away from its imperial, corporatist destiny back toward the agrarian ideal of Jefferson. The Populists spread their word, starting in rural Texas, to nearly every county in the South, East, West, and Midwest. Their method? They trained 40,000 public speakers. Then, at grange halls, county fairs, and Chautauquas, they painstakingly educated their fellow citizens about the banking cartels, the trusts, and the currency system, and about how local communities could take charge of their own economies once again.

The 1898 presidential election proved to be the undoing of the movement:

the Populists had decided to bet the farm on electoral politics and ran William Jennings Bryan, who was beaten by the arch-imperialist William McKinley, himself soon to die at the hand of an anarchist assassin.

But just as it is becoming altogether clear that we are living in an empire, we are seeing clear signs that the empire is itself nearing its fate.

My friends, it is a time to be hopeful. It is a good time to cherish one another and embrace the young and fortify them with our experiences and vision, and to trust in their ability to find their own appropriate response to the events ahead.

There will be sustainable human cultures on this planet a century from now.

In fact, that's the only kind of cultures there will be. And I think we can reasonably hope that at least some of those cultures will be able to trace their lineage to the seemingly marginalized hippies, activists, energy geeks, permaculturists, communitarians, organic farmers, eco-city planners, and plain citizens who started educating their neighbors about peak oil early in the century.

We have done some good work already, but we have a lot more to accomplish.

Perhaps we now have a better grasp of the context in which our work must continue, and of its crucial importance for the survival of our species.

May we apply ourselves with renewed confidence, commitment, and good humor.

We can create beauty and live in beauty. We can live in joy, knowing that our efforts will sprout roots, trunks, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit. We can dwell in community, as we share each other's lives and visions, talents and resources, concerns and needs, and learn to support one another and work together.

It is a scary time to be alive, but it is a wonderful time to be alive. It is good to know that there is so much accumulated intelligence and compassion among us. This has been a fabulous conference with extraordinary presenters and presentations, and even more amazing participants. We leave here with gifts of knowledge, encouragement, perspective, and passion.

Thank you.

Richard Heinberg is the author of The Party's Over and Powerdown (New Society, 2003, 2004).