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Heinberg: Physical Reality vs. Political Reality

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Richard Heinberg has a way with words. Today I’d like to honor him on the Wall of Fame for his recent essay, Two Realities, published by the Post Carbon Institute. If you’re not familiar with Richard, his bona fides include a long history of research and authorship. He is a respected authority on energy and economics. His regularly published Museletter never disappoints. You can explore his books and Museletter here. After a slew of disappointing coverage of growth issues keeping us on the Wall of Shame, it's a pleasure to share and celebrate Heinberg's work.

This piece accurately sums up the biggest challenges facing modern civilization, no small feat. We are challenged, in our attempt to survive and not crash, by the reluctance of “Political Reality” (“what is acceptable in public economic-social-political discourse”) to accept “Physical Reality” (“what exists in terms of energy and materials, and what is possible given the laws of thermodynamics”). 

“The voice of political reality tells us that economic growth is necessary. We need it for job creation; we need it to enable poor people to become wealthier, to maintain technological progress, to provide returns on investments, and to increase tax revenues so as to make essential government services available. Growth is even required to address environmental problems: after all, we need ever more money to fund disaster relief and renewable energy transition efforts. Only by growing the economy now can we become wealthy enough to afford to fix the problems created by past growth. Meanwhile population growth must continue because it is an essential component of GDP growth.”

It’s impressive to see our addiction to growth articulated so neatly in one concise paragraph. Thank you, Richard. Of course he gives equal space to physical reality:

"...we will arrive at a point where the costs of further growth outweigh any real benefits. Those costs are likely to make themselves known in the forms of rising commodities prices, pollution dilemmas, biodiversity loss, crashing economies, declining real standards of living, and rising levels of conflict as nations and social factions fight over scraps.

Plenty of intelligent people whose first allegiance is to physical reality believe we are near or at that point now."

It’s also somehow comforting to see two sentences precisely sum up why efforts like Growth Bias Busted and my documentary, GrowthBusters, gather steam as slowly as they do:

“Within the realm of political reality, anybody who questions the importance of growth is not to be taken seriously. Such a person is obviously not a humanitarian, nor a responsible participant in mainstream political and economic discussions.”

While it’s not particularly good news, it is nice to be understood.

“When any public person (writer, economist, scientist, whatever) demonstrates a disconnection from political reality by questioning the desirability or possibility of continued growth, the minders of the mainstream media turn their attention elsewhere.”

This explains, in a nutshell, why so many journalists continue to provide us with fodder for the Wall of Shame, and so few generate content worthy of the Wall of Fame. Venture from the politically accepted and expedient into the inconvenient truths of physical reality, and you’ve just made yourself irrelevant. That doesn't change the fact, however, that the collapse of our system, let alone our civilization, will be the ultimate inconvenience.

Heinberg devotes considerable space to what is needed to bring these two divergent realities closer together. I was struck by one of the strategies:

“Dedicate major funding to a public education program in critical thinking. An Inconvenient Truth and Cosmos were helpful first volleys, but what is needed is something on a far larger scale; maintained over several years; encompassing classroom materials as well as television, YouTube, and social media; and addressing the population-consumption growth dilemma as well as numeracy, ecological literacy, and climate change.”

Hey, that's me! This describes what we’ve been trying to do with the GrowthBusters film and YouTube Channel, this Growth Bias Busted website, and the new Conversation Earth interview series and global town hall we’re developing. It's important work addressing the most critical question of our time: How do we become a sustainable civilization? One exception: “dedicate major funding.” That’s not happening…yet. 

I try to avoid self-promotion in our posts analyzing how the media treats growth issues, but I will make an exception here and mention that you can do something about the lack of major funding; you can support these projects with a contribution. If you have the wherewithal, please consider a major gift. It won’t be wasted.

There’s much more in Richard Heinberg’s essay to recommend. Read it. Devour it. Digest it. Pass it around. It’s not healthy to have a steady diet of lollipops and rainbows;  it’s very important to have a serving of the truth now and then, however inconvenient.

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  • Mike Hanauer
    Mike Hanauer Friday, 01 August 2014

    John Sterman and Richard Heinberg, leaders in the Climate Change movement, have come out of the closet on the impact of eternal growth -- and the implications and importance of honest sustainability. This feels like progress, but it would be so helpful and important for mainstream Climate Change leaders and organizations to also come out. Al Gore, Bill McKibben, James Hansen, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, where are you?
    This is way BIGGER than only climate change, which is just a symptom of our escape from honest sustainability and toward the stupidity of eternal growth.
    If all we do is try to mitigate symptoms like climate change, we still NEVER attain honest sustainability. That means the oceans still die, the fish are gone, the planet’s diversity of life disappears with all its habitat, the traffic, sprawl, heaps of trash, and economic inequality only gets worse, and we still need franken foods to feed the growing population. In fact, just mitigating climate change will only allow us to further escape sustainability and worsen all the symptoms. Eternal growth overwhelms all else, including carbon emissions. Population and Economic growth is the overarching issue. We must get to a steady state economy.

    Our culture of looking to (eternal) growth is the SOURCE of most of our problems, NOT the solution. The USA doubles its GDP every 40 years and doubles its population every 60 years. Growth overwhelms all else we try to do to help the environment and our society. Climate Change is one of the many symptoms.

    You say we don’t have time to act on growth? We have said that for 50 years, but always find some other symptom to fight. It is time! Individuals and, especially, organizations must rise to this reality if they value their mission or the honest future.
    Population is the great multiplier!

    “Anyone who believes in unlimited growth is either a madman or an economist”. -Kenneth Boulding

    Sign onto CASSE at http://steadystate.org/, or better have your organization sign on; see also http://www.growthbusters.org/.

  • Brian Sanderson
    Brian Sanderson Saturday, 02 August 2014

    Glad to see Richard Heinberg articulate the folly of continued population growth.

    Personally, I refuse to submit to the notion that those of us who take a position based on physical/ecological reallity are not humanitarian. Rather, I start from the premise that those who ignore physical/ecological reallity are contemptuous of their fellows and a disgrace to the intellectual capacty with which our species has been endowed.

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