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Published on April 20th, 2017 | by The Beam


Richard Heinberg: “Since government and the economics profession are largely abdicating leadership, civil society must step forward to lead.”

April 20th, 2017 by  

The Beam interview series, edition 33: Richard Heinberg

CleanTechnica keeps on publishing some of The Beam interviews and opinion pieces twice a week. The Beam magazine takes a modern perspective at the energy transition, interviewing inspirational people from around the world that shape our sustainable energy future.

This week Anne-Sophie Garrigou, journalist at The Beam, interviewed Richard Heinberg, a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute. Richard Heinberg is an American journalist and educator specialised in energy, economic, and ecological issues. Here, Richard talks to The Beam about fracking, community resilience and the role of civil society in the energy transition.

Hello Richard Heinberg and thank you so much for taking the time to answer to The Beam! It’s an honour for us. You are considered today as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. Where does your commitment for renewable energy and sustainability come from?

I realized when I was a child that industrialization and urbanization were crowding out wild nature, and I thought that was a terrible tragedy. So I have always been skeptical of industrial growth, and concerned for the fate of other species. But it was not until the 1990s that I began to realize the pivotal role of fossil fuels in climate change, and also in the rapid economic growth that has occurred especially since 1945. It was also then that I first came to understand the problem of fossil fuel depletion. We have built our economy on non-renewable energy resources that are finite in quantity and depleting rapidly; these fuels also undermine climate stability, pollute air and water, and therefore help drive countless animals and plants toward extinction. If we want future generations to exist, and to inhabit a planet that has clean air, clean water, and a diversity of wild species, then we must profoundly change what we are doing.

One candidate to the French presidential election, Benoît Hamon (Socialist Party), is raising doubts about our constant need of economic growth. Hamon’s idea is not to prevent stagnation to happen, but rather for the country to adapt now instead of trying to resolve the problem once it’s here. What are your thoughts about this? How do we adapt to a world without economic growth? How is this beneficial for the climate?

If the economy continues to grow, if energy usage continues to grow, and if human population continues to increase, this makes all environmental problems much harder to solve. For example, if our energy usage were only half or one-quarter its current level, then we would not be impacting the climate system as recklessly. Also, the transition to renewable energy would be much easier, because the required investment for solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, new grid infrastructure, and new energy-using machinery (electric cars and so on) would be more manageable and it would be easier to build the required infrastructure. Continuous growth of any parameter within any finite system eventually leads to a systemic crisis. We must learn to live without growth — and at a lower level of consumption than is currently the case in the wealthy industrialized countries. Also, we must stabilize world population and gradually reduce it until population and consumption are at levels that can be sustained over the long term. We don’t know exactly what those levels might be, but humanity is clearly beyond sustainability limits now, so it is vital to change course.

For what I understand, the idea behind the term “resilience” is for a community to have the ability to respond to and to recover from disasters such as water crisis, flooding, extreme heat, etc. Is it something encouraged by governmental actions or implemented by the people?

Many governments are starting to think in terms of resilience in the face of climate change. However, this can sometimes lead just to programs designed to protect existing living patterns (building sea walls around cities, for example), rather than efforts to rethink living patterns so as to reduce future climate impacts. Building community resilience often requires us to transform aspects of our town, city, or region that are unsustainable — including economic and even political processes. Community resilience building is best undertaken by members of the community working together with political leaders; if government leads the effort without widespread citizen involvement, the assessment and implementation processes are less likely to succeed and the ultimate results may be disappointing.

Read the entire interview here.

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About the Author

The Beam Magazine is a quarterly print publication that takes a modern perspective on the energy transition. From Berlin we report about the people, companies and organizations that shape our sustainable energy future around the world. The team is headed by journalist Anne-Sophie Garrigou and designer Dimitris Gkikas. The Beam works with a network of experts and contributors to cover topics from technology to art, from policy to sustainability, from VCs to cleantech start ups. Our language is energy transition and that's spoken everywhere. The Beam is already being distributed in most countries in Europe, but also in Niger, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Japan, Chile and the United States. And this is just the beginning. So stay tuned for future development and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Medium.

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