A chance to change the world

June 2, 2011 at 12:43 pm Leave a comment

Richard Heinberg

By Richard Heinberg

[Editor’s Note: Worcester (MA) Polytechnic Institute  invited Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, to give the 2011 commencement speech. Students wanted another perspective so they invited peak-oil expert Richard Heinberg, who was permitted to speak following the main ceremony. Here’s an excerpt from his remarks, reprinted from the full text in Yes Magazine.]

Whatever field you go into—business, finance, engineering, transportation, agriculture, education, or entertainment—your experience will be shaped by the energy transition that is now under way. The better you understand this, the more effectively you will be able to contribute to society and make your way in the world.

We are at one of history’s great turning points. During your lifetime you will see world changes more significant in scope than human beings have ever witnessed before. You will have the opportunity to participate in the redesign of the basic systems that support our society—our energy system, food system, transport system, and financial system.

I say this with some confidence, because our existing energy, food, transport, and financial systems can’t be maintained under the circumstances that are developing—circumstances of fossil fuel depletion and an unstable climate. As a result, what you choose to do in life could have far greater implications than you may currently realize.

Over the course of your lifetime society will need to solve some basic problems:

  • How to grow food sustainably without fossil fuel inputs and without eroding topsoil or drawing down increasingly scarce supplies of fresh water;
  • How to support 7 billion people without depleting natural resources—including forests and fish, as well as finite stocks of minerals and metals; and
  • How to reorganize our financial system so that it can continue to perform its essential functions—reinvesting savings into socially beneficial projects—in the context of an economy that is stable or maybe even shrinking due to declining energy supplies, rather than continually growing.

Each of these core problems will take time, intelligence, and courage to solve. This is a challenge suitable for heroes and heroines, one that’s big enough to keep even the greatest generation in history fully occupied. If every crisis is an opportunity, then this is the biggest opportunity humanity has ever seen.

Making the best of the circumstances that life sends our way is perhaps the most important attitude and skill that we can hope to develop. The circumstance that life is currently serving up is one of fundamentally changed economic conditions. As this decade and this century wear on, we Americans will have fewer material goods and we will be less mobile. In a few years we will look back on late 20th century America as time and place of advertising-stoked consumption that was completely out of proportion to what Nature can sustainably provide. I suspect we will think of those times—with a combination of longing and regret—as a lost golden age of abundance, but also a time of foolishness and greed that put the entire world at risk.

It’s a time when it will be possible to truly change the world, because the world has to change anyway.

Making the best of our new circumstances will mean finding happiness in designing higher-quality products that can be re-used, repaired, and recycled almost endlessly; and finding fulfillment in human relationships and cultural activities rather than mindless shopping.

Fortunately, we know from recent cross-cultural psychological studies that there is little correlation between levels of consumption and happiness. That tells us that life can in fact be better without fossil fuels.

So whether we view these as hard times or as times of great possibility is really a matter of perspective. I would emphasize the latter. This is a time of unprecedented opportunity for service to one’s community. It’s a time when it will be possible to truly change the world, because the world has to change anyway. It is a time when you can make a difference by helping to shape this needed and inevitable change.

As I travel, I meet young people in every part of this country who are taking up the challenge of building a post-petroleum future: a 25-year-old farmer in New Jersey who plows with horses and uses no chemicals; the operator of a biodiesel co-op in Northampton; a solar installer in Oakland, California. The energy transition will require new thinking in every field you can imagine, from fine arts to banking. Companies everywhere are hiring sustainability officers to help guide them through the challenges and opportunities. At the same time, many young people are joining energy and climate activist organizations like 350.org and Transition Initiatives.

So here is my message to you in a nutshell: Fossil fuels made it possible to build the world you have inhabited during your childhood and throughout your years in the education system. Now it’s up to you to imagine and build the world after fossil fuels. This is the challenge and opportunity of your lifetimes. I wish you good cheer and good luck as you make the most of it.

–Richard Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, and The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality.

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Entry filed under: Commentary, Food Energy, Food Miles, Sustainable Food. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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