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Can We Afford the Future?


Can We Afford the Future?

Richard Heinberg

As a child of the 1950s I grew up immersed in a near-universal expectation of progress. Everybody expected a shiny new future; the only thing that might have prevented us from having it was nuclear war, and thankfully that hasn’t happened (so far). But, in the intervening decades, progress has begun to lose its luster. Official agencies still project economic growth as far as the eye can see, but those forecasts of a better future now ring hollow.

Why? It’s simple. We can’t afford it.


The "masters-of-the-universe" planners plan to wait for more national infrastructure deterioration that they believe will prompt the masses to beg for salvation, even if by privatization. In the meantime, capital moves globally towards markets with higher rates of return, further impeding growth and actually facilitation industrial recession. Expect more of the same until the nation fully falls into turd-world status and may again offer higher rates of return. Ain't capitalism grand?


What is with this author? Once again he 'explains' why we can't just stop using fossil fuels so abruptly by detailing the economics of fossil fuel use.

Then he actually does cherry pick his facts justifying his view. For example he first says alternatives like solar and wind are now competitive to fossil fuel use but then he details or rather magnifies the associative costs of fabricating solar panels and turbines etc. even to the point of mining and refining the materials and transporting them etc. as a negative.

It seems to him that the existing infrastructure of fossil fuel use is justification in and of itself. It exists already so why not use it? In fact he seems to say that we have to keep using it! In any case he factors that in to his cost analysis between developing new solar and wind and that of maintaining fossil fuel use.

He even reckons some of the medical costs (but only mentions the deaths and not the millions who suffer with diseases) caused by fossil fuel use.

That said, he didn't mention the continuing subsidies by governments of the fossil fuel industries. Now how does that not factor in when tabulating associative costs? That is a vast amount of money given to the fossil fuel industry but he doesn't consider it.

Nor does he factor in the vast number of new jobs that would be created by increasing alternatives and their manufacturing and installation/transportation etc.! How does that not enter into the picture when he mentions the associative costs?
Why not mention all the the associative benefits of solar and wind? There would be a tremendous increase in jobs implementing solar and wind whereas existing infrastructure for fossil fuel use doesn't require any increase in new jobs.

This is yet another time that this oil industry insider has explained how we would like to get off fossil fuels but we can't, at least not yet and not for quite some time.

He talks in terms of investors being suckered but they aren't the only ones being suckered here, I think.


I appreciate Mr. Heinberg's analysis of the relative costs of retro-fitting our nation's infrastructure to run on renewable energies. But the financial side of his equation is skewed due to what, a Libertarian respect for so-called Free Enterprise?

I don't see enough indictment of the felonious tactics of the oil barons or any mention of the link between oil's accessibility and beefed up Middle East militarism. In fact, there's no discussion of the role all this militarism plays in expanding the debt and leaving precious few dollars for investments in securing the nation's infrastructure.

"Finally we come to the financial tool inevitably used to deal with all such costs—debt. Credit (the other side of the debt coin) is wonderful: it enables us to spend now but pay later. We’ve exploited this tool ruthlessly over the past few decades, and as a result today’s household debt, corporate debt, and government debt are all at or near record levels. The financial crisis of 2008 is widely regarded as having been triggered by too much unserviceable debt; nevertheless, global debt has actually increased by $57 Trillion since then. Greece’s debt crisis still threatens the economic stability of the European continent."

Taking the stance that Greece threatens the European continent rather than calling out the callous financial machinations of Europe's central bankers reminds me of the way that right wing economists decry all the social programs and what these "entitlements" will cost... rather than tie debt to its 3 proper causes:

  1. The engineering--by design--of phenomenal wealth to the 1%... this being part of the entire deregulation framework that gave investment banks permission to bet on loans and other arcane Wall St. style financial instruments. And when these bets failed, taxpayers were forced to bail out the high stakes casino style hucksters.

  2. Tax policies that allowed the wealthiest to keep more and more of earned income and inheritance while not punishing them for using offshore bank accounts to avoid taxes, altogether

  3. Subsidies to Big Oil and Big Agri and all of the huge corporations that now treat our govt--i.e. the Will of The People--as a pesky subsidiary

In other words, the MONEY is there. It's that currently, it's in the hands of a few who could care less about the welfare of human, animal, or plant life.


This post was flagged by the community and is temporarily hidden.


Oh spare us the manipulative drama and stop taking part of a sentence out of context to make it seem like something else is being said. That is pretty underhanded and deceitful crap. You defend this author from any criticism but trying to censor people shows much more than you expect.

People criticize - in fact that is a big part of free speech and commenting forums like CD. What is with you?

Aside from you taking part of a sentence which was very creepy, I stress that I made my point with serious questions which for all your sycophantic moaning, you did not refute.

You are a liar to say it plain - next time try quoting the whole sentence like intelligent ethical people do. What you did is just too dumbed down for me to bother with.


No we indeed cannot afford the future. Not if we expect BAU. Nate Hagens describes what's happening as a "declining utility of energy". For every unit of energy utilised the cost gets progressively greater. Not just a loss of low hanging fruit, but the whole of industry is burdened by obstructions that were perhaps ignored in earlier decades.

But my main comment is directed to the part on debt and credit. It amazes me so many commentators are ignorant of how money mechanics actually works. If we understood we can see money is not a major handicap to our future. Resources are the main handicap. Our spending of money to purchase resources is making resource depletion more rapid. This applies to renewables too. We cannot build a renewable energy sector without expanding the existing FF one.
A good illustration is the CMO concept [a cubic mile of oil] We use over 1 CMO of petroleum in 300 days and we use nearly 2 more with coal, and natural gas and renewables. To match 1 CMO of oil with hydro electricity production it
would require 200 dams each the size of China's Three Gorges Dam. I think it obvious this is not viable. The environmental destruction would be huge and it could not be achieved in less than 50 years, by which time BAU would mandate 400 dams. We'd always be chasing our tail. Renewables are not a viable answer and will only ever have local significance.

The massive debts we are creating do not include government debts. Federal Government debts are actually savings accounts, just ones held in the central bank on behalf of banks and investors. When mature each security can be credited back to the bank's cheque accounts. No money changes hands.

The private debts are a problem as they have to be paid back as with any borrower outside the central bank.
However with the advent of credit creation theory banks can lend without recourse to deposits held in the bank.
They mark up borrowers' accounts with fiat money, from thin air. When the crash comes, as it must, the government can simply wipe out all thin air loans in a Debt Jubilee. This would leave untouched the deposits held in the banks and the banks would not have to fail. We need the banks to not fail as they possess the mechanism of paying the public with any pensions, coupons etc we would need in a crash to avoid instant chaos. It does depend on governments having management plans in place ready to go. They don't so they should get on with them.


It the points you've written about that I take issue with. In particular - this one.

You seem well versed in the reasons for continuing fossil fuel use but rather light on the ways that we wouldn't have to continue using them.

To use dams as the comparison to fossil fuel use is beyond belief in a world that is rapidly entering the age of solar and wind. Perhaps you will tout the standard line about how solar works only during the day or wind is intermittent? Should I play that word game and say "but fossil fuels are nonrenewable and will someday run out!"?

Let's drop the manipulation conversation shall we?

Solar energy generation is a matter of building facilities to exploit the energy source. Oddly enough, so is fossil fuel use. Rather than expanding the fossil fuel sector (which would entail construction and development such as drilling and transportation as well as health and environmental costs as well as continuing SUBSIDIES (my how that word is never mentioned by fossil fuel apologists.). What is the added COST of fossil fuels if the subsidies are factored in? What if those same subsidies were switched over to solar and wind development and installation? How would the economic figures look then?

Once a solar plant is built - say in Arizona or New Mexico - the sun will shine with curious regularity to power it virtually every day! Odd how that is never worked into that 'intermittent' wording? That daytime use thing? New York may never sleep but a lot of other cities, towns and homes do sleep and by coincidence, use far less energy at night.

If solar were implemented on a large scale in the south west, they would end up with a surplus of energy even during the most intensive peak daytime use! In other words, Los Angeles could be powered by the sun, supplemented by wind farms off shore AND... by underwater tidal turbines which are as regular as are... um? How does that old adage go? Oh yeah... as regular as the tides!

Wind farms on the plains and up in the mountains, solar too. Geothermal plays a part and rivers can have underwater turbines up and down their lengths.

Doing all this would create a huge amount of jobs for people who pay taxes and support the economy which pays more taxes and amazingly enough pay their electricity bills and Voila! You have the money to build all this infrastructure just like you would have needed to build if expanding fossil fuel use while destroying the future of the planet's functioning habitat.

Even at a minimum... solar use even without storage (which is not so difficult after transforming the solar energy into heat stored underground that powers electrical plants during the night by the way)...would still reduce total energy requirements by 2/3rd or more for the southwest especially. Add in wind or even a bit more solar storage and you remove the need for fossil fuels entirely.

Think of alternative energy development (and installation) as a JOBS CREATION MEASURE! Remember how GW Bush used to babble about trickle down two trillion dollars in tax cuts for the rich (which didn't work) as a jobs creation measure?

Well here is an ACTUAL jobs creation measure... the switch to clean renewable energy.


Between the costs of the endless Wars costing the US $1 Trillion EVERY YEAR and the world $2 Trillion EVERY YEAR and Auto Addiction we actually have plenty of money if it was redirected to sustainable uses. Why do both Environmentalists and even Peak Oil theorists like Richard Heinberg neglect the huge costs of the endless Wars for Oil and whats left of resources? And while Heinberg has pointed out the problems of the existing Auto Addiction transit system as oil production declines, he still seems stuck in the electric car trap.
We CAN reduce our waste of resources enormously and that is where to start.
The Trillion dollars for Wars, the $77 Billion from general taxes for endless repaving and expansion of Auto Addiction as opposed to Green transit Rail , bicycling and walkable communities. Even things as simple as gas powered lawn mowers or worse yet the gas guzzling polluting fleets of landscaping trucks pulling trailers full of riding lawn mowers for suburban lawns. I use a manual push mower which consumes no oil, costs nothing, makes very little noise, does not pollute at all and it works just fine.
As far as the potential for Green Transit rather than Auto Addiction - in just 3 years from 1942-45 when the US elite decided to redirect efforts from Auto Addiction to the war effort, intercity rail and bus ridership quadrupled, as well as local trolley ridership. Furthermore despite decades of propaganda from the Auto Addiction lobby that the US is " too spread out" for Green Transit enjoyed for 25% of the costs in Europe, Japan, Taiwan, S Korea, 79% of Americans already live in urbanized areas. And a Brookings study found that 70% in the top 100 US metro areas ALREADY live only 3/4th mile from a transit stop!
And this is with our anemic Transit system! Imagine if we restored service on our existing 233,000 miles of US Rail, and then built Rail down highway medians instead of endless highway lane expansion... This could easily be done with the trillions we waste on Wars for Oil!


You are a dreamer. End of story. My example of Hydro was just that, an example. You can check out CMO on wikipedia. there its explained in more detail.
I think you do not understand my post. I criticise the jobs creation as a speeding up of our downward trajectory towards the inevitable crash of civilization which we cannot stop. We are way past the point at which we could have turned around. But, hey, we are humans, an animal species which will keep reproducing until it is forcibly stopped, like all the others.
Dream on, mate.


You are right that I didn't realize that you are a fatalist and have given up. So if you believe nothing can be done... than what is your point here? Do you want to chat about the futility of existence or what? Lol.

I am not a fatalist. I am not resigned to letting the greedy continue on as they will unless we push back. Every new alternative power plant (solar, wind or tidal) is one less new fossil fuel plant. As the technology improves which it surely will as it becomes a huge industry equaling that of coal and nat. gas use etc., older fossil fuel plants will be decommissioned early.

Guess what? So what if we keep reproducing? If we did things differently (like restoring the oceans to productivity or water conservation practices for arid lands agriculture) we could easily feed another few billion without even noticing it.

Part of doing things better (differently) would be building alternative infrastructure in environmentally intelligent ways. I see it happening already. Look at how coal is being phased out in some countries. People are not robots nor slaves to the wealthy.

We can choose and make things happen.


You are full of "ifs". If we turned things around, if we stopped fossil fuels, if we keep on reproducing etc.... .bla bla bla.
You have nothing sensible to say., only rubbish.


You want to say that there is no hope and that we are all doomed and blah blah blah ...you are really cranky about it.

I think there is plenty that we could do but not if people don't fight to make it happen. You want to give up and do what then? Run around telling people that the end of civilization is making you cranky?

Get off your duff and do something to keep the worst from happening so easily.


I'm only cranky about dills without any understanding of the bind we are placing ourselves in. That includes you.
Why wait for me to tell you the answer? That's just a cop out. You obviously have no answers, only hopes.


Stop faking it. Do some research about new developments in solar and wind energy generation. Why should a country like Australia for example, not be powered by solar. it is simply greed that prevents it not the technology.

You argument that it is all hopeless is baloney. Get off yer duff!!!!


Warning: The future may very well be called The Age Of Austerity. The status quo is clearly unsustainable. The sacrifices that are already being required may help us return to the community values and frugal living that are better for people and planet. But the longer we indulge in extravagant lifestyles the steeper and more sudden the shock will be.

Are you ready to slow down and live a simpler, plainer, saner, less stressful life? We really have no choice, but my concern is that many will not be able to adjust to the new normal. But remember, Less Is More: GDH = Gross Domestic Happiness. Increases in productivity and material abundance have not been to our benefit, and they have caused a great deal of permanent damage to the earth.


I believe we can afford the future. Consider the results of requiring sovereign debt to be backed with Commons shares.

Commons shares may be claimed by each adult human, one only, that will cease to exist on the humans death, shall be deposited in trust with local financial institution with acceptance of a social contract.

In this way each human will receive equal interest payments from sovereign debt. This establishes the sovereignty of each human.

As a sovereign entity, each individual would have access to sovereign debt for home, farm, or secure interest in employment.In round numbers, a share with a value of $1 million would return about $1 thousand/month, if it all was borrowed.

Current sovereign debt would return about $10/month, $20 if corporate government debt is included, which would be significant in many parts of the world. Individuals could borrow a significant fraction, but maximum return would likely require states to borrow all remaining shares.

I suspect that a nation with 1 million residents could borrow the entire $1 trillion (equivalent) of resident shares as reserve cash and devise a plan to increase revenue by the $12 billion/yr (equivalent) required to pay the interest.

With all currencies tied to the Commons, and the proportional increase in wealth flow in all states, exchange rates and trade can stabilize.

The increased spending on basic needs will necessarily reduce the cost of providing them.

Since the spending of money is restricted by the availability of materials and labor, and “full employment” is restricted by the availability of money, recognizing and distributing the value of the Commons in this way would simply “fill the reservoir” so the world economic system may act more like the fabled “Free Market” that so many hope for.

Please consider the notion, and as you view the worlds problems, and crises, imagine how this would alter those conditions.

Thanks so much for your kind indulgence,