Interview with Richard Heinberg

Apr-May-Jun 2012


Author of The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality

End of Growth

I always like to write a short introduction to our interviews but I think David Suzuki makes it clear in what he says about the predicament we find ourselves in. Keep in mind that if he and most other scientists are off by a few seconds, we are still headed down the wrong path toward a sustainable future.—Lotus Guide


“Let me give you a test tube full of food for bacteria, that represents our world. I am going to put one bacterial cell into that test tube (representing us), and it is going to divide every minute; that is exponential growth. So at time zero you have one cell; one minute you have two; two minutes you have four; three minutes you have eight; four minutes you have 16. That is exponential growth and at 60 minutes the test tube is completely full of bacteria and there is no food left, a sixty minute cycle.

When is the test tube only half full? Well the answer of course is at 59 minutes; but a minute later it is filled. So at 58 minutes it is 25% full; 57 minutes 12½% full. At 55 minutes of the 60 minute cycle it is only 3% full. So, if at 55 minutes one of the bacteria said to its companions that they had a population problem, the other bacteria would be incredulous because 97% of the test tube would be empty and they had been around for 55 minutes. Yet they would have only 5 minutes left. So bacteria are no smarter than humans and at 59 minutes they realize they only have a minute left. So they give massive amounts of money to scientists, in less than a minute those bacterial scientists invent three test tubes full of food. That would be like adding three more planets for our use. So it would seem that they (and we) would be saved.

What actually happens is this – at 60 minutes the first tube is full; at 61 minutes the second is full; and at 62 minutes all four are full. By quadrupling the amount of food and space, you buy two extra minutes! How do we add even a fraction of 1% more of air, water, soil or biodiversity? We cannot.”—David Suzuki

Lotus Guide: I would like to start this interview out with the question that I think a lot of people are asking right now. We have a financial system that is dependent on consumerism and consumerism is the very thing that’s depleting our resources. Then, of course, the next question is: Are the people behind the scenes simply greedy? And of course this is compounded by the fact that most people are in denial.

Richard Heinberg: Well, I certainly would not deny the fact that there are a lot of greedy people; however, our economics has grown up over the past 100 years or so through a period of cheap energy. So economists have internalized the idea that growth could go on forever thinking that resources were virtually infinite. It sounds sort of crazy when you put it that simply, but in fact the system is still being taught in economics classes all around the world. The notion is that as a resource starts to become scarce, the price goes up, so that incentivizes efforts towards being more efficient and the development of substitute energy sources. So through the price market, resources are regarded to be infinite. So policymakers listen to these economists and base a lot of their decisions on what they’re being told. And of course this is a positive message that everyone would like to believe is true. So with that, economists and politicians buying into this it has slowly become a doctrine that we no longer question.


LG: looking back, what was your aha moment that started you down this path?

RH: That moment was actually very early on, around 1972. I read a new book that had just come out called Limits to Growth. This was the effort of a group of MIT scientists to use computers to model the relationship between population growth and resources and the environmental impacts of industrialism. One of the things that they brought out was peak oil and how this would affect economic growth. And of course history is showing that their projections were fairly accurate, even though the book itself was debunked at the time by economists. What that did was, it sent me on a different life path where I basically realize that the world was on a path that was very unstable. So I’ve basically spent my life from that point until now to try to figure out why and how we got on such an unstable path.

One reason is we have a fossil-fuel economy and there was a time when this was cheap energy. But all of the easy oil is gone and what’s left is requiring more energy and money and this has an effect on everything. Our problem is that we’ve created an infrastructure that’s so dependent on oil. As oil becomes more expensive we’re going to be locked into the transportation modes that our economy depends on. So we really need to start building an alternative economy before we get caught in a trap of our own making.

Note: I went on to ask Richard about the many aspects of the fix we find ourselves in, and about what we can do to remedy our situation—for instance: “How much can we count on alternative energy solutions?” and “Do you think there will ever be some arrests made in the financial community that were responsible for a lot of our financial predicament?” We asked many more enticing and difficult-to-answer questions in our interview that we simply did not have room for here, so be sure to visit us online on our YouTube channel at and watch and listen to this interview and many others of interest that directly affect your life.

You can watch the entire interview here


Part 2