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Book Reviews  > Futurism
Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.    
Kenneth E. Boulding 
Power Down: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies. Richard Heinberg - This book is a follow-up to the Heinberg's earlier book 'The Party's Over: Oil, War, and  the Fate of Industrial Societies' (which I have not read). I have included this book under the category of futurism, since Heinberg does not discuss the evidence oil production is about to peak or that alternative sources of energy cannot be substituted for it. Rather he assumes that the energy intensity of the world's economy is going to decrease substantially over the next few decades and discusses what he believes will be the consequence of this decrease. In spite of the subtitle of this book (Options and Action for a Post Carbon World) Heinberg is grimly pessimistic about the potential of non-fossil fuel energy to support a decent standard of living or about the possibility of a rational human response to the coming energy crisis. Of course people who doubt the rationality of human behavior have an enormous body of data to support their position. However, it seems to me we must attempt to envision a rational response to this crisis even if we believe that the chances of implementation are small. Heinberg discusses the path of economic cooperation and rational reduction of energy use but does not attempt to give any concrete proposals, mainly because he does not believe that there is a snowball's chance in hell of such cooperation actually materializing.  It is clear that he believes that resource wars and social chaos are nearly inevitable. His 'building lifeboats' strategy is also vague and lacking in detail. Overall 'Power Down' is a depressing and not very constructive book, although in defense of Heinberg one can argue that in the face of the extremely complex problems which he describes construction is the province of fools. 
Critical Path. R. Buckminster Fuller - Buckminster Fuller was a wild man who had completely escaped from the spell of our society's conventional wisdom about the way the world functions. His comments about the awesome wastefulness and stupidity of capitalism in its current form are highly pertinent to the crisis we are now facing. His insight  that manufactured artifacts should be designed to maximize human utility rather than corporate profits is essential to the emergence of a rational economic order. Nevertheless, if you are looking for a coherent vision of how to bring about a better future than the terrifying one we are heading for at break-neck speed you will not find it in this book. Fuller was an inventor who was interested in designing and creating artifacts which would allow human beings to live well with minimum use of natural resources and with maximum use of the energy flow from the sun, which he realized must eventually replace fossil fuels. However, he explicitly eschewed politics, and insisted that when the proper technological artifacts were created they would in and of themselves bring about a revolution in human society without the need for political revolution. Much as I enjoy Fuller's originality I cannot believe in this naive view of human social evolution.  
Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. Lester R. Brown - Lester Brown  is the president of the Earth Policy Institute, a non-profit interdisciplinary  research organization based in Washinton D.C. Brown has been writing for years about enviromental issues and economic production. Plan B is his effort  to catalog the serious problems of environmental degradation and resource destruction caused by the world's current economic and social systems and at the same time to propose serious changes to those systems that will initially mitigate and eventually solve these problems. His catalog of the environmental horrors with which we are faced will certainly get your attention of you have the stomach to wade through the whole thing, but his proposed solution to these problems is seriously incomplete. After telling us about shrinking crop land, shrinking forests, shrinking water tables, shrinking oil supplies, shrinking catches from the world's fisheries, increasing species extinctions, global warming etc., what is his first action in attempting describe a solution to these problems? The first thing Brown does is to go down on his knees, touch his forehead to the ground, and give praise to the 'efficiency of the market'. The stock market, which requires everlasting growth in economic output for its healthy functioning, is to be our saviour in our struggle with the physical finitude of the earth. Brown never uses the expression 'economic growth'. Instead he talks about 'sustainable development'. Brown's proposal is to bring about sustainable development by using taxes to make the market tell the ecological truth. That is we will tax economic output so that prices reflect the true environmental costs of the production and use of that output. So that if we tax electricity derived from coal so that its cost reflects the effect of acid rain, health care costs from air pollution, agricultral productivity loss from global warming, etc. then renewable alternatives such a wind energy and solar energy will become competitive. While this idea is not bad insofar as it goes, it utterly fails to recognize the fact that in order for the interest principle operate, overall production costs must continuously decrease. If energy costs rise then other production costs must go down by an even larger amount to keep the growth engine running. 'Greening' our tax structure will help to make the real  costs of continuing economic growth more transparent, but such actions cannot alter the fact that economic growth is a self limiting process. When the limits of growth are reached, the interest principle can no longer be the ruling institution of human society. Until this fact is widely recognized very little can be done to address the serious problems being created by our current economic system. 
Brown stumbles on an important part of the real solution to our economic problems without recognizing it when he discusses the gold mining industry. He points out that the 750 million tons of gold ore mined annually is second in quantity only to iron ore mined to produce steel. Over 80% of the gold produced is used to make jewlery. Brown points out that, given the costs in cyanide and mercury pollution, not to mention the energy consumption required, maybe it would be best to simply stop the production of gold jewlery since it serves no practical purpose. Here of course, is a key element to any solution of our pressing ecological problems: Citizens of the highly developed economies of the world must greatly lower their levels of economic consumption. Of course we must also develop less destructive methods of manufacturing, food production, and energy production, in parallel with these reductions in consumption levels. But any attempt to implement 'green' methods of manufacturing while maintaining exponentially increasing levels of economic consumption will not avert the coming disaster. The attempt to solve our problems by working on the supply side of the economy only are like responding to a train approaching approaching an unbridgable chasm by working hard to make the engine run more efficiently and emit less pollution; When the the train finally plunges into the abyss the high energy efficiency and low pollution levels acheived while the train was still on the tracks will not be of much concern to the passengers. 
The real science of political economy, which has yet to be distinguished from the bastard science, as medicine from witchcraft, and astronomy from astrology, is that which teaches nations to desire and labor for the things that lead to life; and which teaches them to scorn and destroy the things which lead to destruction. 
John Ruskin
Roger Brown