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Chris Hedges
Truthdig / Truthdig Op-Ed
Published: Tuesday 11 September 2012
The steady depletion of natural resources, especially fossil fuels, along with the accelerated pace of climate change, will combine with crippling levels of personal and national debt to thrust us into a global depression that will dwarf any in the history of capitalism. And very few of us are prepared.

Growth Is the Problem

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The ceaseless expansion of economic exploitation, the engine of global capitalism, has come to an end. The futile and myopic effort to resurrect this expansion—a fallacy embraced by most economists—means that we respond to illusion rather than reality. We invest our efforts into bringing back what is gone forever. This strange twilight moment, in which our experts and systems managers squander resources in attempting to re-create an expanding economic system that is moribund, will inevitably lead to systems collapse. The steady depletion of natural resources, especially fossil fuels, along with the accelerated pace of climate change, will combine with crippling levels of personal and national debt to thrust us into a global depression that will dwarf any in the history of capitalism. And very few of us are prepared.

“Our solution is our problem,” Richard Heinberg, the author of “The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality,” told me when I reached him by phone in California. “Its name is growth. But growth has become uneconomic. We are worse off because of growth. To achieve growth now means mounting debt, more pollution, an accelerated loss of biodiversity and the continued destabilization of the climate. But we are addicted to growth. If there is no growth there are insufficient tax revenues and jobs. If there is no growth existing debt levels become unsustainable. The elites see the current economic crisis as a temporary impediment. They are desperately trying to fix it. But this crisis signals an irreversible change for civilization itself. We cannot prevent it. We can only decide whether we will adapt to it or not.”

Heinberg, a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, argues that we cannot grasp the real state of the global economy by the usual metrics—GDP, unemployment, housing, durable goods, national deficits, personal income and consumer spending—although even these measures point to severe and chronic problems. Rather, he says, we have to examine the structural flaws that sit like time bombs embedded within the economic edifice. U.S. household debt enabled the expansion of consumer spending during the boom years, he says, but consumer debt cannot continue to grow as house prices decline to realistic levels. Toxic assets litter the portfolios of the major banks, presaging another global financial meltdown. The Earth’s natural resources are being exhausted. And climate change, with its extreme weather conditions, is beginning to exact a heavy economic toll on countries, including the United States, through the destruction brought about by droughts, floods, wildfires and loss of crop yields.

Heinberg also highlights what he calls “the highly dysfunctional U.S. political system,” which is paralyzed and hostage to corporate power. It is unable to respond rationally to the crisis or solve “even the most trivial of problems.”

“The government at this point exacerbates nearly every crisis the nation faces,” he said. “Policy decisions do not emerge from deliberations between the public and elected leaders. They arise from unaccountable government agencies and private interest groups. The Republican Party has taken leave of reality. It exists in a hermetically sealed ideasphere where climate change is a hoax and economic problems can be solved by cutting spending and taxes. The Democrats, meanwhile, offer no realistic strategy for coping with the economic unraveling or climate change.”

The collision course is set. It is now only a matter of time and our personal response.

“It could implode in a few weeks, in a few months or maybe in a few years,” Heinberg said, “but unless radical steps are taken to restructure the economy, it will implode. And when it does the financial system will seize up far more dramatically than in 2008. You will go to the bank or the ATM and there will be no money. Food will be scarce and expensive. Unemployment will be rampant. And government services will break down. Living standards will plummet. ‘Austerity’ programs will become more draconian. Economic inequality will widen to create massive gaps between a tiny, oligarchic global elite and the masses. The collapse will also inevitably trigger the kind of instability and unrest, including riots, that we have seen in countries such as Greece. The elites, who understand and deeply fear the possibility of an unraveling, have been pillaging state resources to save their corrupt, insolvent banks, militarize their police forces and rewrite legal codes to criminalize dissent.”

If nations were able to respond rationally to the crisis they could forestall social collapse by reconfiguring their economies away from ceaseless growth and exploitation. It remains possible, at least in the industrialized world, to provide to most citizens the basics—food, water, housing, medical care, employment, education and public safety. This, however, as Heinberg points out, would require a radical reversal of the structures of power. It would necessitate a massive cancellation of debt, along with the slashing of bloated militaries, heavy regulation and restraints placed on the financial sector and high taxes imposed on oligarchic elites and corporations in order to reduce unsustainable levels of inequality. While this economic reconfiguration would not mitigate the effects of climate change and the depletion of natural resources it would create the social stability needed to cope with a new post-growth regime. But Heinberg says he doubts a rational policy is forthcoming. He fears that as deterioration accelerates there will be a greater resolve on the part of the power elite to “cannibalize the resources of society in order to prop up megabanks and military establishments.”

Survival will be determined by localities. Communities will have to create collectives to grow their own food and provide for their security, education, financial systems and self-governance, efforts that Heinberg suspects will “be discouraged and perhaps criminalized by those in authority.” This process of decentralization will, he said, become “the signal economic and social trend of the 21st century.” It will be, in effect, a repudiation of classic economic models such as free enterprise versus the planned economy or Keynesian stimulus versus austerity. The reconfiguration will arise not through ideologies, but through the necessities of survival forced on the poor and former members of the working and middle class who have joined the poor. This will inevitably create conflicts as decentralization weakens the power of the elites and the corporate state.

Joseph Tainter, an archeologist, in his book “The Collapse of Complex Societies”provides a useful blueprint for how such societies unravel. All of history’s major 24 civilizations have collapsed and the patterns are strikingly similar, he writes. The difference this time around is that we will unravel as a planet. Tainter notes that as societies become more complex they inevitably invest greater and greater amounts of diminishing resources in expanding systems of complexity. This proves to be fatal.

“More complex societies are costlier to maintain than simpler ones and require higher support levels per capita,” Tainter writes. The investments required to maintain an overly complex system become too costly, and these investments yield declining returns. The elites, in a desperate effort to maintain their own levels of consumption and preserve the system that empowers them, through repression and austerity measures squeeze the masses harder and harder until the edifice collapses. This collapse leaves behind decentralized, autonomous pockets of human communities.

Heinberg says this is our fate. The quality of our lives will depend on the quality of our communities. If communal structures are strong we will be able to endure. If they are weak we will succumb to the bleakness. It is important that these structures be set in place before the onset of the crisis, he says. This means starting to “know your neighbors.” It means setting up food banks and farmers’ markets. It means establishing a local currency, carpooling, creating clothing exchanges, establishing cooperative housing, growing gardens, raising chickens and buying local. It is the matrix of neighbors, family and friends, Heinberg says, that will provide “our refuge and our opportunity to build anew.”

“The inevitable decline in resources to support societal complexity will generate a centrifugal force,” Heinberg said. “It will break up existing economic and governmental power structures. It will unleash a battle for diminishing resources. This battle will see conflicts erupt between nations and within nations. Localism will soon be our fate. It will also be our strategy for survival. Learning practical skills, becoming more self-sufficient, forming bonds of trust with our neighbors will determine the quality of our lives and the lives of our children.”

To see long excerpts from Richard Heinberg’s “The End of Growth” and Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” click here and here.

This article was originally posted on Truthdig.

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ABOUT Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges is a weekly Truthdig columnist and a fellow at The Nation Institute. His newest book is “The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress.”

It's apparent that we're

It's apparent that we're doing some things right. Chris writes: "The Democrats, meanwhile, offer no realistic strategy for coping with the economic unraveling". I slightly disagree, in that "Obama Care" has been created, even it the face of a hard fight.

The result should be a lesser percentage of GDP squandered on delivering health care to everyone. That's why the British did it immediately following WWII, and it worked. Paying less for health care puts $$ in the pockets of those who were paying for insurance, first, and should lead to a healthier population.

We need more like this, and some is being implemented, like high speed rail. Such a system will take pressure off of highly consuming and polluting air and auto travel. Of course there will be loud objection to overcome.

Going to" greener" energy will also create lots of corporate and political noise, but it will reduce the pressure on dwindling fossil fuels (and provide jobs in the process).

I like the article, but it seems short on realistically setting priorities for a better future. I realize that CHANGE doesn't come easily, but it is important, an must be accomplished faster and faster. We've got good heads, but they must be educated and put to work.

This is The Population Bomb ,

This is The Population Bomb , by Paul Ehrlich , all over again. In 1968 Ehrich said that the world could not survive with our worldwide growth in population. He predicted that by the 1980's we would have massive starvation, worldwide unrest, etc., etc. Woops, try again.
Yes, we should enforce current (reasonable) laws and the private sector should be encouraged to take care of the poor in America. The Feds have caused most of our problems and will continue to do so.
The best government is the smallest government.
Hedges would have us go back to living in log cabins. Please, if you want to, go ahead. Personally, I enjoy all the comforts that our fast growing economy (till Obama) has provided, AND so has our poor : we have the richest poor of most of the industrialized nations (till recently).

You want the guys that can't

You want the guys that can't run a post office-- to manage the world's resources?

You are very very silly and naive people. Capitalism doesn't want one entity to own everything-- that is what you want-- you want the government to own and control all production and allocation-- which means it gets allocated on the basis of government whim. Capitalism doesn't give any one business advantage over another-- build what people want to buy and if there is not government interference the best products and best services grow and the poor products and services die. Consider why you bought that Iphone in your hand-- did anyone make you buy it? You made a single decision on your own to exchange your money for their product-- there were cheaper phones but you bought that one-- Jobs didn't steal a penny from you in fact you believe you got an incredible bargain for the dollars you exchanged.

Bet you go back to those bistros that serve cold coffee instead of hot coffee but which has an employee policy of never firing any employee no matter how badly they perform the task of handing you hot fresh coffee-- and if this same bistro charges twice as much for that cold cup of coffee so they can pay these incompent servers you of course support this generous policy by buying coffee from this same bistro- right?

You people need to grow up already-- and smell the aroma of hot coffee!

You people are hysterically

You people are hysterically funny- except you are the people who have spread misery, hunger, and death for over a century across this planet. So your for a weaker and smaller economy -- so that fewer people will live desperate and unhealthy and unhappy lives. Growth is the problem? really? the growth of our economy has created better lives for more people than any system in history-- and a growing economy creates jobs which provide people with the dignity of earning their living. Have you not bothered to look at any history? THe Soviet Union ran your experiment and created misery, poverty, fear and a complete lack of hope while suppressing ambition and the opportunity for people to use their talent for their own benefit and the benefit of others. Government spending is not necessary for economic growth-- all that is necessary is for government to stop picking winners and losers and to reduce all this ridiculous red tape and restrictions which make competition impossible which kills innovation and new businesses. You people are all jealous because you can't and won't build anything -- your all too lazy to work 14 hour days seven days a week for years to build a business and too self-interested to commit your life savings to a new enterprise. Your just jealous of Steve Jobs, and even the guy with the small bakery on the corner-- you think your so smart that if capitalism was "fair" you and your buddies would be handed soft cushy lives with no responsibility and no pressure so you could spend all afternoon sipping coffee at the local outdoor bistro while pontificating about how the business owners are so cruel that they won't hand over even more of their money to you so you can do some personal experience expanding travel to Europe.

The reason you don't have more money is not because the RICH people have it all-- it isn't a finite amount of wealth- it is not a pie -- it's because you have not built or delivered anything that anybody in this world will freely exchange their earned money to obtain. You are worthless people essentially of no value to anyone else in the society- so you want the government to steal wealth from others at the point of a gun and give it to you so you don't have to become someone who has something to offer to others in exchange for their money.

And we elected one of you to the Presidency of the United States-- a guy who's only real asset is a book he wrote about himself -- about a father he didn't even know amazingly.

Hopefully a man that has created products and services that people want -- and freely exchanged their money to buy-- is going to be our next President.

Perhaps a remarkably

Perhaps a remarkably insightful and FUN read is applicable to this "revolting predicament" so brilliantly described in Chris's article.
Tell me if you agree:

There are strategies that can

There are strategies that can be applied to these problems. By moving toward a hydrogen infrastructure, as Germany already is, we can change our transportation infrastructure over to a sustainable mode. Hydrogen can also be used in other basic applications, such as heating, refrigeration and manufacturing. Here is a modest proposal for the social plan to create an American hydrogen infrastructure. This would also lead to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new jobs. It has the added advantage of being a decentralized, locally based approach. .

I think it's important to

I think it's important to note that when, for instance, the Roman Empire collapsed Italy did not vanish from the earth. The Romans continued to exist, or most of them. The German Empire left behind a split nation but the Germans eventually recombined them. When our empire is done collapsing the remaining population must be led to understand how and why it happened. It will be vital that communication be maintained as ignorance is our worst enemy. We know how to do things like zero population growth, passive solar homes and smaller communities. We know it but we don't do it because those in power like the status quo. When the coastal cities are abandoned, when even Washington DC has to be relocated we will be granted a wonderful moment to realize our possibilities in this new, hotter world. If we can face reality we will survive as a nation, but the likeliest scenario is that the USofA will split into smaller regional governments. In any case it will be absolutely essential that part of our efforts, an important part, will be the dismantling of our vast nuclear arsenal and the neutralizing of the radioactive components.

I agree with MC. I lived in

I agree with MC. I lived in Germany for 17 years and the quality of life was terriffic. It reminded me of growing up in the South in the 1940s and 50s.
There was a strong sense of family and a strong sense of community as eveidenced by the local Gasthaus (Pub). They still closed on Sunday when I arrived in 1990, but had succumbed to the ways of the West by the time I left in late 2007. They had discovered the mall concept and a necessity to be open 7 days a week, but life was still good. Meanwhile back here in 2008 the country took a dive as a result of unbridled greed and corruption. Now the 1% own the middle class, and as a result of Citizens United, also own the body politic. If people would stop spending money at Walmart and Target (a French company) and resolve to only "Buy American" as we did back in the 70s we could start manufacturing in this country again, but nobody is going to spend a few dollars more for "American," and our jobs will continue to be exported. We are addicted to China and refuse rehab. The jobs will not come back and we will gradually slide deeper into recession. If Obama could get past the obstuctionist Congress and create a jobs program to repair the infrastucture of this country like Reagan did with his jobs program, this would put some money back into the economy and we could begin to claw our way back, but thats not going to happen either, because the Republicans will continue with their trickledown voodoo economics and the 1% will continue to get richer and the middle class will gradually disappear completely over time. With the deafening voices of the "silent majority"there is little hope for change.

jackwenayscott's picture

There's a way to make the

There's a way to make the world economies work, but the humans don't want to do it! The problems we face are psychological, at the most basic level of pathological psychology is the white people's genetic need to destroy Nature. Anything natural must be poisoned, shot, polluted. This worked pretty well up until about the time I was born, and, in my lifetime most of the environmental damage to the world has taken place. Right now the Arctic sea ice is the smallest on record, many say that sea ice will be completely gone in summer by 2015. At you can see that CO2 in the air went up 2.33 ppm this August compared to August 2011. This is an increase over the usual rise in CO2 concentration, looks like the unstable Earth environment may be starting into "run away" disaster! Meanwhile, it's not only Ryan who is telling bald-faced lies, simply do your Malthus math to discover that we're being lied to about the population statistics, why? Very simple, to cover up the fact that it won't be "10 billion" people by 2050, it would be 35 billion... not going to happen? You bet, and the lying authorities are getting ready to do a number on us to save their own skins! Do the math yourself, taking the year 2000 as the last honest count, 6 billion, then realize that just as in the recent past, the population doubles about every 20-30 years, presto! Knotty problem for the authorities, eh? (no wonder Todd Essigg of says the "media" keeps the public IGNORANT! And Paul B. Farrell of Market Watch declares that "the planet is dying!)

Man Jack - You have

Man Jack - You have definitely broken it down. What I also find missing from even the more "progessive" analysyses of our dire current and future predicament is any reference to human overpopulation. Apparently we have become so divorced from the natural world, and addicted to "growth", as well as substitution of more and more "crap" (made in China) for home-grown sustainable living with a lot less. I grew up in the '50's, so that is my frame of reference.

Sustainability Education

Sustainability Education Network strongly endorses the contents of this article.
Here is SEN's collection of simple graphs showing the convergence of resource exhaustions and over-population in the range of 2025 to 2050, atop which any impacts from climate change and ocean acidification must be added:

In some cases the depicted rates of resource depletion and exhaustion are arguable as to degree and timing. The aggregate picture, however, is not. In the range of 2025 to 2050, the planet will begin to purge hundreds of millions if not several billion from the global population, even if the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification are not yet severe. The status quo cannot be sustained. Growth is in fact the problem.

While residing in central

While residing in central Europe years ago I noticed something strange. There seemed to be a focus on maintaining what was already there rather than the new. Growth was not the primary focus of all human activity. People worked to live and enjoy. There were shops closed on Sunday, many work free holidays and even a 10 week cure for those who had become victim of the industrial disease. Few watched the TV but all read the daily newspaper which was not riddled with a constant stream of reports of violent crimes. If you wanted to hunt you obtained a permit went to the club signed your gun out and had a good time. If you went thru a red light the local police sent you a post card with a photo of the driver, the license plate in the rear and a fine. We have let our capitalist system override our democratic values and our culture has suffered the loss. Is a society that seems to be at war for over a decade healthy? Especially, given that it is a war we must borrow money to finance! Are the planets police force or just the bully?

The key for smartly shrinking

The key for smartly shrinking the economy is to manage the process by creating a prosperity based society not a growth based society. Check out my take on how this effects my community

Please read comments by York

Please read comments by York University Professor Peter Victor:
Managing Without Growth. Slower by Design, Not Disaster

I just forwarded this article

I just forwarded this article to a Republican. He said it is "...the usual liberal bile of redistribution (code for working and then giving your money to someone who won't work) and assumption of facts not in evidence."
How does one respond to this type of blocking?
Is it possible to learn how these types process information enough so we can begin to help them understand?

@NIKI You don't do anything.


You don't do anything. "redistribution"? HAHAHA. There isn't going to be anything to redistribute. "People who don't want to work" ? HAHAHAHA. They can't even employee those who do want to work.

They have no idea what is coming because they don't understand that infinite growth is not sustainable. As such, they are like children who don't understand why they can't have everything they desire. You won't need to send anything to any conservative after a while. It will be factually affecting them man a mano. And the reason they are fearing this is that when people get destitute, they riot. Yes, the authorities, what is left of them, will begin killing the rioters. But you can't stop 10 million people all tossing firebombs, committing arson, and generally tearing the elite's fantasy society to shreds out of pure anger.

So yeah conservatives, keep arguing with banal generalities, wedge tactics, hate mongering, obfuscation, and fear. Enjoy yourselves. We'll see you soon, and we'll see how tough you are then.

Ah Chris, my journalist hero

Ah Chris, my journalist hero of political commentary, finally coming all the way to meet Richard, my hero of big picture thinking and the economic thinking it brings. You've both now got the Kunstler gene in full flower and this little article is the most concise definition of the "civilization" dilemma I've ever seen. Let's all start talking about what we can do to meet this Mother of all crashes, what we can and must save, what we can slough off and what we must beat into plowshares. Ultimately perilous, but exciting times.

Community, Transition, Community, Transition!

Here we go again - the latest

Here we go again - the latest outcry that the sky is falling, and we're all doomed. No mention made of all the previous disasters that have been diverted or avoided. No mention of the ongoing efforts to expand our primary resource ( energy ). No mention of the tapering off of world population ( Nothing but hype and hyperbole like "You will go to the bank or the ATM and there will be no money" when anyone who hasn't been living in a cave knows that money is nothing more than an idea, and that hyperinflation is far more likely than banks suddenly declaring that there is no money in the accounts.

This kind of rhetoric is unhelpful, shortsighted panic-mongering. Reality is a lot more complicated, and a lot less certain.

Scott, What don't you get


What don't you get about diminishing finite resources, climate change and ever worsening people numbers? It's a planet problem, not a national problem and we're now caught with no where else to go, no more frontier, no more help from anywhere else on the globe either through war or further exploitation neither of which can put off the inevitable.

Wake up, sir. Your's is the short sightedness from which panic will come and reality will be a whole lot simpler when the next meal is uppermost. This (civilization) simply cannot continue as is. Become part of the simpler solution.

And in your post no mention

And in your post no mention is made of the fact that we have reached the limits to growth on Planet Earth -- for the FIRST TIME...

THIS reality is certain...

We can set some very general

We can set some very general limits by looking at the heat required to support continued growth. With exponential growth and the energy required to support it, the problem rapidly becomes global cooking, rather than global warming. However, there is a way out, especially if one looks at the genomic revolution, where the ability to duplicate nature's solar powered manufacturing processes will allow us to survive, hopefully long enough to evolve to a higher state of civil and environmental responsibility. For a discussion of global cooking and growth and the implications of biosynthesis, please see:

In current state, the macro wars in modern economics bear more resemblance to religion than science, though there's a real need for a Reformation. a there's a crying need for the study of the economics of real world problems (See Dam the Economists at I was recently asked to write for OECD on more pragmatic analog modeling in economics, which lead to two articles which you can find here: and here:

Our present capitalist

Our present capitalist economic, social and political system is a victim of its own success. With the robotic and electronic revolution well under way we are replacing manual/mental labor as we know it. And that is not a bad thing. We are producing untold abundance. If we can get machines to do the back breaking work in the factories, mines etc. then that should be a plus for humanity. But unfortunately they haven't figured out how to get the robots to buy back what they produce. And with a system still based on the premise that you have to have a job to earn a wage to buy the necessaries of life and there are no have an irreconcilable contradiction. The profits and market system can no longer function to meet the needs of the majority of society. With Globalization there is an evening up process with the spread of the technology. And rather then bringing the rest of the worlds workers up to the living standard we have enjoyed...our standard of living is being driven down to theirs. Every economic system has its own objective motion and laws. The 1% have no control over this system as it implodes. Democracy in this country has been reduced to merely casting a vote. Every 4 years they let us decide which of their leaders is going to mislead us for another 4 years. To enjoy the fruits of democracy the average person would have to have access to the tools of democracy. Television, print, radio. The only folks who have that access are the millionaires and billionaires. Dr. Martin Luther King was right in demanding economic democracy. The democratic right to a job, house, food, healthcare and that elusive right to human happiness. You can call it socialism, communism, or a duck. Bring it on!

Norman Allen's picture

If markets do not expand,

If markets do not expand, where does capitalist make his killing? You can squeeze workers so much beyond which operations collapse. So, in order for capital owners to keep buying stuff they do not need but seem to want endless gratification through possessions, they have to to expand markets by hook or crook. Hence, the destruction of the world, eventually because this planet and its resources are limited. Eventually, if we follow the logic of capitalism, all of the planet should belong to one super capitalist through elimination of all other owners..... There is a much better, sustainable way to organize societies but that is going to limit the freedom of unlimited concentrated wealth, income, and power. Without setting limits, capitalists will always be at wars, with others then among themselves, like a pack of wolves. Can you teach capitalists to be humane? I have not seen it in history but it could be possible!!!!

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