Editor’s note: This is the last of three articles on the views of speakers who will participate in the Moana Nui 2011 conference during APEC. Read an article by the coordinator of the alternative conference.

Previous articles in this series: Moana Nui Speakers Say APEC is ‘Colonization Today in Real Time’ and Moana Nui Speaker Challenges People to Examine APEC More Closely


For most people living in Hawaii, Richard Heinberg’s message will come as no surprise. In an age of increasingly scarce resources and ever-mounting pressure from a world population which, having just reached 7 billion, is forecast to hit 8 billion by 2025, monumental change is coming our way.

“We’re going to see the collapse of institutions that looked invulnerable for decades. Institutions like major banks, perhaps whole national economies [will fail]. We need something in place as that happens. We need local infrastructure ― food and transport infrastructure.”

Heinberg, a senior fellow-in-residence at the Post Carbon Institute, and the author of 10 books with titles like “The End of Growth,” “Peak Everything” and “The Party’s Over,” is one of the best known and respected minds addressing peak oil ― the understanding that the days of relatively easy to get, inexpensive fossil fuels that have allowed us to build the world we live in today, are over.

Heinberg argues that our current economic systems are unsustainable. The notion that we must constantly pursue economic growth and expansion, the very concepts advocated by the WTO (World Trade Organization) and APEC, and associated free trade agreements, are ultimately bad for the earth, Heinberg says.

Speaking from his home in northern California, just four days before the first Occupy Wall Street protests began, Heinberg said that the reliance on uninterrupted, inexpensive oil supplies and our dependency on systems of credit for exchange make the globalization of trade highly vulnerable.

“The take-away from all this is we need to develop more local resilience, more self-sufficiency and a greater ability to provision ourselves within our local ecosystems,” Heinberg said.

“Human beings have been trading for thousands of years and trade is never going to go away entirely. But the scale and scope of trade we have developed over the past few decades is largely dependent on cheap fossil fuels, satellite communications, container ships and a few key technologies that are highly vulnerable and [will be] increasingly so as time goes on,” he says.

Heinberg’s delivery is blunt, but calm. He speaks in even tones with the reassuring voice of a trusted friend delivering grim news.

To base our vision of the future on following the trends of the last few decades, Heinberg insists, is irresponsible and unrealistic.

“We’re playing musical chairs with world resources as we deplete them. The music is stopping and a lot of people are going to find themselves chairless.”

Is APEC Evil?

So if endless economic growth is destructive and international trade is a risky gamble, are the people who navigate the APEC agenda misguided? Are they delusional, or perhaps even evil?

“Evil is a very loaded word,” Heinberg says. “Everybody is good in their own eyes and I am sure that’s true of these [APEC] folks too. They probably genuinely believe that by increasing global trade they are spreading benefits to everyone.”

“That’s been the idea of economic growth for the past few decades — the rising tide lifts all boats eventually. But that’s assuming growth can go on forever which is absurd.”

“We need international cooperation,” Heinberg says. “But the cooperation we need is in different areas from the ones APEC is focusing on. We need international cooperation to protect our ecosystems, protect indigenous cultures and we need international cooperation to share renewable energy technologies.”

The APEC approach, he says, is not the right one.

“What we are doing with organizations like APEC is mostly the opposite. We are undermining indigenous cultures through increasing global trade, undermining local ecosystems through resource extraction and preventing access to renewable energy technology through enforcement of intellectual property rights.”

“We need a counter-APEC to do almost exactly the opposite of what is happening now,” he says.

Could APEC Be a Force For Good?

If APEC were to rethink itself and take a different approach, Heinberg says it could be a positive force for international cooperation. But he admits that’s very unlikely. “They see increasing trade and economic growth as their reason for existence. It would be much better to “fold up shop and start over,” Heinberg says.

To prepare for the coming changes, the soft-spoken Heinberg says people need to talk to one another about their needs, their visions and their abilities.

As the entire world faces enormous challenges in the decades ahead, Heinberg says he can imagine Hawaii forging its own path.

“If Hawaii had a much lower population, it might have an easier transition, but that’s not an option. How do you maintain the current population without large scale imports of energy, raw materials and manufactured goods? That’s a tough one. It’s going to require a lot of cooperation and ingenuity.”

Looking at Hawaii’s economy, Heinberg says two of the state’s biggest economic drivers — tourism and the military — are both dubious pursuits which, regardless of any perceived economic stability they may have provided in the past, are likely to be short-lived from here on out.

“There might be some short-term benefit [from tourism] but it’s very fossil fuel dependent… it’s not the basis for a long-term economy,” Heinberg says.

Likewise, the huge military presence in Hawaii, Heinberg says, is detrimental to Hawaii. “This is not money that is being generated on the basis of any kind of sustainable local development. It’s just cash that is being parachuted in from outside.”

Rather than serve as a military garrison in the middle of the Pacific, Heinberg suggests Hawaii take its cue from New Zealand, which largely stays out of international military posturing.

A successful transition in a post-peak oil world, Heinberg says, will require a break from the deep economic disparities of today. “The only way a society can make this kind of transition without collapse is to reduce its levels of inequality. That basically means sharing ― everybody’s got to share more.”


DISCUSSION: *What do you think about Heinberg’s views of APEC? Share your thoughts about APEC below. And don’t miss our APEC survival guide.

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