The theory of economic growth was at the heart of Transition Town-Viroqua's "Great Unleashing" event at Viroqua High School, Saturday.
Author Richard Heinberg spoke for more than an hour detailing how theories of economic growth, coupled with history, have gotten our economy to where it is today.
Heinberg said economic growth has been only going on for the last couple hundred of years. Before that, economies stayed about the same year to year and century to century.
The gross domestic product or GDP is how economic growth is measured and closely tracks consumer consumption, Heinberg said. Also, the world's population 200 years ago was less than 1 billon. Today, it's near 7 billion.
"We can see that last 200 years have been an anomaly in all of human history," Heinberg said. "Something is going on that never happened before."
More than 200 people attend Transition Viroqua's "The Great Unleashing." The four-and-an-half hour event, which ran from 2:30-7 p.m., included various presentations, food, music, informational booths in the high school/middle school commons area and a video showing of Transition 2.0 in an adjoining classroom.
"I think it's great. A great way to work with the community and reinvest in trade work," Seth Anacker, who lives near Westby, said.
Heinberg spoke to all of the ideals encompassed by Transition Town-Viroqua.
Heinberg referenced a 1972 book titled "Limits to Growth," which he said dealt with three areas: energy, debt and climate.
Heinberg said energy is the driver in an economy. It enables people to do what they do, even though energy accounts for only 10 percent of the economy.
"If the gasoline pumps at the station run dry… does that mean the economy retracts by 10 percent? No, the economy stops dead in its tracks," Heinberg said. "The economy is all about energy."
And oil is tied to the whole economy.
"One thing we are unlikely to see is lower gas prices in a context of a booming economy," Heinberg said. "That's so 20th Century. That's the world the United States enjoyed in the 20th Century. That's the world we will never live in again — more than likely."
Debt entered the picture in the early 20th century when the advent of cheap energy gave rise to producing more consumer products at a much faster rate. Advertising convinced people they wanted more than what they realized they needed.
"But then you had to make it easy for people to afford to buy them," Heinberg said.
Heinberg said car companies were the first financial intuitions to issue loans to their customers, ushering in the idea of consume now, pay later.
"This strategy of using debt to increase economic consumption begins in the 1920s and then continues through the 20th Century, but the situation changes significantly in the 1980s," Heinberg said.
The 1980s, Heinberg said, introduced new avenues of debt — credit cards, home loans, easier-to-get car loans and student loans.
"For you, that loan is an obligation to repay; for the bank, it's an asset," Heinberg said.
In 2008, the country reached its debt limit.
"Think of it, if you take on so much debt that you can't afford to make the payments and the bank won't lend you anymore money, well you're basically at the end of the line…," Heinberg said. "That's basically where we were in 2008. It's a little more complicated than that…, but when that bubble burst, there was nowhere to go."
The third area that Heinberg touched on was climate - specifically climate change.
"Global carbon emissions, which in the result of burning fossil fuels, are changing the chemical nature of the atmosphere," Heinberg said. "We are doing the world's biggest chemistry experiment in real time."
Heinberg said this includes the world's oceans.
"The temperature is going up," Heinberg said. "And it's creating weird weather in the process."
That weird weather, Heinberg said, has become the new normal and the total cost of it will be as much or more than the economic growth impact.
"But if the economy is only growing because we're spending money on disaster recovery, what kind of growth is that?… We want growth for all the right reasons," Heinberg said.
But, Heinberg said, we are reaching the limits to growth - in real time.
"It's happening all around us," Heinberg said. "It's happening in terms of our financial system, in terms of our energy system, and in terms of the environment's ability to absorb the impacts of each of those activities."
Heinberg applauded Viroqua in its efforts as a Transition Town. And for taking the issues of energy, the economy and the environment seriously.
"It's going to take discussion, it's going to take negotiation and it's going to take hard work, but believe me it's going to go a lot better if you're looking to invest those things," Heinberg said.
Transition Town-Viroqua has been working more than a year to establish a local network dedicated to doing business locally and preparing the community for the coming of "peak oil," when the world's oil supply no longer can meet the demand. Saturday's event included information from several community causes tied to Transition Town-Viroqua's ultimate goals.