BOOKS/Danila Oder

21st Century: The Oil Era Is Ending

The war in Iraq is first about proactively ensuring US access to Iraq's oil reserves and second about positioning the US military to keep Arabian oil flowing when the Saudi monarchy collapses. Our policy-makers clearly will do anything to avoid telling voters the truth: World oil production is about to peak, and to maintain our standard of living, we have to grab a larger slice of the world's oil resources -- now.

Those are conclusions I think most people will reach after reading The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies [Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 2003]. The author, Richard Heinberg, is on the faculty at the New College of California, where he specializes in energy resources issues. The book is clearly written and well-edited, and appeals to both undergraduates and the adult general reader.

The Party's Over starts with the basics, a primer on energy and a history of energy sources (wood-coal-gas-oil) in the West. Chapter 3 is the center of the book. Heinberg chose, he says, to adopt the point of view of petroleum geologists, who are in the best position to tell us how much oil is available. The concept of peak world production is a surprisingly effective hook on which to hang the book.

World oil production will peak between 2006-2015, then slowly decline. However, world demand for oil will continue to grow as countries industrialize and automobile use increases. As the price of oil rises, industrial economies, which are based on oil, will suffer political and economic shocks. We won't run out of oil right away, but our standard of living will drop as oil prices skyrocket.

The problem is, oil is irreplaceable. Huge amounts of oil are used in agriculture (fertilizer), industry (plastics) and transportation (cars, trucking, planes, the military). Coal is abundant, but is less efficient and more polluting. Coal can't be used for motorized transport, and its net energy (yield over input) may become negative in a few decades. Natural gas is a short-term solution -- US production has plateaued and at current usage levels, proven reserves will last less than 10 years. Nuclear power is not sustainable. Solar panels are still too expensive to be widely used, though a new low-cost dye technology is promising. Hydropower has unappealing environmental effects. Wind has great potential for producing electricity, but doesn't help with fertilizer or plastics. Hydrogen is a low return-on-energy-investment fuel that is manufactured from natural gas.

Unfortunately, energy efficiency isn't the answer. "Many efforts toward energy efficiency actually constitute a kind of shell game in which direct uses are replaced by indirect ones ..." Think of buying a new, higher MPG car but ignoring the energy used in manufacturing it. We also need to curtail energy use.

Alternative energy sources can cushion the transition away from oil, but "... decades will be required -- and we do not have decades before the peaks in the extraction rates of oil and natural gas occur ... [the] alternatives will be unable to support the kinds of transportation, food and dwelling infrastructure we now have ..."

What will the transition look like? At best, a slow deceleration to a sustainable level. That means lower energy use, and a world population of about two billion. At worst, "a century of impending famine, disease, economic collapse, despotism, and resource wars." Heinberg believes that in the US, electrical grids will collapse, the information infrastructure will be lost, and the nation will devolve into regions.

Can it be avoided? Here's an example of the level of commitment necessary: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says 60% of energy usage in the US could be supplied by wind. But to supply by 2030 just 18% of present energy demand, about 20,000 state-of-the-art wind turbines would have to be installed in the US every year starting now. Land would have to be bought or leased, and manufacturing capacity ramped up: only 4,000 turbines are made annually in the entire world. This commitment also requires reserving large amounts of fossil fuels for the turbines' manufacture, transport and installation.

The problem isn't new. By 1960, the oil companies had good estimates of current oil reserves. The 1973 oil crisis showed the public our dependence on foreign oil. But that truth was obscured behind the fog of Morning in America. The last president who told the public the truth -- that we had to cut back -- was Jimmy Carter.

Party is a popularization and contextualization of recent works by several petroleum geologists, e.g., Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage [Princeton University Press, 2001], by Kenneth S. Deffeyes. (Readers who want more technical detail than Heinberg offers can see and Following the geologists, Heinberg's strategy of treating oil as a product of the earth rather than an abstraction ("energy") is surprisingly fresh.

What can the reader do about the coming crisis? I would say, first, reevaluate your investments. A temporary economic recovery is possible -- the government's Job Two (after securing energy) is keeping Wall Street happy. But investors won't be fooled forever. Oil is a material fact, not a dot-com promise. Second, continue to try to change national policies. Heinberg's suggestions are an (unfortunately) familiar catalogue of environmentalist and populist reforms. Third, consider his survivalist suggestions. The US may succeed in grabbing Middle Eastern oil fields, which could postpone the crisis for 10 or 20 years. But it will come. The Americans most vulnerable to terrorism and loss of services will be city dwellers, not rural survivalists.

The people must lead the politicians when the truth is unpleasant. Cornucopians (people who say there's plenty of oil) claim we can find more oil if we use new technology, drill deeper, drill someplace new, or speed up exploration. I wish Heinberg had realized the book could be used as an activist tool. He doesn't provide refutations and packaged facts that would enable the reader to easily write letters to the editor, and his rebuttal section is too short and diffuse to be really convincing.

With that minor caveat, The Party's Over is well worth reading. Give it to your friends who believe that the Iraq war is not about oil.

After you get over the shock of Heinberg's extrapolations, think about positive ways to present a stripped-down future. (Artists especially are needed to imagine the transition.) If positive futures aren't available, a frightened and disoriented public will flock to anyone who promises national greatness and trains that run on time. Even if the cost is perpetual war. We saw it in the 1930s: it may very well happen here.

Danila Oder is a writer in Los Angeles.

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