21 December 2007

Heinberg is a definitely a Cassandra, but remember what happened to those who ignored her

The Party's Over: Oil, War And The Fate Of Industrial Societies
Richard Heinberg
New Society Publishers, 2005

Richard Heinberg set out to answer the questions, "How much petroleum is left? How much coal, natural gas, and uranium? Will we ever run out? When? What will happen when we do? How can we best prepare? Will renewable substitutes--such as wind and solar power--enable industrialism to continue in a recognizable form indefinitely?" (p. 3) He sorted the various responses to these questions into four broad voices--those of free-market economists, environmental activists, petroleum geologists, and politicians--and of these four, he found the third, the petroleum geologists, to be the most useful, if only because "theirs is a long-range view based on physical reality" (p.5). (Throughout the book, Heinberg notes that the free-market economists are almost constitutionally opposed to talk of Peak Oil, because, as economist Robert Solow said, "the world can, in effect, get along without natural resources." Resources, in other words, are merely commodities created by the market to satisfy demands, and when the demand arises, the market will find a supply. Needless to say, Heinberg finds this laissez faire approach to Peak Oil--"perilous optimism"--quite dangerous because it ignores hard ecological realities.)

"The message here is that we are about to enter a new era in which each year, less net energy will be available to humankind, regardless of our efforts or choices. The only significant choice we will have will be how to adjust to this new regime" (p.5). In short, an ecological perspective on humanity's consumption of petroleum and other nonrenewable resources reveals that the astronomical population growth and economic expansion of the last century are the biological bloom and population overshoot enabled by an energy subsidy from cheap, abundant oil, coal, and natural gas. As with other population overshoots in human (and evolutionary) history, the end probably won't be pretty, with massive die-offs and "structural readjustments" (to use free-market lingo) bringing the human population back into line with the Earth's carrying capacity. Heinberg's book challenges us to face this coming change NOW and to do what we can to mitigate against its worst effects through exploring and developing economical and social alternatives to the status quo.

The discovery of new oil resources peaked several decades ago, according to the majority of petroleum geologists, and as it seems that discovery and production follow similar curves, it will be but a matter of years until the production of oil peaks. (For the record, this doesn't mean that we will literally run out of oil, but only that it will seem like we've run out, because it will cost more--financially and energetically--to extract and refine the oil than it is worth.) The peak in oil production won't merely have a direct impact on the automobile industry, but will also undermine the production of plastics and pharmaceuticals, of which oil is the feed stock, and will yank the rug out from under petro-intensive, corporate, "Green Revolution" agriculture. Combine these consequences with growing population and energy consumption of developing nations like China and India, and you have a recipe for seriously ugly changes. Like James Howard Kunstler in The Long Emergency, Heinberg examines various other energy sources and technologies, from natural gas to zero-point energy, and finds them all wanting in one way or another. (Unlike Kunstler, Heinberg maintains a solid faith in our flexibility as a species and in our ability to adapt.) According to this perspective, oil (and other nonrenewables) were a one-time windfall in ecological terms, and once we've passed the peak in extracting them, we will have to recognize our ecological limitations as one species amongst many struggling for limited resources.

I recently read PowerDown, the follow-up to this book, and found it an excellently written, powerful and thought-provoking read. Perhaps it's because I read The Party's Over in conjunction with the contrarian book The Bottomless Well (Huber and Mills) or perhaps it's because I'm a bit burned out reading books on Peak Oil, but whatever the reason I did not find this book as compelling as its sequel. That said, it is still a better introduction to the subject of Peak Oil and to its ecological basis and implications than most others I have yet read.

(This review was originally written on February 10, 2007.)

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