21 December 2007

"The world ends tomorrow. Let's see how that will effect today's stock market."

The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World
Paul Roberts
Houghton Mifflin, 2004

Roberts, while attempting to be comprehensive in his treatment of the coming end of the oil age, omits several crucial points in his attempts at "balanced" reporting.

The author discusses the centrality of the politically volatile (and at times uncooperative) OPEC nations to the oil economy, and notes that the lion's share of geopolitical strategy and military adventurism is over energy supplies. The impending peak in oil production is as much a danger to our energy economy as are geopolitical machinations, but he downplays the consequences of peak oil after a cursory review of the literature, concluding rather tepidly that, "the picture for long-term oil is not encouraging." Given that the developing nations, specifically China and India, are expanding their energy consumption, this picture is definitely not encouraging.

Roberts also discusses the technological options that we may use to extend the oil economy as well as to transition into the next energy economy. He presents the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed hydrogen economy, of increased energy efficiency, and of combinations of different energy sources, yet he does not also note that many alternative sources of energy presuppose an underlying petroleum economy. This latter idea, connected to the concept of ERoEI (energy returned/energy invested), would seem to be essential to understanding our energy options, and its omission from Robert's analysis and reporting was conspicuous.

The author is also far too optimistic in his assessment of solutions delivered by the deus ex machina of free market technoscience; the sense of "can-do" that permeates this book is reminiscent of an ostrich with its head in the sand. I agree with Robert Anton Wilson that resources are less about what exists "out there" and more about our creative use of what exists, but I simply cannot imagine approaching this impending crisis creatively solely in the context of the "free market." As Roberts himself notes repeatedly, the free market has little incentive for investing in alternative ideas or marginal technologies when the existing economy is so lucrative. Instead of driving innovation, it seems that petrocapitalism stifles through its preference for the profitable, if catastrophically unsustainable, status quo. Roberts seems to recognize the need for intervention into the free market (like including "externalities" in the prices of the oil economy), yet his reliance on market solutions fills the book.

Thankfully, on the penultimate page, Roberts' facade cracks and he admits, "frankly, though, the thought of any kind of delay, no matter how rationally justified, terrifies me." This recognition of the seriousness of the problem, belated though it was, restored a bit of my confidence in the reporting that had preceded it.

(This review was originally written on January 1, 2007.)

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