Brave nightmare world - The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World by Paul Roberts
If the past is truly the prologue to the future, then author Paul Roberts, a longtime contributor to Harper's magazine, has served us well. For in large part, his book is a history of not only oil but of humanity's quest for energy. As he notes, for most of the past 6,000 years, human history has been characterized by a constant struggle to harness ever-larger quantities of energy in ever more useful ways. The wide-scale use of coal in England set the conditions for the Industrial Revolution. A century later, oil and natural gas completed the transformation, dragging the industrializing world into modernity and in the process, fundamentally and irrevocably reordering life at every level.
In short, energy is the Holy Grail. As Roberts writes:
Energy has become the currency of political and economic power, the determinant of the hierarchy of nations, a new marker, even, for success and material advancement. Access to energy has thus emerged as the overriding imperative of the 21st century. It is a guiding geopolitical principle for all governments, and a largely unchallenged heuristic for a global energy industry whose success is based entirely on its ability to find, produce, and distribute ever-larger volumes of coal, oil, and natural gas, and their most common by-product, electricity. Yet even a cursory look reveals that, for all its great successes, our energy economy is fatally flawed, in nearly every respect. The oil industry is among the least stable of all business sectors, tremendously vulnerable to destructive price swings and utterly dependent on corrupt, despotic "petrostates" with uncertain futures.
That, however, does not begin to cover the downside. Other factors must include climate change due to the greenhouse effect; the finite quantities of petroleum remaining; the challenges of finding, producing and distributing it; its use in generating electricity - the fastest-growing segment of the energy market - and its overwhelming demand on the existing infrastructure; the breakdown of the energy system in the developing world, where the urgent quest for survival doesn't allow for environmental considerations; and the future energy demands of countries such as China or India, to name just a few of the issues Roberts covers.
Roberts' reporting is both wide-ranging and insightful. In detailing the global oil addiction, his travels take him from Saudi Arabian oilfields to Azerbaijani pipelines to natural-gas terminals in Mexico to a Vancouver power company to wars between competing gas-station chains in China.
But he never strays far from his central point: that the energy economy is changing, and not always for the better. We no longer have a choice in the matter. To use a favored expression from those who talk about the probabilities of another September 11, it is not a question of if, it's a question of when.
Make no mistake, change is coming. And if history is any guide at all, it will be traumatic. That is assuming that the countries of the world actually try to cooperate with one another on issues such as energy conservation or adopting new energy technologies, ie natural gas, hydrogen, solar and wind. It also assumes willingness on the part of the existing multinational energy companies to move forward on these technologies instead of trying to wring every last cent out of their existing capital stock. That is not something the current US administration is likely to encourage given its existing ideology.