The End of Oil
By Jamais Cascio
During a multi-hour delay at the airport for my return home yesterday, I picked up the newly-released paperback version of journalist Paul Roberts' The End of Oil (originally released in 2004, the paperback includes a new Afterword), and finished the book on the plane. Although I disagree with some of Roberts' analysis, I was impressed at his ability to draw together a number of factors and ideas that aren't often spoken of in the same sentence outside of places like WorldChanging. Environmental pressures moving us away from oil are given similar weight to issues of scarcity and depletion; efficiency of use is accorded as much importance as hydrogen fuel cells (although the book was clearly written before a number of recent breakthroughs in battery technologies); the economics of global development are taken into account alongside great power profligacy. The End of Oil is impressive and sobering introduction to the gravity of the energy and environmental challenge we face globally. It's less impressive -- although still useful -- when it addresses what to do to meet that challenge.
It's not a Bright Green book by any means -- Roberts seems hesitant to put some pieces together, and is ultimately too attached to the conventional wisdom -- but neither is it a rehash of commonplace arguments and examples. Call it Tarnished Green, just needing a bit of work to make it Bright.
As might be expected from the title, The End of Oil is a good introduction to the question of oil production peaks and the economics of transitioning away from the petroleum world. Roberts hits the major talking points: oil field production rates (declining, often faster than expected); how easily new "undiscovered" oil sources can be found (not easily at all); the costs of non-conventional oil sources (high, but do-able); and how ready we are to move away from oil (globally, not very, and in the US, not at all). His very tentative and fairly conservative projections of when peak production will hit are unlikely to satisfy the online Peak Oil crowd, but will still scare the pants off of people accustomed to thinking that cheap oil remains plentiful. He mentions numerous times that there are those who claim that the peak happened in the last few years, but -- while never outright dismissing the assertion -- he doesn't seem to buy it.
His discussion of the nuances of global oil politics is among the best I've seen. Not satisfied with simplistic "war for oil" or "terrorist state" depictions, Roberts gives one of the very few accounts of the current US administration's global strategy that is both able to explain it in a way that makes sense and still be clear-eyed about its overwhelming focus on oil. He is clearly no fan of the choices this administration has made, but refrains from caricature and one-dimensional analysis. While the peak production section gives the book its aura of doom, the political analysis chapters are its intellectual center, and are enough to make the book worth reading.
Roberts is less successful in comparison when he looks at possible responses, as he gives a decent (if somewhat dated) accounting of the various technologies able to meet the needs of a world soon to run low on oil. He provides an appropriate level of attention to natural gas and coal, and is straightforward about the challenges they present. Much of his information on solar and wind will seem a few years stale to WorldChanging readers, however, and he never mentions ocean energy (wave/tide/current) production. I was rather pleased that, just at the point when I started to mumble under my breath "what about efficiency?", he had a full chapter on conservation and efficiency, starting with Dick Cheney's infamous dismissal of conservation as "perhaps a personal virtue" (when it was conservation, not new energy production, that pulled California out of the 2000-2001 Enron blackouts) and full of lengthy comments from Amory Lovins.
I was most disappointed by his chapter on global warming, however. Although he in no way dismisses the argument or underplays the danger it presents, he has something of a schizophrenic response to it -- at one point, encouraging delays on implementation on carbon limits because better technologies will undoubtedly arrive in the near future, while just a few pages later lamenting how long it takes to make big system-level changes to technologies of energy production and use. He seems impressed by the efforts of Germany and Japan to push the adoption of zero-carbon systems, but is unwilling to question the argument of his main economic interviewee, who claims that our best option is to wait, because this is a "slow-motion disaster."
The greater problem I had with his overall argument is that he seems to have many of the pieces of a worldchanging future in his hands, but is unwilling or unable to put them together. He dismisses leapfrogging by asserting (without evidence) that developing nations will have to go through the same "smokestack industries" and dirty energy that the West has already gone through; later in the book, he celebrates the possibility that China might -- with help -- be able to avoid the pollution from coal by building only advanced coal plants and moving aggressively to renewable sources. Similarly, he pooh-poohs any argument that developing countries could adopt solar and wind as greater parts of their energy systems by saying that they don't have the transmission infrastructure to support them, even though much of his discussion of solar and wind in the West concerns their decentralizing and distributed production capacities.
A sign that Roberts may get it more than he lets on (or even more than he might admit to himself) comes at the end of the book. In his last chapter, Roberts presents two scenarios, one representing the pessimistic (or "realistic") view of where we are headed, the other the optimistic (or "unlikely") view. In each, he posits a few early indicators of which path we're on. It's clear that he sees the darker path as being far more likely to occur.
In the year since The End of Oil was published, far more of the early indicators of the "optimistic" scenario have occurred than indicators of the "realistic" scenario.
That doesn't mean that Roberts' optimistic alternative is now pre-determined, only that the game is not over. We may all still be doomed, of course, but doom is not the only possible outcome. It's the WorldChanging mantra, said here again and again: the planet is in trouble, but we have the tools available to us to build a better world, if we choose to use them.
Roberts pulls few punches when it comes to sketching out the possibility of disaster, and the book's key value is that it leaves the reader with a stark, clear and fairly realistic appreciation of the scale of the challenge we'll face this century. His more hesitant discussion of the plausibility of successful response undoubtedly comes in part from a desire to avoid encouraging complacency, but keeps the book from being as eye-opening as it might otherwise be. I wouldn't recommend The End of Oil as a WorldChanging primer, but it's a good get-up-to-speed-quickly text for those who want to understand the world that we're trying to avoid.