Monday, 28 February 2011

The End of Oil by Paul Roberts

The End of Oil outlines the history of our relationship with energy and the crisis we have reached as we come to the peak in easily available oil. We are taken through the development of the oil economy and shown how oil engineers international relationships, with some interesting insights into the relationship between the USA and Saudi Arabia.

My biggest disappointment was that the book was very conservative when looking at energy futures. There is a chapter on conservation and efficiency, but after that there was barely another mention of these two vital steps towards creating an energy future that can sustain human civilisation without causing grave environmental degradation. Despite acknowledging how dire the situation is, the author seems unable to think about energy futures that are not dominated by current economic orthodoxies. Admittedly, reading this book made me more aware of the economic difficulties around creating an energy future based on alternative power sources (eg solar and wind). Also the author makes a fair point about the need to create a transitional energy economy so that we can move smoothly from depending on fossil fuels to a future based on alternative energy sources. However given that we are running out of easily accessible oil we surely need to think radically if we are to avoid devastating climate change, a potential sudden collapse in living standards and increasing environmental damage from dirty oil (such as the Canadian tar sands) and oil developments in fragile environments (such as the Arctic). We need to rethink our economic structures (including pricing of oil and petroleum products), reduce consumerism (without reducing people's quality of life), invest in energy conservation and efficiency and embrace genuinely appropriate technologies and genuine localism (without losing our sense of global connection).

The book is written very much from a US standpoint. I found it odd that even though the author acknowledges that European companies and politicians are taking the lead in alternative sources of energy that we can only move forward in any meaningful way if the US takes a lead. The book was written in 2004 and as such is out of date already. I can recommend it for the historical background, but I'll need to read further to find any genuinely radical thinking about our energy futures.

The End of Oil by Paul Roberts

11 comments:

Elizabeth Rimmer said...

It's almost a contradiction to reduce consumption without reducing quality of life. I think we have to be blunt that materially we are inevitably going to be worse off. In the process, we may improve quality of life in other areas - social and spiritual and creative, and I think that's a good trade. But that involves letting go of a lot of assumptions, and that will take a lot of work.

bunnygirl said...

I've been following Peak Oil for more than a decade now and I've written a lot of fiction that takes place in a post-peak world. The idea has gained more acceptance than it had ten years ago, but there's still too much magical thinking out there ("someone will think of something") and not enough action.

Unfortunately, many of the actions we need to take to prevent a hard crash need to be taken as a society, not as individuals. Try buying a week's worth of groceries where nothing is in plastic, for example. Impossible!

We need to be transitioning and conserving so we can draw out the supply of cheap oil until alternatives are market-ready and affordable, but no one outside the Peak Oil movement dares to say it.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Elizabeth - we need to reduce standard of living absolutely, but quality of life is something different, and can be maintained to a much greater extent than can standard of living, just most people don't appreciate the simpler ways of living that this entails.

bunnygirl you're very right, most people don't talk about it and action needs largely to be on a collective scale...

Despairing said...

I read this book at the tail end of last year, and I have to say it had zero impact on me. In fact, when I saw you were reviewing it, I looked up at it on my shelf and tried to remember anything in it. I came away blank.

Which is a shame, because there's a great story to be told about the rise and fall of oil. Perhaps we're 10 or 20 years off the point where people can lay out the whole oil "timeline".

Crafty Green Poet said...

Despairing - i agree, if I hadn't written this review, I would forget all about the book and the issue is worth so much more...

Wick Daily Photo said...

The problem is that politicians are unable to think of the long term while too busy considering the short term.

gabriellebryden said...

Great review CGP. We are running out of oil, there is no doubt about that, and the harder to get to stuff will be very expensive because of that reason. The thing that scares me is that politicians will just see nuclear solutions as the 'efficient' global solution (as opposed to the fragmented solar, wind etc., solutions) and that will be a disaster for the earth in terms of safety etc., We have reached a crisis and no one is doing anything about it except whinge about the price of petrol.

Rabbits' Guy said...

I must pose some alternative thoughts.

First, here in the USofA we pay about $3.50 a gallon for gas. We even refuse to pay a few extra hundredths of a cent per gallon locally to prepare for and assist with any oil spill cleanup that may be one day necessary due to the high number of Alaska Oil Tank ships that unload here. If our per gallon cost was about $6.50 you can bet we would consume a LOT less and change some life style too.

Second, many places in the US have, for several years now, more or less maxed out on the electricity they can reasonably generate. So conservation became the watch word and most places (and certainly all new places and devices)consume considerably less electricity than just a few years ago. Energy (and water) conservation through a few changes and technology and matrials and incentives has a huge potential yet.

Third, as the price of gasoline goes up then we will mine oil from most of North Dakota or South Dakota and be able to sell the excess to the Chinese at a profit, even though the cost to extract and refine is higher than today.

Fourth, if recent (50 years?)history is a guide, before long the big carbon dioxide emitters will pay dearly to do so and those who manage not too will reap the economic benefit. Gosh sakes, for quite some time now, the electric companies here will pay you to put in new windows so you don't have to buy so much of their product. Weird, huh?

I don't mean to make light of a serious problem(s) but I doubt that reverting to the "Old, Simpler" ways or times will ever go over big, especially with so many other alternatives or without first some apocalypse as Bunny girl writes so well about.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Wick - absolutely, short termism is a real problem

Gabrielle - yes, everyone just complains about the prices (and then prices are driven down again to avoid upsetting people!)

Rabbits' Guy - conservation and efficiency are hugely important and as I said in the review, they're not covered as topics in the book. Inexplicably I then overlooked them in my list of what we need to do so I'll just re-edit the post! Thanks

Sandy's witterings said...

For somebody who makes his living from oil, I surprisingly unworried about it - maybe it's only being a couple of decades of retirement that helps. I'm sure the technology to do without oil is almost there but money is making people drag their feet.

d. moll, l.ac. said...

Certainly oil based lifestyles are going to have to change, it seems unlikely that the transition will be an easy one. I know I will be unpopular to say this, but a bigger problem may be over population....