Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The Party's Over

Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies by Richard Heinberg

We all know that there's a problem with fossil fuels, but do we really know how bad this problem is going to be? In this comprehensive and enormous book (300 pages of analysis) Richard Heinberg takes a long and careful look at the issue.

He tells the story of how coal, oil and other energy sources enabled industrial societies to bloom and flourish over a relatively short period of time. He also explains how access to "cheap energy" had an impact on agriculture, technology, population growth and war. It is interesting to note how many of the world's conflicts have ultimately been about energy.

Having explained why fossil fuels are so crucial, he then explains why the good years may soon be over. The key researcher here is a man called Marrion King Hubbert who first calculated the date of peak oil production in 1949. "Hubbert's Peak" is an extremely significant point in world history, since it marks the beginning of a steady decline in the availabilty of oil and consequent price rises. According to Heinberg, this date is somewhere between 2003 and 2010 - although he does point out that it will only be possible to see when it was in retrospect...
This may sound like a peice of abstract geological theory, but it has huge consequences. The price of oil affects transportation, electric power, industrial production and the economy. If there are problems with these basic issues, there will be consequent effects on healthcare, social welfare, food production, and so on...

To add insult to injury, Heinberg points out that none of the "alternative" sources of energy are quite as "cheap" as oil and many of them are dependent on cheep fuel to make them available.

As Heinberg says, the party will soon be over. We have been used to an economic bubble of continuous growth and development, but this has been dependent on a readily available fuel source that is about to run out. The concequences will be ecomonic decline, conflict and de-population.

There's very little we can do to reverse this inevitable decline, but we can choose to face it in a number of different ways. Inevitably some will choose conflict or self-interest, but they may only hasten more dramatic problems. Heinberg suggests that we raddically conserve energy use, look for alternative enegy sources ASAP, adopt less energy dependent technology, grow our own food, and cut back on transport use. He also suggests that nations need to pre-empt the inevitable issues by remodelling food and financial systems and act quickly to create a global strategy.

Is this time to panic?

If you're a pessimist, go ahead!
If you're an optimist, you may have your head in the sand anyway, so don't worry...

If you're willing to face reality, then this is a book for you. There are challenging times ahead, but there are things we can do to make this a really significant time of change. If we handle the next two centuries with a bit of wisdom then we should finish up with quite a comfortable planet.

Alaister Darling was recently criticised for saying that the Credit Crunch would be more serious than people expected. It was felt more ecomonically prudent to say that things were fine.

A society should not be judged by how it acts when things are going well, but how it responds when there are challenges ahead. If we have a time of scarcity to face, then we must ensure that we are up to the task. History will judge us by how we seek justice, equality and peace - even when easier and simpler solutions are at hand.

Let's face the music and dance!

Here's a video that explains the problem in depth:

Or an interview with Richard Heinberg himself:


Jo said...

I've been on about Hubbard's Peak for years. The concept has really taken off recently. I guess its because we're probably living it at the moment. Not a great time to be alive. But its something that should be faced up to.

Anonymous said...

Oil is cheaper now than it has been in real terms through most of the seventies and most of the eighties. If it were about to run out, it would be much more expensive. Yet supply continues to exceed demand.