Sunday, July 4, 2010

War and the Fate of Industrial Societies

The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies by Richard Heinberg. New Society,

The News & Observer

August 10, 2003

Bleak View of Our Energy Future

By Phillip Manning

If a pessimist sees the glass as half empty, then Richard Heinberg sees it as bone dry and dirty to boot. Among other catastrophes, he predicts “that the global industrial system will probably collapse … within the next few decades.” He foresees “a century of impending famine, disease, economic collapse, despotism, and resource wars.” Furthermore, the human population of the planet will have to drop to 2 billion, which “poses a serious problem, since there are currently over six billion of us.”

What’s precipitating all this gloom? Heinberg believes that world oil production will peak soon, causing nations to scramble madly for diminishing amounts of the precious “black gold” that fuels industrial civilization. In his new book “The Party’s Over,” Heinberg, an author and educator from California, offers equal measures of hard science and apocalyptic gloom. Though his speculations about the future seem exaggerated, there is little doubt that significant changes, long unaddressed, are coming.

Heinberg’s timetable for the world oil-production peak is based on the work of several respected geologists, beginning with M. King Hubbert. In 1956, Hubbert used a curve-fitting technique to predict that the flow of U.S. oil would begin to decline between 1966 and 1972. Such predictions had been made before and proved false. But Hubbert turned out to be right; American oil production started to drop in 1970.

Since then, geologists have refined Hubbert’s technique and applied it to world oil production. Their conclusions are amazingly consistent. Colin Campbell, an Oxford-trained geologist with many years of oil-exploration experience, writes that “the decline will begin before 2010.” Kenneth Deffeyes of Princeton University predicts it will happen in 2003 or 2004. “Close to 2010” predicts another geologist quoted by Heinberg. Yet another says the world oil production will peak in 2006.

Of course, some experts disagree. Heinberg presents their arguments — and then demolishes them. Chief among the Pollyannas is Bjorn Lomborg, the author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist.” Lomborg claims oil reserves are growing, that technological advances are allowing us to extract more oil from existing wells, and that substitutes for oil will be found before the wells run dry. Heinberg easily refutes two of his arguments. Since 1960, he writes, new oil discoveries have declined, and although technology allows us to extract more oil from a well than ever before, we are nearing the point where it will take more energy to get the last dregs of oil than the pumped-out crude provides.

Heinberg then attacks Lomborg’s conclusions about substitutes. One by one, he reviews the alternatives: natural gas (difficult to ship and production may peak soon); coal (abundant but polluting and gives a low net-energy yield); nuclear power (expensive and unsafe); energy conservation (crucial but not a panacea); wind power, solar power, geothermal wells, and other potential sources of energy all meet with the same dismal fate — they simply can’t replace oil. This analysis leads Heinberg to some depressing conclusions.

“Over the long term,” he writes, “the prospect of maintaining the coherence of large nation states like the US … appear dim.” As the supply of oil declines, one possibility, according to Heinberg, is that the world powers cooperate with one another to share more equitably the diminishing supplies of energy. Each nation would encourage its citizens to conserve energy and voluntarily reduce family size. But a more likely possibility, is that a few “rogue states” would attempt to grab an increasingly large share of the dwindling energy resources. These are nations “that tend to disregard international laws and treaties at will. Foremost among these are the US and to a lesser degree China.” The result: “If all-out competition is pursued … the result could be the destruction of not just industrial civilization but of humanity and most of the biosphere.”

Heinberg’s view is a bleak one. However, readers should consider two points before running to the gun shop to buy AK-47s to protect themselves in the wars for oil that Heinberg envisions. First, oil production probably will peak in the next decade. But that doesn’t mean that the world is out of oil; it simply means that year-to-year production will decline or hold steady. At some point, though, demand will exceed supply, and prices will rise. But Heinberg’s gloomy speculations of what happens then overlooks an important point: while it may be true that no other single source of energy can replace oil, together they might be able to make up the shortfall.

Solar power, for example, which now costs more than cheap oil, would become more attractive for home heating and electric power generation as oil prices increase. Natural gas, while currently not as transportable as oil, could run our cars. Nuclear power could become more feasible with stringent regulations and a secure repository for storing wastes. Conservation, while no panacea, could reduce demand for energy and moderate the economic impact of higher prices. Each alternative source of energy could replace some of the energy lost because of a diminished oil supply. Furthermore, higher prices for oil would accelerate development of improved technology, making the alternatives more attractive.

Philosophically, Heinberg’s view of the future is a pessimistic one, but history has shown that we humans are a resilient species when faced with serious problems. We have bounced back from plagues, famines, and Ice Ages. We have survived mutual assured destruction, political unrest, and world wars. If we can handle those things, my guess is we can muddle our way through a peak in world oil production. On the other hand, it never hurts to prepare. So, I agree with Heinberg on the need for more conservation and more research. The spur for thinking ahead, though, need not be turgid predictions of disaster. A more carefully reasoned appeal would work just as well.