Book Review: “The Party’s Over” – Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, by Richard Heinberg
One in a long line of recent books about peak oil, this book speaks from the perspective of oil engineers and scientists. Based on their perspective, a world-wide Hubbert’s peak for oil is being reached somewhere around now, between 2005-2010.
Carrying on with the theme of the ‘cheap oil fiesta’ announced by Richard Kunstler in his book, “The Long Emergency,” Heinberg agrees that the ‘party’ is over, and, cutting to the chase, agrees with Kunstler that no technological fix(es) will suffice to completely replace oil and it’s products - gasoline, jet fuel and natural gas. He says essentially we had better be prepared for a combination of new technologies and reduced material living standards.
Heinberg starts with a description of the first and second laws of thermodynamics (the first says energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed, the second says that conversion leads to dissipation of energy) and shows how there is no ‘perpetual motion’ machine in the universe, as much as humans have attempted to invent one. The second law also says that entropy in closed systems increases. The universe is a closed system, as far as we know now, and so is the earth. Hence, entropy is the ultimate fate of the earth and the universe, and our best hope is a ‘climax ecosystem.’ He proceeds to describe the workings of the earth’s biosphere and it’s development into a climax ecosystem - a balanced, sustainable environment. On the road to a climax ecosystem, or growing out of it, there is a danger that some organism will become more populous than the system can support, due to a sudden massive increase in food. When the ‘food’ runs out, the population will ‘overshoot’ habitability, which will resort in a massive die-off of the species eating that food. He considers humans to have acted no differently, to date, than any rat, fruit fly or bacteria would if confronted with a new abundant food source - oil. And our fate may be the same if it runs out.
From this model, Heinberg thinks humans are reaching a point where there might be a massive die-off, due to the collapse in the oil supply, our ‘food’ and the foundation of our present world agriculture. Other theorists, like James Lovelock, the discoverer of “Gaia,” featured in last month’s Rolling Stone, think global warming, and attendant droughts and starvation, could lead to a die off. The numbers they toy with are a remaining 2 or 3.5 billion of 7 billion people, Heinberg the more 'optimistic. ' These are catastrophic projections.
Heinberg includes a short history of the development of petroleum, and it’s incredible in-built energy. The United States was the discoverer of mass oil, and its first beneficiary - it is the technical foundation of our society. Gasoline is one of the most efficient fuels ever discovered - one gallon can do the work of 510 man hours of work. The dangers of relying on this non-renewable resource are environmental degradation, climate change and eventual over-dependency on a phantom. The defeat of Germany and Japan were both linked to their lack of fuel. When Eisenhower created the interstate system in the 1950s, he helped destroy rail all over the country, something we are still grappling with today. In 1970, Hubbert’s oil peak was reached in the U.S., much as Hubbert had predicted. Heinberg notes that now U.S. troops are in 120 countries, and have established bases near oil and gas pipelines all over the world.
Heinberg takes petroleum scientist supporters of Hubbert’s methodology and presents their arguments. They think Saudi claims of reserves are inaccurate, and are propagated for political reasons, as the alleged Saudi reserve has not changed in 17 years! Nor have the reserves of every other Middle Eastern country. Nearly every known oil field in the world is past peak – Northsea, Mexico, Nigeria, Algeria, Iran, Russia, etc. The peak is for almost every kind of oil. Heavy Venezuelan and Canadian oil tar are included in the book, though not at peak. They may produce more in the future that other fields, but their costs and consequences are much greater than regular oil. To replace world oil with Canadian oil shale would require 700 fuel plants and a water waste lagoon the size of Lake Erie to process it all. He concludes that the relatively short historic industrial interval of oil is coming to a close.
To make his second point on the uniqueness of oil, he goes through each replacement technology one by one. Natural gas, coal, nuclear, wind, solar, hydrogen, hydro, geothermal, tides and waves, biomass, fusion and conservation all have their ‘at bat.’ Natural gas is near or at peak itself. Coal is highly carbon-positive, and its efficiency is growing less as more efficient coal has already been mined. Coal’s global peak is around 2050. Nuclear is promising, but it would take many years to build all the nuclear plants required, not to mention the dangers of nuclear materials themselves. He has no problem with wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and tides and waves, although he thinks smaller hydro dams are more feasible, but taken together, these all cannot provide the same energy as oil. Hydrogen is also feasible, but at this point is extremely expensive. He points out ethanol is taking food to feed SUVs. Using ethanol to replace oil would require planting corn in more acres than the world even has in arable land. In the process it is destroying the tree environment needed to combat global warming, for instance in Brazil. The efficiencies of biomass are modest, and again, no substitute for oil on a mass basis. Fusion and its offshoots have never worked.
Conservation through efficiencies and curtailment of energy use is his last suggestion. He concludes that curtailment is more efficient that efficiencies, which have been resorted to already in many areas. Curtailment is thought to be the least palatable politically.
Heinberg’s last section is on what the world will look like in 50 years after peak oil. Well, think about it. Flying to Australia on vacation? Wrapping products in plastic? Steak? Oranges on trucks from California? Everything made out of plastic? Bus service for schools? Just look around, and you will start to get an idea of what will change. Almost everything.
Heinberg thinks the future will bring greater clashes between the classes and he is absolutely right. Peak oil will create a more and more stratified society of haves and have nots. The white collar middle class we have, based on finance capital, will shrink, as the economy shrinks. While Heinberg discounts classical Marxism as rooted in the ‘19th century,’ Marxism is actually rooted in the working class itself. Marxism, although it grew at the same time as the oil explosion, is not related to hyper industrialism per se, or growth. In fact, Marxism is far more compatible with the sustainable, collective society that will be necessary to survive peak oil and global warming than capitalism. The working class is not going away in the future. If anything, a local industrial and agrarian working class will be needed again to replace the oil labor being performed by machines. Shoes will not be exclusively made in China - in fact we might not be able to ship shoes from China. Human labor is not passé.
Some estimate U.S. living standards will go back to the 1890s as oil use declines. I guess about the 1940s. Predictions, of course, are different for the main capitalist countries as opposed to those in the 2nd and 3rd worlds. Whatever the case, Marxism started developing during the Paris Commune in 1870. I would say Marxists or the working class have no fear of being ‘outdated’ by a return to older or more sustainable technologies. We have no alternative to survival. In fact, we might be right at home.
Red Frog – 11/06/2007
“And I bought it at MayDay Books!”