The End of Guzzlemainia

Against the Current, No. 111, July/August 2004

Michael Livingston

Apocalypse Soon? Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil
by David Goodstein
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004, 140 pages, $21.95 hardcover.

The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies
by Richard Heinberg
Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Press, 2003, 274 pages, $17.95 paper.

“THE WORLD WILL soon start to run out of conventionally produced, cheap oil. If we manage somehow to overcome the shock by shifting the burden to coal and natural gas, the two other primary fossil fuels, life may go on more or less as it has been  until we start to run out of all fossil fuels by the end of this century. And by the time we have burned up all that fuel, we may well have rendered the planet unfit for human life. Even if human life does go on, civilization as we know it will not survive, unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels.” (Goodstein, 15)

So begins David Goodstein’s frightening little book. Goodstein is not an environmentalist, and not a political radical; he is a respected physicist and academic administrator at the California Institute of Technology.

He is alarmed because, as he writes, “we cannot change the laws of nature,” and those laws include the finite and dwindling supply of oil and other fossil fuels. Much of the book is a discussion of basic science so as “to sketch out… both the opportunities and the limitations that nature has provided for us.” (19)

The most severe of those limitations is the finite supply of oil. Oil production (and other fossil fuels and minerals) tends to rise with demand until approximately half of the total supply is exhausted. After that point, the supply tends to drop steadily; the amount of oil extracted each year thus forms a bell shaped or normal curve.

The rate of discovery and the rate of consumption can predict the peak of the curve, known as Hubbert’s Peak after the oil company geophysicist who first described this phenomenon. The rate of discovery of new resources declines a couple of decades before the peak of output.

Worldwide, the rate of discovery has already started to decline.
The curve predicts that the peak of supply followed by the decline in supply will occur within 10 to 20 years, at the very latest. Once Hubbert’s Peak is reached, the declining supply will meet increasing worldwide demand, with disastrous results. The most likely result is a sharp rise in energy prices, inflation, and a major worldwide economic slump.

Rising energy costs will result in efforts to reduce energy use as well as use of other fuels such as coal or natural gas. Both of these energy sources are also finite. Their Hubbert’s Peaks are only a little further off than oil’s.

Further, coal is a major producer of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, and contributes substantially to arsenic and mercury contamination, which are released from coal when it is burned.

Goodstein believes that we can overcome the coming crisis with technological solutions. He favors massive use of nuclear energy, improved technology that uses energy more efficiently, and greater use of solar energy and wind energy. As a way of bridging the time gap between the coming Hubbert’s peak for oil and the construction of these alternative energy sources, he proposes using methane and natural gas.

Goodstein also favors protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, not for environmental reasons but because he wants to save some oil for the other uses that it has, including the manufacturing of plastics, agricultural chemicals, and especially medicines. But he acknowledges that the main solutions must be political and it is here that he has no ideas and no answers.

Law of the Minimum

While Goodstein’s book is frightening, Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over is terrifying. Heinberg’s book has somewhat less physics in it than Goodstein’s, but it contains much more biology, history, and economics. Both books reach similar conclusions-the end (to the rapid economic growth based on cheap fossil fuels) is near.

The Party’s Over is made up of six chapters. In the first chapter Heinberg describes some of the basic scientific principles that energy and nature to human society.

One of these is Liebig’s Law of the minimum: the least abundant necessity, relative to per capita requirements, sets limits on the carrying capacity of an environment. The carrying capacity is how many members of a species an environment can support on a sustainable basis.

Energy is one of these necessities, and in general there is a direct relationship between the amount of energy available to a society and that society’s complexity and population.

Heinberg describes a number of ways humans gain an energy subsidy, increasing the amount of energy available to us. These strategies are takeover (going into new habitats, domesticating plants and animals), tool use, specialization, scope enlargement (long distant trade, globalization), and drawdown (depleting nonrenewable resources such as coal or oil).

In the final part of Chapter 1, Heinberg argues, following the work of Joseph Tainter in his now classic The Collapse of Complex
Societies, that complex societies collapse when the strategies of energy capture used by those societies start to show diminishing returns.

Heinberg uses the example of the ancient Roman Empire to illustrate this relationship. He also applies his analysis to explain the rise to prominence of the United States.

Party Time

Chapter 2 traces the history of fossil fuel use in the industrial revolution, an example of drawdown made possible by tool use. Heinberg calls this “party time,” an “historic interval of cheap, abundant energy.” These cheap and abundant energy sources, including coal, oil and electricity, made possible the industrial revolution of the last 200 years and the enormous expansion of capitalism.

Chapter 3 looks at the approaching end of the historic interval  the end of cheap and abundant energy. Here Heinberg covers much of the same material on Hubbert’s Peaks as Goodstein, but in greater detail.

For instance, Heinberg reviews a number of calculations for Hubbert’s Peaks. The world peak should occur sometime between 2006 and 2015. The 2015 date is the most optimistic estimate; the 2006 date is the most likely, given the available data.

These dates are a bit sooner than Goodstein’s estimates. Given the complexity of data gathering, we will not know until a couple years after the fact that we have passed the world Hubbert’s peak.

Much of chapter 3 is taken up with various estimates of oil reserves, and with the various critics of Hubbert’s analysis. The most serious of these critics is B. Lomborg, the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, who argues essentially that technology and new oil discoveries will save us from the consequences of Hubbert’s peak.

Heinberg shows that Lomborg’s argument does not hold up very well.

The reason is the EROEI ratio (the ratio of “energy returned on energy invested”). The EROEI is a very important concept, both for understanding why Lomborg’s analysis is wrong and for comparing alternative energy sources.

When the EROEI drops to 1 to 1 (also expressed as 1.0), it essentially costs one barrel of oil to produce a barrel of oil. At that point, oil ceases to be a viable energy source. The EROEI for domestic oil production, for example, has dropped from 100 in the 1940s (100 to 1) to between 23 and 8 by the 1970s. Shale oil in particular has an EROEI of 0.7 to 13.3, making it much more expensive.

New Resources?

As we pass Hubbert’s peak and oil supplies become increasing scare or difficult to get to, we need more and more energy to get less and less energy. This is a classic case of diminishing returns.

This applies both to newly discovered reserves that are often very difficult to get at, and to new technologies.

Chapter 4 examines whether other energy sources, whether nonrenewable sources such as coal, natural gas and nuclear energy or renewable sources such as wind and solar, would permit “the party to continue.”

To answer this question you need to compare EROEI ratios, and look at other factors such as renewability (the Hubbert’s peak for coal, for instance, is just a few decades after that of oil), environmental costs, and practicality.

Heinberg points out that at present in the United States, 30% of our total energy comes from petroleum, 24% from natural gas, 23% from coal, 8% from nuclear power, and 7% from all renewable sources (about 84% of the renewable energy comes from hydroelectric power and the burning of wood).

Wind power and solar power are the most promising renewables, but both have storage problems. Both currently account for a microscopic proportion of U.S. energy consumption.  The transition to renewables will require substantial investments and decentralization of the power networks.

By themselves, renewable energy will not give us the same amount of available energy as fossil fuels. Their EROEI is generally lower (solar has an EROEI of 1.6 to 10; wind power has an EROEI of 2  although this is increasing with improved technology).

Only through increased energy efficiency (such as more miles per gallon in your car) and curtailment (using less) combined with massive investments in wind energy, solar energy and mass transit, will we be able to maintain some semblance of our current existence.

From Party to Hangover

At the point that global demand starts to outstrip global supply (called the big rollover) the cost of energy starts to climb substantially and the cost of finding and extracting the oil also increases. These consequences are explored in Chapter 5.

After the peak, there will be an estimated 2% decline in available net energy per year. In other words, in 20 years there will be a 40% decline in net available energy. This will shape everyone’s life as well as political and economic events.

These consequences will include economic stagnation, famine (modern agriculture is highly dependent on cheap energy inputs), increased environmental destruction, a breakdown in public health, and increased wars over control of resources. Not a pretty picture.  

Chapter 6 focuses on action you can take at the personal, community and national level to help “manage the collapse.” This chapter contains a number of valuable sources (including Internet sites, books, and organizations) and some sensible ideas.

Heinberg estimates that we have approximately 20 years before gross energy levels (as opposed net energy levels) start to drop significantly below the present day. “Much can be done during that time,” he writes, but “we need to acknowledge that waiting has consequences. The more we do, and the sooner we start, the better off we will be.” (238)

The capitalist party will be over soon. No economic system, no civilization, can escape the material conditions upon which it is based. Ours is based on fossil fuels that are running out sooner rather than later.

Capitalism is running on empty. And we, we are running out of time.

ATC 111, July-August 2004