Book Review: Richard Heinberg's "The Party's Over, Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies"

by Richard Heinberg. (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2003.)

The beer keg has run dry, only a few dispirited hors d’ouevres languish on the tray…The Party’s Over. In this important new book, Richard Heinberg argues that the end of the biggest party of all, the fossil fuel gala, is in sight. Basing his argument on the work of geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who accurately predicted that U.S. crude-oil production would peak between 1966 and 1972 (the actual peak year was 1970), Heinberg draws on a contemporary “roster of Cassandras” in petroleum research to suggest that global fossil-fuel liquid extraction rates could peak as early as 2006, depending on how quickly the world economy grows. In the process he effectively debunks the rosy visions of well paid cornucopians like Bjrn Lomborg, whose 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist was greeted enthusiastically by the business community and journals like The Economist. He also argues, and quite convincingly, that Iraq War II was, finally, about oil: the Bush administration, according to Heinberg, knew about the predicted peak through its access to oil-insider information like that provided by Petroconsultants, and acted to secure one of the largest oil reserves on the planet so that no one else would get there first.

Environmentalists who emphasize non-renewable resource scarcity (following the arguments in The Limits to Growth) have been mocked as their predictions of approaching limits turned out to be wrong, at least in the short term. But as any honest reading of the more recent literature (including Beyond the Limits, Donella Meadow’s sequel to The Limits to Growth) will make clear, the picture is a good deal more complicated than ridicule will allow. Heinberg, a modern Cassandra, offers abundant evidence to show that from the supply side, crunch time for oil and energy generally is approaching very quickly indeed.

In the first place, oil-producing countries have an incentive to overstate their reserves in order to justify increased pumping rates. The real deal is the number of verified new discoveries: despite vastly improved technologies and methods for locating new supplies and improving extraction rates from existing sources, new discoveries are not keeping up. Finally, although so-called ‘oil shale’ and oil-bearing sands contain abundant oil, the vast amount of energy (and fresh water!) required to extract it mean that there is little net energy gain from exploiting these sources.

Green technology enthusiasts are likely to be unhappy about Heinberg’s belief that alternative energy sources – wind, solar, hydrogen, etc. – will not be adequate to sustain an economy like the current one, at least in the near term. His emphasis on the application of net energy analysis to these technologies is a sobering but necessary corrective to painless transition scenarios.

Is Heinberg offering good news for the carbon-saturated atmosphere Not exactly. On the other side of the oil production peak (historically oil production follows a roughly bell-shaped curve) prices will begin to rise, and finally the market will mandate change – of some sort, but not necessarily the kind that represents a transition to a sane and sustainable future. Natural gas, which is the least carbon-intensive of all the fossil fuels, is nearing its own peak, Heinberg claims. Of the fossil fuels, that leaves coal. Although the most easily recoverable coal reserves have been exploited, coal extraction is likely to increase substantially when oil prices go up: “If efforts are made to increase coal or biomass usage in order to offset energy shortages from oil and natural gas, greenhouse gas emissions might remain close to current levels or even rise.”

Heinberg argues that the best – the only – solutions are conservation strategies, both curtailment (refraining from consumption) and increasing efficiency. The work of Amory and Hunter Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (their latest book, Factor Four, is co-authored with Ernst von Weizacker) offers good reasons to be optimistic about how much more efficiently available resources, including energy, can be used.

Is there any hope for a conservation/efficiency revolution Heinberg concedes its possibility but emphasizes the likelihood of an ugly post-peak, post-party world. ‘Red in tooth and claw’ about sums it up; for developing countries the scenario is especially grim. He rightly points out that technological transformations of great magnitude require both time and money. Investment capital to realize them will become increasingly scarce on the other side of the oil production peak.

The scarce-capital problem highlights the need for urgent action. Like climate change, oil depletion is not a problem whose solution can wait for unequivocal signals – it must happen now. Heinberg’s argument is not primarily about climate change, but it presents yet another powerful argument for the conservation/efficiency revolution that is necessary if a modicum of climate stability is to be preserved. EcoEquity argues that a climate treaty based on equal per-capita allotments of atmospheric space (climate equity) is a necessary condition of such a revolution. Heinberg’s presentation of the oil problem suggests that, for just this reason, climate equity is truly a “no regrets” policy: a strategy that will help stabilize the climate is also necessary for other reasons.

In bringing the specter of oil draw-down into clear relief, Heinberg has painted a picture that could help to spur Americans indifferent to climate change into action. Important in and of itself, The Party’s Over is additionally a powerful weapon for climate advocates.

–Glenn Fieldman