“A gradual contraction into more sustainable patterns of resource use is not the norm for a society that is exploiting the environment. The norm is a last-ditch effort to maintain outward displays of power, and then a sudden, and dramatic, collapse.” That’s one of the foreboding statements with which Steve Hallett and John Wright punctuate their preview of past civilisations in the opening section of their book Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future.
They consider we are at the peak of oil production and that we’re not facing that reality. There are late flurries to extend the discovery of further oil. Deep sea drilling, the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands and oil shale extraction are among them, the latter two causing horrendous environmental damage. But all they will produce is a temporary delay of the decline. The authors judge that around 2015 oil production will show a clear and convincing decline, and the world will be at the beginning of the end of what they call the petroleum interval. It’s an interval that will have occupied a couple of centuries in the long history of humanity. Oil has enabled the construction of a monumental global civilisation in which we have become dependent on the increased productivity and efficiencies of scale it can provide. As it diminishes and disappears we require an energy transition which the book considers we are not geared to make in good time. We therefore face a long global economic contraction as the price of oil escalates, a sequence of economic slumps which will continue until fundamental problems of energy availability, food production, water supply and population control are sufficiently well corrected.
The book recognises that we have paid only a minuscule part of the cost of fossil fuels, and the result is a huge ecological debt of which climate change is the result. Global climate change is already in full swing, with worse impacts yet to come, complicating and worsening our struggles with the end of the petroleum era. Although the book’s focus is on the end of oil it includes a clear understanding of the causes and long-lasting consequences of human-caused climate change.
The new energy future which the depletion of fossil fuels will force upon us is of course the same energy future which the mitigation of climate change demands. The book is not optimistic about our capacity to make the transition in time to meet the strains which costly oil will impose on our economies, let alone, though it doesn’t make the observation, in time to counter the mounting greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. Indeed it concludes that renewable sources cannot possibly fill the oil void and sees nuclear power as the potential dominant energy source with hydrogen eventually used for transport. As a reader whose major concern is the mitigation of climate change I found little reassurance from this aspect of the book. The authors don’t deny the need for mitigation, but they seem to think it unlikely that we will stop using fossil fuels before they are exhausted. If that proves to be the case then coming generations will be coping with problems a good deal larger than the replacement of energy sources.
The move to new energy sources is admittedly a major one and only time will tell whether human societies will mobilise to make it at the pace required. But I thought the book’s judgment that we simply can’t find the energy we need from renewable sources was somewhat cursory alongside such careful investigations as those made by Al Gore in his book Our Choice or Lester Brown in World on the Edge or the recent WWF Energy Report.
The deep and long-lasting economic recession which the authors see ahead is premised on our economies’ deep fossil fuel dependency. Environmentalists who take comfort from the thought that running out of oil might finally reduce carbon emissions underestimate the consequences, say the writers. Oil and other fossil fuels pervade not only our transport systems but also many other aspects of the economy from plastics to computers to fertilisers. Asset inertia will delay transitions from oil to energy alternatives, and the book’s view is that alternatives will come online only when they are not alternatives at all, but the only option. The message of deeply troubled economies ahead is hammered home by a survey of many countries and areas of the world with accompanying explanations of why most of them are facing retraction. Again I found myself wondering whether the authors allow sufficiently for the possibility of renewed vibrancy in economies which rapidly embrace green energy and put adequate resources into advancing it.
But maybe I just prefer optimism and the authors are the realists. They’re not ultimately pessimists though. They look beyond the global collapse to the shape of more adequate future societies. Hallett is a botanist and ecology is the book’s key to an economic system which will recognise our interconnectedness with the natural world, curtail unsustainable resource extraction and limit damage to the environment. The protection of farmland must be a priority. Industrialised agriculture must give way to sustainable farming, undertaken without inorganic fertiliser. The rebuilding of soils and the rediversification of the rural landscape are essential to restore farming as a true support for human societies. The place taken by oil and natural gas in current industrial farming practice can be filled by hard work and deep thinking. It’s our divorce from nature which has blinded us to the reality that we are part of nature and must respect the laws of ecology if we wish to avoid collapse.
The book’s discussion is wide-ranging, lively and interesting. The combination of scientist and journalist in the writing team works very well for the reader. The opening survey of the collapse of past civilisations following the depletion of resources and ecological damage is a haunting reminder of how easily successful human societies excuse themselves from the need to treat with respect the natural provision on which their wealth depends. The concluding argument that ecology is the proper foundation for economics is a sure delineation of any hopeful future the human race may have.
The writers have done their best to combine the anxieties of oil depletion with those of climate change. But it is difficult to fully integrate the two. The mitigation of climate change demands that we cut back drastically on the use of fossil fuels. It is not the prospect of their ultimate depletion that alarms, but the prospect of their continuing use until that time. The book gently chides environmentalists who would welcome an early end to oil, on the grounds that they don’t give full weight to the disastrous consequences. But in the matter of disastrous consequences climate change seems to me to far outweigh even the serious economic disruption the authors foresee accompanying the decline of oil. However both concerns can, and in this book do, converge in the urging of an economic system which understands and respects the natural environment which sustains human society.