The Party's Over

Black tape covered over the word “No” on a visitor’s protest button, leaving the message “Blood For Oil.” Our eyes met and I said, “That’s the deal isn’t it?” “Yup,” he answered. Even before the invasion of Iraq, I had no illusions about our national purpose. In fact, one of my favorite bumper stickers reads, “It’s About Oil—Go Solar.” Now, post-invasion and no weapons of mass destruction in sight, it is increasingly difficult not to be cynical. I cannot accept the mass hypnosis passing for “news” telling us that we have freed Iraq.

Our Use of Energy

Nor would Richard Heinberg. His latest book, The Party’s Over— Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, places the Iraqi invasion in a different context. Written in 2002, Heinberg, in fact, predicted the invasion. However, this book is not about U.S. military policy per se. Rather, it examines civilizations and their relationship to and use of energy—historically and globally.

The Party’s Over is not about fault or blame. Written in a tone that is compassionate, at times whimsical and humorous, Heinberg’s approach is scientific. Central to his hypothesis is that modern industrial societies are dependent on extracted hydrocarbons as their primary energy source. These resources are finite and eventually will be depleted. Few would dispute these facts. What many may wish to dispute is the timing of the onset of that depletion and its consequences. Heinberg’s message is that the party is over—not sometime in the future, but essentially now!

Petroleum is the most energy dense of the hydrocarbons. Its crucial role in modern transportation has made it the most used and economically most important of the hydrocarbons. So it will be the first to be depleted. The early work done quantifying oil depletion was done by oil geologist M. Hubbert in the 1950s. His estimates have been modified by other oil geologists in the ensuing years, but only slightly. What Hubbert did was to plot actual and projected oil production over time. The plots indicate a peak in global oil production somewhere between 2006 and 2015. Heinberg is clear that this is not undisputed, but argues convincingly for Hubbert, et al. 

Some might say, “So what? The peak in petroleum production does not mean the end of the world. We have hundreds of years of coal left. We have renewables, conservation, and efficiency improvements.” These facts are discussed in detail in Heinberg’s book. However, he argues that they will not alter the fact that once the peak or “rollover” occurs, the global economy will experience a significant discontinuity. He develops two additional precepts that, when coupled with the rollover, support this conclusion.

The first is the concept of “net energy” or energy returned on energy invested. Think of the early oil gushers—very little energy was invested and there was lots in return. Later, as that same field is depleted, the oil must be pumped from greater and greater depths. The net energy return is less. The peak of the global Hubbert curve tells us that the era of easy oil (easy energy) is over. We have high-graded the reserves and can expect what’s left to cost more (less net energy). Since historically, oil has had the highest net energy of all sources, switching to any other source (nonrenewable or renewable) will also yield less net energy. Energy returned on energy invested in the future will be less than in the past!

The second fact is the structure of the global economic system and money itself. Money basically represents debt. Borrowing and lending are based on compound interest. Compound interest is mathematically described by an exponential function. In the physical world, an exponential system cannot persist indefinitely. Though money itself is an abstraction, it must be somewhat coupled to the physical world. In this case, the exponential growth of the global economy and population coincides with the exponential increase in available global net energy. Look at the graph of the Hubbert curve and notice, first the leading edge (exponential), and then where we are now on the time line. 

Eons on RE

Heinberg structures his book like the Hubbert curve itself. We start slowly at the beginning. In chapter 1, “Energy, Nature and Society,” the author builds, as a background, the understanding that all biological systems are energy machines. As an extension, so are populations, communities, families, clans, and nations. He points out that humans have existed on the earth for eons, most of that time living on what we now call renewable energy sources.

Chapter 2, “Party Time,” documents the rise in global energy consumption from the Middle Ages to the present. Because of the depletion of European forests due to the demands of metallurgy and population growth, the need for another energy source created the transition to coal, and along with it, the beginning of the modern industrial era. The steam engine, powered by coal, furthered accelerated the growth of modern industry.

The relatively quick transition from coal to oil was not based on depletion, but rather on the increased energy density of oil and its use for lighting and lubrication. Later, early in this century, oil’s role in transportation, as fuel for the internal combustion engine, made petroleum the number one global energy source. This chapter also has a section on the development of electricity and the modern distribution grid. Peppered with the big names in industrial history—Rockefeller, Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, Nobel, J.P. Morgan—this is not the high school tale that so often passes as modern history. Nor are the final sections dealing with warfare, geopolitics, and global economy. Heinberg’s tale places cheap energy in the captain’s chair as the driver of history, rather than personalities and political concepts.

Cornucopians & Cassandrans

“Lights Out,” chapter 3, details the book’s central premise that world petroleum production is at a peak and about to start its decline. This premise is disputed by some, and the author devotes considerable text to the opposition. Heinberg characterizes two groups, the Cornucopians, who oppose his premise, and the Cassandrans, who support it. The view of the Cornucopians (many of whom are economists) might be summarized as the belief that human enterprise, imagination, and free markets can create the resources necessary to solve any problem. To paraphrase, “Humans don’t use energy, they create it.” The Cassandrans, primarily physical scientists (many ex-oil company geologists), argue that physical resources are constrained and ultimately put limits on human activities and numbers. The degree of disparity between these two camps is well stated by Mr. Hubbert when he refers to “two universal, overlapping, and incompatible intellectual systems.”

The rest of the book deals with the downside of the Hubbert curve. Chapter 4 examines nonpetroleum energy sources. The analysis of other energy sources uses “net energy” as the definitive tool. Renewables are presented as significant and desirable energy resources. However, because they have less net energy than historical petroleum resources, they will not be able to avert future energy shortages. Efficiency and conservation also yield huge benefits, but will not avert a global drop in available energy. Shifting to fuel cells running on hydrogen will not be a solution. Though beneficial with respect to pollution, Heinberg points out that hydrogen must be manufactured and hence is an energy sink (net energy less than one) rather than a source of energy.

What are some of the political and economic scenarios possible as the global economy moves towards less net energy? These are the questions posed in chapter 5, “A Banquet of Consequences.” Regardless of the form of government or political philosophy, Heinberg asserts that no nation or group is equipped to deal with coming events.

A Book Worth Reading 

World Oil Production: 1930–2050 Having read this much of the review, you must now read the book for the finale. I will not give away the end of this tale, though I can say that many readers of Home Power magazine may recognize themselves in the last chapter, “Managing the Collapse.” A book is worth reading if you recognize yourself in the cast of characters, and experience a shift in perception. On both counts, The Party’s Over makes the cut. In the introduction, the author identifies four “voices” addressing questions about the future of energy. I found myself among the environmentalists. I have long held that we couldn’t use up petroleum fast enough. I feared that Source: C.J. Campbell / adapted from The Party's Over undeclared reserves would extend the era of oil, possibly indefinitely, with increasingly dire climatic changes and pollution. I had believed that oil could be better used to manufacture carbon fiber bodies for fuel cell powered “hypercars,” and we all could be happy and prosperous zipping around in a Lovinsesque future. Now I see that we missed our turn-off thirty years ago and the sign for the last off ramp ahead reads “hard times,” or if we continue on down the main road, “dismal failure.” There is no white knight. Have a nice day! 

Home Power 96 / August & September 2003