August 2004

Lara Apps

nonfiction

The End of Oil by Paul Roberts

The title may have an apocalyptic whiff about it, but don’t let that put you off. This is no wild-eyed survivalist rant; on the contrary, The End of Oil is a remarkably lucid and engaging analysis of the current energy order and its future. It won’t please everyone: oil "optimists" will, no doubt, feel that Roberts is too pessimistic, while "pessimists" and environmentalists may feel that he does not go far enough. Most readers, however, will appreciate the balanced tone that prevails throughout this book.

Paul Roberts, a contributor to Harper’s Magazine, argues that the current energy economy, which is based almost entirely on hydrocarbons (oil, coal and gas), must change and that the world -- especially the U.S. -- must prepare for a new energy order or face serious and potentially devastating economic, environmental and political turmoil. He begins with a brief, but illuminating history of the transition from a coal economy to the modern, oil-dominated economy. Subsequent chapters focus on oil depletion, hydrogen fuel cells, the geopolitics of oil, climate change, the developing world, consumer attitudes, energy security, and alternative energy sources. This is not, in other words, a light read.

It is, however, an important read. One of Roberts’s central points is that the majority of Americans are energy illiterates who have no idea where, for example, the electricity for their homes comes from. According to Roberts, “a majority of U.S. consumers believe that most of their electricity comes from hydroelectric dams, when in truth most is produced from coal-fired and nuclear power plants.” This illiteracy, he argues, contributes to ever-increasing energy consumption as Americans buy bigger houses, more refrigerators and gadgets to fill them, and gas-guzzling SUVs. It also contributes to political inertia and weakness in the face of aggressive lobbying from the auto and oil industries against legislation to improve fuel efficiency, reduce carbon emissions, and tackle the problem of climate change. Roberts suggests, in essence, that very little will change as long as consumers in the U.S. remain ignorant about energy and care only about prices at the pump.

Every chapter of The End of Oil is an eye-opener calculated, in part, to address this ignorance. Roberts explains complex issues and interactions clearly, without condescension, and manages to weave numerous threads of information together into a coherent argument for increased awareness and preparation for change. One of the most impressive chapters deals with energy issues in China, where the majority of the population lives in “energy poverty” and a push to industrialize as rapidly as possible has created a soaring demand for fuel, electricity and cars, as well as heavy pollution and changes in oil geopolitics. Most of us probably have never given a moment’s thought to the energy needs of other countries, especially those in the semi-developed or developing world; but, as Roberts demonstrates, those countries will place ever-increasing demands on dwindling hydrocarbon resources that cannot fail to have an impact on the U.S., the world’s top consumer of energy.

The chapter on alternative energies is equally strong. Roberts explains how solar and wind energy work, where these alternatives are being used, and their limitations. This is where Roberts really stands out. By the time we get to this chapter, about midway through the book, we are desperate for some good news, some optimistic vision of the future. Where some writers might have opted to give us an easy solution, Roberts chooses to show how difficult it will be to implement these energies on a wide scale. It’s depressing, but it’s realistic.

That sums up the book as a whole quite nicely, in fact: depressing but realistic. This comes across most effectively, perhaps, in the numerous interviews Roberts conducted with government and industry officials, scientists, and activists. Their comments underscore the immensity and complexity of energy issues; coming from a wide variety of voices, the message can hardly be missed. It does make for a tough read at times, and I strongly suggest tackling The End of Oil in small doses in order to avoid complete despair.

On the other hand, Roberts concludes that all is not lost. There is reason for hope, he says: energy companies are able to react and innovate quickly, and the political climate is changing, even in the U.S. He is adamant, however, that we need to begin taking action now, if we are going to weather the inevitable changes in the energy order. A critical first step is for all of us to develop an understanding of energy. Read The End of Oil, and you will be well on your way.

The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World by Paul Roberts
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN 0618239774
389 pages