The problem is easy to describe, but its consequences are fearsome and its solution daunting. The Age of Oil is coming to an end, and the future is precarious. So say two very different new books with very similar titles: David Goodstein’s Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil and Paul Roberts’ The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World.

Seeing only the titles, skeptics will react predictably. Despite the current gasoline price spike, we still have plenty of oil. And by the time we start to run low, economic forces will drive technology to develop alternative sources of energy. We’ll do just fine by allowing the market do its magic. Caltech Distinguished Service Professor Goodstein and noted magazine writer Mr. Roberts accept the doubters’ assumptions, but not their conclusions. Indeed, we have not yet tapped even half of the easily accessible oil, but we will face trouble long before the planetary gas gauge approaches “E.”

In Out of Gas, Dr. Goodstein focuses on the problem itself. A compact tutorial, it begins by citing the work of Shell Oil geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who in the 1950s predicted that U.S. domestic oil production would peak in the 1970s when approximately half of the original resource was depleted. Mr. Hubbert’s analysis was derided – until it turned out to be correct. Now experts who apply his method to the world as a whole conclude that the global production peak is only a decade or two in the future. After that, supply will increasingly lag demand. Oil shortages will be permanent and increasingly severe.

Dr. Goodstein follows that bleak news with brief science lessons on thermodynamics, electromagnetism and geology. He then discusses the most promising alternative energy technologies, none of which seems like a sure bet. Our problems are not insoluble, but we can’t afford to delay. To emphasize that point, he closes with this dire warning: “Civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in this century unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels.”

But what will the coming crisis look like, what pain will it cause, and what, for that matter, is “civilization as we know it”? In The End of Oil, Mr. Roberts, an expert on the complex interplay of technology, economics and the environment, explores those thorny questions.

He begins with this historical context: Human progress has been the result of transforming energy into wealth. We have used the energy of flowing water and blowing wind, and we have burned dung, wood and coal; but none of these sources have matched oil’s ease of distribution and concentration of energy. Ever since the Spindletop gusher of 1901 demonstrated that oil was plentiful and easily extracted and shipped, we have been living in the Age of Oil.

To understand the path from previous energy ages to the present one, and to make conjectures about our transition to a future without cheap, plentiful oil, Mr. Roberts adopts the perspective of an energy economist. He begins by looking at the likeliest replacement sources of energy, including hydrogen fuel cells, advanced wind and solar power technologies, coal gasification and natural gas. He also adds two essential ingredients to the mix: global warming and geopolitics. Those create hidden costs that do not (at present) show up in the price of gasoline at U.S. pumps. Each drop of oil burned adds to the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, which, according to a growing scientific consensus, has already led to an increase in severe weather and consequent economic losses. Politically, the wealth created by oil consumption has been an important factor of American dominance; but because an increasing fraction of that oil must be imported, the major suppliers gain undue influence. We find ourselves in increasingly uncomfortable alliances, needing to assure our economic lifeblood through expensive military means.

Despite the perils ahead, Mr. Roberts proposes a scenario that will enable us to navigate – though not without difficulty – to a future age of sustainable energy use. And just as the readers begin to ask whether that approach is realistic, he acknowledges that any number of events may throw us off course. But the transition can’t be avoided. He concludes, “The question facing us isn’t whether our energy systems will change – indeed, the process is already well under way – but whether we can live with the outcome.”

Physicist, children’s science author and book critic Fred Bortz lives in western Pennsylvania.

(c) Fred Bortz 2004