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Drip-dripping away

The End of Oil
By Paul Roberts
Houghton Mifflin,
389 pages, $37.95
Is your ICE getting you down? Lobbying for a switch to IGCC? Planning a visit to the ANWR?

If these sentences mean nothing to you, you're not alone. According to prize-winning U.S. journalist and Harper's Magazine contributor Paul Roberts, you're just one of millions of North Americans who are "energy illiterate." Not to insinuate that you should know obscure acronyms (for the Internal Combustion Engine, Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, respectively) off the top of your head. But, as Roberts's The End of Oil contends, you should know a little more about how much energy you use, where that energy comes from and how much of it is wasted. As he aptly demonstrates, too few of us do -- and it's hitting us right smack in the old ┬░C.

"The majority of U.S. consumers," he writes, "believe that most of their electricity comes from hydroelectric dams, when in truth it comes from coal-fired or nuclear power plants."

This ignorance, perhaps, provides a rationale for the book's comprehensive approach: It's a primer on everything from photosynthetic chemistry and petroleum geology to OPEC politics and hydrogen economics. In Roberts's three years of research, he interviewed more than 100 energy insiders and travelled as far afield as Kazakhstan and Riyadh to survey the situation firsthand. His conclusion: Due to climate change and shrinking oil reserves, our energy systems need a complete overhaul in the next 20 to 40 years.

Roberts's findings are important, but his initial sense of hesitation about them is even more so; this saves the book from being overly trite or self-righteous. As a middle-class American accustomed to enjoying the benefits of cheap, seemingly endless energy, he senses that his comfort, both physical and mental, depends on disproving the idea of a coming oil crisis. From this perspective, Roberts's anecdote about touring the rich Saudi oil fields and realizing, with a sinking feeling, that they're pumping 30 per cent water becomes a 21st-century parable: One-time energy innocent/postindustrial everyman finally eats the "crude" of knowledge and is cast out of the "cheap oil" oasis -- burning Bush and book to follow.

Despite its provocative title and moments of personal epiphany, The End of Oil aims for balance. Sections extolling the potential virtues of wind, solar and other renewables are tempered by examinations of their lagging financial returns. Criticism of the U.S. House of Representatives' record on energy policy is followed up by observations on the practical criteria of surviving in the U.S. electoral system. Paeans to conservation are accompanied by the frank observation that a cardigan-sporting president Jimmy Carter imploring people to "cut back and make do" is a feeble sell compared to a tanned, grinning, oil-now-and-forever George Bush Sr. at the helm of a sparkling speedboat after the first Persian Gulf War.

But even Roberts's moderate voice can't soften some of his harsher findings. Change, he says, is going to come whether we like it or not; oil is already getting scarce, climate change is already being felt, and three billion people still need to get on-line. If we're willing to start dealing with the situation now, he argues, we can create a smooth, egalitarian transition to a new energy system. If we put it off until later (as the built-in incentives of our economic and political systems tend to favour), then the transition is bound to be violent. And we don't have to look very far beyond our newspapers' front pages to understand that.

Still, if we do manage to take energy issues in hand, the future Roberts sketches could be quite remarkable. The fuel cell, if developed adequately (admittedly a substantial "if"), could revolutionize energy the same way that microprocessors revolutionized electronics. Instead of centralizing electricity supplies in stationary utility-owned "mainframes," each home could have several "laptop"-scaled ways of creating and storing power. As a starting point for shifting to such systems, Roberts prioritizes three actions: switching to natural gas as much as possible; setting up a carbon emissions cap-and-trade system; and increasing fuel efficiency.

When one reads both in and between the lines that hold Roberts's well-arranged facts and figures, one sees an attempt at something that is both rare and necessary: a sensible, conservative book about fantastic, radical change. This is, on the one hand, pragmatic; if the political, technological and economic change that The End of Oil calls for is to be initiated in short time (especially in the United States, Roberts's main focus), political conservatives will have to be on board. But it is also, in spirit, a call to end divisiveness; for though the quality of a printed page depends on clear, crisp distinctions between black and white, the quality of our future depends on discerning many difficult, malleable greys between. If Roberts's book can assist us in reading those, it will truly have accomplished something of worth.

Leah Sandals is an environmental issues columnist with the Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

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