Review: The Oil Depletion by Richard Heinberg
The Oil Depletion Protocol - a plan to avert oil wars, terrorism and economic collapse by Richard Heinberg. (2006) Clairview Books.
Richard Heinberg is the author of The Party’s Over, many peoples’ first introduction to the subject of peak oil. It was the first book to explain the concept in a clear and accessible way for people with no background in petroleum geology (myself included). However, while many writers are still chewing over whether or not peak oil is a reality, and haggling over the exact date when it might occur (2006? 2010? 2030?), Heinberg is moving on, exploring its implications and what can be done to prepare for this historic transition. His next book, Powerdown, did this, exploring options for societies beyond the peak, setting out the case for a Government-initiated national ‘powerdown’, as well as the need for grassroots relocalisation.
Heinberg is a tireless educator and speaker who has done a great deal to raise awareness around the world about this pressing issue. In 2002 he became aware of what was then known as the Rimini Protocol, authored by Colin Campbell of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil. The Protocol set out a global plan for reducing the impacts of peak oil. It had been discussed at a few conferences, but hadn’t generated a great deal of interest. Initially feeling it to be “a good idea with little chance of being implemented”, it wasn’t until 2005 when he spent a couple of days with Colin discussing it that he really grasped the importance of the concept, and this book is the outcome of those conversations.
So what is the Oil Depletion Protocol? Heinberg sums it up neatly thus, “signatory nations would agree to reduce their oil consumption gradually and uniformly according to a simple formula that works out to being a little less than 3% per year”. In essence, oil importing nations agree to reduce their imports and oil exporters undertake to do the same with their exports at an internationally agreed rate. The effect is to reduce the risks inherent in peak oil, developing nations aren’t priced out of the markets, the risks of wars are reduced and the oil that remains lasts longer.
The first part of this book provides a great overview of the peak oil subject. Asking Heinberg to condense the case for peak oil and why it demands that we act into a single chapter is very effective; if you are new to the subject you couldn’t ask for better. He then explores what the future without the Protocol might be like, with increased disruption of the global economy, to agriculture, to transportation, increased risks of war and terrorism and so on. What is great about Heinberg is that for him it is not enough to set out disaster scenarios and just leave you there. he feels that the worst can be averted, and that the Protocol can work on a range of levels.
While the most obvious place to start is at the national Government level, and countries such as Sweden and Iceland are taking a lead on this, Heinberg also stresses that the municipal and personal levels are just as important. Towns can develop their own initiatives, such as the relocalisation initiatives begun in Totnes, Kinsale and Willits (among others). On a personal level, we can set out to reduce out own dependency, producing an oil inventory of our lives and then design a plan to reduce this dependency over the next 10 years. Few of his lifestyle suggestions will be new to readers of Transition Culture (ride a bike, grow some food, wear a jumper when its cold and so on) but they are well argued. What I like about Heinberg’s writing is that he always brings these big issues back to us and what we as individuals can do.
Coming down from the peak is a challenge of unprecedented scale. Navigating this descent will require a mobilisation on a world scale. The power of the Protocol is that it fosters a sense of co-operation, and offers a tool whereby this transition can be pursued in a climate of stable energy prices and peaceful mutual support, rather than the desperate scrabble for resources which Heinberg, in ‘Powerdown’, called ‘Last One Standing’, a scenario of endless war to secure access to the remaining hydrocarbon reserves.
This is a concise, highly readable overview of both peak oil and the Protocol itself. It is a passionate argument that although peak oil presents a huge challenge, and threatens stability across the world, it doesn’t have to be like that. In a chapter called “Discussion of the Protocol”, he patiently deals with all the most frequently asked questions about it, before moving on to explore the practicalities of its implementation.
As a writer, Heinberg has that rare gift, of being able to make complex ideas accessible to the lay reader. Unlike many writers on the peak oil subject, he refuses to slump into apocalyptic scenarios of die-off and civil unrest. It doesn’t have to be like that, he argues. While the Protocol, as he acknowledges, will require much lobbying and will encounter resistance, it is the best opportunity we have of engaging nations on a process of transition towards a more stable and abundant powered-down world. It is realistic and practical, but, as Heinberg clearly states, it is designed to support and reinforce community-level initiatives, rather than replace them.
Will it happen? It is impossible to say. The fact that it requires nations such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to openly declare their oil reserves, currently state secrets, and for the US to undertake to consume less oil each year might lead the reader to think it is an impossible dream. However, Heinberg argues that even for these nations, the benefits of becoming signatories outweight the costs. It will be fascinating to see the impact the Protocol has in the next few years.
“The Oil Depletion Protocol” is a call-to-action, an urgent request for your support and input into making it a reality. Deeply informative, urgent and sobering, I highly recommed this book to the novice reader and the seasoned ‘peakist’ alike. The subtitle of the book is “a plan to avert oil wars, terrorism and economic collapse”. It is no exaggeration.