Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal by Michael Brune, 301pp, $15.95.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Michael Brune’s book Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal, just released in a revised edition to talk about the Deepwater Horizon spill, more or less starts with peak oil.

Why surprised? Because mainstream environmentalists often shy away from the topic. Maybe the idea that cheap oil is running out and that the world doesn’t have anything to replace it with except a little clean energy and a lot of conservation, cutting back and powering down, scares the foundations and corporations that provide funding for big green groups?

And after he was elevated from scrappy anti-corporate activist to head of the Sierra Club, America’s oldest and largest national environmental group, Brune became the face for mainstream environmentalism.

A green jobs guy who can face peak oil

Good for Brune that his book doesn’t gloss over peak oil or bury it in a footnote. Instead, he goes full Hubbert’s Curve right in the first chapter, sounding more like the Hirsch Report, which told the Department of Energy that America would need 20 or 30 years to properly prepare for peak oil, than the head of a big green group touting green jobs and a new clean energy boom:

As we seek to burn more and more oil, many geologists and other experts believe that, very soon, less and less of it will be produced each year. If this occurs without planning for how to equitably distribute a dwindling resource — and without a crash program to implement oil-free solutions — we’ll be in a world of hurt. This is the threat of “peak oil” — and it is growing every year.

Brune then goes on to praise peak oilers (“Peak-oil theorists are like global-warming scientists: ridiculed at first, then politely dismissed, they now see their viewpoints gaining traction”) and cite a few, including Kenneth Deffeyes (“I nominate Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 2005 as World Peak Oil Day”), Matthew Simmons and M. King Hubbert himself.

Then, Brune shows his energy savvy by deconstructing unconventional fossil fuels, from deepwater drilling to tar sands, not only because they trash the environment, but because they’re just not worth the trouble in terms of net energy.

No sacrifice required

But Brune’s real concern is global warming. And just as many books by climate activists do, Coming Clean falls short when it comes to energy solutions, or the lack thereof.

Brune clearly understands the first half of the peak oil argument — that the world is running out of easy oil and easy fossil energy in general. But he doesn’t get, or is afraid to face, the main consequence of peak oil, that renewable energy and efficiency just won’t be enough.

Even with an aggressive ramp up of solar, wind, geothermal and other renewables, along with huge improvements in energy efficiency, the global economy won’t be able to replace all the energy we’re now starting to lose at anything like its current cost, as Richard Heinberg has ably documented in Searching for a Miracle: “Net Energy” Limits and the Fate of Industrial Society.

Brune’s enthusiasm for going green clearly blinds him to the very strong likelihood that, because renewables can’t provide the very cheap energy that industrial capitalism has come to count on from oil and coal, it means that the world’s consumers are going to have to make do with much less energy and much less stuff. We’ll have to power down much of industrial society. And we’ll likely see the disappearance of most global trade and even, as Heinberg predicts, the end of economic growth itself.

This can all sound pretty scary unless you have the optimistic attitude of the Transition movement that a world beyond global industrialism which is more local, human-scale and natural, could be a much better place in which to live.

Brune doesn’t mention Transition. Nor does he cite Rob Hopkins or talk about Energy Descent Action Plans. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Brune hasn’t really thought about a medium-tech, localized future as a serious alternative. Instead, he seems to be stuck in the global industrial paradigm.

It’s no surprise then that Brune dishes up much the same fare you can get from most mainstream environmentalists about how clean energy combined with energy efficiency will allow us to do most of what we do now, only better. It’s not about cutting back — it’s about being smarter with energy, according to Brune.

“We can indeed have cold beer, hot water, loud music, bright lights — and use far less energy,” he says, after just extolling the virtues of efficiency over conservation:

Conservation can be described  as making do with less — shutting off lights and turing down the heat for the good of the planet. Energy efficiency, on the other hand, entails finding clever ways to use energy more effectively while enjoying the same level of comfort. Conservation can involve sacrifice, while efficiency does not; the latter is so sensible and appealing that it should be a no-brainer.

No-brainer indeed. At this date, only Glenn Beck and bankrupt Detroit automakers can argue with screwing in the compact fluorescents and making pickup trucks get more than 12 MPG. But it doesn’t follow that efficiency will allow us to keep running all our electronics. Just ask the folks in Tokyo about bright lights now that they lost 20% of their power supply after Fukushima.

Brune seems to be dismissing conservation largely because it’s a downer that won’t sell well to the public or to politicians. That would be fine in a list of talking points for activists to lobby their Congressperson on cap-and-trade. But in a serious book about energy I’m looking for truth, not spin.

Stir these into your martini

Even so, Brune’s book is worthwhile for the smart little energy factoids he scatters throughout, such as:

  • To get oil from Canada’s tar sands, more landscape must be excavated than was moved for the Great Wall of China, the Suez Canal, the Great Pyramid of Cheops and the ten largest dams in the world — combined.
  • After years of research and billions in subsidies, not a single coal plant has ever effectively captured and stored all of its greenhouse gases.
  • In the 2006 congressional election, four of the top five recipients of oil industry contributions were defeated, whereas all the candidates who refused all oil money won their elections.

Cocktail party conversation, anyone?

Makes me almost look forward to the next time some Fox News fan wants to argue about how there’s plenty of oil left if only the environmentalists wouldn’t stop us from drilling. If only.

— Erik Curren