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Review: Life Without Oil by Steve Hallett With John Wright

Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future
By Steve Hallett with John Wright
435 pp., hardcover. Prometheus Books – Mar. 2011. $26.00.

For a few months now, The Washington Post has been running an excellent series titled “A World Without.” It explores the consequences of doing away with various institutions of modern life, from standardized spelling (which would mean an easier time for foreigners but not for red-pen dealers), to chain stores (encouraging more independent retailers but not necessarily more prosperous ones), to the dollar (Facebook.com might issue its own currency called “Facebacks”). A highlight has been literary scholar John Granger’s take on a world without Harry Potter: Hollywood would be moribund, an ailing book industry “fizzled out” and a generation of readers missing.*

The series’ most poignant installment so far, however, is one titled “Imagining a world without oil.” It describes in stark detail what might happen if one day the world decided to decommission all its oil tankers, rigs, pipelines and strategic reserves. The authors, environmental scientist Steve Hallett and journalist John Wright, expect that we’d initially see sky-high prices and long lines at pumps. After a few weeks, fuel wouldn’t be had at any price and even first-world citizens would struggle to stay fed and out of the elements. This is no Hollywood doomsday scenario—it’s a levelheaded extrapolation from current trends in the fast deteriorating world energy situation. And the first thing to be grasped about this situation is that oil is in terminal decline and the world is in no way ready for its decline.

Hallett and Wright also have a book-length meditation on our energy predicament titled Life Without Oil. It’s an attempt, and not a bad one, to persuade the general public of the need to wean off fossil fuels. It provides an in-depth overview of the issue, arrives at sound conclusions and uses a chatty, largely jargon-free writing style. The one drawback is that its style can also be slow to make its points and annoyingly apt to stray from them—and thus the book as a whole could have used some editorial pruning. But its main points are well-taken and are in need of wide dissemination among the population.

Hallett, a plant scientist at Purdue University, approaches the oil crisis from an uncommon vantage point, that of an ecologist. We're used to hearing the perspectives of energy insiders and economists, but Hallett argues that these experts are equipped to provide only parts of the picture. Without an understanding of the living world to which we all belong, solutions aren’t possible. Hallett outlines four fundamental laws of ecology, beginning with the first law of thermodynamics in physics, that can’t be circumvented in the long run: “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed,” “You can never do one thing,” “Diverse systems are more stable than simplified systems” and “All organisms, including humans and their societies, are subject to the laws of ecology.”

He and Wright point to a host of unintended human impacts as evidence that you truly never can do one thing. The most terrifying of these is doubtless the unfolding specter of climate change that is the ugly cousin of our oil addiction. They also repeatedly stress the inviolability of the first law of thermodynamics, which may be the most important and most often ignored law. Indeed, as peak oilers know well, thermodynamics is a real drag for anyone who enjoys hyping miracle cures for the energy crisis.

Life Without Oil gives lay readers a big-picture overview of the oil situation, beginning 4 billion years ago with the very first self-replicating molecule. From there it recounts the beginning of evolution, the formation of Earth’s third atmosphere and the asteroid impact in northern Yucatán, Mexico, 65 million years ago that killed off the dinosaurs and allowed mammals to flourish and eventually evolve into us. It marks the beginning of humans’ attempts to harness energy with the invention of stone tools some two million years ago.

Drawing on the work of UCLA professor Jared Diamond of Collapse fame, the authors show how resource crises are nothing new. Rather, human societies have been overshooting their resource bases since the start of civilization. A prime example can be found in the indigenous Easter Islanders, who denuded their island’s once-dense forests in seven short centuries. This same cycle has been replayed during the reigns of the great Anasazi, Mayan, Greek and Roman empires.

The book uses a shopworn but nevertheless apt metaphor—that of an inheritance—to demonstrate fossil fuels’ unprecedented significance. It equates fossil fuel energy with an immense fortune willed to us by our ancestors from the distant evolutionary past. Hundreds of millions of years ago, the bottoms of seas, swamps and other bodies of water were filled with the remains of dead life forms. This organic material underwent chemical transformations due to the highly oxygen-deficient conditions in these waters and the intense heat and pressure caused by new sediment constantly accumulating on top. Today when we unearth the resulting coal, oil and natural gas and burn them for fuel, we really are tapping prehistoric sunlight absorbed by living beings that were then cooked in the earth's “kitchen” for near eons.

Lay readers will find the concept of peak oil to be clearly and entertainingly explained. As the authors recount, the theory had its beginnings with the controversial but correct prediction, by the late geophysicist M. King Hubbert, that U.S. oil production would peak around 1970. It did peak in 1970 and is now at slightly over half its peak level, while Hubbert ranks as a great American prophet. The book goes on to describe how peak oil has since occurred in many other countries, and how the global peak in oil production is now at hand.

In an especially spot-on analogy, the authors show why there’s little chance of a smooth transition from oil to unconventional fossil fuels like tar sands and shales. Moving from the premier fossil fuels to the literally half-baked ones, they explain, is like having a slushy or a “triple-thick milkshake” after a soda. Shales will even make you “reach for a knife and fork.” Thus, the claim that Alberta’s tar sands hold another Saudi Arabia’s worth of oil is grossly misleading. It ignores the issue of production rate, which is far more important than that of geographical extent. And unfortunately, the maximum production rate for a tar sand is only a small fraction of that for a comparably sized conventional oil deposit.

Nor do Hallett and Wright foresee a seamless switch to renewables like solar, wind and geothermal. These sources currently provide a tiny fraction of our energy, and through inaction we’ve squandered the decades in which they could have been scaled up meaningfully. Another problem, as mentioned earlier, is that alternative energy schemes often run afoul of thermodynamic laws. Biofuels made from agricultural products have a particular tendency to be energy sinks rather than sources, meaning that they involve greater energy investment than return. In short, we face a painful energy descent that can be cushioned but not averted by renewables.

The authors regret to inform us, however, that if history is anything to go by our descent will not be a cushioned one. Civilizations that have overshot their resource bases tend to stage futile, last-ditch displays of power rather than beat wise retreats. For example, the Easter Islanders constructed ever more impressive Moai statues even as famine and civil strife overtook them. Since our civilization is sure to replay this cycle on the grandest scale yet, couched in the rhetoric of preserving our nonnegotiable, autocentric way of life, the only sensible thing is for individual communities to stay out of the way and focus on forging the sustainable pathways of the future.

Ever the botanist, Hallett wistfully muses, “If only we were as smart as plants.” He elaborates that, unlike humans with their unattainable aspirations toward a hydrogen economy, plants are able to effortlessly produce hydrogen through photosynthesis, which in turn fuels their growth. But perhaps the greatest lesson that we can learn from plants is the necessity of taking ecology into account in our economic planning. Hallett is in a better position than most to appreciate this imperative, and his and Wright’s clarion call should be heard loud and clear throughout the industrial enterprise.

* These articles can be accessed through the “Post Opinions” Web page: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions.

Editorial Notes: Frank Kaminski is an ardent Seattle peak oiler, a connoisseur of post-oil novels and a regular book reviewer for Energy Bulletin. Email him at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com; visit his site here. Direct link to "World without oil" segment on The Washington Post website: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/imagining-a-world-without-oil/2011/04/12/AFppFHKE_story.html -BA

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