The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies

We're running out of oil, but politicians don't like to talk about it because it's a problem they can't solve. That's why you hardly ever hear about it in the media. But those who should know best, retired and independent petroleum geologists, believe that we will run out of oil much sooner than economists and politicians try to make us believe. It is commonly believed that we can solve this problem by switching to renewable energy sources. The problem with this is that we are still several decades away from being able to satisfy most of our energy needs with renewable sources, but we are going to reach the peak of oil production much sooner, probably between 2006 and 2015, and demand is still increasing. The book was published in 2003, and now, September 2004, it looks like we may already be close to that point. This will lead to increasingly intense competition for a dwindling resource, resulting in more conflicts, and ultimately the demise of industrial societies.

Many books have been written on the subject, but I think this is one of the best because of the depth of the analysis. For example, there is an in-depth discussion of Joseph Tainter's 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies. He thus provides a broader theoretical context for the impending collapse of oil-based societies. Unfortunately, the author sometimes ignores this insight, as when he expresses hope that we will all voluntarily make the transition to a more sustainable lifestyle, thereby avoiding the worst consequences of the collapse. We all, including the author, know that this will never happen. So why does he say it? In my opinion, because our brains are hard-wired to be politically correct. For an even better analysis, the author would have to know more about evolutionary psychology and game theory.

Another short-coming of the book is that the environmental impact is not taken seriously enough. The author dedicates a little over one page to the topic. (But he dedicates four pages to a discussion of perpetual motion machines and cold fusion, and why they won't save us. He classifies cold fusion as a source of free energy, which is clearly erroneous.) To his credit, he does realize that without oil, we will not have the resources to enforce environmental protection laws. He sees more widespread deforestation, similar to the consequences of earlier collapses, but eventually, things will recover again. I believe this time is fundamentally different. The tropical rainforests will be gone in about 20 years, and they will never come back again. Biodiversity is on its way out, never to return, unless humans become extinct. This is not very likely unless runaway global warming turns Earth into another Venus. To find an event of comparable impact on the biosphere, one would have to go back four billion years, to the origin of life. Never before in the history of life on this planet has a species evolved with the ability to outcompete any other species. The party may be over for Homo sapiens, but existence is over for most other species.