Also listen to David Goodstein's lecture on the subject.
February 8, 2004 By Paul Raeburn
If all you knew about David Goodstein was the title of his book, you might imagine him to be one of those insufferably enthusiastic prophets of doom, the flannel-shirted, off-the-grid types who take too much pleasure in letting us know that the environment is crumbling all around us. But Goodstein, a physicist, vice provost of the California Institute of Technology and an advocate of nuclear power, is no muddled idealist. And his argument is based on the immutable laws of physics.
The age of oil is ending, he says. The supply will soon begin to decline, precipitating a global crisis. Even if we substitute coal and natural gas for some of the oil, we will start to run out of fossil fuels by the end of the century. ''And by the time we have burned up all that fuel,'' he writes, ''we may well have rendered the planet unfit for human life. Even if human life does go on, civilization as we know it will not survive.''
He's talking about 100 years from now, far enough in the future, you might say, that we needn't worry for generations. Surely some technological fix will be in place by then, some new source of energy, some breakthrough. But with a little luck, many readers of these pages will live until 2030 or 2040, or longer. Their children may live until 2070 or 2080, and their grandchildren will easily survive into the 22nd century. We're talking about a time in the lives of our grandchildren, not some warp drive, Star Trek future.
And what about that technological fix? ''There is no single magic bullet that will solve all our energy problems,'' Goodstein writes. ''Most likely, progress will lie in incremental advances on many simultaneous fronts.'' We might finally learn to harness nuclear fusion, the energy that powers the sun, or to develop better nuclear reactors, or to improve the efficiency of the power grid. But those advances will require a ''massive, focused commitment to scientific and technological research. That is a commitment we have not yet made.'' Drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and scouring the energy resources of national lands across the West might help the constituents of Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and Vice President Dick Cheney's friends in the energy industry, but it won't solve the problem.
Goodstein's predictions are based on a sophisticated understanding of physics and thermodynamics, and on a simple observation about natural resources. The supply of any natural resource follows a bell curve, increasing rapidly at first, then more slowly, eventually peaking and beginning to decline. Oil will, too.
It has already happened in the United States. In 1956, Marion King Hubbert, a geophysicist with the Shell Oil Company, predicted that oil production in the United States would peak sometime around 1970. His superiors at Shell dismissed the prediction, as did most others in the oil business. But he was right. Hubbert's peak occurred within a few years of when he said it would, and American oil production has been declining ever since. There was no crisis, because this country tapped the world's reserves, and the supply increased along with demand.
Now Goodstein and many others have shown that the same methods, when applied to global oil production and resources, predict a Hubbert's peak in world oil supplies within this decade, or, in the best-case scenarios, sometime in the next. Once that happens, the world supply of oil will begin to decline gradually, even though large quantities of oil will remain in the ground. The world demand for oil will continue to increase. The gap between supply and demand will grow. But this time the gap will be real; there will be no other source of oil (from the moon, Neptune or Pluto?) to flow into the system.
When the supply falls and the demand rises, the price will go up. That's no problem, economists say. With the high price, companies will go after more costly oil, and the market will take care of things.
Maybe not, Goodstein replies. ''In an orderly, rational world, it might be possible for the gradually increasing gap between supply and demand for oil to be filled by some substitute. But anyone who remembers the oil crisis of 1973 knows that we don't live in such a world, especially when it comes to an irreversible shortage of oil.''
In the best-case scenario, he writes, we can squeak through a bumpy transition to a natural-gas economy while nuclear power plants are built to get us past the oil crisis. In the worst case, ''runaway inflation and worldwide depression leave many billions of people with no alternative but to burn coal in vast quantities for warmth, cooking and primitive industry.''
President Bush has pointed to hydrogen as the ultimate answer to our need for transportation fuels, but Goodstein correctly points out that hydrogen is not a source of energy. It is a fuel produced by using energy. We can use coal to produce it, or solar power, or something else, but it is only a way of converting energy into a form that can be used in vehicles; it doesn't do anything to ease the transition away from oil.
''Out of Gas'' -- a book that is more powerful for being brief -- takes a detour to explain some of the basics of energy budgets, thermodynamics and entropy, and it does so with the clarity and gentle touch of a master teacher.
Then Goodstein gets back on message. Even nuclear power is only a short-term solution. Uranium, too, has a Hubbert's peak, and the current known reserves can supply the earth's energy needs for only 25 years at best. There are other nuclear fuels, and solar and wind power might help at the fringes. But ''the best, most conservative bet for ameliorating the coming fuel crisis is the gradual improvement of existing technologies,'' he writes. We can improve the efficiency of lights, tap solar power with cheap photoelectric cells and turn to nuclear power. The problem is that we have not made a national or global commitment to do so. ''Unfortunately, our present national and international leadership is reluctant even to acknowledge that there is a problem. The crisis will occur, and it will be painful.''
I hope Goodstein is wrong. I wish we could dismiss him as an addled environmentalist, too much in love with his windmill to know which way the wind is blowing. On the strength of the evidence, and his argument, however, we can't. If he's right, I'm sorry for my kids. And I'm especially sorry for theirs.
Paul Raeburn's next book, ''Acquainted With the Night,'' a memoir of his children's experiences with depression and bipolar disorder, will be published in May.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company