Dr. Colin Campbell, authority on peak oil
It is well said that oil and politics are never far apart. Even the First World War, when oil was in its infancy, had a certain oil element with German pressure in the Middle East. The French premier of the day commented, "A drop of oil is worth a drop of blood." Japan came into the Second World War for control of Indonesian oil. Hitler aimed at Baku on the Caspian with a desperate need for oil to support his war machine that still relied heavily on horse-drawn transport. The invasion of Kuwait in the second Gulf War had its origins in Kuwait's action in producing above its agreed OPEC quota, which depressed the price of oil seriously reducing Iraq's legitimate revenue. The United States, its own indigenous production having been in terminal decline for more than thirty years, has long explicitly stated that access to foreign oil is a vital national interest, justifying military intervention. Such a policy may have been implemented by the time these words come into print with apocalyptic consequences, or at best it will have been only narrowly averted by world opinion.
This remarkable book therefore comes at an opportune time.
It is indeed a remarkable book, bringing deep insight into the state of a world that has come to rely on cheap oil-based energy: the fundamental driver of its prosperity and economic growth. Yet, as the author points out, oil is a fossil fuel, which means that it was formed in the geological past and is consequently subject to depletion. Accordingly, we started running out when we produced the first barrel. But running out is not the main issue as the tail end of production can drag on for a very long time. What matters much more is the date of peak and the onset of decline, which is likely to be a historic discontinuity as the growth of the past gives way to decline. It will affect all aspects of life as we know it, since oil is critical for transport, trade, and agriculture. The world's population has expanded six-fold during the first half of the Oil Age. What will it do during the second half?
The book opens with a discussion of energy in general, explaining in lucid terms its characteristics and physical laws. It cannot be created or destroyed, merely transformed. Thus, plants grow by using the energy from the sun to convert nutrients and minerals in the soil into stalks and leaves, which in turn provide food for animals. The Laws of Entropy cover the essential balances that determine the success or failure of every environmental niche. That perception in turn has led to the subject of ecology in which scientists study the viability of the life systems of the very finite planet on which we live. As the early dust-bowls of America confirmed, every system has its limits: plants can't grow if the soil has been blown away, or the natural aquifers drained dry.
This is, however, sensitive territory, as understandably people prefer not to hear about natural constraints that intrude on their belief in human beings as masters of their environment. These limitations even touch on religious doctrine, which elevate humankind to a special status in the eyes of God. The passions of the eco-warrior may be rightfully raised but ironically prove self-defeating if he is stereotyped as a crank in sandals and beard. It is refreshing therefore to find the author of this book presenting such a level-headed account, free from extreme opinion or bias. He makes a very compelling argument that should appeal as much to the boardroom as to the passionate environmentalist community.
Speaking of the boardroom, we learn how relatively recent is the corporate world in which we live. It arose out of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century, when we learned to harness energy, first from mill streams, but later from coal, oil and gas to manufacture goods and products, which in turn led to surplus capital that stimulated growth, and new markets. The saturation of home markets led to overseas empires by Britain, France, and Russia, followed today by US economic hegemony and globalism, driven by the dollar and backed by unprecedented military might. Capitalism itself has evolved through the development of unseen financial instruments dominated by debt and usury, as commercial banks lend money they neither have nor own in an almost virtual system built on confidence in perpetual growth. All of this has been achieved in the span of only a few generations: my father was born before the advent of the automobile, and long before the first tractor ploughed its furrow.
But, as the book explains, empires fall as well as rise, and do so quickly, with collapse often being triggered by some ecological event. The Roman Empire crashed when the silver mines in Spain flooded on reaching the water table such that there was no money to pay the mercenary troops to defend the realm. The Rhine froze in 410 AD, allowing Aleric the Goth to march south and sack Rome, bringing to an end an empire that had lasted a thousand years.
Whether we like it or not, we live within a natural environment and we ignore its impacts at our peril. Did Darwin get it right when he proclaimed that evolution was achieved by the survival of the fittest? In fact, the record of life on Earth over 500 million years shows how species thrived when they adapted to environmental niches, but died out when the environment changed, leaving simpler forms to survive and later give branches that exploited new environments, only to die out in their turn.
The prime questions posed by the book are precisely these: Will we be the first species to use our claimed intelligence to reverse when we discover that we have taken a wrong turn in the road?, and, Can we recover simplicity and an equitable balance with the resources at our disposal? These questions in turn touch on human diversity and migration. Some communities may learn to adapt better than others. Will they be able to exploit their advantage? Or will they rather be swamped by migrants from less adapted places?
Just how close are we to these fundamental changes of direction? Economists can readily chart trends, but they are hopeless when it comes to anticipating discontinuities. The unexpected can happen. September 11th may have been just such a catalyst. As the days pass more questions are asked about who exactly was responsible and what motive they had. Was it the work of an isolated group, or were there sinister forces operating even in the United States itself, as some of the evidence suggests? The jury is out, but these events may have been symptomatic of unseen deeper tensions, not unrelated to Middle East oil.
The jury is not out, however, on the issue of declining oil supply. Even the CEO of Exxon-Mobil confirms that less than half the oil needed to meet demand by 2010 can be supplied by present fields, and that as much as a trillion dollars would be needed to secure it. This is an oblique way of saying that demand cannot be met. British Petroleum says that BP now stands for Beyond Petroleum, in an equally oblique reference to the depletion of its principal asset.
The authorities and powers-that-be are reluctant to grasp the nettle and come out to say it the way it is, but this book rightly takes the imminent peak of oil supply as a given, before exploring the other sources of energy that may come in. It concludes that there are useful substitutes, although none will be as cheap or convenient as was oil.
In a final chapter, the author offers recommendations about how to face the social, economic, political, and individual lifestyle changes that are imposed upon us. The strength of these recommendations is that they aim at what people may do at a personal level in their own lives, thinking especially about conditions in the United States. This seems eminently sensible, because however corrupted the democratic system has become, the politicians do eventually have to depend on popular support. As personal attitudes change, so eventually will government policies have to change to meet them. The key word here is eventually, as there is much truth in the adage that generals always plan to fight the previous war, being the last to perceive the changed circumstances.
The enormous contribution that the author has made in writing this book is that he gives us the tools with which to identify the new challenges and wrestle victory from defeat. It should be standard reading for governments everywhere, being nowhere more desperately needed than in the White House. It also deserves a place in every household bookshelf and in schools and colleges. If it captures the interest and imagination of the youth, as it deservedly can, perhaps after all, we will have a good future. The United States is known for the initiative, individuality, ingenuity, and enthusiasm of its people. They can rise to the challenge once they know what it is. This book will tell them, and tell them in a very clear, unambiguous, well-argued, and unemotional fashion.
C. J. Campbell
Former oil executive (FINA)
Founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO)
County Cork, Ireland