Oil apocalypse

Beyond Oil: The View From Hubbert’s Peak
Kenneth S. Deffeyes
Hill and Wang

The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century
James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press

High prices at the gas pump may not be simply oil-company ploys to amass cash. Two new books, Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak and The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, suggest that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are approaching, and with them is a fifth, carrying an empty barrel of oil. Cheap gas, food and consumer goods are slipping away, and even though we might enjoy a bit of schadenfreude at the prospect of watching Wal-Mart’s lauded distribution system collapse under its own weight, the coming energy crisis is going to hurt us all.

Kenneth S. Deffeyes is a retired petroleum geologist and former Princeton professor who worked at Shell Oil with the late M. King Hubbert. Combining his self-described “Oklahoma oil man” expertise with his scientific training, in Beyond Oil, Deffeyes explains Hubbert’s groundbreaking calculations about peak oil for the nonspecialist.

The short version: The U.S. oil-production capability reached its peak in the early 1970s and has been falling off since. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge won’t push our petroleum production anywhere near our consumption. World oil production will peak some time this decade. After that, there will never be enough oil to meet demand again. Eventually, the day will come when it takes more energy to bring oil up than it provides once it’s here.

There are some—both Deffeyes and James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, call then “cornucopians”—who think that some new form of energy will appear magically. However, the science doesn’t support that view; what’s more, our moves toward alternate energy aren’t cutting it, either.

Deffeyes and Kunstler examine the alternative energy sources available to us; it’s easy to get depressed at how deluded we’ve been. None of these alternate sources will replace oil, each has its own limitations and problems, and most of them are subject to the same lack of sustainability as oil production. Further, it will be even more difficult to pursue alternative energy sources now that oil production is moving into its downslide; oil fuels our research as well as our cars.

Deffeyes is optimistic. He suggests using what natural gas we’ve got left for cars, relying on coal and nuclear power for electricity and reserving what’s left of the oil for petrochemicals. He doesn’t say what we should do when we’re out of everything, although he does suggest we should learn to eat carrots, potatoes and turnips in the winter rather than expecting to have fresh produce flown in.

Kunstler’s more pessimistic, but he’s not looking at just one horseman; disease, famine, death and war will accompany the end of oil. He suggests that our engagement in Iraq may already be the beginning of the third world war.

Without the transportation system and petrochemicals, we’ll lose access to many medicines. We’ll need to survive on locally grown food, but we’ve paved over damn near everything in our century-long obsession with the internal-combustion engine. Once suburbanites realize their McMansions are totally unsustainable, Kunstler predicts there will be a period of severe depression and unrest.

In Cuba, the loss of access to oil and agricultural chemicals when the U.S.S.R. disintegrated resulted in an immediate drop in the population’s food supply, but Cubans met it with urban gardens and community farms. Americans, long used to having our cakes and eating them, too, may struggle. Our disconnection from the sources of our food—the ingrained habit of thinking it all comes from Safeway—may cause some real difficulties when we have to produce, store and prepare it in ways that don’t kill us.

The big one on the horizon: global climate change. Kunstler factors it into his extrapolations of what we can look forward to, in more detail than Deffeyes does, and it’s not pretty.

Still, Kunstler gives us room to hope, as well. The prospect of communities built on human scale—small cities where artisans create useful, attractive, necessary objects, surrounded by farms that provide enough food to sustain the population—carries with it a certain optimism. Just the prospect of being able to ride a bike or walk through Midtown without the threat of being run down by a stressed-out commuter puts a positive spin on life without oil.