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Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The Party's Over

A few quotes from the book I'm reading: The Party's Over, by Richard Heinberg. (Heinberg was one of the speakers at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair that I attended a couple of weeks ago.)

From the introduction:
The [retired and independent] petroleum geologists have nothing but contempt for economists who, by reducing all resources to dollar prices, effectively obscure real and important physical distinctions. According to the petroleum geologists, this is arrant and dangerous nonsense. Petroleum will run out. Moreover, it will do so much sooner than the economists assume--and substitutes will not be easy to find. The environmentalists, who for the most part accept economists' estimates of petroleum reserves, are, according to the geologists, both right and wrong: we should indeed be switching to renewable alternatives, but because the renewables cannot fully replicate the energy characteristics of fossil fuels and because decades will be required for their full development, a Golden Age of plentiful energy from renewable sources is simply not in the cards. Society must engage in a crash program of truly radical conservation if we are to avoid economic and humanitarian catastrophe as industrialism comes to its inevitable end.
Quoting some quotes from later in the book:
Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist. -- Kenneth Boulding (ca. 1980)

If we consume the world until there's no more to consume, then there's going to come a day, sure as hell, when our children or their children or their children's children are going to look back on us--on you and me--and say to themselves, "My God, what kind of monsters were these people?" -- Daniel Quinn (2000)

We need an energy bill that encourages consumption. -- George W. Bush (2002)
The gist of Heinberg's book (and talk) is that the world is very near, or possibly already at, the limit of its ability to produce oil. The easy oil is gone, and what is left will be harder to find and more expensive to drill. The average amount of energy needed to extract a barrel of oil from the ground has been steadily increasing for a century, and will eventually exceed the amount of energy contained in that barrel. As Heinberg points out, oil ceases to be an energy source at that point. Another major point that Heinberg makes is that oil is about as close to a perfect fuel as we'll ever have--high energy density, easy to transport, relatively safe and clean (compared to coal and nuclear, for example). And while coal helped to get the industrial revolution started, the massive networks of industry and transportation that circle the globe today were only possible because of the cheap and easy availability of oil. Once oil has peaked, those networks will inevitably have to slow down or shut down. How this is done should be the key question of our time, not some "war on terror" or how to "jump-start" our economy.