Review of the Book:
The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies,
by Richard Heinberg
H. William Batt
[This book is published by New Society Publishers, April, 2003.
This review is reprinted from
"Authoritative data [i.e., from independent experts outside
of government and the oil industry] indicate that from about 2009
on, there will be a permanent 3% per year decline of output from the
world's now-emptying global oil fields." Because oil provides
the basis of our transportation, our agriculture, our industrial
mechanization, and much of our home heating and power, we will face
a crisis of historic magnitude, yet one which many influential
parties today have an interest in not wanting to disclose or
address. This dilemma cannot be surmounted by any policies of
economics; rather they result from the laws of physics. Moreover,
there are no realistic substitutes to adequately provide the full
range of power requirements that petroleum has heretofore given us.
Even the often touted "renewable" power sources like solar
and wind will take enormous investments, and there is simply too
little time before the crisis arrives.
How are we - every individual and nation on earth - going to cope
with this crisis? Each alternative, argues Professor Richard
Heinberg, has so many downsides that we face a future of profoundly
lowered sights. He both presents the data and explains why so many
in industry and government have refused to face the looming crisis
squarely. Many will dismiss this book as just one more Cassandra
speaking, but it is incumbent then for such critics to know the
arguments and answer them if they can.
They will have a difficult time. The thesis goes even further:
that the fossil-fuel based economy has allowed world population to
soar to over six billion, but as the basis of such food provision
becomes exhausted, the number will shrink once again to what it was
capable of supporting in the absence of petroleum based fertilizers
and cultivation, at best about two billion people, and perhaps by
2050. How that scenario will unfold is beyond the scope of his book
except in a limited way, but demonstration of our dependency upon
carbon-based power is graphically shown, and outlines of what might
happen are referenced for the reader to explore.
The basis of Heinberg's book is three years of a very active
listserve begun in February 2000 and moderated by retired Cornell
Professor Jay Hansen. It grew out of Hansen's extensive website,
www.dieoff.org, which presented his ideas on the subject of energy
resources, and two listserves (firstname.lastname@example.org and
RunningOnEmpty@yahoogroups.com) to continue the discussion. In the
intervening period, there have been nearly 40,000 posts on
energyresources alone, contributed by an open membership of over 600
very knowledgeable subscribers. Management of the discussion has now
been passed to a colleague who has been able to maintain the
discussion at an equally sophisticated level, and the richness of
these exchanges are remarkable testimony to the power of the
But who can possibly search through and follow some forty
thousand messages, coming at the rate of about thirty a day, often
long detailed commentaries and submissions of data that can
overwhelm even experts in the field! It is now fortunate, then, that
a book has just been issued that organizes and summarizes much of
their message in a form that is comprehensible to the lay reader. It
presents a future that will be alarming to many, but the tone of the
book is very sober. Fortunately also, Professor Heinberg, in his
fourth book, reflects the ideas expressed accurately and concisely
for so difficult a subject. He also had the help of some of the
leading experts in the world in guiding his effort. Notable among
them were Jean Laherrere, Walter Youngquist, Professor Hansen
himself, and Colin Campbell, who wrote the forward.
The book's concluding chapter has an upbeat quality by suggesting
answers which a citizen can undertake for self protection, even
though the fundamental solutions need to be addressed by governments
and industry. But the prior chapter provides the core of the
Oil extraction worldwide follows a parabolic curve, the peak year
coming on or about 2009. United States peaked in 1970; Saudi Arabia
and Iraq are the only two nations that have not reached their peaks.
Alarmed about the public's lack of knowledge and concern about what
we face, the listserve members collaboratively set up an additional
website to present the case: www.oilcrisis.org.
Heinberg uses all of these sites and listserves. "Within
only a few years," he argues, "OPEC countries will have
control over virtually all of the exportable surplus oil in the
world (with the exception of Russia's petroleum, the production of
which may reach a second peak in 2010, following an initial peak
that precipitated the collapse of the USSR). The US - whose global
hegemony has seemed so complete for the past decade - will suffer an
increasing decline in global influence, which no amount of saber
rattling or bombing of "terrorist" countries will be able
to reverse. Awash in debt, dependent on imports, mired in
corruption, its military increasingly overextended, the US is well
into its imperial twilight years." (P.198)
A few pages later (p.230-31), he continues that the outcome is "inevitable."
"The US, as the center of the global industrial empire, does
not have the choice of whether to decline; it can, however choose
how to decline - whether gracefully and peacefully, setting a
helpful example for the rest of the world, or petulantly and
violently, drawing other nations with it into an accelerating
whirlwind of destruction."
"Such a unilateral US relinquishment of global dominance
would, it could be argued, open the way for another nation - perhaps
China - to take center state. Might Americans wake up one day to
find themselves subjects of some alien empire? It may help to
remember that the inexorable physics of the energy transition
preclude such an occurrence. In the decades ahead, no nation will be
able to afford to subdue and rule a large, geographically isolated
country like the US. Only small, weak, resource-rich nations will be
likely targets for conquest."
Dismissing his arguments as those of a Cassandra is no option.
Agree or disagree, it is the responsibility of every citizen to read
and understand the implications of Heinberg's message.