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Book review: The End of Oil by Paul Roberts

Following in the footsteps of a long tradition of American social commentary and indictment, from Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser to Barry Glassner and Eric Schlosser, Paul Roberts doesn’t disappoint with his book The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World. The title has a certain apocalyptic timbre to it, but this tome is no wild eyed, fanatical survivalist rant. On the contrary, The End of Oil is not full of the usual doom and gloom. It helps us to understand our relationship to oil and the price of our dependence on it, while at once being engaging, insightful and chilling. Lucid and cogent, it provides a balanced analysis from all perspectives. Paul Roberts made sure to talk to everyone – oil executives, petroleum engineers (both optimistic and pessimistic), oil hucksters, emirates, and alternative energy spokespersons among others. All were interviewed, tough questions were asked, and Roberts, a longtime follower of energy and resource development, doesn’t shirk the issues that are at stake. This is what makes this book so balanced, so engaging, so insightful and so potentially chilling and devastating.

Roberts argues that the current energy economy of the world has to start moving away from its dependence on hydrocarbons (oil, coal and natural gas). These are millennia old resources which have an upper limit, and are not renewable – once they’re gone, they’re gone. Roberts, of course, sees the shift as a global endeavor, but he focuses his attention on the United States because it is particularly well-poised to lead the way. No other nation has as much political clout or wields as much economic influence as the U.S. Roberts begins with a brief but illuminating history of the transition from a coal economy to our modern day, oil-dominated and dependent economy. The chapters that follow make short but thorough work of oil depletion, hydrogen fuel cells, the geopolitics of oil, climate change, the developing world, consumer attitudes, energy security, and alternative energy sources. While this is not a light read, it rushes along under its own momentum generated by cogency and urgency, making it an important read. Readers will be impressed by the fluency of the arguments presented early on and they will be amazed that there is still so much ground to cover with so much of the book left to read. Roberts is clearly interested in presenting a persuasive argument and providing ample evidence to drive his premises home. It is no surprise that Roberts aims to educate because one of his central observations is that Americans are woefully ignorant about how their electricity is produced. According to Roberts, “a majority of U.S. consumers believe that most of their electricity comes from hydroelectric dams, when in truth most is produced from coal-fired and nuclear power plants.” As we keep ourselves in the dark with this level of ignorance, it seems okay for us to continue to consume at ever-increasing rates as unnecessarily bigger houses, more appliances and gadgets and enormous gas-guzzling vehicles are purchased. This kind of consumption not only takes its toll on resources, the environment and the economy as we financially overextend ourselves, but it also takes its toll on our psyches. Sitting pretty has led to political inertia. Voter turn-out and political engagement being at an all time low were symptoms of a bigger problem. We have essentially made ourselves sitting ducks. We ‘feel free’ with all this seeming choice only because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom. This is why we remain powerless as the auto and oil industries aggressively lobby against legislation that would improve fuel efficiency, reduce emissions, and tackle the problem of climate change. We are left without tools to fight back, to protest with because we have so thoroughly adopted convenience as the primary virtue to uphold. Thus, the book is a work of eye-opening and hard hitting facts and analysis which engages and edifies. It is depressing, but realistic. Yet Roberts concludes that not all is lost. He notes that energy consortiums and their components have the capability to come up with and enact innovative solutions rather quickly, and coupled with a changing political climate, there is still hope. While this is all well and good, urgency still rules the day. We can and should begin making changes now to prepare and be proactive in order to make the transition more environmentally, politically and culturally friendly and peaceful.

The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World by Paul Roberts
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN 0618239774
389 pages