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Book Review

The Party's Over
Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies 
by Richard Heinberg

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(From a posting on Sustainable Energy Forum Feb 2005)


I have just finished The Party’s Over – Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies by Richard Heinberg (2003). As a layperson I found it very valuable and “energy experts” on SEF may find it useful to recommend it to their lay friends.  The book is well laid out and contains many useful graphs, definitions, references and summaries. The author is a journalist, educator, lecturer and musician.

The book begins by exploring Energy, Nature and Society from a wide though Eurocentric perspective. He illustrates how “our modern industrial societies are completely and utterly dependent on fossil fuel energy resources.”

Richard argues “The loudest and most confident voice belongs to conventional free-market economists who view energy as merely on priced commodity among other.” He quotes Economics Nobel laureate Robert Solow “…the world can, in effect, get along without natural resources.”  He contrasts this “cornucopian” view with the little heard view of a collective of retired and independent petroleum geologists who state petroleum will run out.

In his definition of energy he points out that “physicists have no more insight into energy’s ultimate essence than do poets and philosophers. They therefore define energy not in terms of what it is but by what it does….” This is the quantifiable meaning he uses throughout the book. He goes as far as to describe the Principles of Conservation and Entropy as laws and for the most part his choice of symbols reflects this understanding. The book is refreshingly free of Energy Gobbledygook though he does lapse into it on occasion. This tends to be when discussing risk-reducing behaviour and Bulk-generated electricity.

The politics of the Party Time, the period based on cheap oil and gas, is interesting. He details, for example, how “in 1932 General Motors formed a company called United Cities Motor Transit (UMCT) which bought streetcar lines in town after town, dismantled them and replaced them with motorized diesel-burning buses. In 1936, GM, Firestone and Standard Oil of California formed National City Lines, which expanded the UMCT operation ….by 1956, 45 cities had been relieved of their electric rail systems…public transportation reached its broadest per-capital usage in 1945, then fell two-thirds in the succeeding twenty years.”

(As I write, the Mayor of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, is launching another attempt to demolish our trolley bus wires.)

 He discusses some of the hidden subsidies to the oil industry and their costs. For example:

“..the biggest public-works project in history: the Interstate Highway System. Modelled on Hitler’s Autobahn, the Interstate System came into being through the Interstate Highway Act, passed in 1956 partly as a measure of national defence. The bill authorised $25 billion for 38000 miles of divided roads; by comparison, the entire national budget in 1956 was $71 billion, and the Marshall Plan cost only $17 billion. It was the Interstates, more than anything else, that would eventually destroy the American passenger rail system: the trains simply could not compete with so highly subsidised an alternative.

(It is interesting to note when the US needed to be efficient during WW11 it was rail that it invested in. Also note how our NZ Government is spending tens of billions on roads and refused the recent splendid opportunity to rebuild an intelligent rail (and broadband) system here as it could have when TranzRail went bust.)

 He suggests that if all the environmental and social losses were factored in, out-of-pocket expenses for car ownership would be $(US)25,000 per year per vehicle.

“If the dollar cost of motoring is burdensome, the energy cost is staggering. The typical North American driver consumes his or her body weight in crude oil each week, and the automobile engines sold this year alone (2003) will have more total horsepower than all the world’s electrical powerplants combined” (Woop woop language alert – I think he means Bulk-electricity generators.)

 Similarly he points out that roughly ten percent of extracted oil is refined in kerosene to fuel jets and they contribute substantially to the destruction of the atmospheric ozone layer and local pollution. “Air travel’s affordability was greatly enhanced by a hidden subsidy: jet fuel is tax-free”.

(Note how our Government could not find $200 million of it several billions surplus to buy back our rail system but could pour billion(s) into bailing out air travel so now you can fly Wellington to Christchurch/Auckland for a lower fare than crossing the narrow Cook Strait on a large freight ferry).

 I know a little of the history of the electricity industry and could not fault what content that is on this topic. Richard is an academic and does not appear to have experienced the industry firsthand.  This may explain why he does not reveal the scale of the systematic suppression of distributed generation and citizen-based systems.  He mentions US President F.D. Roosevelt’s battles with the private utility interests and points out rural “power” coops (woop woop language) and municipal “power” authorities (woops) still control about 20% of electricity generation and distribution in the US. Recent bankruptcies of Enron and PG&E “- with executives profiting handsomely while customers and employees paid dearly – have revived  the public-“power” movement (woops)  throughout the nation.”

It was news to me, and no doubt to our Government, that “currently several large cities and many small towns in all parts of the US are considering establishing their own utilities in order to save money and provide citizens with more control. More than 40 public power utilities (woops) have been formed in the last two decades.”   Public Bulk electricity utilities “serve 35 million people in 46 states.”

(When I wrote to our Prime Minister last year suggesting she should warn her electorate that public utility,Vector, is vastly undervalued and her constituents should be alerted to this before permitting its sale, she did not respond. Instead the Finance Minister wrote to me saying they could not intervene because of the Electricity Act. What is extraordinary about this response is that same day the Minister for the Environment intervened with great vigour to stall LIMs Reports of contaminated Auckland properties affecting values. Even more extraordinary is that fact that the Government remains so committed to and bound by legislation that they described as Mad Max’s Reforms when in they were in opposition.)

 Richard argues “public power utilities” are the most sustainable structures. This is in a context where he argues the electricity grids will collapse before oil and gas run out

His discussion of the geopolitics of oil and gas is valuable He discusses its decisive role in both World Wars of last century and he outlines how the US uses the World Bank, the IMF and related institutions to secure non OPEC oil sources. He links “the war on terror” to the US administrator’s awareness of “ a single piece of information…the rate of global production of crude oil is about to peak”.

Written before the invasion of Iraq, his account of the geopolitics of US oil use make it logical, if not inevitable. He suggests control of oil and gas reserves in the Caspian Sea area caused our invasion of Afghanistan and quotes two French journalists present at a meeting in Islamabad between Christina Rocca, in charge of Central Asian affairs for the US Government and the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. This occurred in August 2001, i.e. before 9/11, and the Taliban were told “ either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.”

(In such a geopolitical setting NZ’s fourfold investment in SUVs since 2000 etc take on a horrific aspect. Nor had I realised why US military action in Kosovo was followed by the construction there of the largest “from scratch” military base since the Vietnam War.)

 A chapter is devoted to Hubbard’s projected cycles and includes discussion of the arguments of prominent sceptics and why the EIA provides “extravagantly optimistic views of global oil reserves”. Most SEF members will no doubt be aware of why. Richard takes a clue from “ … a sentence buried in the EIA ‘Annual Energy Outlook 1998 with Projections to 2020’; it reads:  “These adjustments to the USGS and MMS (Materials Management Service) estimates are based on the levels necessary to meet projected demand levels”.” As he says, supply projections were simply engineered to fit demand projections.

Among the useful pages of definitions and data is a page of energy evaluation criteria. He suggests the most important parameters to take into account when assessing a potential energy sources are:

*Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) or Net Energy.


*Environmental Costliness

*Transportability and Convenience.

He fails to mention the most important parameter but then again it seems to me everyone else does too. That is the impact of an energy use on general patterns of energy use or its Spin Factor. In other words, what images does a use generate and how does it impact on public perceptions and responses? These images fundamentally drive geopolitics and technological innovation.

The absence of this key factor may explain why in the chapters devoted to Non Petroleum Energy Sources, Richard sometimes works against his own objectives. For instance he is careful to define Conservation as two parallel but fundamentally different strategies – “curtailment” (“switching off”) and “efficiency” (Replacement with more effective practice and technology).  He then confuses matters by then talking of “energy saving”. Such confused uses of symbols of energy perhaps gives a strong hint  why his broad discussion of alternatives to oil use is somewhat lacking in vision.

Generally, he argues that the post 1970 oil price rise measures reveal conservation measures are by far the most effective response to the end of Cheap Oil Gas and potential climate problems.  He points out that wind-sourced and nuclear-sourced power have high EROEI and will require the use of valuable oil stocks. He suggests wind is the best option. However his discussion of solar-sourced power is limited considering its potential. He does offer some good hints of its potential. For example: “the typical suburban house in the US continuously receives the equivalent of over 25 horsepower in energy from the Sun”.

Probably the most important contribution for me is the way the book cuts through economist’s garbage about fiscal policy and reveals the direct links between wealth and oil. For the first time I understand that the inflation of the 1980s was oil-based. Now I see how the latest rise in the price of oil/gas is impacting in the recent considerable inflation of my mortgage rates, council rates, electricity (and gas) charges, transport costs etc. This is despite decreasing labour costs. It is far in excess of the nominal 3% inflation rate.

There is no doubt in the author’s mind that the party based on cheap oil and gas use will end. His last chapter is devoted to “Managing the Collapse”. The book contains a useful two-page summary of “When, Exactly, does the Party End?”

Richard suggests, “…there are at least six major linked events that could be considered markers of the end of the historic interval of cheap energy. (woops) Two of them have already happened.

To paraphrase:

1. The peak of global per capita energy production = c 1979

2. The peak of global net-energy availability  = between 1985 and 1995
(Note: he is really talking about oil coal, and natural gas)

3. The peak of global oil extraction = probably 2006 and 2015

4. The global peak in gross energy production from all sources =probably coincide with global oil-extraction peak.
(Note: the sun may continue to shine.)

5. The energy-led collapse of the global economy = depends whether we can adapt our present industrial economy to one based on high artistic, spiritual and intellectual achievements. Whatever, our present economy is gone forever about time of global petroleum production peak.

6. The collapse of the electricity grids = different times different places depending on resilience of grid, use of renewable resources.

At the end of the book Richard speaks of “how writing the book has been somewhat distressing at times.” He quotes the depression experienced by others researching the topic. At the same time he says his essential purpose “is not to depress but to help readers who are willing to do so to face reality squarely and take informed action.”

I recommend this book to fellow laypeople as an articulate portrayal of where our industrial society is at and the state of high-risk humanity is now in. It provides a most helpful overview of options we can adopt to reduce that risk from our use of fossil fuels. The question is whether we will adopt those options. This book, like all those of its genre will not be sufficient to ensure sustainable change and for a while I puzzled why.

Then I recalled how on the second page of chapter one he spoke of how poets and philosophers differ to physicists in their definition of energy. I linked this to his suggestion that a more sustainable civilisation will be based on contemplation and reflection, rather than material consumption. It occurs to me that these books, while vital, are unable to initiate sustainable change. Why not?

Look at America, the source of this book. It has a fear-based administration that sets its people against each other and against other peoples on a profound scale. Fear breeds even more unsustainable uses of energy and misery, including warfare. Sustainable change occurs when people are inspired by life and know a sense of awe and love.

Knowing what energy does is not sufficient and as Richard says, this is the definition his book is based on. Knowing what energy is forms the main source of the inspiration for poets and philosophers.

It is the experience of the abundance of energy and the profusion of its forms that generates a sense of meaning beyond mere material rewards and our own mortality. It is having the Principle of the Conservation of energy at the heart of our images.

So another book is required to supplement this excellent one. That book will draw on the poet and philosopher within each of us. It will build on the physicist within each of us and work to merge what energy does with what energy is. This will generate the inspiration required to make the enormous adaptation to a postindustrial society safely.

Thank you Richard Heinberg.  Richard has a website at which I have yet to visit.

P.S. Read this as Post Script or Profound Script as you please. I knew electricity is a form of energy. Richard introduced me to the valuable idea that electricity is actually a carrier of energy in the same way that hydrogen is a carrier. This introduced a new and wonderful dimension to me. “Energy experts”, please reflect before confusing the symbols “power” and “energy” with electricity. Your lack of care of physics steals something awesome from our awareness.

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