Heinberg is a professor at the Santa Rosa branch of the New College
of California where he teaches courses on Culture, Ecology, and
Sustainable Community. He is the author of five books, including:
A New Covenant
with Nature: Notes on the End of Civilization and the Renewal of
Cloning the Buddha: The Moral Impact of Biotechnology
His latest book is
The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate
of Industrial Societies
. His online newsletter can be found
How important is oil to industrial societies?
It’s about as important to industrial societies as water is
to fish. The industrial revolution was, basically, all about fossil
fuels. Coal came first, but when oil was harnessed, humankind discovered
the cheapest, most abundant source of energy ever. As a result,
we’ve increased our human population from just a few hundred
million at the start of the industrial revolution, to over six billion,
three hundred million now. We’re adding about a billion people
every 12 years at current rates. This is something that’s never
been seen before. We’ve added more people since 1999 than existed
in the world just a few hundred years ago. This is an indication
of the incredible impact that fossil fuels have had on human societies.
we’ve invented all sorts of technologies to take advantage
of this energy subsidy through transportation, communications, manufacturing,
etc. Machines now do things that were formally done by human or
animal muscle power. We also do all sorts of things with machines
that we didn’t do at all before. So fossil fuels have changed
our way of life, our view of the world, how many of us live on the
planet, how we live, and where we live.
talk about the Hubbert oil curve and its implications?
King Hubbert was the first geologist to make a fairly accurate estimate
of the total recoverable quantity of oil—first in North America
and then later in the world as a whole. He was also the first petroleum
geologist to understand the principles of oil depletion.
realized that, for any given oil province, when about half the oil
is gone, production tends to peak. The reason is that we naturally
go after the easy, cheap oil first and, by the time about half of
the total amount of oil is gone, the easy stuff tends to run out;
then it becomes more difficult to extract what’s left. So there’s
a bell-shaped curve to production that seems to apply across the
board. Economic and political factors can change the shape of that
curve. If there’s a war or the price of oil changes, or a country
voluntarily decides to restrict exports, those can alter the oil
extraction profile. But even so, what goes up must eventually come
down and so depletion can be mathematically modeled even if the
graph is fairly bumpy.
Hubbert applied his methods to the United States, which was the
world’s foremost oil producing nation for many decades, he
determined that the halfway point of extraction would occur around
1970. Sure enough, just as Hubbert predicted, U.S. oil production
peaked in 1970 and it’s been going down ever since. We’re
extracting about as much conventional onshore oil in the U.S. now
as we were in 1940, which is much less than was being extracted
in 1970, and that’s the reason we’re more and more dependent
on imported oil from places like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iraq.
Hubbert’s method, it’s also possible to predict when global
oil production will peak. The scary thing is, the peak is likely
not that far off. No one is absolutely sure, because it is impossible
to determine exactly how much oil is yet to be discovered. Some
countries have political motives for underreporting or overreporting
their reserves. But the best guesses are that we’re only a
few years away from the global oil production peak.
will happen when we pass the peak of the Hubbert oil curve?
we hit the peak, every year thereafter we will be unable to find
and pump more oil. If the demand continues at the present rate or
grows, the supply will be inadequate and that will have tremendous
economic implications for the whole world. Either we have to find
other energy sources to make up for what we lose from petroleum
as it begins to run out or else we will go into permanent economic
decline with vast implications for the economy, food production,
transportation, and so on.
we find alternative energy sources in time to replace oil?
a surprisingly tough question because there are very few scientists
out there who are doing good comparative studies of the various
energy alternatives. We have companies that are invested in particular
energy alternatives, that are doing their own studies, but they
understandably have a certain bias. What we need are objective studies
comparing the alternatives on the basis of a series of clear, transparent
criteria, like: Are they renewable? What’s their environmental
cost? What’s their energy profit ratio?
see, it takes energy to get energy. It takes energy to drill an
oil well. It takes energy to manufacture a photovoltaic solar panel.
But the energy profit ratio is different for each of the alternatives
and that figure needs to be objectively determined. Suppose we were
to invest $100 billion dollars over the next ten years in making
a transition to a hydrogen economy and then discovered that, in
fact, hydrogen has a lot of hidden costs. Well, we can’t afford
to lose ten years and $100 billion dollars going down the wrong
road at this point.
there alternatives that can replace oil? Well, the answer is: We
don’t know for sure, but there’s little cause for complacent
assurance right now. The reason I say that is that most of the renewable
alternatives like nuclear, wind, and solar have various drawbacks.
power is expensive and dangerous and the problem of radioactive
waste storage has not been solved. With wind, you can only place
turbines in certain places. (Wind is probably the best of the alternatives,
in my view.) With solar, the sun only shines part of the day and
some regions are often cloudy. Photovoltaics, right now, are still
quite expensive and not very many people are willing to make the
is not even an energy source; it’s just an energy storage medium.
Yes, we could run cars on hydrogen, but where are we going to get
enough hydrogen to run millions of autos? Either it has to be made
from fossil fuels—which are the source of nearly all commercially
available hydrogen today—or from water using electrolysis.
But making hydrogen from water takes more energy in the form of
electricity than the hydrogen will give you later on.
Where will we get all of this extra electricity? We’re not
going to get it from natural gas because in North America we are
starting to run out of natural gas. Are we going to get it from
nuclear, solar, or wind? If we choose any of these alternatives,
it means dramatically increasing our energy budget for electricity
production at a time when we’re going to be suffering from
the economic effects of petroleum and natural gas depletion. We’re
not prepared to make a huge investment in new electrical generating
capacity now and we will be even less prepared then.
does human carrying capacity fit into the context of the Hubert
have artificially increased the carrying capacity for human beings
on planet earth. Carrying capacity is how many individuals of a
given species can be supported by the environment. That number tends
to vary, depending on weather, rainfall, etc. Carrying capacity
changes for just about every species from year to year. Human beings
have found a way to artificially—and probably only temporarily—enlarge
our carrying capacity with industrial agriculture, expanded transportation
networks, technology, better sanitation, better medical care, etc.
problem is that this expanded carrying capacity is dependent on
a non-renewable resource, namely, fossil fuels. So this is not permanent
carrying capacity that we’ve created; this is what William
Catton—who wrote the book
in the 1980s—called
phantom carrying capacity. It’s carrying capacity that may
vanish as fossil fuels disappear from our lives.
the size of that phantom carrying capacity? Nobody knows for sure,
but if we look back to how many people planet Earth supported before
we started using oil, we find it was fewer than two billion. We
now have over six billion. So, even granting that we’ve discovered
ways of keeping people alive through better sanitation and so on,
ways that might be sustainable using relatively little energy, the
fact is that we’ve probably overshot our carrying capacity
and we may need to find ways to reduce the human load on the environment
if we’re all going to survive.
you talk about the different options for our future as we pass the
peak of the Hubbert curve?
A, what I call Plan War, is what we’re pursuing right now.
Whoever has the most guns and bombs will compete with everyone else
for the remaining resources and use them till they’re gone.
course, the situation is a bit more complicated than that. Obviously,
the U.S. didn’t conquer Iraq so that we could literally build
a pipeline directly from Basra to Houston. I think the U.S. has
economic and geopolitical reasons for wanting to control the price
of global oil. Iraq is a pivotal country in terms of the future
of oil production. It has the second largest reserves and it’s
between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Arabia has the largest reserves, but it’s politically unstable
and it’s unclear what would happen in Saudi Arabia if the government
there were to fall, whether supplies would be cut off, at least
temporarily. Having a large military presence next door to Saudi
Arabia must make a lot of sense in the minds of the geostrategists.
that’s Plan A and it doesn’t look like it’s going
to have a very happy ending because one can foresee more and more
armed conflicts between heavily militarized consuming nations and
poorer resource-rich producer nations. Eventually, there will be
conflicts between competing consuming nations. China, for example,
wants to industrialize. China is using more and more oil every year.
But if global oil production peaks, that means the Chinese will
be in direct competition for every barrel of oil with the already
developed countries like the U.S. So how are we going to work that
out? Using nuclear bombs? I hope not, but right now I don’t
see any other thinking going on.
B, what I call Plan Powerdown, would entail some kind of national
and global process for deliberately reducing our dependence on fossil
fuels. It would require changing our economy so it’s no longer
a growth economy. It would require dealing with population issues,
so that we’re putting less of a load on existing resources.
It would require dealing with the problem of economic inequality
within and among nations because the more economic inequality we
have, the higher the likelihood of conflict.
would require changing our whole way of life, going from a consuming
society to an efficient society, going from a growth society to
a society that’s steady-state and even reducing its scale year
after year. That’s politically very difficult. The last person
to attempt something like that, in this country anyway, was Jimmy
Carter—and look what happened to him when a political opponent
came along promising a return to times of plenty. Still, if in the
U.S., people realized what’s at stake and what the long-term
consequences of their path will be, I think many, if not most, would
be interested in following Plan B.
C, what I call Plan Snooze, entails doing little or nothing while
the problem is temporarily denied or wished away. There are
all sorts of people assuring us that the market can take care of
any resource shortages. Or that all of the intelligent people working
on the problem will surely come up with an easy solution. Or that
we will see an effortless transition to a hydrogen economy.
you watch television and read the newspapers, you will see that
this is a popular message. It’s what the corporations are telling
us and it’s what we all want to hear. Unfortunately, the problem
with Plan C, as far as I can tell, is it’s probably wishful
thinking. Then the only option we will likely have left is military
confrontation over the remaining resources.
Hubbert oil peak is predicted to occur in
ten years. You’ve written that natural gas will go through
the same peak in supply even sooner.
North America, it’s happening right now. We’re in the
middle of a natural gas crisis, but you have to read the business
pages of the newspaper to find the evidence for that. Alan Greenspan
has gone before Congress twice now to say that we have a big problem
and that he doesn’t have the solution to it. Last summer, Energy
Secretary Spencer Abraham convened a blue ribbon panel in Washington
to address this. Abraham essentially, said, “Look folks, I
need some short-term solutions.” The rest of the day, people
from industry offered long-term partial solutions, but nothing that
could make much difference in the next couple of years.
the market is dealing with the gas shortage through what’s
called “demand destruction.” That means that prices rise
sufficiently—and natural gas prices are about twice what they
were a year and a half ago—to drive whole industries out of
the market so that the folks can heat their houses in the winter.
Currently, 20 percent of the fertilizer industry in the U.S.—which
uses natural gas to make ammonia-based fertilizers—is gone.
Another 30 percent is closed down temporarily until gas prices go
down, which they probably won’t. So around half the fertilizer
industry is gone. The chemical industries and a lot of manufacturers
are teetering on the brink right now because they can’t afford
natural gas at current prices.
what’s going to happen? All those industries are going to go
overseas. Fertilizer will be made for us in the Middle East, Trinidad,
and other places that have natural gas and then it will be shipped
here. But even so, the natural gas situation is going to get worse
because we’re generating a lot of our electricity with gas-fired
power plants and it’s entirely possible that we may start to
experience brown-outs or rolling blackouts.
summer is likely to be a lot worse because, as I said, there’s
no short-term solution to this. The U.S. has already peaked in natural
gas production and Canada—we’ve been importing 16 percent
of our natural gas from Canada—has peaked this year too. They’re
forecasting that their natural gas production will be down 3 percent
from last year.
we’re looking at a big problem and it’s not going to be
solved by importing liquefied natural gas in tankers. That will
help, but it’s expensive and years are required to build all
the new tankers, the new special off-loading terminals, etc. The
natural gas industry’s solution is to get more permits from
the government to drill in Colorado, offshore, etc., but it’s
unlikely that enough natural gas will be found in those places to
make that much of a difference. In Colorado, there’s coal-bed
methane, which causes huge environmental problems to extract. Offshore
of California and Florida, the estimates of what’s actually
there are not all that encouraging.
Ross is a journalist and grass- roots activist.