News Brief

Two Perspectives on Our Oil Future

The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies by Richard Heinberg; New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, 2003; 286 pages, softcover, $17.95

Power to the People: How the Coming Energy Revolution Will Transform an Industry, Change Our Lives, and Maybe Even Save the Planet by Vijay Vaitheeswaran; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2003; 358 pages, hardcover, $25.00

These two books couldn’t be more different, yet some of their conclusions are remarkably similar.

The Party’s Over by Richard Heinberg is a treatise about our running out of oil and the impacts this will have on societies worldwide. Much of the book is depressing and leaves readers with a helpless feeling that our failures to recognize the limits to petroleum (and other resources) will almost certainly have dire consequences: collapsing economies, failing transportation systems, food shortages, inadequate energy for heating and cooling, environmental damage from desperate efforts to make up for petroleum shortages (even though pollution and carbon dioxide emissions from oil consumption may drop), public health crises, and political upheaval.

Heinberg has done exhaustive research into patterns of resource consumption, drawing heavily from the M. King Hubbert school of thought. (Hubbert was the geologist who predicted—heretically—in 1953 that U.S. oil extraction would peak less than 20 years later—in 1970. He was dead-on in that prediction.) Heinberg concludes that the peak in global oil extraction “will probably be reached between 2006 and 2015.” A very telling chart shows the historical or projected peak oil extraction in several dozen other countries. The date of peak oil extraction is significant because that is the year in which demand begins exceeding supply and prices begin escalating rapidly.

Power to the People offers a very different perspective. Author/economist Vijay Vaitheeswaran, who writes for

The Economist magazine, is an avowed free-market proponent. He believes that oil will never “run out,” nor will its limits constrain economic development to any significant extent; rather, we will shift to alternatives, such as hydrogen produced from renewables. Vaitheeswaran argues that the market should be allowed to guide our decision-making. But he veers sharply from many free-market zealots, including those in the Bush administration, by arguing that the down-side impacts and societal costs of fossil and nuclear fuels (pollution, health problems, and global warming in the case of fossil fuels; long-term storage and security in the case of nuclear) should be factored into the prices of those fuels.

Power to the People quotes heavily from well-known green advocates such as Amory Lovins (he’s called the “Sage of Snowmass” in this book) and Natural Resource Defense Council environmentalists who are trying to create market drivers for sustainable practices. While arguing that technological improvements will enable us to extract ever-more oil from reserves, he pushes for a carbon tax as one strategy to get us away from the environmental impacts of fossil fuel consumption and on track for a future powered by renewables.

Remarkably, though these two books come from almost opposite ends of the spectrum of economic philosophy, they achieve significant convergence regarding certain actions—including the need for a rapid transition to renewable energy sources. By reading both books, one hears both the doom-and-gloom perspective as well as the more optimistic view that we will shift away from the petroleum age before any crisis hits—a view articulated by the oft-repeated comment that the Stone Age didn’t die out for lack of stones.

Which book will prove more accurate? We’ll likely know within the next decade or so. In the meantime, I’m going to keep an eye out for a debate between these two very bright writers. And I’m going to keep up with my own efforts to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

Published September 1, 2004

(2004, September 1). Two Perspectives on Our Oil Future. Retrieved from

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