The End of Oil, by Paul Roberts

The looming crisis we can't bear to face
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The Independent Culture

The question of fossil fuels, where to find them and what to do about them, may be the most urgent we have ever faced. First coal, then oil, transformed our world. Now, every aspect of our life depends on them. Without oil, life crashes to a halt.

The question of fossil fuels, where to find them and what to do about them, may be the most urgent we have ever faced. First coal, then oil, transformed our world. Now, every aspect of our life depends on them. Without oil, life crashes to a halt.

But this life cannot last. Oil production will peak any time between now and 2015. Our consumption of fossil fuels is beginning to change the world's climate. Even if energy use plateaus, we shall fry, drown or freeze. It must decline; but as America gallops on, and Russia, China and India industrialise, it is set to rise. What is to be done?

As The End of Oil brilliantly shows, there are are answers, but they are neither clear nor easy. All the obvious substitutes come with drawbacks. Renewables - wind, solar - only produce when conditions are right. Hydrogen, upon which so many hopes are based, is abundant but must be manufactured - which itself consumes energy - and is terribly bulky to transport. Natural gas may bridge the gap, and is climatically less destructive than oil, but is politically as problematic. Its largest deposits are, like oil, in the Middle East - and it, too, is finite. Coal is abundant but filthy. It is possible to clean up coal-fired power stations, but with processes far too expensive for China or India.

The obvious immediate answer is conservation. It is very easy - more insulation, more efficient cars and light bulbs - and could be mind-blowingly effective. If our energy use were only 3 per cent a year more efficient, says Paul Roberts, "we could meet world demand in 2100 with around a quarter of the energy we use today". Politically, however, conservation is anathema, especially to free marketeers. They hate its implication that extravagance is somehow blameworthy.

The consequences of all this are so cataclysmic that we can't bear to think about them. Since voters dislike bringers of bad news, our politicians do not encourage us to think. Our government recently pressured the Office of National Statistics to omit from its report on the environment figures showing sharp increases in greenhouse gas emissions from air and freight transport. You can see their thinking. What are they supposed to do? Ground the planes, remove the trucks from roads?

The ostrich approach will only work while oil remains cheap. And its price is rising. Is the current $40 a barrel scenario a mere blip, or the beginning of the end of cheap oil? For the future of our world, we must hope it is. In the past, sharp price rises - and only those - have galvanised us into conserving energy and exploring alternatives. If current conflicts inadvertently force us down this road, they will not have been in vain. Meanwhile, read this book, fill your roof with polystyrene, and buy a smaller car.

The reviewer's 'The People's Chef' is published by Wiley

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