Monthly Archives: November 2013

Review of Life Without Oil by Steve Hallett

I decided to check out what other authors have written about the exhaustion of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, Life Without Oil by Steve Hallett wasn’t of much use. Here’s my review:

I wanted to like this book. I agree with its premise that fossil fuels were a prime driver of the modern age, but that the exhaustion of fossil fuels, especially oil, will severely challenge civilization.

However, I rate the book a two on a one to five scale because it is riddled with page after page of factual mistakes. I also found its analysis of the world after oil to suffer from a strong uber left viewpoint. The author should have cut out most of his dubious historical analysis and beefed up his analysis of the world after oil.

An excellent example of its factual mistakes is the following sentence that starts on page 231: “Winston Churchill … championing of the conversion of the Royal Navy from steam to diesel gave British ships a huge advantage over the clunky old German ships when war (World War I) broke out.” This one sentence errs on the type of engine power of the newer British ships, the timing of the conversion to oil, and the quality of the German ships.

I agree that Churchill was part of the decision to start building battleships powered by fuel oil instead of coal. Beyond that this sentence is completely wrong. The Queen Elizabeth was the first battleship powered by oil. It was not powered by diesel engines, but oil fired its steam turbines. Five battleships were built in this class. They were superb ships.

However, the Queen Elizabeth was not commissioned until December, 1914, four months after the beginning of World War I, so the British had no oil powered ships at the beginning of the war. The British advantage was in number of ships, not the quality of ships. At Jutland, the largest naval battle of World War I, only four of the thirty-seven British battleships and battle cruisers were powered by oil, while the rest still used coal. The Germans had twenty-one coal-fired major ships. “The clunky old German ships” sank three British battle cruisers for the loss of one of their own. The oil fired British ships were probably equal to or somewhat better than the best German ships, but there were not enough of them to give the British a “huge advantage.” The results of Jutland indicate that on the whole the British ships were inferior to the German ships.

On page 256 the author says “Millions of Russians died … and then blew up their own oil fields (in late 1942) around Baku to keep them from the Nazis …” The Russians blew up oil wells as the Nazi advanced in the Caucasus, but not at Baku. Oil production from around Baku in 1943 easily exceeded that in 1942.

I am also surprised that the author doesn’t mention hydraulic fracking, which has caused U.S. oil production to recently soar. Fracking may have environmental problems and oil from fracking will only postpone the inevitable exhaustion of oil, but it is a significant enough development to be mentioned.

So Life Without Oil has an interesting premise but poor execution.

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A World Without Fossil Fuels

The events of my science fiction novel Truth-Teller Rebellion take place two thousand years from now in the Pacific Northwest. Fossil fuels are ancient history that my protagonist Cary Bishop has only read about. The average person in Cary’s home town of New Hanford consumes a fifth of the energy used by an American today. No transcontinental jets soar overhead in Cary’s day, just small solar and hydrogen powered solplanes. Ground transportation is by tramrail, an efficient electric powered train. Battery powered trucks ply the streets, but only the rich or powerful have personal electric cars. Ocean transportation is via cargo ships with computer-controlled sails. The world is more regional and insular than today’s. Cary doesn’t eat apples flown in from New Zealand or munch on Chilean grapes.

Despite the regionalization, the overall standard of living in New Hanford is good because of the Pacific Northwest’s excellent sources of hydro and wind energy. Computer technology ensures the superefficient use of this energy. Medical advances have all but eliminated cancer, most body parts are replaceable, and the average lifespan is a hundred and thirty years. Nonetheless civilization is hampered by a shortage of energy and metals. And while water is plentiful in the Pacific Northwest, the drawdown of aquifers over a thousand years earlier has left North America’s Midwest a sparsely inhabited semi-arid wasteland.

The back history of Truth-Teller Rebellion is that the transition from today to Cary’s world was tumultuous. A nuclear war was fought over the dregs of the Middle Eastern oil fields. Wars and famine then took their toll across the globe. The populations of Africa, South America and Asia, which have grown the most over the past fifty years, had the greatest and most painful decline.

The troubled Truth-Teller Rebellion transition scenario is a very plausible one, maybe even the most probable. Mankind has never been very good at long range planning. Our government struggles to create a one-year budget much less a farsighted energy plan. Some people just don’t care about something that will happen thirty or fifty or a hundred years from now. After all, like John Maynard Keynes said, “in the long run we are all dead.” Others do care, but don’t know what they can do.

Global warming has captured the world’s attention and produced at least a modicum of planning for it. The coming energy shortage is an even more serious crisis. How we deal with this looming problem will define the future of mankind.


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Is This Mankind’s Golden Age?

Mankind has been on a roll for the past hundred and fifty years. We’ve gone from candle light to LED light, from the horse to the airliner, from the quill pen inked ledger to flash drive memory. So the sky is the limit, right? Wrong.

Why? Energy. Energy has defined mankind’s past, present, and will define its future.

Per capita energy consumption in the western world was about constant from 200 B.C. to 1800 A.D. Then it climbed by a factor three by 1900. Today the average person uses eight times more energy than Thomas Jefferson. This increase in usage coincides with the birth and growth of the oil and gas industry.  Sixty-three percent of US energy consumption comes from oil and natural gas, twenty percent from coal, eight percent is nuclear, and the remaining eight percent comes from renewable resources.

The explosion of knowledge, inventions, our standard of living, and even the growth in the world’s population over the past hundred years would have been impossible without oil and gas. The world’s population stood at a billion in 1800. It was still under two billion in 1900, but then three billion in 1960, and in now seven billion and climbing.

It’s been a great party but the punch bowl is close to empty. You can quibble about when fossil fuels will be gone but you can’t deny that their exhaustion is inevitable over the next few hundred years. At that time the world’s population won’t be sustainable unless technology somehow bails us out. I wouldn’t bet on that.

It’s more likely that there will be devastating wars over the last dregs of fossil fuels.  At the same time civilization will be under stress from global warming. Enough food production to sustain the Earth’s population will be problematic. Not enough food and too many people means famine.

Sometime after the end of fossil fuels a global cooling will likely develop as the Earth resumes its normal rhythm and an ice age begins. The Earth’s human population will have to fall even further.

In two thousand years there will be maybe a billion people on Earth. They’ll have electronic, information, and medical technologies far beyond ours, but per capita energy consumption will be far below today’s modern era. (I first accidentally typed modern err. Hmm. Perhaps ‘err’ is more fitting.) As a result civilization will have stagnated. This world is the backdrop to my science fiction novel, Truth-Teller Rebellion.

Further reading: Look up Paola Malanima’s Energy Consumption and Energy Crisis in the Roman World on the web. It’s short and makes the case that the Roman Empire’s decline was in part due to its own energy crisis. He is an Italian economic historian.

Future blog topics: What about nuclear and fusion energy? What would be the impact of an ice age?

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