Party's Over
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The Party’s Over – Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies
Richard Heinberg 
New Society Publishers, 2003.

The foundation for a human society is its physical environment.  Although the environment does not determine the exact form of a society, it does constrain the possible choices.  In the last two centuries global society has been shaped by industrialization powered by cheap fossil fuels.  Those resources are inherently finite.  Many experts believe that we are close to the peak of world oil production.  What happens when the oil that can be pumped from the ground is less than our current levels of consumption?  That is the topic of the book The Party’s Over.

The book starts with an introduction describing how energy use is essential to life on Earth, and how societies have advanced by increasing their energy resources.  For example the change from hunting and gathering to farming increased the amount of food energy that could be produced and thus led to larger and denser populations and more complex societies.  The three-fold population growth of the last century has been possible only because of increased food production associated with mechanization and chemical fertilizers.  This was based on relatively cheap petroleum and natural gas.  Likewise, industrialization and the production of the current vast array of manufactured goods is only possible because of energy from fossil fuels.

We all understand that fossil fuels are limited.  But what does that really mean?  Oil for example is only formed and trapped under certain conditions.  One has to start with the right kind of organic sediments.  It has to be buried to a certain depth - but not too deep.  And there have to be no fractures in the overlying rocks that allow it to escape over geological time.  Geologists have gotten pretty good at knowing where to drill for oil, but are finding less and less of it. 

It is the oil geologists, and particularly M. King Hubbert, who have pointed out the obvious that it becomes harder and more expensive to find new sources of oil.  About midway through the process, production will reach a peak and start to decline.  Hubbert predicted in 1956 that peak oil production in the U.S. would occur between 1966 and 1972.  The actual peak year for the U.S. was 1970.  It has declined 40% since then.  Applying the same methods, many petroleum geologists are now predicting that the world oil production will peak around 2010.  Conventional economic forecasts predict oil use increasing at a steady rate for the next fifty years.  What happens when the irresistible force of oil demand meets the immovable object of oil supply? 

Maybe technology will save us?  Heinberg devotes a chapter to other energy resources including other fossil fuels such as coal, and alternatives such as wind and solar.  Together these can provide a partial solution.  But there is no alternative that has the convenience and low cost of oil.  Energy will become harder to obtain and more expensive.  This will be a gradual process, but the timescale will be decades not centuries.

In a chapter entitled “A Banquet of Consequences” the author discusses the possible impacts on economies and societies around the world.  He thinks it likely that industrialized countries which are the most dependent on oil will be hit the hardest. 

This suggests some basic political and social questions:  What happens to a society when the pie stops getting bigger?  Will the rich and powerful try to keep their pieces the same size by taking bigger slices out of the shrinking pie?  Or will a social democracy assert itself and ensure that everyone has enough?

The final chapter discusses what we can do individually, in our communities, nationally and globally to manage this coming collapse.  He concludes by saying: 

Shall we vainly continue reveling until the bitter end, and take most of the rest of the world down with us?  Or shall we acknowledge that the party is over, and make way for those who will come after us?

I’d recommend this book both as an excellent introduction to the topic and also as a good reference guide.  For example, the final chapter contains a list of resources for additional information and action.  The book also contains an exhaustive set of notes, a very extensive bibliography and a comprehensive index. 

Review by David E. White, 8/8/04
Published in the 2004 Fall Book issue of Peacework magazine.


The love of liberty is the love of others. The love of power is the love of ourselves. -- William Hazlitt
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