Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future

By Steve Hallett with John Wright, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2011, 435 pages, ISBN 978-1-61614-401-2, $26 hardback

Hallett and Wright’s “Life Without Oil” discusses how future declines in oil production may impact the global economy and affect civilization. Hallett, a professor of Botany and plant pathology at Purdue University, and Wright, a journalist who specializes in environmental and energy issues, open with a brief history of civilization and how environmental issues (e.g. overexploiting natural resources and overpopulation) helped lead to the collapse of many Native American and European societies. They then suggest that the world is currently near peak oil production (using “Hubbert’s peak” for U.S. conventional oil as an example), with little hope of extracting more oil from current reservoirs, few new reservoir discoveries, and extensive environmental damage in developing unconventional resources.

Hallett and Wright dismiss a number of other energy sources as replacements to our declining oil resources. Natural gas is considered difficult to store and transport, with its own peak production issue arising shortly; however, it is not clear if the authors included new natural gas inventories available due to widespread “fracking” techniques (sideways drilling and fracturing of rock to allow natural gas to escape). Likewise, coal is dismissed due to its large greenhouse gas emissions and inability to provide transportation fuels. Currently, renewables are insufficiently developed and far too inefficient; they are dismissed with the conclusion that “we are not even close to being able to replace oil with sufficient renewable energy to support a diverse, thriving society of seven billion over the next century.” However, Hallett and Wright suggest that nuclear power may provide an eventual solution, though it requires extensive scaling. Specifically, they highlight issues associated with public perception, waste disposal, and cost.  When uranium mining, purification, processing, and disposal are properly taken into account, the authors suggest that nuclear energy is “… by far the most expensive source of electricity that we have.” They also note that the reservoir of high-grade uranium ore is poorly characterized and that a similar production maximum problem may eventually be realized with nuclear energy as well.

The book then transitions to a discussion of climate change, its effects on agriculture, and the problems associated with assigning the environment to a common ownership. In regards to climate change, Hallett and Wright focus on the more extreme issues of runaway positive feedbacks, changes in the ocean circulation patterns, extreme weather events, and sea level rise. Notably, they present a compelling case for how changes in weather patterns (e.g. decreased rainfall and increased evapotranspiration in the semiarid tropics) may make many areas unsuitable for agriculture, eventually resulting in local food shortages. One unique aspect of this book is its presentation of the Coase theorem, which states that assigning ownership of a common good (e.g. the atmosphere) to a single party and allowing for subsequent bargaining is favorable over common ownership where no one takes responsibility.

The book’s central thesis is that there will be an impending disruption in world oil supplies that will lead to an extended recession with higher food prices and oil wars. Hallett and Wright predict that, in general, wealthier regions (e.g. United States, Europe, Canada, Russia) will withstand this recession, whereas economically-disadvantaged areas (e.g. China, India) will fare poorly. They see “… the past few decades as the most disastrous in the history of humankind,” where, “a serious energy crisis can no longer be averted by a switch to alternative energy.” Thus, they conclude that “We can no longer afford to focus our energies on trying to save the world as it is,” and, therefore, we must “…switch our focus to prepare for a more distant future.” This future involves subsidies and taxes to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, a transition to a nuclear/hydrogen economy, extended use of sustainable agriculture, and population control. The critical message is that people must stress sustainability over growth and work to conserve instead of consume.

I will conclude this review with my own personal view. Unfortunately, “Life Without Oil” is a difficult read that vacillates between history, philosophy, and science. Hallett and Wright try to present a vast amount of information with little quantitative data, touching only briefly on each subject. They then draw excessively pessimistic conclusions with a predicted scenario that seems to this reviewer to be fairly untenable. Many of the source materials are excellent, however, and I would recommend reading them instead.

Manish Gupta, CTO
Los Gatos Research

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.