'The End of Oil': apocalypse soon?

May 09, 2004|By Craig Eisendrath | Craig Eisendrath,Special to the Sun

The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World, by Paul Roberts. Houghton Mifflin. 389 pages. $26.

During President Bush's hourlong press conference on April 15, the word "oil" was never mentioned. Paul Roberts' brilliant book, The End of Oil, takes up virtually the full range of problems which a diminishing supply of oil will present to this country and the world.

Roberts, a journalist who has published pieces on the energy issue in Harper's Magazine, details how each year the demand for oil goes up, and "the extraordinary machine we have built to supply that demand cannot sustain itself in its present form." He makes clear that new discoveries of oil will not compensate for depletion by an oil-hungry world, led by the United States, which alone consumes 25 percent of the total. Despite the fact that the United States is the third-largest oil-producing nation in the world, it is forced to import more and more of its oil from other countries, like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, increasingly embroiling us in international quagmires that take up hundreds of billions of dollars.

Roberts considers the energy alternatives, such as coal, which is "fatally dirty"; gas, which is hard to export but is a temporarily promising alternative; and hydrogen-cell technology, which is many years from being ready to play a significant role. What Roberts mostly leaves out of his analysis is nuclear power, which supplies a fifth of the world's power, and could possibly, in the future, with better safeguards, increase that role without the problems of pollution or diminishing supply that plague oil and coal. It is a little like discussing Hamlet without the prince of Denmark, or at least Ophelia.

One key problem is the U.S. lifestyle, which resists regulations that would make our cars, heating devices and energy production plants more efficient, and the government's unwillingness to impose them and encourage the use of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power.

So far, Roberts points out, the United States is tone deaf to the crisis, and the Republican leadership is leading the country down a perilous path that will make us not only vulnerable to the volatile swings of oil prices that come from OPEC, but also subject to a major depression that "would make 1929 look like a dress rehearsal and could touch off a desperate and probably violent contest for whatever oil supplies remained." A key problem here, Roberts points out, is the administration's long history of direct involvement with the oil industry, and its continued "conflict of interest."

Roberts is clear that the Iraq war was an oil war, not a war against terrorism, not a war to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, as the president was still claiming on April 15. This was a war, Roberts maintains, to assert U.S. superiority over members of the European Union and China, which are even more dependent on Middle East oil than we are.

Without a radical change in policy, the United States and the world face a crisis of unimaginable proportions. By the year 2010, Roberts estimates, the world's 10 billion people will need four times the energy produced today, particularly if the developing world is to lift itself out of abject poverty. Insisting that solutions are "left-wing" or "liberal," and by pandering to special interests, the neoconservatives have produced a policy, Roberts believes, which is "incoherent and fragmented." This is a problem, he insists, which requires statesmanship; it is problem which we need to start solving now, not when it is too late.

Craig Eisendrath is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a foreign policy adviser for Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. His most recent book, co-written with Melvin A. Goodman, is Bush League Diplomacy: How the Neoconservatives Are Putting the World at Risk (Prometheus).

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