Peak Everything: Waking up to the Century of Decline in Earth's Resources

The baby-doomers' lament

February 28, 2008

This book consists of a collection of essays by a leading propagandist for the theory of peak oil and the belief that we are entering an era of ecological and social collapse caused by overconsumption.

This belief dates back at least two centuries to the writing of Thomas Malthus. His views on the dangers of overpopulation are still echoed by current writers, including Richard Heinberg. Since then, we have periodically been informed that we are running out of energy, whether of coal by Stanley Jevons in the 1860s, or of oil by M. King Hubbert a century later. From Hubbert came the idea of peak oil, based on the observation that the extraction of a resource follows a bell-shaped curve. His followers have adapted his ideas to global oil, gas and coal production and to and other resources such as food and water. Now, after a century of increasing production, global oil output is forecast to peak around 2010 and then begin a steady decline, with gas following the same course soon after.

The result, Heinberg says, would be societal collapse, for where else can we get the energy we need to fuel energy-intensive lifestyles? We cannot turn to coal because that would worsen climate change. Thus we are stuck on the "horns of the universal ecological dilemma consisting of the interlinked elements of population pressure, resource depletion and habitat destruction". The only solution, he argues, echoing Malthus, is abstinence. We must renounce the modern American lifestyle based on excess and adopt the old agrarian lifestyle of manual work, traditional farming and small towns, or there will be ecological disasters and we will be destroyed by war, famine and disease.

However, this book is not a serious discussion about peak oil or about an alternative ecological vision, which are far better covered by other authors such as Vaclav Smil, Mark Jaccard or Thomas Princen. Rather, it is a collection of essays reflecting the author's life and work in California. These range from reviews of an ecological musical, wildlife film and design exhibits to the meaning of sustainability and the disagreements between peak-oil and climate-change activists. Underlying them is a pronounced cultural pessimism. In one essay, he writes, as a member of the postwar generation, how the baby-boomers have failed to change the world. Now, as they grow old, they have one chance left to redeem themselves by alerting the world to its impeding destruction. Heinberg is no energy analyst, but he is well read and a fine writer with an excellent turn of phrase. He could well follow previous postwar Californian writers, from George Stewart to Ernest Callenbach and Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote science fiction novels to alert readers to impending eco-doom and to outline a green alternative.

Who is it for? Students, eco-doomsters and baby-boomer pessimists.

Presentation: Easy to read with some useful graphs and pictures.

Would you recommend it? Not for learning about peak oil theories but for understanding the mindset of eco-catastrophists.

Peak Everything: Waking up to the Century of Decline in Earth's Resources

Author: Richard Heinberg
Edition: First
Publisher: Clairview Books
Pages: 224
Price: £11.99
ISBN 9781905570133

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