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Keywords: Oil, alternative energy, geo-politics, energy policy

Title: The End of Oil

Author: Paul Roberts

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Media: Book

ISBN: 0747570817

 

Where once wars were fought over access to markets or for ideological reasons now they are fought over access to resources. Chief among these is oil. We see this now in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it has been clear for some time that it's the control of energy that drives foreign policy in Washington, London, Beijing and Moscow. And, unfortunately, the prognosis is not good. Energy demand is rising globally, energy resources are not and at the same time the scientific consensus is that carbon emissions are the prime driver for global warming.

In 'The End of Oil', Paul Roberts unpicks the various strands of this complex mix of economics, politics and technology. It makes for an interesting, gripping and unsettling read.

The book opens not with oil but with coal, as Roberts describes the technical advances and socio-political upheaval that accompanied the industrial revolution and the transition to a coal-fired economy. His point is that a transition from one dominant energy source to another is not painless - it causes fundamental change. The move from coal to oil did just the same. The move to a 'new energy order' can be expected to be no less difficult and fundamentally far-reaching.

However, Roberts is not interesting in just giving us a history lesson. The book looks at all aspects of the world energy economy, from rising demand to the depletion of supplies to climate change to renewable energy sources and more. In every case the writing is balanced, engaging and wont to pull the reader up short on cherished notions.

A central point that arises repeatedly is the 'energy illiteracy' of the Western consumer, particularly the US consumer. Roberts quotes fact after fact to drive this point home. The discussion about cars makes the point plainest. Following the oil crisis of the 1970's fuel economy on US cars rapidly improved, helping to slow the rate of growth of oil consumption. In recent years the trend has been reversed, and the mania for SUVs and 4WD has lead to fuel efficiency getting worse again. Yet at the same time even minor improvements in fuel economy can make huge differences.

The prospects for alternative energy sources are also explored. Here the positive spin that some green politicians put on things is exposed for what it is. There are some solid alternative technologies available, from solar to wind to hydrogen fuel cells, but the task of slotting these in as direct replacements to oil is next to impossible. There's little doubt that hydrogen is the economy of the future, but how we get to that future is not certain. Roberts proposes that natural gas is the bridge between the current fossil fuels and the next energy economy.

This is a sobering read, no matter what your politics. We can already see the effects of the first oil wars. It's not just the death and destruction in Iraq that should worry us. There's the creeping authoritarianism and the clamping down of dissent in the West. As things become tougher, as the oil really starts to run out and economies start to shudder, then you can bet your life that it won't be the oil companies that suffer the consequences.

To conclude, then, this is a book that everyone interested in politics ought to read.

Contents © London Book Review 2006. Published March 29 2006