Review: Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil

Out of Gas

The following review was first published in the Huntsville Times (link may no longer work...); I also posted a version on sciscoop and slashdot back in May 2004.

Since that time oil prices have stabilized somewhat, though they are still considerably higher than in recent history, at least as measured in US dollars. Have we actually hit the oil peak, or can it really be put off many more years as the oil companies seem to think? I don't believe anybody has a definite answer on any of this yet. The following is a copy of the slashdot version of the review.

Americans have started to notice prices at the pump with an unfamiliar '2' on the sign. Meanwhile, crude oil prices are hitting 13-year records close to $40 per barrel. As the International Energy Agency reports, there is "no relief in sight". All this should come as no surprise to readers of David Goodstein's Out of Gas - the only question is, have we left it too late to survive the inevitable shocks that are coming?

In this slim and subtly illustrated volume Dr. Goodstein, physics professor and vice provost at Caltech, explains in clear and simple terms why the fossil fuel age is coming to an end. A "massive, focused commitment" is needed to develop alternatives, and every year of delay in that commitment adds immeasurably to future human suffering.

In years, or at best a decade, we will reach the global "Hubbert's peak" for conventional oil, when production starts to decline even with rising demand. Such a peak was reached for US production in 1970. "Foreign oil" has sustained us until now, but Goodstein shows why it cannot for much longer.

A number of books on this subject have come out in recent years, some very pessimistic about the future (for example Heinberg's "The Party's Over", which warns of a greatly decreased world population). Goodstein offers some hope in alternatives, substantially based on the analysis of climate scientist and space solar power advocate Martin Hoffert.

Solar-based renewables and fusion are the only long-run energy solutions. According to Goodstein, natural gas and nuclear fission can help tide us over. All of these have problems, with the most scalable (solar power from space) still the least mature. Goodstein's longest chapter discusses thermodynamics and the physical laws that explain usable energy and its relation to entropy. As a physicist, I was pleased and surprised to learn something from Goodstein's clear explanation here.

Goodstein also discusses global climate problems with continued use of fossil energy, particularly an increasing dependence on coal. He concludes: "Civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in this century unless we find a way to live without fossil fuels."

There were a few minor things to complain about. Transitions between the chapters are too abrupt, perhaps caused by the wide range of discussion in such a short book. A few technical things seemed wrong - for example, it is quite feasible to run transportation systems off grid electricity (electric trains, subways, etc. do this) - would it be so hard to do it for personal transport too?

But Goodstein's book is the clearest explanation yet of our need to get beyond fossil fuels. Is it enough to get the public, and our leaders, actually paying attention?

Created: 2005-01-17 19:02:04 by Arthur Smith
Modified: 2005-01-18 02:31:21 by Administrator