The Oracle of Oil: Review

Oct 06, 2016 1 Comment by

The Oracle of Oil – A Maverick Geologist’s Quest for a Sustainable Future by Mason Inman describes the life and times, some of them stormy and less than easy, of Marion King Hubbert known as “the father of peak oil” and tells the story of the man behind the theory and science.

This first biography traces the path from his humble beginnings to becoming one of the leading figures in the US energy sector, as well as being the first person to correctly explain fracking in the 1950s. The book not only deals with his studies and forecasts but also introduces us to the man. His theory which he first made public in 1949, in which he stated that the fossil fuel era would be of very short duration was initially rejected but when it apparently proved itself to be accurate (US oil production peak in 1970), he was then called the “prophet” by the New York Times and Washington Post and some even went as far as to call him an “oracle.” Although Mason Inman does point out that his forecasts were not correct in all details, they were nevertheless in quintessence forward-looking in a time and in a country where dependency on fossil fuels was not even being questioned. Paying homage to economic growth and dependency on fossil fuels were then, as well as today, the cornerstones of economies and according to Mason Inman’s biography, M. King Hubbert believed that the world needed to give up this unhealthy obsession with “growth thinking” and embrace the challenge of moving away from it.

The book could also be considered as an “American Dream” case study, bearing in mind that M. King Hubbert came from a modest background (born in small town Texas in 1903) and “made it” to become one of the leading geologists in the USA, Shell Oil researcher and also “the power”, at least according to US Intelligence of the time, behind the Technocracy movement,. Small town boy makes it big scenario, in this case more famous than rich. This is always an attractive and spellbinding story.

However Mason Inman’s book goes beyond this core story and goes on to introduce us to a man who did not suffer fools gladly and who, to the point of stubbornness or maybe even arrogance, refused to accept what he envisaged to be incorrect from anybody, regardless of their rank and standing, if he had a different view or even if he had a nagging feeling about the theory or facts in question. He despised anything which he deemed to be irrational. He questioned theories of geophysics, geological theory, mainstream thought about energy (fossil fuels) and economic growth. He was not only a supporter of long-term planning but in his studies he frequently risked his reputation by daring to stick his neck out and he was in fact not always right.

The book provides us with a portrait of an innovative thinker, who certainly questioned more, sometimes more than the establishment, politicians and the oil industry, deemed necessary. In current times and since his death in 1989, his ideas about the future of world oil supplies along with our flagrant use of and dependency on fossil fuels have again become core issues in the discussion about where we go from here.

Despite the fact that M. King Hubbert was forced to devote a lot of his time to his struggle to earn enough money to pay for his studies, lodgings and literally to keep his head above water, he more than managed to carve out a career for himself along the way. Although after reading the book, I am not sure that his career, life and journey as it was unfolding could in fact be labelled a quest. Retrospectively perhaps yes, but did he purposely start out with these questions or thoughts in his head? Or did these unfold as his career, opportunities, technical developments and scientific insights developed? Difficult to answer, in his case or probably for any other person for that matter.

However retrospectively it does indeed add colour to the story of a man, who influenced energy issues and whose life spanned interesting times in the twentieth century.

He does appear to have been a strange mixture of scientist and eccentric personality. On numerous occasions he threw caution to the wind with forecasts, theories and with a degree of impatience that by many was seen as downright arrogance. These however might indeed be prerequisites to deal with such issues in an environment and world, which is perhaps not ready to listen. He did after all start his career in a time of departure and pioneering, which Mason Inman excellently and colorfully describes in great detail.

His oil forecasts were not correct in every detail, and still are subject to a degree of discussion and misinterpretation. However, he put the issue on the table and started the discussion. He also considered the aspect of growth and limits of growth along with the effects for society. Inequality, poverty and whether democracy is a system which can implement long term planning, all issues which are still pertinent today as we head towards the precipice with regard to global financial and energy systems, found a place on his agenda. Further proof of the diversity of his thoughts can be seen in the fact that although he had been concerned with the challenge of running out of fossil fuels during his career, that in the 1980s he moved onto the issue of climate change and global warming.

Although considered a pessimist throughout his career, the book offers the conclusion that in retrospect he could possibly be considered as a scientist who was trying to warn the world about the dangers in store for a world with no limits, endless growth, over-dependency on fossil fuels and point this world towards the need to search for a more sustainable future. Mason Inman suggests that he was actually an undying optimist and possibly a dreamer or even a utopian. Even at the end of his life, plagued by ill health which limited his work, he did not give up hope in humanity being able to deal with these challenges.

All in all, Mason Inman’s book presents an interesting mixture of science and biography, while at the same time painting a vivid picture of the zeitgeist of this pioneering time spanning from the early twentieth century to M. King Hubbert’s death in the late 1980s. The biography makes an interesting read, even for those, including myself, who are not well versed in geophysics and geology. The lifescape of M. King Hubbert is fascinating and in his life and career you find the seeds of major environmental, socioeconomic and political challenges which we are still confronted with today, and which still need solving. Although after finishing the book you do have the feeling that he was a rather cantankerous, arrogant individual, you still cannot help but like and respect him. In conclusion, worth a read and in essence the story of a man who possessed the insight and audacity to go down a path less travelled.

“Our ignorance is not so vast as our failure to use what we know.”
M. King Hubbert

About the reviewer:

Jacqui Mathewes has lived and worked in Germany since the early 1990s, after studying psychology, languages and completing post-graduate studies in economics and German in Ireland and England. Since then, she has been working as a freelance translator, writer / editor for technical and business documentation in the field of engineering, as well as a university lecturer. She is also member of the Communication Hub of Economy for the Common Good, responsible for translation coordination. Her interests include new / alternative economics, renewable energy, participatory politics, positive money and any sustainable solutions which will get us moving away from the precipice.

Featured image: M. King Hubbert. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._King_Hubbert#/media/File:Marion_King_Hubbert00

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