The Feasta Review, number 2



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Michael Layden is an engineer based in Arigna, Co. Roscommon where his family mined coal for many generations. His career has evolved from coal mining through wind energy to rational energy use. His work is increasingly devoted to what he terms Œthe alternative dimension of sustainability.'

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Few reasons to be cheerful, thanks to declining supplies of oil

The Party's Over

Richard Heinberg
Temple Lodge Publishing, 2003
ISBN 1 90263 645 7 £11.95

review by Michael Layden

Humanity's development path is going to be thrown into reverse in the next few years by oil and gas shortages. The prospects of contraction and dislocation are frightening.

It is easy to understand why Richard Heinberg wrote this book. Mankind has faced many challenges in the past but few as complex as the current one. We have not used the thirty years since the twin wake-up calls of the first OPEC oil crisis and the publication of the seminal work The Limits to Growth to reduce the demands we makes on the planet. So, having failed to take the easy steps that would have been required a generation ago, our species motors towards a major dislocation caused by the imminent end to the era of plentiful cheap oil.

"I am reasonably cheerful and optimistic by nature," Heinburg writes. "However, as anyone would, I find this picture of the future to be deeply disturbing. Everyone I have met who understands population and resource issues comes to essentially the same conclusions and has to deal with the same emotional responses - which typically run the gamut from shock, denial, and rage to eventual acceptance - and a determination to do whatever is possible to help avert the worst of the likely impacts."

So this book is clearly not entertainment. It is meant to alarm, educate and perhaps inspire individuals to make a difference in this most terrible struggle our species will increasingly have to face. Heinberg approaches his subject in a logical and well-thought out way.

  • He identifies civilisation's dependency on fossil fuel resources
  • He shows the vunerability of our civilisation to minor disruptions in energy availabilty
  • He examines the various projections of the imminent onset of peak oil and other fossil fuels.
  • He looks at the political and geopolitical realities of oil and resources historically and currently
  • Finally, he ponders some of the potential solutions or policies which could be implemented to mitigate the effects of these real limits to human economic and social expansion.

The book is an amazingly brave work and it is unusual to see anyone trying to pull so much material together from so many different specialisms and technologies. It is only 242 pages long and because the material within it could easily have been expanded to fill at least five more volumes of the same length, it should be seen as an appetiser rather than a main course. It has the feeling of a work in progress and I would think of it as self-study guide rather than a traditional text. Although a college lecturer, Heinberg is more of a magpie than a traditional academic: he has picked a wide range of little gems from different internet discussion groups and publications. There is an excellent bibliography which is strongly web-based.

This is not a book which many members of the general public will pick up and read to the end. It will not be particularly useful in swaying people who are in active denial about the crisis. However, anyone trying to get a grasp on how dependent on oil and how vulnerable modern civilisation is will find it very useful indeed.

I found his account of the evolution of technology and the four basic classifications of tools in Chapter 1 particularly useful because it develops into a wide discussion of complex societies.

Chapter 2 covers energy use in the modern world and Chapters 3 and 4 provide what is probably as good a summary of the entire energy sector as one will ever get in 80 pages. It covers oil reserves, other fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewable energy sources. His summaries of the energy fields where my expertise lies are reasonably accurate and based on the best information available to the public. On the other hand, I think that his sections on biomass, hydrogen and the conservation of energy are too sparse. These chapters could be supplemented by reading books such as Feasta's Before the Wells Run Dry - Ireland's Transition to Renewable Energy and, because of the importance of oil depletion, Colin Campbell's The Coming Oil Crisis.

Chapter 5 covers the likely consequences for sectors of the economy such as agriculture and Chapter 6 discusses strategies to deal with the crisis. Again, both are excellent primers but I suggest that readers might turn to Natural Capitalism or David Fleming's The Lean Economy before reading The Party's Over in order to understand some of the alternatives. Both Natural Capitalism and The Lean Economy are optimistic books which introduce readers to the terrible waste in our society. If people study them first, their reaction after reading The Party's Over will, I hope, be one of anger and not despair.

In summary, I think this is an excellent book and a very useful reference work for those interested in sustainability. It provides an extremely good, thorough summary of many of the key components of the inevitable contraction and dislocation of society if we continue on our present course.

Continue to Tom Campbell's review of Agri-Culture, by Jules Pretty

This book review is from
Growth:The Celtic Cancer,
the second Feasta Review. Copies of the Review can be ordered online from Green Books, priced at £9.95 plus postage and packaging.
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