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The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies by Richard Heinberg, 2005 (2nd ed). Sussex: Clairview

An alternative synopsis is provided by the Post Carbon Institute on their website.

Energy, Nature and Society

Ecology is the study of the way in which species interact with their environments and other species. Humans conform neatly to standard ecological patterns; it is therefore possible to view social sciences in a sense as a subset of ecology, and to examine human society in the context of ecology's basic rules. In this context it is useful to explain a few concepts:

  1. Carrying capacity: the number of members of a species (population load) that a given set of resources can support.
  2. Climax phase: this is the stable state of ecological systems, in which all species have coevolved in order to exploit available resources with the greatest possible efficiency. Typically, in this phase, competition has been eliminated. Where multiple species previously competed for a scarce resource, in the climax phase either all but one species has been eliminated or all species have evolved so as to stably exploit the same resource without infringing upon one another (eg by feeding at different times or in different areas). In many cases, species will develop means of regulating their own populations other than through starvation of surplus members (such as becoming infertile when food supplies are not plentiful).1)
  3. Ecological systems can become unbalanced as a consequence of natural disasters, or due to the introduction of a colonising species. This leads to an ecological succession, with various phases, before a climax phase can be re-established. There may be pioneer species which are briefly successful and then die out. There is likely to be active competition between species. There may be population overshoots, in which a population size becomes much larger than the resources which it relies upon, followed by a die-off, in which the population overshoots in the opposite direction.

Social Leveraging Strategies

There are five main means by which a species can increase the amount of resources (particularly energy) which it appropriates for itself, thereby enabling it to increase its population. Various species use one or two or these strategies; human beings have mastered the use of all five.

  1. Takeover: most obviously, a species can displace other forms of life so as to steal their resources. In the transition of human beings from hunter-gatherer through horticulture to agriculture, humans displaced many species of plant and animal so as to use land to provide energy for humans only. Later, groups of human beings increasingly displaced other communities of their own species.
  2. Tool use: tools greatly increase humans' (and a few other species') ability to exploit resources. Tools take four forms:
    1. those created by human energy for use with human energy, such as flint axes, bows and arrows;
    2. those created with external power for use with human energy, such as an iron hammer;
    3. those created with human energy for use with external power, such as a steel plough;
    4. those created with external energy for use with external power, such as electrical goods. As humans developed, these latter types have become increasingly important, especially IV.
  3. Specialisation: closely related to tool use. Tools can be viewed as a type of prosthetic, enabling human beings to create human-tool complexes which are similar to 'different species' of human. This suggests the idea of viewing a human community as an ecological network inside an ecological network: different 'species' of human-tool complexes develop in cooperation with one another in a way analogous to the evolution of complementary species in a natural system. Humans' increasing ability to use tools leads to a perhaps obvious extension of the concept: that of using other human beings as tools. This began with the institution of slavery, but once money had been developed as a further tool for organising cooperation and specialisation then humans could be used as instruments of others' purposes through wage labour.2)
  4. Scope enlargement: by increasing the area over which resources are pooled, local resource shortages can be overcome. For example, if a mineral-rich area lies next to a fertile area, then trade of minerals for food can increase the carrying capacity of both areas.
  5. Drawdown: finally, and most epically, human society has been able to increase the Earth's carrying capacity by depleting finite fossil-fuel resources, in intensifying agriculture, increasing trade (thus enlarging scope), inventing energy-intensive new tools and increasing specialisation.

Complexity and Collapse

Systematic study of 17 historical complex societies provides a few tentative insights into the pattern of collapse of complex, highly ordered social structures. It is postulated that there is a general trend by which societies successfully increase in complexity, earning valuable gains in doing so, but are subject to diminishing returns which eventually become negative, undermining the benefits of complexity, and the society becomes vulnerable to collapse. It is not made clear in the text why the benefits of complexity shift from diminishing to negative and why increasing complexity does not simply stop when returns to complexity reach zero — although it's possible that Heinberg is arguing that societies continually face new challenges and that once the returns to complexity have diminished substantially then complexity can no longer be used as a panacea solution to these new challenges.

[A] society that has reached this point cannot simply rest on its accomplishments, that is, attempt to maintain its marginal return at the status quo, without further deterioration. Complexity is a problem-solving strategy. The problems with which the universe can confront society are, for practical purposes, infinite in number and endless in variety. —Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, 1988

The reason for the meteoric success of the US in the 19th and 20th Centuries as a preeminent global economic and military power is primarily its resource endowments. These were irrelevant until the Industrial Revolution; until this point they could not be exploited. From the start of the Industrial Revolution, the US had far greater natural resources and far less population pressure on those resources than Europe. Unlike other areas of the world, the US was able to defend itself from European appropriation of those resources, whilst harnessing technology that had originated in Europe. Europe's lack of resources, particularly in per capita terms, forced it to seek out mineral and energy wealth from far-flung corners of the world; whereas the US had everything it needed within its own borders, remaining a petroleum exporter until 1943 (perhaps this also explains its early ideological aversion to 'imperialism' relative to the European powers?). After the exploitation of its own resources became insufficient, roughly from the end of the Second World War (US oil extraction peaked in 1970), the US pursued a policy of 'globalisation', using its unrivalled military power to gain access to the resources it needed from abroad. This policy of globalisation took a very particular form: it preached that claims on natural resources ought to be subject to the free market, such that anybody that could pay the prevailing market price had an inherent right to those resources wherever they lay, but that technology was proprietary and could not be adopted by countries in which it did not originate (contrary to the earlier US appropriation of European advances). Thus the rules gave the US access to the resources it needed from the rest of the world — energy and mineral wealth — whilst denying other regions, particularly developing countries, access to resources which the US had in abundance, particularly technology. This aspect of globalisation, and consequentially why so many people around the world find fault with it, is very poorly understood by Americans, whose information is provided principally by corporations with direct or indirect commercial interests in this process of foreign resource exploitation.

Party Time: The Historical Interval of Cheap, Abundant Energy

In 400 AD, Europe was 95 per cent woodland, and the European economy relied on wood as its source of energy (wood provided light and heat, animals were used for transport and to work farmland). Population grew steadily, placing increasing pressure on this resource and by 1600 forest coverage had reduced to 20 per cent. Wood prices increased, and coal became accepted as an increasingly viable alternative. Previously avoided because of the harsher smoke it produces, it was later preferred to wood because of the higher temperature fire it (and coke derived from it) can produce relative to charcoal, which was important in large-scale and high-quality iron and steel production. Very roughly from 1600 to 1900, coal dominated, increasingly used to power manufacturing operations, railway transport and towards the end of the 19th Century, electrical grids. But from 1900, the use of coal waned sharply, replaced by the ascent of oil, which displaced coal in naval transport and introduced new means of road and air transport, also becoming increasingly important in electrical generation. Coal had seriously impacted the shape of modern life, being largely responsible for the move towards industrial wage labour, but the impact of oil was even greater. It primarily impacted three areas:

  1. Agriculture, in which oil-powered machinery displaced animals (which had previously required one third of US farmland to feed them) and the production of nitrogen-based fertilisers (particularly ammonia) which required gas as a source of energy and hydrogen. The use of nitrogen fertilisers doubled the amount of nitrogen available to Earth's biomass.
  2. Transport, in which the massive subsidies granted to road transport saw it displacing rail travel across the industrialised world, but most extremely in the US. The private cost of running an automobile in America averages approximately US$1,500 per year, whereas by “some (unreferenced and unexplained) estimates” the total cost to society is $25,000 — one of the main costs being those associated with accidents: since 1900 more Americans have been killed in car accidents than have died in all wars in US history.3) The interstate highway network cost America more than the Marshall Plan, meanwhile GM and Standard Oil were buying up tram systems across the US, gradually allowing them to rust whilst replacing them with diesel-powered buses. This facilitated the US' ultimate dependence on auto and air transport (intercity train services persisted for some time, but ultimately could not compete with the highway subsidy). City planning changed beyond recognition: first the trams and then to a much greater extent the automobile fuelled urban sprawl and suburbanisation. Again no citation, but the oil cost per mile or air and car transport is said to be roughly equal.
  3. Warfare, which came increasingly to use oil as a primary ingredient (moving troops, powering tanks and planes) and primary objective (the Germans' inability to secure a source of petrol after the Allies blocked their access to Romanian fields was a significant contributor to their surrender; in the Second World War, Poland and Russia were largely sought for their oilfields and the German army crumbled when these were retaken by Russia (no mention of Germany using Standard Oil technology to derive artificial petrol from oil)). As the century progressed, access to and control of oilfields has remained of crucial geopolitical significance, especially to the US after it came to import oil on a large scale during the 1960s and its production peaked in 1970.

Oil was extremely cheap by the early 1970s ($3/barrel) due to large increases in production which were not matched by increases in demand. In 1973, Egypt initiated a war with Israel in frustration at the unwillingness of Israel to negotiate a settlement concerning lands captured by Israel in 1967. Egypt used Soviet ground-to-air missiles with success against the Israeli military, but the US intervened to provide more jets; in response the USSR moved naval forces to the eastern Mediterranean and a settlement was reached to avoid a superpower confrontation. In protest at the US support for Israel, OPEC placed an embargo on the US and raised prices to around $12/barrel. Inflation soared across the industrial world, leaping again when prices rose to $30/barrel as production was interrupted by the overthrow of the Shah of Iran (with US support as the Shah was dragging his feet in negotiation with the oil majors) and the start of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980.

Once this political turmoil began to settle in the early 1980s prices dropped in 1982 to around $6/barrel. Inflation came under control and the world economy recovered. Supply rose considerably during the 1980s: Kuwait increased its OPEC quota rather dubiously, Iran cheated in order to pay for its war with Iraq, Britain increased production and the US put pressure on Saudi to do likewise in order to lower prices and deny the USSR the forex it needed to survive. The Carter administration had had a serious commitment to reducing US oil consumption through alternative technologies and less wasteful lifestyles, but all of his policies were reversed by Reagan. After a “decisive” (?!) 1988 victory over Iran, the US gave tacit encouragement to Iraq to invade Kuwait by assuring Saddam Hussein that the US took no position on the ongoing border dispute (Kuwait was slant-drilling Iraqi fields). The Iraqi invasion gave the US a pretext to build permanent bases in Saudi and deploy large troop numbers. Saddam was left in power partly in order to create a “swing state of last resort” — if a new government had been installed then Iraqi production would have recovered and prices would have crashed again, but through a long-term embargo on Iraq moderate prices could be maintained at no cost to US allies (particularly Saudi, that had previously been the swing state, producing less than half of its OPEC quota). As prices began to rise, Iraq was then permitted to export a limited amount of oil under a US-led UN programme.

Heinberg also argues that the progressive increase in the capital-intensity of US industry shifts the revenue of production from workers to the investor class, who accumulate rather than spend this money, leading to the progressive failure of demand in the US economy. The result has been increasingly frantic attempts to penetrate foreign markets, and progressively intense competition between corporations.

Light's Out: Approaching the Historic Interval's End

This chapter contains the main substance of the book — it examines various sources of evidence on when peak oil will occur and to a lesser extent, how rapidly oil supply will decrease afterwards. There are two main camps: the “cornucopians” or optimists, and the “Cassandras” or pessimists. Heinberg assesses the arguments presented by each camp, and concludes that although some uncertainty exists (particularly due to the political manipulation of Middle Eastern data), the pessimists present a much more coherent argument better supported by available data.

The Pessimists

This camp is dominated by geologists and physical scientists, although for the most part they are retired or work with consultancies or research institutions rather than oil majors or governments (yet most have long experience working for oil majors and governments). They follow the work of King Hubbert who first developed a technique for predicting the peak output of oil reserves by assuming output would follow a bell-shaped curve derived from frequent empirical observation. In 1956, he used this model to predict the peak of US production would occur between 1966 and 1972 (depending on the URR4)): in fact it occurred in 1970. He went on to predict global peak oil, which he estimated would occur between 1990 and 2000. He died in 1989.

Various others have picked up his research and both refined his methods and applied new data. Using similar techniques, most analysts currently predict peak oil to occur between 2005 and 2010.

Other means of predicting peak oil have been developed by geologists. One uses the historical lag between the peak in oil discovery and the peak in oil production — it is usually around 40 years (though as low as 30 years in the case of North Sea reserves due to the high level of technology applied and possibly as high as 45–60 years in the case of Iraq due to political inhibitions on the rate of exploitation). Discovery peaked in 1963; this method suggests that production will peak between 2005 and 2013. A further method tracks the production data for each country individually; this yields an estimate of 2007 or 2008. In general, most estimates appear to be clustered around the end of the first decade of the 21st Century — some are later, but none later than 2020.

It is worth adding that the world's total known oil reserves rose rapidly until around 1965, but since then new discoveries have declined sharply and although new oil is being discovered all the time, the rate at which it is being discovered is steady and predictable and included in all of these models. For new discoveries to change the overall picture, then a consistent trend spanning the last 30 years would have to be violently altered — each of these models has been amended to take into account significant new discoveries and in each case such discoveries could only push back the production peak by a few years (it is more or less inconceivable that the peak could be pushed back as much as a decade).

The size of officially reported Middle-Eastern known reserves increased significantly during the 1980s. The pessimists are confident that this inflation of known reserves was politically motivated and did not represent any new data — OPEC's quotas were based on known reserves and these adjustments allowed various countries to increase their output. Pessimists' models generally exclude these revisions (although they're included in upper-bound estimates).

The Optimists

The optimists are mostly economists and lawyers with the occasional engineering degree thrown in, but also include most relevant agencies of the US government (including the US Geological Survey (USGS), Energy Information Agency (EIA), Materials Management Service (MMS) and Department of Energy (DoE)). They generally do not present alternative models or predictions, but rather criticise the models of the optimists, broadly arguing that it is not possible to make such predictions because things we don't know about will improve the situation before any of the predictions come to pass. Predictably, their arguments divide into the simply idiotic and those that are at the very least coherent. Ignoring the idiocy (Huber in particular), their main arguments:

  1. Known reserves increase with time and existing models underestimate them (even though expected increases in known reserves are included, even optimistically, in pessimists' models). It is noted that previous predictions, particularly those made before 1960, were proven to be highly pessimistic. Clearly, the fact that one prediction is wrong does not in itself imply that a different prediction will be wrong — each must be assessed on its merits.
  2. There is a lot of oil that we know about but don't yet know how to extract — at present, it is common to only be capable of extracting 30 per cent of a known oilfield. This is true and technology is slowly advancing to extract more, but the trend is very much that extracting more oil comes at an escalating energy cost — and there is a physical limit at the point at which it costs a barrel-worth of energy to extract a barrel of oil. We are already not very far from this point.
  3. Once the price rises, we will find alternative energies — we will return to coal or use gas, or improve our methods of using oil shale or possibly tar sands. Currently there are enormous known reserves of oil shale, and it is already being used to create energy in Canada. However, it requires enormous energy inputs (2 barrels in for every 3 out) and creates larger amounts of toxic waste than the processes' raw material input. A comprehensive discussion of whether there are viable alternative energies follows in the next chapter. But some optimists claim that the oil age will end not when it runs out, but when superior sources of energy are discovered.
  4. The final argument is that there are large unexplored fields in the Middle East, which the nationalised industries of the region have avoided finding but will be brought online as oil prices begin to rise. It is true that much Middle Eastern data is considered a state secret, but also that the Middle East has been extensively explored, and that even a few enormous new finds (none of which have occurred since 1970) would only push back the peak by a few years.

The USGS was criticised by the government in the early 1970s for entirely failing to predict the peak of US oil output. There are subtle indications that its current predictions are politically motivated — more like projections of demand than supply. There is a clear motivation for politicians to demand optimistic predictions which will enable them to present low-cost policy to their electorate. A high-consumption, wasteful government policy is broadly more appealing to a largely uninformed electorate. Heinberg therefore claims that USGS projections are politically motivated — and they have been criticised as grossly optimistic by certain members of the USGS itself.

Overall, Heinberg concludes that the optimist camp contains the vast majority of the genuine expertise and the lack of provision of concrete models which can be examined and criticised by the pessimists should be regarded as extremely suspect. The remainder of the book will assume that the pessimists are broadly correct.

Non-Petroleum Energy Sources: Can the Party Continue?

This chapter reviews potential replacements for oil.


In many ways this is the most natural or obvious replacement. Gas can be used in most of the same ways as oil — not only for electricity generation but in road transport and for manufacturing fertiliser, and can be transported fairly easily. The only significant difference is that it's expensive and difficult to transport by sea — it has to be cooled to around 100 Kelvin, requiring special tankers and ports. Gas extraction follows a modified Hubbert curve — ramp-up of production is much more rapid, followed by a long plateau, and then a rapid decline (ie a profile which is more rectangular than bell-shaped). US extraction is already being pursued in earnest and many new wells have been brought online in the last ten years, merely in order to maintain current levels of production. US supplies are set to diminish fairly rapidly in future. Remaining reserves are mostly located in the Middle East and Russia and may prove useful for Europe and East Asia for several decades but problems with transportation will cause problems for the US.


Coal reserves are much larger — at current rates of consumption, proven US reserves will last over 250 years. The problems are different — environmental (the sulphur released causes acid rain), difficulties in extraction (a skilled and difficult job whose capacity has been decimated by politicians in recent decades), and the EROEI5) is declining and may hit unity within two or three decades. Coal can't be used directly in road transport, but a petrol-substitute can be derived from it, much as the Nazis did (although this further reduces the EROEI). However, new techniques are under development that extract hydrogen from coal and generate electricity without combustion. These are not market-ready but promising, though they won't solve the EROEI problem.


The costs of nuclear power are associated with the construction, maintenance and decommissioning of safe plants and the long-term storage of the waste products. These have made nuclear power significantly more expensive than all other sources of energy, and solutions to these problems have not been found. It is claimed to be safer than perceived, with the 'probability of a person being killed by nuclear energy' much lower than the risk of being killed by air travel — although accidents have dogged the industry throughout its history and cast extreme doubt on ex-ante calculation of such probabilities. Further, uranium is a finite resource of which the US has perhaps 40 years' at current levels of production and nuclear energy is not readily adaptable to road transport or agricultural usage. Nuclear energy can be generated from plutonium or uranium-plutonium mixtures, but plutonium is extremely dangerous (its main practical use is in nuclear weapons) — these fuels are much more abundant but the costs involved in handling these processes safely are far greater than those for uranium and these processes have only been attempted in a handful of plants — without much success. Nuclear electricity accounts for 50 per cent or more of the total used in France, Sweden and Belgium, but elsewhere it is minority source. Nuclear plants are frequently taken offline to deal with maintenance issues and are generally far less reliable than fossil sources of electricity.


The cheapness and efficiency of wind power generation is improving rapidly. It already accounts for over 1 per cent of global electricity generation, being pioneered primarily by Germany and Spain. In the US, it's believed that there is enough wind to ultimately provide 60 per cent of current energy usage, although harnessing even a small part of this will require the creation of an enormous industry to generate the capacity. Land can often be used to generate wind power in parallel with other uses, such as agriculture. Significant new transmission infrastructure is needed, and there are practical problems associated with the daily variability of wind supply — if wind were to take on a significant portion of power generation, then substantial storage technologies would have to be created (probably using electricity to generate hydrogen). Wind probably already has an EROEI of 50.


There are various different technologies in production or development for converting sunlight directly into electricity. The more traditional methods require exotic materials and complex manufacturing process (such as high vacuum and temperature) but increasingly cheaper, lower technology processes are proliferating. Costs for manufacture and use have fallen extreme amounts in the last few decades, although the cheapest solar electricity still costs around US$0.11/kWh. Units connected to the national grid are far more efficient than stand-alone units, since battery technology required to smooth usage is expensive, bulky and energy inefficient. Crucially, at present solar energy has an EROEI of around unity, although this is likely to rise with time.


Hydrogen is a transmission and storage mechanism rather than a source. It is oft-touted as the long-term replacement for petrol for use in transport. It is currently produced from natural gas, but in future may be created by electrolysis from electricity (perhaps surplus electricity generated from renewable sources whose generation cannot be scheduled, such as solar). It is converted to electrical or mechanical energy using fuel cells rather than a combustion-based process. This technology is still decades from being market-ready, hydrogen generation is still only viable from fossil fuels, and the new infrastructure required for a true 'hydrogen economy' would be prodigious.


Hydroelectricity is already a significant contributor to global energy — 19 per cent of global electricity generation, with an EROEI of around 10. In the West, available hydro energy is already in use, although there is some scope for further projects in LDCs. Large-scale projects are hotly contested by environmentalists, who stress the damage to the natural habitat of many species — this is another reason that further projects in the developed world are unlikely. However, it is possible that 'micro-hydro' projects — hydroelectricity on a much smaller scale, may have a more significant future. Such opportunities have been far less completely exploited than larger scale options.


There are few locations where geothermal generation is possible, and across much of the world they have already been fully exploited (perhaps there are still significant opportunities in Russia and Indonesia). EROEIs are very high, possibly higher than petrol. However, geothermal energy is probably not a renewable resource — it is currently believed that most sites are fully exploited after around 40 years.

Tides and Waves

There are very few geographical locations where large-scale tidal projects are feasible, but where they are possible they are currently promising. A facility is under construction in San Francisco which aims to provide the entire city's electricity supply. Most other viable sites are in remote areas such as Nova Scotia and Northwest Russia. EROEI of 15. The environmental impact is still largely unknown, but there are risks of similar problems as with hydro. Again, small-scale projects may provide a better alternative in the future. Attempts to harness wave power have been rather unsuccessful.

Biomass, Biodiesel and Ethanol

This is the growing of any crop which is ultimately burnt for energy. The main problem with current methods is that EROEIs are rarely much above unity, since modern agriculture is so energy-intensive. If these methods were to be scaled up to supply a significant proportion of our energy then environmental consequences could be severe. There is also a danger of energy production competing for scarce agricultural lands with food crops. The US would require a little more than all of its agricultural lands to provide enough ethanol to replace petrol for road transport. There are good marginal uses of waste oils as transportation fuels.

Fusion, Cold Fusion and Free-Energy Devices

Some people still believe in perpetual motion machines. There's no evidence that any of these are viable.

Conservation: Efficiency and Curtailment

Conservation divides into two distinct categories: 'efficiency' could be used to describe finding less energy-intensive ways of conducting current activity, whilst 'curtailment' can describe reducing current activity. Significant achievements have already been made in improving efficiency, but they are probably subject to diminishing returns in the short run. A lot of claims of improvements in efficiency are spurious, replacing direct energy usage with indirect energy costs. It is very important that planners adopt the EROEI approach, taking into consideration each technology's energy return as well as its market price — technologies with an EROEI of little more than unity can appear far more attractive than they will become as energy prices climb. It seems that curtailment will inevitably play an important role in whatever strategy we are set to adopt.

A Banquet of Consequences

The Economy

Heinberg buys into Lietaer's rather questionable idea that fiat money is inextricably tied to positive interest rates and therefore requires an exponential increase in the money supply to survive. He doesn't mention the obvious ways in which negative real interest rates are compatible with fiat money, such as a moderate rate of inflation above nominal interest rates. He believes that improvements in energy efficiency are inevitably doomed to diminishing returns, rejecting the possibility of new paradigms. He equates 19th and 20th Century increases in worker productivity with increases in the amount of fossil-fuel energy which could be harnessed per worker per hour.

Productivity — the output produced per worker-hour — has grown dramatically, not because workers have worked harder but because workers have been controlling ever more energy in order to accomplish their tasks. —p189

He envisages two main forms of financial collapse. On the one hand, an increase in the cost of energy embedded in prices will lead to a contraction in demand. The price mechanism must inevitably balance the demand for and supply of energy — if this level of demand for energy (embedded in products) contracts then the demand for the products in which energy is embedded is likely to contract below a level at which the entire workforce is employed. A classical depression will therefore be the result, with massive unemployment and a spiralling collapse in demand.6) The other alternative is that governments try to pump up demand with fiscal expenditure (“perhaps to finance military adventures”) — but Heinberg sees this as unlikely to succeed — it will crowd out private energy usage and rather than increasing employment without increasing energy consumption, it's more likely to lead to hyperinflation.


The airline industry is highly unlikely to survive in its present form. A transition to ethanol or hydrogen is not technically or economically possible on the scale that the industry now exists. Air transport will remain an option only for the wealthy. Although lightly loaded buses and trains use as much energy per passenger-mile as cars, when fully loaded they are significantly more efficient. However, the direct replacement of one with the other is difficult, since city planning over the last fifty years (to a much greater extent in the US than elsewhere) has been based on a form of suburban sprawl that is extremely difficult to reconcile with public transport systems. The promotion of private vehicle use in China is a disastrously misguided policy. Not only the use of motor vehicles but their production is very costly in energy terms, and new production is likely to more or less cease. The world already has more cars than it can support in the long term.

Food and Agriculture

The global food-supply situation is already tight. Over the 20th Century, production tripled, only barely keeping up with the rise in population. Per-capita food production is falling, reserves are currently being drawn down. Who Will Feed China? by Lester Brown highlights the problems that the planet is likely to face in the interval before global population peaks. Moreover, many current industrial farming practises are reducing the Earth's natural capital by reducing soil quality year on year: “for every bushel of corn produced in Iowa, three bushels of topsoil are lost forever.”7)

What is the long-term capacity for the planet to feed itself, without oil? Heinberg presents two bases for prediction. The first is the carrying capacity before agriculture was industrialised: around 1.7 billion people. Heinberg claims that this may be optimistic, given 20th Century soil depletion. The second is based on twenty-five years of research by John Jeavons in California, who has developed an organic farming system using no fossil fuels to test the minimum land requirement of a human being under these conditions. He has developed a system using only 250m2 per person, equivalent to a planetary carrying capacity of 7.5 billion, which is more or less the projected population peak. However, this is based on a strictly vegen diet recycling all animal and plant waste with no surplus to be used for transport, or cooking or heating.

There are two camps of optimists who claim there are solutions to this problem: one based on the development of more intensive organic agriculture, and the other based around GM. Heinberg has some faith in the former and none whatsoever in the latter. Overall, he concludes that it is unlikely that the planet will be able to sustain 7.5 billion individuals in the long term and that some effort at population reduction will be required to avoid large-scale plague, famine or war.

Heating and Cooling

Heat and cold already kill significant numbers in the industrialised world (combined about 1100 per year in the US) and deaths will increase as heating and cooling become more expensive. Whilst often regarded as a luxury, there are large areas of the world in which heating is absolutely necessary for survival.

The Environment

The impact on the environment is difficult to call — on the one hand reductions in industrial production and CO2 emissions may slow our destruction of the environment, but on the other hand protection of the environment is unlikely to be the first priority when trade-offs in the use of fuel begin to bite. Currently waste collection and safe disposal require significant amounts of energy and it's likely there will be pressure to divert this energy and expense to more urgent needs.

Public Health

Public health systems worldwide are overstretched, under-resourced and deteriorating. AIDS is utterly out of control in Africa; the Russian public health infrastructure has collapsed since its market transition (as evidenced by the surge in diphtheria); 4 million people are killed by waterborne infection every year because they lack adequate sanitation, 1 million by malaria; tuberculosis is on the rise with 1.7 billion people worldwide currently infected. Western public health systems use considerable amounts of energy but many of the basic techniques of modern medicine need not. However, global public health is in a fragile position: if inadequate resources are dedicated to meeting the new challenges that public health provision will inevitably face, then the risk of future pandemics in the poor and rich world is genuine.


Industrial society is keenly dependent on IT infrastructure. Although it uses very little energy, more energy is used in the deployment and maintenance of its infrastructure. Its greatest vulnerability is its dependence on the national grid. Heinberg sees increasing blackouts and brownouts as inevitable in the long term and IT will be particularly vulnerable to these threats unless an alternative means of electrical infrastructure can be developed in time to take over from the present non-viable system.

National Politics and Social Movements

Heinberg sees the political landscape of the industrial age in terms of the traditional dichotomy between left and right: right asserting that the state's role is defending private accumulation of wealth and the left asserting that the state's function is to equalise wealth and subsidise those without the means to support themselves. He rather generously claims “democracy is an inherently leftist ideal,”8) but implicitly admits that his view of democracy is a state empowered to limitlessly intervene in the economy — which is probably nearer to the left's conception of the word than the right's.

Political discourse will become much more tense as politics shifts from being a squabble over an expanding pie to a squabble over a diminishing pie. It is likely that both sides will avoid the real issue, since easy answers and scapegoating are more attractive to voters than a grim and complex reality with no easy solution. It's possible that the political environment will gradually disintegrate with barely a mention that natural resource scarcity is the underlying cause of the new poverty being blamed on immigrants, communists and terrorists by the right and the rich, the greedy and the corporations by the left.

The only hope that the political system will avoid self-defeating internecine warfare is that a large existing caucus called 'cultural creatives' find a powerful political voice — these people broadly support ecology and feminism and remain sceptical of globalisation and big business. It's quite possible that the nation-state will disintegrate into autonomous regional enclaves if the state's power to maintain national infrastructure declines sufficiently.

Geopolitics of Energy Resources

This section is broken down by region and is quite detailed, so a lot has been left out. The US is by far the largest oil importer, larger than the next two combined (Japan and China, who are roughly equal). The US also being the principal global hegemon, it is certain that the US will continue to play a central role in near-future resource wars. It is already heavily involved throughout the Middle East, in which it has a tacit agreement with various autocratic regimes under which it will provide security for the regime against its own people in return for a measure of control over that country's energy resources. Its direct military presence in the region has increased dramatically in the last twenty years.

However, its unilateralism has increased the tendency of other countries to form increasingly overt alliances against it. Their contiguous geography imply that the EU, Russia and China form a natural strategic alliance against an overstretched US which is dependent on the rest of the world to fund its deficit in dollars and oil.

At present the US has a lot of control, not only of Middle East oil at source, but of the main pipelines out of the Caspian, including 19 new bases in the Caspian region and the largest new permanent base since Vietnam in Kosovo, next to the new Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. It has the fundamental weaknesses of relying on an overstretched and distributed military infrastructure and a reliance on a long and fragile tanker supply route, compared to Europe-Russia-China's ability to meet its needs through much more easily defensible overland pipelines.

Growing demand in China amidst existing pressure is likely to make the South China Sea an increasingly volatile area, both as a source of oil and as a transit route for the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Korea as well as China. In general, research suggests that in recent history, more resource-rich LDCs have faced a higher risk of civil war, and this is likely to continue — the most stable areas of the developing world in future may well be the most resource-poor. The developing world uses oil much more efficiently than the west, and therefore ought to be more able to cope with higher prices (this seems highly questionable to me — it means that there are fewer easy efficiency savings to be made and there is certainly less surplus economic output that could be curtailed). It is almost universally true that in the midst of economic hardship there are the greatest political gains from policy based on hatred and violence.

Managing the Collapse: Strategies and Recommendations

We must face the prospect of changing our basic ways of living. This change will either be made on our own initiative in a planned way, or forced on us with chaos and suffering by the inexorable laws of nature. —Jimmy Carter, 1976

Proposed strategies for dealing with the impending decline in fossil fuel availability divide readily into various different levels of action.


Suggestions at the individual are fairly prosaic:

  1. Reduce energy usage,
  2. Invest in a wind or solar source of energy if feasible,
  3. Consider moving to or building a home that is designed with energy efficiency in mind,
  4. Eliminate your personal debt and reduce current consumption,
  5. Where possible, learn to use less energy intensive tools, learn how things work and how they can be maintained rather than replaced,
  6. Learn healthcare techniques appropriate to an environment without institutional healthcare,
  7. Grow food if possible, and
  8. Try to find ways of restructuring your life to reduce your dependence on your car.

Further sources of information on these strategies is listed on p232.


At the communal (village, town, city) level things already become significantly more complicated:

  1. Reassess strategy for food security, encourage local food production and develop a strategy for an overall food supply which does not rely on interregional supply lines,
  2. Reassess water systems, perhaps the most vulnerable power-reliant communal system, and consider strategies for water conservation and non-energy-intensive means of processing water,
  3. Revitalise the local economy by resisting (inter)national chains that make consumers reliant on international supply lines, encourage people to buy local,
  4. Consider the possibility of a local public power authority which can reduce the cost of energy provision and invest in renewable sources of energy,
  5. Assess the layout of the community in the light of a future absence of cars, consider what changes need to be made to town planning, particularly transport infrastructure, in order to accommodate this transition,
  6. Write to your MP, and
  7. Consider joining an intentional community of people that have consciously decided to make an early transition to a sustainable lifestyle.


At the national level change is extremely difficult but can also be very powerful — many issues can only really be addressed at this level. The political system is clearly very unresponsive to the needs of its citizens if they are not shared by industry, but even small changes can have an important impact.

  1. Food systems should cease to subsidise agribusiness and monocropping; the structure of subsidy should be eliminated or (better) altered to favour small-scale producers supplying local consumers,
  2. Financial and business systems must be redesigned
    1. To eliminate debt-based currency, like they have in Guernsey!
    2. To strip corporations of their right to personhood, which grants corporations disproportionate rights in the political arena compared to citizens (they have the right to free speech and freedom from search and seizure but cannot suffer imprisonment in the same way that people can),
  3. Tax reform ought to shift the tax base onto the use of land and fossil fuels rather than labour,
  4. Nobody wants to talk about population and immigration, but these will be central issues:
    1. Population must be controlled and decreased by any effective and acceptable means — the 'easy fixes' include female education and emancipation and the free provision of contraception, but these will not have a sufficient effect and more extreme measures will be required,
    2. Immigration is also very dangerous and must be curbed rapidly; immigrants generally require several generations before they begin to understand the carrying capacity of the country they have moved to and a large investment in the local community plays a vital role in the transition to sustainable behaviour; however, the exploitation of developing countries which provides the motivation for immigration must also end,
  5. Those of us that live in countries with evil foreign policies must stop being so evil,9)
  6. Public investment must shift from enormous subsidy of car and air to substantial subsidy of a rail network that will hopefully survive peak, and
  7. We need more social activists.


Never globalise a problem if it can possibly be dealt with locally. —Garrett Harding

Only in exceptional circumstances do any issues need to be dealt with at a global level, but these are exceptional circumstances. There are three main issues that can only be addressed globally:

  1. Resource conservation (international agreements on national limits for resource use),
  2. Pollution control, and
  3. International conflict resolution (which is likely to become an increasingly crucial issue following peak).

There are three global infrastructures at present: corporations, who are useless and will contribute nothing to managing peak, a global network of NGOs which are brilliant and have all the answers, and the UN family of organisations, which is the only realistic platform for managing conflict resolution and negotiated demilitarisation.


A final two questions present themselves: firstly, is it too late? and secondly are these recommendations realistic? The answer to the first question is almost certainly yes, it is too late for a transition to be made without a “discontinuity”. The global community would have required a warlike mobilisation starting in the 1970s in order to complete such an enormous transition smoothly. But it is clearly never too late to act effectively to reduce the impact of the coming 'collapse' (meant in the rather technical sense of a sudden decrease in societal complexity).

Secondly, are these recommendations realistic? Experience suggests that at the national and international level it is unrealistic to expect a serious effort to alter societies to originate with politicians — the basic structure of current political systems makes it impossible. Change is far more likely from below, from individual and community action and direct political pressure, which is capable of generating proposals and a limited amount of political pressure. However, as the collapse unfolds the situation will change — the risks of large societal upheaval also come with opportunities for fundamental change which do not exist in ordinary times.

“The urge to form partnerships, to link up in collaborative arrangements, is perhaps the oldest, strongest, and most fundamental force in nature. There are no solitary, free-living creatures, every form of life is dependent on other forms.” —Lewis Thomas, quoted in Augros and Stanciu, The New Biology, p118.
“Just as the use of tools has affected our collective psychology, so has specialisation. With a lifelong division of labour, many members of society became cut off from basic subsistence activities and processes; rather than enjoying a direct relationship with the natural world, they became, for their material existence, dependent on the society's economic distribution system. This subtly fostered attitudes of conformity and subordination while undermining feels of personal confidence and competence.” (p28.)
Although Heinberg does not add this qualification, we are of course only bothering to count the American victims of these wars.
Ultimately recoverable resource.
Energy return on energy invested = energy extracted / total energy required to produce that energy in usable form
This implicitly ignores the effect of attempts to use cheap labour to substitute for expensive energy inputs. My inference is that Heinberg does not believe that the private economy is sufficiently dynamic to identify and exploit this opportunity to the required extent rapidly enough.
“The Bush administration's proposed military budget increase from 2003 to 2004 is itself larger than the entire military budget of any other country in the world except Russia.” (p243.)
the_partys_over.txt · Last modified: 2019/11/08 10:39 (external edit)