Richard Heinberg, The Party's Just Getting Started

By: Shawn Alli
Posted: August 1, 2013

 

Richard Heinberg's 2005 book, The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, isn't worth the print cost of its 300 pages. After reading it you won't know anything that you didn't already know; and worse, you'll hear his incredible tales of planes not flying anymore and roads deteriorating to the point of non-use.

 

Most of the first chapter (p. 9-28) is a waste of pages and unnecessary to understand the arguments in the following chapters. This is a common feature that esteemed authors have - they write so much useless information, thinking it's necessary to set the context of the book.

 

In Chapter 1 Heinberg talks about the ecology of the earth, how simple and complex organisms develop and adapt to their environment, tool-making, and specialization. Authors who over-contextualize their book with useless information reminds me of my university days when I use to write essays in my humanities class. Fresh out of high school I expect a decent mark on my 1st year university essays. The results are huge "Xs" on one or two pages stating "unnecessary." While esteemed authors sell hundreds of thousands of books and don't have to worry about their style of writing, it would help nonetheless, if they dive right into their subject matter with as little introductory context as possible.

 

One notable phrase Heinberg makes in Chapter 1 is:

The Earth's climate is so finely balanced that global warming could result in a rapid flip in weather regimes. For example, cold, fresh water from the melting of the arctic ice pack could halt the Gulf Stream, plunging Europe and North America into a new Ice Age.

 

This is complete nonsense. Please see the article: Absolute Fiction in The Day After Tomorrow Movie

 

Heinberg continues Chapter 1 with explanations about the archaeology of ancient civilizations. This is again nonsensical in talking about the inability to maintain the "complexity" of an advanced ancient civilization and the "energy budget," it has to maintain.

 

Heinberg is attempting to force modern principles and ideologies onto ancient civilizations that exist thousands of years ago to explain why their economies fall apart. This is all speculative interpretation through fragments of writing left behind. Just because we have fragments doesn't mean we understand the whole picture.

 

He applies this "complexity" to the Roman Empire through the work of Joseph Tainter. Both authors imply that the Empire is too complex to maintain itself. Heinberg includes a graph about the complexity in a civilization with the "return of investment" moving to negative values. He even uses the term, the "law of diminishing returns," as if it's backed by universal scientific laws.

 

This reminds me of the Hubbert Curve which Marion King Hubbert so famously creates, and proves to be incorrect. Heinberg is interpreting the data to fit his notion of scarcity and imminent collapse. If the US ever does collapse, to say that it does so because of complexity is a gross misinterpretation of events and actions.

 

In Chapter 2 p. 45-52 are unnecessary in providing more context. The rest is a good history lesson. But praising Hubbert as "a prophet of the coming era," is too much praise for an oil company man with a vested financial and social interest in oil scarcity.

 

Chapter 3 brings out Heinberg's justification for peak oil:

Moreover, there is no natural law stating that the extraction curve must be precisely bell-shaped or symmetrical. Indeed, political, economic, and technological factors can deform the curve in an infinite number of ways.

 

This is a very shrewd way of deflecting criticism of the Hubbert Curve by claiming there are now "an infinite number of ways" to justify peak oil.

 

Heinberg shows a graphic of Richard Duncan's work through the Institute on Energy and Man, where he shows North America's peak in 1985 and apparently Canada's oil peak in 2007 (including the oil sands!!!).

 

As a Canadian I can assure my American counterparts that Canada is not running out of oil. We have enough oil and natural gas to last centuries and millenniums based on current and future increased usage. Canada comprises such a vast amount of land that we've failed to tap into any real potential.

 

Furthermore, this Richard Duncan and his Institute on Energy and Man, no longer exists. Using this work lowers the credibility of Heinberg's argument.

 

The chapter continues with quotations of peak oil theorists stating the party's over within a few years or by 2020:

We are within only a few years of the all-time global oil production peak. We are virtually at the summit now, with almost no time left for manoeuvring before the event itself is upon us.

 

It's funny that so many use the date of 2020 because in the 1920s, peak oil theorists make the same claims. 100 years later nothing is running out, massive oil bottlenecks exist all around the world, and peak oil theorists like Heinberg continue to repeat the same 100 year old dogma.

 

Later on in Chapter 3 Heinberg presents three authors that refute Hubbert's work and believe oil is plentiful and can last thousands of years. While Heinberg points out the flaws in their arguments, it's respectable of him to give space to those arguing opposite viewpoints.

But in Chapter 4 he shoots himself in the foot with nonsensical claims when he gets into alternative energy sources:

He also mentions natural gas - but is there enough available to substitute for oil? Again, we will address that important question in detail in the next chapter; for now, it is enough merely to point out that North American production of natural gas is already in sharp decline.

 

Natural gas is not in decline. Western society has barely tapped into the natural gas reserves in Alaska, Canada and even the Arctic. The global production of natural gas in 1980 is 53 trillion cubic feet. In 2010 it's 111 trillion and in 2011 it's 117 trillion. Peak oil and oil scarcity theorists refuse to look at reality because of blind devotion to the religion of the Hubbert Curve and peak oil.

 

Heinberg finally gets to the Alberta tar sands in Canada and says the entire process is inefficient, wasteful, causes displacement of Aboriginal people, and causes human miscarriages. This is complete nonsense again. The reference he uses doesn't mention anything about miscarriages. That's just false referencing. And even if it did, you need hard science to back that up instead of just throwing it in the end of a sentence.

 

In regards to Aboriginal communities in the Alberta tar sands area, The Fort McKay Group is a multi-million dollar company that provides services for the Alberta oil sands. And best of all, it's 100% owned by Fort McKay First Nations. Over 1500 Aboriginal individuals work in the Alberta tar sands, and billions of dollars worth of contracts is given to Aboriginal companies.

 

Oil companies can even deal directly with First Nation communities, with the royalties going to them, not the federal or provincial government.

 

Heinberg says that the US Geological Survey (USGS) and Energy Information Administration (EIA) are incorrect about their optimistic futures. But apparently the European IEA is correct because it mentions a peak in 2015. Demonizing data that hurts your arguments is nothing new and many authors do it:

As I have made clear, I personally am convinced of the correctness of the Cassandras' message that global conventional oil production will peak some time during this first decade of the 21st century.

 

Heinberg's book is published in 2003 and then in 2005. The first decade is over, with no shortage of oil or natural gas. According to the EIA the worldwide production of oil in barrels per day is:

2010: 87 million bbl/d
2011: 87.3 million bbl/d
2012: 89.1 million bbl/d.

 

Even if oil production does fall it's only because oil corporations are producing less to artificially create scarcity to jack up the price.

 

But the scariest words come at the end of Chapter 3. Heinberg says governments should:

find humane ways to encourage a reduction in human fertility in all countries, so as to reduce the population over time.

 

In Chapter 5 Heinberg says:

If that reduction does not take place through voluntary programs of birth control, then it will probably come about as a result of famines, plagues, and wars - the traditional means by which human populations have been culled when they temporarily surpassed the carrying capacity of their environments.

 

Anytime I hear population control methods, alarms move from yellow to red alert. This is Malthusian principles 101, also known as eugenics. I'm very disturbed that Heinberg advocates this.

 

The beginning of Chapter 4 only confirms this Malthusian type of thinking:

The nation narrowly averted serious shortages again in 2003; however, unusually mild winter and summer weather in 2004 enabled the refilling of underground gas storage reservoirs. The US has managed to avoid a train wreck so far, but given declining production, the event seems inevitable, whether it occurs this year or next.

 

Even after the worldwide 2007-2009 recession, there's still no problem supplying natural gas to US citizens and citizens in any developed nation.

 

In Chapter 5 Heinberg moves into speculation and future trends. Some of his points are great in regards to the difficulties in transitioning from one energy source to another. Other claims are pure speculation:

Asphalt incorporates large quantities of oil, and road-building machines run on refined petroleum. In the decades ahead, road building will grind to a halt and existing roads will gradually disintegrate as even repair efforts become unaffordable.

 

Really? Is road construction grinding to a halt? No. That's not happening now nor is it expected anytime in distant future. In fact, roads should operate at ground level, above ground, and various levels above ground in the future.

 

Heinberg's argumentation gets more nonsensical as you read on:

But it is highly unlikely that the commercial airline industry as we know it today will survive any attempted transition to ethanol or hydrogen. As a result, the tourism industry will languish in the decades ahead.

Moreover, commercial air travel may soon be a thing of the past as jet fuel becomes more scarce and costly.

 

Seriously?

 

Heinberg also claims that:

Cheap energy will soon be a thing of the past. How many people will post-industrial agriculture be able to support? This is an extremely important question, but one that is difficult to answer. A safe estimate would be this: as many people as were supported before agriculture was industrialized - that is, the population at the beginning of the 20th century, or somewhat fewer than 2 billion people.

 

The inability to feed people is not a supply problem but rather a distribution one. Please see the article: The Failure of Chris Martenson's Crash Course.

 

Heinberg goes on to say:

As electricity becomes more expensive due to shortages of natural gas and the decline in net energy from coal, refrigeration will become more costly. Without refrigeration, supermarkets will be unable to keep frozen foods, and produce will remain fresh for much shorter time periods. The food systems of cities will need to adjust to these changes.

 

Really?

Moreover, demand for electricity continues to increase, fed partly by continued population growth. As the net energy available to industrial societies wanes, resources devoted to the electrical grids will become relatively more expensive. At a certain point, demand for electricity will begin consistently to exceed supply. From then on, the electrical power grids may become threatened. Periodic brownouts and blackouts may become common.

 

The reality is that there are no shortages in the supply of electricity. Electricity is actually the easiest source/carrier of energy to create; using it efficiently or storing it properly is where the problem lies. But there's no shortage of electricity in North America's three sector grid. In Ontario, Canada we have so much electricity that we sell the excess.

 

The electricity grid itself is a problem because it's still using century old equipment such as power lines and transformers. Where are the new innovations for electricity production on a municipal and regional scale?

 

Heinberg also talks about information technology:

unless an alternative renewables-based electrical infrastructure is already substantially in place, the information infrastructure of industrial societies will collapse and virtually all electronically coded data will become permanently irretrievable.

 

This may be a godsend one day so the NSA's Prism and XKeyscore spying program, along with Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, won't be able to monitor and collect everyone's data. One can only hope.

 

Heinberg believes that governments are intentionally deluding themselves to the reality of peak oil. While I can't speak for all governments, if the Canadian government thinks oil will run out in a decade, they would stop exports tomorrow. And I'm sure it's the same for the rest of the oil producing nations such as Venezuela, Mexico and Russia.

 

The fact that oil exports continue in the '80s, '90s, 2000s, and currently in 2013, proves that no government believes in the theory of peak oil. But that doesn't mean they're against alternative energy sources. It means that whatever is more efficient, simple and keeps the citizens voting for them, is the winner.

 

And finally, Heinberg reiterates the usual statement from those who believe in peak oil and advocate alternative energy sources:

Carbon taxes should be implemented and gradually raised - not only to discourage the use of nonrenewables, but also to provide funds for rebuilding the energy infrastructure.

 

Heinberg leaves it open as to who's paying the carbon tax, corporations or citizens? But either way you look at it, the corporations will merely pass the cost onto the consumer in the end. It should be enshrined in all constitutions, that human beings should never feel guilty for exhaling carbon dioxide or using carbon dioxide. To feel ashamed of breathing and having a vehicle is blatant environmental policy manipulation.

 

Aside from Heinberg's monstrous eugenics strategy for population reduction, his claims about Africa are a close second:

Industrial growth cannot be maintained much longer even in Europe or North America; much less can we envision fully industrializing all of Africa, South America, and Asia. Another approach must be found.

 

No industrial development for Africa? This is the final straw. Africa is starving for industrial development, economic infrastructure and 1st world freedoms. For Heinberg to deny Africa development through oil, natural gas and coal is despicable. Please see the article: Obama is Killing the African Dream.

 

The Party's Over, deserves 1 out of 5 stars and a definite F grade for making the usual peak oil/Malthusian arguments, and for it's unbelievable forecasts of the apparent collapse of Western society.