Book Review: Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future

The first half of the petroleum age saw unprecedented prosperity. The second half won't be so pretty

Reviewed by Dave Levitan

book cover  life without oil
Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future
By Steve Hallett, with John Wright; Prometheus Books, 2011; 435 pp.; US $26; ISBN 978-1-616-14401-2

We are living through the strangest anomaly in human history, according to Steve Hallett’s Life Without Oil, written with journalist John Wright. The first half of the petroleum "interval"—at 200 years, it’s not long enough to merit such designations as "era" or "age"—involved massive expansion, technological explosion, and unprecedented prosperity. The second half, as Earth warms uncontrollably and economies crumble, won’t be so pretty.

Hallett, an associate professor of Botany at Purdue University, has undertaken something massive with this book. Unsatisfied with any one aspect of the human relationship with oil, he attempts to take on all of them. After a brief history of every major civilization that ever rose and fell (all due to resource depletion, he argues), Hallett discusses our own history with fossil fuels; how we use oil; why it is running out; when it might run out; what will happen—politically, economically, culturally—when it does; the energy options on the table and why none of them seem able to replace fossil fuels; the separate but equally harsh problems of capitalism and communism in an oil-deprived society; and a few other dissertation-worthy topics as well. It’s a lot to digest.

Still, the thesis is interesting, when you can hack through these thickets to find it. Peak oil is upon us, Hallett says, give or take a few years, and as supply flattens and then declines, we will see the beginning of the end of this two-century historical glitch. And unlike many who have written about energy and global warming in recent years, Hallett doesn’t pretend there’s a good way out: We have burned too much coal and oil, and the consequences are coming even if we stopped it all tomorrow. Basically, he is predicting the collapse of modern society.

"On the whole, I see these last few decades as the most disastrous in the history of humankind," Hallett writes.

The book concludes with a number of prescriptions for the post-oil, mid-global-warming world. In other words, Hallett assumes the disaster to come and tries to plot a way through it—adaptation rather than mitigation, but on a grand and cynical scale. Here, too, the book bulges metastatically with solutions—to energy shortages, land-use problems, and overpopulation. But what are we supposed to come away with? By attempting to solve every problem, Hallett leaves the reader with the growing worry that we might not be able to solve anything. Maybe that’s the point.

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About the Author

Dave Levitan is a science journalist who contributes regularly to IEEE Spectrum’s Energywise blog. In June he reviewed The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps by Peter D. Ward.

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