The Party's Over - Richard Heinberg

I care a lot about the environment and I believe that capitalism is a questionable system at best. So you'd think I'd be positive about "The Party's Over" by Richard Heinberg, which aims to alert the world about the impending depletion of the world's crude oil resources and the cataclysmic consequences of that shortage for the economy, political stability and general well-being.

But I'm not. In fact, I think that "The Party's Over" is a biased, shoddily argued and utterly unconvincing book that preaches to the choir while alienating the very people it seems to want to convince.

The basic argument of the book runs like this: the world's oil has been steadily drying up over the last few decades, and what little oil remains is so hard to get to that we will actually spend more energy extracting it than the energy gained from the extracted oil. Coupled with an explosive increase in demand for oil as countries like China are industrializing will cause the world to spin out of control. The only cure for this disaster is an immediate and structural investment in renewable energy sources and a return to a more sober, frugal lifestyle.

My first suspicion about this book was raised when I found out is that it is not written by someone who himself discovered the oil depletion and then tried to figure out how big it was and how it would affect the world. Instead, the author barely hides his views that both the oil industry and the gas-guzzling consumerist society that supports it are hideously obscene; that working people today are no more than slave laborers who happen to earn wages; and that oil is the main motive behind almost every war in recent history.

Could it be that his theory is "supported" by these opinions and preconceptions, rather than by solid facts? Facts are hard to come by in this book, and most of them are accompanied by maybes, ifs and possibles. Counterarguments to the theory are addressed, but some essential questions are never asked. Here are some examples.

First, if oil is really running out, then the oil industry should be most worried of all. After all, they are the ones going out of business soon (although there are short-term profits to be had). So why aren't oil barons trembling in their seats? Heinberg suggests it's because the problem is too big to solve. Personally, I'd think that a multi-zillion dollar industry can afford to invest at least a bit into a solution. On the other hand, of course, a much simpler explanation is that the theory is bullshit.

Second, why isn't the mainstream press writing about this? Yes, we know, The Media are a global conglomerate dominated by Big Business and is, therefore, on the side of the industrialists. But there are still reporters who know a good story when they see it. More importantly, they also know a bad story when they see it. Maybe the problem is that there are hardly any authoritative scientific publications on the matter, only books with similarly alarmist titles and similarly unauthoritative authors. Which in turn might be, again, for the simple fact that the theory is bullshit.

Third, a very convenient feature of this theory is that it fits the paranoia template like a glove. It's full of claims that (a) seem to make a lot of sense, (b) scare the reader shitless by their catastrophic character, and (c) are impossible to verify before the supposed shit hits the fan. From a propagandistic point of view, this is a winning combination. in the same class with a terrorist attack by Muslim fundamentalists (always a good excuse to curtail civil liberties); a nuclear war started by the Ruskies (always a good excuse to increase defense spending), or the arrival of Slurba, a gigantic alien rabbit from the planet Zurkon intent on enslaving humanity. Well ok, that last one fails the (a) criterium.

In short, I believe that Heinberg is needlessly alarming people into a panic in order to push forward his personal flower-child agenda, and is deliberately exaggerating his claims out of frustration over the general public's increased apathy and cynicism when it comes to corporate greed and mindless consumerism.

The sad part is, he might be right and there really may be reason to panic. But the general public will not be convinced by such a thoroughly one-sided, badly argued and obviously biased view.

Posted by cronopio at 01:27 AM, May 11, 2004