Cailin Reads: Eating Fossil Fuels by Dale Allen Pfeffer

Ah, peak oil. The catastrophe-of-the-moment for doomsday preppers everywhere during the administration of George W. Bush – the calamity that would destroy the evils of our technologically driven culture and send us all back, kicking and screaming, to an agrarian utopia. Those of us who survive, anyway.

Like every prediction of the End of Life as We Know It™, this one never came to pass… Or should I say, it hasn’t come to pass yet?

Although the dire predictions of skyrocketing food and fuel prices and global economic decline are a decade overdue, the concerns Pfeffer raises about our dependence on oil and natural gas for every facet of modern life still resonate. Likewise his prescriptions for change, with an emphasis on sustainable agriculture and the revival of local communities and economies, find an echo in the suggested solutions to climate change and other environmental and social ills.

While I cannot claim any special insight into the underlying science, the book’s analysis of several key issues – most notably the pace of decline in fossil fuel production – seems unjustifiably negative. After all, he expected we’d all be living in an era of crisis by now.

Does that make the principle any less sound? Again, I don’t understand the science well enough to evaluate specific claims but the basic idea seems valid on its face. After all, it isn’t as though fossil fuels are going to be replenished any time soon.

Throughout the book there is a fundamental lack of optimism, and a hefty dose of skepticism about human innovation and technological progress, that I found hard to embrace. The very idea of progress or incremental change to lessen the severity of the crisis is written off at every juncture.

Renewable energy, which has grown so much more efficient and economical since 2006 when this book was published, is dismissed in a mere sentence or two as impractical and not effective enough to have an impact. Nuclear, which is admittedly problematic but still part of our energy mix, gets even less attention.

Urban living gets similarly short shrift, cast as a relic of industrialization bound to be left behind in the return to subsistence living, with post-oil life depicted as necessarily small in scale and rural in character. It is hard not to envision this social structure as a neo-hippie commune of sorts, which struck me as both far-fetched and needlessly regressive. The alternative – inaction leading to the total collapse of the globalized economy and with it human civilization as we know it – is utterly bleak but far more believable, particularly in light of the prevailing political climate regarding global warming and carbon emissions.
As a call to action, the book missed its mark. Although some of the ideas presented are good ones, on whole the narrative spoke more to a missed chance for action and a looming catastrophe that cannot be averted or mitigated than an opportunity for meaningful change. When the best case scenario the author can offer is a “gentle” or gradual die-off of most of the human population and a drastic decline in the standard of living of those that remain, it is hard to find anything inspiring about the work.

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