Peak world publications
By Matthew Wild
Here are brief reviews of what I consider the best books for anyone interested in peak oil.
These are all books I’ve enjoyed – they all challenged my assumptions and made me think. I don’t see any point in listing every book, just because it has peak oil in the title. Actually, I’m not interested in books that simply argue for or against peak oil, because that kind of question is better resolved with a google search. For me, a book on peak oil has to bring something new to the argument.
In addition, there are many books here not directly related to peak oil, but which have been vital in shaping my understanding of the world, helping me wrestle with the big picture realities of hydrocarbon depletion. The main offender is the science section. But if you attempt to convince someone of the reality of peak oil without showing an understanding of science, they will assume you are a member of the aluminum foil hat brigade.
I’m also including books on the subjects of survival and food because I think they directly relate to our coming needs; spiritual books, too – our solutions, in so much as I can use that word, are religious rather than political. I’m also intrigued by history books that show us what the world was like before oil, because I happen to think that we’re going back there.
I’ve stopped watching television altogether, and recommend that as a first step for anyone interested in looking ahead. Read, think, meditate, pray, exercise, garden. . . Get out to your local library! Actually, I never fail to be amazed at the difference between the content of libraries and that of the television networks – books question assumptions, television aims to brainwash.
These books can be found in your library. Also, check out the Free resources section of the site for online texts.
The End of Oil, by Paul Roberts
Despite the title, it is not a peak oil polemic. The End of Oil provides an overview of human energy use through history, from prehistoric man’s use of draft animals to the proposed hydrogen economy. Naturally, it’s focused on hydrocarbons; their decline forms the background to the whole book. Roberts, an experienced journalist, provides a balanced overview of frequently opposing economic and environmental forces, always giving a view of the bigger picture. He’s sympathetic to industry’s reluctance to move to alternative energy sources (it’s uncompetitive, and they have a lot invested in oil) and to the various interest groups, logically explaining their positions rather than making them out to be pantomime villains. This is a work of thoroughly researched fact, not speculation.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough, even though it was published in 2004 and is perhaps a little dated in places. It puts everything into context. Read this book and avoid the mistakes that some peak oil proponents, and especially deniers, fall into.
Twilight in the Desert, by Matt Simmons
From the outset I have to say this is a love-it or hate-it book. It is very technical and factual – more like reading the business pages than a comment column. The late, great Matthew Simmons, who specialized in energy industry investments, set out to examine oil production in the intensely secretive Saudi Arabia, the world’s most important oil state. This is information of geopolitical consequence, and literally beyond top secret. But in a stroke of investigative journalist genius, Simmons discovered a whole series of engineering papers published by teams working on the nation’s oil fields. The book essentially works through 200 of these technical reports, revealing the problems experienced on each of the fields. Highly productive fields do not have these problems. The book’s strength comes from the repetition, problem after problem in the 12 key Saudi oil fields.
Again, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s a crash course in the oil industry: how they find, extract and refine it. In addition, it overturns decades of lies about Saudi oil reserves, painting a picture of a country with a surprisingly fragile economy and growing social problems.
The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler
This is more of your typical peak oil book: well written, urgent and not afraid to speculate of what will come about when oil supplies begin to dwindle. The Long Emergency is very readable, and very sobering. Kunstler tells of just how central oil is to our lives, and how far we stand to fall. This book is excellent in his handling of the geopolitics of oil, particularly relating to the Middle East and China, and the reality about alternate sources of energy not living up to the claims. It also presents a fine overview of climate change. It’s not quite so good, however, when it gets close to home. Kunstler seems to regard farming as something that will stop when cheap oil ends – I don’t really think he regards the resourcefulness of the average farmer, and their ability to maintain just about any item of equipment from scrap materials and a length of wire. He enters into a lot of speculation, which can be an acquired taste – personally, I prefer the drier, factual approach of the first two titles. Still, the complaints are minor. It’s a great book, and it’s a million times better than the rambling, ranting Richard Heinberg books I’ve read (and don’t recommend).
This time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, byCarmen M. Reinhart, Kenneth Rogoff
This looks at a variety of financial crises – and how they always follow a bubble. Banking collapses, inflation, currency crashes, default on debts. . . for rich and poor countries alike, throughout history, all build up the same way. Every generation of politicians will tell you that they are smarter than those that went before, and this time is different.
The strength of this book is also its weakness: statistical analysis. It allows comparison of centuries of financial mismanagement across the glope, but it can make for a dry, academic read. It’s a must-read book, even if at the time you are fully aware that a more human interest account of the various economic collapses would be more enjoyable. (Like any book you read for the knowledge, it’s hard at times not to wish it was 100 pages shorter.) Yet it’s essential for anyone with an interest in peak oil, because it shows clearly how everything was in place for the 2008 global economic collapse well in advance – it was the housing bubble and too much debt that took us down, rather than that year’s spike in the price of oil. And it’s hard not to think about how the US, still mired in debt, is in no place to transition to new sources of energy.
To quote from the introduction: “If there is one common theme to the vast range of crises we consider in this book, it is that excessive debt accumulation, whether it be by the government, banks, corporations, or consumers, often poses greater systemic risks than it seems during a boom. Infusions of cash can make a government look like it is providing greater growth to its economy than it really is. Private sector borrowing binges can inflate housing and stock prices far beyond their long-run sustainable levels, and make banks seem more stable and profitable than they really are.”
Empire of Debt, by Bill Bonner & Addison Wiggin
Published in 2006, this examination of the staggering level of US debt and the craziness of the housing bubble, clearly predicted the (ongoing) US economic crisis. And it’s not dated at all, as the US is still hell bent on self destruction. Empire of Debt is both a laugh-out-loud account of people’s vanity and stupidity and a heartfelt requiem to the demise of the sound, conservative thinking that made America the powerhouse of the world. As the authors observe, the nation lost sight of its freedom, personal liberty and fiscal restraint – and became an empire. Previous empires, from the Romans to the British, managed to extract tribute from the people ruled, whereas the US empire asks only for loans. . . which it uses to buy gadgets and gizmos from overseas that put its own workers out of business.
It shows how empires always collapse, and bubbles always burst, and it’s the prudent, conservative nations that thrive. Spending borrowed money does not make an economy stronger, and the average citizen of the US is getting poorer – and that was before the housing/credit bubbles had burst. Empire of Debt argues that trying to spend your way out of an economic crisis never works. It calls passionately for small government, talking about the need to forgo both military and social spending, and for people to save up, and invest their money in domestic jobs.
Written in a completely different tone to the academic This time is Different, it offers the other side of the coin: the view from inside the bubble.
Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War, by Joe Bageant
I hope I’m not the only person to love both old school conservative Empire of Debt and this supposedly Marxist view of the decline of working class USA, but both tell the same story.
Deer Hunting tells it from the factory worker’s perspective, of living with falling wages and living standards, and a white-knuckled fear of the US losing its imperial status. Of people living on the margins of society passionately arguing for tax cuts for the rich, of how church is the only institution that has ever treated them with respect, and how the love of guns makes you a traditionalist. (Growing up in the UK, guns were something farmers used to control vermin, being both rarer and without the romantic cachet, so it's something I never understood before reading this account.) Oh, and it tells you how the left hates the working class, and they, in turn, hate the left. For a book with class war in it's title, it’s not all that political, other than constantly wishing the masses had more access to, and interest in, education, just so they would stop being so stoopid and actually start thinking about what's in their own best interests. Beyond everything else, it's a journalistic account of the reality of poverty in the Homeland.
Bageant talks about the ongoing economic unraveling of the US, and the coming problems that will spike when peak oil becomes an everyday reality – from the view of people that are already living from paycheck to paycheck, with absolutely no resources to face an uncertain future. Above all it’s a compassionate view of people that have a lot of pain and unpleasantness in their near future. (His telling sounds less patronizing, of course.)
Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond
This is the best science book I’ve ever read. It won the author the Pulitzer prize, and guaranteed that everything else Diamond produces is met with it’s good, but it’s not Guns, Germs and Steel. Essentially, Diamond sets out to tell the story of the last 13,000 years. Why civilizations have risen, and how they subsequently dominated other civilizations. He asks interesting questions, like how come the Europeans sailed to North America to conquer the aboriginal population, and not the other way around? (The answer, basically is the title of the book; animal-based agriculture, leading to urbanization, leading to mechanization and technical superiority.) Europe’s East-West axis allowed the spread of new agricultural ideas along climatic zones thousands of miles long, while the Americas are divided by such zones. My text books at school inferred a racial superiority, suggesting people in cold countries worked harder. Diamond says it's all down to geographical reasons, such as climate, plants and animals.
Diamond has no real interest in social, political and intellectual history, which some see as a weakness – in truth, I’ve read all that stuff before. This is a work of ideas, not a list of the great and good. In addition, this is not a peak oil book. Diamond, who is aware of peak oil arguments, suggests that soil collapse and climate change are our biggest worries. Having said that, this book offers an understanding of the broad sweep of history.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond
Diamond’s flawed, but nevertheless worthwhile, follow-up to Guns, Germs and Steel. In Collapse, he catalogues societies that fell, suggesting implosion rather than invasion (or in his terms, suicide not murder). The cases he looks at follow similar patterns, with over-population and poor land management leading to resource collapse and energy shortages. This is true of both the ancient civilizations he looks at (including Greenland Norse, Easter Island, Pitcairn Islanders, the Maya and Anasazi of southwestern North America) and more recent examples (Rwanda and Haiti).
But it’s an oddly paced book, opening with a lengthy, soap opera account of life in Montana, and its environmental problems, and then giving much more space to Easter Island than anywhere else – seeing as this has been told so many times before, it should have been cut down. Diamond’s account of the problems faced by China and Australia were interesting, but perhaps should have been in a different book. Personally, I’d have preferred him to have looked at the collapse of Rome; perhaps also other great civilisations like Egypt and Greece. He could have added the Black Death and Great Depression to the mix. As the reviews tell you, it’s good, but it’s not Guns, Germs and Steel.
The Head Trip Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness, by Jeff Warren
I like science books that relate to my life. Head Trip - which has nothing to do with drugs, funnily enough - describes 12 unique states of mind that occur over a 24-hour day. I love science books in which the author uses himself as a guinea pig, rather than just quoting from other writers. What’s more, this book examines states of mind I’ve noticed in myself – such as trance-like states of mind I’d go into back when I was working in a factory – but never known how to research.
Remember the seventies, when everyone had a Haynes manual in their car? Well, this details how your brain works. The chapters on dreaming are the strongest. I have to say that the final chapter, on meditation, is garbage – Warren, being a science writer, cannot get to grips with the simplicity of meditation, and goes into a huge sulk on his meditation retreat, refusing to participate. (I’ll declare my interest: I meditate.)
Chaos: Making a New Science, by James Gleick
I’ve never know a book that can take such a dry, academic subject, and turn it into something that can change the way you look at the world. Gleick has done an amazing job here. This is a technical book, but one that tells very human stories of scientists attempting to come up with the theory of nonlinear dynamics.
This is the nearest that Western science comes to Eastern philosophy. It explains why a leaf is shaped the way it is. Under no circumstances could it be called a peak oil book, but it can give you some understanding about how dynamical systems (global oil use, for example) are highly sensitive to initial conditions, or at least give you some idea of how to start to thinking about something so complex.
Cosmos, by Carl Sagan
A tour of the universe, with along the way, various accounts of mankind’s growing understanding of science, our attempts to account for the creation of the universe through mythology, our growing ecological awareness and a brief chapter on the risk of nuclear holocaust. The scale ranges from the molecular makeup of our cells to dizzying intergalactic distances. Another “background information” book.
Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer
Everyone who reviews this book gets hung up on Christopher McCandless, a young man from a wealthy background who vanished into the wilderness. He did what we all daydream about – walked out on a comfortable existence for the freedom of the open road. He travelled as a hobo, first giving away his entire savings, staying in various small towns long enough to earn the cash to continue his pilgrimage. Ever the idealist, perhaps even naïve, he decided to pit himself against the wilderness of Alaska. McCandless hitched to the Stampede Trail equipped with 10 pounds of rice, a .22 rifle and a guidebook about the region's edible plants. Oh, and he didn’t bother with a map. He found the boggy summer terrain too difficult to hike, and, unable to find his way back cross a river that was swolen with meltwater, ended up dying in an abandoned bus. With a modicum of preparation, or at least a map, he’d have got out alive. But the thing is, he wasn’t incompetent (“He wasn’t a nutcase, he wasn’t a sociapath, he wasn’t an outcast”), as after all, he survived 113 days.
But it’s his epic journey across the US that calls to me. If I’d read this book aged 21, there’s a chance I’d have attempted to do the same. I’d not have lasted two weeks, of course.
In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick
A gruelling and distressing account of shipwreck survivors, of how much suffering a human can survive – and how starvation is probably the worst way to die. In the Heart of the Sea opens in 1821 with a sailing boat coming across a drifting rowboat. Inside was a mound of human bones; two men, delirious with hunger and thirst “jealously clutched the splintered and gnawed over bones with a desperate, almost feral intensity.” Oh, did I mention cannibalism? (The moral of the story: if you ever find yourself adrift with hungry sailors, never, ever draw the short straw.) This is a well written book that tells the whole brutal story with a clear intensity. It’s like an eye-witness account.
South, by Ernest Shackleton
In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton set out on an epic adventure to cross the Antarctic continent from sea to sea, via the South Pole. Disaster struck when their ship, Endurance, was trapped in pack ice and slowly crushed. Shackleton led his men to safety over two years marooned on the polar ice, culminating in a dangerous journey through treacherous waters in an open boat to the distant South Georgia whaling stations. Really, it’s a story about leadership. Shackleton tells it in stiff-upper-lip style, and it’s none the worse for it. Truly a timeless classic. Epic.
SAS Survival Guide, by John Wiseman
It’s easy to sneer at this book, but it’s the original outdoors survival book, and the best. Clearly, a few pages of text and line drawings themselves won’t guarantee you’ll survive the end of the world, but you’ll be better off than if you hadn’t read it. And anyway, it’s an enjoyable read; a good way to pass a foul winter's evening when you'd not want to step out of your house, let alone find yourself lost in the wilderness. Of course, sneer all you want at the follow-up, The Urban Survival Handbook, it's a turd. With sections like “When NOT to use a ladder,” "Optimum bench/desk heights," and instructions about not using power tools while drunk, it's more Readers Digest than who dares wins.
Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why, by Laurence Gonzales
A new one on me: survival psychology. It’s not about how to build a shelter or light a fire, so much as a consideration of the mental side of things - if you are not expecting that, you probably won't get on with the book. By examining a series of accounts of outdoors adventure gone wrong, Deep Survival asks why do some survive against all the odds while others just give up and die. Gonzales also examines how and why things to wrong: how people ignore warning signs, because they were not what they expected to see; get themselves lost; how once lost they panic and run, desperate to find a known landmark. He finds the same stories repeating themselves, with fatal mistakes sharing much in common, and "an eerie uniformity" in survivors' stories. Positive mental attitude keeps people alive, the ability to calmly observe reality, plan, act and, above all, never give up.
The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh
Hanh is an amazingly gifted writer, a poet who can make the most challenging concepts seem so childishly simple that you initially tend to overlook them. This thin book is a meditation manual, but one that challenges the reader that, if their meditation doesn’t spill over into everyday mindfulness (a state of alert awareness) then they might as well find a new pastime. As the author notes, when you wash the dishes, you should be completely aware that you are washing the dishes – conscious of your thoughts and actions. This book helped me further my meditation. It stopped me seeing it as a matter of striving to obtain various levels – it is not a competition! Personally, I think they should teach meditation in schools, if they wanted to stop kids taking drugs.
For an expansion of this theme, Hanh has written a series of three books looking at core Buddhist sutras: Our Appointment With Life: Discourse on Living Happily in the Present Moment (translation and commentary on the Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone); Breathe! You Are Alive: Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing; and Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. These three books cover core Buddhist meditation techniques.
A Book of Silence, by Sara Maitland
I picked this up because I am surrounded by noise, and, quite frankly, it drives me nuts. The wife and kids have either got the idiot box blasting out, or are shouting conversations from different rooms, or just generally screaming at each other. Let's just say I love the idea of silence. Maitland is interesting because she writes from a Christian perspective, so discusses a couple of hours prayer a day rather than meditation. Actually, what I got from this book is that silence is quite difficult. After a few weeks of utter solitude, strange things start to happen - strangely, the spiritual accounts seem to tally with those of sensory depravation. I happen to think that people who intend heading out to their bug out retreat when things start to go bad have not given much thought to how they will deal with solitude.
A history of the end of the world: how the most controversial book in the Bible changed the course of Western civilization, by Jonathan Kirsch
After too much time on peak oil websites, you start to feel the apocalypse breathing down your neck. Wars and rumours of wars – surely, didn’t the Bible warn us about this? What’s so useful about Kirsch’s book is that he puts Revelation into context: written during a “culture war” between traditional monotheist religious values and the seductive Roman pagan lifestyle, borrowing images from both Judaism and traditional apocalyptical texts, and containing a great deal of coded imagery. The good news, for me at least, is that every generation that’s read it over the past 2,000 years has thought the end times were happening right now, and that it doesn’t have to be taken too literally. (If that seems too liberal for you, it comes from St. Augustine of Hippo.) Kirsch tells an interesting historical story of the strange power of this work, how it has been interpreted by cult leaders, and used more recently by US Christians who seem to believe that stirring up war in the Middle East will bring about the end times, and their rapture. Incidentally, rapture is not mentioned in Revelation – according to the text, everyone must endure the torments.
Cottage Economy, by William Cobbet
Cobbet was a radical journalist who had the courage to publish criticism of corruption and appalling social conditions of his day (he lived from 1762 to1835). Rather than pontificate from the security of his gentleman’s club, he went out like a modern reporter and found stories, riding around the English countryside on horseback making observations of what was happening in the towns and villages as the industrial revolution took hold. He wrote Cottage Economy, a classic work of self-sufficiency, because he could see the old way of life declining, and feared it would all be forgotten once the bulk of the rural population was living in cities. Essentially, then, the book tells you how to be a peasant farmer. It’s both fascinating social history and a useful how-to book for anyone considering making a living from the land. Which I don’t – but it did inspire me to learn how to brew beer, make bread, make jam, and grow the occasional food item in my backyard. Learning a few simple skills can put you in touch with ancestors over thousands of years of history.
Inside the Victorian home: a portrait of domestic life in Victorian England, by Judith Flanders
OK, it’s pure social history – but I happen to think that a lot of this is going to repeat itself. Flanders dug up any source document she could find detailing the realities of domestic urban life during the Victorian age. Her work is focused on London, and the lives of women – who stayed home and kept things running. But it was a fulltime occupation, even with servants. This book shatters any romantic illusions about life during the era; the rich may have led lives of leisure, but the average middle class woman worked as hard as her servants. Managing dirt, vermin and disease in an age without electricity, detergents and modern conveniences like vacuum cleaners and washing machines was back-breaking work. Just doing the laundry was a major undertaking, and had to be done every week. Actually keeping the house clean in a city of burning coal, with specks of coal dust constantly entering the house, was a non-ending job.
I look back to the Victorian age as the most recent time before oil. Frankly, this is the best we can hope for if the grid goes down.
The Victorians, by AN Wilson
Probably the best written, liveliest book you will read on the subject. It made me laugh out loud at times – yes, this is a history book. Columnist, novelist and biographer Wilson has an eye for detail, and an ability to turn a series of events into a story. It’s all here: the sexual, religious and economic hypocrisies of the age that, as Wilson points out, created the modern world as we know it. There is perhaps too much about internal wrangling in the Church, but then, the Church was the centre of the universe, back then. Wilson isn’t a historian, so he states his preferences and prejudices loud and clear – so if you are looking for a historical account that is a world away from the history books you had to read at school, start here. And, as I stated above, I happen to believe that the Victorian age provides a good model for a society without cheap oil – there were still cities and factories and imports, so there is no need to believe oil scarcity will send us back to the Dark Ages.
The Whole Organic Food Book: Safe, Healthy Harvest from Your Garden to Your Plate, by Dan Jason
I picked up this book because it expands on Jason’s excellent website, an online heirloom seed catalog. People like Dan are active preserving seed varieties from before the days of genetic tinkering; as it turns out, these are hardier, tastier and require less inputs such as watering and pesticides. I’ve bought seeds from him. The book is beginner level, talking about growing and eating traditional foodstuffs. If you are an expert gardener or chef, it will be too simplistic. But for me, I love the idea of showing the end product – the recipe – along with the growing instructions. While I am not ready for a self-sufficient lifestyle, I believe your own produce is many, many times healthier than bought packaged food. Furthermore, the ability to grow your own food will be a vital skill, if the economy takes a turn for the worst – which most peak oilers believe will happen. And, if nothing else, it’s a stress-busting way of turning your back on consumerism.
Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlossen
In the late 1940s, two brothers called McDonald streamlined their Southern California drive-in restaurant; firing the carhops, applying factory line techniques to the kitchen and doing away with plates and cutlery. The subsequent explosive growth of fast food chains, bound up in franchising and the growing car culture, has changed the way the Western world considers food. Now, eating is as much of a leisure pastime as a need. Meanwhile, the food producers have been becoming mechanised, with cattle fed on feedlots and slaughtered in hellish plants, and everything chemically enhanced. Now, one half of all the adults in the US are super-sized - and most of us go through our lives eating from only a handful of corporate food producers. It's political, but Schlossen is a reporter who goes out and speaks to people and sees things for himself.
The Food Connection, by Sam Gracci
I don't normally go in for this kind of thing. . . sun tanned, permed author flashing his white-teeth-smile on the front cover - yikes! But I heard Gracci on the radio and he had some good points to make. What I like about this book is the scientific focus on brain chemistry: how the food we eat influences our mind and body. The author invented the "green drink" and at times can push a regieme of supplements that can make you live for ever, but while he's a health Nazi, at least it's not New Age guff. I can't fault his science, or his line that we can never have a more intimate relationship than that with the stuff we eat, which literally becomes our bodies. The key thing, to me at least, is not to be scared into defeatist attitudes - books like this can make you actually crave burgers - but take some simple hints into your daily life. With more sleep, water (it cleans your system), excercise and "whole" foods, and less caffeine, fats and sugars we will all be happier and healthier.
How does this relate to peak oil? Well, what free or covered medical services do you expect to see in 20 year's time? Getting yourself into shape has to be your top priority if you think there's a chance of economic collapse in the near future.
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