On the Edge of a Perilous New World

By Paul Roberts. Houghton Mifflin. 389 pp. $26

After terrorists killed Western oil executives in the heart of Saudi Arabia's oil region over the Memorial Day weekend, the price of oil rose to $42 a barrel, its highest level in history. Headlines warn that Americans may soon be paying $3 a gallon for gasoline. But rising prices at the pump only hint at our true energy dilemma. Imagine what would happen if the world's supply of oil were magically to vanish overnight. Life as we know it would shudder to a halt. Without oil to transport it, food could not get to market -- nor could it be grown and processed by our oil-dependent agricultural system. Most Americans could not get to work, take their kids to school or do any other of the countless tasks cars help us perform. Air travel would stop. Hospitals would be crippled as supplies of blood, medications and other vital materials became unattainable. There would be no more plastics, no more videotapes. You wouldn't be reading this newspaper, at least in a print edition, because trucks would be unable to deliver copies to doorsteps and vendors.

Paul Roberts predicts nothing so dramatic in this timely, important but uneven book. By "the end of oil," he means not the absolute exhaustion of the planet's petroleum deposits but a subtler, though scarcely less disruptive transformation. The world's supply of oil, he argues, is soon destined to "peak," after which our civilization will somehow have to manage with ever-declining supplies. With long-term global demand for oil meanwhile climbing relentlessly, sustained shortages could unleash punishing price spikes, worldwide inflation, recession and even armed conflict as nations use force to secure the black gold they cannot live without.

According to Roberts, a contributor to Harper's who visited Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan and interviewed a range of industry, government and private experts for this book, there is little dispute among insiders that an oil peak is inevitable someday; oil is, after all, a finite resource. But there is considerable disagreement about when that will occur. Optimists, such as those in the U.S. Geological Survey and the Energy Information Agency, foresee no peak before 2035. "Pessimists, by contrast," Roberts writes, "a group whose members include geologists, industry analysts, and a surprising number of oil industry and government officials, believe that a peak may come much sooner -- perhaps as soon as 2005." That 30-year difference is crucial. To avoid the disaster scenario outlined above, the world must put in place substitute sources of energy, and a system for delivering them, before the peak occurs. Otherwise, shortages are certain and chaos likely. Establishing an alternative system will be no small challenge, however, for it must displace the 40 percent of global energy demand that is currently met by oil. Historically, human societies have needed about 50 years to shift from one energy foundation to another. Wood, for example, gave way to coal during the early 19th century and coal to oil in the mid-20th. Given how little the United States in particular has done so far to develop successful alternatives, one must hope the optimists are right in saying that we have decades, not months or years, to leave oil behind.

Yet paradoxically, the looming danger of climate change argues for quitting petroleum as soon as possible. This book had already gone to press by the time an elite Pentagon planning unit's report appeared in Fortune in February, warning that climate change was a national security threat of the greatest urgency that could cause mega-droughts, mass starvation and even nuclear war by 2020. But Roberts's treatment of the subject confirms a crucial point: Even if the Earth contained enough oil to fuel civilization for 500 years, humans would be foolish to burn it all, for the carbon released in the process would extinguish whatever chance we have of avoiding catastrophic warming. In the meantime, control of the world's dwindling oil supply will continue to confer immense power on its owners. Here, Roberts's reporting offers valuable background to the American-led war in Iraq, for he demonstrates that whoever rules the Middle East -- especially Iran, Iraq and above all Saudi Arabia -- is certain to dominate world oil decisions for the rest of the petroleum era. True, new suppliers have entered the market over the past 20 years, but the geological fact remains that the largest and cheapest deposits of oil on earth are located beneath the Middle East. Even optimists, reports Roberts, concede that non-OPEC, non-Middle East oil will peak between 2015 and 2020. After that point, the Middle East's control will become irresistible.

Roberts thus dismisses as "patently absurd" the Bush administration's denials that the invasion of Iraq was about oil. He even argues that the undeclared aim of the war was not simply to capture Iraq's oil but to permanently break OPEC's power over global supply. It's a plausible, provocative thesis. The problem is, the only sources he cites for it are two unnamed former government officials and two outside analysts, none of whom offers anything approaching documentary proof.

It's a shortcoming that unfortunately pervades this book. Too often, Roberts provides no sourcing for statements that are either debatable (e.g., implementing the Kyoto protocol on climate change would cost the United States 2 percent of its gross national product per year) or arresting (urban air pollution kills 4 million people a year in China). Especially odd is how many sources go unnamed even when they offer the blandest of quotes. Finally, some "facts" cited here are simply wrong. Climate change did not raise sea levels 10 inches in the 20th century (though it may well do so in the 21st). And the World Bank has, alas, by no means grown reluctant to finance large energy projects in the Third World.

Roberts finds firmer ground in his final chapter about how to escape this conundrum. Contrary both to the Bush-Cheney stress on boosting fossil fuel production and environmentalists' calls for a quick shift to a solar-hydrogen economy, it is energy efficiency that could save the day. Sexy? No. But improving the efficiency with which we use oil and other forms of energy is by far the fastest, cheapest and most far-reaching way to begin kicking the carbon habit -- and to buy us time to get real alternatives up and running. One big obstacle is that government subsidies, especially but not only in the United States, still favor carbon-based fuels, so the market sees them as a good buy. But just as Washington, through taxes, has forced the price of cigarettes to reflect the health costs that smoking imposed on society, Roberts argues, so could government make the market reflect the social costs of continued reliance on carbon fuels.

Such a shift is unthinkable under the Bush administration, but if the environmentally minded John Kerry wins in November, the outlook could brighten. In any case, the longer we wait to wean ourselves off oil, the more costly, in all respects, our withdrawal will be. *

Mark Hertsgaard is the author of five books, including "Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future" and "The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World."