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Nonfiction: The Green Wean

Richard Heinberg

The Oil Depletion Protocol
(New Society Publishers, 2006)


So we are addicted to oil, but what are the larger consequences? Maybe our dealings abroad lead you to think war. And why not? A struggle for control of oil resources has been going on since industrialized nations set up the infrastructure to utilize fossil fuels. But as Richard Heinberg digs deeper in The Oil Depletion Protocol, published by New Society Publishers, he points out that oil has become so entrenched in our everyday existence—from the pump to fertilizers, to computer chips to ballpoint pens—that the only solution for a sustainable society is to reduce dependence. Sounds simple, but the idea remains controversial. He argues that being proactive, which implies an “acceptance of eventual calamity,” is necessary as opposed to improvising as crises occur.



But why must we wean ourselves from the teat of oil dependence? And what are the possible crises Heinberg suggests? Not only does our dependence translate into aggressive foreign policy, but it is also a reliance created for something ephemeral, says Heinburg. According to Peak Oil thinker Kenneth Deffeyes, oil production is predicted to peak within the next five years, meaning that we will never get as much out of the ground as we will in the year of the peak. The fact is: the supply of oil is finite, and new sources are rare. With myriad nations industrializing and our consumption holding steady in the west, he argues the disappointment of going without such fruits of civilization could result in violent, catastrophic conflict. Continuing dependence as status quo could mean a reverse of the globalization of trade (developing a need to re-master manufacturing at home), a decline in global food production (in the U.S. alone, 70 percent of the population farmed at the turn of last century, as compared to 2 percent feeding six times the population now) and a transportation failure, i.e. the inability to maintain a trucking fleet, air, and personal travel. Remember the OPEC oil crisis of 1973? This was only a blip, a pause, but should have been a warning, says Heinberg.

In the details of the Protocol, taxes and fees are encouraged on consumption to inspire research into renewable sources as well as replacements for petrochemicals and plastic. We are cautioned, however, about thinking that the current alternatives can fully replace oil. He gives us some updated detail on the technologies, discussing the highly touted “hydrogen economy,” and nuclear energy (safety issues and expense being the drawbacks), but for more detail one must consult his previous book, The Party is Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, published in 2003 (or for the more masochistic person, The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler).

In accepting decline, we are purposefully laying a path of a diminished economy. Therein lies the controversy. However, new technologies could yield new economic possibilities. Heinberg argues for a gradual reduction in the importation and production of oil, and thus we should adjust (carpools, car co-ops, community supported hitchhiking in the short term); urban planning should focus on electric rail, while scientific research should reconceive ordinary objects and activities—from plastics to air travel. Heinberg makes some wide-eyed suggestions. But his overall argument is forceful: we have to start being diplomatic and innovative now, while we have the resources to do so, before a bloodthirsty competition for remaining oil resources ensues, netting the winner a temporary continuance of the current system, and more bloodthirsty competition. In other words, we really have no choice about the conclusion to this story; we will have to break our addiction.

This is the third book Heinberg has written discussing Peak Oil. What differentiates this book from the others is density; The Oil Depletion Protocol is a readable 161 pages. Additionally, Heinberg’s latest effort is less study, and more call to action: reduction, research, and cooperation. The underlying message might be to refine our technological capabilities and think sustainable, but many will find such change unbearable. As a reader I am left to wonder if (think the Green Party) ideas so revolutionary can be implemented in our calcified society. But perhaps the message of inspiration is enough, and Heinberg’s work helps to influence a culture, a government, ripe for new approaches to policymaking.


Paula Crossfield


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 06-JAN 07

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