Running on Empty

By Mark Hertsgaard

This article appeared in the May 12, 2008 edition of The Nation.

April 24, 2008

It used to be that only environmentalists and 
paranoids warned about running out of oil. Not 
anymore. As climate change did over the past few 
years, peak oil seems poised to become the next 
big idea commanding the attention of governments, 
businesses and citizens the world over. The 
arrival of $119-a-barrel crude and $4-a-gallon 
gasoline this spring are but the most obvious 
signs that global oil production has or soon will 
peak. With global demand inexorably rising, a 
limited supply will bring higher, more volatile 
prices and eventually shortages that could 
provoke--to quote the title of the must-see peak 
oil documentary--the end of suburbia. If the era 
of cheap, abundant oil is indeed coming to a 
close, the world's economy and, paradoxically, 
the fight against climate change could be in deep 

Though largely unnoticed by the world media, a 
decisive moment in the peak oil debate came last 
September, when James Schlesinger declared that 
the "peakists" were right. You don't get closer 
to the American establishment and energy business 
than Schlesinger, who has served as chair of the 
Atomic Energy Commission, head of the CIA, 
Defense Secretary, Energy Secretary and adviser 
to countless oil companies. In a speech to a 
conference sponsored by the Association for the 
Study of Peak Oil, Schlesinger said, "It's no 
longer the case that we have a few voices crying 
in the wilderness. The battle is over. The 
peakists have won." Schlesinger added that many 
oil company CEOs privately agree that peak oil is 
imminent but don't say so publicly.

One who does is Jeroen van der Veer, CEO of Royal 
Dutch Shell. Without using the term "peak oil," 
van der Veer warned in January, "After 2015, 
easily accessible supplies of oil and gas 
probably will no longer keep up with demand."

Of course, peak oil could arrive sooner than 
2015; columnist George Monbiot has claimed in the 
Guardian that a Citibank report calculates the 
date at 2012. But even 2015 leaves a very short 
time in which to prepare, because modern 
societies were built on cheap, abundant oil.

"The world has never faced a problem like this," 
warned a 2005 study funded by George W. Bush's 
Energy Department. "Previous energy transitions 
(wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and 
evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and 

The United States, with its two-hour commutes, 
three-car families, atrophied mass transit and 
petroleum-based food system, is most vulnerable 
to an oil shock. But similar vulnerabilities 
exist in most industrial societies, not to 
mention the roaring economies of China and India, 
where oil consumption is rising faster even than 
GDP as newly middle-class consumers buy the cars 
they have long dreamed of.

At first glance, one might think that peak oil 
would help the fight against climate change. 
After all, less available oil should translate 
into less oil consumption and lower greenhouse 
gas emissions. But modern civilization, to borrow 
George W. Bush's term, is addicted to oil. If 
peak oil arrives before the addiction is treated, 
the junkie will seek even more dangerous ways to 
get his fix.

Indeed, this is already happening. In Canada, 
energy companies are mining so-called tar 
sands--a mix of sand, water and heavy crude oil 
that can be refined into usable petroleum. But 
burning tar sands is about the worst thing to do 
if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change 
because the resulting petroleum has a much 
greater carbon footprint than conventional oil. 
Currently, a dozen such projects are under way; 
projects awaiting approval would quadruple the 
emissions those projects generate. One 
encouraging sign: in response to a lawsuit filed 
by Ecojustice, the top federal court in Canada 
has temporarily blocked a tar sands project 
proposed by an ExxonMobil subsidiary on climate 
change grounds. "This is something which will 
clearly apply to every single oil-sands project 
that comes before environmental assessment of any 
kind," said Sean Nixon, a lawyer for Ecojustice 

More encouragement: some high-level government 
officials recognize the danger of peak oil and 
may be contemplating action. British Foreign 
Secretary David Miliband wants his country to 
consider creating "a post-oil economy." New York 
Governor David Paterson has spoken in detail 
about the imminence of peak oil and what 
government can do about it: invest in greater 
energy efficiency in the short term and new 
low-carbon energy sources in the medium to long 
term. Plug-in hybrid cars, for example, can get 
more than 100 miles per gallon--double that of 
today's generation of hybrids. And if the plug-in 
hybrids rely on electricity generated by solar, 
wind or other green energy sources, they fight 
climate change and peak oil at the same time.

Finally, activists in scores of towns and cities 
around the world are trying to prepare their 
communities for the transition to a post-oil 
economy. Rather than wait for national 
governments and multinational corporations to 
save them, these ordinary citizens are examining 
how their communities can produce their own 
energy, food, buildings and other essentials 
using local resources rather than materials that 
arrive from afar via oil-based transport. 
"Economic relocalization will be one of the 
inevitable impacts of the end of cheap 
transportation fuels," argues peak oil theorist 
Richard Heinberg. In Britain this movement has 
taken the form of "transition towns," which seek, 
in the words of organizer Rob Hopkins, "to design 
a conscious pathway down from the oil peak." 
Drawing on the experience of his hometown of 
Totnes, in Devon, Hopkins has just published The 
Transition Handbook, which explains how other 
towns can also begin preparing for the post-oil 

Some of the transition movement's ideas--printing 
local currency, forming solar buying clubs, 
building "cob" houses made of mud--may seem 
quaint, inconvenient or na´ve. But nothing is 
more na´ve than assuming that the endless oil 
that modern societies grew addicted to over the 
past fifty years will last forever. The day of 
reckoning appears imminent, and as Hopkins says, 
"it is better to plan for it than be taken by 

About Mark Hertsgaard
The Nation's environment correspondent, is a 
fellow of The Nation Institute and the author of 
five books that have been translated into sixteen 
languages, including Earth Odyssey: Around the 
World in Search of Our Environmental Future. His 
next book is Living Through the Storm: Our Future 
Under Global Warming.