by Lindsey Grant
Reviewed by Andrew R.B. Ferguson
The South Sea Bubble and the 'dot com' bubble are but two examples of a recurrent phenomenon in human affairs. Humans create bubbles of fantasy which cause pain when they collapse. Lindsey Grant, in his most recent book, The Collapsing Bubble, looks at the 'fossil fuel bubble'. It is of a different order of importance. Facilitated by fossil fuels, the bubble growth in human population during the past two centuries has been a period of weak restraints on growth (a WROG period). The collapse of the bubble, as fossil fuels become increasingly scarce, will happen during this century.
The book is thus addressing the most important issue facing humanity today.
Howard Hayden's The Solar Fraud (see p. 3), and Vaclav Smil's Energy at the
Crossroads (p. 9), were attempting something similar, but The Collapsing
Bubble is singular because the author recognizes the logical conclusion of
his analysis, namely that without fossil fuels human population must be much
smaller. What is more, Grant achieves his exposition in a mere 74 pages.
If, as I tend to think, a book is important in direct proportion to what
it has to say, and in inverse proportion to its length, then this little
book deserves comparison to Clive Ponting's A Green History of the World.
Grant is also to be commended for seeing that nowhere is it more appropriate to take immediate action than in the United States. The front cover of the book shows Figure 1, U.S. Energy Use & Population. The figure is described, on page 22, as a "stacked graph showing the history of U.S. conventional energy consumption and a speculative projection of its likely path this century, based on current trends and assuming no fundamental policy changes (such as those I advocate);" it also shows the projected size of U.S. population in 2100 according to the Census Bureau middle projection, 600 million. Grant observes that this middle projection is 100 million more than the Bureau's middle projection in 1994. Further upward revisions may soon be needed. U.S. population was about 294 million in 2004. If U.S. population continues to grow at the rate of the three closing decades of the last century, 1.06% per year, then by 2100 U.S. population would be 810 million.
I mention that partly as an illustration of the fact that Grant presents a balanced view. He does not overstate his argument by using the most alarming figures. He even succeeds in plotting a median path in the most difficult field, where the 'experts' rarely agree, namely renewable energy. Neither does he allow himself to get lost in detail, but keeps in sight the essence of what is really important. It is summed up in this extract (p. 23):
Our political and business 'leaders' seem generally oblivious to the unique character of the fossil fuel age. They consider growth the natural and desirable order of affairs and call for more of it - an outlook influenced more by greed than reflection. When warned of the brevity of the fossil era and the dangers it is creating, they defend the status quo or, when pressed, offer simplistic panaceas such as the hope that hydrogen or wind and solar energy will solve our problems. By themselves, they will not.
The argument is well supported with numbers when appropriate. Overall, it is hard to see that the vital issues could have been presented better than is achieved in this little book.
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