Two Energy Books of Interest

Today, I’d like to write about two fairly different books related to limited energy supply. Both are excellent, but intended for fairly different audiences, and focusing on different aspects of our dilemma.

1. “Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil” by Robert Rapier.

This book is written at a fairly introductory level, giving information about the many energy options we have, and the trade-offs we make as the result of our choices of energy options. The book is not about peak oil per se, but includes a chapter on peak oil as well as a chapter on climate change. The book ends with the chapter, “The Road Ahead”. The book is inexpensive–$16.15 from Amazon.

2. “Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy” by Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard

This book is focused on energy and economics. This book seems to be aimed as a text book, or at an audience who is already familiar with some of the issues, and wants to dig deeper. This book is in two column format with questions at the end of each chapter to facilitate classroom discussion. It covers in depth a wide range of topics, from energy’s role throughout history, to the relationship of energy to wealth production, to energy return on investment, to how to do biophysical economics, to peak oil. It ends with the chapter, “Living a Good Life in a Lower EROI Future.”

Below the fold, I will talk a little more about each.

Before discussing the books individually, one thing I should probably mention: in such a new and changing field, there probably aren’t any recent books that I would agree with 100%. These books are no exception, but the purpose of this post is not to highlight differences in my views.

Robert Rapier’s Power Plays

Rapier’s chapters pretty much outline his book:

  1. All about energy
  2. Fossil fuels and nuclear power
  3. Renewable energy
  4. Energy production
  5. Global warming
  6. Peak oil
  7. Nuclear power
  8. Risk and uncertainty
  9. Reducing the risk
  10. Investing in Cleantech – a guide to due diligence
  11. The race to replace oil – alternative transportation fuels
  12. Oil-free transportation
  13. Corn ethanol
  14. U. S. Energy Politics
  15. The Road Ahead

With 15 to 20 page chapters on each of these subjects, it isn’t possible to go into much depth. What the book aims to do is give a good introductory overview, with easy-to-read charts and graphs illustrating main points. Rapier’s writing style is easy to follow–fairly short sentences and short paragraphs–so that the whole book is quite easy to read, despite the technical material.

Rapier makes a point to talk about the tradeoffs for each alternative, making it clear that we don’t have perfect solutions waiting for us. In his words, “When it comes to energy, there is no free lunch.” As a person who has written about alternatives, I could often think of a much longer list of both advantages and disadvantages, but after I thought about it, his “hit the high-points” approach works better for an easy-to-understand overview. Someone who wants to know more can dig more deeply into blog posts or research books.

As an example of Rapier’s writing, when he talks about assessing risk, he talks from the point of view of someone who has undertaken such assessments. He writes

Risk assessments are done by people, and people have blind spots. People make mistakes. People cut corners. People sometimes underestimate consequences.  .  .

But if we accept that there are no risk-free energy options, we must then observe a very important rule of risk assessment: never accept a risk for which you cannot afford the consequences. Whether drilling for oil deep in the Gulf of Mexico, operating a nuclear power plant, or deciding not to carry homeowner’s insurance, one has to be prepared to live with the worst-case scenario.

I thought Rapier’s chapter on Peak Oil was very good, even though it does not exactly follow the traditional peak oil narrative. Rapier says, “‘Peak oil,'” effectively, is the inability of oil supply growth to stay ahead of oil demand growth.” He talks about “Peak Lite,” and about peak oil being about flow rates and net energy. He makes the connection between high oil prices and recession.

In planning for the future, he emphasizes that we don’t know what the future will bring, so we have to plan for various possibilities. In his view, we need to plan for contingencies, not for calamity or business as usual. He says,

On various occasions, I have been asked for my opinion on whether someone should forego college or having children because of energy-related calamities that surely await us. I always respond to these queries in the same way: “We don’t know for sure what the future holds, so don’t put your life on hold waiting for a calamity. Go live your life, and if adversity lies ahead, we will work hard to deal with it.”

I think many individuals, even those who have been reading about oil-related problems for some time, will find Rapier’s book helpful. His background is chemistry, the oil industry and alternative fuels, and his chapters that relate to these issues are especially good.

Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard’s Energy and the Wealth of Nations

In this book, Hall and Klitgaard have set out to document many of the energy and economics issues that they teach about, explaining in detail how energy plays an important role in the wealth of nations. As result, the book covers a lot of ground. There are five major parts to the book:

1. Energy and the Origins of Wealth This section gives much interesting historical and prehistorical information about the influence of energy on the economy and on history. It also provides an introduction as to why oil is important, and to the concepts of peak oil and net energy.

2. Energy Economics and the Structure of Society This section explains how economics can be viewed from an energy perspective, and compares it to economics from a neoclassical point of view. It also discusses the rise in oil usage in the US after 1850, and how this affected markets and the economy in general, eventually leading to freer trade practices and globalization. The last chapter in this section examines the evidence on limits to growth.

3. Energy and Economics: The Basics This section gives an introduction to the math, chemistry, physics, and ecology needed to understand biophysical economics. It finishes with a short chapter on why economics, as it is usually taught, is more of a social science than a real science.

4. The Science Behind How Real Economies Work This section explains Energy Return on Investment, the expected impact of peak oil on our financial future, and the role of models. The last chapter in this section explains how to set up a biophysical economics model for a country or region.

5. Understanding How Real Economies Work This section goes more into the expected economic and environmental consequences of declining oil supply and declining energy return on investment. It finishes with a chapter on the future.

With respect to the future, Hall and Klitgaard see a range of possibilities. According to them:

We think we have to go into the future with the following model, and something like the following probabilities (you can choose your own percentages): we will go off the cliff, energetically, economically, or environmentally (25%), we can make a transition to a new energy source that will benevolently replace oil (25%), or we will muddle along, gradually getting materially poorer, but adjusting to that (50%). The point is that we do not think that anyone knows those percentages, so we must go into the future with a huge amount of uncertainty. That in itself might be pretty difficult. Some would trust the market to adjust, others might not, or might have other mechanisms. Many people who think about these things retreat to a bunker mentality and are stocking their country houses with food and ammunition. We, on the other hand, think that is a little foolish; we will probably weather the storm al together or not at all.

There is a whole chapter of discussion following this paragraph, talking about the issues involved, and alternative ways of measuring happiness, and Howard Odum’s view of the prosperous way down. The authors conclude

Thus a good future and even, if needed, a prosperous way down is, we believe, quite possible for economic and political reasons, but very unlikely due to psychological and conditioning issues relating to the attitude of American people relating to advertisement, growth, and wealth as status. We conclude that what we need most is to create a biophysically based approach and model for economics, one that would serve on at least an equal footing with the present firm-household-market based model. The actual implementation of any such project mostly remains for the future and a very different book.

Readers will find that the Energy and the Wealth of Nations contains a wealth of information and a lot of useful references. There is also an extensive index. The chapters are discrete enough that many of them can be read without reference to other chapters, if a person is looking for, say, more explanation of Energy Return on Energy Investment.

When reading the book, it is helpful to come with some prior background on the subject. A lot of material is presented at once in some sections, making the uptake a little difficult for a totally new reader. The book is well written and edited though, so that even this is not too much of an obstacle. Many sections are more historical in nature, or more narrative, and are easy for anyone to understand.

A Couple of Thoughts on Both Books

I thought it was interesting that both books, in the end, came up with a probabilistic approach to looking at what the future will bring. We don’t know what is ahead, so we have to look at a range of possibilities.

I also thought it was interesting that neither book makes an argument for limiting population growth as a way of bringing energy demand better back in to line with resources. One reason may be that we seem to be so close to reaching oil limits that any reduction in population at this time will be tiny at best. Another reason may be that this is an unpopular issue with potential readers, so bringing it up is likely to alienate readers. A third reason may be that discussion of population levels is fairly far afield of the intended purpose of each of these books.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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29 Responses to Two Energy Books of Interest

  1. Pingback: Commodities Broker | Two Energy Books of Interest | Commodities Options | Commodities Futures | Commodities Prices

  2. Robert Berger says:

    “Both these observations support my basic feeling that the future remains unpredictable.”

    There are too many variables to make deterministic predictions, but not too many to make probabilistic predictions. Robert Rapier talks about preparing for contingencies. I think this is the right approach. I cringe when I read of certainty in someone’s predictions. I think we can assign very approximate probabilities to various outcomes based on current data, acknowledging the deficiencies in our data, and possible game-changers. It isn’t alarmist to discuss the range of possibilities and propose that we prepare as much as we can for different scenarios. It’s not a good idea to wait until the water is hip deep to buy flood insurance.

    • Gary Peters says:


      I have no trouble agreeing with you but it’s more difficult than it seems.

      Global warming is a good example. Evidence that global warming is occurring is overwhelming, as is evidence that humans and our burning of fossil fuels is part of the cause. However, many politicians and corporate leaders remain in denial about whether our atmosphere is getting warmer or not, and they, not climate scientists such as James Hansen, are pulling the levers of power. Rick Santorum not only denied climate change, he said that if he were elected he would bring “real science” back to Washington, D.C. Tennessee is bringing back “real science” as well, re-entering the 19th century rather than facing the challenges of the 21st.

      In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan wrote that “It’s perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, air pollution, toxic and radioactive water, acid rain, topsoil erosion, tropical deforestation, [or] exponential population growth.”

      Still, thanks to the confusion created by billionaire-funded think tanks, the failure of our major media to even slightly educate people, and a school system that has been in crisis for decades, the average American remains ignorant of all those things listed by Sagan and many others as well. They know exactly what is happening on American Idol or Survivor but almost nothing about the world in which they live, and many in power prefer to keep it that way.

  3. jamesneo says:

    Gary peters, the problem with your view is that you fail to understand the limits to growth scenarios. Some of the better outcomes require people to actually do something! There is no free lunch: to get the muddle through or sustainable scenarios required the necessary effort to
    divert energy, capital and labour to pursue the technological and pollution controls with also the required social changes in consumptive behaviour. As of now, the efforts to pursue such things are still very insignificant as most of the efforts whether technological or social are as quoted in the limits to growth synopsis: “society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.”

    As such there is an urgency for us to be more proactive in our efforts to both change our social behaviour and to encourage more technological innovation. If there is only either one only, the effort will fail and muddle thorough become impossible because the trajectory we are now on: the standard case is clearly the collapse scenario. Even optimist like Lester Brown has turned more bearish than ever before suggesting that the world is at the edge. In my opinion, we should not rely on any effort from top down because of the inertia of governments and should instead start from bottom up. I would suspect that those countries with more of thier citizens that awoke sooner and actually go and do something would suffer less than those that are totally unprepared or those that are armchair generals.

    • Gary Peters says:


      I think I do understand the limits to growth scenarios, I just don’t see us doing very much to change the course of events, whatever it might turn out to be. Please see my reply to Bicycle Dave above.

      Those who expect immediate results in coping with future limits to growth and a rapid decline in the human population might want to look at the experience that scientists have had trying to take any serious action on global warming.

      On June 23, 1988, James Hansen testified at a congressional hearing. He said that the Earth had entered a long-term warming trend and that human-made greenhouse gases almost surely were responsible. He also noted that global warming enhanced both extremes of the water cycle, meaning stronger droughts and forest fires, on the one hand, but also heavier rains and floods.

      In a rational world we would have responded by curbing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for whatever climate changes were ahead. Instead, of course, Hansen, then the IPCC and others, were ignored.

      Twenty years later, on June 23, 2008, again testified to members of congress, as follows:

      “Again a wide gap has developed between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community and what is known by policymakers and the public. Now, as then, frank assessment of scientific data yields conclusions that are shocking to the body politic. Now, as then, I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding 99 percent.

      The difference is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb. The next president and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation.”

      President Obama has done no such thing and carbon emissions continue to grow, reaching an all time high in 2010, the last year for which data are available.

      Finally, in 2012, major media were able for the first time to mention “global warming,” mainly during and after a heat-record-setting March. CNN, CBS, and NBC now have run such stories, as has PBS.

      Changing the course we are on is not impossible, but it is proving to be extremely difficult. That is why I think muddling through, defined above in my response to Dave, seems the most likely way we’ll go.

      • David F Collins says:

        It seems to me the likely course is muddling… I am not too sure about «muddling through».

        Malthus considered «rates» of increase in food production (and population); regarding the former, he did not consider absolute limits. Borlaug’s «green revolution» depends on (inter alia) one-time use of finite resources, which obviously implies absolute limits. The only way for ongoing history to continue to prove Malthus and Ehrlich wrong is to keep pulling more rabbits out of the hat to keep the cornucopia producing. Otherwise, it’s a rainbow-free deluge sooner or later.

        Lewis Mumford observed, “Trend is not destiny.” I feel it is obvious that recent trend is not long-term destiny. No way, no how.

        • Gary Peters says:


          It isn’t clear to me what you’re trying to say here, so I’m not sure how to reply.

  4. tmsr says:

    People who want to sell books can not be too negative. People do not like to be depressed and avoid it by not buying books that depress.

    • This is a deterrent to my writing a book.

      By the way, you might try putting your preferred screen name back in. Bicycle Dave was able to make the system work as it should, after it lost his screen name.

      • jen says:

        there are clearly many readers who prefer an honest opinion to gentle platitudes – i hope very much that you will find a publisher to match 🙂

  5. Gary Peters says:

    One thing most predictions of our future can be fairly certain of is that they will be wrong. I first became interested in population issues after reading Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb, which which was full of dire predictions that never came close to being true. In 1798 Malthus wrote his first essay on population; it two was pessimistic.

    Since Ehrlich’s book was published, however, the world’s population has very nearly doubled. He failed to see the coming Green Revolution of the 1970s and much since then. The father of that revolution, Norman Borlaug, was awarded a Nobel prize for his work. In his acceptance speech he warned, like Ehrlich and Malthus before him, that we needed to end population growth, but we haven’t.

    Despite much of what is written today about population problems, dealing with such issues hasn’t been high on most agendas. I think the last president to be truly interested in population growth and its downside was Richard Nixon. Al Gore had some interest but didn’t carry it with him as VP.

    For those not aware of our current demographic arithmetic, here is a reminder. Each year we have about 140 million births, 60 million deaths, and a net gain of about 80 million people. Until I’m convinced otherwise, I’ll stick with the muddle through scenario, hoping that a part of that will include gradually downsizing the human population. Whether one likes the results or not, so far muddling through as worked. We may be capable of doing better, but so far our behavior hasn’t lived up to our supposed capability.

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Hi Gary,

      I appreciate your expertise regarding population issues and always enjoy your comments. However, there are two points in your comment that I’d question. This first has to do with Ehrlich’s first book, the Population Bomb. I agree with many of the thoughts in his second book, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment. I don’t think Ehrlich was fundamentally wrong even though he did not foresee the Green Revolution. Perhaps the Green Revolution has just set the stage for bigger calamity. I suspect Ehrlich’s predictions were more delayed than “dire predictions that never came close to being true”.

      The second point I question is the ” muddle through scenario”. For some time, I also thought this to be the most likely scenario – now, I suspect this is too optimistic. As you know, we are now around 7B humans and growing. I see little evidence that we will stop growing until some very nasty events are forced upon us. You are right that “Muddle” has worked so far. But, like they say in the stock market: past performance is no guarantee of future performance. “Muddle” could easily turn into “Melt Down”.

      • Gary Peters says:

        Hi Dave,

        You are right to point out that Ehrlich didn’t foresee the Green Revolution. Malthus didn’t foresee the Industrial Revolution either. Both these observations support my basic feeling that the future remains unpredictable. Though I’m far from optimistic about humanity’s future, I’m also not convinced that anything apocalyptic is likely to happen soon.

        According to the on-line Merriam-Webster, muddle through can be defined as “to achieve a degree of success without much planning or effort.” Though we might argue about what “a degree of success” might amount to for our current predicament, I don’t see us focusing much on solutions, so I guess it is the “without much planning or effort” part of the definition that makes me think that muddling through is our likely course.

        Your suggestion that the Green Revolution may have “set the stage for a larger calamity” is certainly possible; again we could say the same about the Industrial Revolution. Around 1848 the classical economist John Stuart Mill wrote that he could see no reason for adding more people to the world. At that time the population was not much over one billion. Had we listened to him, we would have been much better off, in my view.

        Even now, however, most neoclassical economists don’t see our current seven billion people as a problem. Instead, any reading of an intro economics text tells us that what they do see as additional people as sources of both more consumers and more workers. The promise of prosperity for all, still frequently made, is one that cannot be kept. Though it is easy to demonstrate the our numbers cannot continue to grow forever, it is difficult to get most economists to listen.

    • By the way, I plan to attend part of the International Conference on Degrowth in Montreal. I will be arriving Monday evening, May 14, and leaving Friday morning. There are some question marks in my mind as to whether this will be worthwhile, but I know a few people attending, and will certainly meet others.

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  7. jamesneo says:

    Hi i just want to ask in your opinion how does Charlie Hall’s probabilities relate to the different scenarios in limits to growth. The “we will muddle along, gradually getting materially poorer, but adjusting to that” looks very close to the scenario 6 or 7. “we can make a transition to a new
    energy source that will benevolently replace oil” could be scenario 8. “We will go off the cliff, energetically, economically, or environmentally ” are scenario 1-5. The best scenarios 9 and 10 where we are the most sustainable are in my opinion very unlikely anymore after i hear Dennis Meadows on his latest talk during the 40 year anniversary celebration of limits to growth : We are clearly on the first scenario the standard run ( BAU) unless there are substantial changes in consumption in combination with huge technological progress which make scenario 6-8 possible but the window of opportunity for such changes are sinking rapidly.
    In the end we could be only left with what Dennis Meadows recommeds: that we try our best to increase the resilience of the system as much as possible so that even if we collapse we will be left with sufficient resources, humuan decencey and knowledge to rebuild a sustainable society ableit at a much lower level than what we could have had.

  8. David Harney says:

    I’ve posted several times that I believe humans have the intrinsic intellectual capability to correctly recognize our predicament and to utilize reason to devise and carry out solutions that would, at least, avert a significant collapse sometime in the next few decades (maybe sooner than later). I’ve also suggested that the various delusions (ideologies and such) that cripple our intellects will most likely preclude any useful behavior. It’s now becoming apparent that there is almost no probability of any effective action to ward off a fairly significant collapse – only the timeline is unknown.

    For some time, I thought that some masterful presentation of the facts by some charismatic champion, could lead to much wider awaking to the peril ahead. Books like these, along with some other reviews that I heard aired lately on NPR, lead me to believe the situation is (or already has) reached a tipping point. The general idea floating around is to avoid any kind of extreme thinking that envisions any sort of collapse – this is considered unhealthy – bad for your mental well being. We are advised to think about the “middle road” and, above all, live for the day and enjoy the small pleasures of life. Don’t listen to the frantic nut-cases warning about the Mayan Calendar or Peak Oil. The future has a way of taking care of itself. Setting any goals for reducing human population is just not “popular”. Lots of useless clichés. I don’t see the point in reading these books – they might even reinforce the idea that some kind of technological magic can potentially save the day.

    In the public mind, there appears to be no compelling reason to make any significant adjustments to our collective lifestyles. We are a car culture (and all that goes with it) and somehow we have come to believe this is “normal”. We here in the US seem to feel that our “exceptionalism” entitles us to a material standard of living that only a few kings enjoyed in centuries past. We have no intention of changing much of anything – certainly not something that infringes upon our reproductive “rights”.

    I think the bottom line is that we will do whatever we can do until we can’t do it any longer.

    • David Harney says:

      BTW, I’m Bicycle Dave – not sure why the change in the User Name

    • What is strange (or maybe not so strange is that Charlie Hall, outside of the book, frequently talks about the population issue. I don’t know Kent Klitgaard well enough to know what he usually talks about. There is a recent interview with Charlie, supposedly about the book, where he talks about the population issue and is much less optimistic about the future than what is written in the book. Right now, I can’t find the link though. I will add it later if I find it.

    • Justin Nigh says:

      Nice to see you again Dave, I was wondering if you had abandoned the blog.

      I think you’ve summarised the social aspect quite well. Everyone is at a different point along the path. There is the majority that you described who will never perceive any threat to their lifestyle or question its’ legitimacy, there are a number of people who observe the problem but do not act to address it, the reasons for which can be numerous, and finally a minority that both acknowledge the predicament and adjust their lifestyle in response. This composition, though simplified for purposes of illustration, seems to be a natural result of evolution of a social animal. From a long view, perhaps what we’re seeing is completely expected and even necessary for the species to evolve. In the worst case scenario we’ll completely fail to adapt and will be recorded in the book of innumerable extinct species that have gone before us.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        Hi Justin,
        I’ve volunteered for project in my county and it has pretty much dominated my time for the past month or so. At a future time it might be of interest to share some of the implications of this project – a little premature at this point.

        I think your point about the potential for extinction is important – I would venture to say that the vast majority of people on the planet haven’t even considered this possibility. And, if they did, they would dismiss it immediately as being absurd.

        The actual history of the planet, however, clearly supports your concern.

      • David Harney says:

        Hi Justin,
        I’ve volunteered for project in my county and it has pretty much dominated my time for the past month or so. At a future time it might be of interest to share some of the implications of this project – a little premature at this point.

        I think your point about the potential for extinction is important – I would venture to say that the vast majority of people on the planet haven’t even considered this possibility. And, if they did, they would dismiss it immediately as being absurd.

        The actual history of the planet, however, clearly supports your concern.

  9. jimhorneminter says:

    Thanks so much for this post, Gail. As an old “Odumite,” who has worked with and advocated for the net energy insights of the late Howard T. Odum for almost four decades, it is a great satisfaction to have any book by Dr. Charles Hall enter the fray. He seems to be our pre-eminent thinker on the subject of net energy and the economy.
    I think he and his co-author are very kind to let contemporary Economics off as a “social science.” At its farthest end, the dogmatic posturings of the true-believing marketeers make Economics closer to a faith-based quasi-religious pseudo-science – closer to 19th Century Phrenology or Mesmerism. That said an increasing number of economists are becoming aware of the true energy costs of technological innovation and the fact that the 2nd Law places a hidden tax on all of the “alternative fuels” that would substitute for petroleum.

  10. John in Va Beach says:

    Thanks for the reviews; clearly the story line for the unfolding events in the energy world is pretty mature, but I really am drawn to these types of books, especially by such serious and deeply informed writers.

    Ultimately, though, humans are a species of mammal subject to the same adaptation dynamics of every other life form on the planet. We will adapt to actual change in our environment, but NOT to the expectation of change. The idea that we can somehow agree to preemptively adapt to an anticipated future event (resource scarcity) is not possible across our species. In other words, we will HAVE to experience the suffering and death that this change will demand of us as we adjust to a new natural order of significantly lower energy. That is how adaptation works. This is the tragedy of the long slide away from fossil fuels. Sadly, I doubt that even the greatest thinkers, leaders, writers or filmmakers can change our human propensity to believe in the continuation of the status quo.

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