Review: “What If We Never Run Out of Oil?”

In the feature article of the May issue of The Atlantic, What If We Never Run Out of Oil?, contributing editor Charles C. Mann lays out his vision of what the future holds for a petroleum-powered planet. The descriptor on the magazine’s cover reads, “Why the fossil-fuel boom is good for America, bad for Saudi Arabia – and scary for the planet.” Mann concludes that economic incentives will lead to ever-expanded ways of extracting carbon-based fuel from the earth despite the inevitable risk to the planet’s future.

High prices for petroleum should make alternative energy sources more competitive, but there is another side to this rosy outlook: these high prices also make elaborate and expensive carbon-fuel extraction processes more economically feasible. Two such processes featured in this article are the extraction of natural gas by fracking and the mining of coastal ocean beds for methane hydrate. The US expects to frack its way to energy independence in the not-too-distant future; and Japan, almost totally dependent on imported fuel, will innovate methane hydrate extraction along the methane beds of the western Pacific Ocean in its quest for the same. This latter source of fuel, largely untapped, has been estimated to be practically limitless, as new beds are continually being laid down due to both natural and man-induced processes, like industrial farm run-off.

Mann provides a broad perspective – historical, political, economic, and scientific – for his discussion of this future. In a less-than-hopeful tone, he warns that global warming will be collateral damage in the coming international carbon-based fuel extraction mega-enterprise. He also describes the anticipated global political upheaval that energy independence for industrialized nations will bring because the governments of the petro-states, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, have not created institutions that are viable beyond their profitable petroleum-export economic model.

What this should tell us is that the conversation about global warming has changed. Whether or not climate change is happening is no longer a question; that argument has been settled by legitimate climate research. The new battle lines are less clear because they do not involve answerable scientific questions; instead, they involve economic and political questions that lend themselves to the discussion of various policy options that are vulnerable to a money-driven, dysfunctional political process.

Nevertheless, the consequences of global warming still loom. In his otherwise thorough presentation of how human beings will try to satisfy their appetite for carbon-based energy, Charles Mann skims over these consequences. In doing so, he is giving us a clear indication of how the friends of petroleum will try to direct the discussion of our energy future: It will be all about prosperity based on new carbon-based fuel sources, not about the human and environmental costs associated with the pursuit of that carbon-based prosperity.

Carbon industry profiteers may be motivated, but the science is inexorable: global warming continues and can only increase with greater exploitation of carbon-based energy resources. We must keep the vision of what is happening to the planet in front of the public in order to show the real cost – to Earth and its inhabitants – of that supposedly rosy economic vision. The scenario of a super-charged, carbon-based energy future presented by Charles Mann is our call to action.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed by Bonnie Mosse Funk under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.