Energy Civilization: The Zenith of Man

15 12 2012

Several months ago I read the book “Energy Civilization: The Zenith of Man

I’ve been thinking about it ever since.


Here is a brief book report.


  • There are two causes to the decline of a civilization: loss of energy and loss of energy quality.
  • Peak oil is happening now, not 100 years from now.
  • Falling supply paired with rising demand leads to ever rising oil prices, moderated only by damaging demand reduction.
  • Post peak oil might bring economic depression or collapse.
  • Gave me a new appreciation for oil. Stuff is useful – foundation of our modern world.
  • Introduced me to energy returned on energy invested (EROEI)
  • Introduced me to energy quality. See also exergy.
  • Unconventional oils have a lower energy quality.
  • Upside: rising oil prices will force us off oil, like it or not.

Peak Oil

At some point in the last decade I learned about peak oil. It seemed inevitable, but 100 years away.

“Energy Civilization: The Zenith of Man” argues that global peak oil happened in 2005.

Although it is up for debate whether we are post peak oil,  we only know for sure after it has happened.

Peak Cheap Oil

While it’s true that there is a lot of oil left in the ground, the easy, sweet oil is long gone. What’s left is increasingly sour, deep, tight, low EROEI, and low energy quality.

More expensive extraction = more expensive oil.

The oil price shock of 2008 was our first taste of demand bumping hard against supply.

So basically you have a situation where oil supply constraints put a cap economic growth.

Debt based economies don’t work in reverse. I image there would be a *cough* discontinuity in the face of persistent negative growth.


Peak cheap oil could lead to some kind of economic depression or collapse. Look out for the burgeoning genre of collapse fiction.

I will leave it to the doomers to fill you in on the collapse discussion.

Oil is Useful (and our world is based on it!)

Ignore for a moment the negative externalities of oil: pollution, co2 emission, resource conflict, etc; and consider the utility of oil:

Transportation and construction totally depend on oil. Nothing comes close to oil’s energy density, which is especially important when you are taking your fuel with you.

Almost all plastic comes from oil.

Oil is a primary feedstock for chemical and medical supply industries.

Most frighteningly, our food supply depends heavily on natural gas for fertilizer, farm equipment, produce transportation, etc. We use 10 calories of oil to make one calorie of food.

Energy returned on energy invested (EROEI)

So lets take a break from the dooming and look and some interesting physics.

Energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) is the ratio of the amount of usable energy acquired from a particular energy resource to the amount of energy expended to obtain that energy resource.

When we first started drilling for oil it took one barrel of oil to extract 100. So an EROEI of 100.
Over time the EROEI of oil has dropped as we have extracted the easy stuff.

Note that if EROEI drops below 1, you are just wasting your time (and energy).

Some unconventional oils like tar-sands have such poor EROEI that using them may just be an exercise in pollution.

Energy Quality

Energy quality from best to worst:

liquid, gas, solid , field (nuclear, wind, solar)

Upside: We use less oil

Many feel we should use less oil. We will be forced to, like it or not.

See Also

EDIT: Fixes links in TL/DR



16 responses

16 12 2012

EROEI doesn’t matter. Oil is BY FAR the most portable energy source on the planet, so no matter what the EROEI, people will use lots of energy, in other more available but less portable forms to get it.

16 12 2012

Transportation costs are (or should be) part of EROEI thus better energy density improves EROEI. But yes transportation will be hit first – can’t haul things with solar or on land with wind. I believe corn ethonol is also net < 1 thus "an exercise in polution". Food equation is most disturbing to me – Arab spring result of food prices. Oil has extended food supply thus population must contract as oil EROEI drops. In 100 years we've spent what the planet took 300 million years to accumulate. Human species must stop acting like a virus. Excellent find and summary Mark!

16 12 2012

And what is the EROEI right now for your project?:>

16 12 2012
Mark Suppes

That is a great question. I will get into this in a separate post.

17 12 2012

Best video I have seen on the issue is by Chris Martenson, at the Gold and silver institute , has little to do with gold and silver though. Population, peak oil and exponential growth.

25 12 2012

martenson’s “the crash course” (available free on youtube) is also quite excellent.

17 12 2012

Note that peak *conventional* oil has already been reached (probably in about 2004 or 2005). Peak petroleum, on the other hand, is a long way off. We likely have several hundred years of petroleum left, even assuming reasonable increases in demand.

The issue is that conventional oil is a good energy source because it’s easy to extract and refine. We get about 30 times as much energy out of light sweet crud as it takes to extract, ship, and refine it. Using the same scale, we only get about 1.5 times as much energy out of the Canadian tar sands as it takes to extract, etc. That means, in effect that Tar Sands “oil” is about 20 times more expensive than Saudi Arabian oil.

Because of that heavy oil and “tar sands” are not good energy sources. They’re too expensive to be viable, and thus need to be replaced.

That is why “peak oil” is a bad thing, not because we’re suddenly going to run out of petroleum. That’s a myth made up by people who don’t understand the real issue.

17 12 2012

I forgot to make the main point of my previous post:P.

The reason why price of energy is important is that everything we do requires energy (of course). If energy is 20 times as expensive, then transportation, construction, and food production (along with everything else) is 20 times as expensive as well. (That’s an oversimplification, but you get the idea.)

Our economy *requires* cheap energy. The cheaper energy becomes, the more each of us can afford to use, and the higher our standard of living. Eg, recycling is heavily limited by the amount of energy it takes to recycle it. Cheap energy = cheap recycling = cheap materials.

30 03 2013
Paweł Krawczyk

As you correctly noted, it’s conventional only oil that has peaked, and only in the US. That’s why we should not talk about “oil production” but “hydrocarbons production”. It accounts for all those reserves that we currently call “inconventional” (and in ~10 years they will become fully conventional) – like shale gas. And if we look at hydrocarbons production it’s still growing.

Obviously it doesn’t make much sense to burn hydrocarbons for energy as they can be much better used for organic synthesis. But the new technologies, like fuel cells, Polywell or whatever must be built on top of hydrocarbons as they are in many ways the best energy sources as for now.

As for the general energy market trends I recommend two excellent books – Daniel Yergin “The Quest” and Julian Simon “The Ultimate Resource”.

17 12 2012

My understanding is that the EROI is currently about 6:1 return. Studies have already been done on what rate of return civilization needs to survive. IT’S NOT 1:1. By then it would be to late. The Study is “What is the minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have?”

Their research suggests that a 3:1 ratio is needed.

Currently we are pumping about 87,500,000 b/d. If we divide a day into hours, minutes, and seconds we come up with 86,400 seconds in a day. Divide the total barrels by total seconds and you have 1012 barrels of oil being consumed every second of every day. Everytime we blink our eyes another 1000 barrels of oil are gone.
If we take that same figure of 87,500,000 barrels of oil a day and times it by the days of one year (365) we come up with the fact that the world consumes 31.9 billion barrels a year.
When the nightly news announces that supposedly 15 billion barrels of Oil has been found in Brazil 8 miles offshore and 4 miles deep I just laugh at that. 15 billion is only a half years worth of oil.

18 12 2012

Info: That bit about “3:1 EROI” was the point I was clumsily stumbling around in my previous posts. Thanks for making it:).

18 12 2012

Your blog is actually very great. I did in fact watch the whole Chris Martenson video from your blog. I learned a great deal about mineral depletion. I looked at the book, Energy Civilization: The Zenith of Man, on I read a whole bunch of books and videos about Peak Oil and I definitely need to read this one also. I really appreciate your getting the word out about our upcoming problems. Keep Blogging. Keep Writing.

31 12 2012
SA Kiteman

Sorry, but putting nuclear in with solar and wind seems just a tad disingenuous. It is SO good that you could actually down step to liquid and have the best EROEI of the lot. Else why are we interested in fusion?

15 02 2013

This is part of the solution near term, pilot commercial best in class grown fuel.

19 02 2013
Don Green

I honestly believe the only way we can end peak oil and stop big oil is when home brew open source scientist develop a free energy machine that the masses can print on a 3d printer and post the plans online for free. People like you are my heroes and I thank you for your effort!

19 02 2013
Mike H

The current world economy is based on oil. A vast multitude of people have no idea.

“A reduction of per capita energy consumption has always in the past led to a decline in civilization and a reversion to a more primitive way of life…Anyone who has watched a sweating Chinese farm worker strain at his heavily laden wheelbarrow, creaking along a cobblestone road, or who has flinched as he drives past an endless procession of human beasts of burden moving to market in Java – the slender women bent under mountainous loads heaped on their heads – anyone who has seen statistics translated into flesh and bone, realizes the degradation of man’s stature when his muscle power becomes the only energy source he can afford. Civilization must wither when human beings are so degraded….High-energy consumption has always been a prerequisite of political power. The tendency is for political power to be concentrated in an ever-smaller number of countries. Ultimately, the nation which controls the largest energy resources will become dominant.”

~ Admiral Hyman George Rickover

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