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

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