#14 – Why Your World is About to Get A Whole Lot Smaller, by Jeff Rubin

Part of the point of this book—the whole point, perhaps—is numbers, but I’m afraid I’m not going to get very deeply into that. There’s three reasons, generally speaking, why I don’t review very much non-fiction. The first is that it’s rare for me to find a subject that I’m interested in enough to read two or three hundred consecutive pages of facts about it. The second is that I’m used to the attention to language that goes along with literary fiction, and with a handful of exceptions, most of the non-fiction I’ve encountered is very poorly written, or worse, written by someone who gives the impression in the text that they could do better, but doubt their target audience could cope. Third, non-fiction generally collects a bunch of facts and tries to present an argument about what those facts might mean, and the idea behind reviewing them is that you not only have to talk about whether or not the argument is valid based on the facts presented, but you also have to assess the reliability of the facts. This requires a certain amount of expertise in the area (or it should, anyway, let’s not get started on that), and for the most part, I don’t have any. Or at least, not enough. Nothing makes you feel incompetent like trying to review a book about an issue you don’t feel you have a handle on.

So we’re not going to talk about numbers so much, except to say that some of the core facts of Rubin’s argument—that the technical efforts at conservation that led largely to cheaper, more efficient use of oil only caused an increase in consumption, that businesses are usually not swayed by ethical concerns (can I get an “amen” on that one? because ain’t that the gospel fucking truth), and that we must find 20 million new barrels of oil production a day to keep up with the current rate of consumption but that production is actually dropping by about 6.7% per year—seem more or less correct to me, after having spent two years working as a teaching assistant for a former oil industry engineer who taught a mining engineering course on environmental impact (mandated by the government; can’t get your iron ring without it these days). I’m not an expert, but neither am I an innocent.

And I’m certainly not an economist, having nearly flunked the only economics class I ever took (though given the state of things, I’m starting to suspect most economists did as well), but it also seems correct to me when Rubin states that as it becomes more and more difficult to increase or even maintain oil production, transportation costs will increase to the point where cheaper labour and manufacturing costs overseas will be more than canceled out, and our society will be forced to move back in the direction of manufacturing. Rubin says that this will lead to genuine conservation and investment in green technologies. Moral arguments, if I’m understanding this correctly, lead to resistance, or technological investment (like the aforementioned problems with efficiency rather than conservation) that only exacerbate the problem. Threaten the bottom line in a serious way, and both businesses and government will move in genuinely productive ways, dragging everyone else with them. Though Rubin writes in a very accessible style, Why Your World Is About to Get A Whole Lot Smaller was very information dense, and it took me more than a month to read, so if I’m getting something about his premise wrong, feel free to correct me in the comments.

Rubin is convincing, but I see two potential problems with his argument. First, climate change is a moral issue (or at least an ethical one), and there are problems with shoving that aspect of it under the table in favour of Realpoltik solutions. Most of the on-the-ground solutions to the crises of peak oil and global climate change that Rubin believes will come to pass (and they won’t be without considerable costs, both economic and social; I don’t want to give the impression he believes in some kind of economic magic bullet) are things that will be responses to specific short term problems, like transportation or manufacturing at scale. The question he doesn’t answer, is: what happens if those short term problems are dealt with, and it’s still not enough? As the last couple years have shown us, short term economic solutions can themselves lead to massive, potentially long-term problems when not coupled with a robust ethical framework. None of Rubin’s predictions involve such a framework; he seems to believe that the business, environmental, and ethical solutions will all sort of just fall into line with each other. Don’t eat that, Jethro, that’s bullshit.

The other problem is one of timing. Rubin sees a lot of this jumping off pretty soon (and with the recent, ongoing BP oil spill, and even The Daily Show doing features on manufacturers returning to America—see April 22nd‘s episode—you can see some of it already coming to pass), but markets and market forces can be and are regularly manipulated to serve those who have an interest in maintaining the status quo, and I’m not convinced that those forces can be overcome in time to “allow the market to work” or whatever is supposed to happen. By the time that happens, it may simply be too late. I can’t say that I have alternative solutions that will work any better, but waiting for the invisible hand feels too much like doing nothing.

Why Your World is About to Get A Whole Lot Smaller was my fifteenth selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is The Burning Land, by Bernard Cornwell.

August

Writer. Editor. Critic.

One Comment

  1. I’m still only halfway through this book (through no fault of Rubin’s – I think he writes very well for – you know – a non-fiction writer – why do you think I had to major in English? it certainly wasn’t the most practical choice in career terms). There have just been too many wonderful novels intruding on my reading time.
    I think what’s good and important about what I’ve read of it so far is his explanation of what ‘peak oil’ is and his conclusion that we’re not only there – we’re past that point. I find it odd that there’s no disagreement re natural gas resource depletion, but have to conclude that’s because use of natural gas as heating fuel didn’t become popular until after WWII and because natural gas resources were always viewed as finite. The oil industry has had a lot longer to entrench itself in society and government, and thus has a much greater vested interest in perpetuating the upstream and downstream distribution systems it’s invested in as part of its infrastructure.
    I also recall a certain amount of discussion re the real price of luxury foodstuffs due to transportation costs and an unrealistic globalization approach – that it’s ok to ship food here, there and everywhere for various kinds of processing so it can eventually end up in a luxury market. What I don’t think there was enough of relating to this point was historical context – how relatively recent it is that we can eat grapes in January and peaches in February no matter what part of the world we inhabit.
    I also have to admit I was seduced away from finishing Rubin’s book by Thomas Pawlick’s The War in the Country (which I reviewed on my blog) because it dealt with the economics of food production.

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