The last environmentally oriented big-picture book on my reading list for now was “The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st century’s sustainability crisis“, edited by Richard Heinberg & Daniel Lergh, but written by literally dozens of well-known authors. I was attracted to the book partly because I was seeking an updated source for the overall situation and partly by the amazing Amazon reviews it has gotten – 21 reviews, all full 5 stars so far. So there were high expectations, but how did it stack up?
A little about the book first. It’s a pretty hefty piece at some 500 pages, and covers a wide range of topics. It has been grouped in 34 chapters covering 16 topics. The topics deal with the changes going on, such as climate change, and cover most fundamental aspects of a modern society such as the challenges faced by food production, clean water availability, transportation, waste management etc, all from the viewpoint of life after Peak Oil and building a sustainable, resilient society.
The plethora of authors are simultaneously a strength and a weakness for the book. The strength comes from hearing from a number of experts in their particular field, covering each topic in a comprehensive manner. As comprehensive as is possible given the limited 10-15 pages or so per chapter anyway. The weakness comes from, despite great editorial work, the markedly different approaches and writing styles of the authors and a small amount of repeated information.
It is becoming clear that some of the fundamental trends of the coming decades will revolve around economic relocalization and rebuilding some of the lost resilience on the scale of households, communities, cities, states and countries. It is, one should point out, both a natural and inevitable trend. Continued expansion of activity requiring ever-increasing transportation of goods and homogenization of regional production is simply not an option:
Relocalization also brings ecological advantages. Local production for local consumption often has the potential to restore, at least partially, the integrity of local human-dominated ecosystems. For example, depositing urban organic compost on nearby farm- and forestland would close the nutrient cycles broken by the current spatial separation of rural ecosystems and urban populations. It also doesn’t hurt that people might once again begin to identify with nearby ecosystems from which they acquire much of their food and fiber. There can be no greater incentive for conservation than knowing one’s life depends upon it.
Obviously this entire resilience-oriented program flies in the face of the conventional wisdom and current trends. But that is precisely the point – the present growth-bound global development paradigm is fatally flawed, inherently unsustainable, and on track for catastrophic implosion, from which there might not be a subsequent “reorganization” phase for billions of people.
One great chapter deals with alternative energies, and the nine challenges they face. People often say that energy is no problem, we just replace it with solar power or wind or whatever – but often fail to take into account some significant challenges faced by alternative energies. They are:
- Scalability and timing (e.g. tar sands fail this)
- Commercialization (e.g. algae fuels fail this)
- Substitutability (e.g. hydrogen fails this)
- Material input requirements (e.g. fuel cells fail this)
- Intermittency (e.g. solar and wind suffer from this)
- Energy density (Li-Ion batteries have approximately 1/100th of the energy density of gasoline)
- Water usage (e.g. tar sands and biodiesel production require huge quantities of water)
- The law of receding horizons (assuming alternative sources become viable at certain oil price point, failing to take into account that production costs will also increase) and
- Energy return on investment (e.g. ethanol has a woefully low EROI, possibly even negative)
Taken together, these challenges mean alternative energy sources, while crucially important, will not prevent a total peak energy from occurring. Energy efficiency is one critical aspect that has the potential of softening the landing, even if just a little.
For someone new to the concept of Peak Energy and related issues, this book would be a lot to take in at first – as an introduction, it’s a hefty one, but definitely a good read. Some of the chapters, inevitably, are not as good as others. Also, despite the length of the book, no one chapter goes into a great amount of detail just because so many issues are discussed – for example, entire books have been written on water-related topics such as soil salination, falling water tables, dwindling river flows etc. Post Carbon Reader compresses most water-issues to one 20-page chapter. That doesn’t mean the book’s all about breadth at the expense of depth, but it’s naturally a trade-off.
However, The Post Carbon Reader is one well-executed trade-off. It covers most of the pressing issues in enough detail to get an idea why they are important, but not too much detail. Most of the writing is excellent, and the topics are thoroughly researched and comprehensively referenced with up to 50+ references per chapter. I thus have no choice but to agree with other reviewers and give this full 5 stars and a “highly recommended”-stamp.