The End of Energy: The Unmaking of America’s Environment, Security, and Independence
by Michael J. Graetz
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011
384 pp., illus. 5 b/w. Trade, $29.95
After reading The End of Energy, one gets an awful feeling that one is reading the epitaph of the Fall of the American Empire––a fall that can be diverted if lessons are learnt from history and a history that is surprisingly recent. The author identified the 1970’s as the defining decade that changed and shaped policies and politics relating to energy in the USA for the next 40 years. Furthermore, it fostered in the average American an unrealistic attitude to the price of gasoline. Graetz offers a critique of the history of cheap oil and consequent mistakes that are leading to a future in which questions of energy security, clean air, and a safer planet are the legacies that Americans will offer future generations. Will the next 40 years make up for the mistakes of the last 40 years that has led America into what President Obama describes as a ‘shock and trace’ response to oil prices––in other words, an addiction to cheap gas prices that does not reflect reality and, as one researcher has estimated, cost the economy between $700-$800 billion in 2008 alone?
Chapter by chapter, Graetz dismantles this mythology of easy oil and brings to the fore the epitaph of the American Empire, which is that it needs to change its attitude and face up to the fact that gasoline costs a lot more than people are willing to pay. It is this very unrealistic attitude that has led the government to court the voting public through a series of subsides, legislation, and controls that, in turn, are counteracted by acts of decontrol and repeal. This back and forth of legislation has been fostered by the abovementioned ‘shock and trace’ response to oil prices.
He opens the book by reminding the reader that the average American verges on the belief that it is a basic right to have gas on tap at a price he or she will accept. Graetz, then, sets out on the perilous and polluting journey that oil takes from Ghawar to one of America’s 100,000 gas stations.
Graetz diligently sets out the problems, policies, and politics of energy in America. He covers a vast range of topics including the debates, legislature, and deregulation of various energy industries, such as coal, nuclear, and natural gas. He also gives good coverage of the Cap and Trade debates, as well as discussing oil disasters such as the Gulf spill.
A constant theme throughout the book is how dependency on foreign oil has led to a compromised foreign policy and has changed national security practise. These compromises do not auger well for future generations. If anything, Graetz argues it has made the U.S. a dangerous place for youth as the dollars given over to Middle East nations for oil have empowered those nations and, in some cases, educated a radical anti-American populous.
He further argues that the biggest problems come from Congressional priorities that favour geographic considerations above technological and economic prospects. This problem is exacerbated by an excessive optimism about technological developments, which in reality are not given sufficient time nor funding for development, a situation that, in turn, leads to a process of haste and waste.
Graetz offers solutions relating to institutional changes and the notion of earmarking and extending budgeting timelines. He is critical of Congressional committee structures that he suggests would be better served by independent analysts and experts.
The book is essential reading for young enthusiasts who believe they have the solution for future energy security. In the past many a worthy project has been put forward only to be later savaged due to some convenient loophole or drawback of legislation as a result of either industry or constituents’ unwillingness to change.
In conclusion, this book has much to offer, and many lessons can be learnt. I would suggest the lessons could apply to any First World Nation or Developing Nation that does not want to go down the same path of inadvertent dependency.