Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Saga of Crude Oil. An Epic Story told by Douglas Reynolds

The "bell curve" of oil production has been popularized together with the concept of "peak oil," the point of the curve where the global crude oil production reaches its maximum, just before starting its irreversible decline. There is something universal in this curve that may describe much more than just the output of the oil industry. Have you ever tried to look at the curve in narrative terms? If you did, you may have noticed that it describes a typical heroic saga. The hero starts as a young hopeful, grows to be successful in his quest, then faces decline in old age. That's the way the universe moves and it is not a coincidence that Douglas Reynolds chose the title of "An Energy Odyssey," linking to Ulysses' saga, for his recent book on the world cycle of peak oil. 

Every civilization has its founding saga. It is the story of a hero, or a group of heroes, who manage to overcome enormous difficulties, succeed in their task, and then fade slowly, enjoying the fruits of their efforts. The Sumerians had the story of Gilgamesh, the Greeks the Iliad and the Odyssey, Medieval Europe had Dante's comedy, and there were many others. 

What about us? We do not really have a saga that defines our civilization, except rather brutal ones that involve the bombing to smithereens of the enemies of democracy. Perhaps it is because our society is unlike any of the past ones: it was not created by heroes, but it grew over the availability of cheap and abundant sources of energy that no society ever had in the past: fossil fuels

So, maybe it is there that we find our founding saga: exactly there, with those dark things extracted out of the ground that brought to us wealth over anything that the wildest dreams could imagine. It is a saga that has something in common with that of the Volsunga, where the hero, Sigurd, kills the dragon Fafnir and obtains his underground treasure. 

If crude oil is the protagonist of our saga, the peak oil cycle has a certain narrative flavor. As in old literary sagas, we have the growth of the hero, his success at the peak, and then his decline in old age. Crude oil is at the peak of its cycle and now its decline is starting. This story is not something that we'll read in a book, or hear sung by a bard. We will experience it as protagonists. The walls of Troy have been breached and what's going to happen to us? As for many ancient sagas, this one has a dark aspect: the protagonists may not survive the challenge.  

Perhaps it was with these concepts in mind that Douglas Reynolds chose the title of "Energy Odissey" for his recent book on the cycle of the world's crude oil production, linking to Ulysses' ancient saga. 

Reynolds has been teaching at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and he has been active in the field of oil depletion. Those of us who have been involved in this kind of study know very well his contributions, especially on the correlation of oil depletion and the fall of the Soviet Union, summarized in his 2016 book "Cold War Energy: The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union

With "Energy Odyssey," Reynolds summarizes a whole career of research in this field. The result is a true saga: the book covers a wide range of elements of the story, including some correlations that are not usually made: we read about Pyramids, Aztec Gods, Kachina dolls, Nordic Gods, falconry, the Babel story, Moby Dick, the Wizard of Oz, and much, much more. 

It is difficult to summarize this book. Let me just propose you an excerpt, then you may decide to read it yourself. Or, you may contact the author (ask me in the comments for his email).


From the Introduction of "Energy Odyssey" by Douglas Reynolds.

The idea of the Iliad and the Odyssey is that of literature and history. That is, these books are an oral tradition of explaining a story generation to generation. And since there really was conflict and war surrounding the city of Troy, these stories are based on a history. Instead of considering history as a science, and literature as a humanity, the ancients were more convoluted or maybe they simply had the requirement for interchangeability in the day. That is, history was literature and literature was history. Or another way of saying this is that The Iliad and The Odyssey were the Freakonomics of their day. The genres were not so much confused as they were integrated in order to be able to create education for the common man or woman or human, often called “man” for convenience.

It is an interesting concept of having history and literature so close to each other. It reminds one of the difference between rhetoric and oratory. In the Greek tradition, the difference had to do with court cases and the law compared to argumentation. Oratory would try to win this or that case kind of like an ancient version of the television show “Suites” and where it was all in the winning of the case rather than what is right and what is wrong as being important. Rhetoric was more of a higher elevated philosophical discourse. It had to do with getting at a deeper truth that eludes one. The difference between rhetoric and oratory reminds one of the sciences and especially the economic social sciences of coming at the truth where one can use inductive reasoning or deductive reasoning and where the risk averse nature of the profession tends to emphasize induction over deduction even though a truer and deeper insight requires deduction more than is thought. What each reader may have to do then is to plug the ears of your preconceived notions and sail by the sirens of alternative argumentation so that you don’t sail your boat into the rocky shores of excessive disputation.

One of the interesting story lines in the various plots of Odysseus is not so much what Odysseus goes through or how he is affected by his travels or how he steps up to meet different challenges, but rather the idea that the city of Troy actually takes in the Trojan Horse in the first place. On the surface, one has to be surprised at the naiveite of the Trojans. Did they not know this could be a trick? Or maybe in a way the literary story is showing that all conflicts involve people with a weak link or vulnerable under side and that that is the point of the story. Maybe even our own technology has a vulnerable side that a Trojan Horse can undo.

What is interesting about Odysseus and the Iliad and the Odyssey is that the world too is taking such a journey. And after the Trojan War, especially, the journey is fraught with adventures and side trips but eventually leads to a resolution of sorts for Odysseus and so to a resolution for the world at large.

Though there are many formidable hardships in regard to energy where the world’s economies will be taken captive and certainly enticed into being devastated on coastal rocks, nevertheless, a realistic perspective of energy and its potential and its hazards can propel a proper expedition to be undertaken. And yet the world may also be taken in by its own Trojan Horse.

This story may have parallels for today’s world’s energy odyssey. For truly the world’s economy is dependent on energy and all the different types of energy determine how the world’s economy will work. Right now, there is a great battle between using fossil fuels and using renewable energy for the world’s economy, and it seems like the tension, rather like that of the Trojan War itself, is a battle for the hearts and minds of the people and where no one is winning the argument. Or, the current Trojan Energy War is not a battle for the hearts and minds of people, but rather a stalemate between the energy consuming economies that want ever more available energy for ever greater economic growth on the one side, and the supplies of energy that by their very nature are either finite or unstable and must eventually reach a limit.

In the Iliad, Odysseus and his Greek city state allies seem to have reached an end and cannot win the battle. Thus seemingly, the force of technology has won the day and there is no more scarcity to inhibit economic growth. But there may be a surprise in store where the stalemate of the battle will break in a most unexpected manner by both sides. It will be the Hubbert Trojan Horse Scenario. The crucial character in this energy odyssey story will be a geologist by the name of M. King Hubbert, and the outcome, though surprising, will be destructive to both those who believe in renewable energy and those who believe in fossil fuel energy as far as how the economy reacts. Just so, M. King Hubbert’s Trojan Horse Scenario is the final takeover of the Scarcity and Growth debate, at least in regard to non renewable natural resources.

Energy Odyssey:
The Hubbert Trojan Horse Scenario
Table of Contents

Introduction: Energy Odyssey: The Journey to Energy Enlightenment
1: Energy Dialectic: Rhetorical Adversity in Energy Philosophy
2: Energy Architecture: The Pyramids of Entropy
3: The Energy Quetzalcoatl: The Serpentine Energy Chain
4: Entropy Subsidy Wizarding: Merlin the Energy Magician
5: En Tech Symphony: Beethoven’s 5th vs. the 6th
6: The Tower of Energy Babel: Rally to Growth and Scatter from Scarcity
7: The Energy Kachina: The Four Seasons of Exploration Balance
8: Energy Novel Similes: Wizard of Oz, Moby Dick & Blood
9: Energy Constitution: American Hamiltonian Shale Oil Utterance
10: The Loki of Energy: The Oil and Gas Enigma
11: Energy Falconry: The Guardianship of OPEC
12: The Texas Sole Energy Ranger: Hi Ho Lithium, Renewables and Away
13: Don King Energy Economics: The City Streets of Electrical Power Grids
14: The Energy Macroeconomy Yin and Yang: The Pangu Inflationary and Stagflationary Effect
15: Energy Gaia: The Mother Earth of Foreshadowings
16: Energy Children: The Blessing of Ganesha and The Hardship in Developing Countries
17: The Eris of Energy: The Discord of the Golden Apple
18: COVID Energy Chess: The Strategic Pandemic Moves
19: The Energy Rasputin: The Demise of The Soviet Union
20: The Romulus and Remus of Energy: Rome’s Crisis of the Third Century
21: The Oracle of Energy Delphi: Determining Prescient Energy Scenarios
22: The Trojan Energy Horse: The Odyssey Continues
23: About the Energy Author: The Energy Muse’s Song


  1. Humans remain humans....

    If humans were dropping ropes and buckets to thousands of feet-deep holes and wells to lift up oil, coal and natural gas - how many of them are needed for the task - extracting 100 million b/d of oil, 6 billion tonnes of coal a year and atmospheres of gas daily?

    The answer is 8 billion humans - minimum - strong.

    There is no such thing as positive, flying-carpet, EROEI and there is no such thing called Capitalism.

    Now oil 'abundance' is no more, see what humans are doing for themselves;

    Burning the little oil, coal and gas left to confuse themselves - that fossil fuels don't deplete, and there is always a shale oil to rescue.

    "No Energy store holds enough Energy to extract an amount of Energy equal to the total Energy it stores.

    Energy, like time, flows from past to future".


  2. Not sure where to purchase this book, but it is available on Amazon for $67.50 in paperback. Which seems a little pricey. Any other, more affordable, source?

    1. Indeed. I suggest to ask directly to Doug at ffdbr(thingything)

  3. I think that it was in one of Greer’s stories that a character in a world of the future says, “By Hubbert!” in the way that we would say “By God!” now. Hubbert had become mythologized.

    1. Or in Brave New World

      "By/my/our Ford"


  4. When at university in the 70s Hubberts oil depletion models were known amongst geology students, we were aware that oil was finite. Being young and knowing little about human nature I often sounded the warning. Silly me, Cassandras are not socially acceptable. I learnt to keep quiet, my whole life has been as an observer of an impending ship wreck. The master of the Titanic will not allow his knowledge of icebergs divert his course, the passengers ignore the paucity of lifeboats because they believe the ship is unsinkable, a certain triumph of modernity. In any case the dining room, ball rolms and bars shreik out a better class of distraction. So here we are, awaiting the crunch.

  5. "there is a great battle between using fossil fuels and using renewable energy for the world’s economy, and it seems like the tension, rather like that of the Trojan War itself, is a battle for the hearts and minds of the people and where no one is winning the argument."

    I have to wonder sometimes if this isn't purposeful distraction by the 'ruling class' as they pillage the global treasury, knowing full well the entire edifice of our modern, industrial civilisation (and the Ponzi that is our monetary/financial/economic systems) is about to encounter a Seneca Cliff of resource (especially energy) limits/finiteness.

  6. Perhaps the "Odyssey" for oil should be

  7. Other farmers really need to try to farm on 100% solar energy for farm power. Then at least we could compare the current system with alternatives.

  8. Just reading the chapter titles doesn't look very engaging...
    Do these books at least tell the story of the first oil shock and counter shock properly ?

    1. Every book is like a human being. They are all different, with their defects and their virtues.