2004, Books, Non-Fiction

Out of Gas (2004) by David Goodstein

Note: I read this book in 2020. It was published in 2004. It’s not that wise to read a book about energy reserves and climate change 16 years later, when the situation is continuously evolving.

This is a book by a physicist about the energy crisis caused by “peak oil” with some discussion of climate change. Because the book is written by a physicist, it is well-grounded in science, and informative in that regard. But, because it’s not by a geologist or a climatologist, there are parts that feel like they are lacking.

Goodstein excels at explaining the basic science behind energy, why we need it and how we use it (and how we might use it). If this book was just an introduction to thermodynamics it might be excellent. (I suspect his tv show – um, I mean “telecourse” is pretty good even though it likely somewhat out of date 35 years later.) He writes clearly and it’s obvious he’s a good teacher.

The organization of the book is a little weird. We jump around a lot between current problems and brief anecdotes of historical discoveries of scientific principles. Goodstein is not Bill Bryson and the historical bits feel a little odd. I suspect this is a device he uses in class, but in this very short book they feel cursory and are not anywhere near as entertaining as he seems to imagine.

I think the bigger issue with the book is that it was published in 2004 and I’m reading it in 2020. (I don’t know if there is a new edition but I can only read the book I have.) Some of what Goodstein is talking about is just plain out of date. He couldn’t have known that at the time, but that is the problem with a book like this. Here are a couple of examples:

  • I don’t know anything about Hubbert’s peak, but a quick Google shows there’s reason to doubt the claim that it’s here already. Technological changes have rendered past predictions inaccurate at best. The theory might still be sound – it sounds reasonable to me, but I am not an economist nor am I a geologist – but the principal fact that is supposed to support it in the US has erased as of 2017. So, um, that’s a problem for the specifics of the theory, if not the theory in general.
  • Also, his discussion of LED lights – and, to a lesser extent, other technologies – is hilariously out of date. In 2004 I guess they were just being introduced. Now, of course, they are everywhere. And there are all sorts of other technologies that have come in, as well, to make energy use more efficient. Now, Goodstein acknowledges that unknown technologies are coming. But the problem with writing a book like this is that, inevitably, your book will be rendered out-of-date pretty quickly if you are making claims about current and future technologies.
  • Then there’s Goodstein’s hedging over climate change. He doesn’t come across as a denier but he also doesn’t commit to much beyond “change”. This might be the rigorous but it comes across as meek and overly cautious now. My guess is that he wanted to focus on his primary topic of “peak oil” and so didn’t want to commit to making claims about climate.

Am I glad I read it? I think so, yes. Certainly as a summary of humanity’s energy problems at the general level, it’s very good. It’s the specifics of 2004 which are problematic for a contemporary audience, as things have changed, rather a lot. Still, the message that we are running out of fossil fuels is still true, and we still haven’t solved the problem, even if we have delayed that specific problem more than Goodstein thought we’d be able to when he wrote this book.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.