Sunday, January 9, 2011

Book Review: Prelude by Kurt Cobb

This first novel by founding member of the Association of Peak Oil (ASPO) and prominent science writer Kurt Cobb, whose commentaries on the depletion of resources appear frequently in S-Citizen magazine and is author of Resource Insights blog, was written with the stated purpose of informing the unaware public of the danger presented by the peak of global fuels. In Prelude, Cobb manages to give the reader new to the concept of Peak Oil a good survey course in the essentials of oil production, while telling an engrossing story with a likable, interesting protagonist, that will keep the reader turning the pages, and introduce the reader to the world of oil production and the reality of terminal resource decline.

Cobb has wisely avoided the temptation to write another work of "doomer porn" of struggle and death in an imagined post -peak collapse, and set his novel in the present day world. "I decided to create a narrative set firmly in contemporary society," Cobb states. " I wanted a story that would reframe the way people read the daily news and the way they interpret their everyday experience. My premise was that readers would more readily identify with a world familiar to them than one set in the distant future or transfigured by an imaginary crisis."

What he gives us instead is a fast-paced, suspenseful novel whose actions center around the career of its protagonist, the appropriately named Cassandra "Cassie" Young, an attractive and highly talented, but complacent young energy analyst who is a rapidly rising star at her firm, which very much resembles real-world Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA); and the shattering of her complacent world view and her belief in her work as she discovers both the lie of endless cheap energy, and the deep corruption of her firm.

Cassie has, like many top professionals, built a stunningly successful career in her field at a very youthful age, not only by her exceptional talent, but by never questioning her firm's gospel, which is that the world has an infinite reserve of cheap, accessible oil, and that we can rely upon the magical power of technology to solve any all problems, including the potential terminal decline of the substance that fuels it. It is when Cassie meets Victor Chernov, a brilliant and eccentric Russian musician and wealthy former oil trader, that her cozy, privileged personal world is turned upside down and she confronts the fact of the peaking and inevitable depletion of the world's most critical resource, and the destruction of her career and the life she's built upon it. Victor is a believer in the Peak Oil theory and he manages to interest Cassie enough in attend a ASPO conference, but Cassie remains skeptical until she brings Victor to the housewarming at the palatial new home of her firm's egotistical CEO, Larry Hillard, where Victor discovers, in a casual conversation with a landscape worker, that the house was paid for by a shadowy entity that turns out to be a front for one of the firm's major clients, the Kingdom of Ammar,the world's largest oil producer.

Here, Cobb illustrates the power of denial as Cassie at first dismisses the evidence of her employer's malfeasance and corruption. When she and Victor leave his party, he asks her how she thinks Hillard can legally pay for his landscaping through his company, and Cassie, as yet oblivious to the implications, replies, "he must have the best tax lawyer in Washington." But the seeds of doubt have been planted; and Cassie, troubled by the clear conflict of interest, delves deeper, enlisting Victor's assistance in breaking into her boss's email, where she discovers the firm's most closely guarded secret, the true figures for Ammar's reserves, which are far below the numbers published by the firm.

Events move quickly from here, and Cassie finds that her view of her world has changed forever. She can no longer function in her career, for that depends upon her ability to remain blind to the implications of the report that she has stolen, and even her relationship with her lover, Paul, is tested, and fails, as Paul is revealed as self-centered and cowardly. When Cassie confides to Paul that she might be in a great deal of trouble because her theft of the report has been apprehended, he shrieks," How could you do this to me!", and it is too obvious to Cassie that the consequences to her are his last consideration.

The conclusion of the novel is less than satisfying, as Cassie is forced to end her career, and accepts a massive severance check in return for her silence regarding the contents of the stolen report, and her permanent retirement from the energy industry. Thus, she can do no good with the knowledge she has gained at price of her career and risk of her very life, but her $2 Million severance check will permit her to make a separate peace,, as it were, and the novel concludes with her decision to leave her high-powered career and Washington D.C. forever to "go live in Vancouver... on some land... and grow a few tomatoes."

Many readers will be critical of Cassie's rapid transition from True Believer in the gospel of perpetual cheap energy and the magic of technology to solve any problem; to Peak Oil believer after a month's acquaintance with one man, a conference, and one damning document' and anyone who has ever worked in the financial world knows how unlikely it is that an employee who broke into the CEO's email and downloaded highly sensitive documents would be allowed to escape with so little punishment, let alone a lavish payout. In the real business world, people like Cassie are utterly, completely, totally destroyed, if they're even allowed to live, and they're fortunate if they're allowed to slink away utterly discredited and completely impoverished with no chance of recovery to a decent career ever.

Many other readers may also question Cassie's ethics in allowing herself to be "bought" and silenced, but I find her believable and sympathetic, and in her place, I would not have acted differently. Why risk everything you have, including your life, to deliver a message the world does not want to hear? Our young Cassandra rightly perceived that her message would only meet with contempt and denial from a public that has too much invested in not hearing it, and that the best use she could make of her unwanted new knowledge was to save herself... and go off to Vancouver and grow some tomatoes.

Altogether a very pleasurable, fast read and a novel I'd recommend to the non-Peak-Oil aware among your friends and relatives.


Nudge said...

Thank you for posting this review.

I agree wholeheartedly with the author's reasons for setting the story in the familiar present and not in some Mad Max scenario. There are many kinds of doomers, and the “foamers” among that set are the ones who see Mad Max scenarios lurking behind every turn of events, waiting to pounce on an unaware world and quickly shake it up. The appeal of Mad Max type fiction is very limited; it's not an effective way to present resource depletion.

Sorry to hear that in the story, Cassie simply vanishes to her PNW farm to raise vegetables. The real work to be done here by the PO-aware people is not to disappear from the scene in order to save our own precious hides but to communicate that awareness to the ones we care for, and to help them understand that the transition from more-oil to less-oil need not be the sharp shock that's presented in most of the Mad Max type fiction. People can get started on their own fossil-fuel powering-down paths in the present time; there is hardly anyone among us who cannot do some small thing to help lighten their personal (and our collective) fuel consumption. Understanding the need and importance of doing this, and not from the basis of being frightened by doomer pr0n either, is the message we'd probably prefer to communicate.

The North Coast said...

I have to admit I'm a little weary of trying to get the message out to the complacent and denying myself, and that the best course of action is to lead by example, and do the things I need to do to save myself. In any case, how can you get your message out if you are destroyed, discredited, utterly impoverished.... or dead? As Cassie's Russian friend points out, were she to make her knowledge public, she would only be discredited and destroyed, or worse.

Better to whisper in someone's ear and tell him to pass it on, sometimes, than to shout from rooftops. I'm finding that it is much better to deliver the message a little at a time, and offer people something that will help them cope, like how to economize steeply. Spreading the Frugality meme is a very good start. Appeal to people on the basis of self interest, and remember that saving our hides is what it's really all about.

Nudge said...

There are lots of useful things a person could do while still complying with the deal to take the money and not say what she knows about oil and how she came to know it. Run a seed exchange. Help teach permaculture affordably. I'd be tempted to start up a bicycle repair co-op to help put low-cost transportation (and skills) in as many hands as possible. Most of these things overlap with other efforts already underway .. and participation in them doesn't imply any secret knowledge of the global oil situation.

Kurt Cobb said...

Let me say a little about why I ended the novel the way I did. Yes, Cassie is now limited in what she can say, but not what she can do as Nudge points out. I'm telling readers that they cannot sit back and wait for others, especially those in authority, to say something or do something about peak oil. Each one of us who is peak oil aware must act regardless of what those at the top do.

That said I do think it is useful to talk with and work with local officials to whatever extent is possible. I am more skeptical about the efficacy of focusing on federal officials, especially those in Congress who seem for the most part beholden to the fossil fuel interests.

Nudge said...

Kurt, didn't expect to meet you here! :)

In regard to your comment about someone being limited in what she can say but not in what she can do .. forgive me for stretching the metaphor just a tiny bit to suggest that many of us are in that same situation, though for another reason: quite often we might fear that the people we care about (or the people around us) will withdraw if we speak too openly about the realities of fossil-fuel resource depletion. I don't mean scaring them with Mad Max scenarios, but just laying out the facts about the volume of oil we import, the cheesy way we manipulate our currency to generate the credit for it, the expenditure of 10 calories of FF per 1 calorie of mass-produced food, the way we are 4% of the world's population wolfing down 25% of the world's resources, and more. For most people, this is information they'd never hear or find out about on their own or from the people they mostly interact with.

While what we say might need to be toned down so as to keep the subject matter within the realm of the familiar for most folks, the canvas upon which our actions are painted is a whole nother story. Instead of speaking the abovementioned facts out loud, start carpooling, or bicycling, or walking to work. The number of people who notice your activity will far exceed the number of people who will hear the facts about PO without walking away scared or offended or turned off. If they ask why you're bicycling, you can say that it's great for your health, or that it's very refreshing in the morning, or that you're saving money on motor fuel. Most people need to be able to fit those reasons into a familiar plot narrative for it to make sense to them, is all.

Anonymous said...

Peak oil for gasoline and peak fuel are two different things. We have barely scratched efficient diesels and compressed natural gas or propane to get around and get things done. And the opportunities for increased efficiency in our personal lives are largely ignored because the cost allows it. Energy is still a bargain. A third of the cars packing the roads twice every week day could disappear if we fully utilized the internet for work. As the price increases so will our willingness to change and adapt. I am less worried about peak oil in terms of social impact than I am the money running out for all the free rides people have become accustomed to. It's unsustainable, and we are already seeing the consequences of taking it away.