The career of a hero of hydrocarbon exploration reminds us that it’s a finite world after all.
The professional accomplishments of oil seer M. King Hubbert (1903-1989) are the subject of this assiduously researched book, which adds much to previous texts like Kenneth S. Deffeyes’ Hubbert’s Peak (2001). Journalist Inman begins when Hubbert was 19; his birth and hardscrabble childhood are largely irrelevant here. This biography is a character sketch within a lengthy professional CV, coupled with a narrative of big oil politics. Never “particularly good at working with anyone,” Hubbert was independent, self-assured, stubborn, and irascible. The sharp, self-made Texan became a petroleum geologist and eventually taught geophysics at Columbia University. The intellectual life of Greenwich Village was more to his liking, and he was an early organizer of the technocracy movement. Unhappy at Columbia, Hubbert took a government job in Washington, D.C., but, again unhappy, he left for Houston and a career at Shell Oil. By 1956, with clear, emphatic assurance, he warned that the world would eventually run out of oil. He demonstrated the inevitable with a bell curve graph that came to be known as “Hubbert’s Peak” (or “Hubbert’s Pimple”). According to his reckoning, we are on the cusp of the downward slope of the curve, the inevitable exhaustion of hydrocarbons and, probably, the decline of life as we know it. Unless new forms of ecologically friendly energy are developed promptly, it’s apocalypse soon. Against stiff industry opposition, Hubbert lectured and published frequently. After retiring from Shell in 1964, he rejoined the government, working as a geophysicist for the U.S. Geological Survey, followed by posts at Stanford and the University of California, still preaching the lesson of Hubbert’s Peak, now widely accepted as a standard.
Inman provides enlightenment on a persistently intractable topic and praise for the scientist who clearly saw the consequences of our reliance on oil.