Jeff Rubin is a Toronto-based economist for CIBC World Markets, and he has written a book predicting a future of “triple digit” oil, and some of the consequences it will have. While the book is interesting and many aspects of the hypothesis are plausible, the lack of rigour in analysis makes the work less convincing than it might otherwise have been. For one thing, “triple digit” oil covers an awfully broad range. For another, it isn’t clear whether the effects he predicts will unfold in the order he anticipates. For instance, if severe climate change impacts emerge before acute and permanent increases in the price of fossil fuels, the global consequences may look rather different.
When he says that the world is going to get ‘smaller,’ Rubin is reversing the normal sense of globalization having shrunk the world. What he really means is that the world will get larger, relative to our ability to travel and move goods, and that we will have a correspondingly more local focus as a result. That means less imports of all kinds, less travel, and the re-localization of industry. Rubin’s strongest points and arguments relate to the production and use of fossil fuels: such as the effect of domestically subsidized fuels in oil producing states, the limitations associated with energy efficiency, the problems with corn ethanol, and the importance of energy return on investment, when contemplating alternative fuels and sources of energy.
Rubin’s habit of mixing established fact with speculation, and sometimes dismissing important possibilities with a brief splash of rhetoric, makes this book more valuable as a prod to thinking than as a guide to what is likely to happen. The book also contains the occasional overt error, such as referring to prosperous South Korea as the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ – rather than the tyrannical regime to the north. The chapter on climate change was certainly lacking in ways that make me doubt the overall quality of Rubin’s understanding and analysis. He doesn’t really seem to grasp the concept of a stabilization pathway, technological wedges, or the physical realities that must accompany the stabilization of greenhouse gasses at a safe level. His discussion of electrical generation – in both fossil fuel based and alternative forms – is similarly lacking in detailed and rigorous evaluation.
In the end, Rubin’s work is an interesting way to set yourself thinking about the effect that constrained energy ability would have upon the world and your life. When it comes to evaluating the macroeconomic and societal consequences of such a development, the book would probably best be read alongside a more transparent and quantitative analysis, such as that in David MacKay’s book on sustainable energy.