Book review: The last hours of ancient sunlight

Last hours

I read a life-changing book recently. It is no exaggeration to say it has transformed the way I view the world.

It has reshaped my understanding of human history and redefined for me what “sustainable living” means. The book is The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight by Thom Hartmann.

The ancient sunlight the author refers to is oil but this book is about a lot more than oil. I’d like to share a little about this very special book and why I think it is a must-read.

The books begins by explaining why there is no doubt that we are fast running out of oil, and just how dependent we are on it. According to current estimates, we have around 25 years’ supply left at current rates of use but with an expanding population and oil use per capita increasing in tandem, these estimates could be wildly optimistic.

But oil will become a problem long before the last well runs dry, as our society depends not simply on oil but on cheap oil. In 2008, eight UK companies joined together as the Peak Oil Task Force and their report concluded that peak oil – the moment at which worldwide oil production peaks and thereafter goes into permanent decline – will be in 2013 and will “hit society like a tidal wave”.

During the oil shocks of the 1970s, a 5% fall in supply of oil led to a quadrupling of the price. Fortunately, these price shocks were only temporary. But imagine what would happen to the stability of our economies and our societies if the price of oil were to quadruple tomorrow and to continue from there on a permanent upwards trend?

Well, that is what the future holds – it’s not a question of “if”; only of “when”.

And if you thought the end of cheap oil will simply mean you won’t be able to drive as much and that cheap foreign holidays will be out, think again. The food we eat, the goods we buy, the way we power our homes, and the very infrastructures on which our societies are based – all are dependent on cheap oil.

Hartmann points out that this problem and all of our environmental problems come from one common cause: the fact that we’ve been living, and consuming, in a way that is completely unsustainable. And this is not a new phenomenon that came about in the last few decades, nor even since the Industrial Revolution. Hartmann demonstrates that humans have been living unsustainably on the Earth ever since the dawn of civilisation 8,000 years ago. And that, primarily, is what this book is about.

The first section of the book is about the problems we face, the second is about how we got here and the third is about what we can do about it. Although the issues in the book can be shocking when you realise for the first time just how real and serious they are, by the time you get to the end of the book you will not feel pessimistic; you will know that as long as enough people understand where we went wrong and are committed to putting it right, we will turn things around. And that is my motive in telling you about this book.

Hartmann argues that the solution to our problems does not lie in making changes like switching to slightly more sustainable forms of energy or driving less. Such steps will be completely inadequate as they only address the symptom of the problem rather than the root cause. And that is that “civilised” human societies have without exception valued the planet and its plant and animal life only to the extent that we are able to exploit them for our own uses.

So the author’s suggestion is not so much that we make X or Y change in how we live, but that we change how we view the natural world and our place in it. And that if enough of us do that, we will alter the course we are on as a species.

Did you know that our culture is a “young” culture and that all “old” cultures are tribal? Did you know that civilisation brought with it not only unsustainable living but also war? Did you know that while all civilisations have been based on hierarchy and domination, with the needs of the many sacrificed for the greed of the few in power, tribal cultures have always been egalitarian? Hartmann admits straight up that it is unrealistic to think we are going to return to a tribal way of life, but his suggestion is that we need to start to think the way the tribal cultures did – for example, the American Indian tribe who would never make a decision without first asking, “How would this affect our descendants seven generations from now?”

I could write 5,000 words about this book, but Thom Hartmann says it all better than I ever could. Here are just some of the topics it covers:

  • How much fossil fuel do we have left?
  • How can things look so good yet be so bad?
  • The role of the mainstream media in keeping us in the dark
  • Glimpsing a possible future
  • The death of the trees
  • Species extinctions
  • Climate change
  • Can we save our civilisation with alternatives to oil?
  • When fuel runs low, fighting starts
  • Comparing older (tribal) and younger (city/state) cultures
  • The lives of ancient people
  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Power versus cooperation
  • Conscious living
  • Re-empowering women
  • Redefining “enough”
  • Respecting other cultures and communities
  • Changing how we use technology
  • Living “off the grid”
  • Turning off the TV
  • The modern-day tribe: intentional community
  • Reinventing our daily lives and rituals

My one disappointment with this book is that although Hartmann speaks out against our exploitation of animals, nowhere does he discuss what a massive culprit factory farming is in all of this, due to its massive direct and indirect consumption of fossil fuels. But though it is disappointing that the author does not join these dots, it doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the book, and you can join them as you read.

Buy your copy here.


Leave a Reply

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