Jeff Rubin on The Coming Energy Crisis

Canadian economist Jeff Rubin has a somewhat oracular reputation. Since 2000, he has predicted a massive oil-price spike, and he was among the first in 2007 to prophesy that oil would soar over $100 per barrel (a few months later, he said $150 a barrel and was basically proved right again). Now, even though oil has dropped considerably from its peak, Rubin warns that it's bound to skyrocket once more and cause another, even greater economic crisis. In his new book, Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, he lays out how this energy crunch will occur—and why it will spell the end of globalization.

The scenario goes something like this: the ongoing depletion of the world's oil resources, coupled with soaring demand from emerging economies like India and China, will send the price of crude through the roof, Rubin says. This will seriously escalate transportation costs, which in turn will cripple international trade, reverse commercial interdependence and disable the global economy. The resulting age will be one in which nations are isolated, technological progress is sluggish and travel is infrequent. The Middle East will be less relevant than it is today, and food scarcity will emerge as the foremost international problem. Countries with a shortage of arable land will scramble and compete to buy agricultural real estate from other nations (for example, as Saudi Arabia is already now doing in Sudan) to alleviate their ever-worsening food crises.

Rubin's future isn't all bad. To offset the effects of the energy crisis, governments will have to invest heavily in national infrastructure (especially public-transportation systems); national industries once hurt by outsourcing and foreign competition will thrive; and the environment will become cleaner as people are forced to use less fossil fuel and as cars disappear from the streets. But Rubin warns that governments can do only so much—successful adaptation to an energy-starved world will largely depend on individuals altering their energy-consumption norms. Still, he is willing to bet that people will make the right choices. All in all, he says, "don't be surprised if the new, smaller world that emerges isn't a lot more liveable and enjoyable than the one we are about to leave behind."

Rubin's argument is powerful. There's no denying that the international economy has become critically dependent on oil as its main source for energy. Yet, like other believers in the "peak oil" theory, he falls into the trap of underestimating society's capacity to meet future fuel challenges through innovation and conservation. The story of energy over the past century has been one of breakthroughs, not retreat—so although the energy problems we face today should be a cause for concern, global integration will continue to deepen and the world is not likely to get smaller any time soon.