Since the 1970s, a prominent strand of the environmental community has warned of imminent energy shortage, hoping to persuade people to conserve resources and shift to alternative fuels that pollute less. This has often worked for a time: in the 1970s, for example, fears of scarce oil and environmental damage combined to prompt strong efforts that cut fuel consumption and directed government money toward renewable power. Yet initiatives in this vein have inevitably faltered. Worries about vanishing resources have reliably spurred rising prices, which, in turn, spark exploration and innovation that reveals ever-larger sources of fossil fuels. That new abundance does not only challenge the economics of alternative energy sources - it also invariably erodes their foundation of political support.
Charles Mann's fascinating essay recounts the most recent turn in this cycle, and gives a glimpse at what the next twist might be. Shale gas and tight oil, he reports, have again eviscerated expectations that a transition to clean energy will driven by fossil fuels' scarcity. And methane hydrates, still an esoteric and far-from-commercial prospect, might eventually dwarf that, giving the world the option to use fossil fuels forever - and by driving climate change, fry the planet in the process.