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For the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China built the world's biggest sports arena - the idiosyncratic Bird's Nest Stadium. Twenty-five storeys high, the stadium has an official volume of 4.9 million cubic metres. Fill this stadium with crude oil 850 times, and you equal annual global oil consumption. How best express this much oil? Forget billions of barrels. Try a cubic mile.

Here's an original, illuminating and entertaining way to experience the energy debate, A Cubic Mile of Oil: Realities and Options for Averting the Looming Global Energy Crisis. Written by three California-based scientists (bioengineer Hewitt Crane, energy technologist Edwin Kinderman and organic chemist Ripudaman Malhotra) and published by Oxford University Press, Cubic Mile uses a simple volumetric metaphor to eliminate a bewildering technocratic Babel: a pool of oil one mile wide, one mile long and one mile deep.

One cubic mile of oil (CMO) equals the oil that the world consumes every year. Three CMOs equal the energy that the world consumes every year. (More precisely, one CMO equals global oil consumption in 2000; by 2006, consumption had increased to 1.06 CMO.) Cited in cubic miles of oil, energy consumption can be expressed without reference to barrels and gallons of oil, tons (or tonnes) of coal or cubic feet of natural gas - or, for that matter, to British thermal units, joules, calories, watt-hours and all the associated mind-numbing multipliers that accompany them, such as trillions and quadrillions, gigawatts and terawatts.

Messrs. Hewitt, Kinderman and Malhotra are all affiliated with SRI International, an independent research institution based in Menlo Park. Or were affiliated: Mr. Hewitt died shortly before publication of the book. It was he who devised the concept of the CMO, as he sat in a gas pump lineup during the energy crisis of 1974. (Readers offended by the reference cubic miles of oil can convert a CMO to a CKO: 4.1 cubic kilometres of oil. Feel free, the authors suggest, to round it off to an even four.)

But Cubic Mile is more than an introduction to a new unit of measurement. It is an encyclopedic embrace of energy issues, with dispassionate but compelling analysis of the energy conundrum.

People shouldn't count, for example, on bio-waste. Convert all of the world's garbage into electrical energy, Cubic Mile asserts, and you might meet 1 or 2 per cent of the world's energy needs. Biomass now provides a mere 0.15 CMO - and this mostly from the old-fashioned burning of wood. Similarly, the energy contributions of wind, photovoltaic and solar thermal "barely register on the CMO scale."

The authors calculate that global demand for energy will rise from three CMOs to six CMOs by 2050 - or, perhaps, to nine CMOs. They describe this task as daunting. They note that it took 200 years (1700 to 1900) for coal to replace wood as the world's primary energy source. It took almost 100 years (1870 to 1960) for oil to replace coal. And it took 100 years (1900 to 2000) for natural gas to equal coal in energy usage.

Fossil fuels will necessarily supply much of the necessary energy ("We are not 'running out of oil,' " the authors say). Coal especially could become a more important source. At current rates of consumption (0.8 CMO a year), coal reserves will last for centuries. But all energy production comes with serious disadvantages.

To increase coal-sourced energy by one CMO a year, for example, will require 1,300 new surface coal mines; 2,600 new underground mines; 300,000 more trucks (running from mine to railhead) - and 2,600 more trains (each consisting of 130 cars drawn by three 3,500-horsepower locomotives). And each mine will leave behind 750,000 tons of excavated material spread - 50 feet deep - across 20 square miles.

Producing one CMO of energy a year from hydro power will require the construction of 153 of China's Three Gorges Dams - or one every four months for the next 50 years.

Producing one CMO of electricity from wind will require three million two-megawatt wind turbines. These turbines would occupy 580,000 acres of combined space.

And nuclear? The world will go increasingly nuclear - but every CMO of nuclear energy will require 500 new surface uranium mines; 1,000 new underground uranium mines; and 2,280 nuclear reactor operations.