Follow by Email


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

There's no going back

There's this fantasy that the world can always go back to a simpler time. If things go badly, and oil runs low, we'll just regress to all being yeoman farmers. Everyone will just gently slip back to a lifestyle of 100 years ago or so.

Not gonna happen. Before the world started using oil, lighting and lubrication was provided by whale oil. In the early days of Nantucket whaling, they'd only use whales that had died naturally and washed up on the beach. Later, the men of Nantucket went out in small boats to kill a few whales themselves. Boats got bigger and headed further out. In the end, whaling ships would be gone for four long years as they were hunting whales in the far Pacific.

Fortunately, petroleum was able to replace whale oil. Industrial civilization moved onward.

Now petroleum has followed the same general path as whale oil. It used to just bubble out of the ground at easy to reach locations. Now oil companies are drilling in deep water and the arctic. Feels a lot like chasing the last whales in the Pacific.

We can't replace petroleum with whale oil. For that matter, biofuels have limited uses. There's not enough cultivated land on the planet to replace petroleum with biofuels. Sure, there are some limited uses. After all, I've been running my vehicles on waste vegetable oil for years. Here's the rub, in a town of 10,000 people, there's enough waste vegetable oil from restaurants to run maybe a dozen cars.

If there was something to replace petroleum as petroleum replaced whale oil, then things would move forward, building on what came before. Doesn't look like that will happen. Renewables can replace a few percentage points of the energy provided by fossil fuels. There never was the financial incentive to fully develop then. Once the need is apparent, the financial means will already have been destroyed. The observant person can see that happening right now.

So . . .

What happens next?

Interesting times.

It's apparent the current world model isn't working. I'm not singling out any one political system. All of the major systems, be they capitalist, communist, fascist, or socialist are dependent on cheap abundant energy.

When the energy proves insufficient, what happens next? That's the choose your own adventure part of the story. There are a number of paths I can envision, but I'm sure there are many more. The world could devolve into a "last man standing" situation where nations squabble for the last bitter dregs of usable oil. A new societal system that doesn't depend on infinite growth could develop. It's happened a time or two in Earth's past. There are highly sustainable agricultural systems, highly localized, that could theoretically feed everyone.

Here's an interesting thought. The energy problems give birth to a world wide major financial disaster. Picture money economies around the world failing at about the same time. If we are lucky, not too many people will panic and most lives, at least in the short term, are safe. There may be a brief window to do something useful and interesting. Human civilization has a tremendous amount of information at its fingertips. It also has good communications. During those initial days, weeks and months, many different solutions will be tried all over the world. With any luck, the successful ones will be copied around the planet.

Species and systems evolve when under stress. Energy depletion and the financial chaos that brings certainly will provide the stress. When the old ways fail completely, and disaster looms, then it only makes sense to try anything, no matter how risky.

In the doomer world, this makes me an optimist.



  1. Those of us who are switching to a simpler lifestyle now will at least have a chance. People who are waiting till collapse to live a different way will be in for the big suffer.

    BTW, have you heard of a book called 'A Thousand Barrels a Second' by Peter Tertzakian? It is a very good account of our historical use of energy and up to where we are today, using a thousand barrels of oil each second.

  2. We are living pretty far down the American food chain right now. We've been accused of "living on air." People can't understand who we do so much with so little.

    Haven't read the book, but will keep an eye out for it.

  3. There are a lot of different choices for future energy. Hydrogen can replace gasoline. Nuclear can replace oil, althogh there is sufficient coal reserves to last a long time. There still seems to be abundant natural gas. Wind, solar, geothermal, etc. will become more abundant and less expensive as they are perfected. I am not going to give up on the human race just yet, although some people now adays do not seem to fit into the human race catagory.