The inexorable oil crisis: Reasons to be glad

I saw a documentary recently called A Crude Awakening, where a bunch of experts said what they thought about oil. Documentaries tend to have an agenda, so you’ve got to be cautious about what you take from them. In the 1970s, scientists worried over the coming of a new ice age; now it’s global warming. As for oil, the experts seem to think that it’s all going to be gone in the next twenty years.

I’m not going to get too attached to specific projections, but there are certain inescapable facts we can take away from a documentary like this. The main one is: it doesn’t matter when the oil’s going to run out, it is going to run out. Oil is a limited resource. It doesn’t matter how many new repositories we discover, there can only be so many. Whether we use it all up in twenty years or a hundred, one day it will be gone. And the human race will be in big trouble. And I can’t help but smile.

You see, I don’t like the way the world is. On a simple practical level, as a cyclist, I hate these lethally fast, carbon-monoxide spewing, four-wheeled metal monsters that I share road-space with. I can’t help but smile at the thought of oil prices rising and rising, as oil becomes less and less available, while our pay checks stay the same. Eventually, I think people will have to consider bicycles, as it will simply be too expensive to drive. Flying somewhere on holiday may become a luxury that only the elite can afford.

I’ve been a fan of the idea of the electric car, but this documentary gave me a new perspective on that. With electric, there’s no longer any need for petrol, so that solves the immediate oil crisis problem, but all we’ve done is transfer the demand for the needed energy to our home electricity supply. And where does that come from, in the majority of cases? Electricity power plants based on non-renewable fossil fuels: coal. The electric car is also almost as much a pollutant as the regular car. It’s just that the pollution is all spewed out at the power plants instead of distributed evenly across the country via the tailpipes of millions of cars.

Even nuclear power isn’t the answer to the oil crisis. I personally hate nuclear power because of the deadly waste product it generates and our need to store it somewhere safe on our very unsafe planet. But even if I could get my head around that objection, nuclear power depends on – surprise, surprise – a limited, non-renewable source: uranium. And when it’s gone, it’s gone forever. So, with nuclear power, all we’re doing is pushing “The End” forward another by another few years, and not very many years according to the documentary.

They say there’s no way to build enough wind turbines to serve entire countries, in keeping with the energy consumption that we’re used to. Solar panels are very expensive to buy, in comparison to the small amount of the energy they generate. The bottom line is, the oil is going to run out, and there is nothing to replace it with. The modern world is living in a state of addiction to a drug, and someday the dealer isn’t going to have any more product. When that happens, we’re all going to experience withdrawal symptoms. No more long-distance travel. No more import-export trade. No more plastics. The impact sounds monumental, but it will likely happen in stages. Everything will simply start to get more and more expensive, and we will lose our privileges by degrees.

But you know what? It’s absolutely fine by me. Funny, even. I have grown to care a great deal about the environment, and it’s heartwarming to know that man can’t keep doing what he’s doing to the world, in the name of expedience and big business, indefinitely. The means of his destructiveness will run out and the earth will recover. I would love to see the roof of my home decked out with a big solar array, and a wind turbine blowing in the garden, while I learn to live a simpler life (something I’ve already started doing in many ways). Mankind lived for thousands of years just fine before the invention of electricity. We’ll never have to go back to that, but we won’t be able to enjoy anywhere near the level or energy we’re used to. I can’t help but think that in several hundred years time, our children might be sitting in schools having history lessons about the horrors 20th and 21st centuries. And they will be shaking their heads in disbelief at the things we’ve done to the planet in our pursuit of wealth and affluence. “Yes, children. In some population centres there were so many motor vehicles causing so much pollution that entire cities became encased in a smog that was so dense you could photograph it. The smog made it more difficult to breathe and caused illness. But people thought this was normal life, and they refused to change.” And the children will gasp in disbelief. People don’t accept their personal responsibility for the planet’s welfare when they see themselves as one among billions. But when all those billions are spewing out pollution, we are indeed all collectively responsible. There’s a saying that I love: No snowflake in an avalanche ever felt responsible.

I understand the predicament people are in. Not everyone is free and single like me. Not everyone works within two miles of their home. Not everyone can say, like me, “Screw cars. I’m gonna ride a bicycle from now on.” Not everyone feels they can change. But the change is coming. And I think that’s great. You can cling to the present system tooth and nail, feeding your oil addiction while the government makes you poorer and poorer through rising prices, until finally you are broke and beaten; the oil is gone and your money is in the hands of the fat cats. Or you can look for ways to beat the system and turn it into personal empowerment.

Of course, the discovery of alternative energy isn’t something that I can completely write off, and it’s certainly something to hope for. The past hundred years have seen massive technological leaps, and I think we can expect more. It’s only fair to say that change of one kind or another is coming, and none of it looks bad to me. The sooner the better, for the sake of the health of the planet and ourselves. To quote a song by REM: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

14 thoughts on “The inexorable oil crisis: Reasons to be glad

  1. One thing that I wonder about is the impact that so called renewable energy will have on the environment in the long term. For example, if we extract energy from the wind there is less wind. Same goes for solar power: the power that was extracted no longer goes into the environment.

    Logically, there’s no such thing as free power.

    The amounts that we extract may seem small at the moment but surely they will have a significant effect when scaled up to a level where they can power the entire planet?

  2. Stacey

    Ah, Darryl, finally a point we agree on! I am also happy to sit back and smile as most of the energy crisis evolves. I can easily do without this stupid tv, or even our lights, and many other things. For now, we do our best to recycle, reuse, live close to Chris’s work, don’t use paper plates all the time, or paper towels, etc. We haven’t quite gone so far as to set up solar panels on our roof or capture rain water, but I’d like to.

    But at the same time, there are so many things we can’t do without, like air conditioning in 100+ degree weather, like plastics used in hospitals, like exporting food to rather barren parts of the country. Somehow, I think these problems will all be dealt with and somebody will make a profit from them. The regular articles on “going green” (the newest fad, no?) in Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens, even Parenting, make me confident in this.

    Mike, you have a point. Massive amounts of wind turbines would do what to the weather patterns? We don’t know the impact this or so many other things would have.
    I think the best plan of action is to get energy from wasted places, if you will. For instance, the sunlight that falls on a roof is already wasted, and rain that falls on the ground could be just as easily collected there as from a water purifying plant (which is a totally gross process, I’d rather drink rainwater), not to mention we could put turbine generators in our gutters, using gravitational energy from falling rain, which could be a huge source of energy in places like the UK. There’s plenty of places to get “low impact” energy. So although we can’t have no impact, we can tread softly, as the saying goes.

    Don’t worry guys, it’s a process. And the oil companies can’t give up their lucrative business quite yet. Not until they’ve invested a substatial amount of their interests into the alternatives.

  3. People just need to start taking responsibility for their place in the world. At the moment folks have their heads in the sand and attach themselves to the notion that life will always be how it is currently. Meanwhile fuel costs rise as we consume the resources of the world in a wasteful fashion on a day to day basis.

    I work about a mile away. I walk every day. My work colleagues seem to see this as somewhat eccentric behaviour on my part. It would probably take me the same amount of time to drive through rush hour traffic to get there, instead I make no impact on the dwindling fuel resources, don’t pollute the environment, get exercise and see more of my neighbourhood at the same time.

    Cars make people lazy. they are cheap enough to run that people can use them for trivial journeys. as well as those driving walkable distance to work we have the daily school run with kids being driven ridiculously short journeys to school because… well the majority of the excuses are ludicrous…. “It’s safer.” Paedophiles around every corner, danger of being hit by cars… and because of this there are more cars on the road… and many many more kids are killed on the drive to school than are snatched by strangers. It’s all just laziness. and those people who prefer to drive than take the bus or walk because they like the seclusion of their metal cocoon in the morning… the same reason they won’t share a car.

    these self-same people will be the ones moaning in the future, when the fuel runs out. Saying “Why didn’t someone do something?”

    When the oil runs out and society collapses (as it will, because it’s dependence on fossil fuels won’t cease as the populace will happily keep their heads in the sand until the end) the fault will be with all those who drove when they could have walked, demanded import goods when adequate alternatives were available locally, and took cheap flights to the continent when a holiday in Donegal would have sufficed.

    I already know people preparing for a self-sufficient life when the big collapse comes. Some see them as nutters but it’s becoming more and more apparent that a big hangover is coming and the sooner we start preparing for it, the better.

  4. The billion dollar oil industry won’t be the one to suffer in all of this, it’ll be the normal man, woman and child in the street.
    It may well be a good thing that we all learn to use bikes, walk more, etc, but there’s a lot of other things that use oil and natural resources, and the transition as we try and find other things to use, will be a deadly one for a lot of people.

    The first people who will suffer are the old, many of whom will probably die this year because they can’t afford heating. These are real people, individual and flesh and blood. There’s already a number of OAPs that die every year in winter for this very reason, and with the rising costs, that number will only grow higher.

    Then there’s medicines, a lot of which use oils, and a lot of which will be life saving, for heart conditions, blood pressure, etc. At first they’ll be taken off prescription due to costs (Like certain cancer drugs are refused now), and made private only, then the prices will rise and only the elite will be able to afford them.

    As stacey says, there are plastics used in a lot of tools in a hospital, not to mention other places and items, which is fine for now, but in 20 years and after the current tools have worn down or broken, there’s going to be a great shortage of these things, again costing lives. Incubators to keep struggling babies alive, even the fittings for things like heart monitors and ECG machines.

    What about things like bikes? Isn’t oil a major part of the tyre-making process? We also need oil for the chains, to stop them drying out and rusting.

    Oil is about much more than a healthier environment, or stopping people using cars to go to the shop. I really don’t see it as a smiling matter. People are going to die because of it, probably in the millions, not because they’re bad people, or deserving in any way, but because they were led to believe that it’s the way things are, and because they’ve become complacent. Hardly justice being served.

  5. Stacey

    I repent of my smile earlier. Chris has chastised me for it, and I think it comes from my confidence that it will be dealt with, and is being dealt with. Things will change, and humanity will survive, though as you say, it may be a deadly transition. I guess that I, like so many others, really can’t conceive of it actually happening that way.

  6. Here’s a question for y’all. If you could click your fingers and magic into existence enough oil repositories for the next five hundred years, would you do it?

    My answer would be no – on the grounds that we need a liveable planet to live on. I hear everything Paul is saying, but there is a bigger picture than all that.

    I welcome the oil crisis. I can only live in hope that the adjustment to life without oil will be done with as little casualties to the human race as possible. Let’s not forget about all the casualties in the here and now that are a direct result of life in this polluted environment.

  7. The bigger question for me would be, is the new answer any better than the old one?

    Greed won’t just go away because oil runs out. If they could find a way of replacing oil with the blood of pre-teen virgins and it was lucrative enough, they’d jump at the chance.

    As pointed out in the comments already, things like wind power, solar power and hydra power, aren’t much better for the planet anyway. Maybe there just isn’t a planet-friendly way of doing it all.

    On the other hand though, i’ve heard talk of biological answers, including an oil that replenishes itself. I don’t know all the details, as it wasn’t really a subject i had great interest in, but i might give it a look, to find some details. For now, i think the general idea is to turn the resource into something similar to a virus, with DNA, etc. Have it replicate, thus we never run out.

    And, of course, we have things like clean fusion, although that seems more like a pipe dream, unless anyone lends credence to the guy trying to create it with sound and water.

  8. I really can’t “welcome” any crisis, that’s going to end up killing millions of people. I can see the benefits of it, certainly to future generations, etc, but i really can’t “welcome” it.
    I see that the same as the old testament God, smiting the masses to teach them a lesson, and i’d be wary of Christians who joyed in the success of the flood.

  9. I don’t see this issue on the same terms as you do. I don’t forsee a sudden cataclysm ahead, but a slow and difficult transition. And to me, it’s not a case of the world being all right at the moment. The environment is in a bad state, and getting worse. And all I can think is thank goodness we don’t have it within our means to keep doing this to the planet forever.

  10. Stacey

    Maybe David Brin’s “Earth” isn’t too far off. And maybe we can expect to see Darryl Sloan hacking away at his computer controlling a ginormous gaser beam to dwindle the population of the infestation of people that are hurting his Gaia πŸ˜‰ (I’m teasing,

  11. No way. I love everybody. If I had a laser (gaser??), I would never use it on anyone. Well, maybe just on Paulie; he disagrees with me too much. Everyone else can live. πŸ˜‰

  12. If your laser is powered by telekinesis, i won’t worry too much yet. :p
    I’ll take your laser, and Stace’s gaser (whatever one of those actually is), and raise it my very own yellow snowball. πŸ˜€

  13. Ralph

    I am glad that these natural resources are running out, seeing that the way things work right now mankind needs this to happen for us to wake up and smell the ashes. There might be a huge downside including with the loss of human life but then again this might be natures way to tell us we should stop being so darn ignorant and start pulling our heads out of the sand.

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