(Above) Photo by Alex Pucher.
"My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel." —Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum
What are you going to do when the oil runs out? Peculiar question, isn’t it? It’s valid, though, so think about it a moment. Think about your job, how you get there, the food you eat (or are eating right now) and the energy required to grow and transport it to your plate. Think, for a second, about almost every single thing you come in contact with on a daily basis. Did you touch plastic today? Yes, you did. It’s oil. Did you brush your teeth? Oil. Drive on a road? Wear clothes? Watch TV? Should I go on? It’s a long list, and it’s all oil – all of it – in different refined mixtures. I’m not the first, by far, to recognize the limits to black gold. In 1956, M. King Hubbert famously offered his “Peak” and prediction of the end of oil as we know it. Thus far he has proved to be startlingly correct. And Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the Prime Minister of United Arab Emirates, knew to wonder about the other side of the oil peak, and then properly prepared his country for that day – which did indeed come.
More recently, an author of both fiction and non-fiction books took up the task of asking that same question: What will we do when the oil runs out? James Howard Kunstler is the creative force behind The Long Emergency, which is a non-fiction examination of our near future based on the worlds’ over consumption of resources. He took the knowledge he gained and transformed it into a fictional account of what we (yes, you and I) and our children face fairly soon. World Made By Hand, set in upstate New York in a future that has memories very relevant to our present, follows the daily lives of ordinary people struggling to make it in a world where the modern conveniences of electricity, hospitals, and luxury sports sedans no longer play a part. Gardens are no longer a pastime; they are a necessity. Sickness is no longer cured; it’s endured, and the once familiar staple of life that people die comes back with a vengeance as the natural carrying capacity of Earth is rediscovered at somewhere around a billion people And then there’s the place, their world, cut off from the rest of the planet and left to fend for itself without the threads that keep the world we know moving.
I remember Albany years earlier as just another down-on-its-luck small American city that had sacrificed its vitality to a whirring ring of homogenous suburbs. A flickering residue of life has persisted in the row house district near the capitol building. But that phase of its history was over, and the whole place had fallen apart from the edge to the center. Meanwhile, a strange new settlement had grown up like a fungus on a log along the waterfront underneath Interstate 787 and the tangle of ramps that soared off the once mighty Clinton Avenue interchange. This new settlement was no shining city or science fiction fantasy of gleaming towers. Rather, it was a patchwork of spare parts, salvage, and refuse, both material and human.
A world without oil – which Kunstler, Hubbert, and a host of other knowledgeable people agree is right around the corner – will look nothing like what we have learned to expect. The world will become small again, as it was a hundred and fifty years ago, or as the Amish still view it today. Without abundant cheap oil, and the eventual absence of it, the suburbs and fringes of towns and cities will rapidly deteriorate. Without oil, there will be no way to commute, fix buildings, or even the roads on which we have learned to travel in ignorant splendor, meaning these fringes will become largely uninhabited. Entropy will quickly reclaim most of the landscape, leaving only what we can (and choose) to maintain, and with very limited resources that won’t be much.
Back in the glory days of suburban expansionism, many split-level houses had been built on roadside out-parcels far away from the towns, the stores, and the jobs. The people who built them expected to be able to drive cars everywhere to work and meet their daily needs forever. Now, with the population so far down, and many empty houses in the town itself, and the oil gone, and no ability to drive heroic distances, these buildings had no value except for salvage.
These are fairly bleak expectations, and some might say outrageous and bold statements. The oil and gas companies and the United States governments’ rhetoric tell us “all is well.” We’ve got plenty of oil, and natural gas, and when we run out we’ll just replace it with something else. No Problem. Like magic – no unicorn required. But there’s a problem. Two, actually.
(Above) Oil: The big picture. Source.
The first problem is math. Simple division. I checked recently for the estimates of how much oil was left in the ground, in all forms. The answer? About one and a half trillion barrels. Wow! What a number! We could make that last for eons, right? No. Today we use eighty-five million barrels worldwide—daily. Go get your calculator. Wait, don’t bother. I’ll do it for you. It will last forty eight years, and that’s at static levels of depletion with figures provided by the oil industry. In reality, the actual number is likely lower by a third. We’ll call it thirty five years to be fair. Now, increase consumption as the world grows, and factor in that we can’t get it all because it will become too expensive to extract. Where does that leave us? About fifteen years left to use oil in any meaningful way as consumers.
Problem number two is the technologies that are supposed to replace oil as our savior and carry us into the future in the lap of luxury. All of these technologies, be it nuclear power, solar, wind, algae ethanol – whatever – all rest on the back of cheap and abundant oil reserves for building the infrastructure and proper maintenance. Take your average nuclear power plant, which we need if we’re going to power the world for much longer. The plant is built mostly of concrete, and a massive amount of it. Concrete requires vast quantities of oil to produce. Now, multiply that by all of the nuclear power plants needed to power the world. Nope. Sorry. There’s just not enough oil. And then there’s the grid. How do you service the grid without oil? You don’t, and it, too, will become salvage just as train tracks and air conditioning compressors are becoming today.
So are we going to run out of oil in our lifetime? Hardly. There will be oil in the ground long after humans cease their reign over the planet and Earth is once again the realm of the dragonfly. It will be gone to us, though, because soon enough we just won’t be able to get it out of the ground anymore. So what will you do? As the four thousand pound cars stop carrying single one hundred and fifty pound passengers to work and delivery trucks stop delivering salads fifteen hundred miles to your table, how will you make your way through the world, and what will you eat? James Howard Kunstler has an answer in World Made By Hand. We have a hard life ahead of us, but there are some surprises, too. Perhaps once we get to this unimaginable future and lose all that we’ve come to expect, there’s a chance that we might like it better. There’s a chance that oil, and all that it brought with it, was all just a dream. Good dream or nightmare, though, get ready. Fifteen years. What will you be doing when those oil wells run dry? Think about it. Or better yet, read World Made By Hand. Kunstler’s answer to the question is one you won’t soon forget.