Nature versus Man Number 4:Thoughts about Peak Oil
This is part of a series which is intended to show that we are not necessarily the architecs of our future. Sometimes, unexpected events shape our history in ways that we cannot imagine.
Oil is a natural resource. It exists deep in the Earth's crust, unevenly distributed in the world. It is a dark fluid that has a very high energy density, therefore, is ideal as cheap fuel. It is also ideal to form polymers, such as plastics and to obtain fertilizers, pesticides, electricity, etc.
Oil is the foundation of the Western civilization and of the other civilizations that adopt Western ways of living. However, oil has not been an important part of our lives until well into the 19th century C.E. Once the Industrial Revolution could not sustain itself with coal, oil derivatives became the most important fuel. Nowadays, oil is everywhere in our lives. Transportation, agriculture, and hardware in general are just examples.
Oil is a fossil fuel. So, by definition, it cannot be replaced. It took hundreds of millions of years for dead organic matter to become oil. Being oil a limited resource, I always wondered when we would run out of it and what would happen to our way of life.
I did some research into the topic. I am not an environmental fundamentalist, but I understand that we need a better relationship with nature. I looked into many sources and always found the same answer: We are approaching a critical point in the history of this civilization. Some people argue that that point will arrive in 5 years other in 30 years. Some say that societies will disintegrate and everything will end up in nuclear war, others say that we will start a slow downward slope towards a new dark age.
I must accept that it is the first time in many years that I felt true anxiety about something I was reading. It was not the knowledge that oil will finish because I knew that. It was the fact that events seem to be so close in our future and the fact that there is nothing we can do to avoid it. Even if we stop using SUV's and we switch to ethanol-powered vehicles. The food we eat travels 1500 miles before reaching us and, in order to grow sugar cane to form ethanol, we need fertilizers and pesticides, i.e. oil. What about the plastics? What about electricity? Some will say nuclear energy is the answer. Well, to obtain nuclear energy we need uranium. Uranium is not abundant, and, so as to extract it, we need to drill, and to blow up mountains, i.e. oil. What about solar and wind power? Too low energy density, too intermittent of a supply.
The conclusions are pretty much obvious. Our current population is unsustainable. Some time in the course of this or the next generation we will experience economic- cultural-demographic decline in a planetary level. Nations and ethnic groups will fight for resources. States will fail to provide basic needs like security, education and healthcare. We will stabilize at a level which could be comparable to a pre-industrial society. How pre-industrial? I do not know the answer to that. The most pessimistic analysts say Stone Age, the most optimistic say Middle Ages. After all, it took between 1200 and 1300 years for Europe to recover Roman standards of living.
My sincere wishes are that, after everything happens and we start to develop again, we become a species that lives in more harmony with nature. I am an atheist, but I would understand much more a polytheistic, nature-based, supernatural mythology than an intolerant nature-serving-man monotheistic folly. I also wish that knowledge is preserved. The great tragedy of the 4th till the 7th century C.E. was the systematic destruction of knowledge due to religious intolerance. We should preserve everything we can to make this transition less painful.
Nature sometimes works in ways we cannot predict.