Back to the post-oil future

The imminent demise of the global petroleum industry will necessarily entail a complete redesign of industrial societies.

February 1, 2005
10 min read

Oil has been the cheapest and most convenient energy resource ever discovered by humans. During the past two centuries people in industrial nations accustomed themselves to a regime in which more fossil-fuel energy was available each year. The global population grew quickly to take advantage of this energy windfall. Industrial nations also came to rely on an economic system built on the assumption that growth is normal and necessary, and that it can go on for ever. When global oil production peaks, as it will in the next few years, that assumption will come crashing down.

How can we be sure that oil will become less abundant? By looking at the experience of the US, the most intensively oil-explored region on the planet. Oil discovery in the US peaked in the 1930s; oil production did so roughly 40 years later. Since 1970 America has had to import more oil nearly every year.

This pattern is now being repeated around the world. Globally, oil discovery peaked in the 1960s. One after another, oil-exporting nations are passing their production peaks and becoming oil importers. Britain will become a net importer this year. Between 18 and 24 of the world’s other 45 most important oil-producing nations are also now post-peak. The global production peak is expected to arrive between now and 2010.

Clearly, we need to immediately find substitutes for oil. But an analysis of the current alternatives is not reassuring. Solar and wind are renewable, but most nations now get only a tiny portion of their energy budgets from them; rapid growth will be necessary if they are to replace a significant fraction of the energy shortfall. Nuclear power is dogged by the problem of waste disposal. Hydrogen is not an energy source, but an energy carrier: it takes more energy to produce hydrogen than the hydrogen itself will yield. Moreover, nearly all commercially produced hydrogen now comes from natural gas, the production of which will peak only a few years after oil. Unconventional petroleum resources, such as heavy oil, tar sands and shale oil, are plentiful but costly to extract, and the rate of extraction cannot be increased arbitrarily.

The hard maths of energy-resource analysis yields an uncomfortable but unavoidable truth: even if efforts are intensified now to switch to alternative energy sources, after the oil peak industrial nations will have less energy available to do useful work, including the manufacturing and transporting of goods, the growing of food, and the heating of homes.

If there is any solution to industrial societies’ approaching energy crisis, renewables plus conservation will provide it. Yet decades will be needed to achieve a smooth transition, and we do not have decades. Moreover, even in a best-case scenario, there will have to be a massive shifting of investment from other sectors of the economy towards energy research and conservation. And the available alternatives will probably be incapable of supporting the kinds of transportation, food and housing infrastructure we now have. There will have to be a complete redesign of industrial societies.

The likely economic consequences of the energy downturn are enormous. All human activities require energy, which physicists define as ‘the capacity to do work’. The less energy available, the less work that can be done – unless the efficiency of the process of converting energy to work is raised at the same rate as energy availability declines. It will therefore be essential for all economic processes to be made more energy-efficient. However, efforts to improve efficiency are subject to diminishing returns, and a point will be reached at which reduced energy availability will translate to reduced economic activity. This is problematic given the fact that most economies are currently based on the need for perpetual growth.

The consequences for global food production will be no less profound. Throughout the 20th century, food production expanded in country after country, mostly because of increased energy inputs. Without fuel-fed tractors and petroleum-based fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, it is questionable whether crop yields can be maintained at current levels.

The oil peak will also impact upon international relations. Many wars of the 20th century were fought over resources, particularly oil. But those wars took place during a period of expanding resource availability. In the coming decades of heightened competition for fading energy resources there are likely to be more frequent and deadly conflicts.

Cooperative efforts towards conservation will be needed if humanity is to avoid ruthless competition. The ways cooperation and conservation could be achieved are limitless in detail, but the broad-scale options are few and easily surveyed. Industrialised societies will have to forego further conventional economic growth in favour of a costly transition to alternative energy sources. All nations will have to limit per-capita resource usage. To avoid wasteful competitive struggle, powerful countries will have to reduce disparities of wealth both among their own people and between themselves and poorer nations. Fresh water, topsoil and other basic and limited resources will also need to be conserved. Moreover, as energy available for industrial transportation declines, economies will have to be unlinked from the global market and re-localised. Everyone, especially people in rich, industrial nations, will have to undertake a change in lifestyle and adopt more modest and more slowly achieved material goals. And, inevitably, with the conservation of resources will come the necessity to stabilise and reduce human populations.

But it’s not as though these are entirely new ideas. In the early 1970s the international think-tank the Club of Rome commissioned a Massachusetts Institute of Technology team of researchers to complete a study on the future of industrial society. The Limits to Growth (LTG) provoked a debate that is still ongoing. It concluded that if contemporary growth trends continued fundamental resource limits would be reached in the middle of the 21st century, leading to a dramatic, uncontrollable collapse of population, food production and other measures of social viability.

While its main message was worrisome, LTG’s second important conclusion was that it might be possible to establish a state of global equilibrium at which society would be ‘sustainable without sudden and uncontrollable collapse’ and ‘capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people’. What would be required to achieve this?

First, the stabilisation of the human population (which, in 1970, stood at approximately 3.6 billion). Second, industrial efficiency would have to increase, so that ‘resource consumption per unit of industrial output [would be] reduced to one fourth of its 1970 value’. There would also have to be a corresponding reduction in pollution ‘per unit of industrial and agricultural output’. The design of industrial goods would have to be improved to maximise durability and reparability, and economies transformed from producing goods to providing services. Capital would have to be diverted so that the entire population were fed, and agriculture would need to shift to a sustainable model so as to avoid soil depletion (for example, compost would be used instead of chemical fertilisers).

Two follow-up volumes to LTG have appeared, using updated statistics: Beyond the Limits in 1992, and last year’s The Limits to Growth: the 30-year update. In the latter the authors state: ‘We are much more pessimistic about the global future than we were in 1972. It is a sad fact that humanity has largely squandered the last 30 years in futile debates and well-intentioned, but half-hearted, responses to the global ecological challenge.’

One brief trend in the sustainability literature was the suggestion that individual, small-scale initiatives would be sufficient to turn the tide. Perhaps the most familiar example of this was the best-selling book 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, which offered suggestions for recycling, reusing, bicycling and insulating homes. 50 Simple Things… provoked the rejoinders 50 Difficult Things You Can Do to Save the Earth by Gar Smith and Simple Things Won’t Save the Earth by J Robert Hunter. Smith and Hunter’s point was that the unsustainability of industrial society is due not just to individuals’ decisions about product choices and personal behaviour; it is a result of fundamental socio-economic structures, institutions and processes.

The challenging reality is that making human society sustainable will require a large-scale reform of governments and economic systems, and the use of mechanisms of authority to apply penalties and offer incentives. The mania for growth is not merely a personal pathology, or even a problem of economic ideology; it is structurally embedded in most national monetary systems. Currently, most money is loaned into existence by banks and is thus based on debt and implies a commitment to pay interest on that debt. If the economy does not grow, new money will not be created to pay interest on existing loans; those loans will thus be defaulted upon, and a crash will occur. It is essentially impossible to achieve a static or controllably contracting economy with a debt-based currency. Therefore, if we are to achieve a reduced-scale, steady-state society, we will need to change our monetary system to one that is not based on debt and interest.

Meanwhile, it will be necessary for national governments and large economic institutions to implement systemic strategies for transforming their agricultural and transportation infrastructure. Cities will need to sprout thousands of urban vegetable gardens, and a significant percentage of the population will have to be relocated to the countryside to help with agricultural production.

In order to alter the consumptive patterns of millions of citizens, public education will be required. An effective public education system already exists in the form of the advertising and entertainment industries, but it is currently spreading a message exactly the opposite of what is required. We are being told daily to buy, consume and waste, but need to reduce consumption, reuse and repair. The advertising industry will not willingly change its message; nor will the corporations that purchase advertising gladly reduce the scale of manufacture and distribution of their products, or happily redesign products to increase their durability and reparability. Forcible government intervention is essential.

True, there is much that individuals and communities can do to prepare for the coming energy crunch. Anything that promotes individual self-reliance (gardening, energy conservation and voluntary simplicity, for example) will help. But the strategy of individualist survivalism will offer only temporary refuge. True security will come only with community solidarity and interdependence.

These suggestions describe a fundamental change of direction for industrial societies: from the larger, faster and more centralised, to the smaller, slower and more local; from competition to cooperation; and from boundless growth to self-limitation.

If such recommendations were taken seriously, they could lead, a century from now, to a world with fewer people using less energy per capita and enjoying a quality of life enviable for the industrial urbanite of today.

Human inventiveness could be put to the task of expanding artistic satisfaction, finding just and convivial social arrangements, and deepening the spiritual experience of being human. Living in smaller communities, people would enjoy having more control over their lives; travelling less, they would have more of a sense of rootedness, and more of a feeling of being at home in the natural world. Renewable energy sources would provide some conveniences, but not nearly on the scale of fossil-fuelled industrialism. All this, however, will not automatically follow from the end of the oil age. It can only come about through considerable effort and immediate action.Richard Heinberg is the author of The Party’s Over: oil, war and the fate of industrial societies (Clairview, 2003) and Powerdown: options and actions for a post-carbon world (Clairview, 2004); he is a core faculty member of New College of California in Santa Rosa


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