At this point in time, it is very uncertain whether or not our civilisation will outlast the century. I’m not talking about the world ending, merely that the way our current world works is coming to an end one way or another.
It could end in nuclear winter, but that’s unlikely – there’s no profit to be made from nuclear winter. It could, however, end with a great silence from some lethal mistake. I’ll cover that one another time.
The biggest problem I think we face is a slow death from an inability to wean ourselves off oil.
For the last two centuries, we’ve been digging deep into the Earth to extract the products of millions of years of a special form of decomposition. This has been a massive boon to industry as there are no other fuels currently available that are so cheap, plentiful and powerful as oil, coal and gas.
However, this fuelsource has one major problem, and that is that it is a finite resource. I’ve mentioned this before, but I think it’s worth going into more detail about, which I will do here.
When we first started needing such fuel, the world population was well under a billion. Even recently, as far back as 100 years ago, the world population which needed oil was relatively miniscule.
Ever since the industrial revolutions, however, and in part thanks to them, our standard of living has gone up. We’ve used more and more fuel to do more and more things, and we’ve improved our technology for getting at these reserves in leaps and bounds… but there is a limit to the rate at which we can extract coal, oil and gas. There is also a limit to the cost-effectiveness at which we can operate the increasingly complex and demanding machinery to extract this materiel.
There does not, however, appear to be a functional limit to the demand for coal, oil and gas.
This is the key phrase: there is a point at which our ability to supply oil will fall behind demand.
In other words, there is a limit at which our ability to increase supply will peak with regards to the growth of demand on that supply.
Can anybody tell me what happens when demand outstrips supply? I’m pretty sure you can – that’s right, the price goes up. Any limited, in-demand resource will command a higher price.
If that price acts as a deterrant, then demand will drop, the price will drop, and then demand will increase again… basic economics 101, right?
Well, what happens if that demand doesn’t drop? What happens if that demand keeps on increasing?
You’ve probably been waiting for me to say the two-word phrase which I’ve been hinting at since the first paragraph in this blog post, so I’ll put you out of your misery.
That’s the key phrase. At some point in time, experts have been predicting, the global demand for oil will outstrip production. This isn’t to say production has been keeping still, because it hasn’t. Production has increased, but the availability of new oil fields has dropped off, the oil which has been available has been of lower quality and/or harder to get at, which has again increased production cost, and therefore wholesale cost.
Does anyone remember hearing about shale oil recently, over the last couple of years? You can read about it at the link, but the short version is, this is oil which was not economically feasible to extract when the price of oil was lower. This is hard-to-get oil which is expensive to produce and did not make sense in the past.
Alarm bells should be ringing at this point, because why would a company want to spend more money than is necessary to create something of value…? Correct – when the ability to create that product any other way is exhausted.
Now, let me take you on a little trip back into the past. Around 2005, oil prices started to creep up. You can really trace it back to around the year 2000, but the effects were really noticeable around 2005 (it’s not really surprising that the effects were compounded then, since there was that little fracas over in Iraq and Afghanistan, two big oil-producing or at least refining/transporting countries – still think those wars were justified?). From 2005 through 2007, petrol prices went up and up and up… there were riots, there were protests, markets slumped, businesses failed… and does anybody remember what happened in 2008?
Yes, that’s right – the global market crash. In 2008, thanks to rising fuel costs, rising production and delivery costs all around and some spectacularly bad decisions by a certain incompetent ex-governor, the entire western world fell into a slump which is still, five years later, has not emerged from.
In 2009-ish, for a few brief months, petrol was back down by 30 cents a litre in Europe. If you want to know how much that means, then for 60 litres (approximately one tank for an average family car), a 30 cent increase means 18 euros extra on that tank. That’s about 100 euro a month extra up in smoke from a salary which in real terms has been decreasing on average per year over the last five to ten years, in spite of meagre pay increases as inflation has leaped ahead.
What I’m saying is, that in 2009, it was proven to me that the only thing that could impact petrol prices in a positive way for the consumer was to have everything else collapse.
In other words, since about the year 2000, petrol prices have been increasing year on year far ahead of inflation and far ahead of our ability to compensate for those changes. In other words, supply has not kept pace with demand, growth in supply has peaked against growth in demand.
We hit peak oil in the year 2000.
From now on, oil will get progressively more expensive as supplies dwindle. This has been manifestly true for over a decade, and in fact the only dip in price was a global market crash which even then provided only a momentary blip. You can hear market analysts whinging about aberrations in the stock market, and price manipulation all you want, but the truth is that even with OPEC being a massive, criminal monopoly for oil, even with the USA, Russia and China all doing their best to cover their own asses, even with the fuckups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syrria and all these other countries with oil (do you see a correlation between US involvement and oil production perhaps? hmm?), the pattern is quite, quite clear.
We hit peak oil in the year 2000, and that peak is final without a new source of supply.
The Earth is finite. There will be no new supply – at least not one which can deal with the still-increasing demand.
The worse thing is, if that demand drops, it’s because our civilisation fell apart (see what I mean about our days being numbered?). This won’t happen merely because we can’t stuff it into our cars and burn it – if that was the only problem, we’d be laughing about it.
This will happen because our world runs off oil full stop.
Oil is more than just fuel, it is a great source for plastics, lubricants, medicines, building materials, bio material and more… and the people of the world are stuffing this vital substance into their cars and burning it.
The danger here is that supplies will dwindle slow enough that the impetus to develop alternatives that will pull us up by our own bootstraps and free us from our dependence on oil will never develop seriously until too late.
Getting off of oil requires a massive, massive set of changes. Our ingrained need for black gold is so well cemented that our cities cannot exist without it. Urban life is not possible without fast, personal transportation, neither is food, medicinal supplies, materiel delivery or anything which we now take for granted.
If we do not get off of our dependence on oil, then we will reach a point where our global market will collapse because the workers are unable to work because they cannot afford to get to work, or maybe they will just stop buying all the useless bullshit which is churned out by these crap-factories which our current civilisation has taught us have to exist for us to by things from.
The trouble is the entire shell-game may fall apart, the house of cards might collapse. This is what happened in 2008. Now imagine it happening everywhere, for good. People stop buying cars, they stop visiting fast food places, they make do with last years tv another year, they don’t buy a new house or a new car, or new clothes… the mill stops.
If it does, like it did in 2008 when all those car makers almost went out of business because nobody could afford a new car, it may not start up again.
That, my friends, is the very definition of the end of the world as we know it.
We’re at a very, very delicate place right now. Over in Europe, we’re slightly better advantaged – our fuel has always cost a lot, and therefore we’ve had people working on better alternatives for a long time. Over in America, the advantage is in raw talent and some very intelligent people in a large market where there’s a lot of money floating around (thanks to how the world runs off the dollar – try suggesting you’ll stop buying dollars, if you’re not chinese, and see what happens to your country… probably a coup, thanks, CIA!)
So, we’re teetering right on the brink. If we attack a post-oil future with gusto, we’ll hopefully have a viable alternative, non-finite (within the scope of human civilisation as it is) fuelsource which will be better for the environment and mean that mad max remains a movie made in the 80’s instead of the grim dark future of tomorrow.
It would also solve SO many global problems if we were no longer giving such large amounts of money to governments who are eager to expouse a world view in which everyone who does not agree with them should be killed, too… but that’s yet another blog post.
If we don’t develop alternative fuels, though, we’re looking at a slow decline into obscurity and then anarchy, and then… that might be it. We can only reach forwards if we start now. You can’t get to fuel cells from ancient greece without an intermediary, and that intermediary is fast running out.