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Discussion > Post-oil civilisation?

What will a Post-oil civilization, if any, look like?

How do we get there from here?

Oct 19, 2014 at 3:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic man

This started on Unthreaded (slightly wditwd for contezt and peripheral rudeness)

What will you do when the oil is no longer available?

Good question, EM! Do you have the answer? Because if you do the world would like to hear it. If not then we'll just have to carry on using oil for the next 500 years or thereabouts until it and the coal (which is almost as good) finally run out — if they do.
As Sheikh Yamani (I always that was a singularly appropriate name!) said 40 years ago, "The Stone Age didn't come to an end because we ran out of stones and what you might call the Oil Age will end long before we run out of oil."
Which is quite true but bullying people into doing without things is no inducement to carry out the research which will find the "new" plastics and already the luddites (HRH PoW in the van) are muttering darkly about the dangers of nano-technology.
Why is it that for the last half-century virtually every potential technological advance which might by now be starting to show promise as genuine replacements for coal, oil and gas — from thorium reactors and small-scale nuclear fission to GM crops and nano-technology — has either been squashed by the "green blob" and its useful idiots, most of whom haven't got a clue what they are actually ranting about, or the possible finance has been pissed away on "renewable energy" which has time and again been proven to be of negative value?
Anyone would think that we had developed a collective universal death wish. For certain we appear collectively to have taken leave of what little thinking ability we once possessed.
Oct 19, 2014 at 1:56 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson


Mike Jackson

Nice to be on the same wavelength. There will be a post-oil age, sooner or later. Whether it comes this century or in 500 years time is a separate topic.

What it will look like is difficult. We are extremely dependant on oil as a feedstock and as an energy source.

Replacing the feedstock would have to be done from biological sources. There is already a conflict between corn for biogas and food, which would only get worse. Unpleasant truth no 1 would be that a large population would probably be unsupportable.

On the energy side, I see no way to maintain the current levelsls of individual energy use. Past analogies to our civilization are classical Greece and the Roman Empire. Both supprted an elite on agriculrural surpluses produced by slaves. Our equivalent is machines powered directly or indirectly by fossil fuels.

To maintan the surpluses to support specialists is the problem if you want to supprt anything higher than feudalism.

I doubt that our civilization will survive the transition. Too high a proportion of the population expect the statua quo to last indefinately.

Renewables could be part of the solution., but, like nuclear, depend on hi-tech expertise which may not be supportable.

You see nuclear power as the solution. That postpones the problem but does not solve it. Getting ourselves established in space as we colonised America would get us out of the bottle, but nobody wants to invest the resources.As you say, the technologies to get through the transition need to be worked on now, while we have the resources to do it. Between the greens' desire for low tech solutions, the politicians' reluctance to spend the money and the deniers' reluctance to admit that there is a problem; it is not happening.

I dont see a solution, which is why I expect the future to look much closer to mediaevil York than modern day New York.

Oct 19, 2014 at 3:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic man

Oct 19, 2014 at 3:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic man

EM - don't worry about it. It is not your problem and the drive to make a buck will ensure that solutions are found.

"I cannot imagine it, therefore it is not possible" - this should be added to the list of fallacies that people often resort to.

And don't forget that, analogous to the stone age, the steam age did not end because we ran out of steam.

Actually there are some bits of modern New York (or there were the last time I lost my way there) that would make mediaeval York look like paradise on Earth. If you have the bad luck to find yourself in those bits you'll wonder if you have ended up on a post WW3 film set.

Oct 19, 2014 at 4:19 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

Anyone would think that we had developed a collective universal death wish. For certain we appear collectively to have taken leave of what little thinking ability we once possessed.
"I cannot imagine it, therefore it is not possible" - this should be added to the list of fallacies that people often resort to.
[Martin A]

Mankind has generally progressed by taking two steps forward (mostly when the climate was warm) and half-a-step back (usually when it wasn't).
As Martin A says, this is essentially not our problem. Coal, oil and gas are not about to run out any time soon. Having spent the best part of an hour scouring the internet for any reliable source as to exactly when "any time soon" is likely to be I'm not really much wiser. I'm thrown back on a combination of intelligent guesswork allied to the sort of estimates that one or two sites are prepared to make as to the likely level of undiscovered wells or seams and I come up with a figure of ~300-350 years (with error bars!).
(Note that most of the sites at the top of Google's list are more concerned with warning of the dangers of using the stuff — 'cos of global warming, innit — than with any serious attempt to address the question. Some of the comments attached to these articles would be hilarious if they weren't so cretinously ignorant.)
I almost lost the will to continue when I found this quote from, of all places, IMechE:

What is clear is that oil is getting harder to find and extract, and this is reflected in rising prices. A barrel that cost $10 in 1998 and $64 in 2007 today costs $135. Economists are predicting that the $200 ceiling will be broached before the end of the year.
How wrong can you be, guys?
So let us assume that as a starting point my grand-daughter's grand-daughter is still going to be able to enjoy (theoretically) all the benefits of cheap throwaway plastic shoes, over-heated offices, disposable plastic bags and DFS buy-it-now-throw-it-away-next-year sofas, albeit we might need to start looking at innovative ways of creating the raw material.
Or in other words there is plenty of time to discover/invent the replacements which will be needed when/if hydrocarbons no longer exist subject to certain conditions.
One is (as Owen Paterson — one 'p' only — pointed out in his speech last week) not to spend £1.3 trillion which we don't have on something that won't work and even if it did won't do the job it was intended to anyway. As a corollary we could also stop throwing money at third-rate scientists pretending to understand the world climate and whose claims and pronouncements look less and less scary and more and more embarrassing every time we look.
Not to mention spending fantastic sums taking from the poor who yet again this winter are going to have to decide whether it is heat or eat and giving this largesse to the likes of the Prime Minister's already wealthy father-in-law.

Yes, we need to consider the "post-oil" (I prefer the phrase "post-hydrocarbon") civilisation but since not one of us alive today is going to see it it's patently the case (or should be) that there is no point in this generation or the next trying to imagine what the world will look like still less dictating what it ought to look like in 100 years time, still less in 200+ years time.
The best we can do is to work on the assumption that human nature itself does not vary all that much and that aspirations of our descendants in the fifth or sixth generation would at least be recognisable to us though given the technological progress that we have made even in the quarter-century since my mother died (I tend to use her as a sort of 'frame of reference' for these things) we could be totally and horribly wrong. Which is why even trying to second-guess our grandchildren by trying to decide what sort of planet we leave for them is a) fairly pointless, b) probably immoral, and c) more likely to have them curse us than bless us.
And if all the money that could have been used by them to sort out their problems or enhance their existence has been spent by us on failing to solve the non-problem of global warming by cutting off the life-support system of cheap reliable energy that made our generation and our parents' generation the healthiest, wealthiest (not just in financial terms), longest lived, and all-round most fortunate that there have ever been then that will be true in spades.

All that said, let us talk about the post-hydrocarbon civilisation and decide just whether there is anything practical or advisable that we should be doing now bearing in mind just how little we really know about anything at all.

Oct 19, 2014 at 5:39 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Civilisation does not change because we run out of things, plenty of stone and bronze around as an example. We progress through new alternatives eg coal instead of wood, drilled oil instead of whale oil, cars replacing horses. There hangs the problem, what are the new alternatives going to be, well until they appear we can comprehend what is the future and end up like the Victorians predicting the demise of London from Horsershit ;) .

So its a stupid question and EM's predicted answer will be to pronounce gloom and doom.

Oct 19, 2014 at 6:20 PM | Registered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

Entropic man,
I agree with a lot of what Mike Jackson has said above.

I don't think that there is any danger of what might be called conventional energy resources running out any time soon. Through the history of mankind we haven't yet run out of a major resource (any resource). Changes have come as a bit of a surprise to so called experts. A single instance from the past, perhaps when the Hunt Brothers were trying to fix the silver market, an expert saying photography was doomed because the cost of film would become too high. Who uses silver technology to take photos now? Not long ago, less than 150 years, there was a whole industry supplying wood to keep Parisians warm in winter; now Parisians are kept warm with low CO2 nuclear generated electricity.

I have a slightly different take than Mike, I think, by diverting huge sums of money and intellectual effort into solving a non-problem then we are delaying all sorts of innovation and invention. Quite possibly the solution to the non-problem we are trying to solve. In many ways we are involved in a global Darien Scheme which will have similar consequences.

I can think of several sources of plentiful "clean" electrical power which we don't currently have the technology to use safely or at all. What i don't have any idea about is how we replace all the materials which are produced from hydro-carbons. That includes those produced directly from hydro-carbons as well those we wouldn't have without them. As most of these materials are combinations of elements available in vast quantities in other forms Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Halogens, Nitrogen, Sodium, Calcium and so on. With plentiful low cost electricity it should be possible to breakdown one or more molecules and make some others, we might have to make some more CO2 when the plants use up the current supply.

Oct 19, 2014 at 6:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

Or you could add Ford's belief that if you had asked his potential customers what they were looking for in transport improvements they would have said 'a faster horse'.
Or Joni Mitchell, "don't know what you've got till it's gone" (or perhaps "don't know what there is till it turns up"?)
Or Rumsfeld's 'unknown unknowns'.
Or "forecasting is very difficult --- especially about the future".

Oct 19, 2014 at 6:57 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Final comment for tonight (family commitments) --
I'm not wholly against bio-fuels though we must get seriously to grips with the problems of Africa (the Horn of Africa especially).
I can look up the references later but meanwhile there has been at least one paper that argues that only lack of technological input and the political situation is preventing that region from being fertile enough to feed the whole of the rest of the continent.
Stop tugging at our heartstrings, which is what that likes of Oxfam, SCF, Cafod have been doing for decades. They are more than happy to lobby governments on the subject of global warming which I don't see quoted anywhere as being relevant to their aims and objects but reluctant to lobby against the support, by way of overseas aid, that governments are happy to give to prop up dictators and warlords in the area.
Drought may be climatic; famine is political. The solution is there but it needs real guts and political will to do something about it.
Do that and the question of using some part of the earth's land surface for "growing fuel" is less contentious at least as a stop-gap.
As for replacing materials currently made from hydrocarbons, Sandy, it'll happen. From what source we don't know and how soon we don't know. Probably from totally unrelated research and quite possibly by accident (think penicillin on that). But happen it will, OR we'll go down a different path altogether.

Oct 19, 2014 at 7:58 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Yes, Sandy. We are able to synthesize all our current petroleum products by other routes.

This type of problem is often set in Chemistry exams. Of course, few of these routes would be used today in practice, not least because of the high energy costs. If we make energy cheaper, not more expensive, then it opens new dimensions and possibilities.

The example, par excellence, of human adaptation to an apparently diminishing resource is the Haber process for making ammonia and nitrogenous fertilizers from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen. It also helped supply munitions for war purposes, but the cost-benefit to humanity is hugely on the positive side. It has been argued that it is the prime reason why there are seven billion humans alive on this planet. Chemists aren't expecting thanks from Greenpeace any time soon.

With cheap energy there is plenty of room for seven billion more people.

Oct 19, 2014 at 8:52 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Cheap plentiful energy replaced by cheaper more plentiful energy. Something which has happened in the past more than once. No one can predict how and when, wasting money on a non-problem isn't the way to go though.

Oct 19, 2014 at 10:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

I've seen people here who consider economic growth and energy use to be joined at the hip. Anyone of that view will have to accept that such a correlation must end within a few hundred years, if not now. At 2.3% growth in energy use, it would increase 10 fold in 100 years; 100 fold in 200 years. It seems unlikely that we can find enough fossil fuels for a 10x increase in use. So either we will need to find different fuels or we will break the energy/growth link by growing less or growing more efficiently. Increased efficiency seems essential (so let's start now).

Solar might help, but by the time we get to 400 years from now at 2.3% growth in energy, we will be using the entire solar output assuming 100% efficiency solar collectors! And within 1400 years we would need to produce the entire output of the sun! So let's get real about growth in energy use.

Numbers from

Martin A: "EM - don't worry about it. It is not your problem and the drive to make a buck will ensure that solutions are found."

Let's try this. We should put a tax on carbon emissions. Why do I think doing so will not harm our economies? The drive to make a buck will ensure that solutions are found.

Oct 20, 2014 at 1:24 AM | Unregistered CommenterRaff

Oops, "by the time we get to 400 years from now at 2.3% growth in energy, we will be using the entire solar output assuming 100% efficiency solar collectors" should read "by the time we get to 400 years from now at 2.3% growth in energy, we will be using all the sunlight hitting the earth assuming 100% efficiency solar collectors"

Oct 20, 2014 at 1:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterRaff

Anyone of that view will have to accept that such a correlation must end within a few hundred years,...

OOps up inside your head.

That's the problem with Malthusians. They've got as far as the scary mathematics of exponential growth, but not as far as asking themselves why it hasn't yet produced the disaster they were hoping for.

Oct 20, 2014 at 1:50 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

I guess you didn't read the reference, michael. There are thermodynamic limits. If we were to use, say, energy from fossil, fission or fusion sources at 100% of solar input (to earth), a level we would reach after 400 years at 2.3% growth, we would be liberating that energy on earth - i.e. we would have doubled the effective energy input to earth. We are now worrying (well you aren't) about a few W/m^2 but we'd then be talking about a few hundred W/m^2. Surface temperatures would exceed body temperature.

See the graph:
The caption for the graph is:

Earth surface temperature given steady 2.3% energy growth, assuming some source other than sunlight is employed to provide our energy needs and that its use transpires on the surface of the planet. Even a dream source like fusion makes for unbearable conditions in a few hundred years if growth continues. Note that the vertical scale is logarithmic.

That will no doubt leave you unmoved. Physical limits? Meh!

Oct 20, 2014 at 2:57 AM | Unregistered CommenterRaff

Let's try this. We should put a tax on carbon emissions. Why do I think doing so will not harm our economies? The drive to make a buck will ensure that solutions are found.
Oct 20, 2014 at 1:24 AM | Unregistered CommenterRaff

Raff - That's a fallacy, although I can see that in your belief system it seems to make sense.

Taxing things does not stimulate economic activity. Likewise, mandating less efficient ways of doing things consumes resources, no different in principle from digging ditches and then filling them in again.

That will no doubt leave you unmoved. Physical limits? Meh!

Sarcasm invariably comes across badly. Best to avoid it.

But I don't think that michael hart actually meant that things can grow geometrically without limit - just that things tail off for reasons other than disaster consequent on growth - like the tendency for families to have no more than two children, as soon as car ownership becomes widespread.

Oct 20, 2014 at 10:06 AM | Registered CommenterMartin A

It appears that you have deep faith that except for a carbon tax, whatever happens in the next 400 years, self interest will make it right. We could have wars, climate change, pestilence, oil and gas shortages and price hikes, famine, whatever - come on world, nature, fate, think you're tough? Try us? We can take it! But a tax on carbon?!!! Oh my, we're so fragile we can't handle that! Your philosophy is lacking.

I like sarcasm, so I'll stick to it thanks. michael hart clearly did think energy use can grow geometrically. He may now have realised his error and I'm sure if he comes back he wont admit to have done so. Clearly we have to admit that if economic growth is/was tied to energy growth (as many claim), either economic growth will disappear with energy growth or economic growth will separate from energy growth. So which is it?

Oct 20, 2014 at 3:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterRaff

Come on, you missed out two three four five of the biggest threats, a mega-volcano, the second coming,mega meteor strike, another ice age and Ed Milliband becoming PM...

Why do you think that the progress mankind has made over the last 10,000 or so years, mainly fueled by self interest is going to change? Do you want a return to how we lived 10,000years ago? Don't you count your use of electricity, oil, gas and hydro-carbon based products as self interest on your part?

Anyway, rather than feeding your ego back on topic of the discussion: Shape of things to come

Oct 20, 2014 at 4:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

I like sarcasm, so I'll stick to it thanks.

Your choice, but it makes you come across as a pillock who's not worth engaging with.

Oct 20, 2014 at 4:29 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

SandyS ..." mainly fueled by self interest ..."

I like the notion (Matt Ridley?) that our ancestors underwent a genetic change following which it became instinctive to seek to do a deal on meeting strangers, rather than to kill them on sight.

It was at that point that the human race's progress really took off - in effect when the human race realised that doing a deal with somebody outside your tribe was not a zero-sum gain. Ever since, progress has been based on mutual self interest: I do something that benefits you and, in exchange, you do something that benefits me.

Oct 20, 2014 at 4:39 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

Sandy, you missed one too: Farrago getting into government. I don't expect people acting in their perceived self interest to change. Thats why BH exists after all. Thats not the point though. The point (which is exactly on topic) is what Martin pointedly avoids answering. Energy use cannot grow in lockstep with economic growth (as it has done) indefinitely - see the link I posted or ask Martin if in doubt. So we have to admit that if economic growth is/was tied to energy growth (as many claim), either

- economic growth will disappear with the disappearance of energy growth;
- or economic growth will separate from energy growth.

So which is it?

It is a difficult question for anyone who likes to claim that reducing energy use will destroy the economy (as alarmists here do). Martin flunked it rather than answer. What about you?

Oct 20, 2014 at 5:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterRaff

Should read: Energy use cannot grow at 2.3% (or in lockstep with economic growth as it has done) indefinitely...

Oct 20, 2014 at 5:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterRaff


Oct 20, 2014 at 5:25 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king. Thus in a world with no fossil fuels, whatever technology we have would be welcomed and doing some of the job of traditional sources. We might even adapt to part time energy. Who knows? But, asking people to give up fossil fuels before they run out is like saying, 'everyone is going to go blind, why not wear an eye patch now to get ahead of the game?’

Because it would be mental.

The only reason to swap prematurely to renewables is if you’re worried about AGW. However, few people ARE worried. Certainly developing countries aren’t because they don’t think they should be restricted because so far, they haven’t had their fair share of global emissions. Fair by what measure? Most countries have had their eras of dominance it just happens that this is the one with high emissions. Are rich people in poor countries entitled to emit more than poor people in rich countries? Are newly arrived immigrants entitled to the emission of their birth country or must they pay the price for their adopted country? This plan that the West must reduce first won’t work. People might like the idea in theory but don’t really want to pay the bill. Their real motives dominate.

Those who want to reduce global CO2 need to take note – the West might flirt with the idea of CO2 reduction but it won’t commit financial suicide. It won’t let or even want to give the rest of the World a free bite of the cherry, just because the West got the first bite. We cut CO2 together or we don’t bother.

Oct 20, 2014 at 6:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

" I doubt that our civilization will survive the transition. "
This is the Private Frazer, 'we're doomed', 'End-of-the-world-is-nigh' mindset that underlies the thinking of the likes of EM.

No matter how many times the predictions of Malthus, Ehrlich etc turn out to be wrong, they still cling to it. There's no point trying to argue rationally with them, so I won't bother. Good luck to those who try!

Oct 20, 2014 at 6:25 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

you just have to ask yourself whether the Wright Bros envisaged people flying thousands of miles in aeroplanes to visit exotic places or far-flung relatives. Did Ford, Benz, Daimler, Renault, Citroen, Austin, Morris really believe that people would use cars every day to do things... Did these thoughts motivate their activities? Take out the dead hand of centralist thinking and let innovators work. In other words let EM and Raff worry themselves silly about the futute of the planet while others solve the problems. Worrying about piles of horse manure in New York was not what motivated Ford. Visating relatives in Australia was not what motivated the Wright Brothers. And at each stage, there was EM ...the world will run out of cow dung in 10 years time.

Oct 20, 2014 at 10:13 PM | Unregistered Commenterdiogenes