It seems our oleic free lunch is coming to an end. What oil remains to power our Western carnival shall soon be too expensive for mere burning. Our hundred-year whimsy is coming to an end, and we’re being sent home from the party with nary a Lucky Packet to hand. Peak oil, it seems, has come and gone; that it’s actually happening, after so many decades of prediction, is oddly surprising to us. Unless someone finds some massive new reserves, and soon, we’re in for a fascinating few years ahead.
There are two views on what we can expect in oil’s twilight years – the “oy vey” eschatological pessimism at one end, and the “what, me worry?” eupeptic mien at the other. I know of people who subscribe to both extremes, each with a joyous vehemency. My old colleague, Paul Smeddle, in between learning to eat olives and getting excited about space rockets, was wont to propound his “death of civilisation” Jeremiads. These were predicated on the supposition that we’re running out of oil, there’s nothing to replace it, and nobody’s working on any alternatives that’ll be ready in time. All that we value in the West – our heat, light, transport, plastics, medicine and technology – will come tumbling down, and our civilisation is doomed.
At the other extreme, I know several who believe that The Market Will Provide. We need not worry, because These Things Sort Themselves Out. After all, look at the fuss about the Y2K bug. Look at the Malthusian panic in the 1960s about over-population by the 1980s. Look at the prediction that we’d run out of protein. The latter one is a fascinating panic which, in fact, led to the development of Quorn. None of these panics turned out to be justified, and the ingeniousness of late capitalism provided a bounty for those lucky enough to live in the West.
I feel that neither extreme pessimism nor ludicrous optimism has much rational substance about it. Optimism relies on a secundum quid et simpliciter fallacy. To an extent, so does pessimism. One assumes that some observed machination of our economy, of our character and our reactive circumstances necessarily colours how we will deal with the end of oil. We are offered no such certainty. This makes things interesting.
Certainly, some expectations we currently enjoy will be confounded: no more cheap flights seems to be one of the safest predictions one might make. Enjoy aviation’s supernova while it lasts. Biofuels should allow hybrid cars to remain on the road, and passenger ships to remain afloat. It wouldn’t be that much of a surprise to find trans-atlantic liner travel resume as the less expensive way of traversing the pond. Zeppelins might make a return as well.
Centralised power will probably be primarily fission, initially. Who knows when, if ever, fusion will be viable. Newer generations of power stations should be less costly to build and decommision, and the lack of oil’s bounty will provide a fillip to further efficiency still. This relative abundance of centralised power will allow for the recharging of hybrid engines, or perhaps the mass production of hydrogen as a clean vehicular fuel. It’ll also probably power the trains that will have taken over much short-haul flying. Maglev rail could take over some medium haul over-land routes too, all powered by the nuclear centre and, to an extent, wind, hydroelectric and some biofuel power stations. This central power, then, will have a primary function of producing energy for the connected transport infrastructure, and to produce hydrogen gas.
Homes and small factories could be self-sufficient. Indeed, even now, replacing roof-tiles with modern solar collectors could provide all the energy required for every average household, even in a dim country like Britain. This is not space-age hopefulness, but the conservative possibility of current technology. Certainly, kitting out the nation’s roofs with such technology won’t come cheap, but as oil slides away, we’ll no doubt use the last dregs to fund the production of such facilities – nothing Star Trek, but just mundane solutions which, until now, we’ve had no need to consider on a wide scale.
I’ve a feeling – it’s admittedly little more than faith – that eventually, we’ll stumble on another “free lunch”, be it cold fusion, zero point energy or a similar panacea. Until then, we’ll muddle on, adapting with neither the grace proposed by the optimists, nor with the ineptitude imagine by the pessimists. Our transition from oil to whatever comes next will probably be somewhat anticlimactic. Maybe the years ahead won’t be quite so fascinating at all, as is usually the case with predicted calamities. It’s the unpredicted ones that are interesting.