Gentle Decline 1/25: Oil & Oblivion
Hello. This is mostly going to be a single-topic issue again, dealing with reduced availability of oil, and how life will look in that context, taking into account things we already know about ongoing climate crisis. Before I get into that, let me just link to one news item: The Arctic will probably be ice-free in summer by 2050, no matter what we do between now and then.
Right: some baseline thinking here: we know there's a limited amount of oil on the planet (I am straight up not dealing with the people who think that's not true, abiogenesis, etc; nutters). We know we're probably more than half-way through the actual amount of oil, and the remaining less-than-half is considerably harder to reach. The concept of "peak production" of oil is the point in time when the most oil was being extracted; a combination of high demand and available accessible supply. Estimates vary as to when that is from about 2005 to 2030 - as in, it may already have happened, or it might be ten years out still. The uncertainty comes from a fairly natural lack of knowledge as to how much oil is buried where it can't be seen or easily measured on one part, and on many countries being downright secretive about how much they have or think they have on the other (Saudi Arabia, where the ruling House of Saud derives all its power and wealth from oil, is the worst of these). And of course, I'm writing this less than a week after oil prices briefly went negative, which is the sort of bizarre spanner in the thinkworks that we're going to have to get used to, I feel.
There's a sort of half-life calculation on how long it'll take to extract the last bits of oil from the planet's crust, and how economically and in some cases physically viable that will be. We're already getting started on oil shales and sands, and the practice of fracking as grist to that mill, but essentially, by somewhere around the end of this century, 80 years out, oil is going to be really expensive and hard to get hold of. The shape of the decline between here and there is interesting in its own right, but whether it's going to happen or not is not really up for debate. And that decline curve, as it were, is going to have gradual effects.
So what I'm going to do is look at what the world is like without oil, and then we can extrapolate along that curve to work out what it'll be like in between. Of course, "what the world is like without oil" is an entire genre's worth of writing, fiction and non-fiction, so let's simplify it to three cases, two of which are unrealistic, and then aim for the middle one, the compromise between the two extremes.
Case 1: Between now and the end of oil, we invent sufficient tech that the world can continue on its current trajectory (without harmful emissions as per fossil fuels), and not a great deal changes in the overall pattern of society, modulo climate crisis and the odd pandemic. This tech could be in nuclear fission, safer nuclear fusion, solar or wind power, or something else we haven't yet thought of.
Case 2: Everything we have started to do since the advent of oil goes away, and the world reverts quickly to how it was in 1850 (just before the invention of the kerosene lamp). This admittedly still has the use of coal, but that will soon also disappear, leaving us with the world of 1700 or thereabouts, albeit with a much greater level of knowledge of how the world works, and at least some remaining technology, even if it's much harder to maintain.
Case 3: Something in the middle, which I shall now discuss at my usual rambling length.
The major problem we're facing is that we now use oil for everything. If you're reading this, it's on a machine which is physically made of at least some oil-derived materials (or in an extreme case, printed on paper by such a machine), which arrived in your hands in packaging made from more of such, having been transported on oil-fuelled machines from manufacturer to shop to your house or workplace or hand, with the non-oil-derived materials in it having been produced, dug up, smelted and shaped by more oil-fuelled machines, and also transported on more of them. If oil were to disappear from the planet right now, humans might not survive very well at all.
So the need is to transition off oil-dependence. That is not easy, and unfortunately the longer we wait, the harder it's going to be. This will be exacerbated by climate effects, which will mean that some ways we currently get oil (sea rigs, pipeline in coastal areas, oil storage at ports) will have to be altered in some way.
The first thing to say might be: don't panic. The post-oil world is going, I think, to look very different indeed, but the things we need aren't going to disappear. As long as we can generate electricity, most medicines, corrective lenses, and other medical technology will still be produced. Similarly, electricity allows for refrigeration, electric light, and communications technology. And solar and wind power allow us to generate electricity almost anywhere, and, crucially, will allow us to keep producing the technology to maintain that generation - parts for turbines and solar panels and so on.
There are two things in which that difference will be pretty extreme, though. Engines that use oil-derived fuels will not be as available, and plastics will not be as available. We're going to need to have solar-powered and wind-powered transport. That might just mean electric cars and vans whose batteries are charged from a network that uses those inputs. It will almost certainly mean more cycling, walking and maybe animal-powered transport (although I'm kind of sceptical on that; more detail below). Sailing vessels will become more viable, although probably not the tall ships of yore; think more in the way of huge kite sails. Rail and water-based transport - anything that reduces friction - will become more useful, and single trips for specific purposes will become a lot less common. Oil-fuelled heating will have to be replaced by electrical or wood-burning. In plastics, they'll be replaced with wood, glass, natural fibres, or metal - very nearly nothing made of plastic is essentially thus, it's just the cheapest material we have. Of course, their replacements will therefore cost more.
Electric cars and vans don't have the range of oil-fuelled vehicles. They also can't be as big. The former may be solved over time, with better batteries, but it's unlikely that the latter will; the bigger the vehicle, the more weight of battery it needs to move, and that curve is not going to work out in favour of heavy goods vehicles for a very long time. It may also mitigate against bulldozers, mobile cranes, and the like, and make life difficult for larger agricultural machinery (combine harvesters, for example). That's going to impact food supply lines directly, in that it won't be as possible for a fleet of lorries to move stuff around just in time, and also in terms of supply because single farms (even big agri-business concerns) won't be able to harvest as fast or as cheaply. The same will also be true of other supplies (paper, clothing) for similar reasons.
That's not to say that supply lines and transport networks will go away. Ports, rail lines, and possibly canals will remain viable, and even essential. But goods will need to be moved along established lines, not arbitrarily from production direct to warehouse to retail to customer. Instead they'll need to go from production to a depot onto a transport line to another depot to the warehouse (maybe) or direct to the retailer, and the customer will likely be fairly local to the retailer. Alternately, some producers will also be online businesses which ship "direct" to the customer, which will be subject to the same kinds of transport as posted and couriered goods today; centralised, batched, and with the last mile done pretty much by hand. We're seeing that already in the lockdown conditions of the present pandemic.
Which, of course, points out that the lockdown conditions are pretty similar in terms of transport - we're not going anywhere - and that's why the price of oil plummeted to negative this week. The constraints on going anywhere won't be legal and social, though, they'll be financial. And, importantly, they won't prevent people from meeting up and doing things locally.
So what are the knock-on effects of this? I think the main things is that importing food that can be produced locally is going become much less economically viable. Indeed, with transport being in many cases slower, it might not be viable at all - the conveyance of New Zealand lamb to Europe, for instance, depends on speedy travel in refrigerated conditions. Similarly, bringing in out of season asparagus from Peru is going to be a non-starter. Locally produced food is going to become more important. Mind you, "local" will have a slightly variable meaning - if you live downriver from a major agricultural area (or a place that was a major agricultural area in the past), then in terms of your food supply, that's probably local, even if the real distance is hundreds of kilometres. But it also depends on the actual production capacity of that area, which will have its own issues.
Agriculture uses an immense amount of oil. It goes into tractors and combines, farm trucks and quad bikes and generators. It also produces - or in some cases, is an actual component of - many of the fertilisers that are used on the modern farm. And it moves those fertilisers from the factory to the farm. So what happens with those? Well, along with the machinery becoming more expensive to run, the fertilisers also rise in price. The factories that make them are large and complicated, so having more, smaller, local factories won't usually work either. The pretty much inevitable outcome is that the industrialised farming of the late 20th and early 21st centuries cannot continue; the big machinery will be too expensive to run, and the fertilisers will either be unaffordable or unavailable.
This can be handled, to some degree, by putting more people on the land - literally hiring more workers. This is already done in many areas of agriculture, particularly for harvests which machines still can't do, but the workers are people coming in from elsewhere. In the US, they're (often undocumented) immigrants from Mexico and points further south. In the Isles, they're Bulgarian and Romanian workers who fly in seasonally. Elsewhere in Europe, they're also people from further afield, wherever "elsewhere" happens to be. But if the price of flights is such - due to the price of fuel - that those people can't economically fly in, then it's going to have to be locals. There's then a complex sort of equation concerning the price of labour, the price of food, and so forth, bearing in mind that due to transportation limits, the people working the land are going to be eating the food. I can't honestly predict how that's going to work out. I would guess that some people are going to end up taking jobs that would pay less well than the service or knowledge industries do now, but which will have a more comfortable level of food security attached to them.
I can see, though, that local agriculture in any given place (not any given farm, strictly, although I think monoculture farms will go away) will need to be fairly diverse, that land currently given over to grazing will to some degree be reclaimed for horticulture (not always possible, of course), and that people will grow some stuff in their own gardens rather than pay the elevated prices in the local market. That might drive some products entirely out as commercial crops. Soft fruits, courgettes, and potatoes are likely on this, I feel - they're all easy to grow in a back garden or even in containers, and with the exception of potatoes, definitely require manual picking. If people have suitable growing spaces, tomatoes might follow this trend too - otherwise they're going to become a considerably more expensive commodity in the parts of the world where they can't be grown outdoors.
A larger agriculturally employed population requires some support. They need to have tools and equipment, for a start, and while it is more viable to have those made elsewhere and imported, it's still going to be a tight margin. At the very least, there will be more local hardware shops, of the kind that have been killed off by B&Q and Woodies in this country, and similar big-box-hardware-DIY places everywhere else. Because when you need a new shovel, and fuel is expensive, driving the 10 or 30 or 50km to the nearest big box supplier won't work. It is reasonably possible that (fairly) local production of tools - blacksmithing and iron-casting - will reappear at an actual practical supply level.
This is the point at which some people are going to move from taking these predictions seriously to finding them amusing, I think. Surely blacksmithing is a thing of the past, and will stay there, except for the occasional hobbyist or historical re-enactor. But consider: someone, somewhere, made the garden fork you have in the shed. Right now, there's a fair chance they were in China. Think of the cost of moving that fork from China to per in terms of oil consumption. Now increase the price of that oil by 10%; 25%; 50% - somewhere along the line, it is no longer profitable to move that fork from China to you. And now imagine that it is not a fork, but a full-size plough, coming from Belarus, say. How much is that going to cost to get from there to your local farm? Inevitably, some of that work, that production, is going to have to be done locally. And repairs will have to become even more local. So we're going to see a return of local repair shops, and indeed, repair and re-use in general will become more common. This will be made easier, somewhat ironically, if not everything is made of plastic.
Other local support businesses will follow. If people are not commuting larger distances to work, for instance, then food businesses in the immediate area will see more opportunity - breakfasts and lunches, in particular. Other shopping that's now done in cities and big towns, for convenience, will become more local as well. And various supports for that will follow. In other words, when oil supplies and easy transport are cut out, life of necessity becomes more locally focused.
(I'm aware I haven't addressed home heating here; that's going to have to wait on some further research. But oil-fired is going away, gas likewise, and there just aren't enough trees for everyone to burn wood. So electrical heating from solar and wind power may have to be it, along with very good insulation, and probably, to be honest, a move toward wearing more wool.)
The one feature of previous historical eras that I can't see making a quick comeback is the use of animals for transport and agriculture. There are two reasons for this - first, we have much more of a concept of mistreatment of animals now than we did in the early 20th century, and second, so very few people have the skills to handle horses or even less, oxen, that it's likely just not practical. We'll see use of electric tractors and rotavators long before animals return to work. Other than that, however, if it was a career in 1850, it's probably going to be becoming one again by 2050 - possibly at small scales, and with only very odd applicability at first, but it will get there.
This will all work out alright (eventually) in Ireland, where the population can, more or less, be supported by the available land, and where the biggest city is still one where you can walk to fields in a couple of hours. Indeed, there's a 700-hectare park pretty much right in the city. Which is not to say that Dublin will remain as it is; there's no way in a reduced oil world to get enough food into it in its current shape to feed everyone who lives there now. Many of the people there will have to move elsewhere - but we already knew that, because Dublin is coastal, and moving inland is eventually going to be necessary anyway. Ireland will be downright bucolic next to what London and Birmingham and the other big UK cities go through, because they're not livable in when there's reduced oil. And they in turn will be ok in comparison to the US, where the vast, car-necessitating sprawl of cities will just not work anymore. If you live in LA, or Phoenix, or somewhere like that, you might be best served by moving away.
And speaking of Phoenix, I haven't really looked at the experience in all of this of irrigation-dependent places (Las Vegas is even more so, but Las Vegas is essentially fictional; there can be no real city where it is). Irrigation as performed in the current era is oil dependent; the pumps that move water around for agriculture tend to be diesel-powered (and in 2001, California consumed 88 million gallons of diesel for this purpose alone - I can't find more recent figures at the moment, but I can only imagine they're terrifying). Water management systems often do generate electricity, but almost by definition can't generate enough to move the water to somewhere it wouldn't naturally flow (carefully built aqueducts can, but you only get a riverine flow of water then, and in many cases that's not enough). Places like Phoenix and Las Vegas can't move to local agriculture even if they weren't oil dependent in every other sense, and California is already agriculturalised to a bizarre degree, and can't reasonably do more. In short, the south-western US is not going to support modern living in a reduced-oil era, and certainly not in a post-oil era. Places like Saudia Arabia don't bear thinking about.
Do I think that the transition to this less-oil-using state of being will be smooth? Sadly, no. It will for the most part be gradual (see my belief that everything is gradual), and it is possible that leaps forward in solar, wind, an battery technology will save us from the worst of it, but I wouldn't bet on it. At some point, people who currently depend on oil are going to experience the effects of it not being available, and that's not going to be pleasant for anyone. I'm pretty sure that people will die, and I have an uncomfortable expectation that the "carrying capacity" of Earth without oil is lower by quite a bit than it is now. Economies will change. There's a fair chance that the more abstract layers of finance, which depend on a lot of stuff moving around, will atrophy and disappear.
Exactly what an individual person, family, or small group can do to mitigate this is a thing on which I have some thinking - because when do I not? - but I think I'll push that out to the next issue, because this one is already running pretty long. I also have a backlog of questions, and a request for more visual stuff to follow up on, so expect that soon as well.
This issue brought to you by a spaniel with a toy armadillo, a number of late nights in Wurm Online, and the arrival, recent and imminent, of a number of parcels of books.
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