Imagining a world without oil

This is the first installment of “A World Without,” a new series that examines the consequences of doing away with something we’ve grown used to -- an idea, institution, commodity, tradition, or event. Send ideas for “A World Without” to outlook@washpost.com.

Dismantle the oil rigs and stack them in a pile. Radio the tankers and order them back to port. Pull out the drills and cement up the wells. (A year after the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, let’s hope we’ve learned how to do that, at least.) Tow the platforms back to shore. Plug up the pipelines. And lock up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve while you’re at it — it has only about a month or so worth of oil in it, anyway.

What would happen next? How would we live in a world without oil?

First, there’s transportation. With the overwhelming majority of the oil we produce and import devoted to powering our cars, motorcycles, trucks, trains and planes, the impact on getting around would be most dramatic. Price-gouging would begin right away, and long lines would form at gas stations. The lines wouldn’t last, though, because the gasoline would soon be gone. A strategic reserve of finished petroleum products — gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel — has often been suggested but never created. Within a month, every fuel tank would be dry, all our gauge needles would point to “E,” and the roads, rails and skies would be virtually empty.

How far is it to the nearest grocery store? How long does it take to walk — or bike, or skate — to work? Finally confronting our dependence on motor vehicles, we’d reach for whatever solutions we could find. Soon, we’d all be looking for an electric car (but there are precious few of those for sale) or converting our vehicles to run on natural gas. But we’d be waiting for some time to secure adequate natural gas supplies, establish delivery infrastructure and switch over our cars.

Our enslavement to black gold goes much further than the problem of getting from Point A to Point B. We also need to keep the lights on. And this would be possible, for the first month or so, because only 1 percent of America’s electricity is generated from oil — coal carries the largest burden, along with natural gas, nuclear and hydroelectric power.

But brownouts and blackouts would soon begin. Sure, our electricity is generated mostly from coal, but how would the coal be extracted without those diesel-guzzling yellow trucks? How would it be hauled to the power plants? (Remember, our trains all run on diesel, too). Heating and cooling our homes would suddenly get a lot more complicated, and our televisions and laptops would be just a few more weeks away from shutting off forever.

Forget even trying to get to work anymore; we now have another set of problems to solve, especially if it’s winter and our houses are getting cold. Can we quickly put together some solar panels and batteries? A wind turbine? What do we have growing in the back yard that can burn? Environmentalists have been nudging us to insulate our homes and generate electricity from renewable resources for a while now; this might be the time to start paying attention.

It gets much worse still, of course, because a world without oil would quickly become a world without all of the products made from petroleum that we have come to know, love and depend upon. The list of essentials that we’d soon be doing without is prodigious: virtually all plastics, paints, medicines, hospital machines that go “bleep,” Barbie dolls, ballpoint pens, breast implants, golf balls . . .

Eating would get tougher, too. If no one can truck in fresh veggies from across the country, we might be inclined to go back to basics and grow our own food. Local farmers would become a necessity, not just people who sell us honey at the street fair. That said, make sure to keep the food coming, fresh and fast, because it’s going to be awfully difficult to refrigerate. Fishing might work, so you’d need to get a new rod while supplies last. Alas, most of them are made of plastic. Then again, so is fishing line.

It’s an interesting thought experiment to picture a world suddenly without oil. Taken to its logical conclusion, it encompasses so much more: a complete and rapid breakdown of society, leading to desperation, lawlessness, wars and untold suffering. The scenario is unreal, of course, because we could never shut off our oil supply in a day, and in any case, there are trillions of barrels of the stuff still in the ground, right?

Yet, in a simpler sense, it’s not so unrealistic, because even if it will happen more gradually than laid out here, we will indeed run out of oil. Output has already peaked in the majority of countries and has been declining in the United States since 1971. A handful of countries are still increasing production, but not enough to offset even bigger declines elsewhere. There is lots of oil still in the ground (we’ve used about half of the planet’s generous endowment), but while the end of oil may be many decades away, the beginning of the end is now.

It’s not just at the drip of the final drop that the oil crisis begins. It is when production stagnates and begins its inexorable fall. That perilous moment, alas, is now. Our oil supplies are about to begin to fail us. As oil becomes more scarce, we have to get serious about finding new solutions to power our world.

We have time to plan — but not that much time. And so far, we’ve done very little to prepare for a world without oil.

Steve Hallett is an associate professor of botany at Purdue University. John Wright is the Latin America news editor for Energy News Today. They are the co-authors of “Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future.”

Read more from Outlook, friend us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

Energy specialists Steve Hallett and John Wright on how to prepare for the inevitable

 
Read what others are saying