Doom du jour: world without oil

Paul Raven @ 05-07-2010

Just in case the Monday blues weren’t quite enough for you, Wired UK‘s Andy Hamilton has provided his latest “What Would Happen If…?” column on a topical subject: what if the world’s oil workers went on strike forever?

We are utterly dependant on oil. Back in 2000 [in the UK] we had petrol blockades that showed us a brief glimpse of what would happen if oil workers revolted — people started panic buying, shops emptied of food and had to ration, bike sales rose by 400 percent, buses limited themselves to a bank holiday timetable or stopped running completely, schools closed and road use began to decline. This all happened in just over one week. So what would happen if oil workers just walked out and never returned?

The same, but this time the government would enlist the help of the army to ration food. A trip to the supermarket would be a whole different experience with armed guards following you on the way in, and strip searching you on the way out. Despite rationing, food would still not last for long and within a month grass seed, dock leaves and even dog and cat would all be on the menu. Desperate city dwellers would be swapping houses, cars, gold teeth, sex and anything they could bargain with for food. The whole of the western world would decline into a savage, uncivilised mess.

Of course, a strike by the entire oil industry is incredibly unlikely to happen, even in the wake of current events… and there’d always be people willing to break the strike. (Imagining the oil companies hiring unskilled workers isn’t exactly a stretch; operational safety doesn’t appear to be a major concern in those outfits, at least not when compared to profits and shareholder dividends.)

But the underlying point is that we’re hideously dependent on that foul black gunk, and it’s a situation we need to remedy for any number of reasons. Even if environmentalism means nothing to you, and you think anthropogenic global warming is a conspiracy*, the scenario above indicates we’ve got a real addiction problem. Oil is one of the adhesives that holds the world we know together. If you can look at the news coming out of the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and the Gulf of Mexico over the last few years and tell me that’s not a cause for concern, I’d like to get the contact details for your therapist.

And we are all complicit, even smug non-drivers like myself – sat surrounded as we are by the petroleum industry’s less-considered products, plastics. As with energy and fuel, though, there are ways we could make plastic without needing oil [via BoingBoing]; the way things stand at the moment, I hope someone finds a way to build a good profit margin on that real soon.

In the meantime, with the notable exceptions of Paolo Bacigalupi and Bruce Sterling, where’s all the post-oil near-future science fiction? Are people not writing it because they can’t make a good story from it, or is it just too grim to contemplate such a plausible future, even in the framework of fiction?

[ * As regards “the AGW conspiracy”, you’re welcome to believe whatever you like. But if you fancy leaving a response, do read the Futurismic comments policy first, please. ]

Be Sociable, Share!

4 Responses to “Doom du jour: world without oil”

  1. Eric Gregory says:

    Another recent piece of post-oil SF: Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock.

    Now that I think about it, of this year’s three Hugo-nominated novels set in the future, two explicitly deal with post-oil environments. I reckon we’re going to see a lot more of that very soon…

  2. Paul Raven says:

    Agreed. If we live long enough, that is. 😉

    (Jetse’ll be over to drum me out of the Shine fellow-travellers list any second now…)

  3. Wintermute says:

    I think most near-future sf incorporates the absence of oil. It’s pretty much a given. The story is usually not just about a post-oil world but involves it in some respect, giving some alternative to oil (Just off the top of my head, anything by Ian MacDonald or Bruce Sterling for example)

    Actually the vampire film Daybreakers can actually be viewed as a story specifically about a post-oil world. Just substitute blood for petrol. 🙂

  4. Rick York says:

    It seems to me that using crude oil to make things is a much better use of a non-renewable resource than burning it. I understand that some, maybe many, plastics have been shown to be toxic to the environment. But, that’s a problem that can be addressed by chemistry and recycling. And, I’d bet it’s completely solvable.

    From the little research I’ve just done, plastics and other durable materials make up a very small percentage of crude oil pumped.

    As Wintermute says most future SF assumes the absence of crude oil products as fuel.

    The tragedy is that we have had technologies for decades which could have substantially reduced or eliminated our dependence on oil. Many of these technologies are becoming mature and can be produced at the lower costs of mass production. I’ll leave it to all of you to find your own reasons why we have failed to do this.

    At least in the U.S., there is only one thing that will reduce out dependence on crude oil as a fuel – price. To date, no other approach has worked. If you’re an average person driving an SUV and it only costs $75-$100 to fill it, you’ll live with it. If it costs you $250-$400 to fill it, you’ll stop using it. The last oil price bubble proved that.