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. ]