Beware the ides of Peak Oil.
February 28, 2012 7:43 PM   Subscribe

Is the world going to go to hell when we run out of oil?

So a few years ago the price of gas in the US went through the roof, relatively, and the price of everything seemed to increase, especially food, due to increased transportation costs. Since then I've been gently mulling over oil's depletion and the possibility of a subsequent Total Global Collapse, and I've met a few not-insane people who are preparing for something like this (not cold war fallout-bunker-style, just preparing themselves to quit everything and move into the woods come "Judgement Day").

Are we doomed to futures akin to "Mad Max" and "Waterworld"? I suppose a reliable projection of the global oil supply and a gauge of our ability to "switch over" to other means of energy would be pretty good indicators, but that wouldn't account for the amount of STUFF that's still oil-derived (plastics, Everything Else, et cetera).

It seems impossible to find any information about this that isn't laced with belligerence or political venom of some sort.

Long story shorter, I'm wondering if I'll have to drop whatever I'm doing in the world to head home, pick up a gun, and defend my family. I'm only half-kidding.
posted by Chutzler to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Yes, but it's quite a ways off still and won't be that sudden. Prices will start going up on oil long before it runs out completely, which should force consumption to gradually decrease while alternative sources of energy come online (like bio fuel).
posted by empath at 7:53 PM on February 28, 2012 [9 favorites]

It'll probably go to hell for a while, but ultimately, I think that our species will adjust. I mean, we have books, right? If I were you, I'd buy some arable land out in the country.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:54 PM on February 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I should add that decreasing consumption caused by rising prices means that the oil we have around will last longer. It may actually be that at some point 'alternative' fuels become cheaper than oil and we never run out because we just stop drilling for it.
posted by empath at 7:56 PM on February 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm old enough to remember Jimmy Carter's address to the nation saying we had to get our hands around this dependence on oil from unstable areas of the world or there was going to be heck to pay.

Also, I don't think you ever really run out of anything, long before you do the price escalates to the point that another source must be found.

For what it's worth, my opinion is that there are plenty of solutions to this problem, but no will to carry them out. For instance, why do people still need to show up in a building to sit at a desk very similar to the one they sit at in their homes to balance their checkbooks? Granted plenty of people really need to *be* at work, but I suspect a lot of oil could be saved if the others would just stay home.

My 2 cents.
posted by forthright at 7:57 PM on February 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

While we have a lot of energy options, sustainable ones are not being developed fast enough. So we're going to have a panic rush to nuclear, natural gas and (back to) coal. It's just a question of whether this happens before or after the Great Oil War.

As for your concern about products made from petroleum: we're not actually going to "run out" of oil. Peak Oil is not about the total depletion of oil, it's about when our oil production begins to shrink rather than grow. That is what will trigger prices shocks; but we'll still have a lot of oil at that point. Peak Oil is partially going to be caused by an overall reduction of total oil resources, but not entirely. It's really more like the depletion of easy to get oil resources. We'll still have plenty of oil underneath deep oceans, or in harder to refine situations like the tar sands. This oil will be much more expensive to extract. So we'll still be able to make things from oil; and if we do switch to other energy sources, the proportion available for manufacturing will actually increase.

The possibility of a Mad Max outcome, I'd guess, is non-negligible but also not the most likely outcome. I'd guess we'll see fairly severe economic retraction and political instability around the crisis, then a tough slog through the transition period. (Even if we do manage major state-sponsored violence around this time, we will see it on a more informal level.) We should then see a recovery of sorts in the decades leading up to the next technological innovation in energy production.
posted by spaltavian at 7:59 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Long before you have to seriously worry about a post-oil revolution, you will see, more likely your (great) grandchildren will see, headlines on how dwindling resources are affecting the stock market and bonds.
posted by Ardiril at 8:17 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, I'm not sure telecommuting is the answer, powering, heating and cooling office buildings can done at higher efficiencies than individual homes, especially when considering the loss of electricity when transporting "on the wires". Ideally, we'd use mass transit options to go spend our days at super efficient buildings and come home at night to our modest-sized homes.
posted by roboton666 at 8:17 PM on February 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is all presupposing that extracting most of the rest of the oil and carbon fuels won't result in widespread environmental collapse due to climate change.

By the time we suck the tar sands dry, we're already screwed.
posted by JimmyJames at 8:21 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

You are not screwed, but the more you believe the fear mongering, the more money you'll spend buying stuff. Apparently, fear makes us good consumers and helps keep the economy going. And, of course, when you're feeling fear you are naturally confused, and therefore easier to control. So there's that.

Just the past few weeks, gas prices are high because Super Tuesday is coming up. You'll be surprised how gas prices settle a bit after March 6th!

If you start paying attention, you'll see start to recognize this type of pattern all of the time, and it'll just be annoying, but not a reason to build a bunker.
posted by jbenben at 8:40 PM on February 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: This is examined in connection with global warming here.

Some interesting fictional imagined post-oil worlds here or here(I find Kunstler interesting but had some problems with the book).
posted by Wretch729 at 8:46 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

The website Die Off takes, you may be surprised to know, a very gloomy stance on this question. it's a little bit nutty, but it's chock full of factoids.
posted by wilful at 8:49 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Modern agriculture relies heavily on petroleum-needing fertilizers. (Nitrogen doesn't fix itself in agriculturally useful form!) One thing that you'll start to see in the next few years is price shocks in food not just from transit costs but because fertilizer costs are rising so high so fast. I don't know a lot about the geopolitics of famine (I know about problems in local agriculture), but one of the more shocking/dislocating effects will be famine ... Partly because it's an oil-hungry but unpredictable industry (rain ignores supply and demand) and partly because you can't wean people off food.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:58 PM on February 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Places in the world where modern agriculture exist will not see famine. Prices would definitely go up, just like everything else dependent on oil (i.e., everything), but what we get from petroleum fertilizers isn't enough food to feed the US, it's enough cheap food to feed the US. The poor are gonna be fucked, as usual, but it's not going to be mass starvation. And as prices go up, alternative fertilizers will start to be more cost effective. We'll go back to mining some pacific island for guano.
posted by danny the boy at 10:34 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Everything that depends on oil is subject to about the same price sensitivity. If you think gas prices are too high, everything using oil is experiencing the same "price hike".

Yet the intrinsic bullion value of a US silver quarter has always been worth at least one gallon of gas. The US quarters dated 1964 or earlier were silver. In 1964 a gallon of gas was about 25 cents.

The price as I write this of the bullion value of the same 1964 US silver quarter is $6.71:

Silver bullion value of US silver quarter

(So either gas/oil will go up a bit or silver will come down) (In much earlier years like pre-1941, the bullion value of that 25 cent piece was less than 25 US cents and still tracked the price of a gallon of gas of the time)

If this price relationship was tracked and graphed over years, it always holds pretty closely.

I believe there is plenty enough oil to use without crisis for the US and the world for another two generations at least, if politicians would stay out of it, including inflating their currencies. That means plenty enough time for natural entrepreneurial development of other energy sources that are actually cost effective without political payoff subsidies, corruptions, and bankruptcies falling on taxpayers.

My opinion.
posted by caclwmr4 at 11:09 PM on February 28, 2012

Chutzler, you need to keep in mind that if you ask a question like "Is Peak Oil going to be, you know, bad?" you are selecting for answers from people who are both convinced that Peak Oil is a historically useful concept and believe it will be pretty bad. Leavened occasionally with a smattering of the crazy.

The answer to "Are things going to go to hell when we run out of oil?" would obviously be "yes", but you're begging the question. We won't run out of oil. It'll just get more expensive until it becomes economical to go after currently uneconomical to exploit reserves. And then we'll either have developed alternatives or it will get expensive to the point where it is economical to produce liquid hydrocarbons from other things. Which we can do. It's just significantly more expensive than sucking liquified dinosaur corpses out of the ground with giant straws.

So the answer to "Will it be bad when we run out of oil?" is actually "we will not run out of oil" with a side order of "because the increased cost will drive development of both alternative fuel sources and cheaper processes to produce synthetic liquid hydrocarbons".

Things wll be somewhat more expensive. Whether "somewhat" is not all that bad or bad enough to lower the average standard of living noticeably is the question. I tend to believe it will be closer to the "not all that bad" side of the equation.
posted by Justinian at 12:15 AM on February 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: "Modern agriculture relies heavily on petroleum-needing fertilizers. (Nitrogen doesn't fix itself in agriculturally useful form!) One thing that you'll start to see in the next few years is price shocks in food not just from transit costs but because fertilizer costs are rising so high so fast. "

Super interesting, because a good friend of mine is a small production yield farmer that sells at Farmer's Markets. I also have friends that own orchards that produce almonds, which comes from trees and takes a longer investment in time...

My farmer friend just started planting and harvesting on a lot that was formerly certified organic (which takes years to certify and is a big deal.) Right now, she does not have plans to go through the certification process, but she is farming organically on that land. Her report is that EVERYTHING grows better on the organic land and she's committed to the organic practices, Her family has been in farming for generations.


I'm not so worried that Big Agro Businesses have their reliance on oil, among other industries (plastics!) because there are alternatives. Just because you don't hear about them now, doesn't mean solutions don't exist,


There's nothing going on right now that doesn't have a solution, just a lack of a will to implement. If you never know about the alternative, you can not option it.

Educate yourself about the alternatives. Start expecting them. It's that simple.
posted by jbenben at 12:21 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: How bad it will be depends almost as much on your expectations, as on society's response (which, IMO, has already dropped the ball). Expect a significant downscaling of industrial production and relocalisation over the next couple of centuries. Whether that means "everyone gets a bit (or a lot, again depending on your starting point and expectations) poorer", or "some people fly to space as entertainment while 5 billion live in shanty towns" depends more on politics than geology. Suggested books and blogs.
posted by Bangaioh at 12:52 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ideally some solution will present itself based on lignin. The transformation of lignin into useful chemical entities is a major problem that should hopefully be solved in a generation. You can now convert it into other useful chemicals, but it is expensive. It is a really interesting area of chemical research, that unfortunately doesn't get the funding that it should because a good breakthrough in that area would change the world. Our grandkids are going to be super pissed with us that we just burned all of this oil. I wouldn't worry so much about transportation and feul because biodiesel and algae can take care of that (again albeit more expensively than just burning oil) but the other chemicals that we get out of oil are going to be the problem. Making pharmacelticals is really hard without large quantities of solvent (derived from oil) and simple aromatic starting materials (availably cheaply on a ton scale from oil).
posted by koolkat at 2:13 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not too long ago it was predicted that cities, as we know them would cease to exist and millions of people would die of starvation in the street if we even tried to wean ourselves off ozone destroying refrigerants. As doomsdays go, it was going to be the slowest, painfulest and doomiest you could ask for (Limbaugh, et al).

The reality was that the price of having your car AC recharged went up a skosh and the little hose and dial thingy that HVAC guys always seem to have with them got an extra color coded hose stuck onto them.

Long story short, the oil thing will be a bit worse (we use oil for more things than freon) but it's a bit premature to be figuring out who you're going to kill and eat first when you have to resort to cannibalism.

At least that's what the state appointed psychiatrist told me.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:20 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is the world going to go to hell when we run out of oil?

Yes. (from the blue)
posted by j03 at 3:40 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Theres a broad range of issues about the sustainability of the world’s current global energy use, mainly how future fossil fuel resource availability and the security and equality of its distribution will continue to supply global demand. The issues are cross-sectoral with complex relationships across economics, politics, environment, society and technologies. Over the 20th century crude oil has become the most important fossil-fuel, in 2000, 3.4gigtonnes provided 40% of the world's commercial energy, globally, motorized transport relies on oil for virtually all its fuel needs and this accounts for around half of world oil consumption alone. Our global dependency on crude oil is leading to fossil fuel exhaustion, most predictions using Hubbert Curve estimated Peak Oil dates somewhere between 2006-2011. Oil resource exhaustion is directly correlated to eventual unacceptable costs of gaining the fuels. As everyone else has said, availability decline will increase fuel prices, we've all seen this over the last 10-15 years. Also, everything you buy at some point required petroleum in either or all of manufacturing / energy input / production / transport processes; different metals / glass / plastics have different 'energy intensities' relative to the total energy input needed.

Affluent societies have enjoyed energy emancipation during the twentieth century and now developing nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China etc) are undergoing similar developments, each country with scarily large populations of individuals busting to move into the middle and upper classes to meet the energy-hungry, gadget-crazy, first-world. The real cost of energy in most developed nations is greatly subsidized by governments to enable economic growth (in turn making their cheap products you buy more or less wipe out your local manufacturing). Unbridled growth of energy consumption is largely due to technological advances allowing for convenient, versatile, flexible and reliable delivery of energy services. Improved extraction, conversion and distrubution techniques as well as a declining energy prices have enabled huge freedoms in energy use, this is also leading to resource depletion.

In terms of 'switching over' - There are various commercially available sustainable energy technologies that can be readily exploited today but the issue is we have pre-existing infrastructures based on fossil-fuel causing "technological lock-in". Also, there are huge vested interests in maintaining crude oil supply from net exporters and oil multi-nationals. The economic dependency on hydrocarbons, where crude oil is traded more than any other commodity (almost 22 Gt/year) presents the problem of what to replace the highly profitable international trade with.

Since the 1970s crash energy security has become increasingly tied to national security and with this a host of geopolitical issues. Countries which are net importers of oil or gas are trying to diversify their generation mix. Net importers are more likely to introduce more sustainable power sources so to improve their energy security but it's hard to overcome technological lock-in overnight especially when most cities rely on archaic, centralised power generation and distribution.

No one can really predict the future, we have risks all around (not excluding earth collision with meteorites) - Its up to you how you live your life. If your worried about energy security its unlikely to become a real issue within a) your lifetime and b) the timeframe of other more serious damages from temperatures increases due to increases in anthropogenic GHG concentrations. Water supply issues will be more serious than energy supply within the next 100 year. The most serious will be social issues and that largely depends on where climate refugees will prefer to arrive at and what national security is provided to protect those borders (highly controversial). Its all shaping up to be pretty catastrophic but in the meantime its just business as usual.
posted by Under the Sea at 4:15 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "I'm not so worried that Big Agro Businesses have their reliance on oil, among other industries (plastics!) because there are alternatives. Just because you don't hear about them now, doesn't mean solutions don't exist,"

Okay. Organic farming is not currently remotely big enough to take over for conventional farming as fertilizer prices tend to spike. There's also something called "peak soil" -- cutesy name, but the idea is basically that we have been DESTROYING topsoil -- and with it, natural soil fertility. That can be replaced by synthetic fertilizers, but if synthetic fertilizer costs go through the roof, it won't be affordable. On top of that, synthetic fertilizers allow you to NOT rotate fields (which has other bad effects in terms of booms and busts, but anyway); lots of farmers no longer plant "corn, feed clover, fallow" or "corn, soy, corn, soy" (clover and soy being nitrogen-fixing plants) but plant "corn, corn, corn, corn, corn," helped along by fertilizer. That soil is extremely depleted and it will take years before it can support reasonable organic yields.

Organic yields CAN be very high, but it is typically much more labor-intensive. In 1940, 1 farmer fed 6 people in the U.S. In 1960, 1 fed 25. Today, one farmer feeds about 130 people, and that cadre of farmers is a) rapidly greying and b) many of them have never farmed in any way BUT the "Big Ag" way. A large-scale shift to organic methods will require many, many, many more people working on farms; we don't have the workforce for that, and our workforce doesn't have the education for that. Labor-intensive crops are rotting in the fields already because we're unwilling to allow an immigrant migrant labor force to come harvest it. (A significant migrant labor force that will come with a return to labor-intensive agriculture will also require infrastructure to support migrant labor, like schools capable of serving migrant children.) We also won't be growing wheat and corn on the high plains as water gets more expensive; available growing land will contract (possibly convert to grazing land, though there are problems with that), even before we deal with global climate change moving agricultural zones.

On top of THAT, crop yields are falling as pesticides become less effective (or rather, as pests evolve to become more effective). In traditional (pre-chemical) agriculture, around 50% of crops are lost to pests. The introduction of modern pesticides reduced that to around 30% in the 1940s; today it's above 37% and climbing in the U.S, and that's with constantly-increasing applications of (expensive) pesticides. Integrated pest management methods in organic farming can reduce crop loss below 50% (though probably not below 30% overall), but there is a tradeoff, in most cases, between yield and loss. (Using a less-popular type of apple, say, can reduce the number of pests that will attack it, as they'll be optimized for the most popular types; but you will also typically have lower yields than with the most popular breeds used in conventional agriculture -- that's why they're used.)

That is entirely leaving aside issues with GM crops and the harnessing of bT for GM crops, which is not okay.

In the 30s, Americans spent about 25% of their paychecks on food. Today it's less than 10%. Returning to labor-intensive agriculture with higher crop losses will shoot those costs through the roof; even if it just returns to its historical levels of the 1930s, that's a HUGE change in lifestyle and a reduction of disposable income to spend on things like technological toys and household appliances and other important categories of consumer spending. Fertilizer prices have MORE THAN DOUBLED in the last 10 years. Those price shocks have not started hitting consumers yet the way they're going to -- and that's before we get to anything else in this post.

I would not be remotely so sanguine about agriculture's ability to deal with the next 50 years of change. If it's not scaring the shit out of you, you're not paying attention.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:14 AM on February 29, 2012 [8 favorites]

Best answer: (Not, "In 1940, 1 farmer fed 6 people in the U.S" -- I meant 1 farmer fed 15, I don't know exactly what brain fart I had there. 1 farmer fed 6, with family sizes of the time, would have required a way more rural country than existed in 1940. That's, like, pre-industrial efficiency.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:01 AM on February 29, 2012

Best answer: So the answer to "Will it be bad when we run out of oil?" is actually "we will not run out of oil"

The "we will not run out of oil" refrain, is just pedantic nonsense. No, we won't actually 'run out' of oil - some will still be there, but it will be far too expensive to be useful as fuel - the end result is the same as running out.

To short-circuit all the "we won't run out of oil" people, the correct question is: "Will it be bad when we run out of cheap energy?" because we WILL run out of cheap energy, and it will be bad - the badness factor is correlated to the local population density.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:53 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

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