When We Run Out of Gas

Here’s a scientific analysis of why our American lifestyle will be changing soon.

…Economists seem to believe that the problem is not real. As oil becomes scarce, its price will rise, permitting other fuels to take over. That argument ignores fundamental realities however. Our vehicles, our roads, our cities, our power plants, our entire social organization has evolved on the promise of an endless supply of cheap oil. It seems unlikely that the era of cheap oil will end painlessly.

A more likely possibility is that when the peak occurs, rapidly increasing demand will meet rapidly decreasing supply with disastrous results. We had a small foretaste of what might happen in 1973, when some Middle Eastern nations took advantage of the declining U.S. supplies and created a temporary, artificial shortage of oil. The immediate result was long lines at the gas stations accompanied by panic and despair for the future of our way of life. After Hubbert’s peak the shortage will not be artificial and it will not be temporary. At the very least, the end of cheap oil will mean steep inflation, not only due to the rising cost of gasoline at the pump, but also due to the rising cost of petrochemicals, and of anything that has to be transported.

…The crisis will come not when we pump the last drop of oil, but rather when the rate at which oil can be pumped out of the ground starts to diminish. That means the crisis will come when we’ve used roughly half the oil that nature made for us. Any way you look at it, the problem is much closer than we previously imagined. Even beyond that, burning fossil fuels alters the atmosphere and could threaten the balmy but metastable state our planet is in. We have some very big problems to solve.

So, what does the future hold? We can easily sketch out a worst case scenario and a best case scenario.

Worst case: After Hubbert’s peak, all efforts to produce, distribute and consume alternative fuels fast enough to fill the gap between falling supplies and rising demand fail. Runaway inflation and worldwide depression leave many billions of people with no alternative but to burn coal in vast quantities for warmth, cooking and primitive industry. The change in the greenhouse effect that results eventually tips the Earth’s climate into a new state hostile to life. End of story. In this instance, worst case really means worst case.

Best case: The worldwide disruptions that follow Hubbert’s peak serve as a wake-up call. A methane-based economy is successful in bridging the gap temporarily, while nuclear power plants are built and the infrastructure for other alternative fuels is put in place. The world watches anxiously as each new Hubbert’s peak estimate for uranium and oil shale makes front-page news.

Is there any hope for a truly sustainable long-term future civilization? The answer is yes.

…I have a prediction to make. Here it is: Civilization as we know it will come to an end some time in this century, when the fuel runs out.

Running Out of Gas by David Goodstein, Ph.D.