Running on empty: pondering ‘Life Without Oil’

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It’s time we faced some inevitable facts about oil. We’re running out of it, for one. Oh, we won’t run out of oil tomorrow, or next year. In fact, oil may remain our primary energy source for the remainder of your lifetime. Still, the supply is finite.

More important for the immediate future, however, is that oil supplies and prices are extremely volatile - subject to enormous political pressure from various unstable governments around the globe. And since our global economy remains dependent on this relatively abundant and relatively cheap energy source, we’ll continue to experience the volatility created by political unrest, terrorism, earthquakes and other disruptions.

Purdue University professor Steve Hallett believes we should invest in the development of new energy sources now, before supplies of oil and prices become even more critical. In his new book, “Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future,” Hallett argues that energy is the driver of our society’s success and that the loss of abundant supplies of oil will significantly impact all facets of society.

The Purdue plant scientist says, “You tend to hear about oil from oil guys and plants from plant guys. And that makes perfect sense. What you don’t get is the connections among those fields. Making connections is what ecologists do.”

In “Life Without Oil,” Hallett, who  authored the book with Jon Wright, a journalist who has extensively covered energy issues, argues that throughout history all societies have collapsed, usually from the loss of a necessary resource. For our current society, that resource could be oil.

“We have a couple of choices: We either collapse, or we shift to something else,” Hallett says.

The graph below shows the use of oil for energy as a large spike that began its ascent about a century ago and reaches its final descent about a century from now. Hallett says that spike is like an ecological input. The upward portion of the spike has advanced society rapidly, while the downward may create an uncertain and difficult future.

click image to zoom

Hallett acknowledges the fact that energy-rich oil has improved our ability to produce more food, both agriculturally and through fishing. More abundant food has led to a rapid growth in the world’s population, which necessitates more oil to keep people fed. Hallett also says that oil use is causing spikes in carbon emissions, which is a factor in climate change.

“You can see the sudden explosion of positive and negative through the same window,” Hallett says. “The bigger our economy gets, the faster we use fossil fuels and the faster we run out.”

Hallett and Wright recently wrote a column published by The Huffington Post, expanding on their theory the world has reached its peak in oil production, and continued political unrest will follow. An excerpt:

“Oil production peaked in Libya, Kuwait, Iran and Iraq in the 1970s. Tunisia, a minor producer, hit its maximum in the 1980s. Egypt and Syria, both secondary producers, topped out in the 1990s. The past decade saw the ceiling for Oman and Yemen. Saudi Arabia -- oil central -- will pass its zenith this decade, as will Algeria. The only nations in the Middle East with growing yields are the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Middle Eastern governments are among the first dominoes to be toppled by diminishing oil production. As these dominoes continue to tumble, no country or region will be immune to the effects of falling oil production over the next few decades.

"As the countries of North Africa and the Middle East eventually wake up to the realities of life without oil they will also have to face the terrifying lack of any fallback position. The region is already overpopulated, but it will seem grossly overpopulated soon. All countries of the region are suffering shortages of fresh water and many are facing severe scarcities -- and their agriculture is failing as a result. Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum, emir of Dubai, described our fears perfectly when he said, ‘My grandfather rode a camel. I drive a Mercedes. My son flies a jet plane. His son will ride a camel.’"

Hallett says his belief that we’ve reached a peak in oil production – give or take a decade – means the world will either have to significantly cut energy use or find an alternative source. He’s not, however, optimistic that human ingenuity will create a solution. He says the difficult truth is that the world can’t continue growing, either physically or economically, and expect to survive.

“We’re constantly faced with these intractable problems, and we usually find the answer in more of something. We’ve come to the point where that won’t work,” he says. “We’ve filled up the world with enough people, exhausted too many of its resources, and we need to settle into a lifestyle where we don’t feel the need for constant progress and growth. You can’t grow forever. We will reach limits, and the book argues that we are reaching those limits. There are some things that just run out and cannot be replaced, and oil is one of them.”

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Michigan  |  April, 21, 2011 at 10:49 AM

The nice thing about journalism is you don't need to have an original thought, just every so often re run the same stories. I first heard we were running out of oil in 1970, we would be out by the end of the decade. As far as we need to invest, let the market invest. The market has a much more logical and honest way to invest. Please keep the government out of it. Central control has failed in every country it has ever been tried. A writer made a comment about Michigan, "Government needs to stop saying we will build it and they will come. Government needs to get off their backs and they will build it themselves."

MT  |  April, 21, 2011 at 12:36 PM

Right on.

texas  |  April, 21, 2011 at 09:49 PM

Well said, Hank. The obvious is just not very obvious to to some people.

MT  |  April, 22, 2011 at 04:08 AM

Doug is most correct but since journalists get paid by the word what do you expect? Possibly another book called "A Knack for the Obvious." Maybe if the US had some coal it could help or building a refinery.

Michigan  |  April, 22, 2011 at 06:30 AM

The world is going to run out of Fossil Fuels, no person can argue that. The big question is ......... When are we as individuals going to change how we live to adjust and sustain what is left for future generations? The high prices of Gas and Diesel are the only things that regulate how much we will use. Can you tell me that if Gas was cheap, you would drive less, or turn down the temp in your house a couple of degrees? Of course not, none of us would. Dont get me wrong, I hate paying at the pump as much as the next guy, this is about people putting forth a little effort to conserve a limited resource. Lets take less time creating a political "Soap Box", and a little more time seeing what we can do as individuals to conserve energy.

Joe Maddox    
Ozona, Tx.  |  April, 22, 2011 at 07:48 AM

what we absolutely don't need is more gmos

Chip Smallwood    
Dickerson, MD  |  April, 22, 2011 at 12:30 PM

Ever hear of the Bakken Reserve? We have a very large oil deposit. We need to limit the actions of a few(environmentalists) on the majority so that this resource can be tapped. This includes off-shore drilling and Alaska.

Des Moines  |  April, 22, 2011 at 02:24 PM

We are awash in a sea of natural gas which is dirt cheap while oil is over $100/barrel. How long will it take for the economy to react/respond/substitute?

illinois  |  April, 25, 2011 at 09:01 PM

Eight presidents have dealt with this problem since the oil embargo. Only one has tried to address it (Carter) and was ridiculed for his attempt, though energy consumption in this country did drop 25% in six years. We need leadership on this issue, which is not going to be attained through partisan politics or the pursuit of personal ideology.

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