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Page added on April 26, 2011

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Imagining a world without oil

Public Policy

Dismantle the oil rigs and stack them in a pile. Radio the tankers and order them back to port. Pull out the drills and cement up the wells.

What would happen next? How would we live in a world without oil?

First, there’s transportation. With the overwhelming majority of the oil we produce and import devoted to powering our cars, motorcycles, trucks, trains and planes, the impact on getting around would be most dramatic.

How far is it to the nearest grocery store? How long does it take to walk — or bike, or skate — to work?

Sure, our electricity is generated mostly from coal, but how would the coal be extracted without those diesel-guzzling yellow trucks? How would it be hauled to the power plants? (Remember, our trains all run on diesel, too). Heating and cooling our homes would suddenly get a lot more complicated, and our televisions and laptops would be just a few more weeks away from shutting off forever.

This is the first installment of “A World Without,” a new series that examines the consequences of doing away with something we’ve grown used to — an idea, institution, commodity, tradition, or event. Send ideas for “A World Without” to outlook@washpost.com.

washingtonpost.com



7 Comments on "Imagining a world without oil"

  1. Steven F on Tue, 26th Apr 2011 9:43 am 

    There is a fair chance that western civilization could revert to something resembling 1880. Steam power and animal power (human, oxen, horse) could once again come into play. When Cuba had a massive reduction in available oil imports after the colapse of the Soviet Empire they swung over to oxen with great success.
    If anyone watches an old traction engine (steam engine) doing its thing at an historic day it is not hard to imagine that what once was could be again – and perhaps, just perhaps, the world would be a better place for it.
    There are a lot of recreational horses in the countryside and if a large number of mares were bred to draft stallions we could have a worthwhile population of working horses within a few years. Training the people to work the horses would be another matter.
    Likewise with oxen; suitable cattle are readily available and oxen have a lot going for them when compared to horses. They are quieter, easier to feed and in general have fewer health problems. On the downside they are slower than horses but as I get older I see that as not being such a bad thing.
    And don’t forget the option of walking. I guess corner shops would once again become a valuable and much used asset to a community
    There are those who thing that as our civilization declines we will be luck to stop at 1880. I have my fingers crossed and am training an ox.

    A good article on horse transportation can be found at:

    http://restoringmayberry.blogspot.com/2010/11/public-transportation-3-horse-power.html

  2. jeannick on Tue, 26th Apr 2011 3:34 pm 

    .
    the grid remain,so would the semiconductor industry
    plastics can be manufactured using coal , it’s messy but there is no insurmountable problem
    motorcars and planes require petrol but it could be synthetised at some cost
    the standard of living worldwide is lower , there is less intercontinental trade as transports are more costly
    local economies can survive better without cheap imports competition

  3. cusano on Tue, 26th Apr 2011 7:08 pm 

    The average (on hand) food supply for a community is two days. Then chaos would break out. The time needed to transition would be too long. A gradual transition is possible. The Hirst report (2005) claimed that 20 years was needed if we started now, and if we had 10 years..great hardship. If there was no time..forget it.

  4. Sunweb on Tue, 26th Apr 2011 9:05 pm 

    jeannick’s response of business as usual almost is sad, because

    We will do anything and everything to maintain our present personal level of energy use and the comfort it affords us. We will do anything and everything to the earth, to other people and even to ourselves to continue on this path. And if we don’t have the energy level we see others have, we will do anything and everything to the earth, to other people and even to ourselves to attain that level. The proof of this assertion is simple; we are doing it.
    From: The Curmudgeon Report
    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/02/curmudgeon-report.html

  5. Jimmy on Tue, 26th Apr 2011 10:36 pm 

    How about this:

    phase in industrial hemp as a local fuel source, even if its just burning it in a stove thats a big cost saving. dont get me started on using it as transport fuel.

    same for food, industrial hemp will provide seed that keeps you well fed.

    I think the critical thing is supply chain for food and other essentials. These will be the killer, so i believe it is genuinely a case of being locally self sufficient and that means utilising unfashionable food sources such as nettles, dandelions, hemp, which are all fast growers and use little water. Meat may simply be too expensive to ship and purchase. Thats a bit of a shocker.

  6. JohnRM on Wed, 27th Apr 2011 5:09 am 

    This all greatly depends on how quickly the supply of oil diminishes and how we handle it. The problem with living in 1880 is that none of us lived in the 1880s. Very few of us possess the skills necessary to live the way people were living in 1880. We can only live the way people live in 2011. So, the transition to an 1880-style of living would have to be based on a steady decline in oil supply and dramatic resolve of all mankind to face the reality of our situation. This is not likely. Even so, I estimate that there is enough arable land (today) to support roughly 15 billion people without fossil fuels. Unfortunately, most of that land is concentrated in just a few countries, so trade will still be overwhelmingly necessary for the survival of billions.

  7. Kenz300 on Wed, 27th Apr 2011 1:48 pm 

    The question is how fast will the decline in oil supplies be and will alternative energy sources be able to ramp up production to reduce the impact.

    Second generation biofuels made from algae, cellulose and waste are a viable alternative. Waste Management is producing both fuel and energy from the waste it collects each day. There is a lot of waste produced around the world every day that can be turned into fuel.

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