As this column has pointed out a few times in the past, hydrocarbons have been the material foundation on which continuous and limitless economic growth – so characteristic of our industrial societies – is based. It may be useful to recap the main points before we move further.
Hydrocarbons provide concentrated energy in small packets. One litre of petroleum concentrates the energy from 23 tonnes of prehistoric plant matter. Coal, though less energy efficient, is still far superior to charcoal or fresh wood as an energy source. Not only do these hydrocarbons provide high levels of energy, being carbon-based, they are useful for a range of other products for our use like fertilisers, plastics, textiles, medicines and cosmetics, among others. Further, hydrocarbons are easily transportable and storable over time, while at the same time being available in sufficient quantities for globally pervasive, if unequal, use for a few centuries before they run out.
It is the harnessing of the energy of hydrocarbons that is the secret of our industrial age. Whether it is James Watt’s steam engine, the colonisation of Africa or the diesel armies of World War II, it was the power of hydrocarbons that propelled them. While it is possible to show the origin of the markets and modern economic institutions to the pre-hydrocarbon age, the industrial revolution is solely predicated on the successful capturing of the energy stored in a block of coal to move heavy machinery. About a hundred years after the discovery of coal’s ability to power our industries, came the invention of the internal combustion engine to convert ancient plant matter into pure energy. It is not surprising that it was only after this invention that human beings were able to achieve their millennia old ambition to fly in the sky. Motor cars, submarines and airplanes landed on human history at about the same time, and that time was after the harnessing of petroleum for energy. It was also the spread of hydrocarbon technology, particularly that of petroleum, which has propelled the consumerist boom of the past few decades. The disposable plastic commodity (a by-product of petroleum) has become the leitmotif of our ‘use and throw’ generation.
Hydrocarbons are all pervasive and indispensable. From our easy transportation based on cars, busses, trains and planes all running on the internal combustion engine, to our food dependent on hydrocarbon-based fertilisers and hydrocarbon-based transport to reach our plates, to our household goods made of plastic, to a myriad other things of modern life, hydrocarbons are everywhere. The keys of this computer I am typing my column on are made of plastic, which is also there on the wires that transport these bits and bytes to the offices of The Post. The ink with which your newspapers are printed is also derived from petroleum as is the frame, and perhaps even the lens, of the spectacles you wear to read my ominous words.
But hydrocarbons are non-renewable. What happens when they run out? The era of cheap oil, even for the US and their close allies is now history. The most optimistic of global forecasts on oil supplies, authored – not surprisingly – by the US government, states that oil supplies will start declining within the next four decades. This is the most optimistic time schedule for petroleum supplies. Other, more cautionary sources, reckon that by 2020 or so we will start seeing a decline in global oil supplies due to our total global oil reserves starting to finish. Yet others argue that we are already at the global peak of oil supplies and from here onwards it is a steep downhill ride for all of us. This means that the present day school and college students will live to see the end of oil.
It is a situation that most people would not even be able to imagine. A simple back of the envelope listing of the times one has encountered hydrocarbons and their derivatives in living our life even for a day, would indicate how deeply we are dependent on them. An end of hydrocarbons is, therefore, unthinkable since it would be akin to Armageddon. The end of the world as we know it.
The power that hydrocarbons have given us over nature for the past two centuries has helped us forget our human frailties and vulnerabilities. It has addicted us to an economic regime of constant growth and an unshakable belief in the deliverance of technology. When faced with the prospect of the end of oil and coal as the central energy source of modern, industrial societies’ people – whether expert or common citizen – invariably lean on the ability of technology to deliver us from our predicament. Energy sources alternative to hydrocarbons are listed off with ease – hydrogen, nuclear power, solar power, wind power, geo-thermal power, etc. Some even pin their hopes on the fairytale of a perpetual motion machine, waiting for technology to deliver us from the tyranny of Einstein’s e=mc²!
Even a cursory look at each of these ‘alternative’ sources of energy would only deepen our despair. Nuclear power, apart from its immensely hazardous consequences, is also a non-renewable resource. Hydrogen requires electricity to produce energy while solar and wind power cannot produce the same amount of energy as hydrocarbons do with the same time and space, nor are they are easily transportable. Further, they all produce energy in the form of electricity that is not easily storable. None of them can provide us with the fertilisers, plastics, medicines and other derivatives that petroleum gives. Yet there is this naïve belief in the inevitability of technology freeing us from our hydrocarbon shackles. Unfortunately for us, the concept of inevitability does not apply to science and its practical application – technology.
There is nothing inevitable about finding a technological solution to the end of oil and coal. From the present position of science knowledge and technological skills, it appears that there will be no replacement energy source for hydrocarbons, once we have consumed them off. As of now, the world has been spared the depredations consequent to the end of hydrocarbon technology. Except in two small corners of our planet – North Korea and Cuba. With the fall of the Soviet Union, both these countries lost, overnight, their access to hydrocarbon resources. The subsequent histories of both these countries is, at once, a testament to the ability of humans to find a solution outside the fetish of technology, as well as a morality tale of how we can push ourselves deeper into the abyss. Next week we travel to these two countries to see two alternate ways in which we may possibly approach the end of hydrocarbons.
~ ~ ~
This article was published in my column in The Post on 17 October, 2007.