Ghetto talk: The End of Oil?

I’m seeing a lot of hub-bub around the internet, regarding the so-called End of Oil. With the runaway gusher in the Gulf of Mexico grabbing many headlines every day, environmentalists and doomsayers are eagerly rubbing their hands together in anticipation of the Ludditian Rapture, when we’ll all be forced to revert to an early 19th century agrarian economy, and commute to work via specially-trained Ecuadorian Mountain Llamas.

Perhaps more disturbing — for me anyway — is that many SF writers are drinking this gloomy kool-aid, too. Dyspeptic dystopianism is very “high” right now with many SF editors, writers, and readers, and the optimism that characterized some of the SF I loved as a teen, seems to have vanished from popular SF discourse.

Okay, look. Nobody can predict the future with any certainty. It is possible that we won’t have any answers for the post-oil era, and that all the worst predictions — about the economies of the world grinding to dust, sparking mass starvation and wars for the finite trickle of crude — will come true.

But just because a thing is possible, does not mean it is therefore probable. We’ve had doomspeak in our vocabulary as long as humans have been telling stories. If it wasn’t the Gods and Goddesses come to give us our comeuppance, it was Angels or Demons. And now, in the world of secularism, we have environmental catastrophes and fuel shortage apocalypses on our minds. Seems we never suffer any lack of imagination, when it comes to thinking about how the world is going to go to heck in a baby buggy.

Me? I feel the tug of cynicism. It’s easy to lose hope, and conclude that our sunshine moment in history — begun with the industrial revolution and perhaps culminating in the Apollo moon landings, followed by a gradual decline — is over. Back to the toil and hardship enjoyed by all our pre-industrial ancestors.

Yet, I reject that cynicism for the same reason I try to reject a lot of “down” talk these days. Any bloody fool can predict things being crappy. It takes brains and imagination to imagine how things might not be so crappy. And color me naïve, but isn’t that what Science Fiction used to be about? The dawning of the New Age of science wonders and technological amazement? How come present SF has to be about the bad news? Why can’t we spend a little more time dreaming up what might be good news?

Okay, so the oil runs out. Let’s play with that idea. We know it’s gonna happen sooner or later. As a finite and often problematic fuel source, it’s in our interest to develop alternatives. So what might we do?

Beyond employing organic substitutes for petroleum additives in our manufacturing processes, we might further invest Research & Development — R&D — dollars in modes of transport and power generation which don’t require internal combustion. Solar and wind and hydroelectric do a bit of this, but what other options do we have? How much power would it take — from solar panels erected in the California desert — to electrolysize a gallon of California coastal sea water into its Hydrogen and Oxygen molecular components? And if these components were then burned in an electric generation plant, would this power output then be greater than the sum of the power collected to effect the electrolysis? If anyone has math on that problem, I’d be curious to see it.

Assuming an electrical power revolution — they’re still working on controlled fusion plants, and fission plants are safer and cleaner than ever before — shipping need not be a worry if we replace our fleets of guzzling semi trailer trucks with electric cargo trains. Short-distance impulse travel might suffer a bit, but with improved fuel cell or battery technology, smaller, lighter, electric cars could replace gasoline-powered cars, given time and the rise of manufacturing which can support consumer demand. Speaking of which, even overseas shipping is not a problem if we presume commercial shipping converts to nuclear power; already in wide military use. Again, when it becomes cheaper for commercial freighters to employ nuclear power than diesel-electric, the commercial freight companies will slowly swap out their old diesel-electric boats for retrofitted nuclear boats.

Assuming meddlesome and obstructionist policy-making does not get in the way.

My hunch is that the world — and U.S. citizens especially — will not allow their current standard of living to slide quietly into the history books. Not when we’ve got more minds — trained, schooled, fantastically intelligent minds — at our disposal than ever before. People will come up with solutions that will work. That’s what we’ve been doing since the first little tinglings of the Greek scientific method poked their heads out of the murk of Dark Age mysticism.

Figuring the shit out — even when it’s not easy or takes a lot of effort. That’s the hallmark of the industrial era, and the electronical, informational era in which we currently reside. Losing the oil doesn’t mean we magically lose our ability to effect solutions. We might have to work harder at it and be more creative than in the past, but there is usually a way — when enough minds and enough resources get applied to the problem. Up until now, there has not been economic impetus. Rising oil costs caused by truly dwindling reserves — not artificial government caps, I mean truly dwindling natural reserves — will shift thinking and priorities in a big hurry.

Something tells me the End of Oil is just a presage to another, altogether better era. More power, available more cheaply, to more people. More manufacturing and more industry, run more cleanly and producing better products that do more for more us. It’s not wishful thinking. It’s just around the corner. Once upon a time, Science Fiction would have been the trumpet-barer for this sort of optimism. Has the “ghetto” abandoned its hopeful heritage in favor of a bucketful of cold, mundane porridge? Seems to me like the answer is, too often, yes.

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8 thoughts on “Ghetto talk: The End of Oil?

  1. Hi Brad,

    I definitely feel your pain on this issue as well.

    In part I can understand the current level of despair because we have sat on our hands for thirty plus years while inflicting significant damage on both the atmosphere and the biosphere that sustain us. And we may have even hit peak oil a few years back. Additionally, technology and its short-sighted uses have played a major role in creating the problems that we currently face.

    In part, technology has been so destructive because the twentieth century science behind it was reductionist. For several centuries science has been about reducing systems into simpler parts to understand the properties of those components.
    However, that’s changed to a large degree, as I’m sure you are well aware. Systems and complexity and interactions and the behavior of the whole is now front and center in many fields of research. This approach is also starting to reflect in a new wave of technology, like hybrid vehicles.

    I hope that those of us in the next cohort of science fiction writers can convey some of these solutions–visions along the lines that you’ve outlined above. Personally, I see the end of oil as a bumpy ride loaded with the potential for stories about redemption, reinvention, rebirth, and revitalization.

    Cheers,
    Alex

  2. Hrm… As I remember it, Speculative Fiction was by definition, speculative.

    I certainly agree that the current media circus surrounding the gulf oil spill is every bit as sensationalized as they ever were. On the other hand, I’ve never been to the gulf and there is a fair chance that in my lifetime the gulf will never be the same as it was 3 months ago.

    I think our failure is that we’ve grown so cynical of the media that now that there is a real problem with real repercussions, we just don’t take it seriously.

    As far as writers “drinking the cool-aid”… Writers write what they write and readers read what they read. As an on again off again writer I know it’s hard to turn off the critical analysis while reading but sometimes you just have to turn off your brain and enjoy it.

    If you can’t… Well… Go read My Little Pony or something. 😉

  3. LOL, “My Little Pony,” how about “My Little Galactic Space Pony Express?” Now there is a series I might sit up and pay attention to. I guess I’ve just grown a little threadbare on the doomism meme. Lots of writers are churning out a lot of doomism in my book. When I read stories, especially lately, I’m looking for a fictional window beyond doom’n’gloom. Maybe that says more about me as a reader than it does about the genre’s writers — as a whole — but that’s how I see it.

  4. Personally, I see the end of oil as a bumpy ride loaded with the potential for stories about redemption, reinvention, rebirth, and revitalization.

    Well said, Alex. I largely agree.

  5. I’m going to toot my own horn a little bit and say that I’m proudly part of the solution!

    I work at Argonne National Laboratory, where I am the lead software engineer on a software that is used to simulate and study advanced powertrain vehicles (hybrids, plugin hybrids, electric cars, fuel cells, etc.)

    You’re right though Brad, the biggest barriers to these technologies is cost, which breaks down to pay back period. For example, the battery in a hybrid is expensive, but you don’t have to fill your tank as often. So how many fill ups at the gas pump will it take to recoup the battery costs? Obviously this equation is heavily dependent on the price of gas: the more expensive the gas, the faster you recoup the battery costs, the more it makes sense to buy a hybrid. With current gas prices, it is hard to make an economic argument to justify the expense of the advanced powertrain vehicles. (Though there are other reasons, like wanting to save the Earth, they just don’t motivate quite as many people).

    So I agree with you, the ideas are there, the technologies are there, but nobody’s got their feet to the fire. When there is a crisis, things will change.

    I might also add that the mini-crisis of (slightly) higher gas prices not so long ago already had a profound effect, based on the number of fuel-saving technologies on the market today (or in the near future).

  6. I totally agree with you about us not letting our lifestyles fade away. Years ago, people were saying that electric cars would always be too expensive and no one would ever buy one, but now there are many options (hell, my husband managed to convince his workplace to switch to electric trucks because the workers stop and start a lot while working and don’t drive more than a few miles overall each day). The kind of gradual shift in ideas and values isn’t that exciting, however, in terms of fiction. Doomngloom and sudden events/catastrophe make for better stories in many ways.

    As for the gulf, yeah, I wish all the people bitching about it would go help. It’s going to take years to clean up, and the coast probably won’t ever be the same (though nature has a way of recovering that is pretty amazing). But sensationalizing things is easier than dealing with them. Sigh.

  7. To me, it seems that as resources become more and more scarce, a good portion of the world will begin seeking more practical (i.e. cheaper) means of fueling transportation, et cetera, to accomodate the needs of “developed” society. As much as people will be inclined to panic and cry armaggeddon, it’ll end up being the push necessary to get researchers, and the financing needed, to start finding alternative fuels.

    Science fiction places a lot of unnecessary emphasis on the technological history of things that could really be simply implied within the context of the more important story, making stories about eco-doom and developmental regression seem dull. It’s a matter of taste.

  8. “My Little Galactic Space Pony Express”

    Nice! Now get to churning that little bundle of prose out so we can enjoy it. 🙂

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