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.