The Unsustainable Deficit - Hydrocarbons
Chart of Projected World Oil Production
Another Deficit to Worry About
I believe that the modern age has been made possible, because mankind has discovered how to exploit fossilized hydrocarbons. We use them as energy for our machines and as a key ingredient of many products.
Hydrocarbons have always been valuable to us. They feed us, fuel the fires we use to cook our food, feed the horse that plows our field, and are what we seek from the animals we hunted and wild plants we gathered before that.
In the steady state, a certain amount of the sun's energy reaches the earth, plants use a fraction of that energy to combine water and carbon dioxide into hydrocarbons. We eat a fraction these hydrocarbons, burn them for fuel, and make things from them.
The discovery and use of fossilized hydrocarbons (coal and oil) has temporarilly greatly increased the supply that is available to us, and we are having a really wild party on this beggar's feast. The party started around one hundred and fifty years ago. I suspect it won't last another hundred and fifty years. It is doubtful that we will be able to reign our consumption back to steady state levels without experiencing catastrophy.
In 1798 Malthus predicted that human populations would reach unsustainable levels. So far, he has been wrong. I suspect that it is our use of fossilized hydrocarbons that has forstalled his prediction. Mostly because machines have made us a lot more efficient at growing and transporting food. They have also facilitated national and global scale organizations that mostly preserve law and order and control deseases before they turn into plagues.
Recently, much of the discussion about the use of hydrocarbons has had to do with global warming. This may indeed be a consequence of our using them for energy. I am personally more alarmed that we use something so precious, so casually. Let's imagine what the world will be like when hydrocarbons are no longer abundant and cheap. I suspect that day will soon be upon us.
A free market system rations scarce resources according to who has money and what they are willing to pay. So, inevitably, the hydrocarbon deficit will cause intensified competition between the various uses of hydrocarbons. Someone will starve, because someone else needed gasoline for their car, or drugs needed to prolong someone's life won't be available, because the demand for plastic in consumer products will make the drugs too expensive. I think this already happens, but it will get worse. I don't know how quickly it will get worse, how bad the result will be, or when, but we are headed in that direction.
The bag of apples in front of me is made of plastic, as is the packaging for something my son bought, the bottle of dish soap, and the finish of my diningroom table. The food I am cooking was grown on a farm that used machines powered by oil. That farm is not close to where I live. So, a truck that was powered by oil brought it to a store. I drove to that store to buy the food. The flame that is heating the food is methane, the simplest of hydrocarbons. The asprin I took this morning is made from petroleum.
The food I am about to eat could have been fermented and turned into fuel.
When I was injured, the tubes that transfused blood into my body while surgeons worked on me was made of plastic. The lenses of my glasses are, too. Without them, I would not be able to see well enough to write this article.
Airplanes that I ride when I travel for business or pleasure, burn aviation fuel to get me where I am going. My car burns fuel less prodigiously when I drive somewhere.
If oil became as expensive as gold, what would happen to me?
Maybe it is possible to make a smooth transition to alternative sources of energy, and hydrocarbons for manufacturing. My impression is that would be difficult, even if, mankind were making a concerted effort to make that transition. However, I think there are too many people who believe religiously that the results of free market activity are always optimal and benign, and I think there are a lot of people and organizations that have a short term, vested interest in not making that transition. So, I am not optimistic about this. I hope I am wrong.