As it turned out, in this very world we know in 2017 evolved in just such a way that it gifted its most clever species with massive quantities of cheap energy. This wealth came into human existence at just such a point in time when the climate smoothed out and crops and animals became reliable food.
In that world, there was a kind of curious rock that burned. Upon that energy base, the story of human history as we know it has been written.
But it was not a given that Earth would make life so easy for humankind to use his thumbs and his brain to terraform the planet to his will and to become the most worrisome of all invasive species.
It could have turned out quite differently if there was no Carboniferous — If cycads and tree ferns and mosses had not flourished in the right mix of land gasses and on more or less stable land masses just so, for just so long, and just so long ago.
It would be very different today if climate conditions and geological circumstances had not conspired to bury and compress and transmute the carbon of 100 million summers of photosynthesis into petroleum stores underground. Things could just as easily have happened on Earth that no coal or oil, natural gas or kerosene ever existed, and the human story would be other than we know it.
I try to think about how civilization and culture without oil might have evolved. I’ve cobbled some rough thoughts that you are certainly encouraged to supplement these jots, disagree with and develop them further.
So when the last period of glaciation was over some eleven thousand years ago, humankind experienced a climatologically stable era when the intellect and language and creativity flourished. We did go on to be “enlightened” — to discover the laws of physics and chemistry and motion.
But there was no concentrated solid or liquid fossilized energy to become our slaves to drive machines — machines that were never invented because horses and wood and falling water could not power them.
No cars or trucks have ever come about, so there are no suburbs; there is no transcontinental shipping of produce or consumer goods; no fast-food franchises, strip malls, other decentralized peripheral commerce presuming cheap universal transportation.
Fast foods are not common in slow moving populations tied to city centers. Food miles are very low. Populations are more tied to the local soil, clustered around walking-distance villages than in massive cities that are food deserts.
There is no jet travel for military, commercial or recreational purposes.
No land moving machinery terraforms landscapes, and construction is limited by the picks and shovels and a few steam-driven machines. Horses and oxen remain central to construction, farming.
There are no sources than hydropower to generate electricity, so cities are not lit all night and the human cycle is more tied to the sun. People spend more time outdoors in the dark. They know the constellations and the sound of quiet.
How would a world without oil sound? How would it smell?
Television, radio and personal computers are not household items. Hydro-power can only provide so much juice. People entertain each other. Story-telling thrives and most everybody plays an instrument.
There might be a geological marker for an “age of man” in these times but that marker is not nuclear fallout, plastics, and there was no Great Acceleration in the early fifties — and there is no notion of an Anthropocene. The Holocene’s end is nowhere in sight.
Diet is more local and seasonally-restricted. Obesity is not at all common. There is less meat eating since cattle can’t be transported to huge feedlots for final grain fattening.
There is no “global warming” curve in the historical record beyond some slight uptick created by fires associated with the spread of mankind. Wood burning is considerable with no coal, oil, natural gas to burn.
Plastics do not exist for drink bottles, utensils, toys, consumer products (polyester and related fabrics)
The human population will likely peak at about 2 billion people by 2100. Many of the ills of the “petroleum people” never come to pass. Disease and stress and injustice are not aggravated by too many people demanding a bigger slice of the planet’s resources.
The human footprint without oil in the most advanced countries is far smaller than oiled America’s energy, soil, water, mineral and food footprint and so the global population does not press hard against carrying capacity. This eases tensions between nations. Is there is less of a chasm between the top and bottom of the socioeconomic scale in a world without oil?
Diseases associated with Big Ag are much reduced, as are agriculture-related marine issues like dead zones, fish kills, red tides. Coral reefs are thriving and fish are abundant and without disease.
Invasive species are novel visitors. Biodiversity thrives in many parts of the world — in native rainforests and tundra and desert and forest biomes.
No feedlot use of antibiotics has kept that “overworked miracle” from widespread presence in waters and so microbial resistance and the ineffectiveness of antibiotics are not major problems.
High-fructose corn syrup is not a cheap core component in fast foods or soft drinks. The junk food — TV binge watching thing never happens. Children are lean and active, mostly.
Agricultural Productivity peaks when soils in long-settled parts of the world become naturally depleted of NPK. Nitrogen fertilizers that require fossil fuels to manufacture have never become a common additive to boost crop yields. And so there is no Green Revolution. Consequently, there is no hokey-stick uptick in human population.
Big Pharma never happens and many of the diseases it would treat have never materialized: cancer, diabetes, depression, zoonotic diseases related to population/enviro degradation and habitat incursions or destruction (Zika, probably HIV, Lyme…)
Would the drive to move Earth, transport people, build bigger barns have propelled human ingenuity to invent another power source for “progress” than oil if there were no such substance? Concurrently, alternatives to plastics and petrol-powered internal combustion engines would have to be invented.
Would human and equine slavery have persisted in the absence of oil energy-slaves?
So what would life be like in Floyd County today compared to 1817? How would life in NYC be different? How would the world’s nations and cultures relate? What would wars be fought over in the absence of oil, and without the power to send armies across oceans in hours?
And so on the other end of all this diversionary mind-play, can we realize that we are in fact at the far end of the world with oil that we have known? We are at or past the peak of ancient carbon, whose energy slaves we have dug from the earth to do our bidding. We near the point where it takes a barrel’s worth of energy to extract a barrel of oil.
We can see (though some deny) the cost of releasing the heat and carbon of eons into the living world suddenly — over just a few hundred years. That burst of power has come at a high and grievous price. We have fouled our nest by our very success. We have feasted as if the waiter would never bring us the bill.
There will be a world without oil, in some ways as we have just imagined, but mostly, not. Now there are many billions more of us than the world without oil can sustain at any footprint, much less the first-world bite from the pie.
Adjustments must be made. We can and must do some of that, but nature will bat last.
How do we think about living in that world to come, and when should we begin to prepare our children’s children for the post-oil future we leave them?