Life after oil

No business would take a look in its warehouse and panic because it had only forty years'supply of nails or envelopes left. Why should humans as a species behave differently when it comes to oil?

The main reason is that they are not making oil, coal or gas any more. They are still being produced inside the Earth, but only at a minute rate. Worse, our dependence is so complete that it is hard to imagine an advanced society which does not involve fossil fuels being consumed in huge amounts. But like it or not, alternatives need to be found – and the issue of climate change means we ought to be making the change even before the oil runs out.

At the moment, technology is moving so fast that it seems like hubris for governments to try to tell us where our energy supplies will be coming from several decades from now. In fact, the only idea they seem to have come up with is the Back to the Future notion of building more nuclear power stations.

This approach has a number of drawbacks. One is that it produces waste that nobody has really thought how to cope with. Another is that nuclear power stations only make electricity, and most energy is not used in that form.They also take too long to build, the public hate them, and they need vast state subsidies even in such capitalist nations as the US.

But the real reason to oppose them is that they divert skilled scientists and engineers from more interesting opportunities. What would happen if the people who might be used to design, build and run them were told instead to develop machines, vehicles, houses and other devices that absorb no resources and emit no pollution? They might produce bigger, better and cheaper solar panels, wind generators and the like. But they might also produce surprises we have not thought of yet. Energy can in theory be extracted from any thermodynamic imbalance in nature, even tiny ones. It might be possible for future computers or cellphones to run off tiny air movements or temperature changes. That might not sound like a way to save the world. But it would chip away at energy use and at the same time reduce the sheer weight of power stations, power lines, transformers and the rest that today's society needs to keep things going.