Will mankind find a solution before it is too late?
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In a remote jungle in South America, an Indian tribe has devised an ingenious trap to catch monkeys. It consists of a hollow coconut chained to a stake. Inside the coconut is some rice, which any monkey can reach via a small hole.
But there is a catch. The hole is large enough for a monkey to reach inside, but too small for a fist full of rice to be withdrawn. The only way for a monkey to remove its hand is to let go of the rice, but then it is not able to feast upon the tasty treat. A monkey must choose between trying in vain to remove its hand with a meal inside or letting go and saving its life. Native villagers found that, more often than not, monkeys choose the former, to their own peril.
Mankind finds itself in a similar situation with oil. Just over a century ago, man eagerly grabbed hold of this tasty treat. Since then, he has built his entire global economic foundation upon oil. It is the lifeblood of modern civilization, with more than 80 million barrels consumed worldwide every day. It is cheap, easy to acquire, addictive, and allows many of life’s conveniences to exist. Without it, life for many of the earth’s over six-and-a-half billion inhabitants would be radically different. Day in, day out, human beings are dependent upon it more than any other resource—and yet most rarely think about it.
But, like the case of the monkey and the coconut, there is a catch. Man may soon find himself with a rapidly dwindling supply of oil—and eventually none at all. Will he choose to keep his fist clenched around the black liquid until it is too late—and bring about catastrophic upheaval? Or will he overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and let go—thus avoiding disaster?
It is widely believed that a majority of the crude oil (or petroleum, meaning “rock oil”) used today was formed during an age scientists refer to as the Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago. During that time, conditions were ideal for oil formation, unlike possibly any other period in earth’s history. The oceans and swamp areas were abundant in microscopic plants and animals, namely algae and zooplankton, and large areas of water were devoid of oxygen.
As these tiny organisms died, they sank to the bottom and formed layers of organic material, which became trapped between layers of mud. The mud prevented oxygen from reaching the dead organisms, and a lack of oxygen interacting with the organic material prohibited it from rotting. As the thickness of the layers of sludge increased, greater and greater pressure was exerted on the dead plant and animal life. Adding to this were increasing temperatures inside the earth, as well as anaerobic microorganisms (bacteria able to live in the absence of oxygen) feeding on the organic material.
Very slowly, the combination of high temperatures, high pressure and anaerobic bacteria caused the dead plants first to chemically change into a waxy substance called kerogen. Then with more heat, crude oil and natural gas formed. In general terms, higher temperatures lead to the formation of natural gas; lower temperatures lead to crude oil.
Oil and natural gas are often found together in dome-shaped reservoirs deep beneath the surface of the earth. However, crude oil and bitumen (a thicker form of oil) can sometimes naturally flow to the surface via “oil seeps.”
In a sense, oil is little more than chemically altered microscopic creatures. Yet due to the amount of latent energy (in the form of hydrocarbons) found in their converted state, these tiny prehistoric organisms turned out to have a monumental impact on humanity that has forever changed the course of history.
Mankind’s exposure to oil is believed to stretch back several thousand years. Throughout millennia, oil in one form or another has been commonly used for lubrication, fueling a variety of items, waterproofing, medicinal purposes, ointments, construction, and dressing wounds. The Persians even used oil-soaked flaming arrows in their siege of Athens in 480 B.C.
According to Greek historians Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, bitumen was used for mortar and waterproofing in the construction of buildings and walls in ancient Babylon. Ancient Egyptians used oil for embalming. Native Americans used tar to bind stone tools to wooden handles.
In the Bible, Genesis 6:14 references Noah using pitch to build his ark. Also, in Exodus 2:3, there is an indication that a woman used pitch to build a small boat-like object. The Hebrew word for pitch is believed to be a reference to bitumen. Often in the ancient world, this tar-like substance was used as a type of caulk to prevent leaks.
Around the middle of the fourth century A.D., oil wells began appearing in China. These are the first known attempts to extract oil from deep beneath the surface of the earth. Bits attached to bamboo poles were used to drill holes as deep as 800 feet. The oil was used to evaporate water that contained a high concentration of salt.
From the fourth century until about the mid-1800s, a number of petroleum-related advancements were made. For instance, in 1849, a Canadian geologist distilled kerosene from oil, which would serve as the primary source of fuel for lanterns and street lights for decades. This invention replaced whale oil in lamps, and has been credited for helping to save whales from possible extinction.
But it was not until the mid- to late 1800s that oil began to transition from a low-key commodity to a global phenomenon. It all started in 1859, when Edwin L. Drake was contracted by American entrepreneur George Bissel to drill the first oil well in the United States, in the small town of Titusville, Pa. On August 27, he “struck gold” at a depth of 70 feet. Though the well produced only 25 barrels of oil per day initially, and 15 barrels per day by the end of the year (small output compared to today’s standards), this critical moment is often cited as the birth of the modern commercial era of oil.
From this point forward, advancements in science, coupled with entrepreneurial innovation, began to change the world of petroleum—with the United States leading the way. Within 11 years of the defining moment in the small Pennsylvanian town, John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil, the largest U.S. corporation in its day, with $1 million in capital. By 1878, Standard Oil was responsible for 90% of America’s refining capacity.
In the years to come, an oil boom ensued across the United States, in California, Texas and Oklahoma, among other states.
However, a slight downturn occurred after Thomas Edison’s invention of the incandescent light bulb in 1878. Soon the kerosene-burning lamp, the most common form of light in existence at that time, became obsolete, and the oil industry lost a major source of revenue.
Then, in 1913, the age of the automobile dawned, when U.S. entrepreneur Henry Ford invented an improved assembly line, with conveyor belts, for mass-producing his Model T. New techniques reduced production costs and allowed the Model T to sell for an affordable price tag to millions of consumers, opening the door for the average citizen to own a car.
By 1927, 15 million Model T cars had been built, and Ford Motor Company quickly became the world’s largest car manufacturer. Previously preferred modes of transportation—horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, trains and even walking—were soon thrown out in favor of a new and more exciting mode of transport. In short order, railroad companies were bought out and bike paths were destroyed. With the automobile’s strong appetite for gasoline, a byproduct of oil, demand for oil quickly skyrocketed. A proliferation of oil exploration around the world soon followed, in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, among other nations.
By the mid-20th century, the age of oil was well underway, and with it a transition to a new way of life.
Today, producing, distributing, refining and retailing oil is the single largest industry, in terms of value, on earth! Yet, like most, you probably give little if any thought to the black liquid.
Gasoline, home heating oil and engine oil probably come to mind first when you think of oil. Yet its impact goes far beyond these items. Nearly all goods are connected to oil in one way or another.
For instance, most plastics are derived from oil. Look around and notice how many things are made from plastic. The keyboard on which you type, along with the casings of your monitor and printer—all made of plastic. And so is the pen you used today. Much of our food and drink is packaged in plastic containers. Hospitals rely on disposable plastic supplies. Much of a vehicle’s interior is plastic.
What about the tires on your car, the carpet under your feet, the cellphone in your hand, the shingles on your roof, or the tar paper used to build your home? Oil was involved to manufacture all of these. The medications taken by millions of people require oil to produce. Synthetic textiles such as nylon and rayon rely on petroleum. Even the shirt you are wearing is likely made from oil, if it is polyester.
Now think about all of the things that burn oil-based fuels: automobiles, airplanes, ships and trains. Think about the millions of homes heated with oil or natural gas. Consider how interwoven oil is with manufacturing many of the goods used daily by millions around the world.
But there’s more.
You probably do not equate food with oil. Yet the agricultural business is heavily dependent upon oil. Machines, artificial fertilizers and artificial pesticides are used to raise, harvest and transport large quantities of grain, fruit and vegetables. Fertilizers and pesticides require oil to manufacture and transport, and machines need oil for their engines to run. In addition, the cattle, chicken and turkey industries rely on heavy use of oil.
Richard Heinberg, a leading “peak oil” scholar and author of The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, asked, “How dependent on oil is our food system?” He answered, “Enormously dependent. Fatally dependent, I would say” (Global Envision).
In the same article, Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association said he was also concerned: “This era of increasing globalization of our food supply is going to draw to a close here in the next decade or so. I think it [eventual oil scarcities] is going to mean the end of importing billions of dollars of food from overseas. It’s going to mean the end of relatively cheap food in the U.S. And it’s going to mean a significant increase in starvation and malnourishment across the world.”
Simply stated, oil is everywhere—in every business, every home, every technology and every industry. And it affects every one of us every day. Our lives are bathed in oil.
Now consider. What if there were no more oil? What if the lifeblood of modern civilization stopped flowing? The global economy would collapse in a heap of ruin—and fast! Life as we know it would come to an end. All the everyday items made from oil (such as those mentioned previously) would no longer be produced. Virtually all transport would stop, and so would nearly all manufacturing. Scores of millions would be unemployed. Millions in colder climates would freeze. Food production would come to a grinding halt. Scores of millions would starve to death.
But long before the world’s oil supply is exhausted, which some believe is 40-plus years away, effects will be noticed. When oil demand begins to outweigh supply, the price of oil-related items, including food, will begin to rise and stay at unprecedented levels, bringing about unimaginable consequences for the world economy and how the average individual lives his or her life. Experts warn that without a gradual shift away from a petroleum-based society, economies will be devastated. Some scientists say this could occur in as little as four years; others say it is decades away. No one knows for sure.
Whatever the case, all agree it will happen someday. Oil is a nonrenewable, finite resource. From the moment that man began to harvest it from the earth, the supply of petroleum has been shrinking—and the rate of decrease is increasing every year. Millions of years of natural process were necessary to form oil, but man is on pace to extinguish earth’s entire supply in under 200 years.
Many are touting a number of alternative forms of energy as potential replacements to oil. Among those leading the way are biofuels, which are fuels derived from recently dead biological material, such as corn, soybeans or other similar crops. Fuel from these sources power modified engines and are also made into plastics. A biofuel-gasoline mixture is already being used in many automobiles.
However, experts caution that biofuels are unlikely to be a permanent, long-term solution to the oil supply crisis. The main reason is that making biofuels requires large amounts of land. If these fuels were to become the “new oil,” nations would face a choice between growing crops for food and growing crops for fuel, as there is not enough cultivable land on earth to satisfy man’s need for both.
All other forms of alternative energy are also considered doubtful solutions to the oil crisis. Hydrogen fuel cells would provide a renewable, clean source of energy; however, the technology is expensive and presents a number of inconveniences. Though clean and relatively inexpensive, solar and wind power are unlikely to produce enough energy to match that of oil. Nuclear energy is efficient and clean, but the more reactors that are in use around the world, the more likely a nuclear disaster will occur—never mind the increased chances of the material ending up in the hands of terrorists.
While all of these alternative sources of energy could help reduce mankind’s dependence on oil, most agree that no single form will be able to entirely replace it. Oil simply has no equal—it is incredibly energy dense and relatively inexpensive. Conveniently, and at a low cost, a teacup full of gasoline has enough energy to propel a several thousand pound automobile down a highway. What other form of energy can match this?
But as the old adage goes, all good things must come to an end. In this case, the age of cheap oil will end, someday—and so will a way of life, with its abundant conveniences never before experienced, let alone imagined, in man’s history.
The question is…will man remove his fist from the coconut in time? If history is any indication, the answer is no.