To understand the world better, history is always important. To get a better view of terrain, even primitive humans went to a lofty tree or hill to get a better picture of things. To understand where we are, history is important because we can see where we have been, and what the situation was actually like.
Take a minute to think about this graph, which is modified from the original by the addition of some reference points. By Steam Age, I am referring to steam as the primary method for generating power for doing work. As you can see, the advent of oil shortened the Steam Age considerably. Oil is more transportable and has higher energy density – more efficient when burned than coal, and much easier to move around as a liquid than solid coal. It also allowed development of the ICE (internal combustion engine), which the world runs on today for the most part.
So we have, roughly, about 4000 years after the Stone Tool Era that makes up history. The Steam Age started in the late 1770’s and was essentially dead by 1950 – roughly 200 years. Oil began in 1900, and we are at the red star, dancing around the peak of oil production. No – I am not arguing the date of Peak Oil. My intent is for everyone to understand that is is upon us now, and only when it is in the ‘rear-view mirror’ will historians attempt to agree on the exact year.
Yes – there is a question mark going forward because there is nothing that matches oil in two very important respects: transportability and energy density. Solar can’t, batteries can’t, we are past Peak Uranium production, so nuclear makes no sense and we can’t drive around using Arc Reactors like Ironman; physics laws are still in effect. Hydrogen takes petroleum to make or else vast arrays of solar – and solar is built by oil, so that is a mobius loop.
An interesting non-coincidence is that it took us roughly 100 years to get to the Oil Peak. Now, that entire time the world was growing in population, knowledge, resource discovery and use – in short, massive growth for the last 100 years on the back of pretty respectable growth in the Steam Age. What is not talked about is what happens as we go down the back slope in the next 100 years, with oil becoming horrendously expensive and difficult to get. As an oil guy, I can tell you we never get the last 15-20% out of the ground – it is just too expensive. So it really isn’t the next 100 years on the backside – more like the next 80 to the end of the line.
For those of you who took the bait on the entire abiotic oil imbroglio; yes, there is abiotic oil. No, there are NO commercial deposits, just trace amounts. Hydrocarbons do not magically appear from deep within the mantle of the earth – nobody has ever proven that, although it makes for quite a discussion. The oil we find in commercial reservoirs has mainly kerogen source rock from compacted marine plants and animals, along with the occasional long buried and squeezed swamp. This is extremely well documented science, and why we have extracted so much oil all over the planet. And it makes perfect sense on a planet that is ¾ covered in water and tectonic in nature.
So we are looking at quite a slide down in energy usage in the future, and not a distant one. Our children and grandchildren will feel the brunt of it, and live through the start of the “?” age seen above. I don’t want that age to be the next Dark Age.
Now, why am I overtly concerned? Well, oil plays a part in every aspect of our lives today, from rubber to gasoline to plastic to pharmaceuticals and artificial hips and knees. It is truly ubiquitous and inescapable, even in the open ocean, where we now have swirling gyres of plastic many miles across. So let’s get a feel for what is different with oil compared to previous times in our history.
- Life Span Population % Farming Energy Type Milestone
- 1600-1650 35 545m 67% wood field surgery
- 1650-1700 35 545m 62% wood circulatory sys
- 1700-1750 36 610m 56% coal smallpox vac
- 1750-1800 38 720m 48% coal anesthetics
- 1800-1850 40 900m 40% coal antiseptics
- 1850-1900 43 1200m 28% coal x-ray, vitamins
- 1900-1950 48 1625m 16% oil sulfa drugs
- 1950-2000 69 2516m 8% oil antibiotics
- 2000-???? 77 6900m 2% oil magic medicine!
There are many facts apparent when you look at these numbers. Now, I am NOT a professional historian, and do not have the time nor inclination to further subdivide and annotate – I am satisfied this chart is reasonable enough to draw some inferences from.
- Stable population before coal was discovered
- Combination of steam, oil and science greatly improved farming. Today, farmers have no clout because there aren’t enough of them. A few hundred years back, most people were farmers.
- Antibiotics made health skyrocket, along with less strenuous work required due to oil powered machinery.
- Oil and coal freed many people from agricultural existence and allowed them to pursue careers in fields that did not even exist in the 1600’s.
- Yes, the number tossed around as “sustainable population” for the world is 500m, +/-. That number was not picked out of thin air, as you can see in the data, but it is also wrong in many respects.
- That is one helluva a population jump from 1950, isn’t it? And no coincidence that antibiotics, electricity and oil played major roles.
I am sure there are other readily apparent connections to be discovered if you just think about the progression of events. I chose these items (longevity, population, agriculture, primary energy and medicine) because they are common and impact everyone. I am sure that plotting iron ore purity or copper ore purity would yield additional insight, but they do not drive the world in the way primary energy sources do. Just plotting “technology” is useless, because it is 100% based on oil today – was your smartphone made in America? Your clothes? Your car? Oil is required at so many steps in the complex world we live in that taking it away will change every aspect of future generations.
So, why this discussion at all? Well, I do not think that life expectancy needs to drop back to 35 years if we retain the knowledge we have amassed in medicine and health. I do not think that we will lose massive amounts of knowledge unless we have a global physical catastrophe, and oil running out isn’t that type of sudden event. I think population will adjust itself, even if it winds up being through famine and disease due to reduced living conditions.
We are currently only able to live the way we do on the back of oil – when it goes horribly expensive, then everybody will have to change. But change how? History is looking at us from the past in the table above. Yet more recent developments, such as globalism, have no historical precedent. And look at farming – 2% of the world feeds the other 98% today – how is that even possible when looking back at earlier years?
So what can our past tell us? How can we divine a general expectation from what we know today? Because managing expectations will keep you sane and happy, where unrealistic ones will make you crazy and miserable.
Which is the part of the discussion for next time….