peter lindsay

Physics Teacher,


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What are we going to make stuff out of when we run out of oil?

I'm at my work station in an office. The only things on my desk I can see that don't use plastic are the paper clips. What is all this stuff going to look like when oil is too expensive to waste on day to day items. We might have to save the remnants of the oil supply for carbon fibre and nano-tube production. Or as a source of pharmaceutical precursers.

  • May 21 2012: We're not going to "run out" of oil. It will become increasingly more expensive as it becomes more scarce. The expense will make it difficult or impossible to justify its usage in most situations. I would guess that, if the world doesn't descend into total chaos, pharmaceuticals will be one area where the cost of oil will continue to be justified even as it quadruples (or more) in price.

    The day-to-day items you mention on your desk are totally non-essential to our survival. They make our lives a little easier and we're used to them, but they can all disappear without a replacement tomorrow and we're not going to fall down dead as a result. Some things made from oil are far more important - fertilizers come to mind. What will those look like? Well, that depends... I would argue that a pretty significant population decline will be inevitable, but we'll see. A lot of people are banking on some yet-to-be-proven technological innovations, but I don't buy into that line of thinking. Technology invariably just creates a new set of problems that require solving, requiring ever-accelerating amounts of innovation just to sustain the last round of innovation. At some point we will not be able to keep up with ourselves and that system must collapse.

    I believe the key to survival in a post-oil world will come from simplification, not technology. If you want to increase your chances of continuing some semblance of a comfortable life, stop using all petroleum products now, not later, and learn what you must do to adapt while you still have a safety net.
    Everything will be more difficult.
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    Jun 2 2012: .
    Perhaps a design-for-disassembly and design-for-durability is a good idea here. Design products in such a way that they can be recycled. Make other products ultra-durable. Problem solved... But this would mean a total change in the way goods are designed and produced.

    In principle you can do much more with a given quantity of resources, than we're actually doing. We're still using the primitive system of "use and throw away". This could change.
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      Jun 3 2012: An extension of your idea would be to subsidies the use of plastics that are easily and cheaply recycled like perspex rather than polycarbonate. There are many plastics in wide use that are very difficult to recycle. As you say this is brought about be our "use and throw away" mantality.
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    May 23 2012: It is easy to grow oil on trees and ecologically too. Palm oil (from fruit) can make bio-diesel and there are many different kinds of oil can be grown on different fruit trees that farmers presently cannot afford to grow. However, when we run out of oil there will be Robots able to plant oil palms and bush butter trees (44% oil), if we want them.
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      May 23 2012: It's not so much the oil itself that is the problem. At the moment we make stuff out of plastic because it is cheap and effective. As oil becomes more expensive so does plastic. What will the world look like when plastic is more expensive than wood or aluminium? Also the bio-oil alternatives will be limited by the fact that they will have to be grown on land that we need to grow food.
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        May 23 2012: Another way to look at the problem you raise about the land being needed for food, is that even if land is given priority for food, then that is only good for a limited population (it does not allow unlimited population growth) So it is not much different to draw a limit to population to allow land for both food and bio-fuels, As the Earth can only support a limited population anyway. In depth,we could shift to a ketogenic diet for more effecient use of food because our present carbohydrate based diet requires cooking that is powered much by oil -fueled power but an edible oil based diet can be eaten without cooking and less waste from digestion
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          May 23 2012: Interesting point. Other than vegitarians telling us how meat is a waste of resources, you dont often hear about people doing studies into th most efficient way of farming in terms of people fed per hectare. I assume the answer would vary for different climates. For example, an arguement I always have regarding meat is that I feel beef production in semi-arid areas is an efficient use of land that would never grow a crop edible to humans but the cattle convert course grasses into meat that we can use.
  • May 21 2012: Part of me hopes that we will learn to use oil to manufacture those things as we give up burning it for energy and transportation..... But I fear that I am overly optimistic.
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    May 21 2012: not "when" but "if"

    and it can be coal, bio or carbon dioxide.
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      May 22 2012: The simplest BIO solution would be to use wood. It's already ploymerised. We may find ourselves sitting on wooden chairs with leather apholstery typing into our computers on a wooden keyboard.