An excerpt from the Passionate Earth: The Evolution of Our Relationship with the Natural World by John Del Signore. I will be posting new articles to this site on a regular basis.
Fossil fuels have been one of the most important natural resources we have extracted from our environment. Petroleum derived goods, in particular, are used in almost every aspect of our lives. Oil is responsible for a multitude of fuels, and the basis for the manufacture of most of the commodities we use in our everyday lives. These include everything from lubricants to various solvents, paints and stains, cleaning solutions, insulating materials, packaging materials, fertilizers to grow crops, various building materials, plastics and other related items such as fiberglass, medical supplies, cables that carry electricity and information, hygiene necessities and even some of our food products. When we think of transportation, oil is at the heart of everything from cars and trucks to trains, aircraft, spacecraft and even our weaponry systems. It appears that almost everything we have created and manufactured is oil derived at the front end of production. Oil has become the primary vehicle that fuels our technological society and provides all the material things that people need and want.
Unfortunately, petroleum-based goods are highly toxic and very polluting to our environment. Even mining and the production of petroleum products causes high levels of pollution and the effects of degradation to our environment are obvious and disturbing. Water, soil, air pollution and global warming have become catastrophic problems for our modern societies. We have known that oil and all its byproducts are harmful to our environment but we have continued to use them because of the benefits that have been rendered from them.
Today, our increased use of fossil fuels is resulting in a significant reduction of these natural resources and is causing us to use methods of extraction that are even more harmful and dangerous to our environment. At some point, procurement will become too costly and difficult and will no longer be a viable resource to utilize. This will cause a major upheaval in the way we produce the goods we have come to rely on over the centuries and will force us to look for other replacements for oil. If we do not discover alternatives to fossil fuels, our infrastructure will literally collapse because we will not have the raw materials to produce the goods that we need to sustain our current societies.
Given we have not spent the necessary energy and thought to replace fossil fuels yet, we may well run out of these resources before we develop alternatives that are workable and this could cause major problems for all of humanity. The obvious first difficulty would be the lack of ability to grow enough food to feed the global population and the resultant starvation that would occur from this fact. Also, manufacturing would come to a halt, as there would be no fuel to run our machines, transportation systems and power grid. Only those who were fortunate enough to hoard reserves of oil would be able to function adequately for a least a short period of time, but eventually they too would run out of this precious commodity and be in jeopardy as well. Paradoxically, running out of fossil fuels will force us to find other solutions for running our societies that will have to be sustainable and affordable.
What we need now is a commitment to explore alternatives to fossil fuels and developed those technologies so they are viable before we run out of our last reserves. This will be a significant challenge for science and technology and will require a great deal of cooperation and collaboration if we are to be successful in meeting this challenge. The good news in all of this is that these new technologies will create new jobs and probably whole new industries that will help keep people employed and prosperous. So maybe our fossil fuel scarcity problem is really an opportunity to create a green and sustainable future for our societies and our planet.