A prosperous industrial society without oil?

Sooner or later the world will use up its supply of affordable oil.  Let’s assume that when that happens, we can get equivalent energy from some combination of renewable sources, advanced nuclear reactors or clean coal.  What would such a world be like?

This is a thought experiment, not a prediction.  It is based on one thing changing and everything else staying the same, which will not happen.  But it is interesting and maybe worthwhile to speculate.

It would be a world running on electricity rather than liquid fuels, the generator rather than the internal combustion engine.

Long-distance travel would be by train, not by airplane.  Commuting would be mainly by train, not by automobile.  Electric cars would be used mainly for short-distance travel and to get to the train station.  Steam locomotives might make a comeback; electric trolley cars might make a comeback.

The Internet and electronic communication would be more important – especially for farmers and others distant from cities and railroad stations.  Families and friends who live far apart would visit virtually, on-screen or through conference calls.  Thousand-mile trips would be major and rare undertakings.  We would become a little bit like the Spacers in Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun, who were intimate while hardly ever seeing each other face-to-face.

Land use patterns would change.  The most desirable real estate would be along the rail lines, like Philadelphia’s Main Line in an earlier age.  Astute developers would locate shopping centers, apartment complexes and even factories along the railroads.  Real estate values would rise in cities and villages, and fall in the far-out suburbs.

Most of the cost of oil and natural gas is in the fuel cost, not the investment needed to use these sources of energy.  In contrast, renewable sources, nuclear power and coal are relatively cheap as fuels, but the capital cost is great (the capital cost of steam from coal would be greatly increased by anti-pollution technology).  The necessary investment would have to come out of taxes or increased savings by Americans – not so much from foreign investment.

Imported goods would be expensive, and locally-produced goods relatively cheaper. Wal-Mart and its imitators, whose business model is based on low inventories and just-in-time delivery over long distances, would change radically or go out of business.

The United States would no longer be a global superpower.  The Air Force, lacking aviation fuel, would no longer be able to project American power to every point on the map.  But the U.S. Navy might still rule the seas.  Nuclear aircraft carriers would be replaced by nuclear troop carriers for Marines.  The diesel-powered fleet would have to switch to nuclear or steam.

To prepare for this age, we ought to be thinking about (1) maintaining a large reserve capacity for electrical generation, which means building new plants; (2) investing heavily in research in electric batteries; (3) making sure railroad rights-of-way are not lost; and (4) making sure railroad track is kept in good repair.

Having successfully made the transition from Peak Oil, we would be planning for Peak Coal and Peak Uranium.  In the long run, industrial society will continue only if it can function on sustainable sources of energy.

What am I overlooking?

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2 Responses to “A prosperous industrial society without oil?”

  1. Anne Tanner Says:

    Back to the future! In the 1870s-1880s, people traveled in the “cars,” electric trolleys. No place was more than 40 miles from a railroad station. And people walked a lot, not for exercise but because not everyone had access to transportation.

    So if our schools do not join the rush to eliminate teaching history, in favor of more and more hours spent on math, science, and writing, we might be able to answer your questions!


  2. Vision of a hardscrabble future « Phil Ebersole's Blog Says:

    […] wrote a post a couple of months ago entitled A prosperous industrial society without oil? about what life would be like after the affordable oil ran out if we successfully made a transition […]


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