My world without oil

For this post, I’m happy to feature another guest article by Jim Lydecker. I’ve been slow to cover peak oil here more than in passing, not because it isn’t terribly important (It is.) but because I’ve had my hands full researching and writing about population and economic issues. Jim’s essay begins to fill that void. Peak oil links closely with the main themes here, and this piece brings to life its potential impact on our day to day lives.

For a primer on peak oil, try this.

Thanks, Jim.

By Jim Lydecker:

Napa, California
June 19, 2007

Abandoned gas station I woke up this morning to the sound I fell asleep to last night: The whooshing of cars going north and south on Rt. 29.

Actually, the whooshing is being replaced by a huge sucking sound… It is the sound of crude oil being sucked out of the ground to allow those cars to go flying by.

In America, unlike the rest of the world, over 1/2 of the oil we use goes to the production of gasoline. Each day, the world uses over 80 million of barrels of oil. The United States, with 7% of the world’s population, uses over 25% of that 80+ million. That’ll happen when a nation of 320 million has almost as many cars and trucks as people.

I lay in bed thinking of all the other things oil and its cousin, natural gas, are used for and how today would go if they were non-existent. This little exercise has been done before and everyone should think about it.

Living in Northern California, we have a fair amount of electricity generated by hydro, but not enough to keep all of us out of the dark all the time. Since it is 6:30 and still dark, I roll over, turn on my light and hope my section of the grid is not blacked out.

The light, in a fixture circa 1890, lit. I noticed the wire from the light needed attention as the fabric covering it was coming frayed… remember, no oil means no rubber insulation.

I roll onto the wood floor. My Dupont Stainmaster rug is no longer there. It is made out of oil.

I look at myself in the bathroom mirror and decide I need to shave and get ready for another day in Napa. This is not going to be as easy as usual. Without oil, all my toiletries are history. There is no disposable razor as it is primarily plastic. Without oil, there’s nothing plastic.

Even if I had one of those old fashioned straight razors, I’d have no shaving cream: The lather is oil based.

For that matter, I have no shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, soap, toothbrush or toothpaste as they are all made from oil. I look into my empty medicine cabinet and wonder where did my vitamins, aspirin, Zantac and antibiotics go? Oh, yeah, they are all made from oil. Even the moisturizing cream I use is no longer there.

I decide to jump into the shower. At least the cold water will wake me up. But then I’ll have a hell of a mess to clean up as the water will splash all over without my shower curtain. It, too, is made of oil.

It is au natural for me today.

Luckily, I am a cotton guy. I pull on a pair of Levi’s, t-shirt and socks. The socks suck because without oil, there is no elasticity to them and they keep falling down to my ankles.

I look for my Nike’s. They are not here! God, that’s right! Sneakers, one of the best inventions of all time, are non-existent. They are primarily oil based. I have to wear these uncomfortable clodhoppers with thick, stiff leather soles. Uncomfortable and just plain ugly!

Still cool outside, I look for my familiar multi-use Patagonia jacket. It is no where to be found. Ahhhhhh!!!, now I remember! It is made from oil. Instead I reach for my denim jacket.

Leaving my house, I am surprised by all the dust caused by the occasional horse or carriage going downtown on Second Street. Without oil, there is no asphalt and the streets are dirt.

I traipse the mile downtown to Main Street where there are a number of restaurants. The trick is to find one that has what you want to eat. Today I decide to keep it simple: Eggs, hash browns, whole wheat toast and coffee.

Eating is the most challenging part of the day as nothing in our lives is more affected by a contraction of oil and natural gas supplies than agriculture. In 1859, when we entered the oil age, we were an agrarian nation where 90% of the population produced our food. Oil and natural gas, from which all pesticides and fertilizers are produced, are directly responsible for the Green Revolution. Today, 2% of the population produces the food for the other 98%.

Without pesticides or fertilizers, crop yields plummet. Without oil, there are no tractors, combines, threshers or any other of the mechanized methods we now take for granted. And the transportation of our agriculture products becomes a nightmare at best without reliable refrigeration.

Curse those futurists, I think, those that said we can get by using ethanol and other crop-derived energy sources. Haven’t they thought of Jevon’s Paradox? I guess not! Jevon’s Paradox is when you attempt to get yourself out of a progress trap by doing something that makes everything worse.

In fact, every alternative source for oil or oil based energy is ruined by Jevon’s Paradox.

To switch to ethanol would consume what is left of oil and natural gas faster than just continuing on our present course.

Hydrogen? We’d need an additional 300 nuclear power plants to produce it for 300+ million people. Before the first 50 were built, we’d reach Peak Uranium and be in South Africa fighting for control of the world’s uranium.

And replacing 10% of our cars with fuel cells would use up the world’s supply of platinum.

I think of all the promises made about the oil sands of Canada… Oh, that’s right, the problem is the same as making synthetic oil from coal. It is a big problem with a big acronym – EROEI: Energy returned on energy invested.

If the EROEI is a negative number where you have to invest more energy into getting the same amount back, then what is the sense? This is the ultimate Jevon’s Paradox.

There was a time when the EROEI from Middle Eastern oil was a staggering +30. At best now it is +10.

The best we can do with oil sands is about -5. The only way the industry stumbles by now is because of huge subsidies from the American and Canadian governments. Since it requires huge amounts of natural gas, the EROEI will keep heading south as natural gas is depleted.

Wait a second! What am I doing here? I shouldn’t be contemplating this as I’m in the middle of my oil-free exercise.

Quietly I finish my single egg, piece of bread (no toast), and potato and wish I had some coffee. Coffee is difficult to come by without regular shipments from South America.

And I don’t know about that glass of milk I drank. The waitress said it was pasteurized but…

Sheeeeesh, I sigh as I begin the mile long hike back home. I figure I’ll kick back the rest of the day and relax.

But what to do in a world without oil? I can’t watch the tube or listen to the radio. They both require massive amounts of oil to manufacture.

Watching a DVD or listening to CD is out as well! In fact, I won’t even be writing this little exercise of mine now as computers will be non-existent.

Despite it all, I look around and notice the world around me seems cleaner. Probably something to do with our disposable society that no longer exists. And the air is cleaner without all those cars on the freeway – Hey! It is quieter, too. I can actually hear birds singing up above and children playing in backyards.

But it is not going to be a pretty scene as hydrocarbons are depleted. We are talking social strife, mass migration, starvation, epidemics and worse. The world’s population has become unmanageable to exist without oil.

I always tell people to go to YouTube and type “post-oil man” into the search bar. It may be the most eye-opening 4 minutes you’ll spend in your life.

As I reach home after my dusty walk from breakfast downtown, I look around and know at least it’ll be light today even if PG&E turns off the power on my grid. Nope, a rolling blackout won’t affect the light or temperature indoors.

Up above, our familiar ol’ friend, the Sun, shines bright and warm.

A recent post on Trinifar makes a good companion piece to Jim’s essay. Check it out.
Image source: Roadsidepictures, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 license

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28 responses to “My world without oil

  1. Nice mental map of our oil dependence! If you want to see what happens when the oil supply starts to lag behind (our ever-increasing) demand, try – a collaborative documentation of the Oil Shock of 2007….

  2. Jim, really nice piece of writing.

    John, perhaps you can fix the link in dessum9’s comment.

  3. Jim, thanks for that piece. The vast majority of the public are utterly unaware of how much oil is used in the production of the goods that fill their living rooms. In particular plastics seem so embedded in our daily lives. Yikes.

  4. I agree with the other comments. This is a nice piece of writing and it deserves to be widely read. I have a question about solutions. What do you all think of this recent letter to Nature describing a relatively energy efficient process for the production of DMF, a bio-fuel alternative to ethanol. it is admittedly an incremental step but the work represents some innovative thinking on the part of the researchers.

    This initiative by formula 1 racing is also kind of interesting.

  5. Very good post, Jim. You’ve done your share of thinking about this civilization’s oil dependency.

  6. It remains true to say that we’ve got lots and lots of scientific evidence of the mass natural destuction which is caused by this civilization’s oil dependence — and the people’s fossil-fuels addiction. Depsite of all this knowledge of ours, we (as a species) do not seem willing to do much about our fossil-fuels consumption. To the contrary. We go to great lengths here, making sure that the fossil-fuels civilization shall not be discontinued anytime soon. What happens to the atmosphere, and what the effects might be on the climate systems, doesn’t seem to matter much to anyone, really. ‘Cause we need the oil. It’s a necessity. And we need the coal, we need the natural gas; our way of life depends on it. –

    I read a newspaper chronicle not long ago, in which a commentator said that we should have to start thinking about how we were going to make use of the dwindling oil-resources in order to prepare for a future of renewable energy use. Producing a lot of sun-cells, for example. And wind-mills.

    Worth thinking about, eh? Or are we only going to sit and wait for the remaining oil reserves to dry out while we relex our brains, knowing that there will be coal resources available for many, many centuries to come?

    I wonder. 8)

  7. Andrew,

    Thanks for the lead on DMF. It looks intriguing, and I’ll take a closer look when I get back to my normal schedule around the end of the week.

  8. dessum9,

    I only had a chance to take a brief look at the world-without-oil project, but it’s fascinating and I’ll spend more time at the site after this break. Thanks.

  9. I’m not sure the public is so unaware as they are in denial or ignoring that nagging feeling that something is wrong.

    Sure, there are those that are clueless, and those are the ones that I watch out for – they’ll be the scared ones that make irrational decisions that can get people hurt or worse.

  10. Another remarkable contribution, Jim. Keep going.

    We have peak oil, overwhelming environmental pollution, unbridled growth of the global economy, unrestrained increase of absolute global human population numbers and unchecked dissipation of Earth’s natural resources. What am I missing?

    All the best,


  11. As people look at DMF and similar alternatives, they might also look at Jay Forrester’s “” (see

    By the way, here’s another, related view of peak oil: (be sure to explore the associated model).

  12. Thanks Bill.

    To give yet another example of what looks like good scientific evidence regarding “peak oil,” please take a look at the Olduvai Theory and related data from Dr. Richard C. Duncan. At least to me, his work is potentially extraordinary.


  13. Hi peakoilboy,

    I agree there’s some serious denial going around. But I’m also pretty sure there’s a relative lack of awareness out there. I mentioned peak oil to someone last week. I’d say this was a more-informed-than-average person. His response was roughly, “What? Oh yeah, I heard something about that.” I mean, he had only the vaguest idea.

    I suspect awareness is even lower, though, concerning the whole package of ecological issues from peak oil to extinction rates to climate change (the one people are hearing by far the most about) to the collapse of fisheries to dead zones in the oceans to desertification and aquifer depletion, all pointing to huge changes as oil supplies go down and prices climb and we face potentially global ecological collapse. I just see very little about this in the media.

    I find it hard, though, to gauge public awareness. I’ve been too close to the subject I think to tell what most people are thinking about it. It’s just lately that I’ve been trying to look at that more closely and am thinking they aren’t really informed on it. 😕

  14. John,

    Unlike you, I believe the vast majority of youths and adults are quite aware of great many of the problems associated with CO2, for example. It is only that people like you and I have yet to come to terms with the apparent fact that humans in general have already reached the conclusion that nothing can actually be done about any of this, and decided for themselves that ignorance indeed is bliss. – At least: this is what I believe is the thing which is happenening here, right now. As the British isles experience heavy rain and floods, while a heat wave is causing trouble in the southern and eastern parts of Europe, with draught and forest fires, for instance … oh, and never mind the strange weather patterns of my native Scandinavia, and also the USA … I hear the American South-West is drying up? …

    The point is: We’re dealing with a species which is hell-bent on choosing to ignore all that which should not be ignored. Why? Because doing the opposite will cause great damage to our way of life. – The morale is: “Nature is taking its course, that’s all.”

    I suspect that – from now on – we’re going to have to cope with a lot of new End of The World-Sects. – Hi Ya!

  15. But Magne, just looking at what’s in the media, yes people hear about climate change, but they only hear little bits about the real consequences (fleeting mentions, easy to ignore), and almost nothing about the whole picture of potential (already begun?) ecological collapse. An article appears maybe once a year, then… nothing. And those that do appear tend to stop short of talking about the real consequences.

    I have to go, but will get back to this as soon as I can.

    [Edit] Okay, with a bit more time now, lemme elaborate a bit. My impression is that the majority of citizens (in the US anyway) hear a fair amount about climate change and think something like, “There will be some flooding of coastlines and some people will have to move inland. There will be some droughts, but we can deal with those. A few more forest fires, maybe some increased hurricane activity. I think there might even be some crop troubles, but farming methods are pretty sophisticated, and we have a global transportation system, so we’ll deal with it.”

    As for the global ecological crisis as a whole, I’ve searched many times for mainstream news articles to use in my essays, and it takes some digging. There have at times been articles like this…

    …when a large environmental group comes out with a major report, but otherwise there’s very little. I mean, who reads things like the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity…

    …or the AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment?

    Not many I fear.

    I don’t know, I wish I had the funds to commission a major poll on people’s impressions of this stuff. I tend to think awareness levels are very low. If I knew they were actually high, I’d shift my focus entirely to looking at how to motivate people to care, to act, etc.

  16. Great post.
    Sadly, I had run through a similar scenario in my mind around November of 2002. I was politically illiterate until 1999.

  17. John,

    For how long are we going to allow people to feign ignorance? I mean: there can be no doubt that Europe (for one) has experienced strange seasonal weather patterns for plenty of years now; such extreme seasonal weather patterns seem to be “the new normal” by now.

    I mean: for how long are we going to have to believe that people in general do not read the newspapers and watch TV? For how long are we going to accept the notion that the majority of adults aren’t properly informed?

    I’ve said this before, and I’ll keep saying it until I stop worrying about this: there’s a great deal of difference between actual ignorance and the act of deliberately ignoring.

    Let me tell you that anyone who lives here in Europe today – with the extreme weather and climatic stress which is experienced these days – coupled witht the fact that a very large portion of modern Europeans are well educated news consumers by definition – shall have to be mad in order to not understand that something very terrible is happening to this planet. And that it is happening right now. And that the time to start acting is … well: NOW …

    I just don’t believe in a general lack of awareness anymore. I just can’t. —

  18. Ruth Ejchorszt

    Jim It really makes me think when I read this. Thanks.

  19. Ruth Ejchorszt

    Thanks again.

  20. Thanks, all, for the interesting comments. It looks like I’ll have very limited time online for the next couple of days. I’ll get back to this discussion after that.

  21. hi, guys-

    go to:


    &: go to youtube – in the search bar type ‘post-oil man.’

    finally, at youtube, look for ‘end of suburbia.’

  22. Hi Jim and Friends,

    Here is one more link:



  23. Holy petrol-Catch22 Blair Man! What’s a former Executive Driver to do?!

    Perhaps it’s poetic justice that your Lawrenceville School, NJ Class of ’76 pal & current Mill St. inmate no longer :

    * Drives limos. * Owns a tv/stereo.
    * Owns/finances a condo.
    * Keeps ugrading his USAir frequent flyer
    mileage account.
    * Leases his 2002 Acura RSX.
    * Jets to Jersey to shmooze with L’ville Alum
    Chums, jets to Minnesota to visit with his
    Sister’s family, yada-yada-yada!
    * You pose some astounding things!

  24. Holy petrol catch-22 Blairman! What’s a Lawrenceville School, NJ ‘Spirit of ’76er’ to do?!

    As usual — you pitch some astoundingly shocking & compelling points. It’s obvious from your writing that I no longer :

    * Own/manage/finance my condo
    * Lease my 2002 Acura RSX
    * Add to my USAir frequent flyer account
    * Drive Lincoln Town Cars as an Executive
    Driver either in the Bay Area nor in “The
    City of Roses” — (Portland, OR).
    * Jet to Class of ’76 reunions in New Jersey
    * Get fabulous massage sessions here in
    San Rafael from slut-friendly Asian women
    “foh top dollah — me love you BIGTIME!”
    * yada-yada-yada …… (a reference to Elaine
    from the “Seinfeld” tv show).

    You are an intelligent, generous, decent human being, Jim! Mahalo!

  25. Pingback: Note on peak oil and population « Growth is Madness!

  26. Magne,

    Just a quick follow up with two thoughts:

    1) I wouldn’t be surprised if Europeans, on average, are better informed than Americans on these issues. In fact, I’d be surprised if they weren’t. In the US we have access to plenty of information, but it can take some digging to get at some of it, and I think few make the effort. People here mostly just want to go on living the lifestyles to which they’ve become accustomed.

    2) That said, I agree that in many cases it’s a case of “deliberately ignoring,” as you point out. i.e., yes, it’s often a matter of getting some hint that there’s something which needs to be looked at, something important on which to become more informed. But because it looks threatening, people make the choice to ignore it. It’s fairly easy to do and provides the comforting illusion that all continues as usual. Yep, there have to be lots of people out there who are doing that.

  27. Andrew Staroscik, above, gave us a link to an article outlining some possible advances in biofuels. The problem with biofuels, as I understand it, is an inescapable one concerning scale. The world currently consumes a cubic mile of oil every year, and I don’t know how many cubic miles of coal. Biofuels will never take up the slack, because you will never be able to grow the mass in a year that will refine into that volume of fuel, or even come anywhere close – especially if you don’t have oil-driven machines to help you. It took a planetary scale, and hundreds of millions of years, to refine the oil and coal we’ve grown to depend upon. Biofuels are gaining interest for economic reasons only – that is, as oil prices go up, you can make money with biofuels. But they can never realistically hope to sustain the oil-fueled infrastructure.

  28. dessum,

    That has been my general impression as well. Is is more realistic to say biofuels could become one small piece of the pie of replacements for fossil fuels?