by Lise Maring
When most of us think about oil, we tend to think about heating oil for the furnace and about the gasoline and diesel fuel that keeps our cars and trucks on the road. What most of us don't realize, however, is that oil does more than just fuel our vehicles and keep us warm in winter. It has become the foundation upon which our entire modern civilization has been built. Recently, that foundation has begun to develop some cracks and has become a little shakier than it used to be, as cheap oil and natural gas become harder to find and acquire. Even if we were to develop a new source of energy and a more fuel-efficient car today, without oil, modern civilization as we have come to know it is still in deep trouble.
To start with the basics, armies aren't the only organizations that run on their stomachs. So do civilizations. Agribusiness is totally dependent upon large machines and artificial fertilizers and pesticides in order to raise, harvest, and transport the vast quantities of grain, fruit, and vegetables we enjoy today. Fertilizers and pesticides require oil and natural gas, not only in their distribution, but in their manufacture as well. Also, feed for beef cattle, chickens, and turkeys depends very heavily on these same fertilizers and pesticides. When cheap sources of oil and gas are not readily available, the chemical industry passes the increased costs on to agriculture. The increasing prices for fertilizers and pesticides then results in increased food prices for the rest of us.
We may find ourselves eating farther down the food chain in the near future. In other words, we eat the grain instead of feeding it to something else first, since each link added in the food chain results in energy loss. In the future, the turkey and chicken "factories" we have now may not exist. The vast feedlots where cattle are fattened on grain before being slaughtered and made into hamburger patties for the nation's fast food restaurants may no longer be economical. Thus, wastes from such industries may no longer be available to those who believe it could serve as a viable large-scale energy source for the future.
The world is now consuming roughly 77 million barrels of oil a day. And the demand grows every year as other countries aspire to our style of living and level of consumption. What's really interesting is that out of that 77 million barrels, the U.S. consumes most of it. In 2002, the U.S. consumed 19.66 million barrels a day on the average--more than one-quarter of the entire world's oil consumption--and the demand in this country continues to grow every year. You can check this out for yourself on this US Department of Energy web site: eia.doe.gov
Today, much of our food travels an average of 1200 to 1500 miles before it gets to our tables. Most of the vegetables consumed in the East were transported overland by truck from California. The roads the trucks roll on are made of asphalt. Where does asphalt come from? You guessed it--from petroleum. When the supplies of asphalt become more restricted, our entire transportation system may very well begin to deteriorate. There are some substitutes, but certainly not in the quantities required to maintain a national road system. And the substitutes also require energy to manufacture and transport. Which roads will be sacrificed first? Will it be the interstate system on the edge of town, or the street in front of your home?
And, oh, by the way, those tires on the trucks and on your family car? They also required petroleum in their manufacture and distribution. Along with the machinery that mined the iron ore, converted it into steel, and formed it into the frame for your car.
So, okay, what else is oil used for? Well, plastics for one thing! Look around you. How much of your world is made up of plastic? The keyboard you type on is most likely plastic, as are the casings for your monitor and your printer. Much of our food comes in plastic containers, even our eggs these days, and the spouts on our plastic-coated juice and milk cartons are themselves plastic as well. The hospitals depend on disposable plastic supplies, such as syringes and oxygen tubing. Bottom line: it would take a book to document all the uses of plastic, and plastic depends on the rich chemical soup called petroleum. Oh, and have you looked at what ink is made of? Or that pen in your hands?
But it doesn't stop there. The roofing tiles and tar paper used in home construction require petroleum for their manufacture and distribution; the lubricants in our engines and machinery--even "synthetic" oils--are currently oil-derived. Many medications require petroleum for their manufacture. Our synthetic textiles, such as nylon and rayon, depend on the chemicals derived from petroleum. Petroleum, in other words, touches every industry…every technology…every business…every home…and each and every one of us in one vital way or another, every single day of every single week.
Many people have suggested all we have to do is begin manufacturing oil and plastics from organic sources such as corn or soybeans or other such crops. Unfortunately, there is only so much land available, and most of the arable land is currently being used to grow food--or is being developed into more homes and shopping centers. The nice thing about oil is that it is underground and takes up relatively little space to extract. So, do we give up food production for energy substitutes and plastics instead? And who is it that will go hungry while perfectly good farmland is used to grow plastic for all those McDonald's Happy Meal toys?
It may be that in the not too distant future, we end up with several different schemes for energy production that will indeed keep us warm and allow us to keep driving our cars while the tires hold out. But one thing's for sure: no single method will be able to replace petroleum and everything we use it for.
Also, ask yourselves this: Do we really want to find something that will totally replace oil so our civilization can continue as it is right now? Even if we were to find a substitute, and energy doesn't become a limiting factor, then food and water are sure to be. While the corporate fishing fleets are busily mining the oceans and destroying the world's fisheries, similar corporate agricultural interests are busily mining our topsoil and groundwater. Personally, I'm beginning to think it might actually be better if our civilization were brought up short--so our planet doesn't end up becoming a giant, uninhabitable dust ball.
Lise Maring worked for several years at NASA's Langley Research Center and briefly at the Goddard Space Flight Center as a contractor employee. She is currently working as a technical editor/writer but has also been a systems analyst, a database administrator in NASA's technology commercialization program, an operations lead for a remote sensing data processing center, and chair of an interagency user services team for NASA's remote sensing-oriented Earth Observing System (which was part of the Mission to Planet Earth program.) She also runs several online groups that are community and/or environmentally-oriented and is the newsletter editor/writer for the York River Group of the Sierra Club.