Peak Oil, International Trade And Population
By Jason G. Brent
30 December, 2010
Oil is a finite resource! Eventually the oil remaining on the planet will be exhausted and no longer able to be used by humanity. Peak oil can be defined in two ways--- The first way is when total amount of oil withdrawn from the earth for use by humanity starts to decline; example--- in year one 100 barrels of oil are withdrawn, in year two 120 barrels of oil are withdrawn, in year three 80 barrels of oil are withdrawn, and in year four 60 barrels are drawn – in this example year two is the peak oil year since in years subsequent to year two the amount of oil withdrawn goes down: The second way is when oil withdrawn per capita starts to decrease; example in year one 100 barrels of oil are withdrawn and there are 100 people on the Earth (one barrel per person), in year two 150 barrels of oil are withdrawn and there are 120 people on the Earth (1.25 barrels per person), and in year three 200 barrels of oil are withdrawn but the population has increased to 500 people (0.4 barrels per person)--- in this example the peak oil year is year two as the amount of oil withdrawn per capita has reached its maximum in year two and has decreased in year three.
Humanity will no longer be able to use the oil remaining on the planet when one of two conditions exist--- the first condition, is when wells are drilled and oil is not obtained from the wells or only a minimum amount of oil is obtained; the second condition, when it takes more energy to find, obtain, process, and deliver oil than the oil produces when it is used--- example, it takes 200 units of energy to find the oil, drill for it, process it, and deliver it to where it is used but when it is used it only produces 100 units of energy. In this example it would not make sense to expend 200 units of energy to obtain the oil when the oil only produced 100 units of energy. In this example there may be substantial amounts of oil remaining on the planet, but that oil would not be usable by humanity.
According to the best statistics, peak oil per capita reached in the 1970s and since that time the amount of oil produced per capita has gone down and there is every indication that this trend will continue and continue more steeply. Similarly, the amount of energy obtained from the burning of oil in relation to the amount of energy used to obtain the oil has been going down for the last few years as it has become more difficult to find, obtain, process and deliver the oil. This fact can readily be seen from the increase in ocean drilling and the increase in the depths to which wells must be driven in order to obtain oil.
There are only two major ways that international trade is carried on--- by boat and plane. Goods cannot be shipped from North and South America to Africa, Asia, Europe, or Australian by any means other than by boat or plane. Similarly, all goods shipped to and from Australia have to be shipped by boat or plane. While North and South America are connected by land, for all practical purposes all goods between those two continents are likewise shipped by boat or plane. For all practical purposes all goods shipped to and from Africa are shipped by boat or plane. While I do not have exact figures, I would estimate that at least 95% of all international trade is handled by boat and plane.
International trade is absolutely essential for the survival of civilization. It is the only way that raw materials can be shipped from the nations that have them to the nations that need them and it is the only way for excess food produced by one nation to be shipped to another nation. Without boats it would be impossible for the excess food created by the farmers of the United States, Canada, and Argentina to be shipped to the nations that must import food. Without boats it would be impossible for the excess rice produced by Vietnam to be shipped to the Philippines which imports rice in order for its population not to starve to death. Without boats it would be impossible for the industries of the United States to continue to operate as the United States imports substantial amounts of raw materials and ores needed by its industries. In simple terms, without international trade all of our civilization would collapse within months and billions would starve to death within a very short period of time.
The question facing humanity is--- is there any energy source which humanity can use in the future which will permit international trade to continue once oil is no longer available to humanity? Regarding planes the only energy source which combines the necessary criteria of weight and energy which will permit planes to fly is oil. Coal will not do it, natural gas will not do it, electric batteries will not do it, solar power will not do it, wind power will not do it, atomic power will not do it, and everything else foreseeable far into the future will not do it. Those of you who read the media may have read a few months ago of a plane that was flown with a combination of oil from the ground and oil created from plant material. However, oil created from plant material will never be able alone or even in conjunction with oil from the ground to provide the necessary energy and be sufficient in amount to permit international trade to continue by plane. In simple terms, the only energy source which will permit planes to fly internationally is oil and once oil is exhausted that portion of international trade will no longer exist. Once oil is exhausted nothing humanity can do will permit planes to fly.
Now let us examine the types of energy which will or will not permit international trade by boat to continue once oil is exhausted. If humanity attempted to use oil made from plant material in an amount sufficient to permit international trade by boat to continue there would not be enough plant material left on the planet to provide food for humanity. Therefore, oil made from plant material cannot be considered an alternative to oil obtained from the ground. Sailing ships could not carry a sufficient amount of cargo and be fast enough to permit international trade by boat to continue on the level which is necessary for our civilization to continue. Therefore, sailing ships cannot be considered an alternative to oil powered cargo ships. Coal could be used for a short period of time as a substitute for oil. However, coal itself is finite and eventually will be exhausted. However, that is not the main reason why coal is not a viable alternative to oil. The main reason that coal is not a viable alternative to oil is that it is highly polluting and if all cargo ships were converted to coal the output of carbon dioxide would cause a very substantial rise in temperature. In addition, coal is a very dirty fuel. Lastly, coal could not be used in cruise ships and that would destroy the cruise industry. Therefore, as a practical matter coal cannot be considered an alternative to oil in the area of international trade by boat. Some cargo ships could be converted to atomic power. Here too there are many problems with converting cargo carriers to atomic power---a) it would be very expensive, if not impossibly expensive, to convert all the necessary cargo ships to atomic power; b) there is a limited amount of uranium fuel and it is highly unlikely that a sufficient amount of fuel could be produced to power the large amount of cargo ships necessary for international trade by boat to continue for many years into the future; c) there would be a major fuel disposal problem similar to the problem we presently see in land based electric power plants; d) in addition to the fuel disposal problem, there would be a major problem when the ships were no longer serviceable and had to be taken out of service; and e) it is highly unlikely that the smaller cargo ships and coastal freighters could be converted to atomic power. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that atomic power will be a viable alternative to oil. Major cargo ships powered by batteries or other forms of electric power should not be considered an alternative to oil powered cargo ships. Similarly, it is highly unlikely that solar power will provide an alternative to oil power. Likewise, it is highly unlikely that natural gas will be an alternative to oil. Based upon the foregoing analysis, it would be the height of folly for humanity to believe that anything other than oil can be used to power cargo ships in amount sufficient for international trade by boat to continue at a level which will permit civilization to survive and to prevent the horrific starvation deaths of billions of our species.
Based upon the foregoing analysis humanity must plan its future on the assumption that international trade will be dramatically reduced once oil is exhausted. A dramatic reduction in international trade must be followed by a dramatic reduction in the human population and the collapse of civilization. Humanity has a choice – reduce population before international trade collapses using the intelligence of humanity or suffer the horrors of the dramatic drop in population caused by the destruction of civilization and the starvation of billions of humans.