At work I am involved in the local implementation of a complex government-driven national computer programme. In my particular region, every surgery and health centre has been kitted out with the latest technology, delivering over 300 new PCs, 50 printers and 20 servers. The aim of the national programme is to connect thirty-thousand doctors to three hundred hospitals for the benefit of patients. The goal is to create an efficient patient-centred health service, wherein high quality information is shared effectively between different teams and organisations.
Without a doubt, these are all very admirable aspirations, but there is a question which keeps on recurring in my mind… “What happens when the oil runs out?”
I’m not being funny — although whenever I ask this question at work, I find myself the immediate target of mockery. “What, this computer runs on oil, does it?” a colleague asked me sarcastically, prompting those around us to snigger at my ridiculous statements. I am the irritating voice in the office who must always inject a historical or futuristic reference whenever some piece of technology is not working exactly as it should. I have the misfortune to sit beside the noisy, clunky photocopier and am thus the first recipient of the expletives when the paper jams again. “I hate this thing,” is a frequent refrain; “This Bloody Machine” another. As I sidle across to assist the huffing and puffing victims of copier fart, I cannot help asking — as I retrieve the crumpled rogue sheet from flap five — how we got by in the olden days, why everything is such a hurry. The last time I told a colleague who was lamenting how long it was taking for the machine to wake up from its power-saving slumber that at least waiting on a monk with a quill could have been worse, the “you’re an idiot” glare was useful confirmation that my “it’s not that bad” optimism is getting on everyone’s nerves. Still, whenever there is a problem with the computer network and patience begins to fray, I continue to ask what we are going to do when the oil runs out.
No, I’m not being funny. I’m serious. “What, this computer runs on oil, does it?”
Well yes, in a way. The American Chemical Society (http://acswebcontent.acs.org) estimates that the construction of a single 32MB DRAM chip uses 1.5kg of fossil fuels in addition to 32kg of water, while the production of one gram of microchips consumes 630g of fossil fuels. Most of the keyboard, mouse, CPU case and monitor is made from plastic, which is a polymer derived from oil. It is estimated that the construction of the average desktop computer consumes ten times its weight in fossil fuels, while the US Environmental Literacy Council (http://www.enviroliteracy.org) states that the energy used in producing ten computers is enough to produce a car, largely due to the purity and sophistication of materials required to produce microchips. All electrical devices make use of silver, copper, and/or platinum, each of which is extracted, transported, and fashioned using oil-powered machinery. The production of one ton of copper requires the equivalent of 17.8 barrels of oil, while the energy cost component of aluminium is twenty times higher. In other words, the production of computers is an extremely energy-intensive operation throughout the cycle.
Take yourself off to the website of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (http://www.peakoil.net) and sober up. While I am sure that everybody is aware that oil is finite resource, what this means hasn’t really hit home yet. Every time we hear that production is peaking we learn that a new oil field has been discovered and so we relax; it seems the oil will just run and run. Last time I was in Turkey I met a BP engineer heading off to Trabzon. My wife laughed: there’s no oil down there. “Oh yes there is,” he replied with a smile, on route to his connecting flight. Out on a rig in the Black Sea, off the northern Turkish coast, they are drilling for more black gold. Why don’t the scaremongers just quieten down? Probably because they are right. We don’t know when the oil will run dry — in 1956, Marion King Hubbert incorrectly forecasted that world oil production would peak at some point between 1993 and 2000 — but we can be certain that it will. Hubbert was correct in his prediction that US oil production would peak in the early 1970s.
Some reports now suggest that the peak of oil production — which coincides with 50% depletion of our oil endowment — has been superseded and we will therefore begin to see production levels drop my 3% each year. Thus oil production in 2020 is likely to be equal to that in 1980, although demand for oil will significantly outpace production due to population growth and more widespread industrialisation. As CEO of Halliburton in 1999, Dick Cheney stated that, “there will be an average of two-percent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead, along with, conservatively, a three-percent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional 50 million barrels a day.” Andrew Gould, CEO of the oil services firm Schlumberger noted: “An accurate average decline rate is hard to estimate, but an overall figure of 8% is not an unreasonable assumption.”
Those who only consider the implications of a decline in the production of oil in light of our transportation and energy needs, must awake to the realisation that petrochemicals are actually key components in a vast array of applications, from the production of medicines to the distribution of water, and from the creation of plastics to the production of food. Indeed, in the case of the latter it is estimated that industrialised societies use 10 calories of fossil fuels to produce every 1 calorie of food eaten. In addition to the energy used in farming, transportation and packaging of the food we eat, oil is the building block of many related resources. Pesticides are made from oil, for example, while fertilizers are made from ammonia, which is derived from natural gas.
We are running, but where are we going? The growth in the popularity of consumer electronics in recent years has brought with it an acceptance of planned obsolescence and the perpetual upgrade, without any real appreciation of the implications. Last year’s status symbol was the Apple iPod, this year’s the Sony Walkman phone, next year’s the portable PlayStation? We move from hyper-threading chips to dual-core offerings within a matter of months. The traditional conservative approach towards electronic equipment (such as the Hi-Fi and TV) that anticipated longevity has largely been superseded by the idea that a product will need to be perpetually upgraded (mobile phones, computers, PDAs, MP3 players). Computers are vulnerable to this idea on two fronts: aging hardware and new versions of software. Indeed, the two link together in a perfect marriage: as computers get more powerful, so does the software, the next generation requiring ever greater hardware specifications. The result, unfortunately, is the creation of huge volumes of waste and consumption of limited resources. We know that much of this is unnecessary, but we just accept it as a fact of life. It is said that most of the consumer-level problems with computer software are not inherent in the technology. Rather, they are the consequences of user-hostile business models, which see the perpetual upgrade as its primary source of revenue.
But where are we heading? The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (http://www.millenniumassessment.org), which was drawn up by 1,300 researchers from 95 nations over four years, concluded that human activities threaten the Earth's ability to sustain future generations. The way in which society obtains its resources is said to have caused irreversible changes that are degrading the natural processes that support life on Earth, and it is believed that this will compromise efforts to address hunger, poverty and improve healthcare. Its authors say the pressure for resources has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth; fisheries and fresh water, for example, are now well beyond levels that can sustain current demands. Thus the report suggests that society must alter its consumption patterns and promote better education, new technologies and higher prices for exploiting ecosystems.
We can communicate across continents in an instant for free, sharing files, sounds and video at ease. We can calculate financial forecasts faster than ever before using metre-wide spreadsheets with thousands of entries. We can share our thoughts with strangers in far-off lands. Our Doctors can view digital X-Rays on their computer as soon as a fracture has been photographed in a hospital twenty miles away. Software logarithms can now identify cancers within a CAT scan without human intervention. Technology is shrinking the world and allegedly speeding life up. Ears plugged into the iPod, eyes fixed on the computer screen, we are racing onwards as never before. But where are we going and what are we doing? My question is serious: what will we do when the oil runs out?
Those who are studying peak oil are not speaking about the last drop, only the downward slope of the bell curve. When demand outstrips supply, they say, the economy as we know it will probably collapse. And what will we do when that happens? How will we live?
Slow down. Learn how to live. Learn how to survive as those before us did. As another writer noted recently, some of us don’t know how determine when it is time to pray because we have become dependent on computer generated timetables. Some of us don’t know how to determine whether Ramadan has arrived because we are dependent on someone telling us on the phone. We have entered the on-demand age of e-Government, e-Banking, e-Commerce and e-Support, and we are apparently more connected than ever before. But do we know how to cook “real food”, or grow some vegetables, or conserve water and heat? Do we know how to conduct business? Do we know how to survive in the post-oil age?
It is possible that this apocalyptic vision is an exaggeration of our future reality – a dystrophic apparition more akin to that old film entitled Mad Max. I have read that scientist are developing new plastics based on polymers derived from corn and that theoretically circuit boards could be printed on sheets of lasagne pasta. Perhaps by the time oil is seriously on the decline, we will have developed efficient renewable sources of energy, or Mr Blair’s nuclear programme will be well under way. Perhaps today’s silicon based computer chips will have been replaced by organic processors. Perhaps the future will be rosy and my concern is misplaced. Perhaps.
But as we march onwards at an ever increasing pace, and I am invited to upgrade my computer and mobile telephone, to buy an MP3 player and download the latest version of Microsoft Windows, that question just returns. Our resources are finite: about this there can be no doubt. Isn’t it better that we slow down and question where we’re going? That we ask now, before it is too late? I think I can get by without an iPod. What about you?