James has been an online writer for over seven years. His articles often focus on wildlife, but he is also a diehard Scottish football fan.
Oil is quite simply the backbone of modern life. It’s in the food we eat, the houses we live in and in the cars we drive. It’s probably the most important commodity in the world; indeed this cheap, economic fuel makes our modern world possible. Over the last 150 years, we have taken about a trillion barrels from the Earth, and most experts forecast that the equivalent of another trillion should still be there for us to extract.
But let’s conduct a little thought experiment; most of us are aware that we are living on borrowed time. We know that the oil will run dry someday in the future, we’re not entirely certain when, but most experts are confident that we will have to find an effective alternative fuel within the next 100 years or else. In our thought experiment, I want you to imagine that all of the remaining untapped oil reserves still in the Earth suddenly vanished overnight. What we would do? How would we cope?
This experiment begins as such: the oil disappears and almost immediately oil refineries around the world go into chaos mode and alarms go off deep underground, indicating a major problem.
24 Hours Later
News reports around the world confirm beyond doubt that all of the oil reserves below ground across the globe have disappeared. The oil companies move quickly to stem the rising panic by informing people that there are 20 million barrels left in the refineries. Across the oceans, huge tankers carrying millions of barrels of oil are on the move, but not in the usual direction. In the wake of the crisis, Earth’s biggest oil exporters such as Russia and Saudi Arabia have recalled their boats.
This is a massive blow for the US, who is the biggest oil importer in the world. Each day, they produce more than 8 million barrels, but they actually consume double that amount. Now with the loss of imported oil, the deficit stands at 8 million and begins to grow.
People quickly digest the news and flood into gas/petrol stations in the hope that they can fill up their cars for the last time, but many reports state that anyone prepared to queue faces a wait of two hours at least. Very quickly, gas/petrol stations around the world run dry, in the last frantic moments, many hike up the prices to truly astronomical amounts, and some of those determined people who sat in the queue hand over vast sums of money.
Many countries around the world do have vast reserves of oil hidden away to deal with emergency situations similar to the one occurring now. The US has roughly 725 million barrels of crude oil hidden away in secret location across the country. In order to protect what’s left, the government takes dramatic steps, only allowing the most vital transports such as ambulances and fire trucks access to the oil. The age of planes, trains and ships comes to a shuddering halt; roads become quiet, tracks empty, the skies quieter and cleaner. Each day in the US alone, roughly 4 million people use aircraft for travel, but are now all stranded, forced to find alternative ways to get their destination. The loss of planes, trains and ships also spells disaster for the delivery of cargo, over 100,000 tonnes of cargo will lie stranded, probably never to be delivered.
The economic fallout is rapid; the growing, widespread panic forces the government to halt stock trading. The US government took similar steps after the 9/11 disaster due to the panic that erupted in its aftermath. All of a sudden, two trillion dollars of oil stock become worthless; more than 400,000 people directly employed by the oil industry lose their jobs, and are reduced to having to find their way home by any means necessary. The uncertain economic future also forces thousands of manufacturing plants to shut down immediately, which spark protests from the millions employed in the industry who also lose their jobs.
For the most part, we are largely ignorant of oil and just how important it really is. It’s one of the most powerful and versatile fuels on the planet, made from dead organic matter that has been slowly compressed and heated over millions of years. It’s in everything, from toothpaste, lipstick, polyester and even plastic, but now it’s all gone, and what was kept in reserve is dwindling rapidly. A huge chain reaction has now been set in motion, that is quickly crippling every part of our lives from hospitals, food and of course power. The crisis is only just beginning.
5 Days Later
In just five short days, the loss of oil has forced governments around the world to declare martial law to stem the rising anger and anarchy among the population. In the US, the National Guard is deployed widely across the country, patrolling the streets of Los Angeles and Washington vigorously. The stock markets remain firmly shut, and unemployment has risen swiftly up to an astonishing 30 per cent.
In less than a week, many of our most basic needs are suddenly out of reach. Food depot centres across the western world are now closed, sparking a major food crisis. Prior to the crisis, California for example sent out 1300 trucks from its depots every day, delivering fresh food all over the country to grocery outlets. Now the trucks sit idle without their precious oil.
All of the big cities are hit hard; on average it takes one football field of farmland to produce enough food for just one person a year. Oil enabled the easy distribution of food from far and wide, but now without it, feeding a city of millions like New York becomes impossible. The trip to the grocery store now takes hours rather than minutes, and each outlet has a team of armed guards manning the doors, deciding how many people can enter the store at once. Inside the store, almost all of the best quality food has now gone, what’s left are the ones that don’t normally make it to the shelf, the ones that carry imperfections or are slightly off. But people can no longer afford to be fussy, and must make do with whatever they can find. The prices of food just like gas/petrol sky-rocket, for example, in this new world a 5Ib bag of apples now costs nearly $12.
Roughly a quarter of all food consumed in the US is imported from elsewhere, and with no more ships bringing fresh supplies, the food stocks dwindle dramatically. On farms, the loss of oil is even more dramatic, over the last fifty years farming has become industrial, with many containing hundreds if not thousands of cows and other livestock. On average, a cow needs around 100 Ibs of food a day, while a pig needs around 8Ib. In a bitter ironic twist, these animals raised to feed humans face starvation themselves.
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The loss of oil causes power systems around the world to fail, plunging the world into darkness. Around the world, roughly 40% of electricity comes directly from coal burning power plants. In the US, Florida is hit hardest, as it mainly relies on electricity generated directly from burning oil. The major hospitals in cities such as Miami and Orlando are equipped with emergency backup generators, but even these rely heavily on diesel fuel processed from oil. In San Francisco law and order breaks out. In the middle of the night, looters emerge en masse. But as well as looking for food, they search for cooking oil that can be converted into fuel for diesel engine cars.
1 Month Later
Governments around the world initiate a global shutdown, keeping only the most essential services operational. The emergency oil reserves are converted into diesel fuel for cargo trains that deliver coal to power plants, in an effort to restore power. The strategy works, and some basic electrical services are restored, but only in certain areas, as the electrical grids are no longer interconnected.
Florida is still in a state of blackout; the emergency fuel gets the trains running again, but instead of people they carry food. The US’ oil supply continues to dwindle; even the most optimistic forecasts estimate that the US only has 11 months worth of oil left. The gasoline or petrol powered car becomes obsolete; this is a total disaster for the US, as it is specifically built to serve cars. More than half of the population live in sprawling suburbs, and prior to the crisis had most of their food delivered straight to huge grocery outlets nearby. For the average American, the easy life has vanished, alternative measures must be found.
Out in the Midwest, farmers begin planting new crops to replace the usual fruit and vegetables. They select soya beans that contain oil which can be extracted and turned into diesel fuel. Corn is another crop that contains a fuel alternative and is grown extensively across millions of acres of land. The treasure yielded by this crop is ethanol which can be used to power gas/petrol powered cars.
While the US roads sit empty, the story in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is quite different. The roads are still packed with cars that are powered by ethanol extracted from sugar cane. In terms of bio fuel production, the Brazilians are decades ahead of the Americans and other western nations. However, hope remains eternal that the end of the modern world hasn’t arrived. Thousands of electric cars are still on the road and could pave the way for a better future. But back in the present, a more immediate and concerning challenge looms; the onset of winter in the northern hemisphere.
5 Months Later
The US government announces the takeover of three of the biggest car manufacturers in the country. They intend to concentrate on producing electric trucks to help supplement the much needed food deliveries. Across the vast agricultural lands of the Earth, farmers take inspiration from Brazil and start planting sugar cane to speed up the production of ethanol.
However, in big cities across the US and indeed the rest of the world, food terminals begin to close, resulting in a fast spreading famine. People form crushing queues at train stations waiting for food deliveries. Instead of fresh produce, they must make do with powdered milk and rice. The essential services such as coal delivery and emergencies are still operational; surviving on the ever dwindling oil reserves, everything else is at a standstill. The US continues to dramatically reduce its oil consumption in order to stretch out the vital remaining reserves. But in just a few short months, there won’t be enough oil for any food deliveries at all.
While food continues to be brought in, rubbish/garbage is no longer collected and taken away. In fact, any rubbish clear up is a luxury afforded only to a few lucky people. The situation sounds bad in the North, but things are even worse in Saudi Arabia, which is in the midst of an economic disaster. 90 per cent of their income from exports came from oil, with all that gone the country collapses into ruin. Japan was one of the biggest importers in the world; roughly 60 per cent of all its nutritional needs came from overseas. With no ships docking at their ports, the entire population face starvation.
Back in the US, many people are no longer prepared to wait for the government to find a solution. Instead they take matters into their own hands and start converting garages and basements into makeshift laboratories, where they conduct experiments in producing their own bio fuel using scavenged chemicals such as methanol. This is a very dangerous experiment, but if it works it could provide escape from starving cities. However, this ingenuity only works on diesel cars and for a limited time.
Other alternative fuel sources also face similar hurdles; while the soya bean harvest was more than the double what it was in the previous year, it only produced half a billion gallons of bio fuel which is less than 1 per cent of the diesel North America used each year prior to the crisis. Furthermore, no more can be produced until the next harvest. Farmers continue to valiantly plant more corn to gain a higher yield of ethanol.
A world without oil forces governments around the world to make tough and brutal decisions. In this case, should they tell the farmers to plant crops for food or fuel? Hospitals are rapidly running out of supplies; everything from rubber gloves, gowns, medicine and lubricants all need oil in their manufacture. Without such necessaries, drug resistant infections become rampant. In the big cities, families are surviving literally by the skin of their teeth. But now matters take a turn for the worst. An electrical transformer fire which was mostly nothing more than a nuisance in a world with oil, becomes nightmarish. Abandoned vehicles block access, preventing emergency vehicles from dealing with the problem. The fire quickly spreads, before an explosion rocks the neighbourhood.
Winter has arrived in the northern hemisphere, and for the millions of people living in northern cities, the time has come to make a tough decision. Do they lie low and wait for winter to pass? Or do they flee south. For many, there is no decision, as temperatures plummet, people flee en masse, heading south; in what is the biggest mass migration in human history. In the US people from the north pour into the southern states and Mexico. While in Europe, people from Scandinavia, the Baltic, Russia and Britain pour into southern France and the Mediterranean countries. The refugees travel on foot; cars are abandoned, including the ones that were revived by cooking oil. The cold has turned the fuel thick and sludgy; consequently the fuel lines and engines have become blocked, rendering the cars totally useless. The northern cities transform into eerie ghostly islands poking out of the snow and ice. Amazingly, not all people flee south, some hardy travellers’ venture north seeking out isolated cabins in the wilderness where they can sit out the winter living off a stockpile of food that they bought with them. However, the stockpile is limited to basically what they can carry on their backs. So they have to resort to hunting and trapping animals. On average, an adult male human needs around 210,000 calories to see him through a winter, thus the regular acquisition of fresh meat is a necessity for survival.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.