Oil And The Problem Of Infrastructure
By Peter Goodchild
29 September, 2006
schemes for a post-oil technology are based on the misconception that
there will be an infrastructure, similar to that of the present day,
which could support such future gadgetry. Modern equipment, however,
is dependent on specific methods of manufacture, transportation, maintenance,
and repair. In less abstract terms, this means machinery, motorized
vehicles, and service depots or shops, all of which are generally run
by fossil fuels. In addition, one unconsciously assumes the presence
of electricity, which energizes the various communications devices,
such as telephones and computers; electricity on such a large scale
is only possible with fossil fuels.
To believe that a non-petroleum
infrastructure is possible, one would have to imagine, for example,
solar-powered machines creating equipment for the production and storage
of electricity by means of solar energy. This equipment would then be
loaded on to solar-powered trucks, driven to various locations, and
installed with other solar-powered devices, and so on, _ad absurdum_
and _ad infinitum_. Such a scenario might provide material for a work
of science fiction, but not for genuine science. The sun simply does
not work that way.
It is not only oil that will
soon be gone. Iron ore of the sort that can be processed with primitive
equipment is becoming scarce, and only the less-tractable forms will
be available when the oil-powered machinery is no longer available -
a chicken-and-egg problem. Copper, aluminum, and other metals are also
rapidly vanishing. Metals were useful to mankind only because they could
once be found in concentrated pockets in the earth's crust; now they
are irretrievably scattered among the world's garbage dumps.
The infrastructure will no
longer be in place: oil, electricity, and asphalt roads. Partly for
that reason, the social structure will also no longer be in place: intricate
division of labor, large-scale government, and high-level education.
Without the infrastructure and the social structure, it will be impossible
to produce the familiar goods of industrial society.
Without fossil fuels, the
most that is possible is a pre-industrial infrastructure, although one
must still ignore the fact that the pre-industrial world did not fall
from the sky as a prefabricated structure but took uncountable generations
of human ingenuity to develop. The next problem is that a pre-industrial
blacksmith was adept at making horseshoes, but not at making or repairing
Fossil fuels, metals, and
electricity are all intricately connected. Each is inaccessible - on
the modern scale - without the other two. Any two will vanish without
the third. If we imagine a world without fossil fuels, we must imagine
a world without metals or electricity. What we imagine, at that point,
is a society far more primitive than the one to which we are accustomed.
Note: see also Norman Church's
essay, "Thinking the Unthinkable", at:
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Chicago Review Press has published
Peter Goodchild's _Survival Skills of the North American Indians_, _The
Spark in the Stone_, and _Raven Tales_.
He can be reached at:
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