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Peak Oil And The Problem Of Infrastructure

By Peter Goodchild

29 September, 2006

Most 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 solar-energy systems.

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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