What if There Was No Petroleum? A Thought Experiment

by: EJ on 09/15/2017

In this excerpt from The Retro Future: Looking to the Past to Reinvent the Future, author John Michael Greer invites us to participate in a thought experiment.  What if petroleum deposits had never happened?  What would our world look like now? 

A Road Not Yet Traveled

As a thought experiment, though, I encourage my readers to imagine what might have followed if that first great distraction never  happened—if,  let’s  say,  due  to  some chance  mutation among plankton back in the Cambrian period, carbon compounds stashed away in deepwater sediments turned into a waxy, chemically inert goo rather than into petroleum. The internal combustion engine would still have been invented, but without some immensely abundant source of liquid fuel to burn, it would have become, like the Stirling engine, an elegant curiosity useful only for a few specialized purposes. As coal reserves depleted, governments, industrial firms, and serious men of affairs doubtless would have become ever more fixated on seizing control of untapped coal mines wherever they could be found, and the twentieth century in this alternate world would likely have been ravaged by wars as destructive as the ones in our world.


(photo credit: Dave Goehring)

At the same time, the pioneering work of Mouchot and his many peers would have become increasingly hard to ignore. Solar power was unquestionably less economical than coal, while there was coal, but as coal reserves dwindled—remember, there would be no huge diesel machines burning oceans of cheap petroleum, so no mountaintop removal mining, nor any of the other extreme coal-extraction methods so common today—pointing a conical mirror toward the Sun would rapidly become the better bet. As wars and power shifts deprived entire nations of access to what was left of the world’s dwindling coal production, the same principle would have applied with even more force. Solar cookers and stills, solar pumps and engines, wind turbines and other renewable-energy technologies would have been the only viable options.


(Photo Credit: Gordon Plant)

This alternate world would have had advantages that ours doesn’t share. To begin with, energy use per capita in 1900 was a small fraction of current levels even in the most heavily industrialized nations, and whole categories of work currently done directly or indirectly by fossil fuels were still being done by human beings. Agriculture hadn’t been mechanized, so the food supply wouldn’t have been at risk; square-rigged sailing vessels were still hauling cargoes on the seas, so as the price of coal soared and steamboats stopped being economical, maritime trade and travel could readily downshift to familiar sail technology. As the new renewable-energy technologies became more widely distributed and more efficient, getting by with the energy supplied by sun and wind would have become second nature to everybody.


(Photo credit: http://circumnavacation.com/)

Perhaps, dear reader, you can imagine yourself sitting comfortably this afternoon in a café in this alternate world, about to read this book. It isn’t on a glowing e-book screen; it’s being serialized in a newspaper printed, as of course nearly everything is printed these days, by a solar-powered press. Before you get to the latest chapter in the serialization, you read with some interest that a Brazilian inventor has been awarded the prestigious Mouchot Prize for a solar steam engine that’s far better suited to provide auxiliary power to sailing ships than existing models. You skim over the latest news from the war between Austria and Italy, in which bicycle-mounted Italian troops have broken the siege of Gemona del Friuli, and a report from Iceland, which is rapidly parlaying its abundant supply of volcanic steam into a place as one of the twenty-first century’s industrial powerhouses.

It’s a cool, clear, perfectly seasonable day—remember, most of the gigatons of carbon we spent the twentieth century dumping into the atmosphere stayed buried in this alternate world— and the proprietor of the café is beaming as he watches sunlight streaming through the windows. He knows that every hour  of sunlight falling on the solar collectors on the roof is saving him plenty of money in expensive fuel the kitchen won’t have to burn. Outside the café, the Sun gleams on a row of bicycles, yours among them: they’re the normal personal transport of the twenty-first century, after all. Solar water heaters gleam on every roof, and great conical collectors track the Sun atop the factory down the road. High overhead, a dirigible soars silently past; we’ll assume, for the sake of today’s steampunk sensibility, that lacking the extravagant fuel supplies needed to make airplanes more than an exotic fad, the bugs got worked out of dirigible technology instead.

Back in the cafe, you begin to read the first chapter of this book—and my imagination fails me at this point, because that first chapter wouldn’t have much in common with the one you’ve already read. A society of the sort I’ve just sketched out would already have learned the drawbacks of a mindset that treats linear progress as a law of nature. It would have made the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy when its energy consumption per capita was an order of magnitude smaller than ours and, thus, would have had a much easier time of it. Of course, a more or less stable planetary climate, and an environment littered with far fewer of the ugly end products of human chemical and nu- clear tinkering would be important advantages as well.


(Photo credit Jeanne Maser)

It’s far from impossible that our descendants could have a society and a technology something like the one I’ve outlined here, though we have a long rough road to travel before that becomes possible. In the alternate world I’ve sketched, though, that would be no concern of mine, since ecology would be simple commonsense and the unwelcome future waiting for us in this world would have gone wherever might-have-beens spend their time. That’s the road we did not take—but it’s also a road that could be taken, starting now, by those who choose to look past the phantom imagery of linear progress toward the far more diverse, and far more interesting, futures that can still be created by those who have the imagination to do so.




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