The end of fossil fuels on Earth is coming, probably within the next century. This is a unique event in the history of our planet, but one that science fiction hasn't dealt with all that much. Our sophisticated global civilization is built on the the foundation of cheap, readily available oil. So what happens when we start to run out of it? And what if there are aliens watching us right now to see how far we progress before our fuel runs out?
Here are some of the story ideas I'd love to see science-fiction stories dealing with:
Alternative fuels. I joked about "Chevron Extra Unleaded is people," in that poll about social problems a couple of weeks ago. But I could easily imagine equally crazy attempts to replace oil, no matter what the cost. Maybe we could genetically engineer creatures whose bodies secrete oils that we can burn. At the very least, you can expect to see more dependence on nuclear power, meaning more Three Mile Islands and terrorist targets. Or maybe you could write a utopian novel, about a society that manages to harness the solar winds for clean, sustainable energy.
Globalization without travel. We could see an era, within our lifetimes, when it's easy to communicate all over the world thanks to the Internet. But it's harder and harder to travel anywhere. So culture may be global, with Ukranians and Nigerians posting their lives on Youtube and Myspace. But goods and services may be increasingly local. You won't be able to get imported Japanese food any more, but you'll be able to watch Japanese television. Local cultures might even make a comeback, if it gets harder for multinationals like Starbucks and McDonald's to transport their crap around the world. Would we get more fascinated with other cultures? Or just turn insular?
It's a test. Maybe every planet that sustains intelligent life also has a layer of hydrocarbons sufficient to allow its inhabitants to expand off-world and start harvesting the resources of the solar system. And it's an intelligence test that most species fail: Will you figure out this one-time chance to create a solar-system-wide civilization, or will you use the resources to build shopping malls and fight bigger and better wars? Maybe there's a select club of alien races who were smart enough to make the correct use of their planets' hydrocarbon layers, and they're waiting to see if we qualify.
Aliens engineered the fossil fuels. And maybe deposits of fossil fuels in easily accessible locations don't come standard with habitable worlds. Maybe they're actually a very nice gift that somebody left for us. What if an alien race went around seeding planets with fossil layers that would help any intelligent races to jump-start their space exploration? And then the aliens come back once they spot the first signs of industrialization on our planet? It might take them a couple hundred light years to see our factories and engines and then make the trip here. Would they be pissed to see what we did with their gift?
Waiting to invade. And maybe aliens are just waiting until we use up our easiest power source, so they can come in and take what remains. Without fossil fuels, our global civilization will quickly disintegrate, and our science may regress considerably. It'll be much harder to share technological advances. Scientists could still collaborate online, but might not be able to travel, and might have a harder time getting access to resources. So we could find ourselves in the position of having drawn lots of attention to ourselves, with radio waves, probes and satellites — and then leaving ourselves defenseless. In a couple hundred years, we could be a very tempting target for aliens who managed to get out of their own solar system and notice that we're no longer as advanced as we used to be.