Our whole economy and way of life is based on the idea of cheap petroleum. So what happens when the oil starts to run out? Most scenarios assume that it will be catastrophic — rioting in the streets, governments collapsing, Mel Gibson fighting guys with big mohawks.
But what are the optimistic scenarios for a post-peak oil future? We went looking, and here's what we found.
Top image: Chris-Håvard Berge on Flickr.
For starters, let's get one thing out of the way. This article doesn't include any science fiction stories where somebody discovers a miraculous new energy source (called Unobtanium, perhaps) that solves all our problems. That's a huge genre, and a list of stories about a fictional energy source could be its own complete genre. We're also not including any stories, like Star Trek or much of Doctor Who, in which the future is shown to be awesome but no mention is made of what happened after the oil ran out. (Plus on Star Trek, the near-term future is not awesome at all.)
In the episode "Bendin' in the Wind," it's mentioned that all the petroleum reserves ran out by 2038. Says Leela, "Gas was an environmental disaster, anyway. Now we use alternative fuels. [Like] whale oil." So Fry has to run his Volkswagen Bus on a can of whale oil instead.
Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson
There was a rash of novels a while ago, including Julian Comstock, in which peak oil leaves us with steampunk technology levels. Lots of gears and springs and boilers. These aren't generally that optimistic — Julian Comstock is downright dystopian — but at least they show humanity surviving and adapting.
The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Similarly, Paolo Bacigalupi's tale of a post-oil 22nd century involves a lot of springs and wind-up technology, including "kink-springs" which can store energy thanks to algae — plus genetic engineering, which actually produces the "wind-up girl" of the title. It's not exactly a great vision of the future, and there is a lot of dystopia and starvation there, but at least it shows humanity maintaining a high level of technology. Methane gas is used for street lamps, for example.
In this 1979 movie, oil has run out and everybody has to roller-skate or bike to work. There's a lot of jogging, too, and jogging suits are regarded as the new casual wear. It's definitely a bit dystopian — the federal government is so broke, it has to hold a telethon to pay its bills — but at least it shows a world that's still functioning.
Retrieved from the Future by John Seymour
This book is set in the early decades of the 21st century. Although the world's oil supply is in decline, the final straw comes when a jihad destroys all the Middle Eastern oil wells. The story focuses on a community in the United Kingdom that refuses to stay shut up in their homes while waiting for the military to bring them food. They farm, develop a new political system, fight off the army, and create a feudal society. The main body of the book is the story of how the world got to the epilogue, which is where the real hope for the future seems to be. The main characters describe how everyone is better off than before the oil ran out. They work hard at meaningful jobs to bring home food, but they aren't stuck in "boring" office jobs anymore. Everyone has enough to eat because everyone has a farm. No one can complain about not having enough free time, money isn't a problem, and the consumerist culture is dead. Seymour describes an egalitarian society in which, as the essay notes, the highest attainable position is "peasant-craftsman."
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
In this series, a virus has "de-established" all petroleum products, including plastics. All that remains of our industrial culture is the rusting remains, or "Rusties." And in the world that follows, there's extreme population control and an oppressive beauty regime — but also, magnetics is used to power everything.
Crossing the Blue: A Post-Petrol, Post-American Road Trip by Holly Jean Buck
Like many of the stories on this list, it's not exactly utopian — the United States collapses, and there are petty dictators here and there. But there are also organic farms and farmers markets scattered around, and small communities where everybody gets a tiny ration of electricity every day.
Mobile Suit Gundam 00
In this anime series, the world starts seriously running out of oil in the 22nd century, and oil prices hit $900 per barrel. But it gets much worse — a nuclear terrorist attack destroys all the remaining Middle East oil wells. Afterwards, there is a long period of chaos and fighting, including the Solar Wars, but eventually people develop way better, more efficient solar power thanks to huge platforms and satellites. Thanks to Kronnos60 for the reminder!
Oil Dusk: A Peak Oil Story by John M. Cape and Laura Buckner
Again, this novel isn't exactly rosy — after the dollar collapses and the oil is gone, there are rape gangs and looters. But society carries on, and people still find ways to feed themselves. Instead of lawyers and management consultants being the most sought-after members of society, the most lucrative jobs are mechanical engineers and doctors.
This ABC TV show isn't exactly optimistic about the next 100 years, with global climate change and Peak Oil devastating our way of life. But it does contain moments of optimism, including a vision of New York in 2050, with community gardens, clean energy and clean mass transit. Of course, New York is then destroyed by flooding in 2070. But you can't have everything. Later, the main character moves to an agricultural commune in the middle of nowhere, and it's relatively safe there while the United States collapses.
World Made By Hand by James Howard Kunstler
In this novel, it's also the near future, and the oil finally runs out. The main character is a former corporate executive who becomes a carpenter. And outside the cities, life doesn't sound too bad. There's no electricity, so people start cooking with wood-burning stoves, etc. They also do without spices, walk or ride horses everywhere, and convert their lawns into gardens for food. Nature has had a chance to recover now that cars are dead and no one is building more skyscrapers, so the landscape is beautiful again. Once they establish some semblance of law in the community the book focuses on, it sounds like things start to look like something out of a Western. Also, at least one group of people can use telekinesis, which is a plus.
Somatasthesia by Ann Somerville
In this novel, it's 2042, and humanity has survived the end of oil. Imports are extremely limited in supply and high in cost, while people are committing to locally grown goods. There is still oil, but it's rationed, and railways are the primary means of transport. It says there was a depression, and the rail system was built then.
After the Crash: An Essay-Novel of the Post-Hydrocarbon Era by Caryl Johnston
This self-published e-book has been compared to Vonnegut for its social satire, but as its title suggests, it's half essay, half novel. There are footnotes citing the experts whose research on peak oil she drew on for the book, as she paints a somewhat pastoral view of a simpler life after oil. The main unit of exchange is human-generated power, instead of money. People pay for goods and services by pedaling on exercise bikes, or walking on treadmills. And people use bird-poop instead of Wite-Out.
The Black Mirror
Similarly, the second episode of this British dystopian TV show does portray a world in which high-tech society and media culture continue, after there's apparently no more oil. Everything is fueled by humans pedaling on bikes while watching crappy reality TV, and bicycling=wealth. Again, pretty dystopian but at least it's a vision of a technological society after Peak Oil.
Gregory Clark from the Sacramento Bee predicts that we'll be perfectly fine after Peak Oil. He thinks "dense urban settings" will become more common so that people can walk or bike as they did in pre-industrial cities. He also sees a future without huge shopping districts that stay open late into the night. Clark bases his prediction on the fact that there are already communities where there is such a high people to land ratio that residents are forced to adopt lifestyles that consume less energy. The places he mentions specifically are Manhattan, London, and Singapore, where people walk or use public transportation to get around. In the long run, he says, being forced to reduce our energy consumption and live in places where we can walk to get what we need will be better for our health and won't really cost us much.
This writer for The Futurist explains why Peak Oil is a good thing. The author predicts that once oil hits a price that the US economy can't adapt to quickly, there will be "permanent, far-reaching, multifaceted geopolitical change." Also, though the writer concedes that there may be a recession, they predict a short one — followed by technological innovation that will ultimately leave us better off. For example, this person foresees a rapid conversion to electric vehicles that will leave oil producers in trouble, since the electricity market would be much cheaper. They also suggest that dictators and terrorists who hold power because of oil will fail, and democracy may flourish as a result.
Richard Heinberg (The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies) suggests that if we run out of oil and manage to achieve a new energy source, we'll live in a "world of modest, bioregionally organized communities living on received solar energy."
Harvey Wasserman (Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth) sees a future where we're no longer dependent on fossil fuels and we live in a sustainable world. He thinks we'll survive the resource wars, heal to build a society with renewable energy sources, and view the time when fossil fuels were king as a historical curiosity.
The Website Future Scenarios sees four possible versions of events after Peak Oil, and while some are bleaker than others, none include an end to civilization.
John Michael Greer describes some positive possibilities in his book, The Ecotechnic Future. He says that though people will probably have to live closer together, good things can come of this. One positive thing an article about the book specifically points out is a "renewed sense of community in sustainable settings." Another article points out that Greer sees a future that "supports relatively advanced technology on a sustainable resource base."
Matthew Wild, from a blog called "Peak Generation," has an article in which he looks at the future after Peak Oil with a degree of optimism. He suggests that if oil prices rise slowly, the supply doesn't dry up all at once, and technology can catch up quickly enough, a hydrogen economy would be the ideal transition. The writer says that if the fuel cells could become less expensive and more efficient, renewable energy sources like solar and wind power could be used to generate hydrogen and provide electricity when needed. Of course, he notes that before that technology will really be viable, we'll have to survive an economic depression, switch to alternative fuels in the meanwhile, and reduce energy consumption.
Dr. Samuel Alexander from the Office for Environmental Programs at the University of Melbourne in Australia offers a positive outlook as well. He says that a decreasing oil supply could enforce downscaling of energy and resource consumption. This in turn would allow humanity to pursue a "more meaningful, just, and sustainable path."
Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler are the authors of Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, which is just what it sounds like. They talk about more than just energy issues, but they assure us that technology will ultimately make everyone's standard of living higher.