Over the last three parts, we’ve been looking at the current kerfuffle in the supply chain, from the Just-in-Time supply model to natural supply systems and historic trade. Here we’ll be considering a few future scenarios — thought experiments about what would happen if we went down different transportation paths, from one extreme of local self-sufficiency to another of maintaining extensive world trade at any cost.
We will look at these systems in 2071, that is, fifty years from now. Close enough that many of us will still be alive, or at least our children will be. This means it still feels real to us today, as we make our decisions, but not close enough that we have a vested interest in what happens, as in, say, a decade away.
Maintaining the Status Quo
If the global powers that be decide to insist that we maintain the status quo of global trade, whatever the repercussions, how would that look in a half century? We currently know about 1.7 trillion barrels of oil, but only about a third of those are easily recoverable. Since we’re hell-bent on keeping things going, let’s assume we exhaust ourselves recovering twice of what is currently probable (1.2 trillion barrels). We’re currently using about 97 million barrels of oil a day. Our population will expand, according to the UN, to about 11 billion people by 2100, so we might think that our use of fuel will scale up 37 percent, but our per-capita use is declining, and in the interest of fuzzy math and the impossibility of projecting into the future, let’s call the population growth and declining use a wash. So we can estimate that we have about 34 years of fuels left (not the 47 often stated if all the known oil were recoverable). But that’s just oil. We currently use about 173,340 TWh of energy per year when all sources are taken together.
For our purposes, let’s say we’re proactive and plan for the end of fossil fuels in half a century. Could we electrify everything and continue as we are now? We currently generate about 25,468 TWh of energy without fossil fuels (this assumes we keep nuclear and hydropower as strong producers). This means we have to make up 147,842 TWh of energy each year — that is a six-fold increase. The only way this is possible is with greatly expanded solar, wind, modern biofuel, and likely nuclear power (as expansion of hydropower is limited). And while solar has gone from 169 to 1793 TWh and wind from 1142 to 3540 TWh in a decade, expanding these to replace their share of fossil fuels would be a challenge. Nuclear has leveled off over the last decade, and (for the purposes of this thought experiment) we would have to greatly increase nuclear plants to meet our energy needs, which comes with its own complications.
This doesn’t even begin to discuss storage of this energy, as long-distance transport ships would need huge amounts of energy either stored or generated on board (nuclear-powered container ships?) to maintain our current economic exchange. Terrestrial transport is easier to convert, as trains and other hard infrastructure can and have been electrified. The issue isn’t the end use — this can be retrofitted — but the creation of such a vast amount of energy. Our current transport network (and much of everything else) is buoyed on a sea of oil, and even with a half century of proactive conversion, it would be a global challenge to maintain the status quo with renewables and nuclear alone. A transportation conversion on this scale would require huge amounts of government and private action, investment, and above all forethought, something that seems incredibly unlikely.
A Day in the Status Quo Future
What would this look like in a typical day in a city? If we must maintain the status quo, we’d be driving electric vehicles or taking electric buses, streetcars, subways, etc. to work. At this point, cars must have independent batteries, but we could develop in-road energy transmission systems that could power a personal vehicle, if that became a priority. Plan to go on a trip? One of the few things that cannot likely be electrified is an airplane. Electric flight is in its infancy, let alone the development of passenger service. But high-speed rail can be electrified and can cover shorter hops (e.g., a five-hour drive) door-to-door faster and more comfortably than flying. But video conferences may become more likely than quick, long-distance trips.
In the marketplace, prices will rise noticeably, if we must maintain large trade networks for staple goods. While we could do this, it would be expensive to electrify all this transportation just to ship staples, not to mention high-speed shipping of produce with short shelf lives.
During the pandemic, shipping has exploded. We might try to maintain multiple services making the same routes each day, dropping packages at each residence (all shipped through electric transit). Additionally, stores are unlikely to disappear, and for much of the country, that requires personal electric vehicles, if we’re maintaining the status quo.
While this future is technically possible, it would require massive investment and conversion starting today (or better, a decade ago).
A Reasonable Scenario of Less Global Exchange
If we look at historical empires, with vast trading networks before fossil fuels, we see a few trends that can inform our future. Trade items were typically high value, shelf stable, light weight, and superfluous to survival. Not all goods hit every one of these characteristics, but if it was fragile and heavy, for example, it wasn’t moved unless it had an extremely high value.
Without global commitment to transform our transportation infrastructure, we’d likely see a reversion to something like the time before the age of the automobile. Anything with a short shelf life, from produce to fresh animal products would per force be local. Building materials, other heavy, bulky items also would be prohibitively expensive to transport long distances if local alternatives were available.
Some items would be continued to be shipped. It would be too expensive to fill a typical Midwestern grocery store with produce from California or Mexico, but more stable goods, such as citrus, apples, and potatoes, may remain as imports, as they prefer specific climates and ship well.
All this focus on rail is not by chance. Rail is extremely efficient and electrification of the entire system is a viable undertaking. By rolling on steel wheels on steel tracks, trains have practically no rolling resistance (i.e., friction; and yes, this is not technically true, but in comparison with automobiles, trucks, planes, etc.) and steep grades have been flattened. Electric trains put most of the energy right into motive action, meaning they need about a third of the energy of an equivalent diesel locomotive over the same route.
American automobility is a cultural choice. The most proactive move to keep a large, well-connected future, would be to make a concerted effort to change not only our infrastructure, but our cultural mindset to favor rail over personal vehicles and planes for long or even medium and short trips. Light rail can connect all but the most isolated households in much of the country.
A Day in the Reasonable Adaptation Future
The biggest change in a typical day in an adapted future would be the disuse of personal vehicles. In cities, suburbs, and surrounding communities, commutes would be largely on mass transit. But many would opt for work closer to home (or telecommuting). Trips to the store would also be by mass transit. Or perhaps, building on the proliferation of curb-side ordering during COVID, reusable, stackable, standard shipping boxes would be distributed out to neighborhood rail stations so people would just have to go a few blocks to get their orders. Imagine the savings if your local grocery store became more of a distribution hub than an advertising space?
People would be ordering more local, seasonal foods. Because transit is somewhat lessened, high-speed freight costs make locally grown produce, fruit, and meat the less-expensive (and all-around) better option. Although goods could still be shipped in, basic items might come from less far away, as the cost of transportation would rise significantly. NPR’s Planet Money had a custom T-shirt made and tracked the people and costs. About 18 percent of the $12 shirt were shipping and handling. Increased shipping costs would essentially create a tariff on goods from farther away, allowing for the higher costs of local production to be competitive again.
Rural populations would still need electric personal vehicles, but only to get to the nearest transit hub, where it would be much more economical to park and take the train or to drop produce and other goods at the freight entrance than to drive it all the way into a town. Right now, America is too vast and sparsely populated in much of the country west of the Mississippi to go without these last-mile solutions.
An Extreme Local-centric Future
Let’s say we decide or are forced by circumstance to adapt an extreme future without much long-distance transportation and production. Instead of the previous scenario, which was an adaptation of the age of rail, this would be throwing us back to preindustrial transportation: wind and muscle provide motive power. Our challenge is to adapt it for the better.
How we get here does matter for the purposes of this thought experiment. If we keep our blinders on, our global power supply is not proactively adapted towards a sustainable model, and resources become scarce to the point of global conflict, much of our physical and societal infrastructure could be destroyed. This would leave us in a raw, precarious situation. Perhaps new, exciting social structures and technological adaptations will help us maintain comfortable lives. If communication networks (i.e., the internet) is still functioning, word of useful adaptations will spread quickly. If, however, buildings, communications, and societies are destroyed, starting from scratch will be a challenge.
If we do not plan well, and wait until conflicts over energy boil over, destroying much of our infrastructure, I fear we will fall into another feudal dark age. Although the term “Dark Ages” is now frowned upon, as the Medieval Age was actually one of diversity and flourishing of many aspects of life, it was seen as “less than” the grandeur of Rome. For regular people, life was different in that some things were better (not ruled by a distant empire) and others were worse (oppression was now local, often religious). Farming continued, trades continued. Knowledged was literally cloistered, but it had been restricted in the time of Rome, too.
Alternatively, if global society “wakes up” to the reality of the challenges facing us, and a majority decide to abdicate our current high-fuel-consumption lifestyle for a life of relative simplicity, we could cushion that downshifting to maintain certain things from our current system, specifically communication, modified medical care, and local clean energy generation. Two years ago, I proposed a Low Tech New Deal, which pushed extreme local self-sufficiency. This may be the closest summary of this second option, where we can use the infrastructure built with the bitter-sweet legacy of fossil fuels and the industrial age.
In this brave new world, nothing dependable would come from far away. No staples, nothing fragile, nothing cheap. One society that had animal- and wind-powered transit calculated that every 100 miles of transit added 2 percent to the cost by sea and 50 percent by land (see discussion of Rome in part 3). Those that live near oceans, lakes, and rivers may see more items coming in from afar, but us landlocked folks would be more provincial. Long-distance trade would revert to peddlers and merchants moving slowly across the land.
The one bright spot may be if we maintain our current infrastructure (assuming it isn’t destroyed in conflict). Bicycles harness human energy in the most efficient way (three times more efficient than walking). If roads are maintained, rolling resistance is low, and similarly efficient carts may be better than our preindustrial counterparts. Defunct but functional rail lines would also continue to serve as efficient transit routes, perhaps using some newly developed system using animal or human power. Still, for those of us used to today’s muscular transit options, it is a bleak outlook.
A Day in the Local-ist Future
So much of this future depends on whether or not the transition is voluntary or forced. Let’s look at a day in the best-case-scenario of planned abdication and the continuance of our communication network. In this low-energy future, people typically work within their communities to provide direct goods or services for their neighbors, as exports and imports are severely limited by circumstance. Trades, adapted for this world, may look like a steam-punk version of preindustrial work: some mechanization through electric motors or wind- or water-driven mechanisms to turn raw materials into goods–fiber and textiles from wool, cotton, and flax and other materials from lumber, wheat, and metal. Houses are retrofitted to be heated, cooled, and watered from different sources of energy. Some people telecommute over the new, low-energy internet, which does not support streaming video or voice, but text communication remains instant and audio, video, and other files can be transmitted at night, when traffic is low. Broadcast television and radio make a comeback, and local libraries hold vast digital collections of media that can be “borrowed” by USB Stick or even over a community-scale intranet. Schools, communities, and economies get smaller and tighter, linked by roads, bicycles, and animal power.
In the case of infrastructure collapse, we may face a more provincial and bleak future–especially if the internet collapses. Although minimal electric power will be available, without planning, it is sporadic and difficult to maintain. Wind, water, animals, and humans provide much of the power, leading to a huge reduction in the stanard of living. Also, as this was involuntary, it may sink the collective mood of much of humanity, leading to more Hobbsian interactions between individuals and groups, which is a fancy way of saying people will be mean to one another and societies will go to war. More of the population must commit their time to growing food, reducing the amount of time available for maintaining our standard of living through services. Infrastructure that survived the collapse will be highly coveted, and things that were destroyed will be mined for usable building materials. New structures will be small and rude, until people have the time and stability to build more substantial structures. Trade will be practically nonexistant for most purposes, and travel will be slow except by water. Communities and the economy are likely to be small, isolated, and provincial.
Over this series of posts, we’ve discussed the faltering of our supply chain and its reliance on fossil fuels. This has parallels in biology and history, leading us to the discussion here, in this final post, of what will happen when fossil fuels are no longer available to us. We have a choice to make and every day we wait to meet this decision, our options and outlook become worse. While we hope for the reasonable adaptation future, we’ll plan for the local-ist one and build community resilience where we are.