The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones

According to Richard Sears, the world hit peak oil in 1985 in the sense that oil accounted for 50% of world energy in 1985 and the percentage has been declining since then. By that same measure, we hit peak coal in the 1920’s and peak wood in the 1820’s. Sears summarizes

For 200 years we have been systematically de-carbonizing our energy system.

We didn’t stop using wood as our primary energy source because we ran out of trees; we moved on to something better. Sears believes we are now in the process of transitioning from oil to renewable energy sources, and not because we’re running out of oil. He concludes his presentation (link rotted) by saying

… the Stone Age ended, not because we ran out of stones. It’s ideas, it’s innovation, it’s technology that will end the Age of Oil before we run out of oil.

6 thoughts on “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones

  1. Robin Goodfellow

    Actually…. a big reason for the transition from wood to coal was a growing shortage of wood (partly due to charcoal manufacture, partly due to ship building) in Europe. Or, more precisely, a growing demand and limited supply of wood.

    That being said, I agree that the hydrocarbon age will end when we invent something better, not when we run out. People who think we will run out of hydrocarbons either haven’t looked at the figures or are fooling themselves into believing what they want to believe.

  2. Why does everyone seem to think oil is only used for energy? Its role as chemical feedstock is potentially even more important and I haven’t seen anyone discussing ways to reduce our dependency on petroleum in that role.

  3. Krzysztof Kosiński

    I think the more promising direction is nuclear energy, simply by virtue of the energy density of nuclear fuels. Coal is more energy-dense than wood by a factor of 3.3; oil is more energy-dense than coal by a factor of 1.3 and is easier to extract and transport because it’s a liquid. Uranium used in thermal reactors is 13600 times more energy-dense than oil, and in fast reactors it’s over 2 million times more dense.

  4. Chris, you raise an interesting point. But I had always assumed that chemical uses such as plastics accounted for only a small percentage of our petroleum use compared to energy uses. If that is not right, we truly do have a problem. Do you happen to know the actual amounts or percentages?

  5. “People who think we will run out of hydrocarbons either haven’t looked at the figures or are fooling themselves into believing what they want to believe.”

    Have you “looked at the figures” yourself? Tell me, why has the price of oil skyrocketed in recent years? If you think it’s because of speculation alone, you’re an idiot. Do you know about the state of decline of the world’s largest oil fields? Do you have any concept of Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI)? It seems you do not, and neither does this moron Richard Sears, who’s blind faith in technology is closer to religion than science. The changes from wood, to coal, to oil were evolutionary steps up the energy ladder, and ideally the move to alternatives could’ve been the same, but thanks to the undue influence of oil and car manufacturers on global policy, the focused development of alternatives has been stifled. We are now left in a situation where a large majority of our economic infrastructure is predicated on cheap, abundant oil, with no scalable alternatives in place.

    To watch people continually trying to make an argument for the validity of an economic and social system based on unlimited growth, at this point (when it’s as plain as day that we’ve backed ourselves into a corner) is infuriating. I’m sure once things are really bad, you people will then be saying: “if only we’d let the free markets function unhindered, this never would have happened.” Get your head out of your ass and start living sustainably, or kill yourself and make it easier for the rest of us to survive.

  6. “For 200 years we have been systematically decarbonizing our energy system”.

    Uh, I see only wood, coal and natural gas being used since till 1955. You could argue that “decarbonizing” began when the first hydroelectric plant was built, but that didn’t happen 200 years ago. Why does he need to make a false claim of 200 years of “systematic decarbonization”. And all of those items – coal, natural gas, oil – are being used more and more each year. He seems like a showmen, trying to make a point by giving a special slant to the facts.
    And it does no good to talk about “total energy” when at this point, almost all transportation is oil-based. Not many coal-burning trains around town or natural-gas powered buses. There are electric trains, but not in the United States. We only have electric trolleys and subways that take you around a city, not between cities.
    His speaking style reminds me a little of Steve Jobs, the ultimate showmen for techies.

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