Oil Doesn't Grow on Trees

Commentary by David Goodstein, vice provost and professor of physics at Caltech.

Published: 18-Mar-2002

This is a singular moment in our history. We are rushing toward a calamity that may very well bring our way of life to an end. It is entirely predictable and almost inevitable. It is not the doing of terrorists, but the terrorists may have given us a unique chance to do something about it. The calamity I speak of is the end of the age of oil.

Here is the basic physics: Life on Earth exists because of radiant energy from the sun, plus a small amount of nuclear fuel that condensed with the Earth when it was formed billions of years ago. Over the eons, a tiny fraction of that sunlight was converted by natural processes and stored in the form of fossil fuels. In the course of a few generations, we have nearly used up the Earth's entire supply of accessible petroleum.

When that and the other more-difficult-to-use fossil fuels are used up, we will have nothing left to live on except the light from the sun and whatever nuclear fuel on Earth we haven't burned. Even nuclear fuel is a finite resource. How much oil is left in the ground? Even if we knew how to answer it, that would probably not be the right question. A better question is: How long can we go on increasing the rate at which cheap oil is pumped out of the ground?

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