Out of the ashes

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Out of the ashes

Charcoal production in Brazil. Photo by Franz Lanting/Getty

It took a lot of fossil fuels to forge our industrial world. Now they're almost gone. Could we do it again without them?

Lewis Dartnell is a UK Space Agency research fellow at the University of Leicester, working in astrobiology and the search for microbial life on Mars. His latest book is The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch (2014). He lives in London.

Edited by Ed Lake
3300 3,300 words
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Imagine that the world as we know it ends tomorrow. There’s a global catastrophe: a pandemic virus, an asteroid strike, or perhaps a nuclear holocaust. The vast majority of the human race perishes. Our civilisation collapses. The post-apocalyptic survivors find themselves in a devastated world of decaying, deserted cities and roving gangs of bandits looting and taking by force.

Bad as things sound, that’s not the end for humanity. We bounce back. Sooner or later, peace and order emerge again, just as they have time and again through history. Stable communities take shape. They begin the agonising process of rebuilding their technological base from scratch. But here’s the question: how far could such a society rebuild? Is there any chance, for instance, that a post-apocalyptic society could reboot a technological civilisation?

Let’s make the basis of this thought experiment a little more specific. Today, we have already consumed the most easily drainable crude oil and, particularly in Britain, much of the shallowest, most readily mined deposits of coal. Fossil fuels are central to the organisation of modern industrial society, just as they were central to its development. Those, by the way, are distinct roles: even if we could somehow do without fossil fuels now (which we can’t, quite), it’s a different question whether we could have got to where we are without ever having had them.

So, would a society starting over on a planet stripped of its fossil fuel deposits have the chance to progress through its own Industrial Revolution? Or to phrase it another way, what might have happened if, for whatever reason, the Earth had never acquired its extensive underground deposits of coal and oil in the first place? Would our progress necessarily have halted in the 18th century, in a pre-industrial state?

It’s easy to underestimate our current dependence on fossil fuels. In everyday life, their most visible use is the petrol or diesel pumped into the vehicles that fill our roads, and the coal and natural gas which fire the power stations that electrify our modern lives. But we also rely on a range of different industrial materials, and in most cases, high temperatures are required to transform the stuff we dig out of the ground or harvest from the landscape into something useful. You can’t smelt metal, make glass, roast the ingredients of concrete, or synthesise artificial fertiliser without a lot of heat. It is fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – that provide most of this thermal energy.

In fact, the problem is even worse than that. Many of the chemicals required in bulk to run the modern world, from pesticides to plastics, derive from the diverse organic compounds in crude oil. Given the dwindling reserves of crude oil left in the world, it could be argued that the most wasteful use for this limited resource is to simply burn it. We should be carefully preserving what’s left for the vital repertoire of valuable organic compounds it offers.

But my topic here is not what we should do now. Presumably everybody knows that we must transition to a low-carbon economy one way or another. No, I want to answer a question whose interest is (let’s hope) more theoretical. Is the emergence of a technologically advanced civilisation necessarily contingent on the easy availability of ancient energy? Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels? And the answer to that question is: maybe – but it would be extremely difficult. Let’s see how.

We’ll start with a natural thought. Many of our alternative energy technologies are already highly developed. Solar panels, for example, represent a good option today, and are appearing more and more on the roofs of houses and businesses. It’s tempting to think that a rebooted society could simply pick up where we leave off. Why couldn’t our civilisation 2.0 just start with renewables?

Well, it could, in a very limited way. If you find yourself among the survivors in a post-apocalyptic world, you could scavenge enough working solar panels to keep your lifestyle electrified for a good long while. Without moving parts, photovoltaic cells require little maintenance and are remarkably resilient. They do deteriorate over time, though, from moisture penetrating the casing and from sunlight itself degrading the high-purity silicon layers. The electricity generated by a solar panel declines by about 1 per cent every year so, after a few generations, all our hand-me-down solar panels will have degraded to the point of uselessness. Then what?

New ones would be fiendishly difficult to create from scratch. Solar panels are made from thin slices of extremely pure silicon, and although the raw material is common sand, it must be processed and refined using complex and precise techniques – the same technological capabilities, more or less, that we need for modern semiconductor electronics components. These techniques took a long time to develop, and would presumably take a long time to recover. So photovoltaic solar power would not be within the capability of a society early in the industrialisation process.

Perhaps, though, we were on the right track by starting with electrical power. Most of our renewable-energy technologies produce electricity. In our own historical development, it so happens that the core phenomena of electricity were discovered in the first half of the 1800s, well after the early development of steam engines. Heavy industry was already committed to combustion-based machinery, and electricity has largely assumed a subsidiary role in the organisation of our economies ever since. But could that sequence have run the other way? Is there some developmental requirement that thermal energy must come first?

On the face of it, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that a progressing society could construct electrical generators and couple them to simple windmills and waterwheels, later progressing to wind turbines and hydroelectric dams. In a world without fossil fuels, one might envisage an electrified civilisation that largely bypasses combustion engines, building its transport infrastructure around electric trains and trams for long-distance and urban transport. I say ‘largely’. We couldn’t get round it all together.

when it comes to generating the white heat demanded by modern industry, there are few good options but to burn stuff

While the electric motor could perhaps replace the coal-burning steam engine for mechanical applications, society, as we’ve already seen, also relies upon thermal energy to drive the essential chemical and physical transformations it needs. How could an industrialising society produce crucial building materials such as iron and steel, brick, mortar, cement and glass without resorting to deposits of coal?

You can of course create heat from electricity. We already use electric ovens and kilns. Modern arc furnaces are used for producing cast iron or recycling steel. The problem isn’t so much that electricity can’t be used to heat things, but that for meaningful industrial activity you’ve got to generate prodigious amounts of it, which is challenging using only renewable energy sources such as wind and water.

An alternative is to generate high temperatures using solar power directly. Rather than relying on photovoltaic panels, concentrated solar thermal farms use giant mirrors to focus the sun’s rays onto a small spot. The heat concentrated in this way can be exploited to drive certain chemical or industrial processes, or else to raise steam and drive a generator. Even so, it is difficult (for example) to produce the very high temperatures inside an iron-smelting blast furnace using such a system. What’s more, it goes without saying that the effectiveness of concentrated solar power depends strongly on the local climate.

No, when it comes to generating the white heat demanded by modern industry, there are few good options but to burn stuff.

But that doesn’t mean the stuff we burn necessarily has to be fossil fuels.

Let’s take a quick detour into the pre-history of modern industry. Long before the adoption of coal, charcoal was widely used for smelting metals. In many respects it is superior: charcoal burns hotter than coal and contains far fewer impurities. In fact, coal’s impurities were a major delaying factor on the Industrial Revolution. Released during combustion, they can taint the product being heated. During smelting, sulphur contaminants can soak into the molten iron, making the metal brittle and unsafe to use. It took a long time to work out how to treat coal to make it useful for many industrial applications. And, in the meantime, charcoal worked perfectly well.

And then, well, we stopped using it. In retrospect, that’s a pity. When it comes from a sustainable source, charcoal burning is essentially carbon-neutral, because it doesn’t release any new carbon into the atmosphere – not that this would have been a consideration for the early industrialists.

But charcoal-based industry didn’t die out altogether. In fact, it survived to flourish in Brazil. Because it has substantial iron deposits but few coalmines, Brazil is the largest charcoal producer in the world and the ninth biggest steel producer. We aren’t talking about a cottage industry here, and this makes Brazil a very encouraging example for our thought experiment.

The trees used in Brazil’s charcoal industry are mainly fast-growing eucalyptus, cultivated specifically for the purpose. The traditional method for creating charcoal is to pile chopped staves of air-dried timber into a great dome-shaped mound and then cover it with turf or soil to restrict airflow as the wood smoulders. The Brazilian enterprise has scaled up this traditional craft to an industrial operation. Dried timber is stacked into squat, cylindrical kilns, built of brick or masonry and arranged in long lines so that they can be easily filled and unloaded in sequence. The largest sites can sport hundreds of such kilns. Once filled, their entrances are sealed and a fire is lit from the top.

The skill in charcoal production is to allow just enough air into the interior of the kiln. There must be enough combustion heat to drive out moisture and volatiles and to pyrolyse the wood, but not so much that you are left with nothing but a pile of ashes. The kiln attendant monitors the state of the burn by carefully watching the smoke seeping out of the top, opening air holes or sealing with clay as necessary to regulate the process.

Brazil shows how the raw materials of modern civilisation can be supplied without reliance on fossil fuels

Good things come to those who wait, and this wood pyrolysis process can take up to a week of carefully controlled smouldering. The same basic method has been used for millennia. However, the ends to which the fuel is put are distinctly modern. Brazilian charcoal is trucked out of the forests to the country’s blast furnaces where it is used to transform ore into pig iron. This pig iron is the basic ingredient of modern mass-produced steel. The Brazilian product is exported to countries such as China and the US where it becomes cars and trucks, sinks, bathtubs, and kitchen appliances.

Around two-thirds of Brazilian charcoal comes from sustainable plantations, and so this modern-day practice has been dubbed ‘green steel’. Sadly, the final third is supplied by the non-sustainable felling of primary forest. Even so, the Brazilian case does provide an example of how the raw materials of modern civilisation can be supplied without reliance on fossil fuels.

Another, related option might be wood gasification. The use of wood to provide heat is as old as mankind, and yet simply burning timber only uses about a third of its energy. The rest is lost when gases and vapours released by the burning process blow away in the wind. Under the right conditions, even smoke is combustible. We don’t want to waste it.

Better than simple burning, then, is to drive the thermal breakdown of the wood and collect the gases. You can see the basic principle at work for yourself just by lighting a match. The luminous flame isn’t actually touching the matchwood: it dances above, with a clear gap in between. The flame actually feeds on the hot gases given off as the wood breaks down in the heat, and the gases combust only once they mix with oxygen from the air. Matches are fascinating when you look at them closely.

Wartime gasifier cars could achieve about 1.5 miles per kilogram. Today’s designs improve upon this

To release these gases in a controlled way, bake some timber in a closed container. Oxygen is restricted so that the wood doesn’t simply catch fire. Its complex molecules decompose through a process known as pyrolysis, and then the hot carbonised lumps of charcoal at the bottom of the container react with the breakdown products to produce flammable gases such as hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

The resultant ‘producer gas’ is a versatile fuel: it can be stored or piped for use in heating or street lights, and is also suitable for use in complex machinery such as the internal combustion engine. More than a million gasifier-powered cars across the world kept civilian transport running during the oil shortages of the Second World War. In occupied Denmark, 95 per cent of all tractors, trucks and fishing boats were powered by wood-gas generators. The energy content of about 3 kg of wood (depending on its dryness and density) is equivalent to a litre of petrol, and the fuel consumption of a gasifier-powered car is given in miles per kilogram of wood rather than miles per gallon. Wartime gasifier cars could achieve about 1.5 miles per kilogram. Today’s designs improve upon this.

But you can do a lot more with wood gases than just keep your vehicle on the road. It turns out to be suitable for any of the manufacturing processes needing heat that we looked at before, such as kilns for lime, cement or bricks. Wood gas generator units could easily power agricultural or industrial equipment, or pumps. Sweden and Denmark are world leaders in their use of sustainable forests and agricultural waste for turning the steam turbines in power stations. And once the steam has been used in their ‘Combined Heat and Power’ (CHP) electricity plants, it is piped to the surrounding towns and industries to heat them, allowing such CHP stations to approach 90 per cent energy efficiency. Such plants suggest a marvellous vision of industry wholly weaned from its dependency on fossil fuel.

Is that our solution, then? Could our rebooting society run on wood, supplemented with electricity from renewable sources? Maybe so, if the population was fairly small. But here’s the catch. These options all presuppose that our survivors are able to construct efficient steam turbines, CHP stations and internal combustion engines. We know how to do all that, of course – but in the event of a civilisational collapse, who is to say that the knowledge won’t be lost? And if it is, what are the chances that our descendants could reconstruct it?

In our own history, the first successful application of steam engines was in pumping out coal mines. This was a setting in which fuel was already abundant, so it didn’t matter that the first, primitive designs were terribly inefficient. The increased output of coal from the mines was used to first smelt and then forge more iron. Iron components were used to construct further steam engines, which were in turn used to pump mines or drive the blast furnaces at iron foundries.

And of course, steam engines were themselves employed at machine shops to construct yet more steam engines. It was only once steam engines were being built and operated that subsequent engineers were able to devise ways to increase their efficiency and shrink fuel demands. They found ways to reduce their size and weight, adapting them for applications in transport or factory machinery. In other words, there was a positive feedback loop at the very core of the industrial revolution: the production of coal, iron and steam engines were all mutually supportive.

In a world without readily mined coal, would there ever be the opportunity to test profligate prototypes of steam engines, even if they could mature and become more efficient over time? How feasible is it that a society could attain a sufficient understanding of thermodynamics, metallurgy and mechanics to make the precisely interacting components of an internal combustion engine, without first cutting its teeth on much simpler external combustion engines – the separate boiler and cylinder-piston of steam engines?

It took a lot of energy to develop our technologies to their present heights, and presumably it would take a lot of energy to do it again. Fossil fuels are out. That means our future society will need an awful lot of timber.

an industrial revolution without coal would be, at a minimum, very difficult

In a temperate climate such as the UK’s, an acre of broadleaf trees produces about four to five tonnes of biomass fuel every year. If you cultivated fast-growing kinds such as willow or miscanthus grass, you could quadruple that. The trick to maximising timber production is to employ coppicing – cultivating trees such as ash or willow that resprout from their own stump, becoming ready for harvest again in five to 15 years. This way you can ensure a sustained supply of timber and not face an energy crisis once you’ve deforested your surroundings.

But here’s the thing: coppicing was already a well-developed technique in pre-industrial Britain. It couldn’t meet all of the energy requirements of the burgeoning society. The central problem is that woodland, even when it is well-managed, competes with other land uses, principally agriculture. The double-whammy of development is that, as a society’s population grows, it requires more farmland to provide enough food and also greater timber production for energy. The two needs compete for largely the same land areas.

We know how this played out in our own past. From the mid-16th century, Britain responded to these factors by increasing the exploitation of its coal fields – essentially harvesting the energy of ancient forests beneath the ground without compromising its agricultural output. The same energy provided by one hectare of coppice for a year is provided by about five to 10 tonnes of coal, and it can be dug out of the ground an awful lot quicker than waiting for the woodland to regrow.

It is this limitation in the supply of thermal energy that would pose the biggest problem to a society trying to industrialise without easy access to fossil fuels. This is true in our post-apocalyptic scenario, and it would be equally true in any counterfactual world that never developed fossil fuels for whatever reason. For a society to stand any chance of industrialising under such conditions, it would have to focus its efforts in certain, very favourable natural environments: not the coal-island of 18th-century Britain, but perhaps areas of Scandinavia or Canada that combine fast-flowing streams for hydroelectric power and large areas of forest that can be harvested sustainably for thermal energy.

Even so, an industrial revolution without coal would be, at a minimum, very difficult. Today, use of fossil fuels is actually growing, which is worrying for a number of reasons too familiar to rehearse here. Steps towards a low-carbon economy are vital. But we should also recognise how pivotal those accumulated reservoirs of thermal energy were in getting us to where we are. Maybe we could have made it the hard way. A slow-burn progression through the stages of mechanisation, supported by a combination of renewable electricity and sustainably grown biomass, might be possible after all. Then again, it might not. We’d better hope we can secure the future of our own civilisation, because we might have scuppered the chances of any society to follow in our wake.

For more information on this thought experiment on the behind-the-scenes fundamentals of how our world works and how you could reboot civilisation from scratch visit www.the-knowledge.org


  • Beth

    Very informative and disturbing. Hopefully, there won't be that catastrophic event, and we will have time to find and implement efficient forms of energy without the need for fossil-based fuels, because it sounds like we probably won't be able to start over.

  • Fabian

    There is a lot of interdependence in the growth resulting from the industrial revolution. Energy allows people to live. If we hadn't this easy energy available, there would be less people and we wouldn't need all this energy. The more people, the greater the odds to have qualified engineers or talented inventors who will feed the growth and increase the need for energy. Energy also allows interaction between people and that gives a huge boost to growth (you don't need to sail one month to India anymore to look for a good engineer, you just dial). In a post apocalyptic world, we'll miss all the specialists who feed the chain (think about the absence of computers) and there should be little to no interactions. However available ressources and the basic knowledge being retained, should allow to restart the story.

  • Bradford Hatcher

    Asking the right questions.

  • GM

    The other important and equally gloomy point that was not sufficiently emphasized in the article is population. All the approaches described in it work only if the population is sufficiently small.

    However, even today, with all our technology and vast educational infrastructure, the simple fact that population cannot grow forever has still not penetrated into most people's minds. In principle, it should not require vast amounts of scientific knowledge to figure that out, and indeed there have been historic cases of relatively primitive societies successfully managing their population, but because those who limit their population tend to be quickly outcompeted by those who don't (for obvious reasons), the only way to achieve that on a global scale seems to be instilling a good understanding of basic ecology and of the way the planet maintains relative homeostasis into everyone through the educational system. This is not happening even today so what are the chances that all that knowledge and understanding will be preserved during the process of the collapse of industrial civilization? So whoever and wherever embarks on the road of building civilization in the future will almost certainly do that from the starting position of the same ecological illiteracy that we did. And that's not going to end up in a sustainable society either.

    • lump1

      AFAIK, before the industrial revolution, all human populations were "managed" by Malthusian mechanisms. But Europe is generating children at well below the replacement rate, and Japan has probably hit its peak population years ago and is now on a steady decline. Of course, what it took to get there is a mixture of social and technological accomplishments that depend on steps that we took in the industrial revolution (universal education, urbanization, etc.).

      I expect that people of the future will worry more about the human population shrinking too quickly, rather than the opposite.

      • GM

        1) The fertility reductions observed as a consequence of industrialization are the result of people not being able to afford to have more kids, not because earning a higher income on its own is sufficient to drive that. This is a at first glance paradoxical but in fact quite logical result of being much richer than people in the Third world but not rich enough to be able to pay for education, healthcare, housing and everything else, and also still have time to spend on raising kids when both parents have to work.

        2) The world's TFR is at present around 2.5. If the TFR is even slightly above replacement level, the population will still explode thanks to the cold hard immutable logic of the exponential function. TFR of 2.5 is quite a bit over replacement level. However, the global TFR can actually fall below replacement with population still exploding - because the average can mask significant regional heterogeneity, i.e. global TFR may fall below 2 because of many women in China, Japan, and the West having just 1 kid, but if they keep having 4-5 or more in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, population will keep growing, In fact, that's what's most likely to happen in the short to medium term.

        3) Whoever thinks the current population is sustainable has zero understanding of the ecology of the planet, the state of the environment, and the depletion status of the nonrenewable resource we depend on. To illustrate how vast the disconnect is, people are debating whether population will stabilize around 10 billion or not, when what we should be talking about is how to get it below 1 billion. Ironically, it is in fact quite possible that we will never reach 10 billion, but that is a quick-collapse scenario, and not a pleasant one at all.

        • iccheap

          GM, you touch on a massive, lightly addressed issue in #3, in my estimation. Maintenance of the status quo is stealing resources that have accumulated over immense amounts of time and consuming them at mind numbing rates. Biogeochemical cycles across this planet are disturbed at magnitudinal levels above historically conserved concentrations. This plays out in non-obvious, unglamorous ways such as food web system disruption, massively disturbed nutrient cycling, faunal/floral shifts, it's all an enormous ecological experiment in process. You can only avoid the reality of a systems limits for so long and then you have no choice but to face the situation you've created.

          • lump1

            I think it's very important for everybody - especially Americans - to reduce our ecological footprint, but I think that for a wealthy technological society, it's less hard than you think. Houses that use no energy for climate control are already long-term economical. I also agree that nutrient leeching is a scary problem. The first thing we need to do in response is to start using our farms to grow food and not car fuel. But ultimately, if the population continues to grow, we will have to stop relying on dirt for planting our crops. Vertical urban hydroponic farms are indeed expensive in this era of cheap food, but nowhere near as expensive as wars and other luxuries we pay for these days. Obviously, not all our food can be grown that way, but we don't forever have to be eating the same corn-based diet we're used to now. All the people that calculate the planet's carrying capacity don't adjust for the fact that we will be dramatically better stewards of nature, not because mankind will become more moral, but because the economics will work out to favor sustainability. Also, we'll be richer, so it won't seem like such a sacrifice.

  • Super Mario

    How about bottling the sun (of course I'm talking about nuclear fission and fusion)? Would a post-apocalyptic civilization manage to jump start nuclear age and get the abundance of energy it needs? Sounds very unlikely if the knowledge and technology is destroyed and if everything has to be re-discovered and re-invented.

  • atimoshenko

    Interesting thought experiment, though it probably does not reveal very much. The same way any one of us is bad at predicting revolutionary future technologies just by extrapolating the past (why past futurism looks so silly today, for instance), we are probably just as bad at predicting future developments in re-establishing a lost technological base.

    Progress is incredibly path-dependent - we developed the technological solutions that we developed because of the conditions we developed them in. Were there different conditions, we would have developed something else. And the product of trial-and-error of thousands (millions?) of different scientists, thinkers, and inventors would likely find solutions that are entirely non-obvious to us today. Human ingenuity is not limitless, but it is incredibly diverse in its output.

    • GM

      The "We don't know what people will invent in the future" argument does not work here.

      Given where we are now in terms of resource depletion and environmental degradation, how much we know about physics (there will have to be dramatic new developments there for that magical energy source that will solve all our problems to be developed) and how much time it takes to retool the infrastructure of a complex society, the overwhelming odds are that collapse will happen on a much shorter time scale than any such developments might be brought online (if they ever are, which is unlikely on its own).

      Many knowledgeable people think that the process of collapse is already too advanced to reverse. And if it's not already, it will certainly soon be. The longer we keep growing our population, with most of that growth coming from Third world and developing countries, and the longer this continues under conditions of complete dominance of conventional economic wisdom, the larger and more difficult to overcome the momentum of mass ignorance becomes.

  • Woody Übermensch

    Good article. I have thought about that before.

  • Lexi Mize

    Love the topic. The core idea is one I also dreamed up years ago and added to my list of Why Earth Is Unique.

    Technological advance is dependent upon specialization. Specialization is dependent on efficient food production. Vast efficient food production is dependent upon easily accessible energy and arable land.

    When grains gave rise to farmers the expansion of available food allowed non-farmers to focus on technical advancement in tools, transport, housing, language, sciences, etc. This process throughout history has not changed. Every failed society hit a wall with regards to loss or limited food production. That and the conflicts brought on by competing deity philosophies.

    When we finally got over those conflicts (The Renaissance), and fossil fuels were discovered and leveraged to produce food we saw the world population jump and climb continuously accelerating when crude oil began to be exploited (The Industrial Revolution). The only reason we have all the technologies we have today is because so much food gave rise to so much specialization that today there are hundreds of thousands of extremely narrow job descriptions. All made possible by fossil fuels.

    Could a electromagnetic energy capable intelligent species ever arise on an amazingly habitable planet (like Earth) without immense supplies of nearly free energy in the form of fossil fuels? To me, the odds are not in their favor.

    • lump1

      I think it would just take longer, but it would definitely happen. The way I see it, the industrial revolution was a response to the incredible growth in wealth and prosperity (and population) that came in the century before. It's misguided to pretend that somehow the industrial revolution is what started our launch into modernity, because it's actually a later stage of a launch that was ignited centuries before, in Greece and Rome. Romans had concrete, were masters of hydo engineering, understood the principles of windmills, mastered coke production, glass, and pretty much everything that was needed to start exploiting the many available sources of renewable energy. The Muslim golden age took all this and improved on it in the Islamic golden age. Advances of a similar magnitude were made independently in China. It's true that these enlightened eras collapsed into comparative barbarism, but the collapses were reversed several times, all before anyone had the idea of burning a lump of coal. No doubt that accelerated everything immensely, and you make a good point that it allowed us to escape the Malthusean trap, but I think we would have done it anyway.

      • Lexi Mize

        It's quite the quandary. Could humans attain homeostasis with regards to arable land for food and charcoal dedicated acreage, with a much reduced population that would accompany such stasis, and yet still produce the numbers of scientists and engineers necessary to evolve into a EME wielding species? I guess we'll never know.

        I tend to think there's a threshold that must be surpassed, within a certain amount of time, that pushed our current species up and over the hurdles. The threshold includes enough people and enough resources working in a compressed time scale with all of the idea cross-talk and tech sharing that created our tsunami of technological advancement. Advancement that is not possible without all of those parts blending together with enough quantity in a short amount of time. Extend all that discovery out over millennia and I just don't see the advancement happening. Too much could go wrong during the thousands of years required to accrete the skills and knowledge and tech. Nick Bostrom and his "Great Filter" you know.

        Of course my anthropic viewpoint is showing here, something that's hard to suppress in such a discussion.

        • lump1

          It definitely helps to have a large population of well-fed scientists and engineers working on these problems simultaneously. But well before the industrial revolution, we had people like Newton, who already had other intellectual giants on whose shoulders he could stand. Science can work like that too, communicating across generations. But yes, it's much slower that way.

  • EverASkeptic

    I'm going to claim that the technology development required to generate electricity (we're talking shaped magnets, lots of copper wire, ball-bearings, oh and grease!) is are so difficult relative to creating fuels from biomass that it would NEVER happen in that order.

    But I would certainly love to have you prove me wrong by finding some extraterrestrial civilization that had taken that path. Now that would be cool!

  • Chadazon

    "Now they're almost gone." By the time that actually happens (and it's not even close to happening yet) alternatives will have commercially presented themselves.

  • Frank

    Beautiful question. I believe we don't want to know the answer. What a daunting task.

  • lump1

    I thought the same thing. And for all the complexities of the physics behind it, one you have a blueprint, building a useful fission reactor is actually not that difficult, provided you don't care too much about safety.

    • stoat_peterson


      try gordon mcdowwell's channel on youtube

    • Jerome Bigge

      The fossil fuel still in the ground today requires quite a bit of technology to extract, let alone find in the first place. It wouldn't be that difficult to duplicate the technology of say late 18th Century (or early 19th Century) Great Britain, Europe, or that of America at the time. But rebuilding industrial civilization would be a different matter. At first people burned wood, but as supplies of wood became scare, we moved to mining coal. Coal gave us the "Age of Steam", of railroads, steamships, all of what we were doing back in the middle of the 19th Century. Without easy to obtain coal, opportunities to rebuild become much more difficult. The easy to obtain petroleum supplies are gone. Natural gas has to be drilled for, and requires pipelines where the gas under pressure can be transported to where its needed. You can use alcohol as a motor vehicle fuel, but it is more expensive to make.

      Our current society is heavily dependent upon fossil fuels. Without them, we'd be a lot different as a society than what we are today.

  • http://www.liveleak.com/ ronnie raygun

    what part of we're toast dont you understand? no ,really. google #geoengineering

  • GRLCowan

    A number of people have pointed out Dartnell's failure to consider fission as a way for us to get back up where we belong. 'Justin' asserts that existing nuclear power plants are likely to survive whatever removes all the fossil fuels.

    Maybe they would, but they wouldn't have to! The knowledge that enabled the UK to construct its Magnox power stations in the early 1950s is too simple to be lost: you pile carbon together with a little uranium, and they go. The assembly heats up until the increase in temperature brakes the fission rate, and then heat is produced at a constant, steady rate.

    The difficulty of building steam engines to take advantage of that heat would still exist, but not that of getting arbitrarily large amounts of heat for them.

  • ScienceABC123

    Interesting... However, your premise of no fossil fuels I believe is a non-starter.

  • lump1

    Agreed. Also: Geothermal. Iceland right now is doing a great deal of aluminum processing, because electricity there is so darn cheap.

  • Alan Shearer

    Ahhh. Good God. What have you done? You've undermined all chance of a post-apocalyptic society rebuilding in like fashion to our current or even pre-industrial societal structure? Why?
    Nevertheless. It needed to be asked, and so you did.
    The question you've posed is so far out there if one takes it to it's logical extension, that answers or comments must reasonably come from future "versions" of civilization. No? It seems to me the problem is population growth. There must some balance between sustainability and total population and we, of course have vaulted past that balance point-probably because we have overcome the impediments to life span and infant mortality that controlled growth in the pre-modern period. Regardless, we are headed toward an apocalypse. The natural systems you so adroitly outlined are over taxed. The planet cannot support the number of people demanding energy, water and food. So; we will see your envisioned scenario. Perhaps not in our lifetimes, but I believe in our children's lifetimes, we will.

  • iccheap

    Great long term issue that should be a driving force in social policies we are working on now. In my ideal world we'd be moving toward radically lower populations, through attrition and family planning. I realize this has lots of cultural constraints and societal taboos associated with it, but I'm putting those aside (let me dream).

    Home energy production and maintenance could be approaching net neutral, if we had the social motivation. It's not incredibly hard to currently achieve those standards. My home has months that are near net neutral due to; a tight envelope (closed cell foam), LED lights, geothermal heating/cooling, heat recovery ventilation, and a 3.8 KW grid tied PV system. Although I don't have this set up, solar thermal is a great way to heat a home. By subsidizing as much of our personal lifestyle energy demands at our home, we can direct what energy sources we do have, collectively, toward more societal infrastructure issues.

  • boonteetan

    The earth is not limitless, its resources will be depleted one day whether one likes it or not. Our great grand children will deeply regret the way we squander.

  • Dale

    The answer is NO. If there's even 1 barrel of oil left and greed still rules the world we will never really change over until it's too late.

  • Darryl

    Accessible uranium is rarer and even more difficult to access than remaining coal and reserves in terms of years of demand are fewer. Given the difficulty of running breeder reactors, uranium may be another non-renewable resource.

    The glaring omission I see is solar thermal. Perhaps of little utility in Britain, but a parabolic trough collectors and steam generators are more approachable electricity sources than photovoltaic.

    • Stephen Voss

      uranium is rare unless you say downgrade existing warhead stockpiles into less enriched uranium however thorium is less rare. If you can start a reaction with a small amount of uranium you can keep it feed with thorium.

  • chris_p_a

    Well the minor point, that basically destroys the whole premise of this article, is that there is still plenty of coal in the UK, either in deep mines or in strip mining. The main reason that coal mining has basically died out in the UK is due to economic competition, both from cheaper sources of coal in the US and Australia and also from natural gas, not a lack of coal. A new civilization in the UK would have no trouble accessing enough coal to get an industrial revolution started again, and if you want to look at other potential countries, like the US (see Powder River for instance) or Australia, the stuff is literally there for the taking. Further more the scrap heaps and waste dumps that we have left behind would provide a very rich source of raw materials that would mean much easier smelting. For instance find your nearest tall building, the steel skeleton alone would provide a huge source of smelted high quality metal. Waste dumps are great sources of biogenic methane, which can be burned easily. Also it is hard to believe that all the science we have learned in the last 100 years would also disappear, just knowing what heat is for instance, or atoms, means that you would have a huge boost on doing it the first time round.

    Of course, if hundreds of thousands of years past or even million, and we are talking about a new species, guess what, by then much of the coal, oil and gas would be "renewed" anyway. Source rocks keep on supplying.

    • Stephen Voss

      If oil supplies disappeared, coal would come back fast and so would ethanol and methanol production.

  • miklos gratzer

    "Imagine that the world as we know it ends tomorrow. ... Bad as things sound, that’s not the end for humanity. We bounce back. Sooner or later, peace and order emerge again, just as they have time and again through history. Stable communities take shape."

    Whew! that was easy ... ! "Peace and order" ... ? What world was that ... ?

    A different reading of human history might suggest that the
    idea of bringing a civilization into existence is not just a matter of time and
    some clever tinkering once it is lost, but it might require an enormous convergence of
    many different kinds of stimulus, effort, discipline, imagination (and a certain
    kind of moral guidance) to create the energies needed to create or reboot a civilization. If at all ...

    Mainly because of its hardened certainties (like kidney stones), our
    civilization is far from perfect, hence it is easy to loose; but building an
    uncontaminated and vigorous one from scratch might not be (granted)
    for losers. That, too, is within the regulative framework of evolution ...

  • cimota

    I don't think we will ever run out of fossil fuels. We have hit the "peak" process though where the scarcity is driving up prices and higher prices means it's economical to drill deeper, further, refine more, clean up less and still turn a profit. The peak part is that we now have a significant part of our society who suffer from fuel poverty; people who live in cold parts of the world who spend a significant proportion of their income just heating their homes.

    For us to continue in our modern lifestyle in an inclusive way, we have to take some bold steps. We cannot raise photovoltaic energy the way the Californians can and building massive solar farms in the Sahara (while efficient) just continues to export our energy debt elsewhere.

    I used to be in favour of the nuclear option but the enrichment process, the dangers of production (which are much safer than they used to be) and the storage of waste products (you can't grind up spent fuel rods and use them to make playground surfaces) make them a non-starter for the the Long View.

  • Douglas Summers-Stay

    This question was discussed in detail almost a hundred years ago in Olaf Stapledon's novel Last and First Men. After our civilization destroys itself, the Patagonian civilization takes much longer to rebuild, due to the lack of oil and coal.

  • Snowblind

    Where is the hydro power and wind power in all this?
    Not the fancy stuff, but good old windmill/waterwheels. Early industrial plants in England were powered entirely by water power before steam.

  • gogododo

    Why would we even want to restart "society". People have been around for quite some time without oil, and at many times found ways to thrive. Has their been any industrial society without wide spread poverty, undignified work, prodigal amount of waste, or depletion of resources that require constant conquest of new land, (or in more modern time extraction of resources from lands we don't conquer in a military since. ) I do think the author is right in that the modern industrialized nation state, and now corporate fiefdom most of us live in would not be possible without fossil fuels, but only because they enable more military conquest. In other words I don't think oil allowed us to ability to self organize in more complex ways and this is what we choose. I'd rather say oil allowed for greater military adventures and as a results there are very very few uncolonized cultures left.
    I say the much greater resource is knowledge

  • geek42

    bamboo based wood-gas might be an option, and after you got your steel, you can made water-power station, isnt it?