What would you do in a world without electricity?

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Lately I’ve been blogging a lot about environment friendly programming, and on this week’s Wednesday I started a free giveaway to send my copy of “An Inconvenient Truth” to one lucky commenter (the giveaway is still on, so go ahead and leave a comment – it won’t cost you a thing). So it’s not new for me to be talking about climate change and environmental crises in this blog. This time I’m pointing out a different kind of crisis which I am slowly starting to take seriously too: an energy crisis caused by running out of oil.

My brother has been talking about this for a few years already. For most of the time I have dismissed his thoughts as just some new conspiracy theories, but lately I’ve been starting to take him seriously. If he’s right, there are some pretty rough times ahead of us.

Let’s start with the facts:

  1. Our economy and wealth is largely based on a supply of cheap oil. Just take a look around yourself: there is plastic everywhere, your car is running with oil, your electricity is created by burning oil, and so on.
  2. Sooner or later we’re going to run out of oil. There is no denying this part of the story, oil takes millions of years to form, so we can fairly say that it’s not a renewable form of energy.
  3. What people disagree on is how soon this will happen. The Peak Oil proponents say that it’s more likely that we run out of energy sooner than later. There have even been reports saying that we’ll be in trouble in less than three years, as early as 2010.
  4. If this estimate is correct, we’re in deep trouble. The new forms of energy supplies that we’d like to use instead of oil just aren’t mature enough to support our ever growing energy needs.

For a while, let’s assume the theory is correct.

What it means is that in less than a decade we’ll be practically out of oil and that will in turn cause big shortages in electricity. As programmers we’re dependent of electricity, and personally I could even go as far as to say that I’m addicted to electricity. So, a world without (or with limited) electricity is something new and scary to me.

And here comes the big question: What would you do in a world without electricity?

In hopes of starting an interesting discussion and getting some new insight and ideas regarding the energy crisis, I’m asking you: what do you think of all of this?

What would you do if the world ran out of electricity, or if your electricity usage would be limited to only a few hours per day? Would you still try to make software or is there something else you’d do instead?

The floor is all yours. Clean the dust off your crystal ball, and take a deep look into our future!

19 thoughts on “What would you do in a world without electricity?

  1. Tufty

    To be honest, I’m not convinced of the theories behind the energy crisis. But say it does come true – I’d find something else to do with my time. The entire computer industry would come grinding to a halt – there’s no point making software if nobody can actually use it.

    For me, software development has always been about the problem solving, so I would have to find some other employment which allowed me to solve problems and keep my brain exercised.

    Besides, with all these smart people in the world, surely we can find some way to keep the power on? The only thing stopping us finding a solution is people’s inability to work together for the good of humanity, and the main reason for that is simple human greed (and religion, but let’s not go down that path).

  2. Indeed, oil is a limited resource, but it’s not the only resource used for creating electrical energy. I for one, would be glad if the fossil combustibles would run out tomorrow, even if it means total chaos, since at least the carbon emissions in our atmosphere would drop and global warming would slow down.
    Your forth fact states that the alternative energy options are not yet mature. While that may be true, why do you think that is? A simple reason is that the people with money and power that rule this world don’t have any interest in giving up the one thing that sustains their power. Even so, some of them might actually be so smart as to figure out that their power will end once the natural resources in question get depleted, and might have thought of backup plans to keep their advantages, like investing in alternative energy sources research. I know I would in their stead, but the facts show us they are more interested in bringing democracy and justice in the places that still hold these scarce resources. I wonder if there is some subtle connection here…

  3. I doubt electricity will be the first one to go when Peak Oil really kicks in. It’s mainly created with coal, natural gas, nuclear etc. which aren’t as depleted as oil yet. However, I do believe there will be severe electricity shortages after a few years after oil becomes really scarce. (2010-2020?) So this is a very relevant question.

    Honestly, I can’t think of a solution. Without a stable electricity supply our modern society cannot work. Food will spoil, lights will be out and electronics will be without power thus making it impossible to use the internet and other essential services. We are simply paralyzed without electricity.

    In some parts of the world where electricity is already rationed such as in Pakistan or Senegal we can possibly see glimpse of our own future.

  4. Tufty

    Ok, so assuming that scenario where we run out of oil, and we see a shortage of electricity generating capacity, what do we do about it? As you say, we’re going to run out sooner or later of our natural resources, oil, gas, coal – or at the very least, it’s going to be more difficult to get to them.

    What then is the solution? Sustainable power sources is the obvious answer, but wind farms and hydro power can only work in certain places where the land/sea area is available. There’s also nuclear, but people still seem to have a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attitude to that. Trouble is, there aren’t really that many other options.

    At the end of the day, we do depend on electricity for so many aspects of our modern lives. Ergo, we need to be able to generate enough for everyone, which is going to mean taking some unpopular decisions to create that capacity. For myself, I approve of nuclear power, it’s clear that at this time and our current technological ability, it’s the only way we can realistically use to replace the likes of oil, gas and coal power stations. The waste materials become another issue, but perhaps we don’t have to solve that problem today – in the future, maybe we will have a way to dispose of those safely, or to recycle them in a way that doesn’t make them a liability.

    I’d love to be able to say, let’s have wind farms, let’s use hydro power – it’s certainly safer, and less unpleasant than nuclear. But it takes up a great deal of space, and doesn’t generate nearly enough capacity to support our society.

    That leaves us with this big problem, and I for one am not smart enough to come up with a solution that works for everyone. Good job I don’t have to!

  5. Just noticed that there was a new news item on this topic at Treehugger: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/07/iea_sounds_peak_1.php. It seems that the price of oil and related products is going up pretty soon, if nothing else :)

    Thanks for your comments! I agree with you guys in the sense that I hope we’ll be able to replace our oil dependency with some other form of energy. If nuclear power will help us survive for a while until we can come up with new solutions, I all for it as well.

    We had a long discussion about this topic with iEatSushi on Friday and now I am starting to think that maybe in the first place the electricity won’t be the problem. Maybe we’ll have to limit the time per day we use online / using our computers and other appliances, but I hope we can still keep coding and expressing ourselves through the internet.

    However there is one bigger risk that I’m now starting to get afraid of (related to this oil problem). As iEatSushi mentioned, the transportation will be problematic, and so it might be that products cannot be delivered to stores and so on. This in turn might turn into a huge inflation – and in turn a retention.

    So even if there is enough electricity for us to use moderately, it might be that we won’t have the money to pay for it… :S

    I hope I’m wrong.

  6. Adam

    Are you aware that nuclear energy and renewables make up 33 percent of the United State’s electricity.

    If fossil fuels ran out, more nuclear plants and solar plants would be built it’s simple economics.

    People want electricity. If there’s no oil, they’ll want another of electricity. Demand skyrockets in nuclear and renewables. Nuclear plants and renewables are put into 100% use. Why aren’t they now? primarily because they’re a little more expensive than oil. If oil however starts to cost a couple thousand a gallon you’d that the U.S. would switch to nuclear and renewables which last pretty much forever. The switch is already starting to happen with the new nuclear 2010 plan put out by the government along with the 2005 financial incentives.

    Economics.

    Just plain simple.

  7. Bedlam

    This is so funny, I was musing on what would happen to current scholarship (I work at a major University and most papers and research materials are not only read online but the whole process of publishing is almost entirely online as well) and wondering just how we would cope should our already fragile power infrastructure fail completely or even randomly. Looking to Senegal, Pakistan and Iraq came to me as well.

    On the power generation issue, I agree that people want electricity, but in the even of a catastrophic failure of the power gird, that could easily be a precursor to an even greater economic problem and we might not have the economic capacity to build enough of anything to meet demand or even come close.

    Nuclear is the easiest solution to point at but it has always seemed to me that our engineering approach is rather primitive in comparison to what we are trying to contain: steel, concrete and water VS nuclear fission. Holy crap, don’t take your eye off that ball. Also there is the matter of reporting. I bet you didn’t know there is a scale, kinda like a thermometer, for nuclear accidents. The INES (International Nuclear Event Scale) goes from zero to seven where zero is an event that was a deviation from normal but not a safety risk to seven being Chernobyl. All well and good till you get to the particulars, as reported in Scientific American, in 2006 there was a spill of 31 liters of weapons grade Uranyl Nitrate at the plant in Erwin Tenn. It pooled and almost accumulated enough material for spontaneous fission, but not quite. This incident was recorded as a two, significant spread of contamination; overexposure of worker; significant failure in safety.
    Personally I’d rate that a hell of a lot higher than that, but we all choose to “leave it to the professionals, they know best.”
    D’oh!

    I know, weapons grade stuff does not compare to power production grade, BUT That’s Not The Point, the point is how this significant event was reported. The event was nearly an open fission reaction, but only shows up as a small blip. If that doesn’t make you wonder how many other near misses go un- or under reported, then you are made of tougher stuff than me, I’m just human.

  8. Yeah, nuclear power is again marketed to us a the easy way out from these problematics, but just as you say, it’s not quite that simple… Then again, what is?

    I’ve seen Portugal do some pretty nice work on solar and wind power as well as some other European countries (Finland is still far behind – shame on us) and I hope it’ll be enough to keep us moving towards a better solution. Probably not – but at least it’s a start.

  9. Johnny Camaro

    We should also consider it a possibility that the world or mass regions of the world could easily lose power as a result of solar flares and radiation cataclysmic in size and nature. There have already been many documented instances where large solar flares have disrupted power flow on our planet because of their influence on the electromagnetic field of the earth as recently as 2003. The aurora borealis illustrates that this is a VERY common occurence already, although relatively small in its impact. What happens if solar flares become larger and more consistent?

  10. aditya

    i think that we should start thinking more on when oil runs out lots poor countries depend on oil renuable resources are very expensive people sould save electricity beacuse its very important

  11. Travis

    We are forgeting the most basic things. There would be no communication, your neighbors and people in your town would be the only ones you could talk to. Chaos would spread through the world like they have any time there has been a black out. Looters rob the stores and homes. If the black out was to continue for a long period of time, people, good people would kill to get what they needed to survive. The few who know how to fend for them selves wouldn’t be safe from the many confused and desperate who didn’t. People have become way to dependent on modern technology and forgot their basic survival instincts.
    I for one would love to see technology crash. I would feel bad for the sick and elderly in the care of technologicaly dependent hospitals, but I would not feel bad for the billions who need the newest gadgets to make them feel better about themselves. We (All of us, no one is excempt) have destroyed our world to better ourselves. Hopefully our planet and our God will forgive us for what we have done!

  12. Bedlam

    Yea, back to the solar flare issue, Diffusion Science Radio which originates in Australia but is available as a podcast had a story on the effect of massive solar flares past, present and data on future probable activity. Very nice. Well… nice if you like massive electromagnetic pulses that fry anything remotely electronic. This was the April 6 2009 issue, for details please see: http://www.diffusionradio.com/

  13. Bishop

    To all the comments above about alternative (or even existing) energy sources stepping up to the plate, think again.

    You can’t mine coal without petroleum-driving equipment, you can’t process the raw materials for solar, wind or hydro-electric components without petrochemical inputs (plastics, refining, manufacturing machinery, plant and equipment).

    Even sustaining your workforce is impractical very quickly … effective transportation, healthcare, ALL food prouduction.

    The net energy input costs currently far exceed any power generation by even nuclear power, (mining, processing and ongoing maintenance and operation) unless supported by government subsidy.

    If oil runs out, the electricity dependent planet STOPS. Period.

  14. Caleb

    If this did happen our army would be in trouble also, but what I would personally do is would buy a gun, find a way to get fresh water, or a way to make it pure.. And start farming,:)

  15. Perry Curling-Hope

    Don’t fret, if there’s no more oil, less electricity will be the least of your problems.
    You won’t have computers, (or cellphones, flat screen TVs, DVD players) or anything else that needs programming, since the polymers used to make them would not exist.
    You would not have polycotton clothes to wear, or tires for that (electric ?) car to get to work, assuming you still had any.
    I don’t know how the environmental advocates think they will manufacture windmills and solar panels without fossil based infrastructure, let alone get the polymers for the turbine blades or thin film PV panels.
    That’s excluding the ammonia, via the Haber Bosch process which sustains our global agriculture at anything like its current level.
    So don’t worry about electricity, once our industrial civilisation winds down due to fossil depletion it won’t be needed.

  16. Prior to its happening, I have started to prepare myself and others.
    1) Buy property away from densely populated areas. Scope out the land to make sure it will accommodate as many people as you want or need to sustain and that it is in a low visibility area.
    2) Start now collecting books such as the entire Foxfire collection and others detailing how to create necessities.
    3) Buy guns, crossbows and ammunition enough to last 3 years.
    4) Train people in specialties such as holistic medicine, hydroponics, seed collecting and germinating, livestock raising, hunting and gathering.
    5) Start now collecting lamp oil, wicks, candle making equipment, lye, meat drying agents, cloth, needles, thread, yarn, eyeglasses, pens, pencils, paper, knives, knife sharpeners, meat grinders, rice, beans, flour, lard, hooks, line, soap, washing boards, plastic jugs, insect repellent, unscented bleach, glass tubing, matches, lighters, batteries, dried fruit….
    6) Keep a positive attitude and don’t be foolish enough to believe it couldn’t happen in America….it can, it will and sooner than you think.

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