After the Oil Wars...
— Introduction to Battletruck (1982)
Nothing in this world is forever, and that includes fossil fuels. Sooner or later, they will run out. The world relies heavily on petroleum products, not only for powering machinery, but for using that same machinery to transport products from A to B, to pave roads, to making plastics, to creating certain materials, to help making nitrogen-based fertilizers, the list goes on.
Bottom line, without petroleum, the world could very well go to hell. This trope explores that fact.
How it is explored depends on the work in question. In some works, it could just be a nasty bump on the road in the fiction's backstory that led to some troubled times, but was overcome by discovering a new fuel source, reverting back to a simpler time, or taking a third option
. Typically, though, this trope doesn't have a positive side, and is usually a device to explain why the setting sucks so much,
or in a After the End
setting, what caused the apocalypse. What little fuel remains to be sold will have sky high prices that only the wealthy can afford. Prices of everything else will be extremely high, thanks to increased transportation costs, usually leading to people starving in the streets. Law and order will break down as people become more and more desperate, resulting in mob rule in most cases.
In a worst case scenario, nations go to war over the last remaining fuel reserves, resulting in a massive global war, the outcome usually being an After the End
setting at worst, or at best, an even crappier world than before.
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Anime and Manga
- In Mobile Suit Gundam 00, oil has been supplanted by orbital solar facilities, with the result that the Middle East is even worse off because no one is interested in them anymore.
- In Heat Guy J, everyone has switched over to a new, unknown power source from the resident Superior Species (which, incidentally, is described an awful lot like nuclear power). Coal and oil are banned and no longer used, because they caused so much air pollution.
- Mad Max (or at least Mad Max 2) is a definite Trope Codifier for this, and a lot of dystopias where oil is valuable as gold are explicit references to the film. It is the oil shortages that began the nuclear war that resulted in the After the End setting.
- The Last Chase (1981)
- The story of Americathon is set in a future United States where the gas shortage of the 1970's grew to a point where the automobile has been completely eliminated, except as a possession one can park permanently and live in. One of the acts has a wrestler-type "superhero," played by Meat Loaf, battling "the last car." Everyone cheers when he destroys it, and later, bidding happens on a pint of his blood. Squick!!
- The Uglies series.
- Paolo Bacigalupi:
- In The Windup Girl; having exhausted all oil the world is back to using human and animal power, which is wound into springs to be released at need. The one resource everyone's after are calories to power the muscles that'll wind up the springs.
- Ship Breaker by the same author, which is set in the same universe. Old oil tankers are broken for scrap, and whatever pockets of oil they still contain are priceless finds that can make a man's fortune.
- Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson is set in a 22nd-century America where the oil has run out; the resulting society ends up feeling like a cross between 19th-century America and 4th-century Rome.
- This one is a victim of Science Marches On, as the provable natural gas reserves in the continental United States would have been tapped long before anything like this scenario occurs (to say nothing of the biodiesel project sponsored by the Department of Defense, with the goal of making the US military completely independent of foreign oil supplies—the collapse of American military power due to lack of oil being a key point in the setup of the plot).
- In Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, cities effectively become their own totally isolated city states when the oil becomes too rare to use. The only form of travel mentioned are large freighters (shipping food to the millions effectively trapped in cities).
- In James White's Underkill the world is a pretty dismal place after a crisis called the "Powerdown".
- Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home features a post-industrial society without oil. Most societies manage without advanced technology, but there are AI's maintaining a database and a version of Internet (the book was published in 1985!). One expansionist state decided to build a few military planes. Turned out it was Awesome, but Impractical under the circumstances. As in "the empire collapses after a year due to wasting all their food making biofuel".
- Something similar to this trope occurs early on in Olaf Stapledon's future history Last and First Men (made in 1930): once the First Men (us) exhaust every last deposit of fossil fuel on Earth. The Americanized One World Order starts falling apart as reserves run dry and the public at large learns of just how dire their predicament really is. Eventually, it leads to civilization collapsing entirely and a new dark age lasting several thousand years.
- Bruce Sterling 's short story Kiosk is set some years after the 'Transition' which is described as being a very rough period to live through. Unlike a lot of examples of this trope however the world has recovered, people are prospering, and things generally don't seem to be any worse than they are now.
- James Howard Kunstler's novels A World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron are set in a post-peak-oil America where most economic activity is agriculture done without powered machinery and producing for local markets only.
- Lampshaded in one of the Alice, Girl from the Future books, where the heroes are looking at a planet with which all contact was lost three centuries ago, and see it is low tech. One of them (a Wrong Genre Savvy guy) states the planet must have wasted its fuel, but the others point out the planet was advanced enough for alternatives. In the end, it turns out the matter was much more serious (a planet wide Laser-Guided Amnesia field).
- John Varley's book Slow Apocalypse features a bioweapon that congealed crude oil into an unrecoverable state, although natural gas and coal are still available. It is outright stated that the Los Angeles basin, where the story takes place, is in worse shape than most than most areas due to a series of explosions, earthquakes and a looming permanent drought.
- Shapes the world or Ready Player One. With gas prices so high, America could no longer afford to be as spread out as it was. Most everyone lives in a major city, or in the slums immediately outside them in what were once trailer parks, where trailers were stacked ontop of one another to fit in more people.also, the lack of easy transportation certainly helped increase the popularity of the Virtual Rality OASIS.
- There is a Young Adult book (I believe it was The Ear, the Eye and the Arm) where there is no oil, and because of that, plastic plates are treated as a status symbol on par with fine china. Because of this, and the long life of plastic, people have taken to mining for plastic in old garbage dumps.
Live Action TV
- The song Endgame by Rise Against has the lyric, "the kerosene's run out," suggesting this is what did the world in.
- The play Clytemnestra reimagines the story of Clytemnestra's murder of Agamemnon in an After the End setting where oil has run out and society has descended into small tribal groups, living in compounds and slowly running out of food, and bands of 'ferals' scavenging outside.
- Fallout: Before the Great War, peak oil was the cause of the Resource Wars that devastated both Europe and the Middle East. Gas prices reached up to $1450.99 per gallon for regular (possibly also reflecting inflation of the dollar). The United States (and possibly China) were only saved by going to an all-nuclear society, while the rest of the world ended up collapsing. The issue was all made moot however, when everyone started to sling nukes at each other.
- Frontlines Fuel Of War: The reason behind the war in the game. One of the loading text notes the irony of using fossil fuel-powered vehicles to fight a war fighting for the last remaining fossil fuels, mentioning that some citizens lamented that the last drops of oil would be burnt up by a tank.
- Crime Craft: Peak oil lead to the society (for lack of a better term) in the game.
- Deus Ex: Human Revolution: An e-book mentions how peak oil lead to an economic crisis sometime before the game began.
- Inverted with perhaps unintentional irony in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. In the original game, Shinra Energy Corporation was literally sucking the life energy of the Planet dry in a not so subtle ecological metaphor. In the movie, the world having barely avoided destruction and Shinra having been taken down, this energy source is obviously no longer used. So what is former eco-terrorist Barret doing nowadays? "Cloud, I found some oil!"
- The world of Homefront has gas prices reaching nearly $20 a gallon due to a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
- Implied in Infamous, where gas prices in Empire City are just shy of $9 a gallon. However, that could possibly be price gouging after the disaster. Zeke also has a peak oil poster in his rooftop compound.
- The transition to this and the aftermath is one of the main challenges in most Fate Of The World scenarios. Depending upon how well you (literally) play your cards, the transition to a post-oil society can be anywhere from fairly painless to resulting in biosphere collapse and the extinction of humanity. Averted in the Cornucopia scenario, in which fossil fuel reserves are self-replenishing but still cause environmental havoc.
- Whether oil reserves have actually dried up is not mentioned for sure, but the world of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 has rare earth elements replacing it as the most in-demand natural resource in the year 2025, and the tension caused by China's monopoly on their sale and production is a major element of the New Cold War between them and the US.
- Call of Duty: Ghosts has the antagonist faction, the Federation, begin its rise to power after something happened to the Middle East. The game's narration says they were "destroyed", but not much else is given.
- Video Game/Oiligarchy: The game is about you playing an oil company executive and engaging in extremely evil actions to get the oil. No matter what you do, the oil reserves will eventually run out. Your choices : GDP crashes thus bringing an end to Western Civilization, a nuclear war breaks out, and you spend your last days thinking how you brought the world to the end, start turning humans into oil, or stop bribing the US government so they can create a world that is less dependent on oil.
- Futurama: On the episode "Bendin' in the Wind", it is mentioned that oil preserves dried up in 2050, so cars now run on a more environmentally safe alternative: whale oil.
- It is somewhat debatable how much damage peak oil would do in real life, and it's generally only the fringe that believes that it would cause civilization to collapse. The Economics page explores this in the Resource Halt section. A brief explanation, however, says that sellers of oil would start withholding stock to prepare for the scarcity, and oil's price, in event of supplies becoming less available, would slowly rise over time, forcing humanity to adapt by either finding a new resource/technology, or increasing energy efficiency and, in some cases, possibly reverting to non-oil-powered technologies (electric trains, organic farmingnote , et cetera). One of the most commonly cited effects, which is already being seen in some parts of the US now that $4 a gallon gasoline is a reality, is a reversal of the trend towards suburban development and a greater focus on city and town centers. Now, a sudden temporary decrease in availability (such as embargoes, disruption of some sort in production, or transportation routes being cut off), or a war for oil spilling over into a larger conflict, can have nasty consequences, but would most likely only cripple regional areas, rather than the entire planet.
- This is happening now, to some extent. Currently in the US, 30 mpg is considered "good gas mileage" while 40 is considered really good. Look at articles from the era of the 1974 oil-embargo crisis — the first time since World War II that there had been a gas-price shock — and be amazed at the references to 15 mpg "compacts" and how a 25 mpg VW Beetle was spoken of in terms now used for a 50 mpg Prius.
- With modern age engines, tires, and non-congested open roads, 200-plus hp turbocharged cars (VW Golf GTI, Subaru Impreza WRX) can easily make 30-32 mpg.
- Note that we do have the technology to produce cars that have MPG ratings that dwarf everything you see on the road today. And it's not even especially new technology. Take that for what it's worth.
- The first car able to burn 1 liter of Diesel per 100 km (which translates into a mind-blowing 282 mpg) while running 75 mph on the highway has already run for 10 years. And it's not a hybrid.
- The reason that alternate energy fuels haven't caught on is either through difficulty to produce them or the big companies not wanting it to cut into their car sales profits.
- Also, the prices of gasoline/petrol at the time of writing (late 2013) haven't gotten so expensive that they are simply unaffordable to purchase for everyday citizens. While the prices do suck, they aren't devastating to a greater portion of the population, and the drawbacks of many alternative fuels, and "halfway fuels" like E85 (lower efficiency, price not that much cheaper for what it's worth, and can only be used with certain vehicles that cost far more than what would you would save on fuel), keep them behind gas/petrol. Now, jack up the prices of gas/petrol sky high, then you'll see a stronger push for alternative fuels and vehicles that can utilize them.
- In practice, "oil exhaustion" is relative for a plethora of reasons:
- First, when Hubbert Peak Theory had been devised in 1956, conventional drilling recovery rates were miserable, maybe 5-10 percent of the oil in the ground, while modern post-1970s drilling technology recovers 25-35 percent, and the newest and costliest drilling maybe 65 percent. This means an oilfield regarded as exhausted during Marion K. Hubbert's life may be producing just fine nowadays.
- Second, the true amount of recoverable oil in the ground is just as relative, since exploration is permanently underway, and therefore oil reserves (as opposed to resources — total recoverable oil, regardless of economics) have always increased in most oil-producing countries. Venezuela has produced oil ever since 1907, and despite the gigantic exports in the modern days, their oil reserves tripled from 2010 to 2012 just because a larger amount of extra heavy oil became recoverable.
- Fear of the effect of carbon pollution and plastic trash on the environment creates a secondary pressure to abandon oil beyond simply scarcity. It's likely that humanity will need to quit using oil to preserve the ecosystem long before we've run out of usable reserves, and the technology that makes this possible would necessarily drive demand down, meaning hard-to-reach reserves will become unprofitable.
- Technically, there are ways to produce liquid fuels from gas or coal; the resulting product is costly, but within reasonable limits. And there is really a lot of coal on Earth. And even after coal exhaustion, there are ways to produce liquid fuels from biomass (for example, growing oil-producing algae) that are in development even now, so-called biodiesel.
- The 2008 non-fiction book $20 per Gallon by Chris Steiner explores the potential consequences of gas reaching such a price on the United States, and comes to some surprisingly hopeful conclusions about how it would affect our environment and health. Fewer people driving means cleaner air, healthier local produce as food shipping becomes prohibitively expensive, more exercise as we start walking more, a return of manufacturing jobs to the U.S. as shipping products from around the globe becomes less cost-effective, multi-billion dollar national health care savings as we become healthier.... Keep in mind, however, that Steiner also fully expected us to have reached $8 per gallon by now, and as of 2014, prices are rising much more slowly than he predicted, so take the rest of his predictions with a grain of salt as well.
- Some experts believe Peak Oil has already been passed, sometimes as far back as 2006.