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.
This trope had its heyday in the 90's and 2000's, a time when there was a genuine fear in some circles that the world was a few decades away from depleting their oil reserves, with chaos predicted to ensue. Combine this with rising concerns about the environment and the motivations behind conflict in the Middle East, and Post Peak Oil became a favorite of speculative fiction. This vision of the future largely didn't transpire because Technology Marched On: The development of fracking in the late 2000's vastly expanded the number of fossil fuel deposits available to exploit and turned the United States into a net-exporting energy powerhouse virtually overnight, not just in oil but also natural gas. Combine this with a boom in renewable energy investment and deployment, and the result is that the resources in today's energy market is much more diversified and abundant. Post Peak Oil as a trope will always have its place for as long as writers want to write stories with a Green Aesop, but its usage has declined as the possibility of us completely tapping out a single resource we depend on feels more remote.
A sub-trope of Terminally Dependent Society.
- In Mobile Suit Gundam 00, fossil fuels were running out and thus an alternative was needed. This led to the construction of a massive solar gathering array that circles the entire planet around the equator. However, this was disastrous for the middle east that relied on its oil for financial stability. With the solar power system up and running, it caused the once precious oil to lose much of its value. This led to a collapse of the region's economy and resulted in the brutal Solar Power Wars that would rage on and off for 20 years. And even after the wars have subsided, the region remains extremely unstable with things such as terrorism and the like running rampant.
- 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.
- Transformers: Last Bot Standing has a variation: the setting is post-peak-Energon, the fuel that Transformers typically run on. Most of them are dead, with Rodimus in a low-functioning state. The plot is based on the last few other survivors coming to town, having adapted to use alternative fuels...
- Firebird 2015 A.D.: The government has explained its Dystopian Edict (the car has been outlawed except for government/police usage, any civilians caught driving a car will be arrested by any means necessary) as the result of "limited resources". However, various "burners" (underground Speed Demon-types who drive illegal automobiles) make mention that this is propaganda and in the end this is just one more example of the government stomping down on the innocent.
- Mad Max:
- At the very least, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is a definite Trope Codifier for this, and a lot of dystopias where oil is as valuable as gold are explicit references to the series. It is the oil shortages that began the nuclear war that resulted in the After the End setting.
- As in the previous films, conflicts over oil as well as water brought about the nuclear holocaust that burned the world in Mad Max: Fury Road.
- Waterworld being Mad Max ON WATER deals with most of the world covered in ocean, so the only oil readily available is in giant oil tankers that stayed afloat After the End. No new resources are gained.
- 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!!
- In The Thinning, Earth's resources are dwindling. UN decrees that every nation must reduce its population by 5% each year in order to survive. Some go for a one-child policy. Others kill the elderly. The US chooses to execute any kid that doesn't pass an annual standardized test.
- This is the overriding theme in the 1982 Mad Max imitator Battletruck aka Warlords of the 21st Century. The intro makes mention of "the Oil Wars", and the titular truck is driven by the antagonists, a crew of mercenaries led by a warlord who resort to obtaining diesel fuel at any cost.
- Daybreakers is a vampire film whose main plot is framed as an Urban Fantasy metaphor for peak oil. In the near-future of 2019, vampires have taken over the world and imprisoned most of the surviving humans to harvest for their blood. Problem is, they're hunting uninfected humans to extinction to sate their thirst, and since vampires degenerate into mindless, grotesque monsters when they start feeding on each other out of desperation, that means that vampires face not only the destruction of their civilization but their extinction. The protagonist Edward Dalton is a scientist searching for a blood substitute, and is repeatedly faced with skepticism by higher-ups who insist that there will always be more humans out there to capture and feed on.
- The Uglies series, to the point that the pre-calamity people are referred to as "the Rusties", who used up their last drops of oil in war. The technology level is actually higher, as they just switched to solar and wind power as alternatives. And also more or less lobotomized most of the population so they wouldn't start getting ideas about wars, prejudice, greed, and all those other nasty things that started it.
- 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. When the New York police department breaks out a school bus out of a museum to use as transport during a massive riot, the fuel they use is so low-quality that it can barely run. The book would later be adapted into the movie Soylent Green.
- 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 The City Without Memory, 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 of 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 on top of one another to fit in more people. Also, the lack of easy transportation certainly helped increase the popularity of the Virtual Reality OASIS.
- In The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, 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.
- In Harry Harrison's To the Stars trilogy, characters occasionally refer to old rulers who squandered the world's resources without thought for the future, resulting in chaos and poverty. The current state of the world has a totalitarian One World Order with only a few "rogue" states like the democratic Israel remaining. The government imposes a sharply-defined class system, where the poor are contained in their own districts. The resource problem is solved by mining off-world colonies, which are kept on a leash by making them dependent on something only Earth can provide. The protagonist is also shown working on a thermal-extraction project to get petroleum from oilwells that have been derelict for four centuries.
- The Magic Goes Away is a magical variant of this scenario, with the mana that sustains magical might increasingly used up and magic-using empires in steady decline.
- In Down to a Sunless Sea, the United States used up all its oil while Great Britain conserved theirs. The Arabs refuse to sell due to hatred of Israel and fears the dollar has become worthless. As a result, the United States has been reduced to a third-world country, desperately trying to find a substitute for oil while civil society disintegrates. Bootlegging of gasoline from Canada into the United States is punishable with death, and people trying to sneak onto the few international planes still operating are shot by armed soldiers that guard the planes. The fuel for the planes even has to be flown in, and is also guarded.
- The made-for-TV Docudrama Oil Storm. Notable for depicting, as the catalyst for the oil shock, a hurricane hitting New Orleans in September 2005... and did we mention that this was made just months before Hurricane Katrina?note
- Aftermath episode "World Without Oil" presents a rather extreme hypothetical by erasing all the oil supplies in the world at once, rather than having demand gradually outstrip supply like a regular Post-Peak Oil scenario. The world quickly descends into chaos while some countries manage to cope by switching to alternative energy sources. However, at the end a similar Post-Peak problem is foreshadowed with the mineral lithium.
- The song Endgame by Rise Against has the lyric, "the kerosene's run out," suggesting this is what did the world in.
- Cyberpunk: The world came through this one relatively unscathed, thanks to the high-energy alcohol blend called "CHOOH-2", and a specially genetically engineered grain which yields it in high amounts, which has become the favored fuel for all types of combustion engines. However, since the grain is patented by BioTechnica, fuel is effectively a monopoly in large parts of the world. Oil is still an extremely valuable commodity, and widely used in a variety of chemical processes. SovOil gained Mega-Corp status pretty much on the value of its untapped oil deposits alone.
- 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 China) were temporarily saved by going to a nuclear power-based society, but this meant the world was heading towards Peak Uranium. The issue was all made moot, however, when everyone started to sling nukes at each other. A solution actually was possible in the form of nuclear fusion (the fusion cells powering your laser rifles), but wasn't adopted quickly enough to avoid the apocalypse, due to paranoia, mutual distrust, and hostilities preventing the tech from being shared or adopted in time.
- 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 over 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 II 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.
- 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.
- Unsurprisingly Oil Rush is about a post apocalyptic scavenger world whose gameplay consists of taking over sea-oil-rigs and using the limited oil as a resource to create troops.
- Central to the setting of Freedom Wars. Mentions are made of pollution levels not helping what was left of the environment, but it's clear humanity's main problem 100,000 years from now is being Post Peak Everything.
- The Dead Space series takes place in a future where all of Earth's oil reserves have been exhausted, along with every other non-renewable resource. To keep civilization going, humanity has resorted to splitting entire planets open to extract their resources.
- Doom (2016): Earth has undergone this centuries earlier and it's gotten so bad as it was running out of uranium and plutonium, this changed when they discovered Argent Energy on mars. However this comes with it's own hazards, namely if something goes wrong it could open a Hellgate and lead to an invasion by the Legions of Hell. Even without that it's extraction and refinement is being monopolized by a downright monstrous Mega-Corp.
- Dishonored 2 explores this more than its predecessor. In the fifteen year time gap between installments the Applied Phlebotinum that is whale oil is getting harder and harder to come by as the creatures are being overfished to near extinction. Some places like the Isle of Serkonos are getting around the issue by switching over to alternate energy sources like wind, but for the majority of the Empire this is going to become a huge issue on the scale of the Rat Plague very soon.
- 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.