Oil Is the Cheat Code

Graphic: Millie Wang

Oil is incredibly energy-rich.

One barrel of oil equals 6.1 Gigajoules. One way to conceptualise this amount of energy is to imagine how many hours of human labour it represents. Since labour varies significantly in physical demands, this measurement is subject to variance, but 6.1 Gigajoules is equivalent to 2,078 – 14,544 human hours of work. The average US citizen uses 60 barrels of oil a day, which is roughly equivalent to 60-450 years of human labour.

60-450 years of energy – used in a single day!

Oil is basically magic.

Many ideas about human progress assume that as one natural resource becomes scarce, we can substitute it for another. This idea, known as ‘Prometheanism’, was popularised by political theorist John Dryzek. Missing in Dryzek’s analysis is an acknowledgement that oil is not just one of many natural resources – it’s particularly special. One way to appreciate this is to recognise that oil is basically millions of years of solar energy that has been trapped and fossilised, lying conveniently under the surface for us to discover and use.

We are fortunate to have oil. More than we realise.

The idea that oil is fossilised sunlight (stored energy) demonstrates its uniqueness. Consider all the countless plants, animals, and even entire ecosystems that have once soaked up solar energy. All this biota represents evolutionary processes spanning millions of years: a progression of heightened complexity, energy production and consumption. From single-celled organisms, to plants, to animals – as life evolved and advanced, it too extracted, accumulated and condensed increasingly greater levels of solar energy.  Eventually, the biota decomposed and was compressed, and after countless years of geological processes, became oil.

In a sense, oil represents the total progress of a past ‘civilisation’, summed up by its ability to store solar energy and then leave that energy behind. In video game terms, the numerical amount of energy left behind by the last big attempt is like the ‘high score’ you get at the end of the game after you die. However, we also have a huge advantage going into the next game, as some of the progress from the last attempt was saved in the form of trapped energy.

Energy and human development.

Energy and development go hand in hand. There are strong arguments that oil (and the high-quality energy it provides) was chiefly responsible for the last century’s unprecedented population growth and development. Graham Zabel, writing for Resilience.org, describes how history often attributes this development to specific factors, such as medicine, public health, sanitation, agriculture, trade, and transportation. However, people often discount how each was ‘aided and influenced by the availability of cheap, high-quality energy’.

Even more fundamentally, the link between development and energy can be seen in evolutionary biology, such as in our own cells. The evolution of simple eukaryotic cells to their prokaryotic counterparts – the basis of complex life – is ultimately the story of the mitochondria, which allowed eukaryotic cells to command far higher levels of energy (some 200,000 times more). In a sense, nature selects for increased energy and complexity.

Cheaters with an inflated sense of skill.

Imagine that life is a game of chess. Now imagine that the previous ‘dinosaur’ civilisation – the one that became oil – had to play the game as we know it: usual rules, no advantages or special consideration. They played hard and eventually lost.

Now it’s our turn, but because the dinosaurs did well, we have an advantage. Thanks to all the stored energy in the form of oil, we can remove three pieces from the opponent’s board. If you know something about chess, you will understand that this upper hand changes the game completely. Naturally, you would press this advantage as quickly and ruthlessly as possible to consolidate and lock in your head start.

That’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re winning the game and kicking ass. But here’s the thing: unless we discover alternatives to oil, we are going to lose this advantage someday. This doesn’t seem to concern people very much though, perhaps because many of us have faith in our ability to ‘figure something out’. Some of us put this faith in technological innovation, while others trust human ingenuity more generally. Typical among these narratives, however, is an overinflated sense of progression, driven by a dishonest account of our history. Yes, we have been winning games and kicking ass – but we had a considerable advantage, remember?

From this perspective, we have what I’d call a ‘cheater’s sense of skill’. All that progress we’ve made – that we look to as inspiration for meeting the next great challenge – is founded on a unique and finite resource that has given us a head start. Should oil production plateau and energy supplies drop precipitously enough, then we will be playing chess for real once again, like ‘Team Dinosaur’ had to. Perhaps, given this risk, we should be a little humbler about just how clever we, in ‘Team Monkey’, actually are.   

I will leave you with this…

You’re not golden and I’m getting tired

Act like you own the place when really, you’ve only just arrived

I caught first glimmers in hides and skins

Look who’s all grown up, black swanning about the solar winds


You’re gonna lose it all and find yourself on your knees

So get a grip and you might flow reverse the great slow bleed

I’ve tried patience but you always want a war

This house won’t tolerate any more


Imogen Heap – Earth.