Making sense of the fuel crisis

Running on emptyToday was a first for me. I spent more than £20 on a tank of petrol. For most people I suspect £20 is hardly anything, but my little Mini has a tiny tank and a range of only about 200 miles. But so far I’ve been looking at an average of £15-18 to fill up. Today the price of petrol was £1.14 a litre. I can remember when it was half that.

It’s a sobering thought that all the environmentalists’ warnings are finally coming true. I remember being told in a Biology lesson once that we would run out of fossil fuels by 2040, and I can remember thinking “ah well, that’s years off, someone will find a solution by then.” So far, no one has. If things progress in the same direction, we’re in for a tough time of it over the next few years. Oil is becoming increasingly hard to find, putting prices up both for businesses and individuals. 2040 may seem like a long way off, but the effects of the fuel crisis are beginning to be felt now.

Of all the conceivable effects, I want to focus for a moment on petrol (and diesel, by proxy). At the moment people are still buying fuel for their cars, still forking out increasingly high prices, and not really cutting back on the amount they’re using. Our usage hasn’t decreased (in fact we’re arguably using more now than ever), we’re just spending more for it. In that sense, putting the prices up isn’t saving the environment, because people are still using the fuel, they’re just paying more for it than they used to. In that sense, fuel tax has nothing to do with helping the environment, only helping the government’s pocket money fund. But the time will come when fuel prices reach an unstable amount, at which point things are going to get very scary.

At the basic level, I won’t be able to afford to drive any long distances any more. I’ll even have to think twice about driving to the shops, aiming to use the car less so that I don’t need to fill up as often. But take that a stage further and we’ll be in a situation where I won’t be able to afford to fill up unless I save up for it. Driving will become a luxury, a weekend sport. At this point, cars effectively become disposable. No one’s going to buy a car if they can’t afford to pay for the petrol. The result will be an unprecedented number of abandoned cars rusting in people’s driveways, obsolete, unused, dead.

There are other consequences too, of course, that affect not just me in my own little world but everyone in the country, our way of life. If we can’t afford to run our cars, then businesses similarly won’t be able to run their lorries transporting food, clothes, oil, books, and whatever else lorries carry today. Local shops will shut from lack of products being delivered to them. Farms will suffer from not being able to have their produce transported away, and no one will be able to afford to pay the farmers anyway.

We will essentially be looking at a period of time where travel is no longer a part of life, but a luxury for the few who can still afford it. We will no longer have the assurance of 24-7 electricity, and gas prices will be prohibitively high too. That poses problems with heating, and will affect pensioners and young adults alike. I wouldn’t call it the Dark Ages exactly, more like the Grey Ages.

Contrasting against that is the height of technology we have achieved in recent years. Computers have got faster and cleverer and smaller, but they only work if they have electricity to power them. Again, who’s going to buy a new laptop if they can’t afford the electricity to power it?

It’s a pretty grim outlook, and not one I’m looking forward to. Is there any way of avoiding it? I’m not sure that there is. There are small things we can do to help, but at the moment there is nothing on the horizon that will solve all our problems in one fell swoop. And maybe that’s a good thing. We’ve got used to using energy freely and carelessly, maybe we need something like this to make us sit up and change the way we live our lives.

Hydrogen carOn the fuel front, there are no ideal solutions at the moment. Electric cars don’t have a non-existant carbon footprint, because we still have to get the electricity from somewhere, and technology still hasn’t progressed far enough that it can completely replace conventional internal combustion engines. Hybrid cars are all very well in concept, but in practice rarely achieve mpg figures high enough to have a noticeable impact. Then there are hydrogen cells and suchlike, which are clever but complicated, and will have difficulty getting off the ground.

In the house, we will have to think carefully about what energy we’re using. Using energy saving lightbulbs is a good start, but we also need to think about how we use windows (i.e. closing them to keep warmth in rather than relying on the central heating), how we cook food (putting food together rather than using all the rings on the hob at once), where and how we use electricity (not just the age-old ‘tv on standby’ issue, but things like boiling the kettle, using the microwave, leaving the computer on, charging up all our phones and powering all our electrical devices).

When it comes to life beyond the front door, we’ll need to think about where our food comes from, how far it’s travelled, how far we have to go to get it, how much energy has gone into packaging. An emphasis will need to be put on buying local produce rather than stuff imported from other countries, even other parts of this country.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad thing for us to go back a few decades, live in an era where gardens are for growing our own food, where people meet together to share a TV, where lights go out after 10pm save for a few candles.

LuluI’d like to think that I’m reasonably energy-conscious, but I’ve been thinking today that a 1275cc engine in my Mini is a bit of a waste – a smaller, more efficient 998 would probably be better. At a guess I reckon Neddy runs at about 25mpg, possibly 30 on a good day. Compare that to Lulu, the 998 Mini City I learnt to drive in, which got nearer 55mpg – that’s more than most modern cars can boast.

I hate to be a harbinger of bad news, but life is unlikely to smoothly from here on in. How will we survive? What are we prepared to do to continue living? It’ll be a bumpy ride, that much I’m sure of…

One thought on “Making sense of the fuel crisis

  1. Hi Matthew,

    It’s not all doom and gloom. I’ve been reading a few articles recently on biofuels etc, and it looks like we may have a way of powering cars using sustainable resources soon.

    Nuclear power doesn’t depend on fossil fuels, and Gordon Brown has been talking about building more Nuclear power plants.

    Already a small but growing percentage of the UK’s power is prdouced by renewable energy sources (check out ecotricity).

    By the way – 25MPG from your mini?! I reckon I get 35+ from a 1600CC engine… maybe it’s just the way you drive it! 🙂

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