We’ve become so addicted to oil, common wisdom tells us, because of the many modern-day activities that require it. A few centuries ago, there were no freeways, no airline services, no speed-boats, dirt bikes, snowmobiles, or gas-powered lawnmowers. The world we now live in depends on oil, and finding sustainable alternatives will take time.
But in fact, there are a whole slew of things we used to be able to produce without any need of fossil fuels of any kind. Now that we’ve switched out our old renewable sources, we’re dealing with a self-made problem of trying to switch back to a way of doing things that we never should have stopped in the first place.
1. Glass: Whatever did we do without plastic? Ask your grandmother. The first synthetic plastic (Bakelite, created by a Belgian-American chemist in 1909) proved important to specialty electronics manufacture in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the malleable material, which had now become quite cheap to produce, started to take over mass-produced consumer goods. The ubiquitous plastic bottles that are now filling the ocean have only been around since the 1970s.
Retro glass bottles are making a minor comeback, but they’re still a bit of a novelty for the under-40 crowd. We grew up with plastic, and plastic is still cheaper than glass on paper. Obviously, the low price tag doesn’t take into account the enormous environmental cost.
2. Natural fibres: Many of our synthetic fabrics are plastic-based, but these only date back to about the 1950s. Obviously people weren’t walking around naked prior to that, and indeed, renewable plant and animal sources — everything from silk, cotton, linen, and leather — are still widely used, despite their higher price tag. But most of us have plenty of oil in our closets, as well.
3. Natural Fertilizer: Most raised animal manure not only serves as highly-effective natural fertilizer, it’s one of those wonderful examples of a waste product of one process serving as an ingredient for another process. Of course, we didn’t invent this cycle, but simply borrowed it from nature, wherein animals and plants together create a closed materials cycle that is self-renewing.
The major active ingredients in fertilizer are nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. These can be produced synthetically, but the production process is very energy-intensive, and since many of the regions that produce artificial fertilizer are on a grid supplied by coal plants, we are, in effect, burning fossil fuels for the sake of agricultural yield.
Of course, agriculture is one of our most ancient production processes as a species and one which, traditionally, was entirely solar powered. (The energy cost might be borne by diesel or other oil-based fuels, as well, but coal is most typical.) The joke is, the tremendous excess of calories in North America, mostly in corn, means that we end up force-feeding cows or using the corn for bio-fuels just to use it up.
4. Rubber: Rubber trees are indigenous to South America, but they started to spread through the world via cultivars in the 1700s. Due to blockades during the Second World War, a synthetic version, economically unimportant up to that point, jumped from an annual production of 231 tons to 840, 000 tons in just four years! We never looked back. But just remember, the next time you’re “burning rubber” in your sports car, you’re actually just burning oil — doubly so.
5. Paper: In certain print applications, synthetic paper, either a combination of wood pulp with a petroleum-derived resin or, more frequently, petroleum-derived material with no wood pulp at all, has surpassed traditional wood-derived paper. Paper is an ancient manufactured material, having been invented in China more than 2,000 years ago. True paper can be recycled, burned or allowed to decompose, its constituent parts ultimately incorporated into future trees and new paper. But regions with concerns about their availability of wood resources, including, ironically, China’s daughter nation, Japan, have come to rely more and more heavily on the petroleum paper instead.
6. Metal: Metal is not technically a renewable in the traditional sense, and mining comes with its own host of problems, but compared to plastic, metal lasts longer, is more easily recyclable and has fewer end-of-life issues. Given a choice between aluminum drink containers and plastic, I would pick aluminum every time. Given a choice between steel and plastic building or manufacturing components, I would have to go with steel. We’ve been smelting for thousands of years, and not until we started making everything out of plastic did we start having building materials end up in the food chain and ultimately our own bodies.
7. Wood: As a building or manufacturing material or as a fuel, wood has a lot on on oil-derived plastics and coal or natural gas. If you plant at least one tree for each one you cut, you’ll never run out.
In conclusion: It’s not news that oil is a convenient but poor long-term energy choice. But we sometimes don’t realize just how ubiquitous it’s become. The artificial cheapness of this very finite resource, even now, resulted in our using it as a replacement for any number of superior renewables. The system wasn’t broke, but we “fixed” it anyway.
Photo credits: Thinkstock