There was a time, less than a century ago, when no one was concerned about Peak Oil, or for that matter, about oil at all. The decor at the Penn Street Perk coffee shop is a testament to that fact. Mighty steam engines carried freight and passengers from coast to coast, massive steam boats carried thousands of passengers across the Atlantic ocean where a few commercial sailboats still operated as well. Radios allowed steamers to communicate with other ships and with the shore. Indeed, but for those radios, the Titanic would have taken 886 more lives than it did. Telegraphs sent messages from around the world almost as fast as the Internet does today. All of it, the trains, the ships, the power plants, were powered with coal. The first major oil discoveries were being made in places like Texas and Pennsylvania. Saudi Arabia was still a poor desert land whose main strategic importance was its proximity to merchant traffic on the Red Sea.
It would be traumatic, but our society could return to that era if we ran out of oil and natural gas. World and, in particular, U.S. coal supplies are abundant. Renewable fuels like ethanol, and coal derived liquid fuels, could stand in where there was absolutely no substitute for liquid hydrocarbons. Our air would be full of soot, our suburbs would become ghost towns, and trips abroad would become epic journeys again rather than week long jaunts, but we would not return to the stone age.
Indeed, it would be much better than it was a century ago, in the waning years of the coal age. Today's coal fired power plants, outfitted with scrubbers, are considerably better than those of a century ago. Efficient wind turbines and nuclear power plants, not available then, would also leave our air cleaner in a post-Peak Oil era than it is now. Antibiotics, better water quality, vaccinations and other medical advances would give us healtier, longer lives. The Internet could continue to thrive, although wood would probably replaced oil based plastics in the outer case of most computers. Our refrigerators would continue to hum . . . we would not need to return to ice boxes and milk delivery. Heat might have to return to coal, but with modern insulation technologies, no as much of it would be required.
There would need to be massive retrofitting of existing structures to accomodate a second coal age, but it isn't as if that hasn't happened before. Indoor plumbing, natural gas heating, electrification and cable TV have all caused similar developments. The house I live in today has experienced most of those revolutions. We finally got around to sealing off the milk delivery door a few years ago, and our coal shoot is still in working order, ready to return to service. Indeed, we probably wouldn't even have to replace our boiler entirely, just disconnect the gas line and buy a shovel and coal bin and broom to sweep away the cinders. My office still has working coal fireplaces as well, although the relatively desirability of the various rooms in the building would change if we returned to that form of heat.
We don't want to return to the coal age. I very much doubt that 2110 will look much like 1910. But, recognizing that it is possible is a good place to begin to dispel the hysteria and look for practical ways to address the more realistic future in which natural gas and oil are simply much more expensive, and we look for economically feasible alternatives.