What Is Oil and Why Is It So Special?


I have written in here several times that no other form of energy can match fossil hydrocarbons in their energy density except for uranium, but uranium requires a nuclear reactor to be utilized; something that cannot be carried by hand (like a container of gasoline can). Oil is especially important not only because of its density, but also because of its portability and versatility. No other form of energy can be transported and utilized as easily as oil. Most of us are familiar with oil in the form of gasoline or diesel, but perhaps also in kerosene or fuel oil as well. Natural gas is actually higher in density, but requires slightly different storage and engines. This portability and versatility explains why so many power tools such as lawn mowers, chainsaws, spin trimmers, lawn edgers, and more are powered by gasoline. The same advantages are also why most cars, trucks, tractors, agricultural machines, mining equipment, and roadbuilding equipment all use gasoline or diesel as their source for energy (although there ARE quite a few commercial trucks and forklifts which use natural gas or propane). 

In this article and podcast, two energy experts, Nate Hagens and Art Berman, answer these questions and more regarding oil:

  • How is oil formed? 
  • How did we become dependent on fossil fuels? 
  • How much human labor is equal to the amount of energy in one barrel of oil? 
  • Where do the majority of carbon emissions come from, and what role can we humans play in helping us reduce emissions? 
  • How much oil is left and what are future prospects for oil production and the economy?

For those who want to see the slideshow while they listen, here it is

Since no other form of energy is as dense, as portable, and as versatile, and all other forms of energy devices require more complex infrastructural systems which are built, powered, and maintained using fossil hydrocarbons, the Great Simplification Series focuses on the fact that we have entered the degrowth period which shall accompany us on our way down the Seneca Cliff and points to the reality of what energy actually does for us. Most people are completely energy-blind, meaning that they do not have the knowledge of how energy is the basic support component that modern society rests upon. Without this basic component, the infrastructural layers of our society can not function because no other form of energy can replace fossil hydrocarbons and operate the same way and we do not have the energy and resources to completely replace all of today's infrastructural layers in order for this infrastructure to operate on a different source of energy. This guarantees the collapse of industrial civilization, and we are already well into this collapse today. 

Many people become obsessed with fossil fuels due to the predicament of climate change and think that replacing fossil fuel infrastructure with electricity is the answer to reduce emissions. This unfortunately completely ignores ecological overshoot, which is precisely what is causing climate change as well as all the other symptom predicaments. In other words, simply reducing emissions without reducing ecological overshoot accomplishes nothing because those emissions are CAUSED by ecological overshoot. So, what is causing ecological overshoot? In two short words: technology use. In other words, more electrical infrastructure and/or more technology and/or more energy of ANY type equals more ecological overshoot which causes more of the symptom predicaments including climate change. Unless and until society chooses to reduce technology use, ecological overshoot will continue to increase as more people are born, fueling population growth, and more of those people then go on to use more technology (see my very first article for more on technology and predicaments).

So, in order to fully appreciate what oil does for us and why there is literally no replacement for it, one must first fully comprehend ecological overshoot and how we got to this point in the first place and one of the best places to go for this is here. I have had many discussions with people over the years, and I have discovered that those who don't have a full comprehension of ecological overshoot simply don't have the knowledge to be able to understand key concepts of where we are and why and how we got here; they do not understand what IS and what IS NOT sustainable and as a result they cannot ascertain how to reduce ecological overshoot. Most of them want to use more energy, or produce more electricity/electrify everything, or use more technology. Unfortunately, this is precisely what brought us to this point: technology use. In order to produce and use technology, civilization which is underpinned by the technology of agriculture is required, and since civilization is unsustainable, so is technology use. This is pointed out in William Catton's book Overshoot (link above in this paragraph) which is exactly why it is such an important read. 

I complain a LOT about the lack of comprehension of overshoot. This is primarily due to what I think is my own personal form of hopium or denial. I highly doubt that even if many people understood overshoot better that we would have a much better chance at averting disaster. However, at least more people would not be swayed by slick marketing and advertising tactics from industries hoping to cash in on people's ignorance and I don't think we would be spending as much time debating technofixes. It certainly would save time for people like me who are trying to help people understand the predicaments we face. Tom Murphy makes these points as to who is more open to the facts, quoted from this article here:

"Taking the overshoot message seriously is much more likely if a person:

  1. is non-religious: therefore free of the impression that Earth is here
    for our benefit;
  2. is not a humanist: not elevating humans to some privileged status;
  3. is not under the illusion that we have a destiny to succeed;
  4. does not attribute our recent amazing ride mostly to human ingenuity while downplaying the crucial role of spent finite resources like fossil fuels;
  5. does not assume that science and technology can conjure a rabbit out of the hat for any situation;
  6. is not prone to denial when confronted with a dismal outlook."

Tom then goes into detail about a more balanced mindset here, quote:

"Human exceptionalism, then, is ironically about the worst curse you could cast on the human race: practically assuring a hubristic overreach and collapse. Some attitudes that would help us better navigate our tricky future are:

  1. We are not the pinnacle of creation: nifty, sure, but not God’s gift to
    the planet.
  2. Humans coexisted with nature for many millennia as a part of
    nature, not apart from nature. We need to return to being subordinate partners, not self-proclaimed overlords.
  3. Recognize that humans have no prescribed destiny: we are capable of
    botching it—not only for ourselves but for countless other species as well.
  4. Technology is not always the answer. It often makes things worse.
    Think of the global problems we face today: would they be better or worse (or even exist) if not for our technology? Did our modern era solve global problems, or create them? Wait—as a scientist, am I one of the bad guys?
  5. Acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers and perhaps collectively lack the wisdom to refrain from doing things simply because we can. It is time to focus instead on what we should do, in line with the rest of nature.
  6. In short: humility. Treat nature at least as well as we treat ourselves."

Why are so many people focused obsessively and/or exclusively on carbon emissions? Because of the symptom predicament of climate change. But climate change as I just mentioned above a few paragraphs back is only a symptom of ecological overshoot. We cannot fight climate change by reducing emissions while ignoring ecological overshoot, no differently than attempting to fight pollution loading while ignoring ecological overshoot. It won't work, because ecological overshoot is CAUSING both of these symptom predicaments. This picture demonstrates these blind spots:

This shows precisely why only looking at climate change and ignoring both the master predicament causing it AND the other symptom predicaments is a prescription for disaster. Everything is connected, so we need to be able to see the entire forest, not just individual trees. 

We also must understand oil, and fossil hydrocarbon fuels in general, as well, so as to comprehend why this is a predicament and not a problem. If it WAS a problem, things would be so much easier because then there would also (by definition) be a solution or an answer. This is the crux we are in and way too many people have little or no clue what ecological overshoot is, meaning that they buy into the fantasies, myths, and fairy tales that so many companies are trying to sell. For the record, solar panels, EVs, wind turbines, geothermal devices, batteries, and all other technological devices INCREASE ecological overshoot, not reduce it, as is highlighted in this quote from this article

"So, in reality, non-renewable "renewable" energy devices and EVs will NOT stop climate change or even reduce emissions because they utterly depend upon the infrastructural platforms maintained by the fossil fuel platform which itself is also maintained by fossil hydrocarbon fuels. Without fossil fuels, none of those devices nor most of the rest of our industrialized civilization can exist, at least not for 8 billion people." 

Just in case this is a new post to you, check out my post here which goes into detail about Jevons Paradox, civilizational inertia, and much, much more among many other items of concern to ecological overshoot and climate change. 

Once again, this article demonstrates why oil and fossil fuels in general are irreplaceable, how they became so important to almost everything in our daily lives, how they are becoming depleted, and why we can't "just stop using them." Whenever someone suggests something so ridiculous, simply ask them if they like to eat or if they enjoy wearing clothes. Without the fossil hydrocarbon platform, most everything that we take for granted would become extremely scarce or impossible to obtain at any price and many items and services would disappear altogether. Spoiler Alert: While I doubt that that last sentence is going to happen anytime soon, it IS the future we have to look forward to.


  1. Thanks again Erik. I'll enjoy posting this as a comment/response on some of the more vacuous environmentalist threads. Love your work!

  2. Another great piece, Erik. Energy is everything and there is no other energy source like oil. It has helped us to create wonderfully magical devices and made those of us at the top of the world's power/wealth structures insanely 'fortunate' for a short moment in time. But as with pretty will everything there are both pros and cons, and the negative consequences appear to be getting larger and larger in the rear-view mirror. The piper must be paid...

  3. It is not evident to me that civilization as such is unsustainable. Ancient Egypt and premodern China both lasted for millennia. There were dynastic changes, sure, but life was still able to go on as usual for most people. There must have been certain things the Chinese and Egyptians did right.

    There are also certain religions, mainly East Asian in origin, which endorse a form of QUALIFIED human exceptionalism. Humans are exceptional, yes, but only in the sense that the brain is an exceptional part of an organism; the brain must still work in harmony with the rest of the organism, just as humanity needs to live in harmony with the rest of Nature.

    Largely agree with everything else in the above article otherwise.

    1. Both China and Egypt have had multiple collapses over their long existence. While the countries may have continued to exist, the areas affected experienced serious reductions of carrying capacities requiring relocations of residents, no different than other collapses.






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