Are we abusing our descendants?

Petroleum is a limited resource.  Period.  It takes millions of years to form.  There’s no question that crude oil derives from fossilized zooplankton and algae that died and created deposits and that 70% of deposits formed in the Mesozoic era between 256-66 million years before the present and another 10% before that in Paleozoic times.  Only 20% arose from deposits in the early Cenozoic period (66 MYBP to the present).  Most of our coal, another non-renewable resource, formed about 300 million years ago.  Natural gas deposits formed from decomposing plants and animals subjected to extreme heat from the earth; it also took millions of years to create and were deposited over the past 550 million years.

Whenever these deposits of long carbon chains formed, they removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  By removing CO2 from the air, they slowly reduced the planet’s temperature, gradually changing the environment in which we thrive.

About 35-40% of the world’s energy comes from crude oil.  Another 28% comes from coal, and another 23% comes from natural gas.  Together, these fossil fuels form the bulk of the energy used in the industrialized world and form the base of the global economy, and each takes millions of years to make.  These sources replaced most slave labor, not because we suddenly grew a conscience about abusing other humans, but because they are far cheaper to use.

We are spending more oil to find new deposits.  We’ve begun to extract oil from shale because we’re not seeing enough oil deposits to meet our needs.  Given the waning rate at which we are finding new sources and the increased energy needed to extract the remaining oil, we probably passed Hubbert’s peak (maximum petroleum production) near the beginning of this century.  Oil extraction has diminished, but the demand is still increasing, driving up the costs and fueling competition for the remaining reserves.  (For example, the first things the Russians secured during the war in Ukraine were the oil-producing regions.)

Most of the world’s governments fail to impose a legal responsibility for depleting or misusing our resources.  However, there remains a moral one and a dilemma that pulls us between providing for our immediate families and caring for our generations to come.  As we drain the oil, which should be shepherded as a resource for our children’s futures, we continue to pollute the air and alter the climate.  Generations of great-grandchildren will enter a world devoid of the oil that mass-produced crops, gifted us with cheap, accessible transportation, and fueled the wealth of the modern world.  Surviving without the wealth of energy we enjoy, they will also face a more hostile climate and polluted waters and land.

We do not yet know how to stop the juggernaut that drives this process forward.  A solution may exist, but it will require cooperation and time, two elements that may be lacking.  Can we stop our abuse of future generations?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not, but we can try.

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