Once oil was discovered, it was inevitable that it would be used as a ubiquitous source of energy and, as a consequence, help drive the industrialization of the national economy ultimately creating our contemporary technology-based society. The reason for this resides in the chemistry of oil, for it is a hydrocarbon and is readily combustible producing enough energy to drive the machines that have become a fundamental component of human life. It is the utilization of machines that essentially transformed human existence and the course of human destiny.
All of life is carbon-based and if one views life from the perspective of a biological machine, it is possible to see a parallel in that the overwhelming majority of life forms burn another carbon compound, glucose, for energy producing the same byproducts – carbon dioxide and water.
There is another application of oil that has become intrinsically bound up in the modern world and that is the manufacture of plastics and pharmaceuticals. This is based on a fundamental property of carbon i.e. the intrinsic ability of this element to combine with itself to form long chains that have structural significance in the manufacture of plastics. Since drugs by their nature interact with biological systems they, by necessity, are also made from carbon.
There are, therefore, some uses of oil that serve a very useful and not necessarily detrimental role for the whole of humanity. I find it quite improbable that societies will willingly give up their reliance on the role of plastics in modern existence or the beneficial uses of pharmaceuticals in sustaining human health and extending life. Plastics, of course, can be recycled and reused so that they do not necessarily contribute to toxic landfills or add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.
The use of fossil fuels for energy and for powering automobiles for personal transportation is another matter entirely. These uses are the overwhelming source of the production of greenhouses gases, and for this reason the curtailment of the use of fossil fuels for capturing energy is of the utmost importance. Alternative sources of energy must be found and developed; this is an urgent issue. National governments and global organizations must help mobilize research and development in the field of alternative energy production. This cannot be done without an educated and enlightened population that appreciates the depth of the problem and demands a concerted effort towards its solution.
The research that is proceeding in regards to alternative sources of energy such as solar, wind and water does not seem to be motivated by the appropriate sense of urgency that this global crisis requires. In reality, the combined output of these sources will probably be insufficient to meet the energy needs of the future. Nuclear fusion may eventually prove to be the final piece in the energy puzzle provided that a breakthrough is made in regards to the issue of the safe containment of the hydrogen fuel source at the extreme temperatures that are required to drive nuclear fusion - a process analogous to the mechanism that is responsible for the immense energy output of our sun.
In summary, the discovery and use of oil served its purpose in powering the machinery of industrial-based societies, but its continues use as the primary source of energy for human societies on planet earth is unsustainable and must be supplanted by other more benign alternatives. This, I believe, is the fundamental challenge of the twenty-first century.