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In the modern world, a lot of products around are from oil-based derivatives or processed organic compounds. Ranging from clothing, footwear, insulation, cars, computers, phones, etc. People are not aware they are surrounded by oil-based products. Is it possible to replace all these products with alternatives in the quantities the modern world is accustomed to?

Would we need to move back to the middle ages, where there wasn't any electricity as the world production of electrical cable insulation is not possible due to production cannot meet demand? All our communications sooner or later will require plastic insulation on metal wires, so wouldn't there be any more mobile communications? Therefore, if we don't have any oil, will it be the end of computers as the PCBs are made from plastic? Would it be the end of modern civilisation if there wasn't no oil?

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    $\begingroup$ Plastic insulation for electric wires is quite recent, post-WW2. After all, they had electric light and electric radios in the 1930s, with no plastic-based insulation of electric wires. Rubber and cloth are plenty good enough for thick wires, and shellac is plenty good enough for thin wires. They are indeed more expensive that plastic. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 26, 2023 at 22:47
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    $\begingroup$ By "no oil", do you mean "no petroleum that can be extracted from the ground" or "no lipids"? Because you can certainly use the latter to synthesize a lot of what we only use the stuff from the ground for because it's cheaper. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    May 26, 2023 at 23:42
  • $\begingroup$ Addendum to previous comment - if there were no lipids, the problem would be less "modern civilization", and more "life as we know it would end". $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    May 26, 2023 at 23:45
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    $\begingroup$ Hello, welcome to Worldbuilding. We're lenient with new users, but for future refernce (a) you're allowed to ask one and only one question. (b) Technically, you're asking a high concept question. HCQs violate a lot of help center prohibitions, such as being opinion-based, hypothetical, and all answers having equal value. Bear in mind that the only "realistic" answer to your question is "we don't know" because changing the world that much means anything can happen - including both world-saving solutions and world-ending problems. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    May 27, 2023 at 4:51
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    $\begingroup$ (Cont.) From that perspective, it would help greatly if you told us what outcome you're looking for and we can help you rationalize that outcome, rather than asking what outcome would happen - which nobody knows regardless how plausible their answers seem. Worse, the lack of oil in your world has substantial consequences for the ecology and evironment of your world - and those consequences would need to be defined to derive a "what happens next?" answer (but that's a prohibited HCQ....). Thus, the more definitive your goal, the more on-topic the question. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    May 27, 2023 at 4:54

4 Answers 4

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Short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: It depends.

So, you correctly pointed out that oil has a multitude of uses. From simple lubrication, to making plastics and other materials, to being used as fuel. In theory, it's not outside the realms of possibility given enough time that alternatives could be sought for every use that oil currently provides.

However, oil and its products have a number of unique properties that thus far have not been replicated. Consider plastic - despite its environmental problems, plastic has many useful properties - which is why we use it. It's cheap, non-porous, easily manipulated into different shapes and different properties, It's resilient, etc. Plastic has a lot of useful properties which is why it's used so much.

If you look at 'Green Alternatives' currently, many of the options are unable to fulfil all the things that plastic does - whether it's a product that is more expensive, or degrades too quickly, not resilient enough etc. Case in point, plastic straws vs every other option - there is a reason why governments have had to use legislation to compel the change because the alternatives aren't good enough (and still aren't good enough - Screw you, paper straws!)

And so it currently is for each and every product or use of oil - there are alternatives currently - they just aren't as good.

I will grant that necessity is the mother of invention and that we would (in time) come up with alternatives - but society would still have radical changes, to the point where you could definitively say 'It was the end of Modern Civilization' but conversely, you would also say in hindsight that it was the dawn of 'The Next Civilization'.

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  • $\begingroup$ "More expensive" isn't necessarily a showstopper. Requires that the product be deployed more sparingly, maybe, but that's not necessarily civilization-ending. $\endgroup$ May 27, 2023 at 23:04
  • $\begingroup$ @CharlesDuffy - I think in the context of 'there's no Oil' rather than 'There's less Oil' - then the sudden shock in terms of price would have have such a drastic effect on society that it would be an era defining moment. $\endgroup$ May 28, 2023 at 7:22
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It depends on if there is a huge amount of reliable energy, probably nuclear, or not

Is it overnight?

Does the society in question see it coming and invest in almost ludicrous amounts of nuclear (or hydro, or geothermal, where appropriate) energy? Or have good, cheap fusion power?

With enough energy at a sufficiently low cost, alternative feedstocks (CO2, sugar, coal, wood, etc) could provide enough hydrocarbons for the manufacture of important parts. Over time, the chemicals and materials industries can adapt and replace a lot of oil based plastics (once again, taking advantage of cheap energy).

If they get caught on the hop or try to survive on just solar and wind, they go back to the early Modern period, or worse. Electricity prices spike just as cheap energy is needed to create alternative chemical processes.

See: Europe right now, if not for Russian gas and French nuke plants. Now, take away all plastics and petrochemicals....

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Yes, about 100 years ago.

Oil essentially saved modern civilisation from collapsing due to peak coal in the early 20th century, when many major coal-producing countries saw their output decline, most notably the UK. (And it's no accident that it lost its global hegemon position at right about the time it stopped being the world's biggest coal producer.) Oil is not only a more versatile alternative; it also offers a greater concentration of energy than coal, can be burned more efficiently, and oil-powered engines require much less maintenance too. With such an energy bonanza at its disposal, the world economy could afford to do all sorts of things, including mining otherwise uneconomical coal deposits.

Without oil riding to the rescue in the nick of time, the Great Depression would have started a bit sooner and kept going until the economy shrank enough to no longer rely on coal - possibly all the way down to pre-industrial levels.

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    $\begingroup$ "Peak coal"? There was never such a thing. Coal dominated energy production throughout the 20th century; only in the 21st century did the share of coal in energy production decrease below 50% in some countries, and even today coal has the largest share in energy production. And we still have coal reserves in the ground to keep burning for a long time. Yes, coal is less versatile than petroleum, but it is also very much cheaper... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 27, 2023 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP, thank you. And without oil, most of that coal would have stayed underground; hence an (averted) peak coal. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    May 27, 2023 at 18:46
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Enough coal was available to produce energy because the transport, especially shipping, shifted to oil, the steel industry shifted to Asia and household heating shifted to gas. Furthermore the coal used to produce energy was the lower quality. $\endgroup$
    – FluidCode
    May 28, 2023 at 8:48
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Yes and No

Technically there are alternatives to fossil fuels, but they are not enough. Hydroelectric power and wind in some countries provide more than 50% of the local electricity needs, but on the world scale the percentage shrinks. Nuclear as well is not enough. Some important Uranium mines already have estimate reserves for less than 20 years and currently nuclear is supplying a small percentage of the world energy.

Transport: batteries are useful only for urban short range transport, the rest would need to move to trains. Biofuels are the only alternative, but they are not enough, they would probably be reserved for shipping and transporting goods in places where the trains do not arrive. That would be the end, or close to for air travel, except maybe for diplomatic missions, emergencies and vital stuff.

Some plastic are already made from vegetable matter. A lot more can be done, also paints and other chemicals can be derived from vegetables, it will be a lot more difficult though. However there is an alternative, cook sewage sludge with geothermal energy. That could provide enough oil for the most important chemicals derived from oil. The rest would probably be used as fuel for military equipment and what is left of air travel.

Already if you look the current situation you can see that out of a world population of 8 billion people less than 1 billion of them use plenty of energy, another two or three use moderate amount of energy, the rest has to cope with more or less scarcity. So if fossil fuel were exhausted the overall world economy would shrink. The number of people used to abundant resources would drastically shrink. But that would not be a complete stop, just more extreme inequalities.

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