Model 5, January 2003
Out of Gas: A Systems Perspective on
Potential Petroleum-Fuel Depletion
It's 2:30 in the afternoon on June 18, 2050, and the streets
outside my downtown apartment are quiet. At the turn of
the century, as I was a kid, I would have been bothered
by the noise of traffic. Even in 2010, the year before
things started going bad, traffic would have been a big
deal, for I was then commuting daily and griping about
the congested streets and highways.
Today, all I see are a few people on bikes, others on
foot, and one or two rich people on the Segway Human
Transporter. Oh, you still see cars everywhere; it's just
that none of them run anymore. There's precious little
gasoline to be had on the open market. Most cars are parked
in driveways and garages, but some were just left on the
side of the road when they ran out of gas; the law said
it was illegal to waste gas to tow them away.
"What happened?" you ask. Around the turn of the century,
a second wave of pundits cried that we were running out
of crude oil, but no one really paid attention until 2011,
when shortages began to develop. People were still debating
whether to open up more protected land for drilling in
the interest of national security, and that debate lasted
until 2015, when the new president initiated a crash program
to solve the energy crisis. The program had two components:
1) conserving existing fossil fuel resources and 2) developing
new technologies. But the country spent almost a decade
wrangling about whether automobiles, mass transit, or
airplanes would get the majority of the fuel, so nothing
much happened until the wells literally began running
dry in 2025. By then, it was far too late.
It took too much time and money to generate and deploy
new technologies once the wells began to run dry, and
society gradually reconciled itself to the new order.
With little fuel for vehicular transportation, most people
returned to walking, biking, and riding horses, with limited
mass transit within major metropolitan areas served by
hydroelectric power and between major cities by electric
train. As a result, commerce slowed in the United States
and was practically eliminated between continents.
The decline in transportation hit countries in what had
once been called the developed world equally, and they
devolved into an agrarian society. There had been hopes
for a knowledge economy, but that turned out to be a chimera
in the absence of an existing manufacturing economy.
OPEC members didn't fare much better. Once their major
natural resource, crude oil, ran out, they had to turn
to agriculture as well. In many ways, what once were termed
developing, emerging, or third-world economies fared the
best. It's not that they thrived, but at least they didn't
tumble. They remained largely as they had been in the
middle of the 20th century, although with more mouths
to feed and little modern technology available, they placed
greater emphasis on employing everyone in the fields.
This story is obviously a fantasyor perhaps a nightmare.
Will it be our future? Likely not, for few predictions
come true exactly as they are made, and we certainly don't
wish this one on ourselves or our descendents. But the
potential depletion of petroleum-based fuels is in the
news again, and it's instructive to think about how we
can avoid the systemic effects that could lead to such
Note the sequence that got us into trouble in this scenario:
1. We ignored the problem for a dangerously long time.
When we're comfortable with the status quo, it's easy
to ignore signs that the future may change.
2. When we did acknowledge the problem, we spent valuable
time arguing about how to maintain the status quo longer
rather than focusing on alternative futures.
3. A reinforcing loop (the use of crude oil leads to increased
GDP, which leads to increased numbers of automobiles,
which leads to increased crude-oil usage) kept the economy
going. Once we broke that loop by depleting our supply
of crude oil, we had difficulty reviving the economy with
new sources of energy.
The moral of the story? I'm not suggesting hasty action
or sloppy thinking, but I do believe we need to become
better at recognizing the existence of such problems and
at managing the transitions they cause by using a systems
perspective. You can explore this scenario in the attached
Thanks to Gary Long of the U.S. Energy Information Administration
for insights used in the refinement of this model.
To use the model, you'll need to download two filesthe
"current model" and the "isee Player"
(the ithink® Runtime for the At Any Rate
model series) that runs the model. Both are located
in the "Get" section toward the top of
the right-hand column. You'll then need to install
the isee Player on your computer. (Once you have
installed the isee Player on your computer, you
no longer have to go through this process unless
the reader is updated.)
Download the "Current Model"
Click "Current Model."
Choose "Save this file to a disk"
and click "okay."
In "Save As," save the ITR file
to your desktop (or to a folder of your choosing).
Download and install the "isee Player"
Follow the instructions on the isee Systems
you install the isee Player, to run the model, you
can go to your desktop and double-click on "model1.itr"
or start the ithink® program and use
the "file open" command to locate and
open the model1.itr file.
You are ready to begin. Feel free to play with the
model. We've put more content in it than we've described
in this column. Try different things. If you've
got an interesting idea, a question, or a comment,
go to our Pegasus
Forum. We'd enjoy hearing from you.
learning lab was developed using the ithink®
software, a computer simulation modeling
package developed and distributed by isee Systems.