Randall Munroe’s Time Comic

The back story.

This is something that used to concern space activists even in the seventies:

“In my comic, our civilization is long gone. Every civilization with written records has existed for less than 5,000 years; it seems optimistic to hope that the current one will last for 10,000 more,” Munroe told WIRED. “And as astronomer Fred Hoyle has pointed out, since we’ve stripped away the easily-accessed fossil fuels, whatever civilization comes along next won’t be able to jump-start an industrial revolution the way we did.”

You could think of fossil fuels as the yolk of an egg. If we eat it up, but fail to hatch and get into space, then this planet won’t reproduce.

15 thoughts on “Randall Munroe’s Time Comic”

  1. They could always use grain alcohol, but yes, it wouldn’t be as easy as fossil fuels have made it for us.

    1. By then, all remaining metal artifacts would be hanging on the walls of bars and restaurants.

  2. Use a high temperature nuclear reactor and split water into LOX/LH2. Then use the Sabatier reaction to mix the LH2 with CO2 to make LCH4. Then you can use Fischer Tropsch make long chain hydrocarbons. I think this covers all the useful chemical fuels.
    Do not have nuclear power (for whatever reason?) Use concentrated solar power. It goes to a high enough temperature to do water thermolysis.

    You do not even need to use themolysis since there are thermochemical hydrogen separation methods like sulfur-iodine and their ilk.

    1. Tree -> Firewood -> Charcoal -> Syngas -> Diesel -> Gasoline.
      Food -> Oil -> Biodiesel -> Biogasoline.

      The efficiency is good enough if you have to. Yes, they both take more ‘input’ than one would really like views from the potential energy side, but needing “two trees” instead of “one tree” to make your gas doesn’t change that gas is flat-out more useful as a fuel.
      (Although, if we’re reverting to this, I foresee a whole lot more diesel vehicles :D)

      1. I’m thinking closer to
        Kudzoo -> thermal cracking -> fuel oil
        But there are ways to get liquid hydrocarbon fuels without fossil fuels.

  3. My main argument is that if we are not the first to get out of this rock and get interplanetary someone else will and they will visit us first. If you look at the Earth history of people who had worldwide navies vs the others you know why not having a navy is a bad, bad idea.

  4. It’s not true though. We don’t, in fact, use up all of the easily accessible fossil fuels over time. At any given time not all deposits, even the easily accessed ones, can be exploited profitably with sufficient production volumes given the competition from other sources. There are a great many easily mined coal deposits that have been abandoned because they simply cannot product the same amount of volume of the same quality of coal at a similar profit margin to other, larger mines. There are tons of mines in the UK that have closed down, for example.

    Coal is now shipped to Newcastle, England, though the mines have not been stripped bare. And there is an abandoned coal mine a few miles from my house where you can literally find coal on the surface of the ground. These are commonplace occurrences all over the world.

    The important point being that it takes far fewer resources to bootstrap into the industrial age than it does to live in a mature, post-industrial society. Future generations may be more hard pressed to advance beyond such a high reliance on hydrocarbons earlier, but they shouldn’t have a big problem advancing to the state of early 20th century technology.

    Also, the biggest roadblock in the advancement of a technological species into industry is metallurgical, but if our civilization does collapse it will leave a huge supply of easily mined and refined metal deposits for later generations from our cities, cars, etc.

  5. If you believe in the market, diminishing supply, increasing demand, rising prices will drive innovation in both consumption and production. If you believe in the market, we will move past Fossil Fuels, just as we moved past Whale Oil. If you believe in the market.

  6. “You could think of fossil fuels as the yolk of an egg. If we eat it up, but fail to hatch and get into space, ”

    You seem to think that Fossil fuels are everything and the key to both sustaining civilization and space exploration. Say we get a decent mars and moon colony going. That’s not going to run on fossil fuels, last I checked, there isn’t much in the way of fossil fuels to be had up there. So to run a moon base or a mars colony, we need either solar or nuclear ( I think the martian atmosphere is too thin to make wind practical). if we are going to be running colonies on mars with solar or nuclear, it means we have worked out the technology to make that work on earth. A solar powered moonbase, will require storage to make it through the lunar night, a solar powered mars base will have way more efficient collectors then anything we are doing here on earth.

    If that technology is available, it will meet the market demand for power here on earth. If the technology is here, what makes it stop happening?

    The implicit assumption of the free market is that new entrants with new technology will enter and compete on an fair and open basis with existing producers. We are seeing small scale solar and large scale wind entering the market now ( With subsidies) but, the scale and efficiency there is now threatening to disrupt existing electrical utilities. Going off grid is no longer a utopian vision, it’s really a matter of investment.

    1. You seem to think that Fossil fuels are everything and the key to both sustaining civilization and space exploration

      I neither think that, or “seem to” think that, except to people who don’t understand what I wrote.

  7. Given the amount of time people have expended on Time, I’d say it’s already running out for this civilization.

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