This essay won an honorable mention in the NeXt essay contest on the question: What is the greatest challenge facing your generation?
China, Japan, Russia, Germany and India. All of these countries are major players in world economics, yet even if you took all of these industrialized countries' consumption of oil per day, and added them together, it would not equal that of the United States. At over three times the oil usage of China, its next closest competitor, the United States will face an extremely significant challenge when we are forced to develop fuels that can replace the world's most important energy source.
Estimates are that oil will run out in less than 40 years, well within our generation's lifetime. This would affect the U.S. in unimaginable ways. Americans own almost 250 million vehicles, which depend almost solely on oil to power them from one place to another. Without a reliable and equally cheap fuel to run our vehicles, not only will our transportation system grind to a halt, but so will our ability to ship goods. Yet this is only one reason why an end to cheap, available oil will be the greatest problem our generation will have to face.
A car's engine is not the only part of the car that relies on oil. Without petroleum products, we would be without synthetic rubber to make tires, man-made fibers such as polyester for the seats and carpets, and we would be left without even the asphalt to drive on. Oil also lubricates many of the moving parts necessary to propel a car forward. Even the CDs you would play in a car's stereo owe their creation to oil. Our dependence on oil is evident far outside of the car, as well.
It will be almost impossible to replace a product that has such a wide range of uses, yet it is necessary to find alternate fuel sources and other substances which can fill the shoes of oil. It is unlikely we will be able to find one quick fix material which can do all these different things, and that is why it is critical that we start looking for alternatives immediately. If we continued to use oil until the very last reserves were used up, our modern society would come crashing to a halt. Our cities would crumble; millions, or perhaps billions of people would die due to disease, famine and wars fought over the last few drops.
Already we have experienced how many of the littler things in our lives have changed when the oil prices increased even a little. Americans drove less, carpooled more and paid extra for many of the foods that were shipped to their local supermarkets as a result of rising oil prices. Now imagine a world where gasoline is two or even three times more expensive than it is now. How about four times, or $20 a gallon? Yet it is not only for our wallets and gas tanks that we need alternate fuel sources. It will help our planet and humans as a whole.
A metropolitan area with a population of 5 million, about half the size of New York City, pollutes the oceans with as much oil runoff in one year as an oil tanker accident, like the Exxon-Valdez. If our fuels were more biodegradable, or produced less harmful emissions, pollution levels would drop dramatically. Burning fossil fuels are used to generate electricity, but it creates smog, harmful pollution, depletes the ozone layer, increases global temperatures through the greenhouse effect, and leads to acid rain.
While other problems facing our generation may be quite serious, such as terrorism, obesity and violence in the media, none of these have such wide-reaching consequences. This problem doesn't only affect our regional generation, or even our entire generation as Americans. It affects every human being on the planet, and the very Earth itself. Oil is literally everywhere in our lives, and unless we find ways to live without petroleum products, it is not a matter of if, but when, life as we know it will end.