Another post by Orrin Judd on taxing gasoline to reduce consumption reminds of me a common science fiction trope that always bugs me. This is the “fossil fuel depletion” problem. The essence is the postulate that a technological society has a narrow time window between discovering fossil fuels and moving on to more advanced forms of energy. If the transition doesn’t happen, then the planet will never be able to escape to the stars. The classic example is in the Skylark series where the adventurers encounter a scientifically advanced race that is trapped on their planet (a necessary plot device, of course, because otherwise the other race would have found the humans instead of the humans finding them).
It bugs me because it’s so transparently untrue. Fossil fuels are convenient and cheap, but hardly necessary. Moreover, while things such as solar power satellites are expensive, they’re not all that expensive compared to a planetary energy budget. Such things are also self sustaining once a tipover point is reached.
Our technology in this area is primitive not because it’s all that hard but because fossil fuels are so cheap. This is the reason I don’t worry so much about running out of fossil fuels. It’s a self correcting problem. If fossil fuels stay cheap, it’s because we have plenty. If we don’t have plenty, the price will rise and we’ll develop alternative technologies. This means that science fiction authors need to come up with a better plot device. This one is fifty years old and never made sense.