Most of the world could not live without it - though one day it might have to.
Its existence brings wealth to the few, but enormous debts to others who need it but cannot afford it.
Oil is the source that powers so much of society, but it also helps pollute it.
And as the world becomes increasingly dependent on the substance for transport and homes, the pressure has never been greater to find clean, renewable alternatives.
Is oil a gift or a curse? How would we cope without it?
This debate is now closed. Read your comments below.
The following comments reflect the balance of the opinions we have received:
I am a chemical engineer. A 747 will never take off with solar power. The energy density of chemical fuel is very high, and always will be. Oil's benefits and uses are wonderful, and I think that humankind will consume every drop it on the Earth. The 5 billion poor of the world want to fly too, and they will take flight on oil. In the end, even if the entire rich world banded together and decided to reduce their living standards to decrease the rate of oil consumption, all the world's oil would still be consumed. I suggest more research on climate change - because it is pretty clear we are going to continue chemical combustion as long we can. Meanwhile, I won't go long on waterfront property in New Orleans.
Owen Hehmeyer, Princeton, NJ, USA
Even if there is plenty oil for centuries to come and even if global warming doesn't affect us as much as some people think; does that make it right to damage our planet and use every last drop of a natural resource? Do we really know all the consequences of removing all oil from the earth? I think it's a very selfish standpoint to continue to use a resource we know will eventually disappear, instead of exploring alternatives that are less damaging.
Andrew Henry, Malmo, Sweden
It's interesting, tomorrow's weather cannot be predicted accurately whereas a global climate disaster is presented as a near certainty. And this from climate models which don't model 'the' major greenhouse gas, water vapour, or the effects of clouds. I think the certainty of climate modelling is vastly overstated, as is the need for immediate drastic action. Further, the consequences of the proposed solutions seem worse than the eventual climate disaster we are warned about, and happen immediately. There is no need to act recklessly and take immediate ill-though actions. The oil producers nor the ecologically minded are well placed to give advice unhindered by ideology or economic self-interest.
Rich, San Jose, CA
The important irrefutable fact to keep in mind is that fossil fuels are finite. Whether we have 1 year or 50 is not the issue - wasting a non-replaceable highly valuable commodity is however. The significance of our wasting will unfortunately not be known until it is already too late to do anything constructive. A prudent course of action would be to reduce overall energy consumption and adopt ways to live within actual boundaries imposed by physical reality. Unfortunately, as we are witnessing, such an approach may be beyond our species capacity to implement.
Len Reuther, Eugene USA
We cannot ignore or fail to discuss the effect of high population growth on pollution. We will always have some pollution in developing societies due to legacy autos, construction, and electrical generation. The only way to control world wide effects on air and water is to help promote reasonable measures of population control, with strong emphasis on nations with high rates of growth. Only then can we clean up the environment.
Christopher Melin, Anderson Indiana, USA
It is a gift that we have abused. There are many reports that predict that the peak of oil production has already happened. Oil companies will never want to admit the dwindling levels of reserves because it will affect their ability to sell and therefore make huge profits. There will be no easy solution to the problem. Once oil dries up, drug production and agriculture will cease - it's all petrochemical. The implications are huge and no government really want to deal with that. However, the alternatives are there. Each individual must assume responsibility for their own use of oil, as well as governments making preparations for life after oil. We've been living the high life for too long and it's going to be a long way down when it ends.
Ali, Bristol, UK
Oil is a gift and a curse, like fire. It's necessary on so many levels, but when its use runs out of control, the consequences are disastrous. Despite the obvious climate changes, air pollution warnings, wars and destruction of pristine wild lands, Americans seems pretty determined to use every last drop. The death of the oil lifestyle is the death of the American dream.
Malachi, Boulder, USA
He who has the black gold rules.These few will try to own the next energy sources. Hopefully new technologies will be more evenly distributed and not land in the hands of the same cartels.
R Greene, Calif. USA
Oil, like just about anything is both a curse and a blessing. It is the abuse which has created problems for us all over the world. The genie is out of the bottle now and sooner or latter it will catch up with us. We need to look at simplifying our lives and cut down on our dependence on oil, and seek newer technologies like hydrogen driven or electric cars etc.
Dean, Charlotte, NC USA
Literally trillions of gallons of oil lay beneath the ground all over the world. There are vast reserves that haven't been tapped. Earth has enough oil to last for many centuries to come. As our technology advances it becomes more clean and efficient. To insist on spending billions to find an alternative is like growing all of your own food instead of visiting the grocery store that's a mile away.
Jim Riedmann, Glendale, Arizona, USA
Oil was our energy savings account. We as humans spent recklessly because it seemed that it would never run out or we would find an alternative energy source. Unfortunately with 6 billion people on the planet there just isn't sufficient energy coming to Earth that will continue to support our population. We will be dropping back to 500 million to 1 billion within the next 100 years. Our savings is running out. Watch those who have it, spend (use) it as quick as they can.
Brian, RSM USA
It is high time that we should be forcing all governments to invest into new technologies that do not depend on oil. I believe that the oil companies have for to long influenced the governments to side with them, although they do and have alternatives but will not release them because of there wish to maintain vast profits and power over the governments.
James, Liverpool England
Being a Kurd, I can tell you for us its been a curse, curse, curse. You would think an area with that high a percentage of petrol would prosper. Not in our case all we got from oil was a repetitive loop of murder, ethnic cleansing and deportation
Dilnareen, Koya, Iraq
Oil is a gift, greedy people are the curse!
Ryan Pascall, Swansea
There have been many alternatives to using fossil fuels around for a long time. Bio-diesel can be developed if we really cannot live without internal combustion engines. The world order will collapse as the oil reserves run out. I do believe that the oil companies have replacement technologies up their sleeves, but owing to corporate greed they will hold on to them until the last possible moment.
Charlie, Brighton, UK
Gift or curse? More like a crack addiction. Now that we are hooked on it, it will be hard to get rid of. It will probably take some sort of drastic situation (i.e. no oil or significant drop in production) to get any change in the current situation. And let's face it if the US continues with incumbents similar to this one then it will take completely running out of oil to cause change. It appears to be much easier to go to war over oil stocks.
Gav, Edinburgh, Scotland
Oil is power, which if wrongly used can be a curse to a person or a country. Iraq is an example. Soon it could happen to Saudi Arabia if the House of Saud is obsessed with their wealth and not caring their citizens.
Oil itself has not and never has been the problem. The cause of the world's oil misery has been the greed of the oil barons and the markets which have spent billions of dollars on advertising and payments to corrupt officials to keep oil consumption at high levels at the expense of research into alternatives.
Roger Hart, Deal, UK
If it weren't for the vested interests of the oil companies we already would have alternatives for many cases. I wonder how many ideas have been bought up and buried.
Oil is an extremely mismanaged gift.
Mary, Arizona, USA
I just worry that the political economy of the current world order is so dependent on oil keeping the fat cats where they are that if an alternative was discovered or invented it would be hushed up until the stuff actually runs out.
Pete, Cambridge, England
Without oil, who knows, we would have either depended on nuclear power, with all the consequences that this may have had, or by now we would have developed efficient ways of using the immense source of energy that is the sun. I think in today's commercially motivated development oil is slowing down development of better, cleaner sources of energy just because it makes some people richer and more powerful.
This issue is more about infrastructure than it is about the use of oil. The technology is here now to switch to other forms of fuel. We are in the model-A era of electric cars. The problem is changing the infrastructure. There is a lot of wealth to lose for those that are heavily invested in the current infrastructure. My advice to them is there is a lot to be made in building the new oil free infrastructure. We can still keep some of the oil refineries around to make industrial chemicals though.
Tim Renfro, Dallas, TX
Some Arabs call oil the "Devil's Excrement", and with good reason. Oil does seem to becoming more of a curse upon the planet. I reject "all or nothing" logic: The best policy would be to try to reduce consumption of oil, and use clean, renewable, and alternative sources of energy in its stead. The problem is the selfishness of many Western societies, especially the US. Voters reject any measures that call for a reduction in their standard of living, even if it means that their children's lives will be better in the coming decades. Such short-sightedness will likely have disastrous implications for the future!
David, Milwaukee, WI, USA
Nuclear power is condemned for the risks, oil for the pollution and politics, wind for being an eyesore, dams for environmental damage. Weather and capacity limit the viability of solar power. Will the activists kindly start pedalling please.
Hugh, London, UK
Yes oil gets us from A to B and keeps us warm. It also fuels greed and envy often expressed by violence and hypocritical action.
The whole oil industry is based on industrial espionage and on eliminating competition. Yes, we do use oil for more than fuel, but we don't need to. In the end, the price we pay for oil will be far grater than what we pay for it when we fill our gas tanks. It's a sad world where few determine the faith of billions over a resource that can be replaced.
Klemen, Ljubljana, Slovenia
Imagine if the US and UK kept the amount of money they used to fight two gulf wars and used it instead to come up with a replacement for the internal combustion engine. That would certainly change US foreign policy for the better. However, as GWB and his family history is so oil soaked, I can't this happening too soon and the wars over oil are set to continue.
Brian, Edinburgh, Scotland
No it's not a curse, but to survive without it we need an energy source - and it can't just be solar, wind, wave etc which means the environmental lobby is going to have to realise that nuclear power has to be part of the solution.
We're not dependant on it, we could switch to hemp oil for our cars in a second except that the oil barons wouldn't stand for it.
I don't know but surely there must be some way we can blame America in this question. Everything else seems to be their fault.
I think the question ought to be "How will we cope without it?" because its going to run out sooner than people think. And I don't think we will cope very well at all. Oil provides the raw materials for not only fuels but building materials, plastics, medicine. Take all that away and there's not a great deal that's left.
Adrian, Stamford, England
This three letter word has caused lots of harm in this present dispensation. The so- called oil is a true gift in disguise. It is a blessing to some powerful countries and a curse to the weaker countries.
Ulasi Paul, Bremen, Germany
It's more of a curse than anything because it involves the exploitation of people due to the fat cats controlling it. Sure there was the industrial revolution but there now is a high price being paid for this oil and I don't mean money.
Nyong, Leicester, UK
Yes, oil is a curse. We're addicted and totally dependant on the energy it provides, and we're spending that energy in an unsustainable way. People have blind faith that science will provide a solution, and they better be right. Otherwise first the Antarctic reserves will be raided, and finally there will be a war, with America the victor. We must collectively wake up to this problem and I applaud the BBC for discussing it here.
Mark Fulford, Southampton, UK
Transport by oil has revolutionised society, but now that the technology exists we should transfer to other fuels as soon as possible, or we will sorely feel the effects of having nothing to make plastics out of.
Most people in this debate are considering oil only from the point of view of an energy source. Actually it is also the most important chemical feedstock. It is not only used to produce plastics, but pharmaceuticals and fertilizers. All of which are nearly essential for our modern way of life. Next time you buy an 800g loaf of bread you may like to consider the fact that around 800g of oil were used to grow, produce and deliver it.
Roland Marslin, London, UK
Didn't Mel Gibson present a potential outcome of the decline in availability of oil? The Mad Max series of films seem plausible to me in that particular respect.
Mark Kaye, Macclesfield, UK
If you think that oil is a curse, all you have to do is go back and look to the industrial revolution, and the pollution caused by coal at that time, to see that oil is a blessing. Hopefully we will get past oil too and things will improve further.
Steve, Boston, USA
Oil is a precious gift - far too precious to burn - like coal it is an important source of chemicals used for all kinds of applications such as plastics and pharmaceuticals. An alternative fuel should already be in place for cars and power stations.
Dave, Bristol, UK
In a way oil is both a gift and a curse. It powers, in one way or another, most of the modern technology that we have today. The problems that it causes to the environment are well documented. But also of concern is the effect that it has on global politics. It is doubtful that the US and Britain would be so concerned with affairs in the Middle East were not that part of the planet the main supplier of this commodity.
John Wallace, London, UK
To say that oil is a curse is like saying the wheel is a curse. There will always be Luddites who think we should all be living in the Garden of Eden. It ain't so!
Danny, Southampton, UK
It is indeed a curse for nation like Iraq, the existence of which has dragged her to a number of wars.
Suraj Chhetri, Kathmandu, Nepal
Daft question! It is neither, it is a resource which has been heavily exploited over the last hundred years and will be replaced over the next fifty as reserves dwindle and their exploitation becomes less viable.
Peter D, High Wycombe
Could we cope without it? Not a chance, just cast your mind back a couple of years ago to the fuel strikes. Had that continued for a few more hours then I believe serious civil strife would not have been far behind. It is said a civilised society is three meals away from anarchy just as it is a few days without oil away.
Oil is a gift which we have allowed to become a curse. Since the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania nearly 150 years ago we have built a society entirely dependent upon it. As world oil supply reaches its peak and enters its long decline in the next 10 years, the structures of that society will be stretched to breaking point. I'm optimistic we can eventually move away from oil dependence, but not quickly enough to avoid a lot of hardship and probably a major war.
Neil Gall, Edinburgh, Scotland
Eventually scientists will come up with something to replace oil, as our reserves dwindle. Until then, most of the world is very dependent on oil. Countries like the US, and the Arab countries that have their own oil, aren't as dependent on other countries. Europe, unfortunately, must depend on the Arab countries for oil and that can sometimes affect their political decisions and the attitudes of their people.
Anthony, Ashburn, VA, USA
It is a gift, but that gift has been abused by those who drive in huge, luxury cars when they could make do with a much smaller vehicle. I think we should make it last as long as possible, but there will be a time when reliable and affordable hydrogen and ethanol powered vehicles will need to be developed. However, these fuels will cost considerably more to produce than petrol, so those in countries where petrol is cheap will face a nasty shock in the future.
The fact of the matter is that crude oil, like whale oil and coal before it, will disappear from the markets gradually as its cost relative to alternative fuel sources rises. That's the way supply and demand works - no major economic disasters, just gradual substitution caused by price changes.
Jeremy, Regina, Canada
Oil is without a doubt, a curse! Besides the pollution that it causes, it IS a very finite resource, the main reserves of which are located in some of the most hostile and politically unstable places in the world. Too much in western society depends on an uninterrupted supply. We need to invest major resources into research and development alternatives NOW.
D. Jones, UK
Oil is neither a gift nor a curse. A few hundred years ago you could have asked the same question about gold. There will always be limited resources and people will always be struggling to obtain them. Oil is not a problem, human greed is.
Fortunately, there is a finite supply of oil. Perhaps in the future we can direct our interests to a fuel supply that is renewable, accessible to everyone and doesn't demolish the environment.
Wes Burnham, San Marcos, TX, USA
Oil shouldn't be a curse but the way in which it divides the world into haves and have nots is. It's a cause of terrorism because oil is power and everyone wants it. The world lacks a global plan to truly share and distribute the world's resources Until we learn to do this then we will be cursed with sources for conflict and we won't be able to co-ordinate truly environmentally friendly policies.
Electric vehicles (and hybrid electric/gas) are not only viable, but are competitive. With legislation to include tile-like solar panels on the roof of all new buildings a steady transition could be made. The reason it hasn't happened already - the fossil energy industry's political lobby is too powerful in the western world.
Luke, Huddersfield, UK
Oil as an energy source is anachronistic. We have the technology to start transforming our infrastructures, but we're too lazy and oil companies have too much political influence to allow it to happen.
Shawn, Washington, DC, USA
We lived perfectly well for thousands of years without oil, but that was an agricultural society with a much smaller population. Trade between today's industrialised nations depends on rapid transportation which depends on oil. The trouble is, oil is a finite resource and will run out sooner or later - some say within this century. Political leaders don't tend to care about the problems of our grandchildren though, they worry no further than the next election. There are plenty of alternate, safer, more reliable energy sources we could be developing but research needs money, and the money - and therefore the politicians - is controlled by the oil industry. So, soon we will return to a slower paced existence of bicycles and sailing ships - and those who survive will probably be much happier for it.
Countries that find oil reserves within their own borders after becoming industrialised often benefit. Countries like the UK, US and more recently Norway became wealthier by adding oil to an already advanced economy. The problem is for countries that are not industrialised at the time they start exporting oil. When wealth comes out of the ground, instead of as a result of trade and manufacturing, the rulers do not need to tax in order to fund the state. It is taxation that leads people to demand accountability from their government. This process has not yet taken place in the Middle East largely because of their oil reserves.
Colin Keesee, Moorpark, CA, USA
Oil is neither a gift or a curse, it is merely a God-given resource. It is a necessity simply because we have it, and if it wasn't available to us, I'm sure our ancestors would have found ways around that problem. Oil gives us the power to move, to travel, to work. It allows us to conduct deals, travel to meet family or friends, be heated or cooled in a day of extreme weather. It is by no means a curse.
Patrick Elyas, Los Angeles, CA
Well this is what you get when you close all the nuclear power stations because of "environmental concerns". It's time people faced up to reality instead of blindly regarding every new development as a government conspiracy or worrying about hidden business agendas. I accept there is good and bad in every situation but surely anything would be better than coal and oil. Solar panels on every roof in the country gets my vote.
Cath Davis, Leigh, UK