The Stone Age Did Not End Because the World Ran Out of Stones, and the Oil Age Will Not End Because We Run Out of Oil

Ahmed Zaki Yamani? Don Huberts? Nader H. Sultan? Andrew Hoskinson? Jeroen van der Veer? Thomas Friedman? William McDonough?

Dear Quote Investigator: A recent presentation about advances in renewable energy emphasized the dramatic cost reductions occurring in solar and wind power. The speaker argued that reliance on fossil fuels would decrease substantially in the future. The following cogent remark exemplified the thesis:

The Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil.

The words were credited to Ahmed Zaki Yamani who was the Minister of Oil for Saudi Arabia for more than twenty years. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: This statement is difficult to trace because it can be phrased in many ways. The earliest close match located by QI appeared in July 1999 in the London periodical “The Economist” within an article about fuel cell technology. Don Huberts who worked for the oil company Royal Dutch/Shell as the head of a division called Shell Hydrogen delivered the line. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“The stone age did not end because the world ran out of stones, and the oil age will not end because we run out of oil.” Thus Don Huberts, who is convinced that fuel cells, which generate clean energy from hydrogen, will soon begin replacing power stations and cars that mostly burn coal, oil or natural gas.

Yamani employed the saying the following year in June 2000 (see further below). The influential “New York Times” columnist Thomas L. Friedman has stated that Yamani used the expression in the 1970s, but QI has not yet found published evidence to support that assertion.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In August 1999 the “Rocky Mountain News” of Colorado shared the words of a high school student named Andrew Hoskinson who employed an interesting variant statement with an anonymous attribution: 2

“I certainly don’t think petroleum is going to run out in my lifetime,” he said. “But there could be a lack of cheap petroleum. Someone once said that the Stone Age did not end because of a lack of stone. It ended because bronze tools became cheaper.”

In September 1999 the quotation was further disseminated when “The Times” of London printed a letter containing the remark ascribed to Huberts: 3

Sir, It is too early to expect the last word on the end of the oil era but the one to beat, at least in epigrammatic terms, is that attributed to Don Huberts and quoted in The Economist (July 24): “The stone age did not end because the world ran out of stones, and the oil age will not end because we run out of oil.”

In February 2000 a CNN poll revealed a consumer interest in the development of battery-powered vehicles. The trade journal “Oil & Gas Investor” reported this information together with a remark from an oil executive: 4

The stone age didn’t end for a lack of stone, and the coal age didn’t end for a lack of coal, as noted by Nader H. Sultan, deputy chairman and CEO of the Kuwait Petroleum Corp., while addressing Cambridge Energy Research Associates conference participants in Houston the same week as the poll-taking

In May 2000 “The Futurist” credited an unnamed “energy expert” with a variant: 5

As one energy expert observed, the Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones-it ended because better technologies were developed to meet humanity’s changing needs. Likewise, the age of fossil fuel won’t end because we run out of oil and coal. Nonrenewable energies will be replaced by renewable sources as new technologies make them more cost-effective than nonrenewable sources.

The World Petroleum Congress was held June 11 to 15 in 2000, and one of the speakers was Jeroen van der Veer, Managing Director of the Royal Dutch/Shell. He used an instance of the saying in his speech: 6

“The Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones – but as a result of competition from the bronze tools which met people’s needs.”

Also in June 2000 “The Telegraph” published an interview with Ahmed Zaki Yamani conducted by Gyles Brandreth. Yamani articulated trepidation regarding the future of his native kingdom: 7

“Thirty years from now, there is no problem with oil. Oil will be left in the ground. The Stone Age came to an end not because we had lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have lack of oil.” He pauses, and shakes his head. “I am a Saudi and I know we will have serious economic difficulties ahead of us.”

A week later the Yamani interview was reprinted in “The Age” of Melbourne, Australia. 8

In September 2000 columnist Thomas L. Friedman writing in “The New York Times” attributed the saying to “The Saudis”: 9

The Saudis keep repeating this mantra to OPEC: “The stone age didn’t end because they ran out of stones. People invented alternative tools. And the oil age won’t end because of a shortage of oil, but because we drive the price up so far, so fast, we stimulate alternatives.”

In 2005 the “BBC” website published a version of the saying spoken by prominent sustainability architect William McDonough: 10

But, he says, the Stone Age did not end because humans ran out of stones. It ended because it was time for a re-think about how we live.

In 2006 Friedman suggested that Yamani used the saying with colleagues back in the 1970s: 11

Any time that OPEC got a little too overzealous in pushing up oil prices back in the 1970’s, the legendary Saudi oil minister Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani was fond of telling his colleagues: Remember, the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. What he meant was that the Stone Age ended because people invented alternative tools.

In conclusion, QI tentatively credits Don Huberts with this expression based on the July 1999 citation; however, earlier citations may be uncovered in the future. Ahmed Zaki Yamani did employ the saying, but it was already in circulation.

Image Notes: Picture of oil rig from jp26jp at Pixabay. Illustration of stone tool from the book Kameno doba by Jovan Zujovic (1856-1936) which was published in Belgrade in 1893; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Doug whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1999 July 24, The Economist, Section Business, Article: Fuel cells meet big business, Start Page 59, Quote Page 59, Economist Group, London, England. (ProQuest; also accessible via economist.com; article date on economist.com is July 22, 1999) link
  2. 1999 August 15, Rocky Mountain News, Article: Believers in Alternative Cars Invest, Drive Roads Already, Author: Richard Williamson (News Staff Writer), Quote Page 6G, Rocky Mountain, Colorado. (NewsBank Access World News)
  3. 1999 September 7, The Times, Section: Features, Letter to the Editor: Stark reality of finite oil reserves, Letter From: Dr. W. S. Affleck, Quote Page 19, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News)
  4. 2000 March, Oil & Gas Investor, Volume 20, Issue 3, Article: Participants in CNN oil-price poll vote for battery-powered cars, Author: Nissa Darbonne, Quote Page 28, Hart Publications, Inc. Houston, Texas. (ProQuest ABI/INFORM Collection)
  5. 2000 May/June, The Futurist, Volume 34, Issue 3, Article: The age of eco-electricity, Author: Cynthia G. Wagner, Start Page 68, Quote Page 68, Publisher: World Future Society, Washington. (ProQuest ABI/INFORM Collection)
  6. 2000 July/August, Propane Canada, Volume 92, Issue 6, World Petroleum Congress Roundup by Anonymous, Start Page 8, Quote Page 12, Column 3, Publisher: Northern Star Communications Ltd., Calgary, Canada. (ProQuest ABI/INFORM Collection)
  7. 2000 June 25, The Telegraph, Article: Farewell to riches of the earth, Interviewer: Gyles Brandreth, Interviewee: Ahmed Zaki Yamani, The Telegraph Media Group Limited, London, England. (Accessed telegraph.co.uk on January 7, 2018)
  8. 2000 July 2, The Age, Section: Agenda, The Sunday Profile: Sheik Ahmed Yamani: Quietly resides the man who once held the world in his hands, (From The Telegraph), Quote Page 5, Column 2, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 2000 September 8, New York Times, Foreign Affairs: The Secret Oil Talks by Thomas L. Friedman, Quote Page A27, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest)
  10. 2005 14 July, BBC, Article: Eco-designs on future cities, Author: Jo Twist, United Kingdom. (Accessed news.bbc.co.uk on January 8, 2018) link
  11. 2006 September 15, New York Times, The Energy Harvest by Thomas L. Friedman, Quote Page A25, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest)