Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How Overpopulation Can Kill

Overcrowding leads to mental illness. That's true of lab animals, even when they have plenty of food, water, and nesting material. The crowding in itself leads to violence, infanticide, and so on. The same seems to be true of humans. Here in my own patch of suburbia, listening to the car horns of my neighbors during a midsummer heat-wave, my thoughts often stray to cannibalism. (I should probably change my ways, but it's hard to say no to kidneys on toast.)

A denser living arrangement creates its own problems. Packing them tighter is just "stalling for time," "treading water," it's not a solution. If you jam 7 billion people into a suicidal mass, you still haven't answered the question of what to do when you reach 14 billion.
 
The same caveat about "treading water" applies to so many of the Miracle Solutions to modern problems, they all come back to one fundamental problem -- overpopulation. If you don't deal with overpopulation, then no "solution" to anything is a real solution. In a macabre way, it may be a blessing that as we continue on the down-slope of petroleum extraction, everything else in our petroleum-addicted world will also be in decline, including human numbers: "petroleum famine" will resemble the "potato famine" of nineteenth-century Ireland, except that it will involve the entire world.

But never mind poverty, famine, and warfare. Overpopulation also has a more direct way of killing. Have you ever had the feeling that you just can't "get away from it all" anymore? Have you ever had the feeling that the Robinson-Crusoe vacation you planned for yourself last year was just an immensely expensive encounter with "guides" who smiled far too much? Have you ever tried to calculate the implications of the fact that the average square kilometer of God's green earth holds more than twice as many people as it did in 1950? Have you ever wondered why so many people talk to themselves nowadays, and why somebody once gave you a funny stare when you didn't know what "meds" were? You can circle the globe a thousand times, but you'll never find a "scenic vista" without a hamburger franchise behind you. You're unlikely to find a stretch of ocean beach, anywhere in the world, that doesn't have Styrofoam cups and frayed polypropylene among the seaweed. And don't dream of going back to live in your hometown, because it isn't the way it used to be: nowadays you have to lower your expectations and assume you have a quiet apartment if nobody is actually using a sledge hammer to do some renovations next door. You're permanently "burned out," not because you're "burning" anything, but because there are always too many people rubbing against you, to the point where you think your skin is going to come off. But, yes, there's an explanation: your glands are shriveling.

We now have a working hypothesis for the die-off terminating a cycle. Exhaustion of the adreno-pituitary system resulting from increased stress inherent in a high population, especially in winter, plus the late winter demands of the reproductive system, due to increased light or other factors, precipitates population-wide death with the symptoms of adrenal insufficiency and hypoglycemic convulsions. [emphasis added]

-- John J. Christian, "The Adreno-Pituitary System and Population Cycles in Mammals" (Journal of Mammalogy, August 1950)

Quoted in Edward S. Deevey, "The Hare and the Haruspex: A Cautionary Tale" (in The Yale Review, Winter 1960; reprinted in Eric and Mary Josephson, Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society (New York: Dell, 1960). The Josephsons add that less-academic descriptions can be found in Hans Selye's books about stress.

"So at least in terms of some species of mammals, a great rise in population density causes death from a state of shock, although this in turn is a combination of poor and insufficient food, increased exertion, and fighting -- animals that have struggled through a tough winter are in no shape to stand the lust the rises like sap in the spring. Their endocrine glands, which make the clashing hormones . . . borrow sugar from their livers. Cirrhosis lies that way, of course, but death from hypertension usually comes first." (E. and M. Josephson, p. 582)

I admit that the above texts are quite old. They were something I came across recently, more or less by accident. But there are many "old" ideas that need reconsideration. Like looking for uninhabited islands.


Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)







Thursday, July 18, 2013

Nova Scotia: Foretaste of the Apocalypse

Oct. 8, 2011

My girlfriend K-- and I have been living in a beat-up mobile home, 800 square feet, since Sept. 28, 2011, in northern Nova Scotia, about one kilometer from the Bay of Fundy. I've largely lost track of dates, so I won't try hard to calculate them. Staying alive takes priority over determining dates or times. Basically it's been just a non-stop struggle, fighting the occasional intense cold, or long days and nights of rain, with wind that knocks the car about on the road.

I'd been looking for a cheap place in the Canadian countryside even before I left the Middle East. My Internet searches had led me to believe that house prices in Nova Scotia were much cheaper than those in Ontario, where I'd been living three years ago. But now I doubt it. It might simply be the case that the main real-estate Web site lists more "fixer-uppers" in Nova Scotia than in Ontario.

It was during our first night here that an intense cold came down upon us, and we spent the hours of darkness just huddling under the inadequate bedding, praying for dawn to arrive. And since then we've also had the edge of a big storm, days of powerful wind and rain. Even escape is not easy, since the nearest real town, Windsor (pop. 4,000), is a 40-minute drive. I'm just glad I spent $20,000 on a brand-new Toyota Yaris, soon after coming back to Canada, because it's our lifeboat, our only means of returning to civilization, either temporarily or permanently.

It became a sort of poker game, but one played by a gambling addict, not a professional card-player: every time a flaw came up, I kept telling myself that if I just stayed in the game long enough, I'd recoup my losses. So I paid out a good deal of money for house inspectors and a lawyer, while the bad news rolled in. The house was very much "sub-standard," i.e. illegal. The septic system was just an old oil drum buried in the ground, with a single pipe running from it underground for a few meters. The well was neither a proper drilled one nor a proper dug one, but little more than a hole in the ground. Everything in the house was malfunctioning, from leaky windows to the world's oldest wood-stove. But I'd been determined to find an affordable house with a good acreage of trees for a later supply of firewood, and there had been so little available, so I'd put up with prevarication from the seller and his real-estate agent, simply to get some sort of purchase finished before winter made any further searches impossible.

Well, today should also be sunny and fairly warm, so we shall see if we can make some more progress. Essentially, we need to create an urban house in a rural setting, because life without "modern conveniences" now strikes me, at age 62, as impossible. Those who come after us, in the post-oil world, will die, not of famine as I had expected, but of hypothermia, because even the apparently simple act of lighting a fire, and maintaining it, requires more than striking a match, and very few city-dwellers have even that utterly basic skill. In every way, in fact, our descendants will just not be able to cope, not unless they have the sense to approach the looming hard times as if they were planning a mission to a distant galaxy. But I really doubt that the world's multi-billion population will do anything until their TV screens turn black. And perhaps they won't even die of hypothermia. Perhaps they'll just stop struggling: it now seems to me that after a long time without proper shelter, the human body finally comes to a halt.

Oct. 9

I now suspect that it's impossible to buy a house in Nova Scotia for less than $100,000 without facing years of struggle with repairs, the same as in Ontario. Even if the sellers of these houses don't have money, they insist on keeping the prices high enough that they can recover their own original costs -- "until the market picks up again."

I lived in rural Ontario for seven years, but this place is far more "rural" than that. This is like a dark planet on the edge of the furthest galaxy. I must admit that my impression of Nova Scotia in general is not a good one. For the first three months in this province, I heard too many stories about poverty, unemployment, crime, alcoholism, drug abuse. Students I talked to in Halifax were looking for apartments for the winter, and one of their main concerns was avoiding areas that are "not nice": no matter how little money they had to spend, they didn't want to live in the sort of slums that seem to permeate Halifax and other towns and cities in Nova Scotia.

This village here doesn't seem much different, at least to judge from my first impressions. The neighbors seem to be mostly small-time criminals. Marijuana growing seems to be a major industry, deer seem to be hunted mostly without licenses, firewood is stolen from government land, vehicles often have no insurance, and so on. Not major crimes, but a thorough ambiance of "irregularity." It's hard to find people who will do repair work of any sort, but they certainly expect to be paid cash, so that they don't have to report their earnings.

Most people who live around here are "Neanderthals," if that's the right term. What I mean is that they know a thousand tricks for getting a house ready for winter, or for putting several derelict vehicles together to make one vehicle that will make it down the road, or for killing a deer illegally and getting it into a freezer, but they can barely read or write the English language, and I am always uncertain as to whether I should try imitating their jargon or get equally odd looks by speaking normal English.

But peaceful Neanderthals aren't a problem. What I don't like are the more aggressive ones. On our first Saturday night here, we heard the bass notes of the music being played by our neighbor across the road, about 200 meters away; I don't know his name. What's the point of moving to the most remote part of the world if one is still living in fear of loudspeakers that provide great amusement for their owners but mean sleepless nights for other people? That neighbor's house is not directly opposite us, thank God, but his noise certainly bothers the people just beside us, a husband and wife and their daughter-in-law, and I wonder exactly how high he could turn those speakers if he was in the mood. I spoke to him once about buying firewood, but he has never stopped by to say hello, never offered any help or even advice. And he roars past us several times a day on his ATV, even though it is illegal to use them on a public road. Or is he actually trying to get rid of us, so that we don't discover his "grow op," his marijuana field? Quite possibly.

The fact that I've never seen a police car in this part of Nova Scotia may explain why the grimmer forms of humanity seem so comfortable building their homes in these swamps. But I was never brought up to this way of life, and this is certainly not what I ever meant by "moving to the country." I can't live among people whose houses are ringed by the trash of civilization, whose gardens are filled by rust and rot that is far beyond any hope of normal re-use. Nor do I want to live among people for whom garbage is the objective correlative of their view of the world.

Oct. 17

We still don't have a new wood stove, but we'll be needing something more than the old thing that's now here, unless I'm prepared to get out of bed every two or three hours each night to refill this old thing with wood. We cleaned it well, and today I painted it, so it certainly looks good even if it won't be working so well; if we don't end up using it, perhaps we can sell it as an antique. We've known for some time what stove we want to buy, but we don't have the skill to install it, and the person recommended by the hardware store still hasn't even returned my call, so I'll have to try someone else. In any case, not returning a call is very unprofessional behavior.

For the last two or three days, we've had a slow but steady leak coming out of the walls somewhere near the kitchen, at the rate of maybe three or four cups of water a day. We've spread rags all over to soak up the water, but it's a time-consuming job. Tomorrow the plumber and his helper are coming over to replace all the pipes, since it seems to me that the entire plumbing system is falling apart -- even when there are no obvious leaks, there are gurgles and banging sounds everywhere, presumably from trapped air, as if everything was collapsing. I'm wondering what was going on when the previous owner was living here. The same thing? What did he do about it?

Oct. 18

The main beach is at Cheverie, and it is enormous. We almost never see other people on the beach, although sometimes a van or a few motorcycles might be parked at the side of the road. The immense shift from high tide to low is difficult to comprehend. I don't know how far the water recedes each time, but it seems several hundred meters. Until we get rubber boots, though, we won't know what it's like to walk to the edge of that low-tide zone. When the tide is out, this portion of the Bay of Fundy looks like a bathtub from which the plug has been pulled. There seems to be no water, only mud, between this shore and the cape in the distance. And the beach itself is very wild: there are gulls, crows, and sandpipers, but the two of us are usually the only humans. The upper beach is composed of pebbles and rock fragments, largely shale, but there are cliffs to the east and west of the beach, with spruce trees leaning down to the sea as the soil and rocks around their roots are eroded. At various places there are outcrops of gypsum, which looks like gigantic mounds of slightly melting vanilla ice cream, and seaward there are slanted planes of dark rock like giant rows of teeth.

Oct. 21

Another disaster occurred yesterday. There had been heavy rain again for a day or two, and when K-- looked out the window at the far end of the house, by which I mean the end opposite to the living room, she saw a good deal of water flowing over the front lawn. It was coming from the direction of the road and running past that end of the house, and in places it seemed ankle-deep. Since that end of the house has the electric pump, in a wooden box, at its base, I was worried that the pump would fail if the water covered it. I went outside to have a look, and by that time it was dark. There was a log near the well, which the previous owner had apparently been using to divert water away from that well, but I decided to take a chance and move the log so that it would instead divert water away from the pump. It looked as if I was succeeding: the water was considerably deeper as it flowed on the far side of that log.Oct. 22

In general, we both feel that the present version of "country living" is not what we had in mind. Personally, I don't want to go on living among people who have such low self-esteem that they keep rusted-out cars in their front yards. (The vehicles are easily spotted by the fact that the flat tires leave the vehicles sunk low among the grass and weeds.) My dear ex-wife also called and pointed out to me that whatever I do to improve this property, its resale value will always be limited by the fact that it's situated in a community of low-lifes, and there is always the real-estate adage that "location is everything." And in general, I now realize that I long for a more intellectual world, I want to be able to read, to study, to be in close touch with the global community, even if it is in its last days, and even if the middle class is being broken up and redistributed among the ranks of the unemployed.

Oct. 26

Just before bedtime, I went to the shed to get a box of twigs and I noticed that our firewood has developed a white coating like mold, but thicker than mold, more like a massive growth of bracket fungus. That wood pile was $750 and many hours of labor. I shouldn't have been closing the door at night, since that seems to have been trapping moisture in the shed. Not only is the wood somewhat green still, but the almost incessant rain has added its own moisture. I hope that by keeping the shed door open I can halt the growth of this fungus. I don't want to spend the entire winter loading fungus into a wood stove.

Nov. 1

K-- decided to leave yesterday, the Day of the Dead, All Souls' Day, Hallowe'en, so I drove her to Halifax, and she'll be taking a plane back to Germany soon. Without getting into a major discussion of the issues, I should at least mention that I wondered if I would be heading to an airport myself one of these days.

So far it's been one crisis after another: flood, fire, frost, and wind. When we first came here we were treated to Nova Scotia's combination of low temperature and strong winds. Then we had burst pipes at two places in the house. Then there's been the perpetual problem of fire hazard from this old stove, which makes the wall behind it too hot to touch. Even a dangerous stove, however, is better than one without wood to go in it, which was the case for a while. Then our front lawn turned into a river, threatening to engulf the pump for the well. Two nights ago we had one more storm. These storms seem to occur at least once a week, but during the latest one the wind blew fiercely almost nonstop for 24 hours, and several times the house was actually shaking, so that we were afraid it would fall off the concrete blocks on which it is clumsily perched.

Nov. 4

If there's no way of selling this place in the near future at a reasonable profit (or a not-unreasonable loss), then I'll be left with the question of whether I can at least make this place good enough for me to stay in for the next few years. The cost of a usable but perhaps substandard well might not be so high. The septic system is another matter; perhaps I could find a cheap but "irregular" way of improving it at least to the extent that I didn't have to live perpetually with the worry that it might completely fail at any time, as is now the case, since the present septic "tank" is nothing but an old oil drum buried in the ground.

I think it's safe to say that "Nature" has been nonexistent since the invention of the gasoline engine. My Neanderthal neighbor across the road seems to travel around on his ATV about 18 hours a day. He often spends hours tuning the engine, and then he tests the vehicle by driving around his yard, or up and down the road. My nerves have finally broken, and I've started using ear plugs when I'm outdoors. In fact it is ear plugs, not engines, that would get my vote as the greatest invention in world history.

Nov. 12

Two nights ago the rain turned into a genuine storm, with winds getting stronger and stronger, and the rain turned into great sheets of water -- not unlike the other storms over the previous few weeks.

I noticed that water later was running more swiftly across the front lawn and towards the well pump. I went outside and found some long boards that I'd salvaged from the junk I'd been dismantling, and I used these boards and some large rocks to make a dam that ran parallel to the log that still lay in front of the pump. Making that new barrier was a good idea, because the waves got higher and higher, and I suspect that otherwise the log would have been insufficient to protect the pump. I got little sleep, however, as the storm grew louder during the night. At about 3:00 a.m. the rain slowed to something more like a drizzle.

Yesterday morning was not so bad, but then at about 1 p.m. the wind began to strengthen, and for hour after hour it went on. During the night I felt as if I was trying to sleep beside a railroad track, with endless freight trains rushing past me. The wind howled and moaned, the house shuddered, and again I got almost no sleep. I woke up wondering if today would be a good day to commit suicide. I looked out the window and noticed that the wind had blown several rocks, each perhaps 20 kg in weight, off the top of a piece old plywood covering a pile of firewood K-- and I had built there, and that a corner of that pile had fallen to the ground.

I was lying in bed all night, listening to the wind, and sometimes whispering, "Oh, stop, please just stop!" The only cheering event was that today was Saturday, when K-- was supposed be calling me again from Germany, and we could talk for a long time, since she was on a special rate of about one cent per minute. She called at 9:30 a.m. She and I agreed that this was the time for me to get out. I should talk to a real-estate agent about selling the property for whatever it would bring, and then move back to the motel in Halifax for a few months of rest. She also suggested that I consider Germany as a place to live, where perhaps one could enjoy the countryside without endangering one's life.

Nov. 17

The following isn't really describing a "return to," but more like the start of a "return from," thank God. It might also be called the Book of Revelation, or the Wisdom of Hindsight. My plan is to leave here at the end of the month, go to Halifax for two or three months, and try to recover, mentally and physically.

The problem with Neanderthals is not that they are poor. The problem is that they steal things. They are nasty. They are always breaking rules, and if there is nothing to be gained from it they will do it just to keep in practice. If they are paid to do a job, they will take the money but they will not do the job. If they are punished, it is only proof that they are being persecuted.

Neanderthals hate outsiders, they feel resentful toward anyone who hasn't spent years collecting welfare checks. They are obsessed with their rights, with what they think of as entitlement, although they don't necessarily use such words. They have a tribal mentality, a gypsy mentality: they are loyal toward members of their own band, mainly because to bring down a mammoth, or to ward off a saber-toothed tiger, requires teamwork, but an act of hostility toward an outsider isn't considered unethical.

Any pale-faced office worker who has bought a shiny new gun, and has read all the government regulations, and then thinks he will shoot a deer and bring it home, does not understand that hunting is generally the prerogative of Homo neanderthalensis, not of H. sapiens. Walking around in the hunting territory of a Neanderthal band is very dangerous, and wearing "hunter orange" will not save anyone from a stray bullet in his car or his boat.

It's possible that the future will be theirs. City people often think that lighting a fire, or catching a fish, is a simple task, but that's not true. It's only simple in perfect weather when one's life doesn't depend on it. It's the swamp-dwellers who have those skills. However, I'm not absolutely sure that they'll outlast H. sapiens, because their way of life is being badly shaken: this is the world of electronics and globalization, and the economy has become so complex that these people are now almost unable to leave their dirt roads and turn onto the highways. Maybe their ATVs are simple enough for them to repair without paying money, but such a vehicle would get pulled over pretty quickly if it was heading to the city. If Neanderthals choose not to leave the swamps, they're fine; the problem is that they might soon be quite unable to leave. The question is whether that world of globalization and automation will collapse before the Neanderthals have died off. That's hard to say: they still seem to find enough presentable young women to drive a car to the city when something really must be picked up.

Last night I think I realized at what moment my mind snapped, at what point I lost control of my ability to reason, as I was buying this house here. I had not paid rent of any sort since about 1994, partly because I owned two houses (one after the other, I mean) and partly because in the Middle East I paid neither rent nor taxes. When I came back to Canada, I started paying rent right from the first day, and it seemed terrible to be giving so much money every month to a landlord. Partly for that reason, I was desperate to find a house. Then on September 8, there was a big meeting here, and the "septic system" was opened up and revealed as nothing more than a 45-gallon oil drum buried in the ground, apparently with a single pipe leading out a few meters toward the end of the yard. The real-estate agent looked quite nonchalant about the whole thing. The inspector, however, told me it would take a good deal of money to install a proper septic system. I went back to the motel and thought about the situation for a few days. My three-year dream about a return to Canada, about a peaceful life in the land of butterflies and wildflowers, was going awry. It looked as if I was going to be spending several thousand more dollars on rent, accomplishing nothing until at least the following spring, although there was no guarantee that I would be any more successful then than before. I think at that point I just shut off my over-worked brain, and I left reality behind. Basically, everything was so awful that I just went into shock, as if I was in a terrible auto accident.

The really good news, although this may sound ridiculous, is that a short time in a terrible house is better than a long time in a not-so-terrible house. If I'd met a really kind-hearted realtor back in July and bought a fairly pleasant property for $50,000, I would probably have spent several years there not entirely sure of what I was doing. I might have had no problems with plumbing and electricity, I might have had a nice garden and a well-filled woodshed. I might have found a minimum-wage job at Wal-Mart or its local equivalent. I might have befriended a squirrel and thereby not died of loneliness. But lying in this bed, scratching my flea-bites, listening to storms that one would expect only on the surface of Jupiter, and getting up every two hours to load fungus-encrusted wood into the stove has given me the opportunity to think about what I really should be doing with the rest of my life.

Nov. 19

When I got back to the house, there were snow flurries, the first real ones. I may be stuck in a race between getting out of here and getting hit by winter. I hope not. If there's big trouble, so that I no longer have electricity or running water, I suppose I can just jump in the car, head to Halifax, and explain to the people at the motel that my dates have to be changed slightly. They say they remember me from before (whatever that means!), and I think they'll be pretty easygoing. My guess is that business isn't exactly booming for them, although that's always the Big Secret for anyone in Nova Scotia, so they may be happy enough to have me as a customer.

The second grand conclusion (again, tentatively) is that if wilderness living isn't quite the way it's portrayed in Hollywood, then there will be even bigger problems than I imagined for everyone when the oil runs out, and when there is no more electricity. Perhaps a bulldozer driver in the Yukon would know one or two tricks that would put him ahead of an accountant in Toronto, but there wouldn't be a great deal of difference between the two. I think to a large extent these two months here have been a preview of that future. And what comes across clearly is that the problems and the dangers are enormous. If I live in fear of a failure of electricity or running water, what will it be like for people who quite certainly will have neither? If I find it hard to fall asleep in an 800-square-foot mobile home with two inches of insulation, how will anyone sleep in a birch-bark wigwam?

I imagine there are answers to all these problems. Roughly speaking, preparing for the post-oil world will have to be undertaken with the same seriousness as preparing for the colonization of Mars. In other words, the task must be looked upon as far more serious, far more trouble-prone, than almost anyone has imagined. All the silly talk about "transition towns," which seems to be prevalent especially in England, is nothing less than suicidal. Again to judge from the situation here, in the future there won't even be the token presence of police cars to ensure that there will be any sort of human cooperation. Those who are not killed by the winter will be killed by the gang that lives down the road.

I could sit with my calculator for hours, going over the figures, and it still comes out the same way: without some major new intellectual input (by which I do not mean "alternative energy" nonsense), it cannot be done. To survive in the future would require a band of highly dedicated, highly professional young people working together, and they would have to be well educated about the scientific and engineering challenges that they would be facing. But what are the chances that groups of that sort could be assembled?
Nov. 22

Everything is too expensive, away from the city. You would think living off in the bush would be cheap, but it doesn't work like that. You actually end up spending huge piles of money on house repairs and all sorts of other things. Maybe people who've lived there for generations manage to keep things running with a handful of rusty tools, but I can't say their lives are easy or comfortable for doing that.

Long ago, even though there was no gasoline, no power tools, no electricity, perhaps in a sense there was more of a chance to leave the city, at least in North America, simply because there was so much wilderness, and so few laws, and money wasn't necessary. But now it's not like that, not like the old days, when you could just grab an ax and a gun, cross the wide Missouri, and keep on going.

The day I left to go back to Halifax, the sunshine was beautiful, but the night had been cold -- crispy, crunchy cold, with white frost on the grass, murderous cold. I then thought of all the nonsense that is fed to tourists about "Nature at Its Finest." Yes, maybe in the middle of summer, when an urban couple might spend two weeks driving along the coast with the kids. But "Nature" is not at its "finest" when the dark and cold months arrive, when a storm is shaking the house, and you're waiting for the roof to go flying down the road like the ace of spades.

On the day I left, I guess some of the neighbors had decided to adopt me. They were actually very friendly, and they tried to scrape up their pennies to buy the things I didn't want to bring with me. They said they were sorry I was leaving. We were actually joking around with each other at last, instead of treating each other as members of different species. I felt sorry that I couldn't stay with them and live their way of life. But some of the comments seemed to indicate that their life was hard. (I looked at the young neighbor-woman sitting near my feet, smoking a cigarette. She wouldn't look at me as her father-in-law joked about what a good worker she was.) They couldn't leave. I could. If I failed to become part of their way of life, they had also failed to become part of mine. The difference is that I could drive away in a brand-new car. They, with their ATVs, could not get very far down the highway. I wondered if there would ever be some way to bridge that gap.


Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)







Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Chaos and Survival


Systemic collapse, the coming crash, overshoot, the die-off, the tribulation, the coming anarchy, resource wars -- there are many names, and they do not all correspond to exactly the same thing, but there is a widespread belief that something immense is happening. This event has about ten elements, each with a somewhat causal relationship to the next. (1) Fossil fuels (e.g., oil, natural gas, coal), (2) metals, and (3) electricity are a tightly-knit group, and no industrial civilization can have one without the others. As those three disappear, (4) food and (5) fresh water become scarce. Matters of infrastructure then follow: (6) transportation and (7) communication -- no paved roads, no telephones, no computers. After that, the social structure begins to fail: (8) government, (9) education, and (10) the large-scale division of labor that makes complex technology possible.



Systemic collapse has one overwhelming ultimate cause: world overpopulation. The world's population went from about 1.7 billion in 1900 to 2.4 in 1950, to over 7 billion today. All of the flash-in-the-pan ideas that are presented as solutions to the modern dilemma -- solar power, ethanol, hybrid cars, desalination, permaculture, enormous dams -- have value only as desperate attempts to solve an underlying problem that has never been addressed in a more direct manner.



Fossil fuels, metals, and electricity are intricately connected. Electricity, for example, can be generated on a global scale only with fossil fuels. The same dependence on fossil fuels is true of metals; in fact the better types of ore are now becoming depleted, while those that remain can be processed only with modern machinery and require more fossil fuels for smelting. In turn, without metals and electricity there will be no means of extracting and processing fossil fuels. Of the three members of the triad, electricity is the most fragile, and its failure will serve as an early and very noticeable warning of trouble with the other two.



Fossil fuels not only provide the energy for internal-combustion engines. They also provide us with fertilizer, pesticides, lubricants, plastic, paint, synthetic fabrics, asphalt, pharmaceuticals, and many other things. On a more abstract level, we are dependent on these fossil fuels for manufacturing, for transportation, for agriculture, for mining, and for electricity. As these fuels disappear, there will be no means of supporting the billions of people who now live on this planet.



A good deal of debate has gone on about "peak oil," the date at which the world's annual oil production of useable, recoverable oil will reach (or did reach) its maximum and will begin (or did begin) to decline. The exact numbers are unobtainable, but the situation can perhaps be summarized by saying that about 20 or 30 major studies have been done, and the consensus is that the most likely date for "peak oil" is somewhere between 2000 and 2020, with the most likely date of all somewhere in the middle, when about 30 billion barrels were produced annually.



It should also be mentioned that the above-mentioned quest for the date of peak oil is in some respects a red herring. In terms of daily life, it is important to consider not only peak oil in the absolute sense, but peak oil per capita. The date of the latter was 1979, when there were 5.5 barrels of oil per person annually.



In the entire world, there are at most about a trillion barrels of usable, recoverable oil remaining -- which may sound like a lot, but isn't. When newspapers announce the discovery of a deposit of a billion barrels, readers are no doubt amazed, but they are not told that such a find is only two weeks' supply.



After the "peak" itself, the next question is that of the annual rate of decline. Estimates tend to hover around 4 percent, which means production will fall to half of peak production by about 2030, although there are reasons to suspect the decline will be much faster, particularly if Saudi reserves are seriously overstated.



As the years go by, new oil wells have to be drilled more deeply than the old, because newly discovered deposits are deeper. Those new deposits are therefore less accessible. But oil is used as a fuel for the oil drills themselves, and for the exploration. When it takes an entire barrel of oil to get one barrel of oil out of the ground, as is increasingly the case, it is a waste of time to continue drilling such a well.



Coal and natural gas are also declining. Coal will be available for a while after oil is gone, although previous reports of its abundance were highly exaggerated. Coal, however, is highly polluting and cannot be used as a fuel for most forms of transportation. Natural gas is not easily transported, and it is not suitable for most equipment.



Alternative sources of energy will never be very useful, for several reasons, but mainly because of a problem of "net energy": the amount of energy output is not sufficiently greater than the amount of energy input. All alternative forms of energy are so dependent on the very petroleum that they are intended to replace that the use of them is largely self-defeating and irrational. Alternative sources ultimately don't have enough "bang" to replace 30 billion annual barrels of oil -- or even to replace more than the tiniest fraction of that amount.



Petroleum is required to extract, process, and transport almost any other form of energy; a coal mine is not operated by coal-powered equipment. It takes "oil energy" to make "alternative energy."



The use of "unconventional oil" (shale deposits, tar sands, heavy oil) poses several problems besides that of net energy. Large quantities of fossil fuels and water are needed to process the oil from these unconventional sources, so net energy recovery is low. The pollution problems are considerable, and it is not certain how much environmental damage the human race is willing to endure. With unconventional oil we are, quite literally, scraping the bottom of the barrel.



More-exotic forms of alternative energy are plagued with even greater problems. Fuel cells cannot be made practical, because such devices require hydrogen derived from fossil fuels (coal or natural gas), if we exclude designs that will never escape the realm of science fiction; if fuel cells ever became popular, the fossil fuels they require would then be consumed even faster than they are now. Biomass energy (perhaps from wood or corn) would require impossibly large amounts of land and would still result in insufficient quantities of net energy, perhaps even negative quantities. Hydroelectric dams are reaching their practical limits. Wind and geothermal power are only effective in certain areas and for certain purposes. Nuclear power will soon be suffering from a lack of fuel and is already creating serious environmental dangers.



The current favorite for alternative energy is solar power, but proponents must close their eyes to all questions of scale. To meet the world's present energy needs by using solar power, we would need an array (or an equivalent number of smaller ones) of collectors covering about 550,000 square kilometers -- a machine the size of France. The production and maintenance of this array would require vast quantities of fossil fuels, metals, and other materials -- a self-defeating process.



Modern agriculture is highly dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers, pesticides, and the operation of machines for harvesting, processing, and transporting. The Green Revolution amounted to little more than the invention of a way to turn petroleum and natural gas into food. Without fossil fuels, modern methods of food production will disappear, and crop yields will be far less than at present. Because of the shortage of food, world population must shrink dramatically, but we conveniently forget that war, plague, and famine are the only means available.



The problem of the world's diminishing supply of oil is a problem of energy, not a problem of money. The old bromide that "higher prices will eventually make [e.g.] shale oil economically feasible" is meaningless. This planet has only a finite amount of fossil fuel. That fuel is starting to decline, and "higher prices" are quite unable to stop the event from taking place.



Much of modern warfare is about oil, in spite of all the pious and hypocritical rhetoric about "the forces of good" and "the forces of evil." The real "forces" are those trying to control the oil wells and the fragile pipelines that carry that oil. A map of recent American military ventures is a map of petroleum deposits. When the oil wars began is largely a matter of definition, though perhaps 1973 would be a usable date, when the Yom Kippur War -- or, to speak more truthfully, the decline of American domestic oil -- led to the OPEC oil embargo.



The Post-Oil Economy



The most basic principle is that one has to start thinking in terms of a smaller radius of activity. The globalized economy has to be replaced by the localized economy. In the post-oil world, most food will be produced at a local level. It is even likely that each family will have to produce its own food. The catch in growing food, however, is that most of the world's surface is permanently unsuitable for growing food. In many cases, the climate is too severe: too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry. In other cases, the land is too barren to support anything but a sparse growth of wild plants, which in any case are simply growing and then dying and replacing their own material. Only about 10% of the world's land is suitable for agriculture, but that land has used for centuries, and the result is that the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium (N, P, K) and other elements, as well as the humus, have long been depleted. Food production has been maintained only by massive inputs of synthetic fertilizer. In addition, that farmland is crowded and expensive.



Nevertheless, a small human population might survive on agriculture, at least if it reverted to some primitive methods. Some Asian cultures brought wild plant material from the mountains and used it as fertilizer, thereby making use of the N-P-K (etc.) of the wilderness. Many other cultures used wood ashes. The nutrient "source" of the wilderness fed the nutrient "sink" of the farmland. (This is one of the basic principles behind all "organic gardening," although few practitioners would admit it or even know it.)



Other Asian cultures recycled all materials as much as possible, especially human and animal feces. Of course, one cannot create a perpetual-motion machine: every time those materials are recycled, a certain amount of N-P-K is lost to leaching and evaporation.



A third technique, found in Asia as well as in other parts of the world, is to grow legumes or other plants that absorb nitrogen from the air. Unfortunately there are no similar tricks for phosphorus or potassium; plants with very deep roots can draw some of these elements from far underground, but not enough to turn barren land into farmland.

All over the world, many primitive cultures simply grew crops in one area for a few years and then abandoned that plot, cut and burned another patch of forest or jungle, and started a new garden. Such a practice is hard on the environment, but for a sparsely inhabited region the technique is feasible.



If one is living mainly on cultivated plants, at least ½ acre (¼ ha) per person would be needed. For example, one could live -- barely -- on about 1,000 pounds (450 kg) of dried non-sweet corn (maize) per year, but the yield of corn, under primitive conditions, is not likely to be over 2,000 pounds per acre (2,000 kg/ha).



The most useful crops would be those that are high in carbohydrates and protein. Crops that are susceptible to diseases, pests, bad soil, or bad weather should be avoided. In North America up to about the 50th parallel, the most important crops would be open-pollinated corn, beans, and squash -- the same crops on which the native people were living for thousands of years. In other parts of the world, other grains might be more suitable: rye, barley, wheat, oats, sorghum, millet, rice, buckwheat.



Where farming isn't practical, foraging (hunting and gathering) may be the answer. It is generally impossible to live just on wild plants, so hunting, trapping, and fishing would be important skills. A rifle or shotgun would be handy until there was no more ammunition; our descendants will be learning to use and make bows and arrows. Deadfalls and snares could be used for many species.



Foraging was possible in ancient times only because there was low population density; that same low density might recur after the collapse of the modern western economy, as the result of famine, plague, and war. Latter-day foragers could also take advantage of the process of urbanization that has been characteristic of so many countries since the Industrial Revolution; as people moved from the countryside to the city, the result for those rural areas was sometimes not just a relative decline in population, but an absolute one.



The same process is still underway. Even in highly developed countries, although the cities may be crowded there are large rural areas (often marginal uplands, admittedly) that are steadily losing population. Such depopulation presents opportunities for those with a pioneering spirit.



Transportation will be limited. Asphalt is made from oil; as the price of oil rises, so will the price of asphalt, and paved roads will therefore go unrepaired. As social chaos intensifies, the maintenance of paved roads will be further reduced. When those roads are not repaired, it will take little time for them to become cracked and unusable, and they will often be blocked by smashed and abandoned cars. In any case, the main roads will generally be going in the wrong directions: from one city to another, exactly where people will not want to go -- they will want to go over the hills, to greener pastures.



There would only be 3 practical methods of travel: on foot, in a non-motorized boat, or on horseback. One's speed by any of these 3 methods will be about the same: 25 miles (40 km) per day, if one is in good shape. Even where paved roads are usable, bicycles would be hard to repair without the industrial infrastructure to provide the spare parts and the servicing.



A second major principle is that those who live in the country will be better prepared than those who live in the city. A city is a place that consumes a great deal and produces little, at least in terms of essentials. A city without incoming food or water collapses rapidly, whereas a small community closely tied to the natural environment can more easily adjust to technological and economic troubles.



Even out in the country, however, the present housing patterns often resemble the gasoline-induced sprawl of the suburbs. More useful would be something resembling a traditional village, with the houses at the focus and the fields radiating from that point. "Something resembling" is, of course, different from the real thing. Urban refugees, flashing credit cards and possessing no usable skills, might not be welcome in long-settled communities.



A knowledge of basic medicine would be useful. Most books on wilderness medicine assume that the reader will be traveling with a suitcase full of drugs, which will not be the case; drugs expire. Training in so-called "first aid" would be more sensible; in fact, the "first-aid" treatment for such common problems as cuts, burns, and broken bones does not differ greatly from the later treatment by a trained physician. Those who are serious about survival would also want to start developing their muscles; the transition from a sedentary to a more active life could take years.



Leadership and Social Structure



The decline in the world's oil supply, the biggest news story of modern times, rarely appears in the conventional news media, or it appears only in distorted forms. Ironically, the modern world is plagued by a lack of serious information. Today's news item is usually forgotten by tomorrow. The television viewer has the vague impression that something happened somewhere, but one could change channels all day without finding anything below the surface. But television is only the start of the enigma. What is most apparent is the larger problem that there is no leadership, no sense of organization, for dealing with peak-oil issues.



Part of the reason for these problems is that many modern societies, including that of the United States, are "individualist" rather than "collectivist." There is a sort of Daniel-Boone frontier mentality that pervades much of modern life. In many ways, this has been beneficial: freedom from tradition, freedom from onerous family duties, and freedom from manorial obligations have perhaps provided much of the motivation for those who came to what was seen as the "New World." That spirit of self-sufficiency made it possible for pioneers to thrive in the isolation of the wilderness.



Yet we must not forget the truism that there is strength and safety in numbers. Individualism might be more beneficial in good times than in bad; North Americans seem to adjust poorly to crises. The defects of individualism can seen right within what is mistakenly called the democratic process: political leaders can tell the most blatant lies about economic trends, about warfare, or about transgressions of civil liberties, and the response is a numbed, silent obedience which is puzzling only until one realizes that most people have little means of behaving otherwise. They are generally lacking in family or friends with whom they can share information or compare ideas, and they are therefore entirely dependent on the news media for mental sustenance. The television set in the living room is the altar on which common sense is sacrificed.



Faced with such challenges, one would at first be lucky to produce a "post-oil community" much larger than one's own nuclear family, before sheer destitution forces people to take a more serious attitude to survival. Fair-sized groups, however, would eventually develop. The society of the future has never been described, but at least some numbers are available. Chester G. Starr's statement (A History of the Ancient World) is probably as good as any: "Whereas Paleolithic packs numbered perhaps 20 or 30, Neolithic farmers either lived in family homesteads, in villages of 150 persons (as at Jarmo), or in even larger towns (as at Jericho)."



The Cycle of Civilization


From a Darwinian perspective, civilizations are rather brief interludes in the story of mankind. Humans and human-like beings have existed for about a million years, but civilizations have existed for only about 5,000 years. Humanity's "uncivilized" past, therefore, is greater than its "civilized" phase by the enormous ratio of 200:1. Considering the brevity of the latter, it might almost be said that civilization is merely an experiment, the results of which are still uncertain.

All civilizations grow too large to support themselves, and their leaders have little foresight. These civilizations then collapse and are buried in the mud. The same will happen to America, but human shortsightedness prevents us from seeing America as only one among many civilizations. America, in other words, is seen as "civilization" in a generic sense, not as merely one civilization in a quantifiable sense.

The main difference between the United States and previous civilizations is that, from now on, the cycle of "civilization" cannot be repeated. Oil is not the only mineral that will be in short supply in the twenty-first century. Industrial civilization has always been dependent on metals, but hematite, for example, is no longer sufficiently common, and mining companies now look for other sources of iron, which can be processed only with modern machinery.

The technology of one century built the technology of the next. The technology of the past -- the hammer, anvil, forge, and bellows of the ancient blacksmith -- made it possible for later generations to extract the low grade ores of the present. Very low grade iron ores can now be worked, but only because there were once better, more accessible ores. This "mechanical evolution" is, of course, liable to collapse: when Rome fell, so did literacy, education, technology. But after many centuries, the Classical world returned. The western world experienced its Renaissance, its rebirth, after the Dark Ages because the natural world was fundamentally unchanged.

In the future, after the collapse of the present civilization, the necessary fuels and ores will not be available for that gradual rebuilding of advanced technology. The loss of both petroleum and accessible ores means that history will no longer be a cycle of empires, contrary to the descriptions of Spengler and Toynbee.

There will no doubt be successful communities arising over the next few decades or centuries, but they will have to be highly isolated and self sufficient if they are not to be affected by the general die off to which the rest of humanity will succumb. To a large extent their technology will be quite primitive, since present day technology is highly dependent on the long tentacles of international commerce, as well as on the enormous manpower that sustains the industrial division of labor. Nevertheless, the knowledge acquired in more recent times could be combed for appropriate inventions. Such an amalgam of technologies will result in the development of communities so different from anything in the past that the process will resemble that of colonizing a distant planet.


Further Reading:


Catton, W. R., Jr. (1982). Overshoot: The ecological basis of revolutionary change. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Duncan, R. C. (2005-06, Winter). The Olduvai theory: Energy, population, and industrial civilization. The Social Contract. Retrieved from http://www.thesocialcontract.com/pdf/sixteen-two/xvi-2-93.pdf

Gever, J., Kaufmann, R., & Skole, D. (1991). Beyond oil: The threat to food and fuel in the coming decades. 3rd ed. Ed. C. Vorosmarty. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado.

Kaplan, R. D. (2001). The ends of the Earth: From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia -- A journey to the frontiers of anarchy. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith Publisher.


Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)