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)

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