Monday, November 3, 2014

Eleven Discourses on Global Collapse

1. The Big Sky

* It's sometimes useful to divide people into those who have read Catton's Overshoot and those who haven't. Which of the two groups people belong to determines most of their major decisions over the coming decades.

* In various countries, it's a curious indication of modern mentality that anyone walking along a road, rather than driving, is assumed to be an outcast, a parasite, living off the earnings of others. Before I left Oman to come back to Canada, I sold my car early, preferring not to be dealing with the hopeless Omani red tape while I was trying to get out of that dysfunctional country. Later, both in Oman and in Canada, I was carrying a knapsack and I was therefore a bad person. Someone who drives a car from one shop to another, although these are only a hundred meters apart, is a good person.

* I once showed a colleague the usual graph of the likely rise and fall of global oil production over past and future decades. I mentioned that one can apply simple mathematics to the available statistics on population and resources to see that windmills and solar panels aren't going to do the trick. "Yes," he said. "I know. It's amazing how people hang on to their illusions." A few days later he told me he was planning to go back to school in a couple of years to get an M.A. in some utterly anachronistic subject. Cognitive dissonance: one part of the brain doesn't want to know what the other part is thinking.

* I know several people who use most of their monthly paycheck to pay off a mortgage on a house that has had declining market value for years. They say, "We'll sell it when the market picks up again." I tell them that the credit crisis that began in 2007 is not part of a "cycle" of any sort. Anything that goes down for eternity is not a cycle. They give me a puzzled look and wander off.

* "Never mind all this doom and gloom. You have to tell us what to do." Well, it's been more than 250 years since Voltaire said, "Let us cultivate our garden," so I don't know if I have the patience to tell people what to do if they haven't already figured out what Voltaire meant. Anyway, with a dangerously declining economy, the most important rule is to do the opposite of what most people are trying to do, and get out of that economy.

* Canada has an area of 10,000,000 km2. Most of the population lives in the strip along the US border, 100 km wide and 5,000 km long, i.e. 500,000 km2. That's 20 percent of Canada's total land area. The other 80 percent, for the most part, has such a low population density that it might be regarded basically as uninhabited. I am perpetually intrigued by the possibility of a certain amount of self-sufficient human settlement there. After all, the native people long ago inhabited (in some cases quite sparsely, of course) nearly every part of North America, with only primitive technology.

* I'm starting to get a clear picture of the future livability of various parts of Canada. My research methodology is a mixture of government statistics, real-estate ads, and local gossip. Since I don't intend to be a wage slave, an ideal area for me would be one with low prices, especially low house prices, basically caused by a low employment rate. For someone still hoping to be part of the global economy, on the other hand, an area of that sort might not be so ideal.

* Statistics Canada has a somewhat mind-boggling publication entitled Population Projections for Canada, Provinces and Territories, which indicates that the populations of the East Coast provinces will stay flat or decline over the next few decades, whereas those of the rest of Canada will rise. The reason is that the oil and gas industry, and the decline of fishing, have caused many people to leave the East Coast. It's also typical of the Pollyanna nature of the mainstream news-media that this dichotomy between "East Coast" and "other" does not appear in print, or not to my knowledge.

* My frequent spot-checking of house prices indicates that in all the East Coast provinces there are many livable houses for sale at less than $60,000, whereas in the rest of Canada such houses are rare.

* Even in northern Ontario the house prices are high, although there are no booming businesses there. A friend of mine living in the "near north" of Ontario thinks part of the reason is that retirees from the Toronto area no longer want to move a mere 200 km north of Toronto, where he is, but would rather move 500 km north, to the Kapuskasing-Cochrane area, where there is more elbow room. He himself has a second house in that more-northern area. Of course these people are the last of the rich pensioners, and when they are gone the prices might drop.

* I think the kind of analysis I use for Canada might also be used by people in other countries. Might as well make use of the Internet before the screen goes permanently black.

* I'm not sure if "Bangkok" was the "B" Lester Brown had in mind when he spoke of "Plan B," but in case there's ever an unpleasant surprise in one's first choice of location it's probably best to keep one or two alternate places in mind, perhaps quite different from one's basic selection. Canada's Presbyterian mentality can obscure the fact that there are those who have a different approach to the Apocalypse: an early death from AIDS or alcohol wouldn't necessarily be worse than a late death from boredom.

* Anyone thinking about "investment opportunities" should realize that most growth industries will be those that are now labeled criminal. Misha Glenny points out that tax evasion and organized crime already constitute 15 to 20 percent of global GDP.

* When I once questioned people in Canada about frugality, several suggested shopping at second-hand stores, but those stores will be closed when China stops shipping goods 12,000 km. A better frugality would be learning to appreciate the beauty of empty spaces, as in traditional Japanese houses, reducing our material possessions not as a form of arduous self-denial but as a blessing.

2. Looking for the Uncrowded Country

A couple of fridge magnets might hold the following desiderata: a place in the country with a couple of hectares of forest for firewood, another hectare for a garden, and a nice muddy beach for clam-digging (well okay, at least one of those three); and a small income or a large savings account as a buffer to the occasional but inevitable need for cash (until all dollars become Confederate dollars).

How fast things will decay is a debatable point. Personally, I would put my money on "faster" rather than "slower." There's a problem with perception: although the world's economy is collapsing rapidly, because it's all on a mammoth scale we don't notice it happening. In 2011 I mailed two boxes of used books, each of which was light enough for one person to carry easily. I sent them from Oman back to Canada by the cheapest parcel post, no registration, no insurance. The cost was $180 Canadian. Later I had to use a car to get those books and bring them somewhere else in Canada. The cost of the gasoline was greater than the cost, a few years ago, of the books. Nothing is cheap anymore, even if there aren't many people who register all the implications of that fact. It's true that collapse is not essentially an economic matter, since economists live in an unreal universe, but the economics of daily life should at least act as a signal.

Then one must deal with the enigma of concrete farmland. Finding a place in the country is central to surviving the next few decades, but the best land for gardening is both crowded and expensive. To a very large extent, where we need to live is not where we can live.

Canada's province of Ontario serves as a good illustration of this bind, although my own years of living there are part of my reason for focusing on that area. Roughly speaking, the province has 13 million people and 1 million km2 of area. But the province is commonly regarded as consisting of "northern Ontario" and "southern Ontario," more or less divided by the 45th parallel. Northern Ontario is about six times larger than the south. The division reflects many things, all interrelated. Partly it is history: the south was the area first settled by Europeans. Partly it is geology: northern Ontario is part of the Canadian Shield, mostly barren rock. Partly it is population: in contrast to area, the population of the tiny south is 12 times larger than that of the north. And partly it is agricultural: nearly all the good farmland is also south of latitude 45. To get to most of that usable land, one would have to dig up a fair amount of asphalt and concrete. Yes, there are pockets of farmland still in use, but to buy a few hectares one would have to pay a considerable price.

One of my own favorite computer games, therefore, has been to wade through the maps of the Canada Land Inventory, created from the 1960s to the 1980s (again, a sign of lost abundance) and now almost unobtainable. I compare these maps of agricultural and hunting land to the properties available at real-estate Web sites. I also compare them to various forms of demographic data, in particular to information on unemployment and depopulation; in a sense, I am profiting from the misfortunes of others: parts of Saskatchewan and the East Coast are losing population because of emigration to the relatively wealthier provinces. As a result, however, some usable land becomes available to intrepid "survivalists" with their shovels and hoes and collections of doomsday literature.

A constructive, non-fatalistic response to what I call "the coming chaos" might also include a reading of three particular documents by Ferguson, Lee, and Pimentel, on the topics of foraging, farming, and the social consequences. I prefer them to hundreds of other books and documents that present various viewpoints on those topics.

In "Energy Flows in Agricultural and Natural Ecosystems," Pimentel explains, among other things, some of the basic facts that would underlie any practical form of agriculture that does not rely on fossil fuels -- although, yes, any form of agriculture is ultimately destructive to the soil. Much of what he says is contrary to the conventional wisdom (or nonsense) offered by armchair gardeners, particularly in terms of the amount of land needed. Pimentel's article is rather brief and dry, but it provides a good starting point for any realistic appraisal of the limited agriculture that will be possible in the coming decades.

Ferguson's "Birth of War" is the best response I have seen to Hobbe's dictum that human life in early times was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." I think my recommendation of Ferguson's article is not on the basis of my own preconceptions or prejudices, because for a long time my reading was based on the assumption that Hobbes was right.

Lee's article, "What Hunters Do for a Living," like those of Pimentel and Ferguson, can be juxtaposed by many writings that make the opposite claim, or at least lead to opposite conclusions. That is to say, there are writers, including professional anthropologists, who basically assert that a foraging (hunter-gatherer) life is one of hard labor and near-starvation. Again, though, I should explain that my own more-optimistic conclusions come after a lengthy examination of the opposing theories. I eventually came to agree with Lee's statement (on his first page) that "with a few conspicuous exceptions, the hunter-gatherer subsistence base is at least routine and reliable and at best surprisingly abundant."

3. Collapse -- The Practical Paradigms

The entire global economy is collapsing, although very few people are aware of this: mainly the very rich and the highly educated. By understanding this, one becomes a member of the illuminati oneself, or if not at least an enlightened refugee.

The word "economy," however, is a misnomer, because economics is based on a misconception, like alchemy or astrology. Economists think everything can be explained in terms of money, which is seen as a closed system, perfect and eternal, like pure mathematics. What is happening, though, is not a closed system: the decline in natural resources, especially petroleum, and conversely the terrible rise in global population. It is a once-only event.

The decline in resources cannot be remedied. Those who believe in windmills and solar panels are closing their eyes to all questions of scale. Unfortunately we live in an age in which it is considered more important to have an opinion than to have an education.

Truth is another scarce resource: in particular, no one should trust television. A TV set is a machine for spreading lies, like the manure spreader behind a tractor. TV is controlled by an ever-shrinking number of corporations, and its goal is neither to inform nor to entertain, but to make profits. This is done by censoring the fundamental truths, and by depicting human society as a sitcom of seven billion characters, each of them too rich to be real and too mindless to be human. Yet we stare at the screen, longing for that illusory paradise, and then wander off to spend our hard-earned money -- hard to win, easy to lose.

Overpopulation is good for business. If a company in China or India can sell a product at a fraction of the price charged by an American company, that is because the cheaper product is based on what is virtually slave labor: the backbreaking misery of the poor.

The world is divided into a small number of the very rich and a much greater number of the poor. There is also the middle class, a vanishing breed who have neither the money of the rich nor the leisure of the poor.

Overpopulation is also correlated with crime (I mean "crime" in the usual sense of the word, although "white-collar crime" may be a greater evil). Contrary to its depiction on TV, there is nothing mysterious about crime. Anyone born in a poor neighborhood must occasionally break the law in order to survive. Prostitution, for example, is not an occult society: to a large extent, it is just a way of paying the rent.

As global society decays, those who plan wisely to survive and succeed must head for the hills, or if not the hills then the forest, the prairies, the seacoast. Nevertheless, for the next few years, until money as such is no longer the principal means of exchange, a little cash will probably still be necessary.

The most common mistake in such a transition "back to the land," therefore, is to recreate an urban house in an rural setting: the same house but with a greater distance to one's neighbor. One's cost of living has not changed, while one's income possibilities have droppped considerably. To renounce a modern income in order to break the ties to the collapsing global economy, one must also renounce "modern conveniences."

The future will be the Great Lurch Forward, crazier than Mao's Great Leap Forward and far deadlier. It will not be a mere extension of the American Dream, with fatuous executives guiding TV crews through a "green" domicile the size of a palace.

The transformation will be more than superficial. It will be psychological, philosophical, spiritual, and long-term, not technological and temporary. In the process, those who find the way must reconsider the ancient virtues, from fortitude to charity. They must recover their lost humanity, their identity as Homo sapiens, devoid of its plastic accoutrements. They must stop acting as if they were aliens on their own planet.

4. The Man Who Fell to Canada

The last leg was a tiny plane that left New York City and bounced down onto Halifax airport, at 10:00 p.m., on July 2, 2011. The taxi driver was Arabic, so we got along well. From Oman to Nova Scotia had meant three separate planes. I lost track of the number of hours because of the time zones, but I'd guess about 24 hours, crushed into an economy-class seat with little chance to sleep. But that left me dazed enough to get through five security checks: empty your pockets, remove your shoes and belt. The trick, of course, is to say as little as possible, keeping any dialogue bland and neutral. The questioning wasn't really aggressive, but it was still intrusive and disturbing. Strange how the USA devolved from liberty and equality into neo-nazism with a snap of the fingers. The Space Age died and became the Homeland Security Age.

There's a curious form of culture shock that accompanies returning to one's own country after long absence. I dose myself with Omani perfume on the airplane in lieu of taking a shower, then discover that Canada is now a "scent-free environment." I'm not only a dumb immigrant, I even smell like one. Never mind: I can still use my blue eyes to bully my way into getting priority service.

I brought a lot of dress clothes in case I end up looking for a job, but I'm still hoping that I can now completely retire. It's hard to say: the prices of everything seem ten times higher than when I was in Canada three years earlier. How can a sandwich cost five or ten dollars?

I'm not sure of the right metaphor for what I'm now doing. I don't know anybody in Nova Scotia, and I must therefore rely on my suitcase and my knapsack, both of which I had packed so carefully, opening them up to produce a car, a house, all the necessary plastic cards, and so on. The two containers are like an acorn that must become an oak, a spore that must become a mushroom, a space vehicle that must stick out its spidery legs and start collecting geological samples. My "return to the primitive" may be delayed for a while: I don't want to be recognized as a Luddite. But if all unfolds well, metaphorically and otherwise, I can one day relax and have a cup of tea at the edge of the ocean.

5. Last Days of the City

Like many other cities, Halifax, Nova Scotia is mostly a vast and somewhat ugly twilight zone, even if Lonely Planet Publications generally prefers the term "urban detritus." It has a tiny fashionable downtown area, mainly serving the affluent top 5 percent, but even that downtown has nothing resembling a "shopping center" -- "center" meaning "middle"; it's not easy to accomplish two tasks in one trip. Also, the public transit consists of about 60 bus routes, weaving and tangling, and even the locals don't seem to understand those routes. To some extent Halifax is dysfunctional because it is unsophisticated, but it is not an especially unusual city.

About 40 percent of Nova Scotia's population lives in Halifax. That's probably a fairly typical case of modern urbanization. Such a concentration of population may be useful in the sense that so many goods and services are available within a few hours' drive, but I can see how anyone not tied to a job might prefer to avoid such centralization, because what it really means is congestion. I would guess that many people who have either the money or the leisure to make choices would prefer an environment that is not a 24-hour-a-day traffic jam.

Because there is no common sense to the way things are located, nothing at "pedestrian scale" (as if pedestrians were a subspecies), Canada is probably one of the worst countries in the world in terms of forcing one to buy a car. Although it goes against my Luddite and primitivist principles, not to mention my bank account, I think I myself must now concentrate on getting a car, having just returned to this land. Then I will try to get out of the "urban detritus" of Halifax and take to the road for a while, hoping I can find that little cottage with the white picket fence. After all, it was the non-urban that drew me back here.

Canada has also become terribly addicted to electronics. Unless one is a homeless panhandler, there seems no way to live comfortably in a city without electronic communcation devices and a car. We live in an ocean of electronics, although not one person in a million could adequately describe the workings of any one of those gadgets. ("Don't own anything you can't personally repair.")

I'm almost inclined to accept Tainter's theory that our civilization will collapse from excess complexity. I'm sure overpopulation and resource-consumption are the main issue, but complexity certainly comes in there. My attempt to negotiate Heathrow and (far worse) JFK airports taught me that we all live in a teeth-grinding environment threatened by gridlock.

Perhaps above all, though, it is roads that are both the archetype and the metaphor for the problem: no matter how fast we build our ill-named "freeways," it is only a matter of time before they are clogged. The day will come when we will start turning off the engines and walking away.

6. Collapse -- The Enigma of Town and Country

In these early years of systemic collapse, as population soars and petroleum and other natural resources go into decline, the question is not so much "how" to live one's life, but "where." At the risk of oversimplification, the question can be reduced to the common term "town and country," or more accurately "city and wilderness and a few points in between." There are good arguments for various choices, although I shall not consider suburbia, which in the future will entail the worst of everything, in particular great expense and a total reliance on automobiles.

Pure wilderness is tempting. The Cochrane Southwest Unorganized Area, in northern Ontario, for example, consists of 553 km2 and a population of zero. There would be no serious problems with water, firewood, game, and fish, and probably even arable land. Once a house or cabin had been built, money would be almost unnecessary; all houses in Canada must adhere to the Canada Building Code, which requires electricity and plumbing, which in turn require money, but in remote locations there is less enforcement of these laws. And a time will come when no laws will be enforced. The long, harsh winter would be the main drawback, requiring the cutting and stacking of a great deal of wood. In addition, such a location would only suit a physically fit person who enjoyed long-term solitude. Another catch with wilderness life is that the distance to any settled area is so great that it cannot easily be covered without a motorized vehicle; if a long journey were ever necessary, the "simple life" might no longer be simple.

On the other hand, in a world with diminishing fossil fuels an argument could be made in favor of living in the center of a big city. The public transit system might be good enough that there is no reason for buying a car. For that matter, one can generally get anything needed simply by walking. Renting an apartment may be better than buying a house; why spend thousands of dollars on a house if one has no intention of reselling it later or passing it on to one's descendants? The most common disadvantage of such a location may be the problem of noisy neighbors. A longer-term and more serious danger is that the center of a city is "ground zero" for any form of systemic collapse when it has truly arrived: food, water, fuel, and electricity would suddenly vanish. Cities have always been the weak spots in any form of widespread disaster.

Between those two extremes might be a location in a small town, or on the outskirts of one. An ideal property might be one that had a few hectares of land for vegetable gardening and for the sustainable harvesting of firewood, and with a well or at least a river for supplying fresh water. House prices and property taxes in such rural areas are much lower than those in a city, although higher than those in more remote locations. Shops, doctors' offices, and post offices might be within walking distance. The company of good neighbors might be valuable, especially in times of trouble. There might be electrical power, and perhaps even a municipal water supply, although all these "mod cons" defeat one's purpose of disconnecting from a collapsing economy. The main advantage of small towns is that, although they can sometimes be hit by the same kinds of shortages as cities, they are generally more self-sufficient.

As with pure wilderness, small towns can nevertheless present the irony that the distances make the use of motorized vehicles quite addictive: this problem is caused largely by the fact that modern small towns often replicate "urban sprawl." In earlier centuries, towns and villages had a radial structure, with the houses and shops in the center and the farmland at the perimeter, allowing greater self-sufficiency with less traveling.

In a rather complex manner, there is a further touch of irony, if not a genuine self-contradiction, in "getting away from it all." The most visible aspect of systemic collapse is the disappearance of one's own finances: the frightening imbalance between one's expenses and one's earnings, even after cutting back on what used to seem necessities -- everything from gasoline to education now seems an unaffordable luxury. Abstract theories of either economics or ecology seem tangential when staring at one's empty wallet. The irony is that by leaving the city one might be dealing both with smaller earnings and with smaller expenses, but at the same ratio: if the ratio is not changed, no advantage has been gained. Rural poverty and urban poverty are thereby the same, merely on different scales. Any genuine solution must therefore include shifting that balance. Eventually the money economy will collapse, and those who live furthest from the cities will do best: in general it was farming families who managed to get by during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It's the waiting that may kill us. The problem is not that the global economy is collapsing, but that it is not collapsing fast enough.

There is a final matter to consider: particularly in the affluent West, most people have lost the ability to make choices about the future. We neither know nor care what the next few decades may bring. We may have some vague intimation of storm clouds on the horizon, but our fears are quickly dispelled by the glib fantasies of the mainstream news-media. We must start to give up our computers, cars, and other toys, before we have forgotten how to live in a non-electronic world. We must rediscover how to live as a part of Nature, not in opposition to it.

7. Handy Hints for Turbulent Times

The following is a set of principles that might make it easier to deal, on a personal or individual level, with global issues arising in the first few decades of the twenty-first century. After that, there will be changes far more alien to our accustomed word-view: the demise of government and with it the end of money as a means of exchange.

* The present issues can be summarized by saying that oil, electricity, and metals are going into decline, and that as a result all other goods and services are also in decline. In terms of money, the general effect is "stagflation": stagnant incomes combined with increasing prices. The ultimate cause of all these issues is overpopulation.

* Dealing with the future requires two approaches: financial and non-financial.

* The first approach is to accumulate as much money as possible in the next few years and live on those savings. Of course, there is not so much "easy money" these days. One trick is to find a high-paying job that most people do not have the fortitude to accept.

* This financial approach means one must stop living in denial. In the first place, many people deny that they are short of money, while in reality their debt-to-asset ratio is atrocious: they are burdened with credit cards, mortgages, car payments, student loans, and so on. Secondly, many people are ashamed of their financial state and therefore keep it a secret; the same thing happened during the Great Depression. But this is absurd: If every family is poor, how can poverty be shameful?

* The non-financial approach is what the glossy magazines call "country living": learning how to provide oneself with food, clothing, and shelter in ways that do not involve being so connected to the global economy. These skills can vary greatly in the degree to which they are "pre-industrial" ("primitive"). The extreme approach would constitute going off into the bush with only a gun and an axe; less off-beat would be learning not to pick up a telephone and call for outside assistance every time something around the house needs a minor repair.

* The catch to the financial approach is that money is ephemeral, perhaps more so now than at any time in the past. To use a common expression, money nowadays is just dots on a screen; what do we do when we cannot see the dots? It can be rather frightening to consider that one's hard-earned life-savings are nothing but electronic impulses in a vast and complex network that nobody really understands.

* In general the word "electronic" should be a danger signal. Although modern industrial society is based on fossil fuels, it is not these but electricity that is the most fragile part of our way of life. Of all the really distinct stages of systemic collapse, the failure of electricity will be the first to arrive. The great blackout of northeastern North America in August 2003, among others, was an warning of things to come. Also, most people have forgotten that in the 1960s the extreme sensitivity of computers to electronic impulses (EMP) from nuclear weapons was recognized as a serious weakness. Our dependence on electronics becomes greater with each passing year: anyone without a mobile phone and a laptop computer is ostracized, alienated from middle-class society.

* Acquiring independence from the industrial leviathan takes many forms. One good rule of thumb is that every time one learns to do something without spending money, one has acquired a new "survival skill." A related principle is, "Don't own anything you can't fix." Obviously the use of a mobile phone does not follow those two rules of thumb.

* We should keep in mind the old lie perpetuated by Marshall McLuhan: that the medium is the message. The Internet probably uses about 5 percent of the global electricity supply, and about 10 percent of the US supply, although nobody knows for sure. Yet there is an important distinction between data and information. Most of the data carried by the Internet could be deleted with no loss to our species. We can no longer distinguish between quantity and quality. In reality, "more, bigger, faster" just means "dumber, dumber, dumber." One should get rid of the TV set and try having a conversation.

* There are not many problems that cannot be solved with a good knapsack and a few mountains. A look down any city sidewalk will reveal another form of denial: that most human beings in modern society are fat, pale, and pimply. The future belongs to those who are both mentally and physically fit. As Marx and Engels said in a somewhat related context, you have nothing to lose but your chains.

8. The Year 2050

Looking back on the early 21st century from its midpoint, historians (of a sort) will regard it as the Age of Insanity. Who would believe that such a large proportion of the world's grain harvest would be turned into fuel for automobiles, each of which was a colossal example of inefficiency, a 1,000-kg metal vehicle with a single passenger? And who would believe that most newspapers would laud the efforts of "our peacekeeping forces," who marched into countries where they did not belong, committing acts which were blatantly offensive rather than defensive, all in the name of a euphemistic "hegemony"? Hadn't such thinking gone out with Adolf Hitler? And who would believe that the top mannequin, the President of the United States, would tell the citizens that the solution to multi-trillion-dollar debt was to go further into debt? And who would believe that the US would surrender its manufacturing to other countries, leaving itself nothing but a nation of service industries, oblivious to the fact that nobody wanted to be "serviced"? (And why does this word remind me of prostitution?) And who would believe that in a world literally dying of overpopulation, the topic would receive less coverage than a Hollywood divorce, since it was an issue that both the left and the right regarded as inconsequential?

The bookmakers will have had fun with World War III. In McMafia, Misha Glenny explains that in the Soviet bloc there was never such a thing as "law" in any normal sense of the word. Western concepts of law are very complex, very detailed, and they were built up over many centuries. The Communist equivalent for law was little more that bullying: what the boss said was about the closest thing to a law, and what his own boss said was an equally vague "law." Consequently, when the Soviet world fell apart, but had neither law nor law enforcement to fall back on, the so-called mafias filled the vacuum. Russia is therefore dissolving in anarchy. China's threat to the rest of the world will disappear as it loses all its resources: while the West believes China has its fingers into everything, the reality is that China is geographically almost identical to Canada but has about 40 times the population. China will be fatally short of rice, water, coal, and almost everything else. The only competitor with the US for "global hegemony," if some problems of cooperation can be solved, will be the cluster of Muslim countries. Unlike Westerners, many people in those countries know the oil is running out, and that they will have to nationalize everything before too many more American fortresses are built in their lands.

One great weakness of the West is the sad farce of democracy. It was always a wonderful idea, but the present concept of the "vote" now tends to undermine the whole effort. Some people say democracy is all about money: who can be bought, and for how much. Other people say it's based on power: one power group vs. another, one lobby group vs. another ("You take the model railroaders, we'll take the birdwatchers"). But "money" and "power" are basically the same thing. In its present form, in other words, democracy is merely a struggle for popularity; such matters as truth, freedom, and justice get lost in the brawling. At the same time, "communications technology" has become a misnomer, as the endless innovations are largely used to deceive the populace. The final blow is that democracy works smoothly only in small groups anyway, as the ancient Greeks could have told us. When the "voter" can no longer look the "politician" in the eye, it's inevitable that the liars will take over. "Dunbar's number" is 150, the maximum practical size for human association: with a population of 312 million, the US is far beyond that number, and China has never even bothered to be democratic.

There are people such as R.B. Ferguson who have good arguments for a sustainable global population of something like one million. That was the population about 10,000 years ago, just before agriculture was invented. Not only was agriculture detrimental to the land, but the resulting population explosion led to urbanization, which led to major socio-economic differences, which in turn led to warfare, and the overcrowding of the urban areas led to epidemics. That figure of one million would be 1/7,000 of the present population, or slightly more than the present population of Fiji. In the year 2050, when oil production falls to a small percentage of its present level and mechanized agriculture collapses, we won't need a doomsday virus to adjust those numbers. While the results will be horrifying, there will ultimately come a redemption of some sort: a little peace and quiet.

9. Back to the Land (but You First)

"Well, this is the end of civilization. What are we going to do about it?" My answer is always the same: "Move out to the country. You can't stop the collapse, but you can get away from it." At that point, however, the conversation itself collapses: all I'm getting is a blank stare. So the entire dialogue, brief and simple as it may be, has a flaw of some kind. It's a defect that neither of us, apparently, can quite explain. The silence isn't from dishonesty or secrecy, I would think, but merely from some sort of confusion, some problem that results from the complexity of the subject matter. Country living, it seems, is too expensive, too hard, too alien. Something like that.

Let's go over those issues one by one. But first I should say: it's not all hopeless. Many people do in fact make that transition. They tend to be people who've beat the game by going either above the rules or below them. People who have income or savings well above average can certainly move to the country, or perhaps have a second residence out in the country. Those who truly don't care about keeping up with the Joneses can also do all right.

With the first category, that of those who "go above the rules," I don't mean those who own an uninsulated summer cottage perched on a square yard of lakeside rock, squeezed in between two families with extremely loud children. It's true that owning a cottage of any sort puts you at a reasonable level of snobbery, but a lump of granite isn't going to provide you with the right to call yourself a true survivalist. No, by "above the rules" I mean you have what the real-estate brochures call "acreage." You have enough land that you can neither see nor hear the satanic offspring that your neighbors are raising.

By going "below the rules," on the other hand, I mean that you're single (most likely), you live in a shack, you ride a one-speed bicycle, and all your clothes were acquired second-hand. It's also fairly likely that you're young, since middle age has a way of whispering in your ear that what you're doing isn't "voluntary simplicity," it's the terrifying vacuum of poverty, and that anyone who lives like that is at least borderline mentally ill.

Another catch to country living, if you aren't born to it, is that it's too difficult. But that's not really the right word. It's too bewildering. I've just discovered, for example, that until quite recent times people didn't have the habit of bathing every day, or changing their clothes every day -- and that these habits are probably not even good for us in the first place. The Merk Manual of Medical Information tells me now that the solution to a problem of chronically itchy skin (as I've had for a long time) is to go easier on the soap and water, and avoid scrubbing the skin -- all the contrary of our general but misguided belief that "cleanliness is next to godliness." The point I'm getting at here is that the countryside has too much DIRT. The dirt of the countryside can send us into a tailspin of "culture shock." When I was running a market garden, one of my best customers stopped buying my baby potatoes when I told her that washing them before selling them was ruining the skins, and from now on I would simply let the potatoes dry somewhat and then lightly brush the dirt off. She couldn't accept the fact that vegetables grow in dirt. If your crops don't grow in the air, you can't sell them.

In a sense, the "country" no longer exists. Conversely we're locked in to the urban life. The world -- any part of the world -- has been taken over by civilization, so the difference between city and country isn't what it used to be. You can be at the top of a mountain, thinking about the Paleolithic, and a wealthy tourist with a high-powered rifle can come in over your shoulder by helicopter and shoot that grizzly bear you've been admiring. You can't get away because there is no "away." To a very a large extent, the extinction of the countryside is -- once again -- the fault of the money economy. (But, yes, ultimately overpopulation is to blame.) A trip to a hardware store can easily cost a thousand dollars. Even before that, having house inspectors look at a piece of property you like will also cost you a thousand dollars. The lawyer who handles the transaction will want another thousand. Need a new roof? Need to install gutters? Need a water heater, a sump pump, better plumbing, new windows or doors? You might as well go to your bank and ask them to give you a bundle of thousand-dollar bills, because you won't have any use for smaller denominations.

Of course, it's very easy to make the mistake of thinking you're living the "country" life when all you're doing is living in a "city" house with a greater distance between neighbors than your former colleagues have to accept. Your cost of living, in that case, is the same as in the city, but your income is probably far less. Part of the solution, therefore, is to lower your standards.

Sadly, it must be said that we're prisoners of the city. Big Brother has got us. There are transponders, motion detectors, and closed-circuit television cameras ensuring we don't escape. And the economy itself has certainly got us trapped in either downtown or suburbia: the guidelines may tell us that our debts shouldn't exceed our earnings, but who has the ability to keep even a single credit card in line? This is the age of inflation. No, even that is a euphemism, it's the age of stagflation: prices go up, but incomes stay down. We can't afford even a tent in the country, let alone a cottage.

For that matter, maybe the country never was the country. What happened to the back-to-the-landers in that great migration of the 1970s? Most of them went back to the city. Each of them now regards himself (or herself) as a "sadder but wiser man (or woman)." Very few of them stayed, and if they did it was only because they found themselves jobs with steady paychecks. The same is true today. There may well be a need for astrologers out in the countryside, but the income won't be enough to help you out when you're pushing your shopping cart up to a cash register in a hardware store. Before I bought my first house in the country, a local woman in a restaurant said, "Kids always move away. There's nothing here but Bell, Hydro, and the police." (Bell and Hydro are Canadianisms for telephone and electricity.) In other words, you're either getting your paycheck from "the government," which means in essence that those "rich, lazy city folks" are keeping you alive thorough their income taxes, or you're just out of luck. No, there's no employment office in an average village: if there are any jobs coming up, they always go to someone's cousin, and don't waste your breath trying to define "nepotism."

The problem of the nonexistent -- or at least, disappearing -- countryside certainly goes back a few years. Throughout my life, my favorite book has been Thoreau's Walden. I suppose it still is, but I no longer carry a copy. Partly that's because I have the book memorized and therefore have a permanent copy in my brain, but also it's because no one has ever given me a good answer to the question, "Why did Thoreau leave Walden?" He was there for only two years. If "the answer" was Walden, why didn't he spend his whole life there? Most studies of Thoreau say he left because his mentor Emerson offered him a sinecure, a place in the Emerson household as a sort of tutor or resident scholar. My own guess is quite different. During his first year he had an enormous garden, and he sold beans and other crops at the end of that year. He mentions, however, that he later thought it might be wiser to tend a much smaller piece of land, and to do it more for self-sufficiency than for money. He speaks of the "miles" of his bean field. My guess, in other words, is that he found it all too hard. He couldn't live without money, and although he never had much of an income he did have various skills, from surveying to lecturing, that paid more than beans.

But I'm still convinced that it can be done. There's nothing finer than to see a few perfectly straight rows of seedlings showing themselves above the ground. And there's nothing more evocative of the spirit of Nature than to watch, each spring, the shimmering whirlpools of a river in flood. Maybe I can even keep my Internet connection, so that I can stay in touch with distant friends of a similar mind, and we can convince one another that we may be crazy but we aren't stupid.

10. Doomers and Boomers

I keep trying to figure out how it is that doomers and boomers (or at least mere semi-doomers) have the same data but different totals. But maybe (a) they're not different totals and (b) maybe it's their half-full vs. my half-empty. We all seem to agree that there's a fair chance that oil production will stay somewhat flat for a while, and also that the next few years after that will probably see only a 2 percent average annual decline, or something like that, before going crazy. Of course, it's a sigmoid curve, and, as I discovered at age 12, when you're on your skis you can't turn around.

When I say "fair chance," of course, I'm excluding what might be called the Matt Simmons hypothesis, that some Middle Eastern countries are just lying through their teeth about how much oil they have left in the ground. If they are lying, it's time for each of us to start loading up the station wagon.

However, I was also thinking that another issue to consider (and maybe others have been thinking the same) is that if the next few years are "flat" and the ensuing years are only 2 percent, then why worry? Or, more precisely, why should you and I worry? We'll be dead by the time the S hits the F. Or as Louis XV said, "Apres nous, le deluge." After us, the deluge, so the hell with all those revolutionaries.

No, I'm not sarcastically hinting that it would be selfish not to care about the next generation. Or maybe I should say: I have mixed feelings. As far as I can tell, most Westerners under the age of 30 are mainly concerned about their tattoos. Also, the average American spends two and a half hours a day watching TV, which is basically a non-stop stream of little white lies, chopped into 5-second fragments. I'm not a neurophysiologist, but I suspect that a TV set has roughly the same effect on the human brain that a microwave oven has on an egg, even if only metaphorically speaking. So how many humans do I really want to save?

If the difference between the doomers and the boomers is a non-issue -- I mean, between the members of the two groups who have looked closely and carefully at the data -- then it may be that "getting out of Dodge" is also a non-issue. I've certainly had no luck getting my geriatric friends to study the Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, and my guess for today is that they assume that the deluge will only happen long after they're safely dead.

11. Sermons in Stones

I've been trying to figure out why my "back to the land" sermon usually falls on deaf ears. I'm getting some answers, but it gets complicateder and complicateder. I suppose the question dates back several years, when a friend in England was preaching the same thing, and most people (even among those closely following "peak oil" and similar problems) were really not listening to him. In those days, the main reason was what might be called the religion of solar energy -- 5 or 10 years ago, it was a common belief that we would soon be back to Business as Usual, but with solar panels nailed to the roofs of our cars. (Sorry, it's hard not to be sarcastic.)

But to him, as to me, it was basic arithmetic. There was no way, with the colossal disproportion between global population and global decline in resources, that the world could ever hope for a return to anything like "normal." Like me, he tended to use the word "survivalist" to describe a person who predicted an inescapable global disaster and then outlined the steps for providing food, clothing, shelter, etc. for the few who could be saved. And it was certainly "few," partly because of that initial seven billion -- or, at least, it was then headed in that direction, and now it's well over that number. That's the population of rats in the world, not the population of wolves. There was no way that seven billion of anything could fit at the top of the food chain. (In fact, as a citizen of the UK, he was living in a country with a horrendous problem of overpopulation.) But it was also "few" because the overwhelming majority of human beings were not listening. That's still the case: far less than one percent of the world's population have read The Limits to Growth (1972) or any of the other books with similar messages. Probably far less than one percent of one percent.

I remember one Canadian friend once telling me, with great pride, that he'd written a letter about peak oil to his Member of Parliament. Ho hum.

Then someone whose opinion I always respect and trust said she enjoyed my article about the year 2050, but felt that it didn't offer any "closure." I had thought that by ending the article with a paragraph on the reduction of population from seven billion to ten million, I was getting about as "closed" as mathematically possible. But obviously there was still a problem.

Then I tried to describe the nitty-gritty of "survivalist" behavior, with all the tedious complexities of going back to the Simple Life that is sometimes not so simple, but that is in fact possible, since it's an empirical fact that people do live in rural areas -- and not only the people who've lived there for generations. I got only one response, but a positive one, and I was glad to hear that it was from someone who'd grown up on a farm.

Later I was told that my only advice was to "run away," when I should really be "engaging." That kind of behavior might leave me with my compatriot who'd cheerfully written to his MP. In any case, I don't feel that by sharing practical advice on rural living I am doing anything that constitutes either negativity or selfishness or any other form of non-engagement. On the contrary: far better to say "game over" and help others to survive than to go into business selling solar panels for car roofs. Or writing to MPs.

I don't like the word "survivalist," of course, because that brand name has already been taken by people who can barely handle English grammar, and who think every solution must include a detailed description of guns and ammunition. Well, OK, I'd rather have a few gun nuts on my side than someone who writes letters to MPs, but surely there must be some who can talk about what I call "beans and corn" and not just the mathematics of hydrocarbon decline. But that probably makes me come across as rather self-righteous: even if they're far too quiet about any solutions they've come up with, there are in fact many people who are practicing what they preach -- or even practicing instead of preaching. Most of them seem to live in the Republic of Cascadia, but there may even be a few out east here as well. (What is it, a secret handshake?) But the silence prevails. Oh, well, maybe I should take a vow of silence myself, since I want to buy land again and don't want to start a stampede and drive up the prices. Maybe Lao Tzu had it right 2,500 years ago, when he said, "Those who know do not speak."

Peter Goodchild

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

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Global Collapse, Local Survival

* The world is collapsing from overpopulation and its converse, declining reserves of natural resources such as oil (petroleum). The entire world economy is tied to oil and other fossil fuels for manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, mining, electricity, and so on.

* World oil production in the year 2030 will be about half that of the year 2000.

* Alternative sources of energy are a failure mainly because of insufficient net energy -- "energy return on energy invested."

* The decline in fossil fuels leads to an increasing problem of low wages and high prices ("stagflation").

* The shortage of oil will continue to result in warfare.

* The above events will result in the deaths by famine of a great many people. Above all, "peak oil" means "peak food."

* The conventional news-media and the politicians will not state the problems.

* Solutions on a global scale are impossible, because there is no responsible governing body for all those billions of people.

* Nevertheless, planning for post-oil survival must eventually be on a scale larger than that of the individual person.

* Most people in developed countries grow up largely separated from birthplace and family. This process must be reversed.

* In general, survival in smaller population centers will be easier than in larger ones.

* The old-fashioned and more-basic skills for providing food, clothing, and shelter have been largely forgotten, but they must be relearned.

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 dozens of large-scale studies have been done, and the consensus is that the date for "peak oil" is somewhere between 2000 and 2020, with a maximum annual producion of about 30 billion barrels.

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.

There is no "big plan" for dealing with these problems, and there never will be, although most people assume the leaders of society are both wise and benevolent. Instead of the "big plan," there will be only the "small plan," person by person, family by family. Everyone's way of life will change as time goes by, but over the next few decades the following principles will apply.

A better way of life would begin with finding a saner connection to the natural world. It would be a good idea to leave the busy city for that strange, long-forgotten place called the countryside. Living in the countryside will be more useful than living in urban areas. Rural communities are closer to the land and the water, and any disruption of such ties is more easily resolved in a rural community. One's community will certainly constitute no more than about a hundred people or so, perhaps far less than that. Each family or small group will then need to find some way to provide itself with the necessities of life, because transportation and communication will be on a much smaller scale that they are today.

It would be best to start looking at how things were done in the 19th century, or even before that. This will mean living independently of the modern equipment and chemicals with which most people nowadays are familiar. The members of the community should learn to use the sorts of tools and materials that were common long ago. They should not own devices that cannot be repaired personally or at least locally. Finally, they should learn how to get by with no more than can properly be used, as was the case in earlier times -- even as recently as the 19th century, the average bedroom was hardly big enough for more than the bed, but it was still big enough.

Peter Goodchild

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Survive Global Collapse: City or Country?

Like that of several other industrialized countries, the population of Canada has tripled since 1950, mainly due to immigration. Canada can thank Pierre Trudeau for that. As a result, getting away from it all is harder than it used to be. Every lump of Canadian Shield granite that used to be topped with one log cabin now has three. Or, conversely, every lump of granite now costs three times as much.

It's getting to be a tight squeeze.

I: The Paradox of Heading for the Hills

All of humanity is now involved in a global collapse, which is happening on two levels: the material (fossil fuels, metals, food, etc.) and the economic (unemployment, inflation, debt crises, etc.). Basically it's the first causing the second, as in ancient Rome, but the causality is complicated, now as it was then. By the year 2020 or 2030, if there is any real solution it would be to move away from the cities, because ultimately that is the only way to provide independence from the cataclysm.

This would be a move on the part of the individual person. Collective decisions, on the national or even municipal level, would be largely impossible, because most people are indecisive on such issues, and politicians prefer less troublesome questions. Escaping from the city would be the ultimate do-it-yourself project.

But buying rural property at the moment, at least in the more-industrialized countries, involves a bizarre irony: in spite of our ingrained ideas about going back to nature, the reality is that it's very expensive. Thoreau's Walden is a wonderful book, but in the present century there's more to country living than hoeing beans.

"Elegant country living," to use the term of the glossy magazines, isn't available on demand. Those who most need to get out of the city are those who have the least money, while those who find it easiest to get out of the city are those who are rich enough to be hauling huge motorboats behind them as they travel. That's the irony -- or so it seemed to me one morning as I watched such a boat going down the road.

The rich can live well in the city, because endless goods and services are available with money. They can also live well in the country, for exactly the same reason. The non-rich -- i.e. the majority of the population -- cannot live as well in the city. It's the non-rich, therefore, who have the greater need to escape. But the fact is that the non-rich are, in many ways, locked into the city. For them, the city is habitable; the countryside is not.

In the city, even if you cannot live in great luxury without money, you can at least "get by" there. You can survive in the city with little or no money because there is public transportation, or you can use a bicycle, or you can walk. There is cheap housing, even if only at the level of the boarding house or lower, and maybe you can find a nice landlord. And there are always sources of food, to the extent that with no money at all you could go to a food bank or elsewhere. The nanny state will keep you alive, at least if you are willing to obey your nanny.

On the other hand, in order to move to the country, during these earlier days of collapse, you would need money for the purchase of property, and while property in the country is not as expensive as in the city it is still not cheap. If you intend to grow vegetables, perhaps raise animals, and cut firewood, you'll need several hectares of land as well as a house. For plant food, a garden of as much as a quarter-hectare per person might be needed. It's commonly believed that less land than that is necessary for food-production, but that's only if we delude ourselves into thinking we don't eat grains of any sort, when in fact they make up a large part of our daily diet. It's easy to delude ourselves as long as flour and other grain products are cheap enough to buy, but the prices of grains are going up swiftly. Raising animals takes even more land, perhaps not much for chickens but certainly a good deal for larger animals that necessitate areas for grazing and for hay-production. Access to firewood might require another 2 to 4 hectares of land.

The quality of the land is important. To grow crops, you need fertile soil, arable land, not bare rock or swamp. Here in the province of Ontario, for example, the arable land is only 5 percent of the total land mass. It's mostly just a small stretch of land around the southern Great Lakes. But that same piece of land also holds 90 percent of Ontario's population. The same ratio is roughly true of the rest of the country. Arable land here in Canada is nearly always expensive. If you find a place where arable land is cheap, a closer look may reveal unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, and petty crime -- not a good trade-off for anyone intending to find a permanent place to live.

If you're a physically-fit 20-year-old without much money, you could move north, get a gun and an axe, and head for the bush. On the other hand, if you're no longer young, you might think the idea of spending the winter in a log cabin is not a terribly practical one. Although I've built one or two log cabins myself over the years, I'm somewhat hesitant about going back to that life, especially since I'm already past 60. In nice weather I often get Daniel-Boone fantasies, but when the Arctic wind starts whistling down the street I sometimes think I would die without central heating. So it's hard to say.

Here in Canada, for less than about $60,000 you would not even get a "fixer-upper" out in the country, you would only get a "tearer-downer," i.e. something that should not have been regarded financially as an element of the purchase agreement you signed. And after enough 16-hour days of doing repairs on rotting timbers, your spouse is going to decide that marital vows are not non-negotiable.

There are other things that cost money. Because there is usually no public transportation out in the country, you would probably need a car, and on top of that the distance from home to job -- if you actually have such a source of money -- may be considerable. Some things are actually more expensive in the country than in the city, including electricity, gasoline, and telephones, mainly because of the greater distance between one point and another, resulting in longer stretches of road, more utility poles, and so on.

At least in pre-collapse times, you would probably need a job. But jobs in the countryside are rare; they usually go to somebody's cousin, and bitching about nepotism is going to get you nowhere, even if you manage to explain the word. Such jobs also pay less than comparable jobs in the city, partly because the rural economy is even more depressed than that of the city, and partly because you don't need as much money in the country -- or so you'll be told.

Owning an average house in Canada or the US will mean spending at least $10,000 a year to maintain it. That figure might include a mortgage, insurance, property tax, renovations (or repairs), heating (or air conditioning), electricity, telephone, and water, among other things. A house in the UK might mean spending five times that much.

There are other aspects to the downside of owning a house nowadays, although some of these are matters that hold true irrespective of whether the house is in the town or in the country. It's less practical for a single person to buy or occupy a house than for a couple, and couples are rarer in this age of quick divorces. The money you pay for a house might not be recouped if you resell, since real-estate bubbles may be less common in less-optimistic times -- and the ongoing bills for a house cannot all be cheerfully ascribed to "equity" if they include insurance, taxes, and repairs.

In the nineteenth century, the division between urban and rural was not so pronounced; Thoreau's town of Concord was almost part of the forest, or so it seems as we read his accounts. But rural living has been transformed since those days: the property is now expensive, crowded, and just not readily available. I know people who are living in the country with fair success, but they are exceptions for various reasons: for example, they might have moved there when property was cheap or their bank accounts were adequate, or both. The "locals," of course, have the advantage of occupying houses that their families have owned for generations, although perhaps nothing in such dwellings would meet any by-law entitled Residential Living Standards; in any case, the "locals" are a vanishing breed. I lived in the country myself from 2000 to 2008, but I can't say it was either cheap or easy.

Fortunately, after the total collapse the money economy will vanish, both from urban and from rural areas. Even in industrialized countries, the use of money is already starting to disappear because of the underground ("gray") economy. But it might be a fairly long wait before such a collapse that completely eradicates the use of money.

Perhaps the best thing is some sort of compromise, some happy medium between civilization and wilderness, between town and country. It may be that the best place to live, now and for the next few years, would be a small town, and the maximum population would be about 80,000, but much smaller might be better. That community should be small enough that you can get out of town easily. In other words, you should be living roughly on the border between urban and rural. That way you can take advantage of both worlds, or rather you would have a choice of two, if there was a danger that required making such a decision.

The other major criterion seems to be that one should be living in a country with a relatively normal, healthy form of government. I suspect people who already live in such countries are rather puzzled by such words as "corruption," since they may have seen such a thing on only a rather mild scale, e.g., an occasional politician handing out a contract to a crony, and not realized what it is like to live in a world where every minute of one's life is infested with dishonesty and unfairness.

Those two criteria, a smaller community within a country with a fairly healthy form of government, have other implications. I think many people live in big cities, not because of the restaurants and theaters, but because that's where the money is concentrated. But the downside is considerable. Big cities are expensive. The traffic and parking are terrible, yet public transport is usually dismal and hence not much of an alternative. And there is never a balance between urban and rural: food, clothing, and shelter are entirely dependent on how fast you can whip out a credit card or a debit card, so any concept of self-sufficiency is purely a fantasy. Don't try growing potatoes on a high-rise balcony --- although, yes, I confess I've done it myself.

As our familiar sources of energy start to vanish, we'll be entering a strange world. So the longer we can stretch out any "plateau" in fossil-fuel production with exotic, non-conventional hydrocarbons, and the longer we can hold off any dramatic decline curve, the better it is for people such as I, who are past their youthful days. If we can keep turning every bit of turf into automobile fuel, then we may be able to enjoy our pensions and whatever. After that, who cares? Besides, the young people of today are too busy with their iPhones to notice anything in the real world.

On the other hand, if we reach 70 or 80 years of age, and it's also at that point that we reach the big cliff of petroleum production, so that we suddenly find the supermarkets empty, the lights going out permanently, and the police taking early retirement to protect their families, then we might be in trouble. Hitchhiking along the Alaska Highway at that age might not be so much fun.

And what if we're wrong about that gentle "plateau" of oil production? What if we find that the curve is much sharper than we had expected? And what if "urban survival" is just not an option, for me or for anyone else, and we really do have to head for the hills? To make the countryside inhabitable again, all the realities would have to be dealt with, including some that weren't there in the 1970s, the heyday of the back-to-the-land movement: the countryside now has much greater population density, property is much more expensive, and the economy is such that you can't just change your mind and go back to being a guitar flunky in the big city. What it would take is a far greater sense of community, one that was based on an understanding of such essential matters as science and engineering, one that approached the countryside with the attention to detail of a good accountant.

Even when money ceases to have any meaning, there will still be the enormous question of who is going to have access to any of the arable land that exists on this planet. Let's even assume that the human population stays at a "plateau" (like the one said to be true of oil production) of about 7 billion, more or less, for the next few decades, with famine preventing any upward swing. The CIA and the FAO give slightly different figures, but they both say there are about 15 million square kilometers of arable land on this planet, which is pretty close to 10 percent of the world's total land surface. That means there are about 470 people per square kilometer of arable land -- which would perhaps be "do-able" in post-petroleum times, but it would be one hell of a squeeze.

II: A Room of One's Own

There is so much confusing information about real estate these days. But it seems that one cannot buy a liveable or usable house with a few acres of land in the rural parts of Canada for much under $60,000 plus annual property tax, repairs, and so on. It would actually cost less per year to rent an apartment in town.

However, it also seems that a careful search of the Internet will reveal large "acreages" -- land without houses -- that are cheap because they are described as having only a "right of way" or merely "deeded access (easement)," both of which really mean no proper road, perhaps just a trail, or perhaps just the legal right to walk in a certain direction to get to that property. (I'm not talking about "landlocked property," property listed as having absolutely "no access." Something listed as having "no road access" might be slightly better than something described simply as having "no access.") The line that appears on the map, however, might not match what you encounter on the ground. As I know from experience, the imaginary line might lead you right into a beaver swamp, with too much many water for wading and too many alders for canoeing.

But a mere trail -- or something even less visible -- might be fine, since it would actually keep strangers away better than a road. A road is only necessary if you're thinking of bringing in building materials for a house. My plan at the moment is to forget about a house of the usual design, and the 5-figure cost of building it, and to go back to my plan of much earlier years and put up a log cabin. I've built a few simple ones over the years, and I'm now very tempted to do it again.

In particular, I like the idea of having no road because I don't want building inspectors showing up and telling me that my house doesn't meet the standards of the Canada Building Code. Sod, birch bark, and straw aren't listed in the Code as roofing materials, I regret to say, even if they were used in Europe for centuries. Yes, all of Canada is subject to the Canada Building Code or a provincial variation thereof, and that means modern plumbing and modern electrical wiring, all very expensive. Speaking again from experience, though, I can say that building inspectors don't like walking miles through the bush in search of a log cabin that may or may not exist. It's also true that the further you are from the more settled parts of Canada, the less likely you are to find building inspectors even if you went looking for them.

I would also like to have land that would support a garden -- arable land. That's where it gets far more expensive. Most of Canada is rock, sand, or swamp, and the arable land is therefore not readily available. In this country, the first step would be to look at the maps of the Canada Land Inventory, the series called "Land Capability for Agriculture." They're no longer being published, but it might be possible to find copies in a government office or a big library, and they tend to come and go on the Internet. Other countries have similar maps.

I think if I can't find cheap arable land, I'd like to try living on deer, fish, and blueberries. The question there is whether there would be too many other people with the same idea. I've known a few people who've spent their lives more-or-less off in the bush, and their favorite techniques for bringing a dead deer home aren't something you'd read about in a glossy magazine. A desk jockey with his first rifle could hardly compete with such people.

It seems that land on the East Coast is cheaper than in Ontario, after all my efforts to get back here to Ontario. But the catch to the East Coast, besides the remarkable storms, is the terrible unemployment, poverty, depopulation, etc., which have had the result that most people who now live there are like the legendary wreckers, people who supposedly lit fires on the beaches to lure ships off their right course and then took whatever they found in the resulting wrecks. The East Coast is evidence of the fact that as times get harder, the problem won't be crime exactly, but a matter of dealing with people who have what is called "an uneasy relationship with the law." Well, okay, I still have my socks and underwear, so I shouldn't complain about the year I spent in Nova Scotia. Nevertheless, I'd rather stay in Ontario, the Land That Time Forgot, the land that will only get devastated by systemic collapse a few decades after most other parts of the world -- perhaps.

III: The Tighter-Grid Option

Whether you believe it would be better to live "off-the-grid" or to live "tighter grid" -- raising chickens in the country vs. finding a room in a downtown core -- depends on your view of the collapse. If you believe the collapse won't even come, that it's just a case of putting solar panels here, there, and everywhere, and then you can focus on "sustainability" and forget about mass famine and so on. Which means, yes, go for the high-rise apartment and the monthly subway pass. If, on the other hand, you believe that the Dark Ages will begin tomorrow, then you have to accept the fact that there will be no heating fuel and no electricity to keep those high-rise apartments going. (Dmitry Orlov once mentioned such problems with regard to the collapse of the Soviet Union, since Moscow is mostly apartment buildings.)

The same sort of dichotomy can be seen chronologically. Even if you believe that the collapse is coming, if you feel that there is a probable waiting period of a few years, then again it might make sense to go for the tighter-grid -- staying put in the center of a city. The reality is that tighter-grid -- at the moment, at least -- is cheaper than off-the-grid. The fact that it's cheaper reflects the fact that it has a smaller ecological footprint. It's easier to pack 500 people into a high-rise than to pack 500 people into several hundred houses. I've tried various modes of living, and I've found that it costs much more to live off-the-grid than to live tighter-grid, contrary to popular belief. (Out in the country, even if you have a small house, the costs of the well, the septic system, and the land itself might kill you. And consider the amount you pay for gasoline when driving in the country.) Of course the figures depend on all sorts of variables. A lakeside cottage an hour north of a city isn't as cheap as a log cabin built with an axe up in the Yukon. But the brief "waiting period" of living tighter-grid is still a dangerous one. Nothing will change the fact that in a genuine collapse, with fossil fuels, metals, and electricity all gone kaput, the center of any city will be a death trap.

The contrasts can be extended. I won't dwell on the fact that living tighter-grid might also mean listening to Elvis Presley at 3 a.m. and getting used to having plastic flowers on the chest of drawers. Personally, I like a bit of elbow room. A telephone-company employee once said to me in black-fly season, as he and I poked around to see if I could plant a row of cedars near some underground cables: "Bugs are good. Bugs keep people away." I was inclined to agree.

IV: Woodlanders

A master plan might be somewhat as follows:

Don't buy a house with land. Just buy land. That will save some money.

Don't live in a modern house, build a log cabin. Modern houses will soon become anachronisms. A much smaller dwelling is much easier to heat. Electricity will not be available, so the wiring and plumbing of a modern house would be useless. A log cabin also requires far less money to build. (There are other dwellings that might also be suitable, from plywood sheds to small mobile homes.) Just hope the economy collapses quickly enough that all the building inspectors get laid off before they discover where you're living.

Gardening is a good idea, but try at least to supplement your diet with hunting and fishing. Land that's good enough for gardening is very expensive and very crowded, and competition for such land will only get worse. In any case, if you grow food there's a good chance people will try to steal it.

Instead of buying a huge acreage of your own land, buy a slightly smaller property that's on the edge of government land -- but don't buy a property so small that you can see or hear any neighbors. By living next to government land you'll have countless acres of hunting and fishing land for which you won't have to pay a penny. If you have a criminal mind, it might even occur to you to take firewood off that government land, rather than paying a great deal of money for a private wood lot -- and as government collapses, the word "illegal" will be less meaningful anyway.

Don't forget that with any sort of property you'll need water. Some sort of stream, at least, would be necessary, or perhaps a well. A small river would be even better than a stream, especially if the river is too shallow for motorboats but suitable for canoes. A lake is no good, though, because lake property is both crowded and expensive.

Obviously if you already have a modern house, with all the trimmings, out in the country, then there's no point in getting rid of it. But if I'm a typical case, then I'd say that for people who have yet to build their survival bunkers the real bind in the next few years will be the shortage of cash, so any plan would have to have a reasonable price-tag.

And finally, unless you're so far from the rest of the human race that the question is irrelevant, try to make friends. The locals will always regard you as an extraterrestrial, but try to ensure that they consider you a harmless and possibly useful one. And if you have anyone coming to live with you or near you, it's generally best for them to be people with whom you are related by ties of blood or marriage.

Peter Goodchild

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

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Peak Oil, Peak Everything: 1970 Was the Big Year

Perhaps the most common response to the peak-oil problem is: "The oil isn't going to disappear overnight. We have a century to prepare." Unfortunately, the fact that the decline in oil is a curve, not a vertical line, makes it difficult to comprehend. What matters is that the serious damage will have been done long before we get to those tiny remaining drops. That damage started around 1970, and it was not confined to oil.

Also, there are "curves within curves," so to speak. "Peak oil" in an ABSOLUTE sense was around 2010, but "peak oil" PER CAPITA was 1979, when there were 5.5 barrels of oil per person annually, whereas for the last few years there have been only about 4 barrels. After that, the problem worsens considerably. According to UN estimates (admittedly quite uncertain), the world's population will rise to about 8 billion in 2030, whereas a look at the usual (or, at least, realistic) estimates for oil production show a decline to about 15 billion barrels in 2030, giving us a "per capita" figure of less than 2 barrels. That figure will not constitute an "on/off" situation, but by that year 2030 the human race should probably start saying goodbye to the Oil Economy.

It is not only oil, but in fact the entire North American economy that has followed something like a bell curve. In many ways it was not 2010, or any other year in the early 21st century, but the year 1970, that was the Peak, the Big Peak of Everything. Backward or forward on that curve, we see a dirty, noisy, crowded world. Right on that Peak, we see the Golden Age -- Beatlemania, "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll," Easy Street. As Dickens might say, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." The gap between the rich and the poor was not so bad in those days, whereas according to the US Census Bureau the mean income of the richest 5 percent of American families began to skyrocket shortly before 1970. In the year 1968, there was the Tet offensive, the turning point of the Vietnam War -- from an American military point of view, the downturn. In the year 1969, there was the first moon landing -- "the Space Age" began, although within a few years the expression (like "the Atomic Age") would be just an embarrassment.

The above-mentioned statement, "We have a century to prepare," also raises the question: Who is the "we" here? All human beings? A small group of dedicated survivalists? If the answer is the former, then the statement is false: humanity, as a whole, never makes any decisions. The human race, taken in its entirety, simply does not behave in such a sophisticated manner; the human race much prefers ignorance, superstition, cruelty, and intolerance. Robert Kaplan's book The Ends of the Earth is one of many texts that elucidate the harsh reality of human nature.

On the American domestic scene, the bad news was that in 1970 the production of oil in the US reached its peak and began a permanent decline. US production started rising again slightly in 2008 because of "fracking" (which has high decline rates), but only temporarily. As Jean Laherrère, David Hughes, and others have explained, it is unlikely that US oil production will ever again reach its 1970 height.

What about the coming several decades? Of course, a great deal depends on which time period one is discussing: the world of 2100 will be very different from the world of 2030. The question of slow versus fast collapse will also have a big effect on future scenarios. But if we look at tangible events of the last 100 years, two possible conceptions of the future stand out most clearly. These have best been illustrated by novelists (although not with peak oil as the setting) rather than by sociologists.

The first is that of a slow slide into an impoverished police state, as illustrated by George Orwell’s 1984. In this scenario, government does not disappear. It is here to curse us forever. We may be poor and living in chaos, but we will live in relentless drudgery. This is roughly the same scenario as that of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The second is that of a nuclear war that throws humanity back into a quasi-medieval world, as in Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz. In the fight for the remaining resources, civilization is largely destroyed. Such a scenario is just plausible as that of George Orwell.

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 American civilization, but human shortsightedness prevents us from seeing it as only one among many. The USA, in other words, is seen as "civilization" in a generic sense, when it is really just one single civilization in a quantifiable sense. Unlike that of ancient Egypt, however, it is not likely to have a lifespan of 3,000 years. Nor is it likely that another will take its place.

But who knows? I often wonder if civilization is highly overrated.

Peter Goodchild

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

Survival Gardening: Storing Crops and Saving Seeds


When you have harvested your crops, they will need to be stored. Refrigerators and freezers would mean reliance on electricity. Canning may be worth considering, especially for jams and pickles. But there are less complicated ways of saving food.

One way of storing vegetables is to keep them in a root cellar or something similar. The basic idea is to keep the food just above freezing. In pioneer times a root cellar was often a sort of cave dug into a hillside and provided with a door. The earth provided the necessary coolness and humidity to keep the vegetables fresh all winter long. Cabbages, apples, potatoes, squash, and root crops all do well in a root cellar, although many require packing in soil or some other damp material to prevent shriveling. Nowadays a root cellar can be made by walling off a northern corner of a basement, including a window that can be opened to regulate temperature.

Drying is a technique that works for almost anything. Grains and beans are very easy to dry. Squash can be peeled and cut into strips or spirals about half an inch thick, then hung up to dry in the sun. Sweet potatoes (but not white potatoes), beets, turnips, rutabagas, and carrots can be dried the same way. To remove the skins, either boil the vegetables so that the skins slip off, or peel the raw vegetables. Fruits can also be spread out in the sun. Leafy vegetables can be tied in bunches and hung in the shade to dry for a few days; in winter, these dried leaves can be crumbled and added to soup.

You can also preserve foods by making "leather," a thin layer of crushed fruit or vegetables spread in a thin layer and dried. To make fruit leather, boil and crush the fruit, and then spread it out on a plastic tray or a well-oiled tray of some other material, and leave it in the sun for a few days; bring it in at night. Using the same method, leather can be made of certain vegetables, particularly squash and Italian tomatoes.

Another simple method of storing is to build a clamp, which is a mound of vegetables placed on a foot-thick layer of dry vegetation (hay, leaves, or similar material), then covered with another foot-thick layer of dry vegetation, and finally covered with a layer of earth. Usually some sort of drainage is provided by digging a trench around the clamp, but that is easily done as you dig the soil that you are going to put on top of the clamp. Clamping is simple and cheap, but it is not always successful: a winter might be extreme, freezing and ruining the food or solidifying the mound too much for it to be opened.

Saving Seeds

It's better to get seeds from your own plants instead of paying high prices for tiny packets at a store. Keep an eye on the nicer plants, and earmark those for your next year's crop. Choose the best, not the earliest; contrary to popular belief, beans from pods that appear late in the season do not produce slower plants the next year. Never get involved with hybrid vegetables, of course, because they don't reproduce properly. There are two methods for producing seed, although they overlap considerably.

For the first method, crops are just be left in the ground until they to go to seed. Annuals are the simplest crops to deal with, since they go to seed in the first year, and often the seed is precisely what we eat; grains and beans are obvious examples. Biennials (two-year plants) -- most brassicas, for example -- are also possible candidates for this method. The big question is whether your biennials can be left in the ground over the winter, and the answer to that question depends on the species or variety, on the climate, and perhaps on whether you use a mulch, which can consist of leaves, grass, straw, or even twigs.

The second method is to dig up the plants at the end of the first summer, store them carefully over the winter, and then replant them. This second method requires more work, but it is safer, and it also allows you to "rogue out" (remove) stunted or deformed plants.

In most cases it is essential not to grow more than one variety of a vegetable for seed, because varieties will cross and produce offspring with uncertain qualities. If you want to keep growing more than one variety, just allow them to go to seed in alternate years, or you could try planting the varieties several weeks apart so that they don't blossom at the same time.

This problem of accidental cross-breeding won't affect the current year's crop; it only shows up in the following years. Corn and peppers are exceptions; the current year's crops are affected. (And, of course, if you're not saving seeds, accidental cross-breeding is not a problem for any year's crops.)

Be careful that birds don't strip your plants clean when the seeds start to mature. You may need to cover the plants when the seeds are nearly ready to collect. However, if you see birds taking a sudden interest in those vegetables, it's probably safe to assume that the plants are ready to be taken inside for further drying.

Seeds need proper care if they are to stay viable. The longevity of seeds can be a single year or it can be many years, depending on the species, but that longevity can be increased by careful storage. Most seeds need to be kept very dry, and most also need to be kept away from light, so don't store them in glass jars. Make sure that insects or larger creatures can't get at them.

Peter Goodchild

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