Saturday, January 25, 2014
Everyone's way of life will change as time rolls by, but over the coming few decades five principles will apply, which can be referred to by the following terms: "tribal," "rural," "local," "low-tech," and "frugal." As a general rule, it would be best to start looking at how things were done in the nineteenth century
1 TRIBAL In the post-industrial world, the human community will basically involve groups of no more than about a hundred or so, and conversely it will generally be important for people not to live alone. Groups of the size of a village are viable because everyone knows everyone; it is in the larger groups of the industrial era that charlatans arise, otherwise known as politicians. A smaller community has a greater chance of cohesion and consensus. Think more in terms of co-operation than of competition.
2 RURAL Living in the countryside will be more useful than living in urban areas, because the latter do not produce much that is of survival value, and such areas are also too crowded. Rural communities, on the other hand, are close to the land, the water, and to Nature in general. Any disruption of those ties to the natural world is more easily resolved in a rural community, whereas in the city most people do not even know where their meals are actually coming from. By growing up in the countryside one also acquires the skills and the general knowledge regarding human survival on a more primitive -- more fundamental -- level than in the city.
3 LOCAL The exchange of goods and services must be restricted to geographic areas much smaller than in the industrial age. Without machinery, any human travel and any transport of goods can be no more than about forty kilometers a day, and even that distance would probably require good roads and good weather. One's speed is about the same whether on foot, by horse, or by (non-motorized) boat -- although over a long enough distance, humans can even be faster than horses. Because it would take weeks or months to cover journeys of hundreds of kilometers, we should not be planning to eat food that was produced in another country, or creating houses with materials brought from a completely different environment.
4 LOW-TECH Everyone must learn how to use tools and materials of the sort that were invented long ago. The smelting of iron ore will be the highest technology. Save whatever you can grab from the ruins of the industrial world: knives, hammers, saws, shovels, hoes, pick-axes, sickles. The kitchen needs pots and pans, crockery and silverware. For sewing you need needles and scissors. For that matter, go back a few more centuries and make your pots out of clay, or even further and make your cutting tools out of stone, and hunt with bows and arrows rather than with guns. The more parts there are to a machine, the more things there are that can go wrong; a related statement is that you should not own any device that you cannot personally repair -- computers will be just a blip in history.
5 FRUGAL Learn how to get by with no more than you can properly use, as people did in earlier times, needing less, owning less, and wasting less. As in the old days, clothing should be worn until it can no longer be stitched and patched, not just until it goes out of fashion. Tools should be resharpened until there is nothing left. Even the food on your plate will be eaten carefully when you have spent the whole summer producing it. In the old days, a bedroom was hardly big enough for more than the bed. The entire house was smaller than it now is, but it provided a home for a larger number of people.
Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)
Monday, January 20, 2014
Deutschland unter alles?
Germany is now a prosperous and successful country, but how will it fare in the next few decades, as the world continues to experience a rise in population and a decline in natural resources? Most of the general information below can be found in my book Tumbling tide: Population, resources, and systemic collapse. Further data, however, come from the Web site of the CIA World factbook (population, arable land) and the BP Web site (oil production). As much as possible, the figures are from 2013, but in some cases the latest available figures have slightly older dates.
Oil and other fossil fuels are the basis of modern industrial society. Annual world production of oil will probably fall to half of its peak rate by about 2030, although there are reasons to suspect an even faster decline. With the fall in production of these fuels, there is also a decline in manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, mining, and electricity. "Alternative energy" of all sorts has been a failure, and the same can be said of "unconventional oil"; in both cases, the main problem is the poor ratio between energy input and energy output.
Above all, and particularly in terms of the effect on daily life, as oil and other fossil fuels go into decline there will be insufficient food. "Peak oil" means "peak food." As David and Marcia Pimentel explain in Food, energy, and society, without fossil fuels for fertilizers, pesticides, and the operation of machines for irrigation, harvesting, processing, and transportation, crop yields will drop to less than a third of peak levels. Without fossil fuels, one square kilometer of arable land can support only about 400 people, even assuming a largely vegetarian diet. The worst ratios of population to arable land are found in the Middle East, most of southern and eastern Asia, the islands of the Pacific -- and western Europe.
How then does Germany stand in comparison with the rest of the world? Its ratio of 700 people per square kilometer of arable land is much worse than the world average of 473 (itself too high). Without adequate supplies of fossil fuels for agricultural use, many Germans will die of famine. Yet oil production in Germany is very low: only 0.8 barrel per person per year, far below the global average of 4.4 barrels. In fact Germany imports 11.1 times more oil than it produces. In addition to the above-mentioned problems of land and oil, Germany also has an uncontrollable rate of immigration because of its membership in the European Union. Even if we assume no increase in population, Germany in the next few years will be an uncomfortable place in which to be living.
Germany, population: 81,147,265
total land: 348,672 sq km
arable land: 33.25%
[so arable land = 115,933 sq km]
[so pop/arable ratio = 700/sq km]
Global world average, pop/arable = 473/sq km
Germany, crude oil -- production:
169,500 barrels/day [ = 61,867,500/year]
[so oil production, barrels/person/year = 0.8]
Global oil production = 4.4 barrels/person/year
1,876,000 barrels/day [ = 684,740,000 barrels/year]
[so oil imports are 11.1 times larger than production]
BP. (2013). Global statistical review of world energy. Retrieved from http://www.bp.com/statisticalreview
CIA. World factbook. (2013). US Government Printing Office. Retrieved from
Goodchild, P. (2013). Tumbling tide: Population, resources, and systemic collapse. London, Ontario: Insomniac Press.
Pimentel, D., & M. H. Pimentel. (2007). Food, energy, and society. 3rd ed. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press.
Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
How fast is the world's usable oil going to run out? Conservative estimates of the average annual decline rate are in the range of 1 or 2%. But there are several experts who have suspected a much higher rate, as can be seen in the articles mentioned below.
"Decline curve," incidentally, has a number of definitions (equations). A simple but quite useful one is "(year1-year2)/year1." For a detailed discussion of this and other definitions, see:
Poston, Steven W. Decline Curves. Hamilton Group. http://www.hamiltongroup.org/documents/Decline%20Curves%20-%20Dr%20Stephen%20Poston.pdf
It should also be mentioned that much of the study of decline rates is based on that of giant fields, rather than smaller ones. At the end of the present article can be found some comments on this matter, particularly with regard to an article by Höök, Hirsch, and Aleklett.
Three articles indicating high decline rates are:
(1) Campbell, C. J. (2009, November 16). Colin Campbell’s response to the Guardian IEA reporting. The Oil Drum. Retrieved from http://www.theoildrum.com/node/5970
(2) Foucher, S. (2009, February 25). Analysis of decline rates. The Oil Drum. Retrieved from http://iseof.org/pdf/theoildrum_4820.pdf
(3) Oil Drum. (2010, February 4). World oil capacity to peak in 2010, says Petrobras CEO. The Oil Drum. Retrieved from http://www.theoildrum.com/node/6169
On page 3 of his article, Foucher says that "production from the super-giant and giant oil fields is the cornerstone of modern oil production. In the top 20, 16 of them are in decline." Does this mean specifically that analyses of these larger fields give us a good indication of overall global decline rates? Or, for that matter, is it also the case that the smaller fields have even higher decline rates? If so, then one might add a fourth study to the three mentioned above:
(4) Höök, Mikael, Robert Hirsch, and Kjell Aleklett. Giant oil field decline rates and their influence on world oil production. Energy Policy, Volume 37, Issue 6, June 2009, Pages 2262-2272 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2009.02.020
On p. 19, these authors state: ". . . The decline of smaller fields is equal to or greater than those of the giants. . . . We believe that the decline in existing production, both for giants and for other fields, will be at least 6.5% or 5.5% if production weighted."
Discussion of very fast decline rates can also be found throughout a detailed study of Saudi oil production:
(5) Simmons, M. R. (2006). Twilight in the desert: The coming Saudi oil shock and the world economy. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
According to Simmons, the Saudis realize that any announcement of a loss of product (as in businesses of any sort) would be bad publicity. Simmons also claims that the present high level of Saudi production is maintained only by enhanced techniques such as water-flooding, and that such techniques mean that the decline can be delayed but that it will eventually be much faster than otherwise.
An annual decline rate of 6% would mean that oil production will fall to half of its peak level in about 12 years after the peak date. If so, let's not forget to duck.
Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)
Friday, January 3, 2014
A life that respects Nature must be a simple life. In the first place, there is little that is called knowledge that is really worth acquiring. Most of the great truths were recorded thousands of years ago, and very few people have learned even the simplest aphorisms to be found in the oldest literature. Those who wrote on papyrus or parchment in ancient times had more to say than I can find by flipping through the latest magazine. Secondly, the problem with the material objects of civilized life is that there is little that is worth buying. What shining machine can I purchase that will have any real value in my life? The things that can bring me happiness are more likely to be found up in the mountains, or in the valleys that wind among them, not in a shopping center in the middle of a modern city.
I must reconsider the value of all the books I have read. Perhaps in a sense Thomas à Kempis was right when he said, "On the day of judgment, surely, we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done; not how well we have spoken but how well we have lived." What is the point of having a good education if I don't apply that knowledge to my relationship with the natural world? It isn't books and schools that make a person wise, but rather it is a way of living, a sense of gratitude and humility, that constitutes wisdom. An understanding of Nature is a feeling, a spiritual bond, not merely a thought.
There is no value in studying philosophy if it is nothing but theory, if it cannot bring me back to Nature. Philosophy should help me to understand the world that was here long before the human species was born, and which will be here long after humanity ceases to exist.
It's good to leave the city, to leave the paved roads behind. I am often tired of my busy life. I am tired of everything I have seen and heard. I need stillness, I need silence.
I need to take stock of my life in a larger way. I need to go beyond the complexities, to find the simple things, the fundamentals. I need a greater light to shine upon me. I need a rest from my seemingly incessant labors. For every action there is a purpose, but what is the final purpose? Where does labor have an end? Where is the final peace for which I have been striving? I am aware of my desires, but where is the goal of those desires?
The question of a life beyond labor, of course, may be largely theoretical. After several thousand years of so-called civilization, most people still have to toil day and night for the rest of their lives. In the tenth chapter of The Story of My Heart, Richard Jefferies says, "The most extraordinary spectacle, as it seems to me, is the vast expenditure of labour and time wasted in obtaining mere subsistence." If Jefferies is right, then what was the point in creating "civilization" in the first place?
Whatever wisdom may be, in part it must be something beyond what is called civilization. To look for happiness in the material wealth of civilization is a waste of time. All the gadgets that are meant to give comfort to the body will bring little comfort to the soul. It is a mistake to think that technology will ever cure the ills of the spirit. It is foolish to love machinery while despising the world that was here before those machines.
Civilization is the apotheosis of self-interest. What is called profit is the act of taking from other human beings. The real moral code of civilization is larger and more complex than the one that used to be recited in churches. The code of civilization does not include simplicity and humility, but rather it advocates the destruction of whatever is rare and beautiful. To a civilized person there is no countryside that cannot be improved with asphalt or concrete. Where only the dry grass is blowing in the wind, there is "unimproved land," there is "wasteland."
But perhaps the question of the primitive life and the civilized is not the fundamental question that should be asked. The underlying problem may be that of humanity itself. If I consider the lives of people who seem to have possessed wisdom, I find that they often spent time away from human society. If I think of the problems that have been most persistent in my life, I find that they generally have to do with the presence of humans. I am almost inclined to say that a perfect world would be one without other people. For people to live together in any sort of harmony would require that they be angels, not apes. If humans should not live alone, they should at least give one another enough room to breathe.
Every possible form of government, from dictatorship to democracy, has been tried by one society or another, and every one of those forms has been flawed. If government in itself does not work, then perhaps the only real answer is to live as a hermit. Thoreau says: "I have never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude."
Yet this in turn leads to another paradox. If a human being were to live entirely alone, renouncing everything that was the product of civilization, how would it be possible to acquire food, clothing, and shelter? Living in an Eden-like world, filled with plants and animals to supply sustenance, might allow a suitable existence. The life of contemplation and meditation, however, would not be possible, because too much else would be missing. Books and papers and pens would be largely absent, and any bed would be a rough one. But those issues do not negate the fact that civilization is, at best, a dubious blessing.
In spite of such enigmas, the civilized world merely reaffirms my belief in the possibility of a kinder and gentler world, one in which neither time nor money are of any importance. I need to reconsider the fundamental rules by which I run my life. The commandments of civilization are to expand, to consume, to crush. Can I learn to obey a law of a different sort, one that tells me to be still, to be silent? Can I begin to love Nature, to think of her as a friend? I need to think like stone, like water. I need to be utterly transformed.
I must never forget that there is that better world. It is a place where the winter snow clothes the rocks, and where the summer rain obscures the rivers. It is a land of wind and wave, and of countless centuries of light.
Thursday, January 2, 2014
One often hears of the need for "sustainability," and of plans to re engineer human society in some manner that will enable the production of goods, and the consumption of resources, to extend more or less eternally into the future. Civilization will thereby, we are told, become both more pleasant and more equitable, and the planet itself -- land, sea, and sky -- will no longer be traumatized by the presence of humans. But those who believe in "sustainability" might wish to consider whether such an ideal state is even theoretically possible.
It is a well known fact that the human race is in big trouble with overpopulation and with excessive consumption of resources. These two problems reinforce one another; they are synergistic. The message has been around for several years. In 1970, for example, Paul and Anne Ehrlich published Population Resources Environment. In 1972, Donella H. Meadows et al. published a book entitled The Limits to Growth. In 1982, William R. Catton, Jr. wrote Overshoot. The population of the earth in 1950 was less than three billion. In the year 2000 it was six billion. What it will be in the future is not certain, but at the moment it is over seven billion.
Right now the world is using about thirty billion barrels of oil per year. But the oil is becoming scarce. The peak of oil production was about 2010, although it is now at a brief and uncertain plateau. In the very near future, oil production will noticeably decline, at an annual rate of perhaps four to six percent annually, which means that annual production will drop to half of its peak level at some time between 2020 and 2030. But the demand for oil will not decline. The population is still climbing, and will continue to do so until starvation sets in. And contrary to popular belief, computers and other high tech marvels are not creating a world in which "information will replace transportation." So -- in terms of oil alone, there is a serious problem of resource depletion.
Incidentally, "alternative energy" doesn't work. As John Gever et al. explain in Beyond Oil, it is physically impossible to use wind turbines etc. to produce the same amount of energy that we are now getting from thirty billion barrels of oil. "Alternative energy" will never be able to produce more than a small fraction of that amount.
More than half the people in the world are either undernourished or malnourished, but agriculture presents one of the worst resource problems. Topsoil is being depleted everywhere. And there is simply no more land available for increased agriculture, unless one considers marginal land that can only be used with expensive high tech methods of irrigation or perhaps desalination; projects of this sort obviously cannot last long.
One can debate some of the above numbers, but even if we shift them up or down by fifty percent, the general effect is still the same. It is just not possible for the planet Earth to handle "the human condition," nor is there any way of improving those numbers in any significant way. And that's the bottom line. The numbers cannot be changed. The present numbers are just not "sustainable."
If all of the above is true, then there is no point in talking about "sustainability." What will happen, in fact, is not sustainability but disaster. The future will be one in which the reciprocal effects of overpopulation, resource consumption, and environmental destruction reach a cataclysmic maximum, resulting in a massive die off of the human species. There may be survivors, but there will not be many. All talk of sustainability is just fashionable chitchat. The word has use mainly as filler for political speeches. It always sounds good when politicians talk about "sustainable development," when what they really mean is "business as usual but with a little ecological whitewash." "Sustainable development" is an oxymoron. If the human race is on a collision course with the three above mentioned problems, and if there is no way of averting disaster, then there is no point in talking about how to how to deal with that disaster. It would be far more practical, far more useful, to say: "Okay, disaster is inevitable. What do we do after that?"
The ancient Roman world went through very much the same stages as our own. While Rome was a republic, not an empire, the Roman people adhered to the four virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice. But the Roman world became bigger and bigger. There were conflicts between the rich and the poor. There was a serious unemployment problem created by the fact that slave labor was replacing that of free men and women. The army became so large that it was hard to find the money to maintain it, and the use of foreign mercenaries created further problems. Farmland became less productive, and more food had to be imported. The machinery of politics and economics began to break down. The fairly democratic methods of the republic were no longer adequate for a world that stretched from Britain to Egypt, and the emperors took over. After Augustus, however, most of the leaders were both incompetent and corrupt. The Goths sacked Rome in A.D. 410. The Empire was crumbling. The cities and main roads were finally abandoned, since they no longer served a purpose. For the average person, the late Roman world consisted of the village and its surrounding fields.
If we have already established the premise that "the human race faces unsolvable problems," the answer is not to waste further amounts of time and energy in asking whether those problems exist. The best response is to find ways for a small number of people to survive within that problematic world.