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)

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