Saturday, May 30, 2015

Survive the Coming Collapse

Modern industrial civilization is based on fossil fuels; we have been burning about 30 billion barrels of petroleum every year. Fossil fuels make possible our manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, mining, and electricity. The problem is ''peak oil'': the world’s supply of usable, recoverable oil is on a long and bumpy plateau that will become less horizontal as time goes by. Production will drop to half of the peak amount around 2030. In fact, oil production per person (as opposed to oil production in an absolute sense) declined from 5.5 barrels per year in 1979 to 4.3 barrels in 2013.

Fossil fuels are in decline, but metals are also becoming less plentiful. Electricity will be in decline worldwide because it is produced mainly with fossil fuels. These three -- fossil fuels, metals, and electricity -- are highly interconnected: if one of the three fails, then so do the other two.

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. Alternative sources simply don’t have enough ''bang'' to replace 30 billion annual barrels of oil -- or even a small fraction of that amount.

''Peak oil,'' however, basically results in ''peak food.'' Without mechanization, irrigation, and synthetic fertilizer, crop yields will drop considerably.

The following suggestions will vary in their applicability as the years go by, but most of them will remain relevant over the course of this century. The slight bias toward the United States and Canada is partly due to the fact that these areas meet most of the criteria for a suitable post-oil habitat.

1. Preparing for the post-oil world, which is really the post-almost-everything world, is quite different from preparing for the short-term emergencies covered in most survival manuals. The future will not consist merely of "stocking up," waiting for the big moment, and then locking your doors and waiting for "the authorities" to arrive. In fact, you should stop thinking of it as an "emergency" -- after all, your ancestors lived in that same "emergency" for millions of years.

2. The world now has an average of more than 100 people for every square mile of land surface. In foraging (hunting-and-gathering) societies, on the other hand, there is an average of only about 0.1 person per square mile. Since the survivors will be living closer to a "foraging" way of life than to an "industrial" one, it would be better to move to somewhere with a low population density.

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

4. Learn to grow your own food. However, only about 10 percent of the world's land is suitable for crops, and nearly all of that is already being used. Also, the "10 percent" refers to the land when it was virgin soil; since then much of it has been quite depleted. Nevertheless, people have drifted into urban areas to such an extent over the years that many rural areas now have a fair amount of abandoned but arable land.

5. No matter how many books you've read, it takes years of large-scale gardening to become sufficiently skilled that you could safely grow enough food to keep yourself and your family alive through a winter. Learning to raise animals takes even longer. A further restriction is that you'll probably be living on only marginally usable land.

6. Good soil has sufficient humus (organic matter, perhaps from compost or from animal manure), and also adequate amounts of about 16 elements, especially nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium -- naturally occurring or otherwise. Humus will do little to make up for missing elements. (Be leery of "organic gardening" -- much of it is little more than folklore.) There's no practical way to turn sand, rock, or swamp into a garden large enough to feed a family. If you're planning to grow anything, you'll need to find good land.

7. It's possible to live mainly on cultivated plants, but at least half an acre per person would be needed, because the plants need to be spread out to catch whatever water falls from the sky. (''Intensive" gardening is possible only with motorized irrigation to supply sufficient water.) Useful crops would be those high in carbohydrates and protein. Less useful would be those susceptible to diseases, bugs, bad soil, or bad weather.

8. Where farming isn't practical, you might survive on foraging (hunting and gathering), especially in areas of very low human population density. It's generally impossible to live solely on wild plants (in most of the north, blueberries are the only wild plant food worth serious attention), so it would be necessary to hunt, trap, and fish.

9. A gun would be handy until there was no more ammunition. There's no such thing as a perfect gun, so you have to make your own decisions. A .22 is quiet, with very lightweight ammunition; even large animals can be killed with such a gun (although perhaps not legally) if you hit the vital areas. A 12-gauge shotgun will take a variety of ammunition, but it's good only for short distances. Probably most people would do best with a rifle in .308 or .270 caliber. Bolt (and, to some extent, lever) actions are less trouble-prone than either pump or semi-automatic.

10. A possible problem with hunting for game, in post-collapse times, is that there might be too many people doing it. However, the shortage of fuel will cut down the number of motorized vehicles on which modern hunters depend. Also, most people in modern industrial civilization lack the physical stamina to go wading through a swamp all day, looking for a moose. Finally, there are simply not that many people who have the skills for serious hunting.

11. The only heating fuel will be wood. In a cold climate, from 2 to 10 full cords are needed for a winter, depending on many factors. A full cord is 128 cubic feet , which is 4 trees of 12-inch diameter. Two acres of trees will provide 1 cord on a sustainable basis. With a non-motorized saw, conserve your strength by cutting logs less than 6 inches wide -- also, they will not require splitting. The smaller the house, the less wood that will be needed. Rooms that are not needed in winter should be closed off; windows should be covered.

12. Except for a very few people who have the temperament and the skills, living alone will not be practical. "Dunbar's number" of the maximum practical size for a human group is 150, but in reality a tribe takes generations to form, so a rapidly assembled group might be much smaller. For the most part, it is the family -- the ties of blood or marriage -- that serves as the basic unit of any society. Groups of the size of a village are viable because everyone knows everyone, and a smaller community has a greater chance of cohesion and consensus.

Peter Goodchild

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


  1. Best post i've read so far, carry on :)

  2. This is fine as far as it goes - peak oil, peak resources. However, it would appear that rapidly accelerating amplifying feedback loops from climate change are going to render much if not all of earth uninhabitable for humans, likely within decades. It will be too hot for vegetation to grow, thus there will be nothing to eat since plants are the base of the food chain - and the oceans are so overfished and polluted, there will be nothing of sustenance there. If a few people do survive through the violence that results when food and water are scarce, they will not be living in any way I would want to. Kind of like India right now, only everywhere, and much worse.