Friday, February 12, 2016

Peak Oil, Peak Everything

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. According to UN estimates (admittedly quite uncertain), the world's population will rise to about 8 billion or more 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 say 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.

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 hundred 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 as 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 sand. 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 three thousand years. Nor is it likely that another will take its place.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Bargain-Hunting in the Post-Apocalyptic

I'm becoming more and more convinced that the following are becoming "hot" items -- any non-electric tools, not broken, worn out, badly pitted with rust, or of no practical use. Mainly things to do with home building, repair, renovation, and also gardening. The older the tools, the better -- the metal was apparently better in the old days, and I'd be inclined to avoid anything chrome-plated (as most of the modern tools are) -- these seem to rust very quickly. In any case, go on Google now to find simple methods of removing rust (e.g., with salt and vinegar). All these things are going for pennies now, but not for much longer.

Hammers (old ones with wooden handles) seem to vanish quickly. But I picked up a lovely drawknife recently (probably about $60 when it was new), and some hatchets and pliers. The big prize was a practically unused bit brace, with a couple of dozen bits to go with it -- a set like that would sell for perhaps $200 new, but even then you might have quite a hunt just to find one.

I suspect knives would be greatly prized, especially hunting knives. I paid $8 for an excellent new sheath, which now holds an ancient Bowie knife I've owned for years. In fact I bought two of those sheaths – such things wear out much faster than the knives.

Quite likely there are other objects that are getting grabbed for similar reasons, though I've only got started (via kijiji, flea markets, etc.). Certainly books are in that category – at the moment I can hardly convince anyone that old books on farming and vegetable growing will be worth a zillion times more than the one dollar that they're now going for, but there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth when the Internet crashes and people want to know which end of a bean goes into the ground first.

Other tools and books -- for hunting, for fishing, for trapping? For medicine? For edible wild plants? For making clothing? Containers of any sort, from buckets to backpacks. Any non-electric kitchen appliances. And so on. But avoid plastic – in general, when it breaks it can't be repaired.

Slightly more upscale in technology – compasses, wind-up clocks, slide rules.

Nearly forgot – stock up on clothing, but especially boots.

Oh, well, the list goes on.

The Coming Famine

Humanity has struggled to survive through the millennia in terms of Nature's tendency to balance population size with food supply. The same is true now, but population numbers have been soaring for over a century. Oil, the limiting factor, is close to or beyond its peak extraction. Without ample, free-flowing oil, it will not be possible to support a population of several billion for long. Without fossil fuels for fertilizer and pesticides, as well as for cultivating and harvesting, crop yields drop by more than two-thirds (Pimentel, 1984; Pimentel & Hall, 1984; Pimentel & Pimentel, 2007).

Over the next few decades, there will be famine on a scale many times larger than ever before in human history. It is possible, of course, that warfare and plague, for example, will take their toll to a large extent before famine claims its victims. The distinctions, in any case, can never be absolute: often "war + drought = famine" (Devereux, 2000, p. 15), especially in sub-Saharan Africa, but there are several other combinations of factors.

Although, when discussing theories of famine, economists generally use the term "neo-malthusian" in a derogatory manner, the coming famine will be very much a case of an imbalance between population and resources. The ultimate cause will be fossil-fuel depletion, not government policy (as in the days of Stalin or Mao), warfare, ethnic discrimination, bad weather, poor methods of distribution, inadequate transportation, livestock diseases, or any of the other variables that have often turned mere hunger into genuine starvation.

The increase in the world’s population has followed a simple curve: from about 1.7 billion in 1900 to over 7 billion today. A quick glance at a chart of world population growth, on a broader time scale, shows a line that runs almost horizontally for thousands of years, and then makes an almost vertical ascent as it approaches the present. That is not just an amusing curiosity. It is a shocking fact that should have awakened humanity to the realization that something is dreadfully wrong.

Mankind is always prey to its own "exuberance," to use Catton’s term. That has certainly been true of population growth. In many cultures, "Do you have any children?" or, "How many children do you have?" is a form of greeting or civility almost equivalent to "How do you do?" or, "Nice to meet you." World population growth, nevertheless, has always been ecologically hazardous. With every increase in human numbers we are only barely able to keep up with the demand: providing all those people with food and water has not been easy. We are always pushing ourselves to the limits of Earth’s ability to hold us (Catton, 1982).

Even that is an understatement. No matter how much we depleted our resources, there was always the sense that we could somehow "get by." But in the late twentieth century we stopped getting by. It is important to differentiate between production in an "absolute" sense and production "per capita." Although oil production, in "absolute" numbers, kept climbing -- only to decline in the early twenty-first century -- what was ignored was that although that "absolute" production was climbing, the production "per capita" reached its peak in 1979 (BP, annual).

The unequal distribution of resources plays a part. The average inhabitant of the US consumes far more than the average inhabitant of India or China. Nevertheless, if all the world’s resources were evenly distributed, the result would only be universal poverty. It is the totals and the averages of resources that we must deal with in order to determine the totals and averages of results. For example, if all of the world’s arable land were distributed evenly, in the absence of mechanized agriculture each person on the planet would still have an inadequate amount of farmland for survival: distribution would have accomplished very little.

We were always scraping the edges of the earth, but we are now entering a far more dangerous era. The main point to keep in mind is that, throughout the twentieth century, while population was going up, so was oil production. Future excess mortality can therefore be determined -- at least in a rough-and-ready manner -- by the fact that in modern industrial society it is largely the oil supply that determines how many people can be fed.

There is no precise causal relation, of course, between oil production and famine. To suggest such a thing would conflict with other ways of estimating future population. Another figure, closely related, might be the ratio of population to arable land. Even then, the history of famine does not suggest an exact correlation between population and arable land; certainly in the 1950s there were major famines although the world population was only a third of that today. Ó Gráda claims that the worst famines in recent times were actually in countries which rate relatively well in terms of the ratio of population to arable: Angola, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, Afghanistan, and Sudan. In fact famine, at least up to the present time, seems to have been more related to politics than to arable land or other resources.

Famine will also cause a lowering of the birth rate (Devereux, 2000; Ó Gráda, 2007, March). This will sometimes happen voluntarily, as people realize they lack the resources to raise children, or it will happen involuntarily when famine and general ill health result in infertility. In most famines the number of deaths from starvation or from starvation-induced disease is very roughly the same as the number of lost or averted births. In Ireland’s nineteenth-century famine, the number of famine deaths was 1.3 million, whereas the number of lost births was 0.4 million. The number of famine deaths during China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), however, was perhaps 30 million, and the number of lost births was perhaps 33 million.

The "normal," non-famine-related, birth and death rates are not a factor in determining the future population figures, since for most of pre-industrial human history the sum of the birth and death rates -- in other words, the growth rate -- has been nearly zero: 2,000 years ago the global population was about 300 million, and it took 1,600 years for the population to double. If not for the problem of resource-depletion, in other words, the future birth rate and death rate would be nearly identical, as they were in pre-industrial times. (And there is no question that the future will mean a return to the "pre-industrial.")

Nevertheless, it will often be hard to separate "famine deaths" from a rather broad category of "other excess deaths." War, disease, and other factors will have unforeseeable effects of their own. Considering the unusual duration of the coming famine, and with Leningrad (Salisbury, 2003) as one of many precursors, cannibalism may be significant; to what extent should this be included in the calculation of "famine deaths"? In any case, it is probably safe to say that an unusually large decline in the population of a country will be the most significant indicator that this predicted famine has in fact arrived.

We must ignore most previous estimates of future population growth. Instead of a steady rise over the course of this century, as generally predicted, there will be a clash of the two giant forces of overpopulation and oil depletion, followed by a precipitous ride into an unknown future.

We are ill-prepared for the next few years. The problem of oil depletion turns out to be something other than a bit of macabre speculation for people of the distant future to deal with, but rather a sudden catastrophe that will only be studied dispassionately long after the event itself has occurred. Doomsday will be upon us before we have time to look at it carefully.

The world has certainly known some terrible famines in the past. In recent centuries, one of the worst was that of North China in 1876-79, when between 9 and 13 million died, but India had a famine at the same time, with perhaps 5 million deaths. The Soviet Union had famine deaths of about 5 million in 1932-34, purely because of misguided political policies. The worst famine in history was that of China’s Great Leap Forward, 1958-61, when perhaps 30 million died, as mentioned above.

A closer analogy to the coming "petroleum famine" may be Ireland’s potato famine of the 1840s, since -- like petroleum -- it was a single commodity that caused such devastation (Woodham-Smith, 1962). The response of the British government at the time can be summarized as a jumble of incompetence, frustration, and indecision, if not outright genocide, and the same may be true of any future responses by government.

As previously mentioned, population is not tied with mathematical precision to oil production; the latter provides only a rough indication of the former. To some extent, people will learn to live with less. Certainly most westerners can cut their living standards considerably and still live healthy lives -- perhaps even healthier, since they would be eating less and walking more. People will also switch to other sources of energy: in particular, firewood can replace fossil fuels for heating, though the amount of wood will not be sufficient for billions of people. All these adjustments will alleviate matters for a while, although the basic problem will remain: that fossil fuels will decline at a much faster rate than any voluntary reduction in births.

The above predictions can be nothing more than approximate, but even the most elaborate mathematics will not entirely help us to deal with the great number of interacting factors. We need to swing toward a more pessimistic figure for humanity’s future if we include the effects of war, disease, and so on. One of the most serious negative factors will be largely sociological: To what extent can the oil industry maintain the advanced technology required for drilling ever-deeper wells in ever-more-remote places, when that industry will be struggling to survive in a milieu of social chaos? Intricate division of labor, large-scale government, and high-level education will no longer exist.

On the other hand, there are elements of optimism that may need to be plugged in. We must not forget the sheer tenacity of the human species: we are intelligent social creatures living at the top of the food chain, in the manner of wolves, yet we outnumber wolves worldwide by about a million to one; we are as populous as rats or mice. We can outrace a horse over long distances. Even with Stone-Age technology, we can inhabit almost every environment on Earth, even if most of the required survival skills have been forgotten.

Specifically, we must consider the fact that neither geography nor population is homogeneous. All over the world, there are forgotten pockets of habitable land, much of it abandoned in the modern transition to urbanization, for the ironic reason that city dwellers regarded rural life as too difficult, as they traded their peasant smocks for factory overalls. There are still areas of the planet’s surface that are sparsely occupied although they are habitable or could be made so, to the extent that many rural areas have had a decline in population that is absolute, i.e. not merely relative to another place or time. By careful calculation, therefore, there will be survivors. Over the next few years, human ingenuity must be devoted to an understanding of these geographic and demographic matters, so that at least a few can escape the tribulation. Neither the present nor future generations should have to say, "We were never warned."


BP. Global statistical review of world energy. (annual). Retrieved from

Catton, W. R., Jr. (1982). Overshoot: The ecological basis of revolutionary change. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Devereux, S. (2000). Famine in the twentieth century. IDS Working Paper 105. Retrieved from

Ó Gráda, C. (2007, March). Making famine history. Journal of Economic Literature. Retrieved from

Pimentel, D. (1984). Energy flows in agricultural and natural ecosystems. CIHEAM (International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies). Retrieved from

------, & Hall, C. W., eds. (1984). Food and energy resources. Orlando, Florida: Academic Press.

------, & Pimentel, M. H. (2007). Food, energy, and society. 3rd ed. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press.

Salisbury, H. E. (2003). The 900 days: The siege of Leningrad. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press.

Woodham-Smith, C. (1962). The great hunger: Ireland 1845-1849. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Principles of Survival

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. It's more than a mere question of "sustainability" -- as the population shrinks from several billion to several million, vast numbers of people are going to starve to death.

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.