With the coming of Peak Oil and the beginning of long-term, irreversible declines in the availability of fossil fuels (along with many other resources), modern industrial civilization faces a wrenching series of unwelcome transitions. This comes as a surprise only for those who haven’t been paying attention. More than thirty years ago, the Club of Rome’s epochal study The Limits to Growth pointed out that unless something was done, a global economy based on fantasies of perpetual growth would collide disastrously with the hard limits of a finite planet sometime in the early twenty-first century.
The early twenty-first century is here, nothing was done, and the consequences are arriving on schedule. The road that would have brought industrial society through a transformation to sustainability turned out to be the road not taken. The question that remains is what we can do with the limited time we have left.
The Failure of Politics
There are specific practical things that can be done, right now, to deal with the hard realities of our situation. The problem is that most of them are counterintuitive, and fly in the face of very deeply rooted attitudes on all sides of the political spectrum.
The first point that has to be grasped is that proposals for system-wide, top-down change – getting the Federal government to do something constructive about the situation, for instance – are a waste of time. That sort of change isn’t going to happen. It’s not simply a matter of who’s currently in power, although admittedly that doesn’t help. The core of the problem is that even proposing changes on a scale that would do any good would be political suicide.
Broadly speaking, our situation is this: our society demands energy inputs on a scale, absolute and per capita, that can’t possibly be maintained for more than a little while longer. Sustainable energy sources can only provide a small fraction of the energy we’re used to getting from fossil fuels. As fossil fuel supplies dwindle, in other words, everybody will have to get used to living on a small fraction of the energy we’ve been using as a matter of course.
Of course this is an unpopular thing to say. Quite a few people nowadays are insisting that it’s not true, that we can continue our present lavish, energy-wasting lifestyle indefinitely by switching from oil to some other energy source: hydrogen, biodiesel, abiotic oil, fusion power, “free energy” technology, and so on down the list of technological snake oil. Crippling issues of scale, and the massive technical problems involved in switching an oil-based civilization to some other fuel in time to make a difference, stand in the path of such projects, but those get little air time; if we want endless supplies of energy badly enough, the logic seems to be, the universe will give it to us. The problem is that the universe did give it to us – in the form of immense deposits of fossil fuels stored up over hundreds of millions of years of photosynthesis – and we wasted it. Now we’re in the position of a lottery winner who’s spent millions of dollars in a few short years and is running out of money. The odds of hitting another million-dollar jackpot are minute, and no amount of wishful thinking will enable us to keep up our current lifestyle by getting a job at the local hamburger joint.
We – and by this I mean people throughout the industrial world – have to make the transition to a Third World lifestyle. There’s no way to sugar-coat that very unpalatable reality. Fossil fuels made it possible for most people in the industrial world to have a lifestyle that doesn’t depend on hard physical labor, and to wallow in a flood of mostly unnecessary consumer goods and services. As fossil fuels deplete, all that will inevitably go away. How many people would be willing to listen to such a suggestion? More to the point, how many people would vote for a politician or a party who proposed to bring on these changes deliberately, now, in order to prevent total disaster later on?
John Kenneth Galbraith has written a brilliant, mordant book, The Culture of Contentment, about the reasons why America is incapable of constructive change. He compares today’s American political class (those people who vote and involve themselves in politics) to the French aristocracy before the Revolution. Everybody knew that the situation was insupportable, and that eventually there would be an explosion, but the immediate costs of doing something about it were so unpalatable that everyone decided to do nothing and hope that things would somehow work out. We’re in exactly the same situation here and now.
So while it may be appealing to fantasize about vast government programs bailing us out of the present predicament, such fantasies are not a practical way of responding to the situation. We have to start with the recognition that the most likely outcome of the current situation is collapse: to borrow the Club of Rome’s formulation, sustained, simultaneous, uncontrolled and irreversible declines in population, industrial production, and capital stock.
Now as soon as this is said, most people who don’t reject it out of hand slip off at once into apocalyptic ideas of one sort or another. These should be rejected; history is a better guide. Civilizations collapse. As Joseph Tainter pointed out in his useful book The Collapse of Complex Societies, it’s one of the most predictable things about them. Ours is not that different from hundreds of previous civilizations that overshot their natural resource base and crashed to ruin. What we face is a natural process, and like most natural processes, much of it can be predicted by comparison with past situations.
But fantasy is often more palatable than reality, and most of the apocalyptic notions in circulation these days are sheer fantasy. The idea, popular among Christians who don’t read their Bibles carefully enough, that all good Christians will be raptured away to heaven just as the rest of the world goes to hell is a case in point. It’s a lightly disguised fantasy of mass suicide – when you tell the kids that Grandma went to heaven to be with Jesus, most people understand what that means – and it also serves as a way for people to pretend to themselves that God will rescue them from the consequences of their own actions. That’s one of history’s all time bad bets, but it’s always popular.
But the Hollywood notion of an overnight collapse is just as much of a fantasy; it makes for great screenplays but has nothing to do with the realities of how civilizations fall. The disintegration of a complex society takes decades, not days. Since fossil fuel production will decline gradually, not simply come to a screeching halt, the likely course of things is gradual descent rather than freefall. Civilizations go under in a rolling collapse punctuated by localized disasters, taking anything from one to four centuries to complete the process. It’s not a steady decline, either; between sudden crises come intervals of relative stability, even moderate improvement; different regions decline at different paces; existing social, economic and political structures are replaced, not with complete chaos, but with transitional structures that may develop pretty fair institutional strength themselves.
Does this model apply to the current situation? Almost certainly. As oil and natural gas run short, economies will come unglued and political systems disintegrate under the strain. But there’s still oil to be had – the Hubbert Curve is a bell-shaped curve, after all. The world in 2020 may still be producing about as much oil as it was producing in 1980. It’s just that with other fossil fuels gone or badly depleted, nearly twice as many people in the world, and the global economy in shreds, the gap between production and demand will be vast. The result will be poverty, spiralling shortages, rising death rates, plummeting birth rates, and epidemic violence and warfare. Not a pretty picture – but it’s not an instant reversion to the Stone Age either.
Equally imaginary is the notion that the best strategy for would-be survivors is to hole up in some isolated rural area with enough firepower to stock a Panzer division, and wait things out. I can think of no better proof that people nowadays pay no attention to history. One of the more common phenomena of collapse is the breakdown of public order in rural areas, and the rise of a brigand culture preying on rural communities and travelers. Isolated survivalist enclaves with stockpiles of food and ammunition would be a tempting prize and could count on being targeted.
Equally inaccurate is the notion that stockpiling precious metals will somehow make the stockpilers exempt from the consequences of industrial collapse. This strategy has been tried over and over again in recorded history, and it doesn’t work. Every few years, for example, archeologists in Britain dig up another cache of gold and silver hidden away by some wealthy landowner in Roman Britain as the empire fell apart. They’re usually close to the ruins of the owner’s rural villa, which shows the signs of being looted and burned to the ground by the Saxons. As a working rule, if your value consists of what you’ve stockpiled, there will be an unlimited number of other people interested in removing you from the stockpile and enjoying it themselves. However many you kill, there will always be more – and eventually the ammo will run out.
Communities of Survival
So what does work? The key to making sense of constructive action in a situation of impending industrial collapse is to look at the community, rather than the individual or society as a whole, as the basic unit. We know from history that local communities can continue to flourish while empires fall around them. There are, however, three things a community needs to do that, and all three of them are in short supply these days.
First, a community needs some degree of local organization. Our present culture here in America has discarded most of the local organizations it once had, in favor of a mass society where individuals deal directly with huge government and corporate institutions. This has to be reversed. The recent move to reinvigorate civil society is a step in the right direction. Joining or creating a local community group, and helping to revive local civil society, will help provide your community with voluntary networks of cooperation and mutual aid in difficult times.
One often-neglected but useful resource is the old fraternal orders – the Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Grange, and so on – which once included more than 50% of adult Americans in their membership. Many of these organizations still exist, and they’re far less exclusive than people outside them tend to think. Joining such an organization, or some other local community group, and helping to revive local civil society is a crucial step that will provide your community with essential networks of cooperation and mutual aid in difficult times. The Stormwatch Project website is specifically aimed at helping fraternal orders and similar organizations get ready to fill such a role.
The second thing a community needs in the twilight of industrial society is a core of people who know how to do without fossil fuel inputs. An astonishing number of people, especially in the educated middle class, have no practical skills whatsoever when it comes to growing and preparing food, making clothing, and providing other basic necessities. An equally astonishing number are unable to go any distance at all by any means that doesn’t involve burning fossil fuels – and almost no one in the developed world can light a fire without matches or a lighter from some distant factory. Survival skills such as organic gardening, low-tech medicine, basic hand crafts, and the like need to be learned and practiced now, while there’s time to do so. Similarly, those people who cut their fossil fuel consumption drastically now – for example, by getting rid of their cars and using public transit or bicycles for commuting – will be better prepared for the inevitable shortages.
We live in a “prosthetic society” in which most people have totally neglected their own innate abilities in favor of ersatz mechanical imitations. Even our schoolchildren use pocket calculators instead of learning how to add and subtract. All this has to be reversed as soon as possible. Those people who can use their own hands and minds to make tools, grow food, brew beer, treat illnesses, generate modest amounts of electricity from sun and wind, and the like, will have a survival advantage over those who can’t. In a violent age, practical knowledge is a life insurance policy; if you’re more useful alive than dead, you’re likely to stay that way. The pirate enclaves of the seventeenth-century Carribbean were among the most lawless societies in history, but physicians, navigators, shipwrights, and other skilled craftsmen were safe from the pervasive violence, since it was in everyone’s best interests to keep them alive.
The third thing a community needs is access to basic human requirements, and above all food. Very large cities are going to become difficult places to be in the course of the approaching collapse, precisely because there isn’t enough farmland within easy transport range to feed the people now living there. On the other hand, most American cities of half a million or less are fairly close to agricultural land that could, in a pinch, be used to grow food intensively and feed the somewhat reduced population that’s likely to be left after the first stages of the collapse. What’s needed is the framework of a production and distribution system around which this can take shape.
The good news is that this framework already exists; it’s called the farmers market movement. The last two decades have seen an astonishing growth in farmers markets across the country – the latest figures I’ve seen, and they’re some years out of date, indicate that farmers markets are a $16 billion a year industry, with most of that money going to small local farmers. I personally know organic farmers who are able to stay in business, and support their families on quite small acreages, because they work the farmers markets. Every dollar spent on locally grown produce from a farmers market, instead of supermarket fare shipped halfway around the world, is thus an investment in local sustainability and survival.
There are a good many other, similar steps that can be taken. Anything that provides functional alternatives to energy-wasting lifestyles lays foundations for the transitional societies of the late 21st century, and ultimately for the sustainable successor cultures that will begin to emerge in North America in the 22nd and 23rd centuries. The important point, it seems to me, is to do something constructive now, rather than presenting plans to the government in the perfect knowledge that they will be ignored until it’s far too late to do anything.
Perhaps a metaphor will make an appropriate finish for this little essay. Imagine that you’re on an ocean liner that’s headed straight for a well marked shoal of rocks. Half the crew is dead drunk, and the other half has already responded to your attempts to alert them by telling you that you obviously don’t know the first thing about navigation, and everything will be all right. At a certain point, you know, the ship will be so close to the rocks that its momentum will carry it onto them no matter what evasive actions the helmsman tries to make. You’re not sure, but it looks as though that point is already well past.
What do you do? You can keep on pounding on the door to the bridge, trying to convince the crew of the approaching danger. You can join the prayer group down in the galley; they’re convinced that if they pray fervently enough, God will save them from shipwreck. You can decide that everyone’s doomed and go get roaring drunk. Or you can go around quietly to the other passengers, and encourage those people who have noticed the situation (or are willing to notice it) to break out the life jackets, assemble near the lifeboats, take care of people who need help, and otherwise deal with the approaching wreck in a way that will salvage as much as possible.
Me, I suggest the latter. Life jackets, anyone?