So what do you do when you’re pretty sure that the end of the world as we know it is coming soon, but your girlfriend doesn’t believe you? Sure, she might nod her head when you confront her with some of the gloomier facts, but then she shrugs and goes back to her pursuit of modern pleasures. She doesn’t like it when you talk about it to other people, either. No one likes being told their hopes and dreams are about to turn to dust.

This is the problem confronting Adelaide aircraft engineer Steve McReady. Sick of trying to warn people who won’t listen, he is bugging out. He has sold four of his seven investment properties, and has a fifth on the market. He’s putting his collection of 10 classic Triumphs and BMWs up for sale. The girlfriend begged him to keep the BM convertible, but there won’t be much use for it in the world he sees coming.

He has bought a property in New Zealand – which he says fares well in climate-change models – and once he gets his affairs in order he’ll move there to learn about growing vegies and raising chooks. He wants to build a big shed to stock with all the important things that will become difficult to obtain, such as fencing wire and Band-Aids. But he worries that he’s left it too late, and that the world might start getting ugly before he can learn how to make cheese and grow potatoes.

He would have been talking marriage with his girlfriend now if it weren’t for all this. “She’s a really nice person, great morals, but the lifestyle she aspires to is what most modern women want,” McReady explains the first time we talk on the phone. “We’re still going out and doing things together. We have talked about this issue but we really haven’t resolved it. I’m relying on time. Maybe $2-a-litre petrol by Christmas or if the United States invades Iran … Perhaps if she saw that what I’m talking about was true, she might change her attitude. But currently I can’t see it happening.”

When I meet McReady a few weeks later, they have split. He says he was unable to devote himself to her the way she needed. How could he when the calamity ahead colours his every waking thought? His whole future has spun off its steady track since he first picked up a document from a colleague’s desk about the end of the oil age. At 44, he had worked hard to be able to talk about early retirement. He was going to develop an industrial block, rent out two factory units and use another to tinker with his cars. But he’s sold the block now because in a future without cheap oil to power the modern way of life – and therefore without cheap food, without cheap anything – he can’t see much call for industrial blocks. He also can’t see much use for
aeroplanes, so he sold his half-share in one of those, too.

He’s well aware that the economy is booming, unemployment is low, the sun is shining. Surely the system is working?

“This is what a peak looks like,” he says. “That’s where the economists and cornucopians get it wrong. They don’t see that for every bright day there’s going to be a grey day.”

Sober and serious, McReady is part of a new wave of survivalists making plans for big trouble. Whereas once it was nuclear holocaust, big-government paranoia or religious rapture that motivated such people, now it is more likely to be climate change, energy shortages and economic collapse. This story is not about whether what they think is true, but more about the social phenomena of what they’re doing about it. Most never discuss their beliefs with friends and colleagues because they’re frightened of ridicule. But they are getting ready for a world morphed into “Argentina on a very bad day” or plunged into a never-ending depression, or famine, or, worst-case scenario, Mad Max IV and the die-off of billions of people.

What is Peak Oil? (sidebar)

Peak oil is the theory that world oil production will one day peak and then begin a long and continuous fall. There will still be plenty of oil in the ground, but it will be in harder-to-reach places and come out slower. Just as the US peaked in 1970, Britain’s North Sea peaked in 1999 and Australia peaked in 2000, so too will the world’s total production peak at some point. Because of the high oil use in agriculture, and because oil is used to transport every single item in your supermarket, and because almost all plastics are made from oil – every Barbie doll, every contact lens, every Band-Aid, every car tyre, every polyester shirt – the effects of a decline in oil would be far-reaching.

Extreme pessimists predict hyper inflation and collapse of the global financial system. Optimists say that the increased energy prices will drive alternative energy sources and the world will come in for a soft landing.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the idea of peak oil. ExxonMobil Australia chief executive Mark Nolan said in September that oil scares bubbled up every time there was a price rise. “The fact is that the world has an abundance of oil and there is little question scientifically that abundant energy resources exist,” Mr Nolan said. “According to the US Geological Survey, the Earth currently has more than three trillion barrels of conventional recoverable oil resources. So far, we have produced one trillion of that.”

A perusal of the US Geological Survey’s opinions at shows that the US government body found there was a 5 per cent chance there might be 3.5 trillion barrels of oil. But it also said there was just as much chance that there were only 1.9 trillion barrels of conventional oil to be had.

It said there are just 859 billion barrels of “proven” reserves, but that this figure will grow as more oil is discovered and more is extracted from existing fields through improved technology. In order for the 3.5 trillion barrels to come to fruition, the world has to discover 1.1 trillion more barrels – the equivalent of four Saudi Arabias – at a time when discoveries are in marked decline, and improved extraction has to find a further trillion barrels.

Peter Ward surveys the shrivelled seedlings in his vegie patch after a hot wind has blown in from the desert, and he knows there’s a long way to go. He didn’t move out to the dry country east of the Adelaide Hills a decade ago to survive any sort of Armageddon. He, his wife Sue and their children were going to produce boutique olive oil, but the day after ABC TV’s Catalyst program ran a story about peak oil in November last year, Ward went out and bought a motorbike.

He researched it some more and decided that while oil was in no danger of running out soon, when production started to decline the flow-on effects through society would be massive, as the price of everything skyrocketed, interest rates rose calamitously and industrial farming faltered. There would be shortages.

The Wards knew life would be hard in their low-rainfall district. The ruined chimney of the original soldier settler on their 8ha block is testament to that. But they reasoned it would be harder in the suburbs – a decision complicated by Sue’s encroaching multiple sclerosis.

They began stockpiling enough food to last up to six months. They’ve found it difficult figuring out how to manage the stockpile so that nothing goes off. And they’re still remembering things they will need. Just the other day they realised they hadn’t stored any toothbrushes.

Gardening took on a sudden urgency. “We’ve played with vegie gardening over the years. It sounds romantic and it never works … The bugs eat the plants, you put seedlings in and there’s a hot day and they all die. Or you get too much of something … everybody groans when you bring another zucchini in. You’ve been eating them for three weeks solid. So knowing how to grow a good range of vegetables, growing them at the right time, and keeping them alive, is a pretty skilful thing.

“We feel that if we’re three years away from the start of the difficult times, that three years is a very important time to practise. And particularly when you look at our vegie plot you’ll see we need a lot of practice.”

They have a paddock full of 10-year-old olive trees. They hope to use the olive oil to barter for other goods. They hope their neighbours, all on several thousand hectares of cropping land, will run a few dairy cows whose milk they can trade. They have some young fruit trees surviving in the septic run-off and Ward has built a shade shelter for his five precious avocado trees to protect them from the desert wind.

“I can’t stress enough, once you decide there’s a problem, you need to get cracking,” he says in his refined South Australian accent. “We have time – but once things get tough, that’s a bad time to be moving. The problems are likely to be both getting to the supermarket, and also getting produce to the supermarket, because most of the stuff in the supermarket has been shifted a jolly long way.”

They have started trying to shop fortnightly, but found even that difficult. “It should be simple but it just isn’t. This just-in-time mentality is so ingrained now. And it’s all based on the availability of cheap oil transport.”

Ward tries not to dwell on the more dire scenarios and what would happen if hungry hordes started to pour over the hill from Adelaide. He’s thought about buying a gun for the rabbits, which might also be used for defence. “But I’m not skilled with it, I’d probably shoot myself rather than any intruder. And it’s an unpleasant thing to think about.” Their son James, 24, who is building a petrol/pedal bicycle which he hopes will get 150km to the litre, is doing a PhD on groundwater hydrology. But when he finishes that, he plans to do a DipEd and become a school teacher. He’s not the only “peaknik” to take this career path.

Dr Shane Simonsen, 28, formerly a research scientist at the ANU working on plant defence mechanisms, has also packed it in for a DipEd. “I think we’re heading for what is going to look like an economic depression, so I’m looking for a more stable form of employment,” Simonsen says. “In the Great Depression, three out of four people kept their job. So you just have to pick the right kind of job.”

He has bought a 1ha block with his parents in Queensland’s Sunshine Coast hinterland. “We’re going to put in an orchard and vegie patch and derive at least some of our food from that. Anything that requires transport and refrigeration is going to become a lot more expensive and less accessible. This is just a small buffer. “I’ve had to have a hard look at what we’re doing and realise that I would do it regardless of whether peak oil was happening or not. The survivalists who run off into a bolt-hole and wait for the end to come, you can’t live like that. Even if solar or free energy or fusion comes along and everything keeps motoring along, I’d be perfectly happy with the way I’ve decided to go.”

Dr Dan Kortschak, 35, has been published in Nature for his work on the genetics of coral evolution, but he has also dropped out of the glamour end of science to become a high school teacher. Living just 2km from the heart of Adelaide, in Maylands, he has three pushbikes for different jobs, including a recumbent trike with a large trailer for carting gardening equipment and building materials. He now grows all his fruit and vegetables in his backyard, doesn’t eat meat because of the transport costs, and survives each week on about $50 of groceries for him and his dog.

He lived in Nepal for a while, promoting permaculture (self-sustaining) farming. “I live luxuriously compared to people there. You look at an eco–footprint calculator and I’m still above what would be a sustainable level if everyone were to do it. Which is scary, because most people wouldn’t want to live the way that I live.”

(sidebar) As “an ageing nerd” David Clarke has gone for a technical fix to survive any future crisis. The holder of two software patents, he is continually at pains to point out what a geek he is. He had heard theories about a looming oil crisis, but always dismissed them as the ravings of a lunatic fringe. Late last year, however, he was chatting with a friend in the power industry, John Roles, who was unusually glum. Roles told him about his research into the future of oil, painting a picture of $5-a-litre petrol and an almost certain depression.

Clarke had just had a baby son, Nicholas, and so decided to treat the boy like a major business project by doing a “threat analysis”. After weeks of research, he concluded that the quantifiable threats were the collapse of fisheries, global warming, an agricultural decline and a decrease in oil supplies. He couldn’t believe how gloomy he was being. He knew he must have made mistakes in reasoning so he went back over it, but could find no assumptions that were not conservative. And he certainly hadn’t written a worst-case scenario. He refuses to let himself go there.

The best analogy he could think of was Russia after the fall of communism – more a severe disruption than a collapse of society. He started searching for a way to feed his family. He planted fruit trees in his suburban Melbourne yard, but he wanted a techno fix. By May, he had developed an “aquaponics” system that used the waste water from a fish breeding tank to feed hydroponically grown vegetables. There was nothing groundbreaking in the broad system, but he had devised a way to minimise evaporation and use only a $70 solar panel from Dick Smith to power it. The only input needed was his kitchen scraps.

The system, which he is scaling up to 2000 litres, will supply, he says, 4kg of silver perch – full of omega 3 oils for his son’s brain development – and 12kg of vegetables per month. “Not enough to live on, but a good first step … I am an optimist. I believe that I have at least 10 years to prepare. I also believe that here in Australia we will be insulated from the really tough times … Will I let my concerns completely change my life? No. But I will spend money that might otherwise have gone into expensive dinners and a new home theatre.”

This new survival movement has two distinct philosophies: those who think that by building strong communities around sustainable lifestyles, modern society will pull through relatively unscathed, if a little slowed down; and the “Mad Maxers”, or dystopians.

John Cotis, 27, is a student of the history and philosophy of science at Melbourne University. He’s also a Mad Maxer, but says there’s no point preparing for the apocalypse. He cites Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which has a case study on the fall of the Anasazi native American civilisation, in the southwest of what is now the US. It, too, had outlying areas where people had little gardens. Archaeologists found their bones cooked and chewed. “If you live in a complex society there’s no getting out of it. So it’s pointless to build your permaculture garden or raise your chooks. It’s about trying to save the whole boat. So my preparation is basically writing to politicians, going to industry lectures, and networking with anyone I know to get the word out.”

He paints a picture of a pre-industrial world where your snotty-nosed kids are illiterate, your wife dies in childbirth, and insects eat your food. “It’s not feasible to survive individually … I sound like a raving madman, right? What’s scary is that you become used to the idea. I still have faith in humanity. We went through the Dark Ages, but the knowledge got stored in monasteries and we came out better.”

Simon Beer expected a very dark age. The physicist and astronomer won a University Medal at Sydney’s Macquarie University in 1999 after discovering one new nebula (where a star is forming out of a vast cloud of gas) and confirming the existence of another only previously speculated about. He turned down a PhD scholarship because it seemed like there just wasn’t much point in astronomy. He went into computers and by 2001 his programming business was coming along nicely. He lived in a pad overlooking Sydney Harbour. Not bad for a kid who grew up poor in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. But the day after the September 11 terrorist attacks, he went to the opera and, at a nearby cafe, he was watching the TV news continually showing planes crashing into buildings and he couldn’t help looking out the window to make sure the Opera House was still standing. He wondered how he’d fare if things started to fall apart. “I wasn’t pleased with my position. I had no savings. My health was good, but other than that I was completely dependent on the system, and becoming more so.”

He felt an overriding urge to flee to the wilderness, but life went on as normal. Then he read a book called The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight by Thom Hartmann, detailing potential disasters awaiting planet Earth, such as oil depletion, water shortages and overpopulation.

“I took it very seriously. More seriously than I’d recommend for other people, because I wasn’t prepared for the changes.” In 2002, Beer left his middle-class life and moved back to his mum’s house in the Blue Mountains to prepare for the looming crises. He was certain that a food garden was not the way to go. If four million people didn’t have gardens, he’d need a gun to defend his. He decided to learn primitive technologies so he could simply disappear into the vast mountain wilderness until the hordes had starved themselves out.

He acquired a large library of books and started teaching himself crafts such as rope-making and plant identification. There was too much to learn, though: building shelters, tracking, hunting, trapping, skinning, making clothes and tools. He was certain that time was running out. He had a bag packed with cordage and knives, ready to walk out the door, but he knew that if the shit hit the fan tomorrow he would die. Clearly, the modern essentials of a big mortgage and a big car were going to pass him by. He didn’t see himself as some hippy alternative lifestyler. He had normal friends, but unfortunately none of them believed him when he tried to tell them where the world was headed. He started feeling like a loser – isolated and lonely.

“And I think I underestimated the effect that would have,” he explains. What happened was that the over–stimulation of his adrenal system caused by the stress led to a muscular illness, fibromyalgia, which robbed him of his chance to get out there and practise the skills he needed.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that most people have a psychological block. Their mind prevents them from seeing something they can’t deal with. In a lot of ways that’s a good thing. I didn’t have that. I was thinking: ‘This is real, I have to face it now, and I have to face it on my own.'”

Psychologist Kathy McMahon has cut a niche for herself ministering to people like Beer, wandering the internet in various stages of foreboding about the end of the world. She was a couples counsellor and sex therapist in western Massachusetts before she reinvented herself under the nom de keyboard Peakoilshrink. She’d been through it all herself, the shock upon first learning about this coming oil crisis, followed by trying to disprove it, then various stages of despair and furious activity as she learned how to dry fruit and farm chickens (she has 28).

She also felt the rejection of friends telling her to take a chill pill as they went off and refinanced their houses to take a cruise and as the Dow rose inexorably. She also knew that if she fronted up to one of her psychologist colleagues, they would disregard her fears as irrational and start looking for other problems. The first thing they’d ask would be something like “How is your relationship with your husband?” or “How did you get along with your mother?”

“People in the peak oil community are dealing with a mass delusion [in the wider community]: that there is no problem with fossil fuels; that we’re just going to find a solution and there just isn’t anything to be concerned about. When they get those messages over and over and the public assumes that if they’re not covered in the popular press then they aren’t real, it creates a dramatic emotional impact for those with that distinct minority view … I would argue that the symptoms people in the peak oil community are experiencing – what we in the psychological community would label as paranoia, anxiety, or obsessive compulsive disorder – are actually a vigilant adaptation to what’s happening around them … I’m trying to educate psychologists to start to frame it as a legitimate fear. Because by saying it’s a personal problem, the psychiatrist is doing exactly what the person’s family and friends have been doing and the patient will end up more isolated and more fearful.”

ONE 33-year-old scientist from Wollongong in NSW contacts me by email and agrees to talk. “One thing I’ll have to explain first, though … I won’t be giving you my real name. Part of the problem with this whole peak oil issue is some people are going to prepare while the majority of the population won’t. When the oil crisis comes, and it is inevitable that it’s going to happen at some stage, the people who have prepared will be targeted by those who haven’t. I have a very young family and part of the reason I am getting ready for an oil crisis is to protect them. The last thing I want to do is jeopardise their personal security by advertising to everyone that I have stuff to help during ‘The Long Emergency’.”

When I phone him he explains that, being a scientist, he’d like to go public and start campaigning about peak oil, but again he won’t because he says it will make him a target. “I’m a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde at the moment. Where I work, nobody knows about the sort of things I’m doing or thinking or involved with. You start talking about these sort of things to your colleagues and they think you’re nuts. It’s just looking after yourself and looking after your family. It might be considered wacky and a bit hippy – but to me, to prepare for this is just common sense.”

The first thing he did was get depressed as he mulled over the diabolical possibilities, but as soon as he got over that, he rang his dad, who’d grown up out west of the Great Divide with no power, no tap water. He didn’t tell him why he was asking about the old days – not at first. His father told him how they only had fruit and veg in season and so they preserved things. They were too poor to buy powdered milk, which most people used back then. So they bought a cow which they ran on land rented from the railways. They made their own cheese. Everyone had chickens.

He also grilled his father-in-law, who taught him how to harvest honey and a bit about vegie gardening. “He came from a little bush town where the only thing they bought was some of their clothes. Everything else, including food and tools, were made in the village. Try doing that these days with our extremely limited knowledge.”

His instinct told him to head bush and hole up somewhere totally isolated. “But humans can’t live like that. You’d get sick, you’d go mad. We need communities.” So he started cultivating neighbours. Saying hello to them. Talking to them when he was in his suburban yard. He installed 10,000 litres of rainwater tanks. He got bees even though he hates bees. Aside from the honey, he’ll use the wax to seal in the cheese he’s learning to make. “You can store it for years.” He’s got six chooks on order and he’s started a vegie patch.

When he eventually told his dad about his fears over peak oil it didn’t take the old man long to come to the same conclusion – that the world was stuffed. But rather than come on board and start preparing, his dad did nothing. “He thought it’s going to be so bad there’s nothing anybody can do about it, and so why bother.”

American Andi Hazelwood and her Australian husband, Dean, met and married in a whirlwind trans-Pacific internet relationship in 1997. They were living in Atlanta, Georgia, in early 2004 – she was producing radio ads, he was an internet development manager – when they heard about peak oil. “Literally that day, and once we realised there was no argument for this not happening, we started realising we needed a plan. It was either Australia or America and the options in America weren’t as good.”

They moved to the Burnett region of southern Queensland because they could afford a block there without going into debt and because Dean had family in the state. “When we told people we were going to quit our jobs, move to the bush and grow vegies, they’re just like, ‘What? Why in the world would you do that?’ People think we’re crackpots and people ask ‘What are you going to do if there is some magic solution and there’s no problem?’ And our answer is we’ve built our own house on a piece of property bought and paid for, we’re growing our own food and only having to work part time. What’s the problem?”

Dean & Andi Hazelwood

They arrived in November 2005 and have set about building a strawbale house, planting a garden, buying solar panels and a composting toilet. Hazelwood has also set up a group, Relocalisation Works in the Burnett Inland, one of many such groups popping up worldwide, with the ambition of weaning the district off oil. A big ask in an area with a lot of distance between everywhere, but the most basic step would be to get local producers to sell locally rather than trucking to Brisbane and having the goods trucked back by a supermarket chain.

When I tell her how some of the “peakniks” I’d spoken to didn’t want to be named for fear of becoming magnets to the unprepared when things went wrong, she didn’t seem overly concerned. “My thought is that if you’re actually making the effort to make things better for the community as a whole instead of just yourselves, then it’s foolish for people to try to target you … we’re relying on the goodness of people.”

While researching this story, I spoke to 18 people who were changing their lives in preparation for big trouble up ahead. Not one of them sounded like a nut job – not to me, anyway. Five of them were scientists, three were engineers and five were in IT.

They weren’t treechangers or seachangers, although sometimes they might have portrayed themselves as such so as not to look like loons. I sure hope they’re wrong, but in the months that this story was in gestation, I bought two chooks and planted some fruit trees. Hey, it can’t hurt.

Reprinted with the permission of News Limited. Photo by Andi Hazelwood