I. Could This Be the End of Civilization As We Know It?
My friends will tell you that I have a peculiar fascination with doomsday scenarios. Living in expectation of this civilization’s collapse, which I do, can be isolating. It’s like having historical-epochal halitosis. You don’t get invited back to dinner parties after trying to engage people on the topic of our imminent decline and fall.
I didn’t begin apocalyptic. As a baby boomer born into an affluent Sunbelt family, I assumed that the hedonic summer sung by my beloved Beach Boys would go on and on. In college in the San Francisco Bay area in the late sixties, though, ecological awareness crashed on me like a rogue wave. In a 1968 best seller Paul Ehrlich pointed out that the fuse on the population bomb was burning short. In 1969, Paul Shepard characterized ecology as “The Subversive Science,” from which I inferred that acknowledging our interdependence with all of life subverts Homo sapiens’ claim to being superior, or even exceptional. Also in 1969 a Union Oil well blew out in the Santa Barbara channel and washed the horrible pathos of oil-soaked grebes, cormorants, seals and dolphins onto miles of Southern Californian beaches and thence the front pages. About the time I got my diploma, I also got that my way of life was, in terms of land and other life, exorbitant. I began questioning whether the present-day civilization, which seemed to be running on a bum epistemology, was a good thing at all.
Over the decades since, ecologically concerned scientists and scholars, singly or in learned conference, have been issuing deadlines for humanity to change its ways. From Limits to Growth (ca. 1970), to the UN’s Millennium Assessment, issued in 2005, these inventories of the planet’s bioregions and remaining resources mostly tally the losses, and lose audience share. The publication of the Millennium Assessment didn’t even make it into my hometown paper, but to be fair, the NBA playoffs were underway at the time.
Scratch a fear, find a wish. Although the archetype fulminates in many a subconscious, and might, given nuclear weapons become a self-fulfilling prophecy, the fall of a civilization is not an Apocalypse. But if you’re not adapted to the peasant or foraging lifestyle, collapse might feel apocalyptic enough.
Because their job is to displace oral tradition and subsistence life ways, once civilizations collapse, they’ve lost the means of doing both simple and sophisticated things. Awareness of that pattern may be why there are so many devotees of Tom Brown’s Tracker books and flint knapping clubs around these days. There seem to be quite a few people who want to be able to survive in the bush, or make cutting edges when metallurgy has passed into the realm of the ancestors. Think: What would happen if Gore-tex and Polarfleece fabrics were no more? Have you dressed any hides lately?
Collapse-wise, Y2K provided a teachable moment, though if the worst possibilities had eventuated and all the nuclear and chemical plants had gone critical, it would have been no comfort to the sprinkling of Luddites among the dead and dying. In the run-up to what fortunately proved to be Apocalypse Not, I offered some rhetoric on our extreme dependence on technology. I got a little cash out of the bank, put batteries in the flashlights, sanitized the bathtub for storing water, and made sure I had plenty of canned goods and firewood. However, organizing my neighborhood would have been the most meaningful thing to do, and, for this introvert, the most difficult. In addition to my shyness about engaging in a discussion of big risks, leaving the company of like minds felt like the biggest risk of all. I live in what Richard Nelson calls a “woodburb,” outside Traverse City Michigan, which is one of the fastest-growing areas in the state. Reality is that we all are living out here to avoid much dealing with neighbors.
Comes now the factor, which, interacting with other monstrous problems like climate chaos, could really and truly precipitate world commercial civilization’s collapse. “Peak Oil”–the end of cheap oil–may slay the growth monster. If so, things will go hard for us consumers. In the near term, it’ll be goodbye to the private automobile, the eighteen-wheeler transporting the January strawberries and the corn flakes; farewell to the air-conditioned combine in the county-sized cornfield; adios to natural gas-derived fertilizers and chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides. Cancel the gym membership–it will be superfluous, post-Peak. Practice bundling up, freezing in the dark, taking the bus and eating less. Rather than debating which electronic doodad to buy on credit this Saturday at the mall, we may be spending our underemployed hours roaming the countryside in search of work, food, fuel, or salvage.
About twenty years ago, I was in a head-on automobile collision. My then-husband Phil and I were headed downstate to do some bioregional organizing. Phil was in the driver’s seat of my compact car. Not far out of town Phil pulled left into an uphill passing lane to get out from behind a slow semi truck. Whereupon we discovered another car was in the very same lane, headed downhill right at us. We were bound to crash. Things do go into slow motion at moments like that. I looked over at Phil. Our eyes met in a stunned goodbye. The next thing I remember is looking over at Phil again and our eyes meeting in the amazing discovery that we were still alive, even if in a hissing wreck by the side of the road. Although it took years for each of us to recover from our respective injuries, we did.
In early 2002, picking up my first copy of Richard Heinberg’s brilliant MuseLetter, I collided with his series of articles on Peak Oil, (later issued in book form by New Society Publishers as The Party’s Over and Power Down). Reading the MuseLetter on Peak Oil and its possible consequences was very like being in the passenger seat of that Chevy Capri confronting an oncoming vehicle and discovering that the best I could hope for from the situation was to learn some physics and anatomy the hard way. Heinberg’s reasoned analysis of the evidence that oil (and natural gas) production are close to zenith and will decline; and his explanation of how utterly dependent much of the world’s economy, particularly agriculture, is on fossil fuel, detailed the oncoming crash. I’ve always believed that relocalization could be a good thing, but living through a rapid default into it could be mighty rough. Serious demand-side responses to Peak Oil–households and regions growing most of their own food; staying home, cottage industry, walking, or diverting of federal taxes from armaments to railroads and other public transportation; inhabiting smaller, tighter houses in compact settlements and practicing Xtreme frugality–will take courage, work, and skills bygone as well as new. These latter can be difficult to acquire in a crisis. A way of life is something more than an easy-to-master assemblage of techniques.
II. Peak Oil, Pipe Dreams, and Persistent Pessimism
Peak Oil is a catch phrase now circulating beyond the petroleum mavens who coined it. In the mid 1950s, it was mostly hoots, jeers, and denial that greeted petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert’s prediction that US oil production in the lower 48 states would follow a bell curve and peak around l970. It did. Data gathering and modeling have become more sophisticated since then, as have oil prospecting and drilling technologies. Nevertheless, and though some economists contest it, worldwide oil production looks to be following Hubbert’s curve to peak sometime in this decade. The easy pickings are history. Oil exploration and extraction will cost more money and energy from here on out. Because demand for oil continues to rise, not just in America but on the part of the burgeoning, motoring middle classes in India and China, the remaining oil is apt to go if not overnight, quickly. Unless an international oil depletion protocol is adopted, oil will be a casus belli until the lights go out all over the world.
Of late, periodicals from The Economist (“Oil In Troubled Waters,” April 30, 2005) to the goony supermarket tabloid, The Weekly World News (“No More Oil! World Supply Will Be Gone In 6 Months!” August 22, 2005) to E (“Over A Barrel: Is This the End for OIL?” January/February 2006) have devoted cover stories to the oil situation. In full-page magazine ads, Chevron’s CEO informs us that, “It took us 125 years to use the first trillion barrels of oil. We’ll use the next trillion in 30,” and follows with a magisterial call to “scientists, educators, politicians and policy-makers, environmentalists. leaders of industry” and each of us “to be part of reshaping the next era of energy.”
The cover story of the August, 2005 issue of National Geographic, “After Oil: Powering the Future” concerned that next era of energy. It emphasized the use of advanced technologies for solar-and wind-generated electricity. Electrical energy, much of which is presently generated by burning natural gas (in preference to the far more abundant and dirtier-burning coal), is critical to industrial and high-tech societies. A scarcity of electrical power will have different — but equally serious — consequences than will a drought of liquid fuels. Because there are clean ways to generate electricity to crack H2O, there’s been a pinning of hopes on hydrogen (which is not a fuel, but an energy storage medium). Many hope that hydrogen might function as an oil substitute.
To illustrate the problems and possibilities of a switch to hydrogen, The Geographic presents one of its entrancing artist’s renditions of two hydrogen futures. In both scenarios the hydrogen will fuel individual automobiles. One, wherein natural gas or coal is used to produce hydrogen, is ugly and stormy. In the coal-burning CO2 poisoned future, those cars are depicted traveling bumper to bumper on 8-lane freeways. In the “zero-emissions technology” hydrogen future, wherein wind, nuclear plants and solar electricity crack water for hydrogen, it’s airy, silvery and agleam. Motoring commuters stream in and out of an opalescent Manhattan a-bristle with even taller skyscrapers.
Apart from the fact that a high-tech megalopolis might not be everyone’s ideal, something’s missing from this vision. The catch to the “supply side” solutions like renewables, hydrogen or mini-nukes, which technological optimists imagine will forestall the energy crunch, is EROEI–energy returned on energy invested. The infrastructure within which such technological fixes would have to be produced presently runs on oil. Richard Heinberg’s caution regarding any crusade to switch business as usual over to hydrogen and renewables is “If it can’t be done without fossil fuels, it can’t be done.” How much nonrenewable fuel must be expended in the manufacture of these new gadgets and facilities? After all, the people beavering away on fuel cells will still have to drive to their laboratories on asphalt (another petroleum product) roads.
On the down slope of the peak, oil and gas prices will fluctuate but inexorably increase. So will the cost of everything produced in an energy-intensive global economy predicated on oil’s abundance and easy affordability. Not only will our personal transportation become steadily more expensive, so will food, which industrial agriculture produces with petroleum-fueled equipment, petroleum-based pesticides and natural gas based synthetic fertilizers, and then trucks, flies, or ships by barge or rail hundreds of miles to its ultimate consumers. Oil is also the raw material of much plastics manufacture. Oil’s rising price will be added to the prices of all the production processes and goods that utilize it. If there’s a massive outburst of sanity and hostilities over access to the dwindling resource don’t blow up global civilization, Peak Oil’s potential to precipitate a worldwide economic collapse remains fearsome.
Grandiose top-down solutions to supplying a supposedly endless demand for cheap energy concentrate investment, and in the case of technologies like nuclear power plants, entail so much security that they help rationalize authoritarian social control; the hypothetical technofix makes those billions of human beings who don’t happen to be experts, redundant.
An energy source to power civilization’s continued growth and exploitation of natural and human communities could, by further postponing our moral and practical reckoning with other ecological limits, produce an abiotic nightmare of a world. Even if technology came up with a substitute for oil, it would have to find substitutes for soil, coral reefs, ocean fauna, forests, water, and indigenous wisdom, all of which are being ravaged by the globalized economic activity underwritten by cheap energy. The demand-side solutions, however, all involve sacrifice and social change.
III. The Price of Admission
My California friend Sarah calls the place where I live “America Land.”
Fifteen years ago, upon my return from weeks of travel in India with its throngs of famished beggars, rag pickers, and vendors; lean pedicab wallahs, touts, and sleek middle-class pedestrians, America Land, with its near-universal auto ownership, free fresh water, food in plenty and variety and open space left to its own green self-will looked like a hallucination. It was another reminder that sooner or later an awful lot more of us bourgeois naïfs would be awakening from the fantasy of a life without hard physical work.
Did I move to an ecovillage, start a community garden, implement a two-year food storage plan, or learn to use hand tools and knit my own socks? No. I kept on being a lady writer out here in the woodburb. It’s my custom. It’s the way I grew up. I’m living proof that information and experience don’t trump inertia and denial. Is it any cause for outrage then, that the titanic outfits like the oil, automobile, real estate and construction industries, and research universities follow civilization’s inertia?
This cultural-evolutionary correction has been in the making for millennia. Stresses have been building on the tectonic boundaries between subsistence and centralization since cities began. It’s not simply that wicked Americans, or westerners are addicted to energy consumption. It’s that our species is, like all species, bent on increase. We’re addicted to being alive, to reproducing, to inventing, to seeking comfort and abundance. We have more powerful means of exceeding our limits than most species, and we can’t go cold turkey on being Homo sapiens.
For years, archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies has informed my thinking about civilization’s inherent fragility, a fragility which predates the fossil fuel era by thousands of years. It turns out that over the broad sweep of history, civilizational collapse (meaning reversion to simpler forms of social organization) is fairly normal. Centralization of power, commerce, and cities–all implicit in civilization–depend on the production of commodities and storable grain surpluses to sustain urbanite specialists like clerks, clerics, composers and kings. Once human beings gathered in fixed settlements, the majority of most peoples’ time was spent growing food. Only an elite managed to spare itself this labor and invent belief systems to entrench its privilege.
Half the people on Earth now live in cities. In addition to a personal individualism unavailable to the average villager-“City air makes one free” was a medieval saying– cities anciently have been where many of the fairest flowers of civilization — libraries, orchestras, temples museums, cathedrals, intelligentsia, bohemias, universities and markets of all kinds — flourish.
Today’s cities and their surrounding slums or residential belts blanket the arable land that once used to feed their populations. They are severely dependent on long, fossil-fueled lines of supply. Although the industrial episode has effaced this amongst ourselves, growing food is about the most important thing that humans do, the sine qua non. By freeing a goodly portion of humanity from such constraints of the annual solar energy budget as the need to labor to grow all the food, fiber and fuel as well as pasturage for draft animals, the use of ancient sunlight in the form of fossil fuels increased agricultural yields, helped depopulate the countryside and promoted a spike in human numbers. Since 1965, when I graduated from high school, the Earth’s human population has doubled, from 3 to 6 billion. Another 3 billion fellow passengers are expected by 2050.
As civilizations grow they not only must extend their imperial reach, but must also spend more time and tax more to administer and police the ever more distant hinterlands they depend on. Civilization has proved to be a design for, among other things, exhausting the carrying capacity of its surround. Roughly what Tainter’s book says is that civilizations always hit a point of diminishing returns. Subjugating the hinterland becomes too costly and over decades or centuries, things fall apart. In landscapes afar, the cost of that oil slavery in blood, nature, and human suffering mounts obscenely. Contention over oil plagues Latin America and Africa as fiercely as the Middle East. “The industrial world’s addiction to oil is laying waste to Africa. We gas up our SUVs with these people’s lives,” writes David Morse of the three to four hundred Darfurians dying every day in the genocidal conflict over oil revenues in the Sudan.
The fossil fuel and otherwise resource-intensive American way of life enables the upper tier of North Americans to live like the pashas of yore without the face-to-face inhumanity. Richard Heinberg’s back-of-the-envelope calculation is that burning oil provides each of us with the equivalent of 300 human slaves’ labor, To say, “The American way of life is not negotiable,” as an earlier George Bush did, was candid, if void of humanitarian concern or foresight. However difficult, using less oil instead of waging war to control the supply would declare a preference for community over colonialism, for sun, soil and muscle as power sources in preference to centralized technologies and expert rule.
Whether or not it topples the empire, Peak Oil begs the question: How are we to live? As actors or subjects? Exploiters or kin? The vast majority of us are on the same foundering ship. A few yachts will sail away leaving fate to fix us the rest of us up with some interesting flotsam-fellows. One may still be able to chitchat within a virtual community intermittently as electricity comes available, but one’s geographic neighbors will be the persons to deal with daily. Our various ideas about what are reasonable, desirable and possible will have to be reconciled on the ground.
My widowed father’s widowed friend Nancy spent much of her adulthood as the spouse of a General Motors chief engineer. Nancy’s respect for Cadillac, GM and technology generally is exalted. Our conversations are mutually challenging. Last summer I lent her the DVD of The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the End of the American Dream. It’s an alarming Canadian documentary about the about the folly of basing a whole way of life on cheap oil. Nancy watched it and commented that it didn’t leave any room for hope. Her observation struck home. Scaring the pants off people seldom promotes creative enthusiasm. Au contraire.
Following my discovery of Peak Oil and a winter spent cringing under the covers at the thought of a Mad Max style dÈnouement of America Land, I felt put upon. Instead of riding my bicycle to a little inland lake nearby I spent the summer comforting myself with swims at a choice Lake Michigan beach a twelve-mile drive away. “As long as you can afford the gasoline,” my id whispered, “why not?”
One day at lunch after I had rapped out another survivalist-doomsday scenario, of exorbitant diesel costs choking off the truck traffic that makes our supermarkets so reliable and the individual automobile going the way of the top hat, Nancy asked what was going to employ people in the post peak, post-collapse America.
“Growing food,” I replied.
Having cast an eye over my pitiful garden, she said, “Well then, you better get some black dirt and cow manure in here and start cutting down some of these trees.”
IV. Cashing the Reality Checks
A while back I began to read nineteenth century English and American novels for deep pleasure. Among other riches, these furnish my mind with images of life without the diversions and physical comforts that seem so normal to us today, like elevators, indoor plumbing, central heating, sewage treatment, snowplows, fork lifts, washer dryer combinations, family cars, chain saws, wood-splitters vermin-free beds, electric light, gas cook stoves, and frequent changes of underclothes. We have it on good literary authority that such lives have not only been humanly possible, but rich in meaning.
Though I have a general idea of a way of life I’d wish for (place-specific, co-operative, diverse, healthy, inventive, capable, earth-healing, and Arcadian), on the other side of Hubbert’s peak, the way to go that distance isn’t self-evident. To judge from the excitement about Peak Oil on the Internet a good many people are jumping in feet first to make the road by walking. Apparently, they’re past the shock, denial, inertia and fear. Most importantly, they are no longer waiting for MIT or the Feds to rescue them. In the 22nd century, it seems possible that human-scale cities and towns will be the capitals of self-reliant watersheds.
That strident End of Suburbia is one of the bolts of information that’s stimulated a flock of community initiatives. The response of the Northern California lumber town of Willits to the prospect of Peak Oil is exemplary but not unique. In October of 2004 biologist Jason Bradford, a relative newcomer to Willits, sponsored some End of Suburbia screenings. Rather than paralyzing the numerous townsfolk who attended, it mobilized quite a few, including some local government officials. Built on a substrate of “New Settler” culture, the Willits Economic Localization Project (WELL) got underway.
“Few people have control over basic necessities in their lives,” its founders wrote. “Multinational corporations don’t care about our town. Distant government agencies don’t know what we need; being dependent on nonrenewable resources from politically unstable parts of the world threatens our security. As responsible adults, we’d rather face reality and do what is necessary to avert catastrophic climate change, mass extinction of species and the loss of democratic freedoms.”
Using all the data they could get their hands on they’ve conducted area energy and food supply inventories, calculated the gas money that relocalization could husband for the town’s economy, did the math on the acreage required to keep the town fed, and enlisted the interest of the local American Legion post. They’ve held a disaster preparedness forum, developed a Biointensive Garden Plan and evidently inspired the digging of community gardens all over the place. What they are doing is grass roots, participatory strategic planning. Be it noted that many, many meetings are required to keep something like this moving.
Of course if those meetings include congenial, inspiring people, use consensual rather than parliamentary process, and help you to arise from the slough of despond, then their frequency isn’t a drawback. As part of such a group, I’ll vouch for that. Our endeavor isn’t as comprehensive as the WELL, but it has its relevance to the economic shakedown that the Peak could provoke.
The Traverse Area Community Currency Corporation includes my friend Sharon, who helped start a car sharing club in Traverse City and mastered an awful lot of information about our oil-based transportation system in the process. She looks forward to the price of oil rising enough finally to pry us out of out cars and back into conviviality. Then there’s Bob, a former science teacher, now an innkeeper, and the president of a local peace and ecology center that, among other good works, annually hosts the Great Lakes Bioneers Conference. Liz, our MBA, is a past president of the local natural foods cooperative and the operations director of a winery. Jody, who has lived a while in Chiapas is the cofounder of a 100% fair trade coffee roasting company which donates a share of its profits to build clean water systems in the villages where their coffee is grown. When he isn’t studying local currency or fine-tuning our web site, Brad, a community organizer, musician, carpenter, and designer and his wife work on their nonprofit to link art and sustainability. Bill, our veep and landlord is a professional facilitator who has in his day, run both a listener-sponsored radio station and a gourmet bed and breakfast on an island in the middle of Lake Michigan.
All of us, and earlier volunteers have worked for a couple of years to launch Bay Bucks, a local currency. The reason that I offer thumbnail biographies of these friends and colleagues is that while I admire them all, I don’t think that we are an exceptional bunch. I suspect that any community of a certain size comprises people with a great enough variety of skills and the civic ambition to help navigate this great transition.
We board members of the Traverse Area Community Currency Corporation have varied reasons for participating, differing visions of the future, and varying senses of the urgency of our project. What unites us is a belief in the importance of economic relocalization. There is a Peak Oil angle to it, which is among my motivations for volunteering. I’m planing a plank for the regional lifeboat. Because the value of the US dollar is partly bound up with the commerce in oil, and largely dependent on continuing economic growth, and because economic decline is apt to be the presenting symptom of declining supplies and rising costs, the national currency could lose much of its value. Having a functional local currency to fall back on could be help. In fact, Traverse City had one in the last great depression. So Bay Bucks is my current non-rhetorical work to abet what I hope will be a deliberate, not a precipitate, relocalization of the globalized economy. What’s more, I’m happy to report that I recently overcame my reclusiveness and invited the new neighbors over to dinner. And although I still don’t garden, I’ve cultivated a happy relationship with a nearby CSA farm and am swamped now with the handsomest produce I’ve ever seen.
Even if we all walk away from last-ditch efforts to find substitutes for oil and gas to feed the growth monster and so protract the American Way of Life and instead apply ourselves to the challenges of our local commonwealths we’ll still face chaos and difficulty. Post-peak planetary civilization will probably look like a mosaic of ruin, reclamation, and resurgence across the planet. The next few hundred years will be a testing time, especially for the civilized portion of our species, and those of us still residing in America Land. Our communities must find their right relation to an altered planetary ecology. If the lifestyle to date has been like living in a hotel, the lifestyle to come will be a camping trip, or maybe even a lifetime Outward Bound course.
Bioregionalist Peter Berg speaks of “taking on the big question from a place small enough to yield practical results” and I swear by his wisdom. Hope is like lichen, growing close to the ground, making do with rocks and water, building soil again. Real live geographic community is the only kind of place to dig in to face the challenges that declining energy availability, economic depression, climate change and public health crises portend. Only in place will we learn anew, in myriad ways, to carry on.
In the meantime, whenever I take a hot shower in water clean enough to drink (!), eat chilled cherries, switch on an electric fan or light; or when I drive my car to a distant beach or crawl into a warm clean bed, I’m trying to make the most of it. As long as I still have the leeway not to grow my own food or look for an opening as a serf, I’m enjoying my desk job. But I have no doubt that the party’s over, and that’s probably a good thing.
Copyright Stephanie Mills 2006
Stephanie Mills is an author, lecturer and longtime bioregionalist. Her books include In Service of the Wild: Restoring and Reinhabiting Damaged Land (Beacon Press, 1995) and Epicurean Simplicity (Island Press, 2002). Since her emergence in 1969 as an ecological activist Mills has written prolifically, edited numerous periodicals, participated in countless conferences and served on the boards and advisory committees of dozens of ecologically oriented organizations from the local to national level.
Since 1984 she has lived and worked in Northwest Lower Michigan. She is presently at work on a biography of Robert Swann.