Thursday, September 07, 2006

Briefing for the Descent

As evidence piles up for the reality of peak oil, and more and more people start to grapple with an issue that challenges almost every assumption our society makes about the future, the issue of what to do about it becomes harder to avoid. Predictably, survivalists are popping up again with their one-size-fits-all answer. That answer first surfaced in the 1920s, when the Evangelical Christian belief in imminent apocalypse fused with traditional American rhetoric contrasting the rich, crowded, and wicked city with the poor, isolated, and allegedly more virtuous back country to create the first survivalist ideologies. Since then, survivalists have insisted that the only response to any crisis you care to imagine – epidemic disease, nuclear holocaust, race war, the advent of Antichrist, the meltdown of the world’s computer systems on January 1, 2000, and the list goes on – is to hole up in the woods with plenty of food and firearms, and live the frontier life while urban America crashes down in flames.

From a survivalist point of view, peak oil is simply one more reason to head for the hills. Still, it doesn’t fill the bill very well. True, the peaking of world oil production will usher in an age of rising energy costs and dwindling supplies, and that will bring plenty of economic, social, political, and demographic problems in its train, but I have yet to see anyone make a reasonable case that these problems will cause civilization to collapse all at once. We’re facing decline, not apocalypse, and in the face of a gradual decline unfolding over a century or more, a strategy relying on canned beans and M-16s in a cabin in the woods is a distraction at best. A more realistic view, and more useful strategies, can be found readily enough by turning from the macho fantasies of surivalists to the facts of the industrial world’s predicament. Though the future we face is not an apocalypse, four horsemen still define the most likely scenario.

First out of the starting gate is declining energy availability. Sometime between now and 2010, world petroleum production peaks, falters, and begins an uneven but irreversible descent. North American natural gas supplies start their terminal decline around the same time. Some of the slack can be taken up by coal, wind and other renewables, nuclear power, and conservation, but not all. As oil depletion accelerates, and other resources such as fissionable uranium and Eurasian natural gas hit their own production peaks, the shortfall widens, and many lifestyles and business models that depend on cheap energy become nonviable.

The second horseman, hard on the hooves of the first, is economic contraction. As petroleum production begins to decline, energy prices skyrocket as nations, regions and individuals engage in bidding wars driven to extremes by rampant speculation. The global economy, which made economic sense only in the context of the artificially low oil prices of the 1990s, comes apart at the seams, driving many import- and export-based industries onto the ropes, setting off a wave of bankruptcies and business failures, and causing shortages of many consumer products, all the way down to such essentials as food and clothing. Soaring energy prices have the same effect more directly in many areas of the domestic economy. Unemployment climbs to Great Depression levels and poverty becomes widespread.

The third horseman, following the second by a length or two, is collapsing public health. As poverty rates spiral upwards, shortages and energy costs impact the food supply chain, energy intensive health care becomes unaffordable for all but the obscenely rich, and global warming and ecosystem disruption drive the spread of tropical and emerging diseases, malnutrition and disease become major burdens. People begin to die of what were once minor, treatable conditions, and chronic illnesses such as diabetes become death sentences as medicines price themselves out of reach. Death rates soar as rates of live birth slump, launching the first wave of population contraction.

The fourth horseman, galloping along in the wake of the first three, is political turmoil. What political scientists call “liberal democracy” is a system in which competing elite groups buy the loyalty of sectors of the electorate by handing out economic largesse. That system depends on abundant fossil fuels and the industrial economy they make possible. Many of today’s political institutions will not survive the end of cheap energy, and the changeover to new political arrangements will likely involve violence. International affairs face similar realignments as nations whose power and influence depend on access to abundant, cheap energy fall from their present positions of strength, while “backward” nations find their less energy-dependent economies becoming a source of strength rather than weakness in world affairs. If history is any guide, these power shifts will work themselves out on the battlefield.

The most important thing to remember about all four of these factors is that they’re self-limiting in the middle term. As energy prices soar, economies contract, and the demand for energy decreases, bringing prices back down. As the global economy comes apart, human needs remain, and local economies take up the slack as best they can with the resources on hand, producing new opportunities and breathing new life into moribund sectors of the economy. As public health fails, populations decline, taking pressure off all other sectors of the economy. As existing political arrangements collapse, finally, new regimes take their place, and like all new regimes these can be counted on to put stability at the top of their agendas. Thus we’re facing a period of crisis perhaps a quarter century long, followed by a period of renewed stability, with another round of crises waiting in the wings. Historically speaking, this is how civilizations fall, in a stair-step process alternating periods of crisis with breathing spaces at progressively lower levels of economic and political integration.

This is the predicament we face. Fortunately for us, it’s a familiar one for our species. None of the four horsemen I’ve just described are new arrivals on the scene; our great-grandparents knew them well, and today they are familiar to the vast majority of our species. Only the inhabitants of the world’s industrialized societies have had the opportunity to forget about them, and then only during the second half of the 20th century. Before then, most people knew how to deal with their presence, and those strategies remain viable today. The one hitch is that we have to be ready to put them into practice. Since the world’s governments have by and large dropped the ball completely, it’s up to individuals to get ready for the future ahead of us. Each of the four horsemen requires a different response, and so different preparations will be needed for each.

To cope with the first horseman, reducing energy use is the core strategy. The less energy you need to keep yourself alive and comfortable, the easier you can cope when energy costs spin out of control. Minor tinkerings aren’t going to be enough, though; you need to pursue the sort of comprehensive changes in energy use pioneered so successfully in the 1970s. Plan on cutting your energy use by half, to start with, and be ready to cut it further as needed. That means significant changes in lifestyle for most people, of course. In particular, commuting by car has to become a bad memory, and if this requires you to move, get a new job, or change your lifestyle, that’s what it requires. Get rid of your car if you can; if you can’t, trade in your gas hog for a light, efficient compact, and keep it in the garage under a tarp except when you actually need it. While you’re at it, practice coping with blackouts, brownouts, and other forms of energy shortage; they’ll be frequent visitors in the future.

To cope with the second horseman, choosing a viable profession forms the essential step. Most of the jobs in America today don’t produce necessary goods and services, and most goods and many ervices used in America today aren’t produced here. This mismatch promises massive economic disruptions during the crisis period, as an economy and a work force geared to sales, retail, and information processing collides with a new economic reality that has little room for these but a desperate need to produce food, clothing, and basic technologies. Anyone prepared to step into a viable economic role in this new reality has a much better chance of surviving, or even thriving. You need to choose a craft that can be done with modest energy inputs, and makes something people need or want badly enough to buy even in hard times. Think of market gardening, garment sewing, home appliance repair, and beer brewing as examples. You’ll need to get your training and tools in advance, of course, and the sooner you hang out your shingle the better, even if it’s just a hobby-business patronized by your friends until the crises hit.

To cope with the third horseman, taking charge of your own health is the central task. Modern medicine is one of the most energy- and resource-intensive sectors of the economy, and it’s already priced itself out of reach of nearly half of all Americans. By the time the first wave of crises is well under way, you can assume that your only health care is what you can provide for yourself. Plan on learning about preventive medicine and sanitation, taking wilderness first aid classes, and arranging for do-it-yourself health care in any other way you can. Don’t neglect alternative health care methods, either; while there’s some quackery in the alternative field, there’s also much of value, and the denunciations of alternative health care issued by the medical establishment are simply attempts to protect market share. Finally, get used to the inevitability of death. you probably won’t live as long as you used to expect, and if you need high-tech medical help to stay alive, you’ll die as soon as that stops being available. Death is simply part of the human condition. The stark terror of death that haunts people in industrial societies is a luxury a deindustrializing world can’t afford.

To cope with the fourth horseman, community networking provides the necessary response. This doesn’t mean the sort of Utopian projects that were tried, and failed so dismally, during the Sixties; it means the proven and effective approaches that have been used for hundreds of years by people who learned that working together is an essential tool for survival. If you’ve participated in a block watch, shopped at a farmers market, or belonged to a community service organization, you’ve taken part in community networking activities. In the future, local citizens will need to maintain basic community services such as sanitation, dispute resolution, and public safety during times when government no longer functions. Getting to know your neighbors, and participating in local community organizations, helps build connections that will make the ad hoc arrangements needed in a crisis a viable possibility.

Each of these strategies deserves further discussion on its own, of course. I’ll go into much more detail here in the weeks to come.


chirotic said...

Greetings, first want to say, love your blog and your work generally. I'm very pleased that you have stepped up to the plate to address decline issues, there seems to be a lack of spiritual input regarding these things.

I would like to point out that while I agree that the survivalist response is not very useful or healthy, there are many plausible scenarios for dire economic collapse in our immediate future. Many of these do not involve petroleum directly but rather are financial in nature and would be exacerbated by peak oil. Some others are structural and/or political, owing to the extreme fragility of global distribution systems that face more immediate risk than petroleum decline, and to the vast populations that depend on these systems.

I would be curious to know your opinion of these other collapse scenarios... personally, I would much prefer the gentle stair-step decline you describe, but I can't see it playing out like that unless absolutely nothing disturbs the financial markets and/or global supply lines for the next 100 years or so.

Thanks much,

Mark said...

Hi John -- another lucid and pithy post on the predicament and a core piece of advice that some on other Energy Descent websites are charging for. I think these overviews are necessary, especially when other sites obsess about every percent of oil used or market value change as the west teeters before the turmoil. The sight of the big picture is lost in such detail and it is exactly that which has us in this situation.

Alternative medicine is something which I've not seen other commentators mention in their "adjustment" scenarios, despite the likelihood that it will replace conventional medicine in years to come. The "big five" of Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Osteopathy, Herbalism and Homeopathy are all ideally placed to provide primary healthcare while requiring very little by way of energy input to practice.

This contrasts with the vast amounts of energy required to build and run conventional medical machinery, to mass produce and distribute pharmaceuticals. This is quite aside from their use of other resources such as water and their polluting effects on the environment. You're quite right about the predudicial noise made against these therapies being motivated by the capture of profit and market share. In the 1800's The American Medical Association was established with the specific aim of supressing Chiropractic and Homeopathy whose practitioners and colleges outnumbered those of the conventional school at the time.

They did a good job, especially when antibiotics arrived, styled as the crowning achievement of modern medicine. Now that their effectiveness wanes, old bogeymen such as Tuberculosis and new ones like MRSA have taken them in their stride.

Peak Oil or no, there will be reasons more pressing than the profits of the conventional medical profession to turn to alternative healthcare and practitioners of same could be added to your list of viable professions for transition times. Thanks for addressing this.

Puma said...

Got here via energybulletin, and wish to thank you for your very thoughtful and lucid framing of our predicament - and thank you for articulating that it is indeed a predicament and not a problem. You have, in two posts, summarized exactly how I had been feeling without even knowing it. On various Peak Oil blogs and sites, I repeatedly run into bitter ideological arguments about how to define the "problem" and subsequently what should be done about all of this, and the responses vary, as you pointed out, from Mad Max scenarios in which men become men again and women finally learn their place (often gleefully posited) to strong admonitions to "think peaceful thoughts" and start-your-own-parallel-Utopia, right in your own hometown!
Everyone has an opinion, no one has a solution, and no one wants to admit there might not be a "solution." While I have made big changes myself that might be lauded by either side of these arguments (gardening, hunting, working from home, etc.) my fears for the future have been swayed back and forth, not being able to hook into any one of them - will it collapse quickly, or slowly, or, since I keep finding out new things about the people who "run" our world, (9/11, war lies, oil lies, banking corruption, etc.) are there still yet things to learn that may change my perspective radically again? In the end, I have chosen to just continue what seems right to me: become less dependent on energy and global supply chains, and yet slowly more dependent on my own town. In many ways, it makes me happy; I certainly don't miss the commute. I certainly love the taste of my pickled cucumbers. I secretly hope that someday I may have a legitimate reason to own a horse, or better yet, sled dogs. But I also secretly fear that war or violence may someday come here too. Your writing helps me piece together the various threads of my perception - in other words, I think you are right in your understanding of how the coming changes will play out.

MajorDick said...

It's an interesting article to say the least. Drawing from my own experience with Swiss culture I can draw some parallels between their existing lifestyle and the lifestyle that Americans will be forced to adopt as time marches on.

Swiss kids, whether fast tracked into a college program, the trades or arts or B-schools all serve an apprenticeship with someone that can pass on to them skills that are of value should they ever find themselves in a situation where being a knowledge worker doesn't feed a family anymore.

Let's face it, Americans are knowledge workers...we provide services (or did until we taught the Indians how to do the same job) instead of the manufacturing side of life.

(We don't make cars anymore, we just wash them!)

Anyway, Swiss kids all have a fallback to their formal education. In Switzerland they also live in a village setting that is to say people live, work and shop in their home towns. They won't drive 30 miles to a local Wal-Mart to save a buck (or a Franc) but will instead continue to buy from the local merchant in the village whose family has served the locale for centuries. Why put your neighbor out of work just to save a few bux on a Salad Shooter made by slave labor in China right?

Americans already have a great model to copy, Switzerland. From it's electric train service to it's health care systems and educational products, it's got america beat by a longshot.

No wonder they won't let Americans live and work there. Our vision of the future doesn't go beyond 90 days or the next bonus. Not exactly the kind of thinking that is needed in this country is it?

John Michael Greer said...

Thank you all for your comments! Chirotic, I'll be addressing the financial/economic dimension of the end of industrial society in detail in two weeks or so; I agree that there's plenty of reason to expect major economic trouble, but the claim that this will lead to the collapse of social order and marauding hordes streaming across the landscape -- the usual survivalist notion -- simply won't hold water. Weimar Germany, post-Communist Russia, and Argentina in the late 1990s went through spectacular economic implosions without causing a survivalist scenario. As John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out, one of the interesting things about financial catastrophes is that, in the end, all that is being lost is money.

Mark, you're right on the money where it comes to alternative medicine -- and I'll be discussing that in detail when I get to public health in the current series of posts.

Puma, your plan -- focusing on unhooking yourself from the global economy while supporting the economy of your own town -- is something else I'll be talking about at length in a few weeks. Home-pickled cucumbers have more to offer the future than most of the Utopian projects being floated these days.

Majordick, you're quite right -- most of Europe is in vastly better shape to deal with the current predicament than America is. I'm reminded of the way that the Roman Empire in the west imploded in the fifth century, but the eastern half of the empire kept going strong for another millennium. Not that it won't be a rough ride worldwide, but Europe is likely to end the process in much better shape than other countries I could name.

Thanks again for your feedback -- it's good to know that somebody is reading these posts.

torstisir said...

This statement strikes me:

"As the global economy comes apart, human needs remain, and local economies take up the slack as best they can with the resources on hand, providing new opportunities and breathing life into moribund sectors of the economy"

I'm wondering how city centers like Los Angeles would work this, given that it has a land and water base which would support tens or at most hundreds of thousands of people without food and water from other regions. I don't see new opportunities and the ability to breathe life into a place that can not support the numbers of humanity current living there.

Certain cities currently function because of global and regional inputs, period. Once those inputs are no longer available or prohibitively expensive, most of the people currently living in those areas, in order to survive, will need to find another place to live.

Not that this needs to be or will be an overnight phenomenon. Just don't expect to see 1 million people eking it out in Las Vegas in 2050.

Siobhan Blundell said...

Dear John Greer
Thanks so much for your writing - I have been reading your posts with deep interest. I have a problem with the alternative medicine - for certain medical conditions, for example, appendicitis, problems in childbirth, etc, alternative medicines will not work - I think surgeons will be as necessary in the future as they are now. I would love to know your opinion in this matter.
With thanks for the writing

forrest said...

"All that's being lost is money"--> and if you've given much thought to what money "is", it looks to be "social permission to use a certain amount of available resources."

So an economic crash leaves the resources available, but with (almost) nobody having permission to use them. (At the end of the table where all the chips happen to be stacked, using them to keep the suckers in the game would be doable-- but doesn't happen because of the "What's in it for me?" factor. Except for a few unusually enlightened types-- Eccles if I remember right & no doubt others like him-- whose perspective has been much neglected by the current crop of kleptocrats.)

jcummings said...

Its pretty stunning how closely history has followed your analysis: skyrocketing energy costs followed by economic crash in 09, followed as you note with patience, a recovery of sorts and now some pretty wild price declines. Public health breakdown and the emergence of a tropical disease - ebola among other less well documented crises. And perhaps the most telling is the continuous public outcry and turmoil stemming from economic inequality - from the occupy movement to protests in Ferguson and elsewhere.

What's amazing to me is that you don't claim any special prophetic skills (though such claims would seem justified). Just a sharp ability to read widely and make shrewd analysis of both historical facts and trends, and current data. Bravo.

Your writing style and sense of clarity remind me of Asimov's monthly non fiction column in the old pulp magazine Fantasy &Science Fiction. Though his posture was probably more cornucopian than youd entertain, your persuasive narrative style and deep historical knowledge and research ability seem similar.