Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Energy Predicaments and Prospects

Last week’s post on this blog argued that four main trends – declining energy production, economic breakdown, collapsing public health, and political turmoil – define the framework upon which our future will take shape. I promised then that the following posts would go through these in more detail. We’ll start here with the top of the list, the approaching energy crisis. This week, I’ll try to sketch out the energy future waiting in the wings; next week, I’ll outline specific responses to that future that individuals can set in motion right now.

Of all the many aspects of the predicament of industrial society, the peak of world petroleum production will likely have the most drastic impact in the short and middle term. Now it’s true, of course, that plenty of other resources are also running short worldwide, from topsoil and fresh water to dozens of minor but economically important minerals. In the latter days of a system designed and built to pursue the delusion of infinite material growth on a finite planet, shortages are inevitable, but no other globally traded commodity is as central to the world’s industrial economies as oil, or faces so imminent and irreversible a decline.

Thus the end of the age of cheap oil promises a sea change in the world’s economies and societies as significant as the beginning of the fossil fuel age some three hundred years ago. Its impact can easily be overstated, though; indeed, it has been overstated by quite a few writers on the survivalist end of the peak oil community, who insist that the inevitable result of declining petroleum production will be the rapid collapse of civilization worldwide in an uncontrollable spiral of violence, anarchy, and mass death. As a result, too many people are still convinced that the only possible response to peak oil is the old fantasy of holing up in a cabin in the hills and waiting for the rubble to stop bouncing.

This is as mistaken as it is counterproductive. It’s certainly possible to dream up worst case scenarios that might conceivably result in a sudden collapse, but these scenarios run headlong into an awkward historical fact: declines in petroleum use equal to the ones we face on the downslope of Hubbert’s peak have happened many times in recent history, without producing anything like the consequences the survivalist theory predicts. In America, World War II saw gasoline rationing and sharp reductions in the use of oil throughout the civilian economy, and the energy crises of the 1970s saw steady declines in petroleum use that went on for more than a decade. Unlike the future we face today, those periods of declining petroleum use proved to be temporary, but they show that American society can use less oil without collapsing.

Overseas, far more drastic reductions in petroleum supplies and energy use have happened a good deal more often. The results have included hard times and human suffering, but the collapse of civilization? Hardly. Two world wars, the greatest depression in modern history, and plenty of less global but no less severe crises have forced individuals and economies to make do with much less for extended periods. Except in a few exceptional and very short-term situations, social order has remained intact and economies have adapted to extreme conditions, shedding energy- and resource-intensive sectors and establishing new networks to get food and other necessities to those who need them. This, rather than the total social collapse of the survivalist fantasy, is what we face in the next few decades.

Here in America, the end of cheap oil will be made more complex by another factor: a large fraction of electricity and home heating nowadays comes from natural gas, and North American natural gas reserves are depleting fast. Over the next decade or so, as the inevitable shortages hit, natural gas will price itself out of both these markets. Some writers have claimed that this will lead to the total collapse of electric power grids nationwide, but this hardly follows. As the supply of electricity decreases, prices rises, and demand goes down as people cut their usage or are disconnected for failure to pay their bills; economists call this “demand destruction.” As shortages become more severe, grid operators and governments have plenty of options to hand, ranging from mandatory conservation programs, through rationing schemes, to cutting entire sectors out of the grid so that power can be saved for other uses. None of these will allow current rates of energy use to be maintained, but all of them will cushion the descent into a deindustrial world.

Where electrical power is concerned, in fact, the 21st century is likely to look like a film of the 20th century run in reverse. As the 1930s were the decade of rural electrification in America, when electricity finally made its way to farm families nationwide, the 2010s may turn out to be the decade of rural de-electrification, when rural America goes off the grid for good. Well before 2050, electricity will be what it was in 1900, an urban amenity generated by hydroelectric, wind, and coal-fired plants, and used mostly by the wealthy and the middle classes. By 2100 most of the coal will be gone and other fossil fuels will be a fading memory, but wind and running water will remain, and cities will likely have their own sustainably powered electrical grids providing modest amounts of light and power to the homes and businesses of the well-to-do.

Transportation is a more complex matter. A transportation network of the sort we have today requires not only fuel and vehicles, but a sprawling and energy-intensive infrastructure of highways, bridges, gas stations, tanker truck fleets, storage depots, highway police, and more, all demanding constant investment. As costs soar and resources run short, expect to see that network come gradually unraveled. Rural areas far from major routes are already seeing infrastructure collapse as roads are no longer repaired and gas stations far from the freeways go out of business. As this process speeds up, resources will concentrate on critical freeway corridors and urban regions, contracting over a period of several decades until it drops below a critical value and truck transport stops being economically viable at all.

On a more local level, the private car never did make much sense except as a way to maximize employment in the manufacturing and construction sectors of the economy. Soaring gas prices will render most of American human geography worse than useless, as people no longer can afford to shuttle among retail cores, employment centers, and suburban bedroom communities many miles from one another. The “donut geography” of American urban centers, with decaying urban cores surrounded by prosperous suburbs, has already begun to reverse in many areas as middle-class families move to gentrifying urban neighborhoods, while their former suburban homes sink into poverty. Expect this trend to accelerate over the next few decades, as today’s suburbs become slum districts like those surrounding Third World cities today, and the suburban tract housing spawned by the now-deflating housing bubble turns into raw materials for the shantytowns of the permanently poor.

Trains, which require a much simpler infrastructure and use much less energy than trucks to move cargo, will be potentially viable much longer. The immediate problem here is that America’s railroad network has been subjected to many decades of malign neglect, and unless significant resources go into maintaining and upgrading it soon, it may not be able to provide a viable transportation network nationwide. Even if the railroads get the emergency investment they need, it’s an open question whether rail travel can keep going over the long term without fossil fuels. If the railroad network unravels in the same way as the highways, the social and political consequences will be immense. Lacking cheap transcontinental transport, it’s unlikely that the present United States will be able to maintain political unity for long.

The transportation network of last resort depends on water. America’s navigable waterways have suffered as much neglect as the railroads, but can be maintained and rebuilt at a much lower level of technology, and several crucial links – above all the Erie Canal and St. Lawrence Seaway, connecting the Great Lakes and the eastern seaboard – remain intact. If the railways fail, the economically viable region of America will contract by more than half, as the inland West loses any effective way to import goods or export its own produce. Still, waterways weave together the Atlantic seaboard, the Great Lakes states, and the Mississippi valley, extending north into eastern Canada and south along the Gulf Coast to Mexico’s east coast. The harsher topography of the west coast offers far fewer options for water travel; the Columbia and Sacramento watersheds connect agricultural regions in the far west to coastal ports, but a regional waterway network is out of reach even with today’s machinery, and regional and local devolution will be hard to prevent.

The end of cheap energy thus promises to remake the human geography of North America and completely reshape the lifestyles of almost everyone living on the continent. The transition to the new deindustrial society, though, will take place over decades, not overnight, as governments, businesses, and individuals scramble to deal with shrinking supplies of fossil fuel energy. So much time has been wasted, and so little done to prepare, that a great deal of human suffering and deprivation is inevitable at this point. Still, much can still be done, and most of it can be done by individuals and families working on their own. In next week’s post, I’ll talk about some of the available options.


taran said...

I greatly appreciate your perspective and from my research on the topic, I think you are right on the mark. One question, though...which adapts to the world of energy constriction best - the market, a well-conceived governmental plan for conservation and development, or individuals doing it on their own? I'd be interested in your take.


Eligere said...

I completely agree that grim survivalist scenarios are not supported by history. My grandmother used to tell me stories about the Depression, and the thing that came across most powerfully is that it wasn't all bad. Everyone was in the same boat, and people helped each other in ways that would be considered terribly risky now, by all parties to the transaction. Men who were traveling in search of work would come to the door asking for food, and she always managed to find something for them. Back then, no one got hung up on being independent and self-sufficient. No one could afford to be independent and self-sufficient. Shortages forced people to be mindful, resourceful, and grateful for anything they could get.

I have heard similar things from those who survived the blitz. During the crisis, there was an intense sense of community and mutual reliance, which largely fell apart when the war ended. Survivalists expect crisis to destroy communities, if you can even call what most of us have communities, when history shows that it tends to create and strengthen them.

I have to admit that I am so tired watching the kind of mindless waste for which our nation has become famous, where so much is disposable and so little frugal in its conception or execution, I would welcome rationing. Seriously.

John Michael Greer said...

Taran and Eligere,

Thanks for your comments! Taran, I'd put my bet on individual action. The market reacts to expectations rather than realities and, as a result, consistently misallocates resources -- look at the recent technology and housing bubbles, which wasted billions of dollars building new capacity for already oversupplied markets. For its part, government just as consistently meets today's crises with yesterday's ideologies -- it's another version of the famous habit generals have of always preparing to fight the last war.

More generally, we have to get over the delusion of hoping that somebody or something else -- the government, the market, or what have you -- will bail us out of the current mess. That sort of thinking is one of the things that landed us in this predicament. The approaching crises say to each one of us what the statue of Apollo said to Rainier Maria Rilke: "You must change your life." No other response will work.

Eligere, I also grew up hearing my grandparents talk about the Depression and the war years, and that's one of the reasons I have little patience with the survivalist fantasy. Our species is very resilient, and hard times bring out some of our greatest strengths -- including our capacity to build community. Whether we get rationing or ordinary shortages, I agree it would be nice to see a lot of the current flotilla of consumer junk vanish forever.

Al said...

It's good to see that you finally found your calling in life as a blogger of the coming end times. For all of our sakes, may your hopes and our fears never be realized.

It is interesting how the world has come around to a viewpoint that you've held for the last couple of decades (at least). We'll see if the future proves you out.

rkbldr said...

I also appreciate your calm and balanced perspective, and I look forward to all your essays. I surely hope, and am planning for, the kind of step-down collapse you envision, but I have this revervation, that our use of oil and hence development and population have greatly accelerated since the Depression. I also think that civil life has deteriorated greatly since then. Given the degree of overshoot we are in, can we really hope for the softer collapse you envision?

Well, I'm going to proceed as if, but I want to share a recent experience. A few days ago a young man from the inner city rang my suburban doorbell and asked for a donation for some made-up organization for which he had no documentation. I explained politely that I never give money out the front door, it's a house rule (that's true). Then he asked for something to eat! All I had on hand was uncooked fresh meat and veggies, so I had to say no and he went away. But it tore my heart! I actually cried when left. I have a grown son, and I think every fifteen year old boy in a way represents him.

So now I'm thinking, is this what we have to look forward to? How will we stand to turn away from people, as we probably must, in order to take care of our own families. An emotional window on our future. Very sad.

fskil said...

John, stumbled on your blog and I am facinated. Your ideas strike my core but I get a fleeting Simpsons moment where nuclear facilities pop up everywhere and all is well. Is uranium on the soon to be depleted list too? Can we bury the nuclear waste and let the future deal with it. Am I viewing through a straw? Have yet to read all your posts...maybe you have commented.

Travis said...

One thing that has occured to me is that one possible predicament is that our centralized systems could be unable to deal with a number of disasters in quick succession. This is the one place where I have a great deal of concern and see how the idea of catabolic collapse may be not as correct as I hope it is. My main point is that large centralized systems are unable to deal with a number of localized predicaments simultaneously, causing the whole system to seize up and collapse.

This may seem far fetched but I think it is a possibility with our climate issues right now. Let us say that perhaps a hurricane comes through the Gulf of Mexico wiping out a large part of oil and NG production, the recent droughts continue and destroy a considerable part of the grain crop in the midwest, a colder than average winter rips through New England causing fuel oil and natural gas shortages followed by a record hot summer with massive loads on the electrical system (powered largely with now absurdly expensive NG) and more drought in the midwest. How well would FEMA deal with that? How well would our economy deal with that? With most everyone relying on centralized availbility of social services, food, material, energy and income I don't like our chances in such a scenario. Add an expanded war in the middle east and we have a real mess on our hands.

Our economic situation is very poor, despite what the massaged numbers the government and financial mainstream media tout. We've had one of the hotest dryest summers in the midwest since the dustbowl. We are in a natural cycle of more intense hurricanes combined with global warming. Our reputation in the Middle East is getting worse not better. If we combine two or three major events together we could be in deep doo doo.

Our livelyhoods, food, clothing, building materials and so on come from distant places, from centrally controlled companies and supply chains. The local systems that were well established in a what was still a largly agrarian society 70 years ago, were decentralized and mainly local are now gone. What concerns me most is that the existant large complex systems become quickly overwhelmed in a crisis before more local solutions can develop. An example from history would be England after the Romans left. Not long after the Roman garrisons were gone, my Anglo-Saxon ancestors found easy pickin's and quickly overwhelmed and took over most of the island. The locals were only able to hold to smalll parts of their former lands. Hurricane Katrina is another example. The sheer size of the mess coupled with top down solutions,poor management of those solutions, but primarily the reliance on those centralized sources of food, energy, transportation etc. cost a lot of people their lives. During the depression people knew how to take care of themselves a lot more than they do today. There were more folks living in rural areas that were relatively self suffiecient at the time. Even the suburbanites of the 50's had a few chickens and small salad garden in their back yard. My great grandparents fed 7 children and themselves exclusively from their garden, chickens, ducks, a milk cow, a few pigs and a goat they had on two acres. Their only other income was from moonshining and selling any left over produce which paid for things they couldn't get from their farm like coffee and fabric for the clothes my grammy made. How many people could do that today? How many people in the suburbs even know how to make fruit preserves let alone get enough of a yield from a back yard garden to feed themeselves?

I agree that history shows that civilization generally devolves slowly overtime. I also think that there are some examples of how these things can blow up quickly. Roman Empire provides a good example of what can happen in a centralized system. Even though it took quite a while to completly fall apart it did leave a severe mess in western Europe as it contracted and eventually felll. We don't call them the Dark Ages for nothing. While we may not be fighting over salvaged cans of Alpo anytime soon, it is possible that things could be more severe than we think. I do agree that the survivalists have it wrong on the action part of the issue. They may not be that far off on the speed of decline though. Who knows? There could be a slow decline over the next century and it could be quick and bloody taking only a few decades. I advocate the same approach in either case because I believe a local, cooperative but decentralized approach will be most effective. That is a relocalization of social services, economy, food, fuel, fibre, and recreation is the best chance we have for a decent quality of life in the future regardless of the outcome from a national or global point of view.

John Michael Greer said...


It's certainly possible to come up with scenarios in which the global economy -- or that of the US -- seizes up over the short term. The point I'd make, and will be making in much more detail over the next couple of weeks, is that this has happened before to other countries in recent history without causing the sort of total collapse central to the survivalist fantasy. Look at post-Soviet Russia, or Argentina a few years back, or -- well, the list goes on. Modern systems are good at surviving sudden crises; it's the slow but inexorable declines that clobber them.

In terms of your specific suggestion, one way a large nation can deal with localized disasters that could overwhelm its response capabilities is not to respond to them. That's what we saw with Katrina, after all. Local areas devastated by natural (or unnatural) disasters can simply be left to their fate. Whatever the morality of this strategy, it's common in the declining years of civilizations -- to cite your own example, look at the way the Roman government abandoned Britain to the Saxons in order to conserve resources needed closer to home.

That aside, though, I agree with you that relocalization and movement toward a decentralized economy are essential. Whoever's scenario turns out to be right, that's the crucial step in dealing with the end of the industrial age.

John Michael Greer said...


We're rapidly running out of uranium, too, and nuclear power is actually a very poor energy source -- you have to put so much energy into mining and refining the fuel, building and maintaining the reactors, managing the waste stream, etc., that there's little left to power an industrial economy. This is what's known as the "net energy" problem, and it afflicts a lot of supposed solutions for our energy predicament.