To maintain an industrial civilization, it’s either oil or nothing.
Perhaps the most common response to the peak-oil problem is: “The oil isn’t going to disappear overnight. We have a century to prepare.” Unfortunately, the fact that the decline in oil is a curve, not a vertical line, makes it difficult to comprehend. What matters is that the serious damage will be done long before we get to those tiny remaining drops a century or so from now. If we look at the forecasts of Petroconsultants Corp., which produces the “bible” of oil data, we can see that in the year 2000 there were five barrels of oil per person per year, but that by 2025 there will only be about two barrels, not five. That’s not an “on/off” situation, but at that point the human race should probably wave goodbye to the Oil Economy. The year 2025 is far less than a century from now.
The same statement, “We have a century to prepare,” also raises the question: Who is the “we” here? All human beings? A small group of dedicated survivalists? If the answer is the former, then the statement is false: humanity, as a whole, never makes any decisions. The human race, taken in its entirety, simply does not behave in such a sophisticated manner; the human race much prefers ignorance, superstition, cruelty, and intolerance. Robert D. Kaplan’s book The Ends of the Earth is one of many texts that elucidate the harsh reality of human nature.
It is not only oil, but in fact the entire economy that has followed a bell curve. The year 1970 was the Peak, the Big Peak of Everything, especially for Americans. Backward or forward on that bell curve, one sees a dirty, noisy, crowded world. Right on that Peak, one sees the Golden Age - Beatlemania, “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll,” Easy Street. As Dickens might say, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
What about the coming several decades? Of course, a great deal depends on which time period one is discussing: the world of 2100 will be very different from the world of 2020. The question of slow versus fast collapse will also have a big effect on future scenarios. But if we look at tangible events of the last hundred years - the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Soviet collapse of the 1990s, the Argentine collapse of 2001 - two possible conceptions of the future stand out most clearly. These have best been illustrated by novelists (although not with peak oil as the setting) rather than by sociologists.
The first is that of a slow slide into an impoverished police state (George Orwell, 1984). In this scenario, government and banks do not disappear. They are here to curse us forever. We may be poor and living in chaos, but we will live in relentless drudgery, paying taxes and trying to support our mortgages. This is roughly the same scenario as that of the Great Depression of the 1930s - no matter how bad daily life became, the bank was always ready to take away people’s houses and farms.
The second is that of a thermonuclear war that throws humanity back into a quasi-medieval world. In the fight for the last drops of oil, civilization is largely destroyed. With Bush’s Iran activities, such a scenario is quite plausible. The good news is that governments and banks would be destroyed at the same time. The bad news is that we would be eating a lot of grass soup.
All civilizations grow too large to support themselves, and their leaders have little foresight. These civilizations then collapse and are buried in the mud. The same will happen to modern world, but human shortsightedness prevents us from seeing this.
Roman civilization serves, to a large extent, as a mirror of modern times. The fall of the Roman Empire has been ascribed to various factors, from laziness to lead poisoning. The impoverishment of the soil, and the consequent lack of food, may have played a large part. No doubt it was also a combined military and economic problem: there wasn’t enough money to pay for all the soldiers guarding the frontiers. Pestilence may have been another significant factor. Perhaps a more correct answer would actually be a more general one: the empire was too big, and it was poorly led.
The main difference between Modern and previous civilizations, however, is that from now on the cycle of “civilization” cannot be repeated. Oil is not the only mineral that will be in short supply in the 21st century. Industrial civilization has always been dependent on metals, but hematite, for example, is no longer sufficiently common, and mining companies now look for other sources of iron, which can be processed only with modern machinery.
The machines of one century built the machines of the next. The machines of the past - the hammer, anvil, forge, and bellows of the ancient blacksmith - made it possible for later generations to extract the low-grade ores of the present. Very low-grade iron ores can now be worked, but only because there were once better, more accessible ores. This “mechanical evolution” is, of course, liable to collapse: when Rome fell, so did literacy, education, technology. But after many centuries, the Classical world returned. The western world experienced its Renaissance, its rebirth, after the Dark Ages because the natural world was fundamentally unchanged.
In the future, however, after the collapse of the present civilization, the necessary fuels and ores will not be available for such a gradual rebuilding of technology. The loss of both petroleum and accessible ores means that history will no longer be a cycle of empires.
At one point, the money problem will be everything. A few decades later, the money problem will be nothing. Paper money is only a symbol, and it is only valuable as long as people are willing to accept that fiction: without government, without a stock market, and without a currency market, such a symbol cannot endure. Money itself will be useless and will finally be ignored. Tangible possessions and practical skills will become the real wealth.
Most schemes for a post-oil technology are based on the misconception that there will be an infrastructure, similar to that of the present day, which could support such future gadgetry. Modern equipment, however, is dependent on specific methods of manufacture, transportation, maintenance, and repair. In less abstract terms, this means machinery, motorized vehicles, and service depots or shops, all of which are generally run by fossil fuels. In addition, one unconsciously assumes the presence of electricity, which energizes the various communication devices, such as telephones and computers; electricity on such a large scale is only possible with fossil fuels.
Without fossil fuels, the most that is possible is a pre-industrial infrastructure, although one must still ignore the fact that the pre-industrial world did not fall from the sky as a prefabricated structure but took uncountable generations of human ingenuity to develop. The next problem is that a pre-industrial blacksmith was adept at making horseshoes, but not at making or repairing solar-energy systems.
Fossil fuels, metals, and electricity are all intricately connected. If we imagine a world without fossil fuels, we must imagine a world without metals or electricity. What we imagine, at that point, is a society far more primitive than the one to which we are accustomed.
We seem to be in a state of delusional thinking and the only thing we’re debating at present is how we’re going to keep the cars running without oil. How many people nowadays can light a fire without matches or butane lighter from some distant factory?
The skills necessary to get by in a non-industrial society, skills that were still common knowledge a century ago, have been all but lost. Knowledge is critical and currently, there is little knowledge of basic survival skills, and even less knowledge of the scope of the problems that are looming.
Many of the things that we take for granted — food, water, heat, electricity, waste removal, medical care, and police protection — will evaporate as the collapse accelerates. Riots will probably begin as food and water becomes scarce. Governments will attempt to take control of the situation and restore order, but it will become so widespread that it will be impossible. The primary killers will then become disease, starvation, dehydration, and suicide.
Of course once the fossil fuels run out, or become too expensive and/or problematic to extract then there will be no way to rebuild. There will be no energy source that can power a civilization like this ever again. We will have used it, squandered it and it can not be replaced. Full stop!
There may be pockets of survivors who will be able to harness wind, water and sun using civilized technology for a while, but eventually the machines will wear out. Where do you buy replacement parts, how do you make parts without plastic or wires? How do you refine the metals needed to make circuits and transistors?
Those who know, no longer do; those who do, no longer know. How much knowledge will manage to survive the post collapse period, for the time that comes after when it may become useful again? The problem is that all the technology upon which we have come to depend requires a complete and sophisticated infrastructure to produce and maintain it, and that infrastructure is based on fossil fuels. Take that away, and the rest is all but impossible.
As stated earlier, the ancient Roman world went through very much the same stages as our own. While Rome was a republic, not an empire, the Roman people adhered to the four virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice. But the Roman world became bigger and bigger. There were conflicts between the rich and the poor. There was a serious unemployment problem created by the fact that slave labor was replacing that of free men and women. The army became so large that it was hard to find the money to maintain it, and the use of foreign mercenaries created further problems. Farmland became less productive, and more food had to be imported. The machinery of politics and economics began to break down. The fairly democratic methods of the republic were no longer adequate for a world that stretched from Britain to Egypt, and the emperors took over. After Augustus, however, most of the leaders were both incompetent and corrupt. The Goths sacked Rome in A.D. 410. The Empire was crumbling. The cities and main roads were finally abandoned, since they no longer served a purpose. For the average person, the late Roman world consisted of the village and its surrounding fields.
If we have already established the premise that “the human race faces unsolvable problems,” the answer is not to waste further amounts of time and energy in asking whether those problems exist. The best response is to find ways to survive within that problematic world.
To believe that a non-petroleum infrastructure is possible, one would have to imagine, for example, solar-powered machines creating equipment for the production and storage of electricity by means of solar energy. This equipment would then be loaded on to solar-powered trucks, driven to various locations, and installed with other solar-powered devices, and so on. Such a scenario might provide material for a work of science fiction, but not for genuine science. The sun simply does not work that way.
It is not only oil that will soon be gone. Iron ore of the sort that can be processed with primitive equipment is becoming scarce, and only the less-tractable forms will be available when the oil-powered machinery is no longer available - a chicken-and-egg problem. Copper, aluminum, and other metals are also rapidly vanishing. Metals were useful to mankind only because they could once be found in concentrated pockets in the earth’s crust; now they are irretrievably scattered among the world’s garbage dumps.
The infrastructure will no longer be in place: oil, electricity, and asphalt roads. Partly for that reason, the social structure will also no longer be in place: intricate division of labor, large-scale government, and high-level education. Without the infrastructure and the social structure, it will be impossible to produce the familiar goods of industrial society.
Then prices will rise and demand will fall. The rich will outbid the poor for available supplies. The system will initially appear to rebalance. The dash for gas will become more frenzied. People will realize nuclear power stations take up to ten years to build. People will also realize wind, waves, solar and other renewables are all pretty marginal and take a lot of energy to construct. There will be a dash for more fuel-efficient vehicles and equipment. The poor will not be able to afford the investment or the fuel.
Exploration and exploitation of oil and gas will become completely frenzied. More and more countries will decide to reserve oil and later gas supplies for their own people. Air quality will be ignored as coal production and consumption expand once more. Once the decline really gets under way, liquids production will fall relentlessly by 5%/year. Energy prices will rise remorselessly. Inflation will become endemic. Resource conflicts will break out.
Survival By Localization
The most basic principle of post-oil survival is that one has to start thinking in terms of a smaller radius of activity. The globalized economy has to be replaced by the localized economy.
There would only be three practical methods of travel: on foot, in a non-motorized boat, or on horsebasic. In Asia, bull would reign. One’s speed by any of these three methods will be about the same: 25 miles per day, if one is in good shape. Even where paved roads are usable, bicycles would be hard to repair without the industrial infrastructure to provide the spare parts and the servicing.
Those who live in the country will be better prepared than those who live in the city. A city is a place that consumes a great deal and produces little, at least in terms of essentials. A city without incoming food or water collapses rapidly, whereas a small community closely tied to the natural environment can more easily adjust to technological and economic change.
Some Case Studies
What will be the effects of peak oil on the ordinary citizen and how will we see it coming? On this page we see the likely effects of the future by examining the past.
2000 Fuel Protests
It was the worst oil crisis in Europe in a couple of decades. But this was not like the energy crisis of the past. This was fundamentally a political crisis. There was no shortage of oil in Britain or indeed on the world market. There was no war that was disrupting supply from the Middle East. This was not OPEC action, oil cartel disrupting supply for political reasons. What we actually had here is a good study in how to bring an advanced industrialized economy to its knees. A very relatively small band of users of gasoline, truck drivers, farmers, independents mostly, not heavily unionized, they targeted refineries, the choke points in the modern industrial economy. Because of a very poor political response, first in France where the government buckled, the government gave in to their demands, and then in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, the chaos caught on like wildfire.
Many countries were almost brought to a halt. It was deeply alarming.
The blackouts that hit the eastern USA and Canada in August 2003, and the lesser failure that hit London’s Underground system shortly afterwards shows how totally dependent we are on electric power and the dramatic effects that its absence causes. Standard and Underground trains came to a halt, trapping people within; lifts stopped between floors; street lamps failed; people poured from the buildings, all increasing the risk of accidents. People were unable to communicate because they had switched from land phones to mobiles. The pressure on the emergency services was immense. Imagine the effects when it was the whole country, not just a few cities that is hit. And if that blackout lasts for days, with more occurring in following weeks.
Blackouts can put the very substance of civilization at risk. Prolonged blackouts can take us back to the dark ages – in more respects than one.
The hurricane and flooding that struck New Orleans and the surrounding areas of the southern United States in August and September 2005 showed just how quickly the most organized society can break down. Although the affected area was huge, most of the USA was unaffected and therefore still had a fully working infrastructure, security and government. Yet the inhabitants of New Orleans were left to fend for themselves for a week, resulting in looting (both for gain and survival), widespread crime and death. Imagine the results if it was a whole country affected, and if the security and emergency forces were unable to help because of oil shortages. It is an excellent example of what can happen when both security and the basic necessities of life are removed.
“This is not good civilization. It will not stay. There will be catastrophe, waiting. Many times it has happened, and it will happen because transgressing the law of nature, or laws of God, is most sinful.” ~Srila Prabhupada (Room Conversation, July 27, 1976, London)
Supply chains cannot tolerate even 24 hours of disruption. So if you lose your place in the supply chain because of wild behavior you could lose a lot. ~Thomas Friedman
“Yes there was all darkness in New York on the 10th instant and it was not a happy incident. I learn that may people remained in the elevators and in the subway trains for more than seven to eight hours in darkness. I do not read newspapers but there must have been some mishaps also which we may not know. That is the way of material civilization too much depending on machine. At any time the whole thing may collapse and therefore we may not be self complacent depending so much on artificial life. The modern life of civilization depends wholly on electricity and petrol and both of them are artificial for man. You will be surprised to know that I had to take help of the old crude method of lightening by burning some vegetable oil and use the small bowl as lamp to save myself from the extreme darkness. I could not procure any candle from the shop but by the Grace of Krishna one friend Mr. Bill happened to come and he arranged for some fruits and candle. Yes in India we such experience failure of electricity but I was surprised to see the same thing in America. In India the village people say that in Europe (Vilait) also there is ass. And I saw it practically that it is true. Even in such an advanced country there may be possibility such failure but failure in America is more dangerous than that in India. In India they are not so much dependent on electricity but in America the whole activity is dependent on electricity and think on that night it was a great deal of loss to the American nation. Any way the danger is passed but from the papers it is learnt the loss is very great.” -Srila Prabhupda (Letter, 13th November, 1965)
“It is difficult to think about ‘how things will play out’ when an oil-based global economy loses its cheap energy source. It has never happened before. It will never happen again. I think it quite probable that it will start very slowly, may be so slowly that we may not even see it start. It will take time for civilization to come apart, and the process will be like rolling down a slope, not like falling off a cliff. We will face a future of shortages, economic crises, disintegrating infrastructure, and collapsing public health, probably stretched out over a period of decades.” - Norman Church
“Down one road lies disaster, down the other utter catastrophe. Let us hope we have the wisdom to choose wisely.” ~Woody Allen
Dr. Singh : Now there is a big petrol problem, a shortage of oil. Srila Prabhupada : Yes. The scientists have created it. They have built a civilization that is dependent on oil. This is against nature’s law, and therefore there is now an oil shortage. When the petrol supply dwindles away, what will these rascal scientists do? They are powerless to do anything about it. By nature’s law, winter is coming. Scientists cannot stop it and turn it into summer. They wrongly think they are in control of nature. (Back To Godhead 1979)