If Oil Supply Declines Quickly, How do We Deal with It?

We don’t know precisely how oil supply will work out, but if it declines quickly, we need to think about how we can deal with such an outcome. A quick decline could come if some combination of events starts oil production on a downward spiral.

For example, Middle Eastern revolutions could take a significant amount of production off-line. As a result, oil prices could spike, leading to recession and debt defaults in many countries. The resulting financial crisis could make it difficult to maintain the current level of international trade, and could lead to a sharp reduction in oil supply within a few years because repair parts and international expertise needed for extraction drops off greatly.

This might be described as an application of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. Oil is present, but various above-ground issues interfere with its production. Declining energy return on energy invested (EROI) will tend to make the situation worse, because it will tend to keep oil prices high and raise the need for investment capital. There is a possibility that lack of capital and failing international trade will also cause interference with the production of electricity, natural gas, coal, and uranium. Most of what we have been told are renewables (solar PV, large wind, electric cars) likely will cease to be manufactured in such a situation, since their production depends on the availability of fossil fuels.

We don’t know if such an adverse situation will arise, but if such a situation is even a possibility, it seems as though it should affect our approach to transition. The ideas I would suggest for dealing with this adverse situation are the following:

1. Resetting our view of the world to match what people historically have had.

2. Planning for the basics, to the extent we can.

3. Living life now as fully and completely as we can, since we really don’t know how bad the decline will be.

While this whole approach may be shooting too low, I think it can be a useful exercise for reshaping our thinking. People throughout the ages have lived without fossil fuels, and many have lived happy fulfilling lives, in spite of their circumstances. If our circumstances actually turn out better than this, everything will seem better in comparison.

1. Resetting our view of the world to match what people historically have had.

We now expect a life expectancy of about 78 years. This is wonderful, but far in excess of what people historically have experienced. Wikipedia shows that before modern times, average lifespans at birth were in the range of 25 to 30 years. I am sure that some people lived to the age of 60 or 70, but these were the exception, rather than the rule.

Perhaps we need to start thinking about things differently–how much better we have it than people without fossil fuels have historically had it. In comparison to this yardstick, most of us have lived as long as people have in the past have lived. However long that we are able to live in excess of non-fossil fuel averages can be thought of as a gift.

We live in large heated homes, eat food imported from around the world, listen to televisions and the radio, use the Internet, talk on the telephone, and drive cars. Before fossil fuels, people didn’t do any of these things. Perhaps some had heated homes, but these were very small homes, with limited heat. They sang songs, played musical instruments, visited with each other, and played various types of games. A few lucky ones might have had books, but not most.

2. Planning for the Basics

The major areas of basics that a person needs to think about are

1. Water supply
2. Food supply
3. Transportation

Transportation is in some sense the easiest. The basic transportation mode is walking, and most of us have walking available, without doing anything special. It isn’t perfect, but throughout the life of the planet, it is pretty much what most people have used for transportation.

In areas where water is available for transport, small sail boats or row boats are also fairly easy options, without requiring too much in the way of resources. There are fancier methods of transportation, but these are the basics. They are cheap, and don’t require much investment.

Water, unless we can depend on city water, depends on some method of making water gathered as rainwater, or from shallow wells, or from streams, potable. One historical method has been to drink hot beverages (such as tea), so that water is cooked before eating. Another historical method has been to make some type of alcoholic beverage, and mix it with water, to kill microbes.

These approaches don’t get rid of pollutants, so somehow we need to work around this issue. Charcoal filters would seem to be possible with local materials. Another approach would be to only use water from less-polluted sources–something that is difficult with so many people on the planet.

Regarding gathering water supply, one approach that has been used in the past is gathering run-off water from tile roofs, and storing it in cisterns. It would be possible to start building more water catchment systems, since they are likely to be sustainable with local materials.

Food is more complicated. We know that people around the world, and throughout the ages, have eaten a wider variety of foods than we do now. Foods that we would consider unpalatable for food, such as acorns, have been eaten. Kudzu, a plant that many of us in the US South would consider a weed, seems to have many valuable purposes, including use as a food.

Many of the world’s people eat insects of various kinds. Rodents have also been used a food source. Also, parts of animals that we would not think of as a food source can be used for food. For example, Google shows many recipes for blood soup, using blood from various types of animals. My guess is that the people who are able to adapt to the new environment will be ones who are most flexible in adapting to the use of more diverse food sources, to supplement others.

With respect to cultivated foods, in an environment without fossil fuels, we will need foods that require very little in the way of outside inputs. In a way, what we want is “weedy” versions of plants–ones that eagerly reproduce on their own and do not have precise fertilizer and water requirements. Rotation, and growing among plants with complementary needs, should be able to handle most of their requirements.

Similarly, we want to raise animals that are basically animals that could live in the wild in the area where they are grown, so that there is not significant need for heat, non-local foods, and other inputs that will be difficult to provide. Animals will most likely need to be raised in small groups, by individual households, to prevent the spread of disease.

There may be a few things that we can carry over. Clearly, hand tools such as knives are helpful. Some recent inventions, such as solar hot water heating and solar ovens for cooking, may continue to be useful. If metal that we have today that is no longer needed can be reprocessed, it may serve to be a source of tools for the future. I would expect mining of all types to drop dramatically, without fossil fuels.

Relearning old techniques for making ropes and knots may be helpful, as may relearning many other technologies (such as for cloth and paper making) which were used in the past without fossil fuels, but are not used now. Technologies such as small wind turbines for pumping water and water mills for grinding grain may also be helpful.

3. Living life now as fully and completely as we can, since we really don’t know how bad the decline will be.

Fortunately, declines don’t happen overnight. Even a fast decline will take place over a period of years, since we have clothing and machinery that can continue to be used, at least until it breaks and cannot be repaired. Hopefully, local production chains will stay in place, even as international production chains start breaking.

There are many things we can do now while we have a chance–for example, talk with friends and relatives on the phone or over the Internet, even if we don’t have funds to go see them in person. We can help others in ways that our skills permit–perhaps teach English as a second language to a neighbor, or help take care of a neighbor’s child, when the parents are not available. Some of us may feel inclined to work on developing a transition to a much lower type of economy–but probably not everyone.

Sitting around and obsessing about what may happen in the future does no one any good. A person may want to have a little food and water on hand, because of the possibility of temporary outages, but it is not clear how much good huge hoarding will do. What a person really needs is an ongoing supply of the basics required for living, and this is likely to be a challenge. Hoarding is likely to encourage others to attack you, to take what you do have, so is not necessarily as helpful as it looks.

All of us are going to die at some point. We don’t know when. In a sense, this really hasn’t changed. Our challenge is to live the best life we can, in the time we have remaining.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to inadequate supply.
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74 Responses to If Oil Supply Declines Quickly, How do We Deal with It?

  1. John Weber says:

    Gail – another good essay. Time with this and all the other concerns that are converging right now (water, food prices, other peaks, etc.) is the prime consideration. We are not saying if, only when and really how quickly. I do have another entry at my blog –
    Do Lemmings Grieve?

    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/

    • Nice post! Excerpt:

      I grieve. My grief is for my species. My grief is for the glory of our achievements, our soaring. My grief is for my way of life. My grief is for the next ones. And the inevitability of it all. And the spiral/cyclical nature of it all.

      And my grief is deeper now. Perhaps informed by my age and the bone deep sense of my own leaving.

  2. jemand says:

    has anyone here even eaten acorns? Are they really unpalatable, or just not scalable to commercial operations/amenable to mechanized harvest/happened to have become popular at the right time?

    I’ve recently been eating a lot of wild-gathered plant-based food, (not in the winter, but before it), and it usually was quite delicious, often, without much more preparation than when you start with basic “normal” food like simple flours, raw vegetables, etc. The problem is, a lot of the recipes have been lost and sometimes I had to cook an item several times before I had figured out how to know when it was ripe, how to prepare it, what foods it went well with, etc.

    There’s a lot of local agricultural and botanical knowledge that has been completely lost… but I don’t think that means that historic foods are “unpalatable” rather that we just don’t know how to make them anymore.

    FWIW, next year I’m planning on eating acorns, so at that point I’ll be able to tell you how they are lol.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      Hi Jemand,

      Acorns have a high level of tannin, and are both unpalatable and will make you sick if you eat enough of them.

      That said, you can eat acorns with a bit of simple processing. Typically, you’d dry them and grind them and soak the resulting mash a couple times in water, discarding the rinse water each time. The tannin is water-soluable, but so are many of the nutrients, so this means acorns are good for basic nutrients only (carbohydrate, fat, protein). In other words, they’ll fill your belly, but I wouldn’t make them a huge part of your diet.

      Although they’re high in protein, I think they’re also an incomplete protein, which means you’ll need to supplement with beans or quinoa.

      Pigs, goats, and other domestic animals can tolerate acorns fairly well. In fact, the tannins serve as a natural wormer, reducing internal parasite loads. That’s what I would do with them instead of going to the trouble of rinsing them for human consumption.

      • jemand says:

        well, I think some different species of acorns do differ in tannin content… and honestly, drying, grinding, and boiling a couple times before making bread doesn’t seem that much harder than sheaving, threshing, grinding wheat fields before making bread.

        In fact, the acorns around here seem to be a lot less work to *grow* than wheat fields, as they pretty much take care of themselves.

        I think it’s just we’re used to vast monopolies growing our grain, grinding it up for us, and in most cases, even putting it into bread form already! before we eat it.

        I think they probably could replace a good bit of our starch based diet, which isn’t exactly hugely nutrient rich to begin with. Sure, if you keep a high dependence on corn and then ON TOP of that add a whole bunch of additional acorns to your diet, I bet it would be quite unhealthy, but substituting a portion of our starchy fairly refined carbohydrates with acorns I doubt we’d lose any nutrients.

        However, like I said, I have yet to personally test this, so we’ll see how it goes…

    • Jen says:

      I have eaten maple tree seeds – they are quite yummy. I only snack on them while roving about – so I don’t know if they will give one a tummy ache if eaten dried, or in abundance. This year I am going to try redbud seeds…

    • santaluciae says:

      There are many kinds of acorns. In Spain, the encina holm oak could be the translation, produces acorns that are fit for human consumption, although they mostly feed pigs some locals consider them a delicacy and are sold at some stores. These encinas have been selected for thousands of years in the Mediterranean so they should grow well in equivalent climates like California, Mexico and as they are hardy trees other places too.

  3. mikkel says:

    Gail, I love your analyses but I continue to think you are far too pessimistic about what can be [you may be right about what will be but that's a different topic].

    I also have to be a little taboo here and say that I feel like your mindset about the future is being strongly influenced by your age. This is not an attack, but just a statement of inquiry and one that came up during discussion at Christmas with my grandmother. “Our challenge is to live the best life we can, in the time we have remaining” is a fundamental Truth, but the time we have remaining is totally different based on age. It is “easy” to argue for preserving the status quo in order to extend our comforts for as long as possible when you are likely to live through few of the after period, but when I look at what the world will be like when I’m your age (let alone my grandmother’s) then these issues to me are happening NOW because so much of my life will be spent dealing with them.

    Your guys’ attitude is of course hugely different from the people that cynically perpetuate the problems for greed as your is based in compassion and a feeling of powerlessness over fate, but that does not mean that it is everyone’s fate. So few people understand or give a damn about the problems we are facing that I wish that the elders that do understand would give more support to the young people that want to fight for change, even if it seems hopeless. There is no shame in failing if that is your destiny…

    And on that note, a few brief details. I agree fully that our lifestyle is not sustainable and I agree we shouldn’t hold out hope for a miracle source of energy, but how much of what we do has to be done in the way it is now? What if we were to use giant solar furnaces to do most of the industrial and metallurgical work? Yes we would not have on demand production but we could still produce plenty and stockpile. What if we were to raise fast growing biomass (like hemp) and turn it into syngas to heat and power our homes? We could then do chemical sifting to reclaim the trace metals that are left over and resow them on the earth. Solar and wind have a positive EROEI, what about creating alternative energy plants that are powered by their own products? What about using water based storage in reservoirs to store generated power on the regional level? And don’t get me started about aquaponics in addressing quite a bit of our food issues.

    I could go on. The point is that there are a lot of things that are possible and a fourth way. We would not be able to consume what we do now and perhaps electricity would not be a 24/7 phenomenon (or even on every day for every place) but we would not have to live on subsistence.

    Physics and ecology is on the side of possibility of a decent life. If we fail as a society to get there it will be because we had too much denial, greed, passivity and fear. I don’t see the use in spending time plotting out the inevitable when that time could be spent to try to fit it. If we are successful then the predictions would be invalidated, and if we aren’t then it’d happen anyway, no need to spend time on elucidating why.

    • I am sure that there will be people willing to continue to look for solutions, as long as there is any chance at all. What the “Limits to Growth” studies seemed to show is that if you outrun limits in one direction (say energy production), you are likely to come up short in another (arable land for food, or capital, or pollution).

      I am sure my age makes a difference. I have grown children, but no grandchildren. It would be good if we could make life better for them, but it is hard to see how it can be done.

      • mikkel says:

        Well yes, if population growth keeps up that’s true. I loved the analogy that I think I read here that trying to address these issues without confronting population growth is like trying to mop up the floor while the sink is still overflowing.

        But Limits to Growth was not a prediction of what must happen, it was what would happen in different scenarios based on the path that society chose to take. I don’t think it’s to late to choose a new one.

        Basically what I’m calling for is to turn the biophysical mindset into a consistent ideology. The two current ideologies are “there is nothing really wrong except for an external boogeyman [liberals, the rich, imperialists, the poor, whatever]” and the green consumerism hope that technology will allow us to continue our lifestyles without environmental destruction.

        If we worked together as a community to make an ideology based on EROEI and ecosystems — complete with the logic, myths, political structures, social norms, etc. that goes with it — then who is to say that life won’t be better? Perhaps it will become as dominant as neoliberalism is now, perhaps not; even if things fall apart completely at least the people in the community would have the social structures in place to lean on each other.

        A lot of what is possible or impossible in terms of labor and capital is just dependent on how many people decide to take the leap and start living this way. If they can form their own underground economy and live full time working on the transition then not only may we be surprised about how things can change, but there will be a working model to show people in the coming years as things start to break and leave more and more out in the cold. I think you and your colleagues could use the authority you’ve rightfully earned in order to help try to coordinate some of this (hey at least you’re still talking about it, thanks for that. What the Oil Drum did is incomprehensible). You can reply that is what groups like Transition are doing, but they are not nearly cynical or focused enough for my tastes.

        I greatly value your work in helping me realize I’m not insane in evaluating the status quo, but I question the Peak Oil community’s utility if it’s not going to work for a positive vision. Positive != pollyannish, it just means working towards something in a prescriptive way rather than standing to the side and documenting the fall.

        • We need to work on what we can, but we need to be realistic too.

          I recently bought my own (used) copy of the 1972 Limits to Growth book. The book talks about what would likely happen, in 30 years or so, if nothing changed. It is fairly clear to me that things are tracking along fairly closely to what the model suggested. Prof. Charles Hall and John Day have a paper that shows things are pretty much on track with what the book showed. I have also talked to Dennis Meadows (one of the authors of the book) about this.

          Unfortunately, what the model showed, and what our recent venture into recession showed, is that by now, we are starting to reach the limits forecast in the book. This makes it hard to start preparations now that will prevent decent. Maybe if we had started back in 1972 things would be different, but it is pretty late now. That is why I talk about outcomes that are less than pleasant. It may look like we are walking away from solutions, but we seem to be not that far away from the downward inflection point.

          To me, peak oil and Limits to Growth are pretty much one and the same. Peak oil looks at only one limit–namely oil. Limits to Growth looks at several others as well, but is still an incomplete model. The real world has even more limits–the financial system is one limiting factor, not considered in either. The 1972 LTG book very clearly says it does not claim to model what the downslope might look like, although the general form is overshoot in population and capital, followed by collapse. The fact that oil limits are at our doorstep is a clue that we are reaching more limits.

          I would really like to present a positive vision of the future. I think that some Transition groups would like to grab onto anything that someone says might be beneficial, even if the choice is a complete waste of time and money. I figure it is better to understand what we are up against, even if it is pretty awful. Then we can at least make reasonable decisions in that context.

          I personally don’t feel as strongly about the population issue as I might, because peak oil / limits to growth seem to be right at our doorstep. There doesn’t appear to be much time for smaller family sizes to have an impact. Furthermore, I think people should continue to live their lives, and children are one of the great joys in life. I wouldn’t recommend having three or more children, but having one child, or even a second child is not an unreasonable choice.

        • Neil Paynter says:

          When “Limits to Growth” first came out in 1972, the study indicated time was short to make a choice. When the second edition came out in 1992 the authors retitled the study “Beyond the Limits” to show that it had become too late to make any choice that could avert collapse. Now, we are nearly forty years on, and collectively still not making the choices that would even mitigate the inevitable collapse.

        • Wildcatter says:

          @ Mikkel

          I actually enjoy the refreshingly sober analysis that Gail provides, I can get some sugar coated viewpoint of how we will advance or maintain high standards of living from any MSM report or cornucopian blog. Or even how it will be ok if we just voluntarily agree to drive less or consume less. These are not options for most people in the world and these choices will continue to be involuntarily induced only through recession.

          The problem is the solutions to societal power down are going to be very much based on the individual, where they live and what their circumstances are. I don’t think it would be very productive to try and create broad solutions for such a massive problem that will manifest itself unevenly around the world.

          I am 29, married and have a kid on the way and I know very much that my family is going to have to deal with these problems in a very real way which will likely include lowering our standard of living and dealing with many inconveniences and struggles that I have never known. Even so, Gail has helped me understand the macro forces that are determining our fate whether we like it or not, and I very much appreciate this knowledge as it is better than cursing the darkness or at some politician which is what most folks are and will continue to do as we descend into a lower energy, high unemployment world.

          There are no grand solutions for our energy predicament, only individual ones based on circumstances.

  4. David says:

    Dead on Gail in a short and sweet!

    I would add one other catagory, Education. I think everyone should make an effort to learn some kind of post carbon skill, save some knowledge in a form that can be preserved, and learn to do without something modern.

    Keep this up Gail the time is drawing near. We need your gentle wisdom.

    • I think that there are too many who believe that we can only talk about happy outcomes, even if we have to tell people that some solutions that are clearly iffy will work. I don’t think that approach is all that helpful. We at least out to be working on solutions that have a chance of working.

  5. Ed Pell says:

    The carrying capacity of farm land without oil inputs is far less than with. Our population density is too high in many area to survive without intense (oil based) farming. Once the die-off is finished these all sound like fine ideas.

    • Lack of carrying capacity is part of the reason I say,

      Some of us may feel inclined to work on developing a transition to a much lower type of economy–but probably not everyone.

      We can only hope that things will work out as well as possible. It is sort of like a giant game of musical chairs.

      • Ed Pell says:

        I very much like the musical chairs analogue. I have not heard it used for this issue before but it fits perfectly.

        • I thought I should include a link to the definition of musical chairs, because I didn’t know if readers who speak English as a second language would be familiar with the term.

  6. Kenneth says:

    For those of us who live in homes, we should be planting fruit and nut trees and bushes like blueberry. Grape vines, thornless blackberry canes, kiwi vines can grow on fences. Online state agricultural sites will provide information on what cultivars are best suited for your area and disease resistant.

    Start a compost area and set aside an area in your backyard for a garden. Start small and expand when more space is needed. Plan out where you plant your trees and place your garden so it is esthetically pleasing.
    Gather bags of leaves that others set on the street curb to be hauled to a landfill and compost them for your garden.

    Plant some vegetables and get some experience at raising something that you will eat.

    Victory gardens were common and encouraged during the World Wars. It is likely they will be needed again when food prices rise or shortages occur.

    Fence in your backyard to keep animals out of your garden and to discourage pilfering by neighbors. When you have extra vegetables, give them to your neighbors to build good relations. Offer them seeds when you do not use all of yours and encourage them to plant a garden too.

    Get some gardening books. “The Backyard Homestead” is a good one to start with.

    This is something you can do that won’t break the bank and is proactive.

    • These are good ideas, but work better in some places than others. If you have a yard with virtually no sun and poor soil, it doesn’t work as well.

      • Jb says:

        This is my problem: lack of 4 hours of sun per day and good old Virginia red clay! That’s why I built a chicken coop. I’m planning on trading eggs for my neighbor’s tomatoes. I’m also doing alot of experimenting with raised beds and different crops to figure out what I can grow in my yard. I had great success with collards and several varieties of lettuce last year that don’t mind the shade in the hot afternoons. My apple tree turned out enough apples last year for several pies. Gotta start somewhere!

        • marty says:

          while the sunlight is a huge hurdle. the red clay is not as you have found out with your raised bed. even without it, i have a friend who has five acres of grapes on virginia red clay that do marvelously. there are a few very productive poor soil crops to explore.

        • Angie says:

          Good! Trading is a good way to help your economy, chickens can eliminate bad weeds in the neighbour`s yard only don´t let the animals near the sprouts zone, only where the crops are big. This complement the diet of your animals and kill some kind of plagues, +production for your neighbour – compound fodder for you

      • Kenneth says:

        Poor soil can be a problem, but with composting you can enrich the soil. I have a thin layer of sandy soil with hard red clay under it. It takes a pick ax to dig a hole when it is dry, BUT composting keeps the soil moist beneath the rotted material.
        I am doing this already. Granted my kids don’t want to be seen with me when I take my truck and pick up leaves, but lawn clippings and leaves make rich black soil.

        I am a lazy composter. Nothing fancy. No barrel that you rotate or bin you fill. Simply dump as many leaves as possible in you compost area as deep as you can. My garden for this year will be where I composted a foot and a half to two feet deep of leaves in a side area of my backyard. It took a year, but they rotted.

        This year I extended the width of the bed (6 -7 foot out) that contains bushes running along the fence and am composting there. A long row of vegetables could be grown there next year in good soil.

        I even have a youtube video where I show my composting area and discuss setting up a garden area.

  7. alan says:

    With the first round of peak oil the global recession dropped (flattened) demand. I think something similar will happen again, but next time countries will be taken out, oil demand will drop, and prices will stabilise (for a while) for everyone else.

    As an example, take the UK (there are plenty of small island states that I see as being very vulnerable). The UK is an importing nation, we are a net energy importer and we import most of our minerals either directly, or indirectly as finished goods. Unlike the US, the UK cant shift manufacturing back home as we still require access to raw imported minerals. Also the US could divert a lot of food crops to bio-fuels without causing food shortages at home, again an option not available to the UK.

    As the price of goods goes up UK inflation will rise and badly hurt the economy, ultimately causing the GBP exchange rates to fall and further raising the real price of energy/goods. A very unpleasant positive feed back loop. The final defence of the exchange rates is raising interest rates. But the UK personal, corporate and government debt is high that raising the rate of interest causes even more economic hardship. How far can the UK exchange rates fall before we see complete economic collapse of the UK?

    I’ve simplified the situation for brevity, and only used the UK example to highlight the problems some smaller countries will face. I don’t think (hope) the UK will be first, but individual countries collapsing, I think, is plausible.

    • I think you are right about individual countries collapsing. Everything is so networked, it is hard to see how these collapses won’t spread elsewhere within a few years, as countries that were depending on these countries to repay their debts are also affected by the collapse. Attempts to “cut off” the collapsing countries are likely to have negative repercussions–multinational countries that have operations in many countries will find it increasingly difficult to operate, for example.

      • Jb says:

        It certainly appears that the M.E. is collapsing as we speak. The repercussions are threatening stability across many boundaries. Here’s an article on natural gas flowing out of Egypt to Israel and other countries:

        http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4040108,00.html

        How long can these countries go without natural gas before rioting occurs? I think we are about to see internal civil unrest morphing into a broader regional crisis which will have serious portents for US military deployment at a time when our resources are already stretched. Thus, I tend to agree with Gail’s position that things could happen very quickly.

        • We just don’t know how the feed-back loops occur. The article says that Egypt has been supplying 40% of Israel’s natural gas since 2008. Sometimes there can be feedback loops we don’t even understand–for example, will pressure in natural gas pipelines drop too low, without this natural gas? I haven’t looked into the matter to see whether, for example, LNG from elsewhere might substitute.

          We depend a whole lot on stability. Once we lose that, it seems like most of our models don’t hold very well.

  8. Ikonoclast says:

    I feel frustrated that I cannot find enough quantitative data about this looming crisis. The overall theory (of peak oil, peak energy, peak food, peak minerals, peak everything and limits to growth) I find indisputable. After all, we live on a finite planet. Non-renewable reserves are clearly finite and tend to follow Hubbert’s production bell curve. This has been demonstrated both theoretically and empirically.

    Amongst people with even a basic mathematical and scientific education who also have the intellectual honesty to face unpalatable facts, there is no argument against the logic of limits to growth and peak production of non-renewables. Furthermore, it is clear that while renewable energy has a huge potential in theory, the practical logistics of converting to and harvesting this low density energy might defeat us. The depletion of non-energy mineral resources may be even more of a problem, necessitating cascades of substitutions and evetually abondonment of certain technologies as the minerals become too scarce.

    I feel our near term crisis will be an energy crisis but our long term crisis will be a combination of an energy crisis and a non-energy minerals shortage. For a mid-term period, solution or amelioration of the energy crisis might function to give us not a soft landing but perhaps a pancake belly landing on Last Hope Runway rather than a head-on crash into Mount Reality just beyond.

    However, to come back to the issue of quantitative data. I would like to find data on world energy production both historical and current. Preferably this would be data on net energy production after energy inputs are deducted. I would like to find data that compared energy use to GDP for nations and the world both historically and currently. If anyone can point me to the best links that would be good thanks. Also, are there any studies about the energy costs to transition to a large renewables infrastructure and whether there is any point where this trasition could become self-sustaining in energy and material terms? And what population this might sustain?

    The plain fact is that all national governments and the UN should now be working on the Transition Protocols (let us call them that). It is clear that only emergency cooperative global action stands any chance of addressing our issues.

    The Transition Protocols ought to recognise that;

    1. Humanity faces a global crisis which threatens the very existence of civilization and even humanity itself.
    2. This global crisis is comprised of crises related to overpopulation, resource depletion, growth economics, physical limits to growth, climate change and pollution.
    3. This crisis will be exacerbated if we react with war, oppression and exploitation.
    4. This crisis can only be met by global cooperation with a global plan designed to transition to a sustainable and steady state population and economy within a stable and sustainable ecological setting.

    • alan says:

      Just today someone recommended “Chasing Rainbows: Economic Myths, Environmental Facts” by Tim Worstall. I’ve ordered the book, yet to read, but the comments left on amazon peaked my interest. Not the quantitative analysis your looking for, but thought I’d share. I too am puzzled by the lack of modelling and good quantitative analysis.

      Completely agree world population needs to be stabilised.

      I know we cant rely on future technology, but in theory…. hydrogen/boron (pB11) fusion looks very promising – no nasty long lived waste, no nuclear proliferation issues, and boron is very abundant (although still finite). Why there hasn’t been a big push in R&D I don’t know. The DOD (navy) is doing research into a polywell fusion reactor (pB11 as fuel), but that is to power mega powerful ship based lasers & xray beams.

      Also, if (big if) you had a fusion power source, that’s not as big as a football field, then the trip time to Mars, for example, would only be a couple of weeks. So in theory off world mineral extraction operations might be possible.

      We should hope for the best and plan for the worst. But too many people assume there is no hope and have given up trying for a better technological future. No matter the outcome, we really do need to start looking after this planet, she’s been taking a beating in the last 100ish years.

    • The EIA has fairly good energy data (gross energy, not net energy). I find their new energy website confusing, but with enough looking (and maybe an e-mail to them, you can usually find data, especially for the United States. International Data is shown using this data extraction tool (look to the right). Vaclav Smil shows some good longer term data in the Appendix to Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects.

      To me, Liebig’s Law of the Minimum is what is important in determining energy supply going forward. Hubbert’s Curve doesn’t consider enough variables. In a sense, it gives a best case answer. (Of course, Hubbert’s Curve also does not consider the possibility of technological improvements, so it is not entirely a best case answer.) One of the big things Hubbert’s curve misses in Financial Impacts of world oil production leveling declining. Even a leveling off of world oil production, and a resulting drop in OECD consumption can have a very adverse result in the financial situation, as evidenced by the recent recession. All of the theoretical consideration say that more recession can be expected in the future, if world oil production stays flat or declines.

      I have written some on this topic, in posts such as this one. I have written more on the topic in an article that I submitted to the journal Energy (but I don’t know yet if it really will be published). I also have plans to write a book on the topic.

      Everything I can see says that coming up with Transition protocols at this late date will be very difficult. There is not much evidence that the world can support the current world population without fossil fuels. Getting agreement to transition to a steady state which supports only a fraction of today’s world population is likely to be problematic. The 1972 Limits to Growth book talks about the possibility of a steady state economy that would be based on 1/4 of the energy level used in 1972. By dropping energy use to that level, and limiting population to the 1972 level, there was hope that a steady state economy could be sustained until 2100 (but not beyond–the fossil fuels required for this would be used up at approximately the end of this period!!) Everything I can see says that that possibility of a temporary steady state economy, if it ever existed, is long gone–we have used too much of the energy that was available in 1972, and world population has grown too much. It appears to me that the proposed approach would likely have caused financial collapse in 1972, so I am not sure it really would have been feasible, even in 1972.

      At this point, any significant reduction in oil use appears to have a significant chance of causing a financial collapse. So what we need is more than a Transition agreement–we need a different financial system not based on debt, and some way of deciding very difficult issues: How can countries that do not have much anything to trade in return continue to buy oil? How do we deal with issues of truly “not enough” oil in total–we are already quite badly into “overshoot.” It is likely that death rates will be high in countries with big drops in fossil fuel use, but such drops seem likely, in the event of financial collapse. How can we deal with a very unpleasant situation, with no obvious solution? Fighting doesn’t help but it is not clear what does.

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Hi Ikonoclast,

      I feel frustrated that I cannot find enough quantitative data about this looming crisis.

      You’ve done a pretty good job of reflecting my general feelings about our predicament and the lack of an authoritative analysis that’s reasonably concise with a delivery that is understandable by the layperson.

      I’ve long held that the major problem is humanity’s collective failure to recognize and understand the problem. I hold the belief that it is theoretically possible to manage a kind of “power down” that could mitigate the worst consequences we might face. But only as you say:

      This crisis can only be met by global cooperation with a global plan

      Individual or small group strategies might have some limited merit, but I doubt they can alter the course of history for the planet. I think all the problems you list are very complex and require some pretty high powered talent to gather the data, perform an analysis, and delivery sound recommendations. The authors of such a work need a very high degree of credibility. Furthermore, as I think that the USA needs to lead by example (not by lecture) it would be good to see the US government invested in the undertaking of this type of study.

      To this end, I helped Aniya (some will recall her comments on TOD) start a petition to address the issue of Peak Oil (at least one part of your list). The general idea is the get the National Academy of Science to undertake the project. You can find the petition here:

      http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/Understanding-Peak-Oil/ feel free to sign it :-)

      Although some very passionate people signed the petition, we have fallen far short of our goal. Very few TOD regulars signed the petition or even endorsed the idea – there were every manner of criticism as to why this was futile or even counterproductive. My personal opinion is that the typical TOD regular is a contrarian type of person that finds it difficult to support any such initiative. It was a harsh lesson in the reality of getting exposure of the Peak Oil issue – even most of the TOD regulars didn’t have faith that an organization like the NAS could be useful.

      At this point, I’m pretty skeptical of any proposed “solutions” being implemented in any kind of helpful timeframe. Although I think many policies and practices could be very helpful, I just can’t see a cooperative global plan springing into existence to make this happen.

      • I think that any solutions will be small and local. Governments are stressed all around the world. More can be expected to fail, as citizens become more and more unhappy. The possibility of countries dedicating resources to this issue, when they are having troubles with covering the basics, is very low.

        With less fossil fuels, the world will not be able to support 7 billion people. Many of those who successfully transition to the new world order will likely be farmers or hunter/gatherers, in parts of the world that have never learned to use fossil fuels, as Joe Clarkson says. There may be others too that successfully make the transition, through local efforts.

        • Bicycle Dave says:

          Hi Gail,

          I tend to agree with you. And, I suspect that you agree with me that small and local solutions may or may not benefit the individuals involved – due to many variables. The main point with which I disagree with many supporters of Transition Movements is the notion that these movements can build (from the bottom up) into some kind of global solution. I could see, in theory, that a global top-down plan could be very useful. But, we both know that this is not going to happen.

          It would be interesting to see if a cooperative global effort would materialize if a huge asteroid was approaching earth and all the world leaders knew that we could dodge the bullet by some scientific scheme that just required total global cooperation.

  9. Interesting view. But then again, probably because it mirrors mine. ;

    We looked at our expenses and broke them down into fixed and discretionary. The fixed category has some items that are arguably discretionary such as insurance but I chose to classify them as fixed and decided not to argue about the decision. Our largest single discretionary expense is food. Some of the things that you can do with regard to food deal with present problems of nutrition, chemical additives, GMOs, local vs distant, etc. The things that you do today in response to today’s problems will have value in a future that is defined by less at a higher price. For example, we have a well worn pressure cooker that gets all kinds of use. A cheap, tough cut of animal becomes tender within 30 minutes. Dried ingredients from bulk stores store well for long periods of time. In a pressure cooker using these dried ingredients, you can come up with infinite combinations of incredible soups that are filling and nutritious. Get a couple of spare rubber sealing rings and you’ve got, at least, a lifetime tool. In season when they are cheap, dehydrate fruits and vegetables for use when they are not cheap. If you like yoghurt, make your own.

    One of the first things that you are stuck with is the time that it takes to do these kinds of things. There’s a good reason that convenience foods are so named. Once you get past the time aspect, there’s a reasonable expectation that you will start to look for ways to do/get more for less.

    By starting to reduce your food bill and dependency now, you are making the mental changes that will invaluable in a future of less. It’s a classic Pascal wager. If that future doesn’t occur in your lifetime, so what. You’ve still got a benefit today. If that future does occur in your lifetime, you are better prepared for it.

    Finally, since it’s all about food, start growing some. It doesn’t have to be enough to feed you. Getting started is often the toughest part of doing anything. Growing a tomato on an apartment balcony from seed teaches you an almost immeasurable amount. You understand what local means. You understand what happens if you don’t take care of the plant. You understand what insects decimating your plant means. In wondering how that horned caterpillar, got to your apartment balcony, you learn a bit about Nature. You understand what it is to have your plant decimated by a driving hailstorm. You understand what fresh taste is. You understand what it is to produce that food yourself. You understand what it is to save seeds for next year. You understand what it is to share with your neighbour. You understand what it is to swap a tomato with your balcony neighbour for some of his lettuce. Some may say that is simplistically naive. To that, I say I guess you haven’t grown a tomato on your balcony.

    It’s not really that big a deal to know where to start when you realise that, at its basic, life is all about food/water. Depending on where you live, shelter is not critical to life. Depending on where you live, clothing is not critical to life. No matter where you live, food/water is critical to life.

  10. 2L8 says:

    Gail,
    I have gone through the same analysis of priority of basic needs. I would put shelter at the very top, followed by water, food and transportation. Shelter should be highly energy efficient, low maintenance and debt free. Another concern I have is how to move virtual assets (checking/savings, 401K, IRA, etc..) to hard assets which can provide or be bartered for the basic needs. The financial systems depends on growth to meet debt obligations. As growth declines, debt obligations will dramatically collapse along with all virtual assets or currencies will be inflated to meet the debt obligations. Either way virtual assets will collapse in value.

    • I agree that virtual assets will collapse in value, one way or another. Our debt-based system can’t continue. So trading virtual assets for hard assets is probably for the best, but you can’t be certain even these will have value. For example, if you have to move, you may have to leave everything you have, and get no value for it. Or the authorities (whoever they might be) could theoretically take away what you have. Or perhaps you need a loaf of bread, and a gold coin would buy 500 loaves (theoretically), but is of little use in buying one. So to some extent, what we need to do is become less attached to “things,” and more capable of taking care of our own needs.

      Here I am really speculating. If things change dramatically, we don’t know exactly how they will change. We have been used to storing up value for the future, but I think in the long run, this will be less and less possible (just because there will be fewer resources as fossil fuels become less available.

      The reason I didn’t mention shelter is because it seems to me that we have a this point a huge oversupply of shelter. If we continue to have available electricity and our current financial system continues to function as intended, then it would be helpful if shelter is highly energy efficient. But if we don’t have electricity (or if our financial system isn’t functioning) then insulation is important, but other aspects of energy efficiency don’t matter much–we likely won’t be using fossil fuels to heat or cool the shelter anyhow, since electricity is usually necessary to use other forms of heating, such as natural gas, or even geothermal. Without fossil fuels for heating or cooling, insulation and availability of windows for ventilation would seem to me to be what are important in a shelter. Good location would be the other important variable.

  11. eugene says:

    I’m old enough I can remember riding on a wagon load of hay pulled by horses. I grew up without electricity with a father that trapped for a living. As I read comments, I think of my own past and my grandparents before my time. I don’t think people have a clue of what the world will be like if this comes to pass as I believe it will. During the 70s, I gave gardening, etc a run. I believed, having grown up doing it, I knew how. Much to my surprise, I knew little. I knew how to put seeds in the ground but how many? I think of the loads of manure hauled on the garden in the spring that has been replaced by fertilizer. I read of people talking of gardening and think “how will you fertilize?”. I built a house once. The most important lesson it taught me was how easy to talk and how hard to do. So many lessons, so many mistakes.

    I’m 70 and figure, barring a disaster, I’ll avoid much but I feel for those younger and, even more for those a lot younger. Everything we talk/think about comes from the perspective of “power”. Power saws, tillers, transportation, time spent, etc. I heat with wood living on 4 acres. People haven’t any concept of how much wood it takes to heat even a small house (2-4 cords) when it’s cut by hand, hauled to the house by hand, sawed into burnable lengths by hand, split by hand, etc. The time involved when things are done by hand is incredible.

    I think of going from tractor cut and hauled hay to my experience behind a team of horses. For untold millions, the transition will be fatal. For untold millions, it will be the roughest journey they can imagine.

    • marty says:

      I heat with wood as well, and i can’t imagine doing it without a chainsaw, as the trees are on my lot i’m fine with the rest being done by hand. These “single point failures” (lack of gasoline) are what scare me from time to time, in considering descent.

      I’ve been working on wheat in 5-10 acre fields for the last three years and I finally assembled all the pieces, but still am dependent on diesel (at least its viable past one year). Now I have to master non-hybrid/non-gmo soybeans and pressing for oil/fuel for these small fields, i hope i have enough time.

      The one nice thing about wood, is you can store it for a long time, i’ve kept cords of it for 10 years on skids under tarps, i’d like about 3 years of “descent” firewood.

    • I am not as old as you, but old enough to have seen a few of these things from a distance. My mother tells that their home didn’t have electricity until she was eight years old. They had a team of horses and a sleigh for transportation in the winter. I think the only place I have actually seen teams of horses plowing is in Mexico, when I visited there in the 1970s.

      I agree that it is incredible how much difference electricity makes. It is also incredible what a difference oil products make. We almost need a day a week for school children to live without any of these things, to start thinking about what life might be like without fossil fuels.

      At one time, someone facetiously suggested we needed a reverse Peace Corp–people from the US would go to “underdeveloped countries” to learn how they do things, instead of going there to teach them how we do things.

  12. Owen says:

    You folks continue to take a parochial perspective on this matter.

    It starts and ends with one fact. The US consumes 24% of global annual oil production with 3% of global population. Period.

    The word “fair” in fair sharing is going to be defined by the US — as **continuing** to consume that disproportionate ratio. If there is 70 mbpd to go around, the US gets 17 mbpd of it. If there is 50 mbpd to go around, the US will get 12 of it. Make no mistake about it; this will smash emerging market economies far worse than it will hit US GDP.

    It also has another subtle effect. The US has a GDP 2-3X that of China or Japan. China is driving to catch up. The disproportionate distribution will guarantee that they cannot. Ever. They will always be inferior and configured as slaves.

    They won’t accept this. Who would?

    The response is inevitable. An appeal to the UN. What American President would accept a UN imposed edict mandating a reduction in consumption by a factor of 8 (24% to 3%)? What American President would not give directions to veto it in the Security Council?

    After the veto, what would China do? What MUST they do? Clearly they have the high road. The US is refusing to take a cut by a factor of 8, which would, in fact, be fair. They’ll have to outbid for oil and divert US-bound Nigerian and Saudi oil to themselves. That would reduce US imports by what, about 40%?

    Can the US outbid them? Sure. What would you bid for food to feed your starving children? But who would tolerate paying $500/barrel when the news informs them the price got that high because China bid $490? No one.

    The US is in a profoundly superior strategic position. Canada’s pipelines south are far less vulnerable to attack than supertankers going to Shanghai. The US nuclear land based ICBM force is still 450 missiles with 800 warheads. Submarine “boomers” (ICBM launchers) number 18ish with 24 Tridents each for an approximate total of 432 missiles. So the total US unmanned nuclear delivery system force is 882. This ignores bombers, which burn fuel.

    China’s force is less than 100, and many/most of those can’t reach east of the Western 1/3rd of the US.

    80% of China’s population lives within 50 miles of its east coastline. It is people who consume oil. Consumption interdiction in a conflict that essentially cannot be conventional (because of lack of fuel for long deployments/battle) must therefore be nuclear. China is at a disadvantage, but they will have no choice but to proceed. Choosing not to do so guarantees them a century or more of more rapid GDP shrinkage than the US will have. It would be a choice of 100+ years of relentless economic slavery, starvation and population reduction while the US manages to lose population only via attrition. This would be the most horrible of futures and China would have to respond — as would anyone.

    • Ed Pell says:

      China is out bidding the US for the development of many new oil fields. It is just capitalism in action. They work, they have the money, they get the oil.

  13. RobM says:

    Owen, well said and very astute. It’s obvious to me that the US will use its military advantage to continue to secure an unfair share of the world’s resources.

    I have been looking for any civilization that voluntarily reduced its standard of living to avoid conflict with another state. Have not found one yet. History suggests that this will end very badly.

    • marty says:

      it may want to, and that maybe what Cheney meant when he said “the American way of life is non-negotiable”, but the geographic distances between the well and the “port” make it a lot more complicated than the exercise of military force. Mahan’s categories of control==hard, denial==easy, plays beyond 19th century warships.

      Those pipelines are pretty fragile, even for low level intra-country struggles there are problems, Qum in Iran has had its NG pipelines blown up I believe twice in the past 12 months.

  14. Neil Howes says:

    Gail said There is a possibility that lack of capital and failing international trade will also cause interference with the production of electricity, natural gas, coal, and uranium. You may be correct that these events will ” interfere” but are you implying that no electricity, natural gas or uranium will be available?

    Most of what we have been told are renewables (solar PV, large wind, electric cars) likely will cease to be manufactured in such a situation, since their production depends on the availability of fossil fuels. true but mainly coal, NG,nuclear and renewable energy NOT a lot of oil is needed for manufacturing or maintenance and could probably replace the tiny amounts of oil with NG or biofuels.

    The issue is really replacing very cheap oil based ICE vehicles with electric vehicles or PHEV. This alone would reduce US oil consumption by >50%. Large additional savings in oil consumption could be made by sticking long haul trucks on rail trains, and rationing airline travel.

    • Ikonoclast says:

      But where would all the power come from to manufacture and recharge electric vehicles? From dirty coal I would say. Where will all the copper come from to make electric motors? Copper is already getting rare and expensive. Where will all the lithium and rare earths come from to make electric and electronic componentry?

      Electric vehicles are not a solution if you envisage mass electric car ownership. The private vehicle culture must come to an end. Mass transit, bicycles and shank’s pony (walking) will be the answer there.

      • marty says:

        If you are trying to build EV cars with the same amentities as ICE then I would agree with you. NEV’s and LSV’s can be charged through the standard sized PV systems being installed in Pennsylvania today. Copper is readily recyclable, and I have electric motors that have been running for 20 years without being rebuilt, and i’ll bet that there is more copper in the wiring harness of my 12 year old suburban then the motor of my LSV.

        Gail should continue to argue for collapse as that is the most probable outcome at least for the US, but I’d like to continue to counterpoint that there are descent paths that are “comfortable” at say 1959’s GDP of 3T (20% of today’s) if we would set our sights on that. It does not have to be “Mad Max”. It is also possible that a state of the US, might simply wakeup in time
        and organize itself around such a view.

        I’ve read the materials on the good work of the Transition movement in England but I’m very fearful given that England supplies 40% of their food that it is ultimately moot. I’ve read a lot of history, but I think it’s been 150 years since they were self sufficient.

    • The issue is that what fails is the financial system, and with it international trade. Thus, the problem ceases to be the oil shortage, and instead becomes the ability to import things, and perhaps even the ability to pay workers. If oil were our only limit, I would agree with you. Unfortunately, it is only part of a much larger problem.

  15. LoneyGuy says:

    I started to prepare for it three year ago. I have one bike with a rear rack and a plastic box attached to the rack. This way I can do my groceries and various shopping without using my car.
    I have a garden where I growth my own tomatoes that I dehydrate them using the Excalibur dehydrator. I also dehydrate all my vegetables for the winter during the end of summer where the price are cheaper. I dehydrated 60 lbs of carrots and 60 lbs of beats and I store then in vacuum seal mason jar. The jar then goes into the freezer where they are good for ever. It is the second winter where all my vegetable
    come from dehydrated sources, just like American Indian where doing it.

    I also have a survival vegetable, it is swiss chard. I like this vegetable because it is not attack by bugs, it is one out of 10 vegetable having good antioxidant properties, it last all summer with growing into seed like lettuce. One summer it is the only vegetable that I ate and I did not have any health problem.

    Since I live in Canada and it is pretty cold, I started sowing my own clothing using polar fleece. Cotton does not cut it in cold climate because it absorb the body humidity . I am sewing my own shirt, neck gaiter and even sock. My garments are more comfortable and durable than the cheap stuff from Wal-mart. So I am stocking on thread and fabrics.

    I am also working on the pack sack containing survival gear adapted to cold conditions. It contains a small stove (MSR brand), polar fleece clothing, a sleeping bag, a bottle of water, cooking utensils that I can use to melt snow as a source of water and heat. The pack sack it a robust one with a good waist belt.

    I know it is not much, but at the beginning it could make a difference but not in the long run.

    I hope it is helpful.

    • jemand says:

      I have a winter farm share…. the beets and carrots I’m getting are from last summer, and have kept perfectly well in the cellar. If you have a nice cooler, temp controlled space, you probably don’t have to dehydrate your carrots and beets. Of course, they won’t last years like they do dried in the freezer, but cellars are far less energy intensive than a cellar.

      Of course, it all depends on where you live, I live in an apartment, a cellar isn’t an option at all.

  16. Pingback: If Oil Supply Declines Quickly, How do We Deal with It? »

  17. Pops says:

    Kind of a scary time right now if you look around. The thing that worries me the most is the possibility of the current production plateau continuing to oscillate with the economy, dragging out production at the current level, producing (instead of a single peak and gradual decline) an overhanging cliff and fast drop in production as a large percentage of fields go into decline, ELM kicks in and credit panics simultaneously.

    As for what to do, the one thing we all need is a way to make a living – the need won’t change, no matter the amount of energy available or what type of post-growth economy eventually emerges – but odds are, the way we make a living will change dramatically. The more attached a person is to the modern economy the more vulnerable to energy price they are, so the logical step is to get out of the loop.

    FWIW here are my personal 5 rules for dealing:
    Don’t Buy
    Don’t Borrow
    Don’t Specialize
    Don’t Go Hungry
    Don’t Be Dependent

    I don’t think anyone reading this will be eating bugs anytime soon, but we know for a fact that we can’t depend on tenure, pensions, HELOCs, solo commutes and skinless/boneless chicken breasts.

    My advice is to alter your lifestyle: dump the “style” and get a “life”!
    ;^)

    • Neil Paynter says:

      Pops, I like your comment “I don’t think anyone reading this will be eating bugs anytime soon” . As long as we (or our neighbours) can afford to have back-yard chickens, we can let the chickens eat the bugs so we don’t have to. :)

    • I am afraid we need the current production plateau or even a small rise in oil production, because falling off the production plateau generates too many negative feedback loops. There is too much of a chance we could stumble into collapse, if oil production starts to decline.

  18. Doug W. says:

    Gail, I think the US produces 8-9 million barrels of oil per day. Any idea what it would mean to leave with our means in the energy sense? Certainly, not as drastic as what you outline. It seems that the lights might still be on, but transportation would be greatly restricted.

    • What the US produces is 5.6 million barrels a day of crude oil, plus about 900,000 barrels a day of ethanol, and plus something like 2 million barrels a day of natural gas liquids. The US is now consuming is something on the order of 19.5 million barrels a day of oil products.

      I think we would have a hard time downshifting to living with about one-third of our current consumption. (The non-crude portion is low energy value supplies, so really should not be fully counted in the comparison.) One major concern I have is that we don’t have any good way of determining how to allocate the oil that is left. If we allocate it badly, we could very well generate feedback loops that cause us to lose electricity or other major systems. I expect that with the big drop in oil consumption, employment would drop by a very large percentage–perhaps by as large a percentage as oil consumption drops. (See The Oil-Employment Link – Part 1). The problem is that pretty much all employment requires some amount of oil consumption–even physicians driving to work in an office, and dispensing medicines made of petrochemicals, need oil to continue their employment.

      Hopefully with planning, we could do a little better. Back in 2008, Nate Hagens dug up the US gasoline rationing plan from 1979 that is still theoretically what we would go to, if we needed rationing in the US. I was shocked at how awful it was. It seemed to allocate a fixed amount per vehicle, no matter whether a person had to travel many miles for essential employment, or whether the car owner was a student or a grandpa in a nursing home. I could see that such a plan would suddenly increase the demand for “junker” cars for people with no real need to drive. This plan only applied to gasoline, with no attempt to allocate other petroleum products, such as diesel or asphalt.

      We currently buy a lot of products from overseas, and these have embedded energy in them. Chinese goods are made with cheap coal as well as cheap labor–that is why they are so cheap. With the drop in oil consumption, I expect we would find it difficult to keep up our imports (because we need exports to pay for the imports, and exports would drop with our lower oil use). So we might start losing non-oil imports as well.

      As nice as the idea sounds, I am afraid that it is not really do-able.

      • Neil Howes says:

        Gail, at the end of the gasoline rationing plan;
        Alternatives to Rationing

        DOE, in a section on alternatives to rationing in its regulatory analysis of the plan, briefly discussed the concept of a gasoline excise tax. The excise tax would raise the price of gasoline to the market-clearing level, thus balancing supply and demand. The proceeds from the tax would be rebated to consumers to offset the burden of the tax. According to DOE the excise tax could be achieved with much less administrative complexity than a rationing plan. As a result, an excise tax would be implemented more quickly, would cost less, and would require fewer personnel to administer.

  19. Doug W. says:

    Sorry, meant to day live within our means in the energy sense.

  20. Kitegal says:

    For a very long time I was convinced that at least the little oil which is being used to produce electricity can be substituted by nuclear, solar, water, wind etc energy. And I too thought that in our daily lives we can just save oil and instead of using 84 mdb in the US probably still live quite ok with less like in 60 years ago…. or so, lets say 50 or 30 mbd/day and hence – even be quite independent from politically unstable geographies as this is what we can produce on the AN continent. Maybe.

    But…I do not think so any more and instead buy now much more into Gail’s thinking that- because everything is so connected in these days – that it is not just simply possible to replace or save oil, even if it is just relatively small quantities. Not even cheap oil against more expensive oil. Math and reality do not work this way. (I am part of a small company and can see the impact of getting more or less customers and the need to adjust price for the product when you suddenly have less customers…or save until you close shop)

    I can clearly see now how with large number of people (300 million?) we are in the US (and we are in a good place compared to the rest of the world!) just less oil sold means for the oil companies to sell it elsewhere or – to raise the price/unit. And thus saving most likely will make it more expensive. Utility companies can go out of business if they suddenly sell less – or they have to raise the prices accordingly. Which creates those feedback loops (more people not able to pay, more saving on energy and even higher prices, less maintenance of infrastructure etc. you can spin this on and on). That is why negative growth is an intense problem (and maybe too why Bernanke will rather “spread money from a helicopter than allow deflation”).

    So – with that I do buy now also into Gail’s estimates about time frames (from earlier articles)….like 2-5 years BAU and then a steep decline, and after about 20 years almost no use of fossil oil any more (although there will be plenty in the ground, nobody will be able to pay for getting it out, people don’t work for no money).

    To the above list:
    1. Water supply
    2. Food supply
    3. Transportation

    I would want to add shelter. Not just a warm place in winter but also a place with food storage as most areas do not have 12 months growing seasons. And – many of us will need farm animals – they do need shelter too, and food in winter which needs to be stored.

    But after all this here:
    3. Living life now as fully and completely as we can, since we really don’t know how bad the decline will be.

    Hey…”Living life now as fully and completely” Is and always was my motto – and should be everyone’s. Lets have good and happy lives and …nobody needs expensive cars, mansions, TV etc for that. The beauty of life is abundant and available to everyone, just go for it every day. Because…you know – “nobody gets out alive” anyways.

    Enjoy the day!

  21. SUnger says:

    Gail- here are a few books that vividly illustrate lifestyles and challenges- mainly of the 1800s and 1700s.

    “The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1840″ by Jack Larkin deals with all the material and cultural changes of this bustling period and how these changes affected everyday life. Lots of everyday details.

    “The Good Old Days- They Were Terrible” by Otto Bettman of the Bettman Gallery deals with living standards and problems of the late 1800 with MANY MANY illustrations on every page. Lots of topics addressed from mental institutions to rural isolation to water pollution.

  22. David says:

    A few years ago there was a Wall Street Journal commercial that indicated those that read the newspaper saw the world differently. This past year I have been looking at the world differently having been influenced by Gail’s writings and others. This past winter here in North Ga we had much more snow than normal. I told myself that in the future I could not expect to have roads plowed. I look at school buses that I pass and wonder how long before that model changes.

    These are just a couple of examples how reality is setting in with me and how I am viewing the world. I am lucky that I grew up with depression, Appalachia parents, so powering down isn’t unknown to me.

  23. Jen says:

    I wanted to thank you, Gail, for this wonderful blog. The calm clarity of your writing is a gift in it’s own right, not to mention your thoughtful and informed content. Also many thanks to all commenters – your varied perspectives on these important topics are all welcome.
    Namaste – J

  24. Gary Peters says:

    Gail,

    You and some commentators above have raised some good questions. It seems to me that for a while, at least, a rapid oil decline, like so much else, would hit the poor hard and not affect the rich too much at all. Food prices would spike, food exports to poor countries would contract, and death rates in poor countries would probably go up as well. Though the world could make dietary adjustments that would help, e.g. eating mostly vegetarian foods, but experience suggests that that is unlikely. Americans would continue to eat meat, fruits and vegetables airlifeted from the tropics or southern hemisphere out of season, etc. The poorest of the poor wouldn’t eat at all.

    There are nearly 7 billion people on our planet, but only about 1 billion of them live profligate lifestyles that consume most of Earth’s fossil fuels. At the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, President George H. W. Bush stated that “The American way of life is not negotiable.” Most Americans still feel that way and there are millions more of us now than there were then.

    A sudden collapse in oil supplies, it seems to me, would bring those four famous horsemen back to ride through the sprawling cities of the poor world with a vengeance.

    • You may be right. The poor are certainly more vulnerable. But a sudden collapse of oil supplies could easily mean many more laid off of work, so many new poor as well.

      • Joe Clarkson says:

        There are still many “poor” folk in pockets all over the world who still make their living with hunting and gathering or subsistence agriculture. These people will be the remnant of the human population that survives the end of the fossil fuel era, but only if we manage to keep from covering the entire earth with radioactive fallout.

  25. Doug W. says:

    Peak oil is already here for America’s poor. The deepening crisis will expand that considerably. During the price spike in 2008 a local group– an informal group of county agencies and poverty non-profits had discussions about what to do about people who could not pay their fuel bills in winter. Move them to shelters? Where would those shelters be? If people were to be moved, what about the home, what steps and who would do the work to (1) make it secure (2) prevent damage due to freezing pipes, etc. It was all very surreal to be having these discussions. That was August 2008. As we know, prices went down over the next few months the immediate crisis receded and these problems didn’t materialize. But we could be in a very similar position if prices continue to go up.

    • I expect people will continue to move back in together, leaving abandoned homes. Many of these abandoned homes (often with mortgages in excess of property value) will fall apart, as they are not adequately protected from freezing, termites, homeless people “squatting” in them without utilities hooked up.

  26. Gary Peters says:

    Though such a situation would be very difficult for many people, it would be good for the atmosphere by slowing carbon dioxide emissions. We’ve created a modern civilization that on the one hand requires huge amounts of fossil fuels and on the other hand emits considerable carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In a way we’re now damned if we do or damned if we don’t. Even as oil becomes more expensive, and some believe we may already have passed peak oil, we are also being told by climatologists and glaciologists, among others, that the effects of global warming become more apparent every day.

    Humans have now created a predicament for themselves from which there is no easy escape.

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