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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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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