Energy limits: Is there anything we can do?

The energy limit we are running into is a cost limit. I would argue that neither the Republican or Democrat approach to solving the problem will really work.

The Republicans favor “Drill Baby Drill”. If the issue is that the price of oil extraction is too high, additional drilling doesn’t really fix the problem. At best, it gives us a little more expensive oil to add to the world’s supply. The Wall Street research firm Sanford Bernstein recently estimated that the non-Opec marginal cost of production rose to $104.50 a barrel in 2012, up more than 13 per cent from $92.30 a barrel in 2011.

US consumers still cannot afford to buy high-priced oil, even if we extract the oil ourselves. The countries that see rising oil consumption tend to be ones that can leverage its use better with cheaper fuels, particularly coal (Figure 1). See Why coal consumption keeps rising; what economists missed. The recent reduction in US oil usage is more related to young people not being able to afford to drive than it is to improved automobile efficiency. See my post, Why is gasoline mileage lower? Better gasoline mileage?

Figure 1. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on EIA data. 2012 world consumption data estimated based on world "all liquids" production amounts.

Figure 1. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on EIA data. 2012 world consumption data estimated based on world “all liquids” production amounts.

The Democrats favor subsidizing high-priced energy approaches that wouldn’t be competitive without such subsidies. Government debt is at 103% of GDP. It is hard to see that the government can afford such subsidies. Also, it is doubtful that the supposed carbon-saving benefit is really there, when all of the follow-on effects are included. Buying wind turbine parts, solar panels, and goods that use rare earth minerals (used in many high-tech goods, including electric cars and  wind turbines) helps to stimulate the Chinese economy, adding to their coal use. Furthermore, the higher taxes needed to pay for these subsidies reduces the spendable income of the common worker, pushing the country in the direction of recession.

So what do we do as an alternative, if neither the Republican or Democrat approach works? I would argue that we are dealing with a situation that is essentially unfixable. It can be expected to morph into a financial crash, for reasons I explained in How Resource Limits Lead to Financial Collapse. Thus, the issue we will need to mitigate will be debt defaults, loss of jobs, and possibly major changes to governments. If we are dealing with a financial crash, oil prices may in fact be lower, but people will still be unable to afford the oil because of other issues, such as lack of jobs or lack of access to money in their bank accounts.

Because neither political party can fix our problem, I expect that most of our responses will necessarily be individual, personal responses. These are a few ideas:

1. Get out of debt situations, if it is easy to do. There are a lot of people who own stocks on margin, or who own an expensive house with a big mortgage on it. Now, with prices of stocks and homes both higher, would be a good time to get out of both types of debt. Sell the stock or buy a less expensive house, without the mortgage.

Equities and home prices both seem to be inflated now, indirectly because of Quantitative Easing. Some recent analysis suggests that real (that is, inflation adjusted) interest rates are rising partly because inflation is falling.  The reason that inflation is falling is because oil prices are lower (Figure 2). Comparing the first four months of 2013 with the first four months of 2012, oil prices are about $9 per barrel lower. Oil prices are lower because of reduced demand due to economic contraction, especially in Europe.

Figure 2. Spot oil prices and actual refiners acquisition costs, based on EIA data.

Figure 2. Spot oil prices and actual refiners acquisition costs, based on EIA data. Refiners acquisition costs are what refiners actually pay for oil.

In the past month, there has also been an uptick in interest rates (even apart from the declining inflation component). According to the Wall Street Journal, “Yields on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note now stand above 2.1%—still low by historic standards, but nearly half a percentage point higher than at the start of May.” Mortgage rates are also reported to be half a percentage point higher than they were six months ago.

There are a number of risks with rising real interest rates and falling inflation. One is that the higher interest rates will trigger lower stock prices and lower house prices. Another is that deflation will continue, making debt payback more difficult. If this happens, it is something that the Fed can’t handle with its monetary easing policy. Interest rates can go to zero, but not below. A third issue, especially if interest rates rise further, is the adverse impact on the US government financial situation.

2. Reduce your expectations about what investments can do for you. Dmitry Orlov, who has had experience with the collapse of the Former Soviet Union, made the remark, “There are two kinds of investments: those that lose all their value at once, and those that lose value slowly.” Paper investments are a particular problem, because they can decline in value very quickly if conditions change. Even real estate can be a problem, though, because governments can take away what you thought you owned, or raise taxes to a level that you cannot afford. If you buy something and have to move, but cannot take the object with you, you will likely lose the value you invested. The only things that are really yours to keep (at least until your declining years) are skills that you learn.

3. Take up a hobby that will provide food for your family (planting a few fruit or nut trees, adding a garden, raising a few chickens, or learning to hunt/fish). Taking up hobbies such as these provide several functions: They provide a diversion away from the problems of the day, and let you feel like you are doing something helpful. They may actually provide a cushioning effect, if there is a sharp downturn. Taking up such hobbies can provide a useful skill for the future. In some cases, it may make sense to purchase land for purposes such as these. If considering doing this, a person should take note of items (1) and (2) above. It takes quite a long time to get started, and you can’t take the improved land with you, if you have to leave.

4. Learn to appreciate nature, family, and simple joys that can’t easily be taken away. It is possible to be happy, regardless of circumstances. We can find many good things in every day. Obsessing over the future is not really helpful. Don’t tie your happiness to having more “stuff”; you are likely to be disappointed. Learn to sing happy songs, or how to play a musical instrument. Or memorize uplifting poetry or religious writings.

5. Build a network of friends. If things go downhill, we can’t expect to use a gun to ward off intruders, night and day. If nothing else, we will run out of ammunition. Over the long term, the approach that is likely to be successful is working together with other community members toward a common goal.

6. Learn new skills, if you are concerned about job loss. Try to think of what will be needed in a lower-energy world. People will always need dentists and midwives, regardless of how poor they are. Buggy whip manufacturers went out of business long ago. Maybe we will need them back!

7. If you want to develop larger-scale plans (such as for cities or regions), keep them cheap and easy to implement. Governments are already running short of funds to implement plans. Look for approaches that are inexpensive to put in place, such as car-sharing plans. Alternatives that worked years ago, such as boats and canals, might be considered as well.

8. Aim for a flexible approach to problems. We don’t know things will turn out. Water may be in very short supply in one part of the country. Or job opportunities may open up in a place far from home. Even more than in the past, we are likely to need to be able to change our plans on short notice.

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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444 Responses to Energy limits: Is there anything we can do?

  1. ravinathan says:

    Fine article Gail. Looks like the long weekend with doomers at the Age of Limits conference had some effect on your thinking. 🙂 How was the conference by the way? Have you become more concerned about climate change after listening to Bill McPherson?

    • The Age of Limits Conference was fine. The weather was cold and windy–especially the first day or two. That cut back attendance a bit, and meant that people walked around with blankets over themselves, if their coats were too thin. It never occurred to me that a stocking cap and gloves would be useful in southern Pennsylvania on Memorial Day weekend. The speakers stayed in a Bed and Breakfast, and the tent where we talked was heated a bit, so we stayed warmer than most of the attendees. (Last year’s conference had unseasonably warm temperatures–confused people who were coming back for a second year.)

      Guy McPherson quoted a long list of scientist who forecast high increases in temperatures, if CO2 continued increasing as in the past. He also gave a long list of tipping points that he felt we had already passed. His conclusion was that it was too late to do anything that would prevent huge changes, in the next two decades. If anything would “save” us, it would be collapse–something that hadn’t been built into the models.

      He was coming to the same conclusion I was–there really isn’t much that we can do, apart from collapse, to mitigate the climate issue. I am not willing to be quite as pessimistic as he is, especially if there are a lot of unknowns in the modeling. Humans have lived through a lot of climate change in the past. We have had to move to better locations on the earth’s surface, and that may happen again.

      • Mel Tisdale says:

        If it is now too late to do much about climate change and we are going to have to endure whatever it throws our way, then surely those who have done so much to persuade the public that climate change was all a hoax, or something not to worry about, even that it might be a good thing should face some sanction for endangering their nation, afterall, it is public reaction that drives politicians to act. As it is there are a number of individuals living in the lap of luxury from the profits they have made from their fossil fuels and should really be behind bars instead. There are also a couple of British Lords who should be investigated and preferably be stripped of their titles if the evidence supports such action (almost inevitable in one case).

        • Yes I agree. People behind organizations like Heartland, that Monckton clown and that nonsense WUWT blog should all be put on trial for deliberately misleading the public, stalling any effort into a quicker transition away from fossil fuels. Its clear their motives is purely economical ones and there should be quite a severe punishment for soiling the science that has been known for so long now. This is why I wondered if it would be possible to stage a mass personal lawsuit towards these people. Not quite aware what possibilities there within the law – but would it be possible for e.g. a couple of million people to get together for one big lawsuit? Its about time we got rid of these people who are spreading lies about climate change.

  2. Brian Hanley says:

    250,000 years of uranium fuel. 4.2 billion tons of it in the ocean. That’s what we should have been doing since the 1960’s.

    Coal plants release at least 7,000 tons of uranium into the air (and that’s with most of it precipitated out). Coal plants cause, on average, 90 deaths a year, which adds up to more casualties for one coal plant over its lifetime than the maximum plausible casualties for all nuclear accidents put together. (Direct, those are under 200. Stretching things over 50 years, its’ about 4,000.)

    So that is what future generations will do. They won’t have a choice.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “250,000 years of uranium fuel. 4.2 billion tons of it in the ocean.”

      Yea, and what’s the ERoEI of oceanic uranium? Do you know how to obtain it? Göthe noted, “A confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.”

      I get so weary of absolutist arguments from pollyanna nuclear zealots. You don’t do your cause any good when you spout such arguments to educated people, and only make yourself look uneducated and silly.

      Show me the evidence that you can get uranium from seawater at an ERoEI above unity, and I’ll listen. And don’t even get me started on your pollyanna “best possible case” of nuclear casualties. I can make coal plants look stellar comparing nuclear apples to coal apples, while you insist on apples-to-oranges comparisons.

      Sorry to be so crabby. Disqus really needs an “ignore filter.”

    • I suppose I now must return to my very old uranium calculations that showed an extremely short period of availability unless breeder reactors are a go. Perhaps, someone on this forum can find my mistake if I made one:

      • tmsr says:

        I think you are all correct. IF we could get the U out of sea water there would be plenty. The cost to get U out of sea water is presently so high nobody does it. And yes the standard reserves of U will run out quickly if use as a sole source to power society.

        The Chinese are doing the research for the use of Th as a nuclear fuel. There is lots of low cost accessible land based Th in the world. Nuclear is not my favorite but I would pick well run nuclear over well run coal. But in a for profit system well run is hard to come by. And in a no profit, we are all equal, system well run is equally hard to find though perhaps for slightly different reasons.

        Ed Pell

  3. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    You have a good list of things to consider. I would add:
    Make yourself disease proof.

    Here, for example, is a current article reviewing the facts about breast cancer and lifestyle and genes. Lifestyle is far more important than genes. I note that the same recommendations will virtually eliminate heart disease, stroke, and diabetes–just with slightly different mechanisms.

    I will also note that the dietary recommendations are strongly related to the gardening issue. Most of the dietary ingredients are readily grown in a backyard garden. And the greens, green onions, and berries are at their most potent immediately after harvest.

    While beans are relatively calorie dense, it is quite likely that either some additional garden space will need to be devoted to calorie dense foods or else that one relies on farm grown calorie dense foods such as grains or tubers. Grains are easily transported, since they are dry. Tubers are not as efficiently transported as grains, but they are far easier to transport than leafy greens. If you want to be 85 percent calorie self-sufficient, I recommend the book Mini-Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre by Brett L. Markham. Markham is an engineer in New Hampshire, so he addresses issues such as nutrient cycling and growing compost and mulch crops intelligently. (In my opinion, if one grows their own organic matter, it may well require half an acre for a small family. But in suburbia, there is usually a lot of organic waste floating around waiting for some intelligent person to salvage and compost it or use it for mulch). I will also note that if you are anywhere south of DC, you will have a considerably longer season than Markham assumes.

    Don Stewart

    • Scott says:

      Hello Don, Yes using food from our own gardens is probably the best thing you can do for your health and it also taste great. The whole process of growing and nurturing your garden is also good for your mental and physical and spiritual health. I am planning to dry a lot of my extra veggies in my food dehydrator this summer and put them in jars to use next winter to make soups etc. those taste good too. Certain veggies are good to dry, like Bell Pepper, squashes, celery and even Asparagus. When you dry them right away it locks in the flavor and vitamins. Drying does take energy though, I do have plans for a solar dryer if needed, but electric one in more temperature regulated.

      I think if we fall upon hard times or emergency, the types of foods we will be eating will be things that can be made in a stir pot, So, I store some beans, dried veggies, freeze dried meats in cans (these last nearly 30 years on the shelf but they are pricey but good to have). So you can throw a few handfuls beans, dried veggies and some freeze dried meat into a pot along with some water, salt and spices and you can make a rather large amount of food this way. So that is the way I plan eat if times get hard and food is hard to get or too expensive. These are things I eat anyway (except for the freeze dried meats those cases if cans I am saving).

      I also found that exercising (fast walking or treadmill with hand weights) for about almost an hour at least three times a week keeps me feeling better and hopefully stay away from the doctors. It also helps me keep my strength up so I can work in my gardens.

      These little things you can do for yourself will not really solve our problems, but it helps and at least I feel somewhat productive. Gardening could become tough in an emergency if our water is turned off, we have a well here but well needs power which could be a problem, it would be nice to have a solar system strong enough to power my well and a few things, which I may consider at some point – but a solar system and batteries and inverter would be pricey but would be nice to have. Pumping water is a pretty much needed basic function unless you live next to a creek or stream. My thinking is as long as I can have water, chances of survival will greatly improve.

    • I have been following a largely vegetarian (some fish, some dairy, a little meat in soups from time to time) diet, with little processed food. If the medical profession had to get along on what I have spent on them (multiplied by 7 billion people), they would likely go out of business. My biggest problem has been allergic reactions–something that is somewhat unavoidable. It may be that I had too little conditioning to allergens as a child–my mother was a cleanliness “nut”.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        My biggest problem has been allergic reactions–something that is somewhat unavoidable. It may be that I had too little conditioning to allergens as a child–my mother was a cleanliness “nut”.

        Can you find raw dairy? I have known adults who have had allergies “cured” by raw dairy, and a peer-reviewed Swiss study has shown that children who consume raw dairy have half the allergy problems and children who consume either no milk or pasteurized milk.

        I hear you about childhood conditioning to allergens — luckily, I grew up on a farm, and was exposed to everything — but I’ve found that what few reactions I used to experience have largely cleared up after moving back to a farm and consuming raw dairy daily.

        • Thanks for the idea.

          I don’t have a big enough problem that I have actively sought a solution–just occasional times when I get a much worse reaction to an insect sting/bite than I should have, or to a plant like poison ivy, or even a physical stress–standing for too long in one place, and getting swollen feet.

    • tmsr says:

      There is an older book “Five Acres and Independence” that seems a bit more realistic.

      Ed Pell

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear tmsr
        At the extreme is this backyard farm in Los Angeles:

        Over 6,000 pounds of food per year, on 1/10 acre located just 15 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. The Dervaes family grows over 400 species of plants, 4,300 pounds of vegetable food, 900 chicken and 1,000 duck eggs, 25 lbs of honey, plus seasonal fruits throughout the year.

        From 1/10th of an acre, four people manage to get over 90% of their daily food and the family reports earnings of $20,000 per year (AFTER they eat from what is produced). This is done without the use of the expensive & destructive synthetic chemicals associated with industrial mono-cropping, while simultaneously improving the fertility and overall condition of the land being used to grow this food on. Scaled up to an acre, that would equal $200,000 per year!

        To follow the Dervaes and their Urban Homesteading activites, you can find them at

        Urban and near-urban farming can be highly productive, causing whatever size of land you have to work with to produce with more abundance. It is time to solve hunger worldwide, through creating local food abundance…. Anyone can do it, once you learn how.

        Don Stewart
        PS I am not familiar enough with this farm to know where they are getting the water in semi-arid Southern California. They may also be buying fertilizer and compost–but compostable material is readily available in urban areas. They probably don’t have enough land to run a big enough compost operation. But increased landfill fees are encouraging waste generators to sell their organic waste to commercial composters. My community garden just bought a delivered dump-truck of compost for 100 dollars.

  4. Patrick Flynn says:

    Great Post, though I wonder if we are a generation ahead of ourselves. The US began drilling for oil in 1858 and didn’t peak until 1970.

    Saudi Arabia began drilling after WW2. Won’t they also last 100 years before they peak?

    • Mean Mr Mustard says:

      During WW2, we extracted and burned on tenth of the volumes of oil that we are using now. That’s sufficient info to understand why the US peaked early, and what it implies for Saudi prospects…

    • Scott says:

      Extraction Techniques and pumps: Well Patrick, yes! But the well they drill today and the high powered pumps can bring up the oil and gas very fast compared to the early wells. I am not an expert on it, but I believe that the depletion rate must be accelerating very fast too. An Oil well drilled in the 1800’s must pump very slow compared to today’s extraction techniques. They are sucking the Earth Dry fast these days.

    • When Saudi Arabia peaks is not the issue (but I would argue it is before 100 years–they do not tell us much useful about what is happening-their spare capacity is mostly fictional). The issue is one of price. The oil exporters need a high price; the oil importers need a low price. We are now reaching the point where the price the oil exporters need (because they fund much of their economy on the proceeds) is higher than the price the oil importers can afford. At some point, the whole system looks likely to collapse. See my posts, How Resource Limits Lead to Financial Collapse and oil exporters reach financial collapse.

      • Ert says:

        And one should not forget the export-land-model (ELM): Especially Saudi Arabia needs more and more of the stuff that it pumps – and thus exports less and less in the future.

        Limits appear anywhere one does look.

        • Scott says:

          I read somewhere that Saudi is pumping in lots and lots of sea water into those old fields to try to keep up the pressure for extraction, but I also read that the seawater damages the field and a lot of water and oil mix will start coming up, sounds like depletion is upon them more than they will admit. That sucking sound of a straw at the bottom of a cup running dry… Well I am sure there is still lots of oil in places like this but harder and more expensive to get, which will keep financial pressure on us all, like a vise tightening as energy costs rise.

        • I agree. There are limits everywhere.

          • Scott says:

            Gail, The Unknown is out there and… The only short term fix which will only postpone the inevitable is some kind of synthetic fuel that will pump through our current gas pumps and systems. Most likely coal will be the source of this new liquid fuel. So, we will likely see 500 PPM of CO2 or more which then we will see many planet changes. I hope we can find something better than burning that large amount of Coal out there. Although this will make our environment worse they most likely will go with this if there is nothing better being rolled out.

            I hope things hold together for all of us but we are running low on light sweet crued oil, Unless there is something out there we do not know like the Hydrogen Separator, or the Hyper Drive unveiled that can use water to fuel or something else to power our cars and trucks or an other power supply not yet known to us which I am still hopeful about. But as most of us see – it really does look like a big dye off ahead for many people on the planet. Some areas on the planet may be better off than others as we have discussed. The oil that we are pumping now is getting more expensive, and more sour and harder to refine pretty much everywhere.

            I do think we may see some natural gas fired locomotives and although I am fond of the old days and the old trains I am hoping we can find something else to use to power them than wood, coal or gas. I kind see the comeback of the locomotive after the collapse and the old trains may be rebuilt if they can find the iron and wood to rebuild.

            Going back to the old ways and the old locomotive, this would only work with a much smaller population as we all know. There are far too many of us now to have horses, as each horse needs like 40 or more acres to be self sustainable. This group would be surviving perhaps by digging through our old dumps to get things to pull out refined steel and metals. I am thinking maybe a few million will be left and starting over in this new after collapse and they will be once again spread out and perhaps isolated by the seas.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “each horse needs like 40 or more acres to be self sustainable.”

              Depending on the biome, it’s generally much less than that. In our cool Mediterranean climate, a horse can get by on an acre of good pasture.

            • Scott says:

              Hello Jan, I guess it depends on where you are some places are like an an oasis and others dry and no grass for the horses. Thanks for the info on the Goats that was helpful to remember.

            • I don’t see that the finances are there for a synthetic fuel. It would need to be available in huge quantity, with huge up-fornt cost.

      • Christopher Johnson says:

        Iraq is now supplying 1.5 million barrels per day to China, whose petroleum appetite is growing leaps and bounds. How many million new cars were put on Chinese roads last year? Was it 5 million or 6?

        • Scott says:

          Gail and Chris I would argue that Saudi has already peaked and they are pumping huge amounts of sea water to keep up the field pressure in their largest fields.

          • Christopher Johnson says:

            I think you’re right, amigo. It’s merely a question of how big are the whoppers they’re telling.

        • Scott says:

          Gail had said that Saudi would peak during the next one hundred years, or did I misunderstand? I would argue that Saudi already has peaked and they are pumping in huge amounts of sea water to keep the pressure up in those old fields.

          • Christopher Johnson says:


            You may wish to look at some of Keith Kohl’s postings on Energy and Capital. One of them is here:
            He believes Saudi will be importing petroleum in a few years.
            Cheers, Chris

            • Scott says:

              Thanks Chris, I will check it out, I do know that Saudi is using much than they used to for their own needs, they are hot and need lots of AC a growing population thanks to their oil riches. I do believe collapse will be felt first and the hardest in these type of countries built up around oil.

            • Scott says:

              Looks like the Fracking boom will fall short and dry up very fast, these are not the deep large pools of oil that we need that pump for generations. They will fall short of output expectations although they will be a continual source of fuel at high cost.

            • This is a link to a different article on Energy and Capital (by Jeff Siegal) called “US to Export Oil to Saudi Arabia.”

              Saudi Arabia’s energy use has been growing amazingly, even as its oil production is down this year, compared to last year. This is an energy consumption chart I showed earlier:

              Saudi energy consumption per capita, compared to US and EU, based on BP data.

    • tmsr says:

      The high estimate for SA is 270 billion barrels. This is almost certainly an over inflated number but using it anyway. That is 67.5 years. So if SA is lucky they will provide 12% of the worlds oil for the next 67.5 years. If you want to know the case for the number being lower read “Sunset in the Desert”. If we use 200 billion barrels a mildly optimistic number we have 50 years. How much of that SA will export is an important question.

      Ed Pell

  5. Bill Simpson says:

    Living near a main railroad line might help. Major cities used to have to be located on rivers or on coasts to serve their transport needs. Then the railroads and highways came along and inland cities and towns could grow. Trains might go back to steam engines powered by coal. Ships too. Coal is more abundant than oil. Steam engines provide a lot of employment too. Railroads in the USA were still using them during World War II. China might still be using a few. South Africa was still using them in the 1980’s. Most people won’t care about pollution if hunger is the alternative.

    • Scott says:

      That is true, we live in a rural town that has a small railroad to move lumber, but I wonder that perhaps in the future it will be used to bring us food and supplies and move farm goods hopefully.
      I would be glad to see the railroads used properly to move food and goods once again.

    • I agree that coal is appealing if hunger is an alternative, but I wonder whether it will be easy to make a quick change. We would need to make coal fired engines again, and set up a system where trains could carry coal with them or pick up additional along the route. It wouldn’t in theory be all that difficult, but each step would require investment and access to energy sources of the right type. People would also need to be trained to operate the “new” equipment.

      • Mel Tisdale says:

        We would need to make coal fired engines again, and set up a system where trains could carry coal with them or pick up additional along the route. It wouldn’t in theory be all that difficult, but each step would require investment and access to energy sources of the right type. People would also need to be trained to operate the “new” equipment.


        Such a policy would take us back to the start of the industrial revolution and look where that has got us. Whilst climate change might be ‘fixed’ by the coming collapse, it will only be a temporary fix if it is not even considered in such discussions as the above. I don’t know what it is going to take to bring it centre stage, but surely something must. We have just passed the 400 ppm mark for CO2 and that has to be due to it not getting the attention it deserves in the past.

        If we continue to pump excess CO2 into the atmosphere over and above the natural carbon cycle, the temperatures are going to rise. The stuff stays up there for many decades, even centuries. The warming we have now is set to increase as the heat that has been pumped into the oceans due to the recent predominance of La Niña events will rise to the surface as the El Niño/La Niña cycle averages itself out, as it always does. If we pass almost any of the known tipping points (don’t forget Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns) we could hit a runaway situation. It won’t wipe us out, but it will make life hell for the few that survive, as though they won’t have enough to contend with.

        I love steam engines, but they have to be the last option to be considered, if they are to remain an option at all, that is.

  6. Randall says:


    I’ve appreciated your articles both here and at The Oil Drum for several years. I’ve never commented before. However, it seems to me the “no chicken feed” responses from readers appear a little over-the-top. I don’t want to sound too simplistic, but shortages first bring out militaries, as in international-level conflict…not local civic variety. Does anybody really believe the USA is going to graciously starve to death before 2/3 of the world’s population in developing countries? With that unfortunate fall in human population will come some resource relief for survivors, whoever they might be. Second point similar to the first: The old saw about global economics is: “When the USA catches a cold, the rest of the world get’s Pneumonia.” Again, a) the USA being the breadbasket of the world, and b) North America having the largest boreal forests available as resources…don’t you believe North Americans will adapt sooner and more seamlessly than those without large arable spaces such as Libya, Egypt or Cameroon? I don’t want to sound heartless here, but it would appear the USA is a pretty good bet for “last man standing” even with greatly diminished mechanized agriculture.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      Randall, please don’t lump “North America” together. The US has hardly any boreal forest left.

      Perhaps Canada will give up without a fight, but there’s something really grating when such assumptions are made. I purposely moved to Canada because I thought the US — without Anschluss — was a lost cause.

      I don’t know if my fellow Canadians will give up without a fight. It appears that we have a Vichy government in place already!

      • Randall says:

        I only referenced North America to distinguish it from resource poor regions of the globe, such as the Middle East ( scarce water), Africa ( scarce infrastructure), or Micronesia (scarce landmass). I was not assuming Canada and the USA would “fight”…but rather, that some sort of regional trade will long survive, even after regions like the Middle East are nuclear war wastelands (A position I do NOT advocate. I’m simply quoting another blog site). North America has a modicum of similar culture, similar religious values and similar governmental expectations. North Americans are no where near the powder keg scenario of the tribalism/authoritarian/intolerence of some other heavily populated areas. Many articles already predict the hoped-for Arab Spring to evolve into a nightmarish Arab Winter even later this year.

        Gail offered very sound advice about becoming self sufficient and getting out of debt. And I certainly understand the impulse for those heavily leveraged, living in major urban areas, to feel vulnerable. In full disclosure, I’m one of those fortunate souls who live in a semi-rural area. We have a large organic garden, we compost, and I have many of those skills such as carpentry work, which can be bartered. I also have 30 years of experience in renewable energies, and we are members of a grow/eat local food cooperative, and I live in a small, affordable, energy efficient house.

        My main point from my original post was (unlike the tone of several on this forum) that I don’t expect to wake up one morning and discover the Mad Max movie becoming reality outside my bedroom window. Decline will come, but I believe it will be an evolution. Stage one will probably be resource wars, which a case could be made we’ve been in since WWII. But I expect the “haves” (North Americans for one) will beat down and oppress the have nots, rather than go without. I expect this will be the condition for several decades before anybody needs to move to Montana and raise draft horses IMO.

        • tmsr says:

          Randall, I agree North America will be one of the last places to fall. Jan, what I see is that Canada is “well integrated” into the global money system. That is it is a much run by money as the U.S.. So if China or the U.S. or E.U. show up and say we have money dig the tar sands then they will be dug.

          Ed Pell

    • Mel Tisdale says:

      My money would be on almost any of the Sub-Saharan countries whose populations are almost all far more used to the conditions expected to face those of us in the ‘developed’ world to win the ‘Last Man Standing’ prize, if could ever be considered such. The only advantage that those in the developed world have is that most will be able to live off their body fat for several months before they have to fight for survival.

    • The United States does have definite advantages. We have far less population, relative to our land area, than Eurasia. (That is also true of Central/South America). We have some very good soils, and these are in areas with temperate temperatures. While there has been some erosion, it is less than in the parts of the world where agriculture has been practiced intensively for thousands of years. We do have a lot of forested area as well, and the world’s largest military.

      I am not sure how this all works out, but there is a definite possibility that the US could end up with a larger share of its population being able to survive than the rest of the world. How the military works out is another question. A few bombs in the wrong place could be catastrophic. I expect war against close neighbors, and civil war, will become more common than international war, but there could be both.

      • Scott says:

        Hello Gail, I think the Western US will stand the best chance as the East is very populated and has many very large cities. Places like Oregon and Washington States will have more resources and less people, but no oil those states, Montana is close to them and their is coal and oil there and also in California to the south. Much of the old west US was the last frontier and much of it was not even settled until the 1900’s so the land is new and fresh and still some areas that are unspoiled although the logging has pretty much gotten into everywhere and most of the old growth forests are gone.

        We decided on Oregon as a nice place to move to after I retired. There is not quite as much rain here as Washington State. We have been here almost three years now and we love it. Plenty of water here, but it sure does rain for months in the winter. Great gardening here but It is a much shorter growing season than we had in California. Coming here from California we noticed that the summer are a bit longer, because the farther north you go the summer days are longer, but the winter days are shorter. So colder dark winters and brighter summers.

        • I think water will be critical for any place. There is quite a bit of California that is short of very water relative to the population. I expect that may limit how much the West can do.

          Transport to the West is also more difficult than elsewhere. The landlocked areas (Montana, Idaho, Colorado etc) will have to depend on their own resources. With sail boats, I suppose most goods transported to the coast would be north and south, as opposed to all the way to China/Japan.

    • My “no chicken feed” comment was a general response to the fact that a lot of people might regard their new sustainable life dependent on some source of water, chicken feed or fertilizer that will be very hard to get hold of during a serious collapse. Although a part of me believes that if it turns that bad you wont worry too much about your chickens. 🙂

      I believe Guy McPherson frequently comments the fact that many people regard water as a magical thing coming out of their faucets. The fact is that a lot of things we take for granted in normal day to day life is extremely dependent on all the domino chips still standing, including the delivery of fertilizer to an urban garden. It doesn’t mean its impossible to get though, some are lucky, some not. And I totally agree that any such scenario is best solved within a community of people.

      I believe donsailor commented that there is a lot of good knowledge in past society breakdown experiences, and that is surely something we should all be looking into. But I also agree that we live in a different world now compared to then, and the barriers to pass into a harder life might be bigger.

  7. Vazzellinn says:

    Dear friends,

    I don’t usually post comments but if you think Dmitry Orlov is a highest authority on
    survival during Russian collapse…., I feel compelled to share with you a couple of really genuine ideas.

    (After all, if not me then who ? Russians are very reluctant to talk on that topic,they consider
    too horrible even thinking about it.The consensus is that someone who lived through this already knows, someone who didn’t live through this won’t understand anything in any case.
    No need to mention, of course, that all books written by Western observers about
    USSR collapse are complete nonsense ).

    First and foremost : Dmitry did not live through collapse of Soviet Union. He emigrated with his parents to US in 70s when he was 7 years old. He definitely has good understanding of Russian mentality and they way how things were and are going on in Russia but, again, he didn’t lived through 90s there.

    When he visited Russia first time in 1992 as an American tourist of Russian descent, that looked for locals exactly as if Bill Gates visited Bangladesh now days. (In Russia in 1992 doctor made about $25 per month, huge fresh organic turkey was $1 each, Samsung VCR $300, 2 bedroom appаrtment approx $3-5K and inflation was a moderate 50% per week. (welfare assistance for the family of 3 in Ontario was CAN $1350).
    Government price control was abolished and price for a sour cream jumped from 3.50 RB on Dec 31, 91 to 76 RB on Jan 2, 92. Millions of refuges from outskirts of the empire just began to appear in large cities begging for food).
    And now imagine Dmitry, computer engineer with American Passport, coming to St. Petersburg with a couple of hundreds dollars in his pocket! (to understand it better you may recall visiting Caribbean during good old days of 80-90ss…., did you notice how locals looked at you back then ?)

    The point I am making is: everything Dmitry knows is a hearsay, take it with a grain of salt.

    Here is my take on that topic.

    I share the Dmitry’s opinion on Americans: this nation of smiling overconfident crack snorting
    salespersons/business executives and pot bellied family men totally ignorant of anything not related to making money or baseball is poorly positioned as a whole to withstand systemic collapse. (> 40% of people depending for survival on government which is on the verge of insolvency, what are we talking about ?)

    For example, take Russians: anticipation of disaster is deeply imprinted into the nation conscience. Nothing is cut in stone, everything may suddenly change, everybody must be mentally prepared for disaster. Importantly, the effort-payout relationship
    doesn’t stand, rules of the game are not clearly defined and events are not under someone’s control. During 30s almost a million people were shot, many more died in GULAG, people from highest echelons were killed by hundred thousands and their families starved.
    More than 30Millions people died in WW2. Indeed, everyone who managed to survive that time was truly a special human being. (my grandfathers survived and shared with me their stories)

    In contrast, the worst thing Americans experienced so far was Great Depression of 20-30s.
    Well, that wasn’t a great time by any means, but can you compare it with a hunger in Ukraine in 29-32 when several millions (nobody knows how many) starved to death ? With WW2 when 30 million died ? With Stalin purges of 30s ?

    1.You are talking a lot about growing his/her own food. Yes, this is a sensible idea in moderate climate with good soil and enough ground water (Moscow and everything north of it is not good subsistence farming, let alone St.Petersburg, Canada, Siberia,North Russia, etc)

    During 80- 90s when collective farms collapsed government distributed lots of quality land (black soil plots 0.12 hectare per family withing 30-40km from cities) for almost nothing. People spent all weekends working on their plots, trying to grow fruits, vegetables and ,
    importantly, potato. If properly stored, the potato may last in appаrtment till New Year. Cucumbers and tomatoes were used for making preservatives which (as my wife make them) are very tasty. Fruits were used mostly for making jams (every russian woman has her
    own way of making jams but all of them are delicious).

    The drawback for this is that not everyone is suited for toiling in open field for 10-12 hours under hot sun. To me, the task is excruciating. You may try to bend for an hour to test yourselves, just make sure your back will allow you that. Besides, you need to have a genuine like for agricultural activity, I personally abhor working in the garden but like eating
    tomatoes which my wife grows.

    In any case, please don’t try too hard: Quite a few people not used to physical activity died from hard work on their plots. I personally knew two surgeons who suddenly died digging potatoes (aged 45 and 47). So, please be cautious.

    As for growing chickens or rabbits pigs, turkeys, this may be a good idea (considering you have an access to cheap food supply for them, you won’t imagine how much they eat !). I know some people were trying to grow rabbits on their balconies: the smell was simply unbearable.
    Someone who had an access to food waste (cooks, restaurants owners, etc) raised pigs year after year but you need to know how to do that. The problem is that at times of crisis food waste and grain to feed animals becomes in a very short supply and expensive.

    I don’t have personal experience but raising animals but my friend (doctor anesthesiologist) spent several years in 90s raising turkeys and his final verdict is: it is a very difficult thing to do and not profitable at all. On the other hand, my brother Mechanical Engineer tried to salt fish in his bathtub and sold it as a profit. (his wife (Engineer too) was peddling the fish on the street). Unfortunately for them, the business collapsed when they were asked to pay significant tribute to local mafia boss.

    I also know the University Professor Mathematician who raised sheep with his in-laws but don’t know details. Another doctor-anesthesiologist I knew was very successful as bee keeper working with his father. BTW, honey will be a very valuable commodity during crisis times (and very expensive one !!!). Same goes for Condensed milk,ketchup, backweat kasha, and everything solid, nutritious and which can be stored for a long time without refrigeration.

    2. The most important point I am going to make: if you want to survive collapse, first and foremost, please take care of your health. Do whatever it takes to keep you weight down, your blood pressure in control, exercise, etc. It is imperative to develop good health habits.
    Eat simple, be flexible, don’t be vegetarian, no special dietary restrictions, etc. No need to mention how important it in times of crisis.

    It is not necessarily true that someone with a chronic disease or is old will be the first one to perish. (I sense that this is an implicit assumption many of you are making). My grandmother survived 90s and lived till 2011 on a tiny government pension caring for her disabled son (who also survived) Of course, help, proper care, attention provided by family members is absolutely critical. (Besides, she had an experience of surviving hunger in her childhood in 30s and 4 years of WW2, so an example may not entirely relevant ).

    In any case,basic medications, insulin etc will be available although expensive. Hospitals will still be open, operations will be performed, etc. Be prepared to pay up front and a lot, exp if you wish to be treated well. (it will be possible to pay directly to doctor under the table but don’t expect much discount).
    How will medical service look during time of collapse ? Do you want to know ??
    Well, just imagine for a second that Medicaid/Medicare and private insurances are abolished and you pay for everything from your pocket (as millions of people in many countries do nowdays).

    What is absolutely, absolutely critical (no objections to that) is importance of being mentally healthy. Good mood, positive attitude, moral stamina, stable family relationship (with extended family too) are of paramount importance if you hope to survive.
    Millions of people who lost everything,were displaced, persecuted, without any place to go, hungry, under stress etc got depressed or developed other mental condition, turned to alcohol, drugs. Out of them nobody survived. Suicide rates skyrocketed, you won’t believe
    how terrible was that. (please look for Greek situation for some idea).

    In US there are 25 millions of people who are drug dependent. They will be dying first and at the fast rate but that will be a very violent time. The bad thing, the epidemy of drug addition, home made cheap alcohol, prostitution in its most gruesome form will engulf not only inner cities but will be spreading widely all over the country.

    As for midwifes : birth rate collapsed, most of maternity ward were closed. There was no jobs for midwifes at all. Gynecologist opened private clinic and did mostly abortions.
    Dentist will always be needed but not everyone will be able to afford them. (Be prepared to see
    people without frontal teeth )
    Well, I am already tired, let me know if you find the info interesting, I will write more (if I find time).

    Have a great weekend.
    Take care of yourself, end each others.


    • I hope many of us want to hear more from you. You are a library of information on collapse. Please send anything you write to along with permission to re-post on my blogs and websites or instructions to not re-post whichever you wish.

      • Vazzellinn says:

        Thomas , I am glad you found my writing interesting. Definitely, feel free to re-post it on any blog provided you improve on style and correct grammar.

        I am a very busy person and don’t promise to write often. However, time permitting, I may
        post a second installment of critical ideas today. You may email me on, I check this account from time to time.

    • tmsr says:

      Vazzellinn, yes please post more. It is very interesting. In the U.S. everything is Walt Disney-fied we seldom hear hard truths. Great idea about honey.

      Ed Pell

    • I appreciate your comments. One thing I would point out is that the Soviet Union collapse was a temporary, partial collapse. The fact that it still had plenty of oil that could be extracted at a higher price, meant that oil extraction could bounce back, once world oil price rose again. The rest of the world was doing well, and that helped as well. The Soviet Union may be a model for the first years of collapse (or may not), but as things get worse, the situation may definitely be worse than the Soviet example.

      I saw the beautiful black dirt plots around Moscow. They could grow quite a bit–although When I visited in June last year, it definitely was still cold. We saw tulips blooming. Living where the soil is not nearly as good, farming/gardening becomes more iffy.

      Growing animals requires a lot more food inputs than growing crops. In warm areas of the world, people tend to eat the crops directly. In cold areas of the world, if there is enough wild greens to eat, people tend to raise a lot more animals. The animals can be kept alive until they are eaten, so are convenient in that way. So there is no universal answer.

      • Vazzellinn says:

        Gail, I admire your analysis of the current trends but
        when you are talking about survival (which isn’t your strong thing)
        I see lot of misunderstanding in every point you are making.
        To clarify them would require lots of time which I, sadly, don’t have.

        The problem is that completely logical assumptions turn out to be totally incorrect
        in situations which defy logic.

        For example, you are talking about importance of living in community, acquiring
        friends, mutual help, etc.

        The topic is dangerously misunderstood.

        The assumption all of you are making is that violence from inner cities will spread
        and engulf your quiet cozy neighbors.Therefore, you survival is dependent
        on amount of food you store, caliber of your guns, food you may grow etc etc.

        That assumption totally wrong ! The most critical danger you are facing is from your own neighbors,
        the same man and women who smile to you when you meet them. You will never believe
        what people in distress are capable of doing. You would never think how people mentality will change
        just in a week ! If they don’t kill you or destroy your property (just out of jealousy or pure sadism)
        they may embroil you in an endless litigation which will totally ruin your health.

        In asiatic and kaukazian republic of the former SU Russians lived peacefully with locals for generations and
        where brutally evicted or killed by the same neighbors overnight. Jews lived for generations in Baltic republics,
        Ukraine, Poland and saw themselves robbed and killed in the most horrible fashion by the same neighbors they played just yesterday.

        The relationships between people around you will drastically change as time will become hard. It absolutely critical to
        realize that currently the law and threat of persecution (and not some abstract moral standards) are true restraints on people behavior.
        When government won’t be able (or willing ) to enforce that threat you may see lots of interesting things. For example, some of your
        good neighbors may suddenly recall that your background is way too big for your family or his ancestors were
        buried on your plot….. (the list may go on indefinitely)

        It is absolutely critical to have good relationship with your neighbors in order not to provoke them.
        Any hope of cooperation and mutual help should be dispensed with, I cannot be more clear on that.
        In time of distress, people around you won’t be willing to cooperate in any case.

        I reiterate: your goal is to preserve your mental and physical health (not your properly though) at any cost.
        For ex. my friend was heavily traumatized when he saw his dog brutally shot by his neighbors (the dog was presumably
        barking) No need to mention that the boy’s parents didn’t press any charges against the shooter.

        I remember being approached by my neighbors and warned that my dog’s barking interfered with his sleep and if I don’t
        do anything about it, he will shoot the dog. It was very imprudent for me to refer to law and order…..
        Well, the guy said, in this case next time I hear your dog barking I will shoot you. Only then I realize that
        it wasn’t an empty thread. I profusely excused myself and took all appropriate actions.

        As for making friends, you have a fundamental misunderstanding of it.

        The “you make me haircut and I will mow your lawn” approach to friendship is an absurd.
        The idea of friendship itself and what it is all about completely lost its meaning, at least in US.
        Even before Facebook was introduced the meaning of the ford “Friend” was completely distorted
        and devalued.

        Yes, it is critically important to have someone to rely on and cooperate with during hard times.
        However, if you want to make friends now in order to cooperate during hard times, it is already way too late.
        True friendship is something which takes decades to build. Don’t mistake acquaintance and fellows for friends.
        If you currently don’t have someone whom you may call your true friend, prepare to act alone.

        It is much better to rely solely on yourself than have someone you relied upon to betray you in a time of trouble.

        Having someone to rely on and cooperate with is critically important. I mean having someone who will shelter you in his/her
        basement when you are forcefully displaced and have nowhere to go, who may give you some work to do to earn a few dollars,
        who may defend you when you are brutally attacked by others,someone who will say couple of words for you to your local gang leader,
        someone who may lend you money to save your from hardship or share his food with you, someone who knows the doctor who will take money
        directly in his pocket for the operation you need and save you money on that.

        If you already have someone who may be helpful to you at that extent, please accept my congratulations .
        If you don’t, completely dispense with the whole idea.

        For ex, my father has friends whom he knows since 60s, the value of this friendship for him is hard to overestimate.

        The topics of community living (mennonite-like versus Texas style approach) , survival of old people during crisis, medical service,
        recreation, proper mindset, health, family relationship, using horses for driving, law and order, Government actions and how they affects people, true valuables, property,
        displaced people, and many others are absolutely critical and require long and separate discussions each.

        I may put some ideas on every topic in a future if I have time.
        I apologize for improper grammar, cannot spend time on it.


        • Thanks for your thoughts.

          Family and clan are probably more important than friendships, per se. In the US, we often are on the edge of losing these. But in a tougher world, even family and clan will have a harder time taking care of all of the dependent (disabled, elderly, etc) people we have today. Turning on other ethnic groups seems to happen everywhere–one of the things you mention.

  8. dolph says:

    I agree with the comments above about trying to maintain good health. In the end time will catch up to all of us, but while we are alive we should take care of our bodies.

    I’m an internist and, let me tell you, healthcare in the United States is in an advanced state of collapse. The basic reason is that it’s all financed by debt and nobody understands the concept of limits. Because nobody understands the concept of limits, it’s distorted the perception of what’s possible and what isn’t, even within medical science.

    Many of my patients are in their 60s and 70s and have abused their minds and bodies through the years, and they are now on multiple medications and undergo endless procedures which are supposed to “reduce mortality” or “improve function” by 5 or 7 percent or something like that. We place people on 20 medications and then institute bureaucracies and checklists to make sure it’s safe to do so! There’s very little meaningful communication between specialists, just enough to move the patients around to the next intervention. Nobody has time. We bankrupt patients until they go on disability and medicare, and by then it doesn’t matter. We keep on doing more without asking what we are trying to accomplish. If we are trying to make the people with the most disease ridden bodies live to 200 years old and feel like they are 20 years old when they arrive there, we will fail and fail miserably.

    It’s all going to implode in a few short years,

    • Scott says:

      Dolph, Good to hear you on here, I believe that most of us here on this site all agree with you. Thanks for your candid remarks about the corrupt healthcare system out there.

    • xabier says:


      That’s a refreshing contribution from someone in the medical profession!

      It’s very clear from an historical perspective that the greatest improvements in general health have come from the provision of clean drinking water, sanitation, and improved understanding of personal hygiene, not from medication.

      You very rightly point out that now it is mostly a matter of huge expenditure which is disproportionate to the real gain, above all at the end of life (which is what is going to bankrupt the welfare systems of Europe.)

      • xabier says:


        Thank you for your very valuable post. You confirm much of what I have been thinking about Orlov myself, reading between the lines of what he writes.

        (As a footnote about dental health, it was quite common before WW2 in Britain for people to have all their teeth taken out by the age of 40 and replaced by good dentures. If people fear being too poor to afford dental care in the future, it’s one preventative option to consider.)

    • Vazzellinn says:

      That is really sad to read such depressing remarks from respectable doctor….
      If his opinion is shared by other members of medical community, the situation may be definitely very serious.

      I personally think that one day government will renege on its obligations and
      drastically reduce health coverage.The decision will be wrapped in appropriate phrasing
      of course, with examples from other countries, etc. The actual meaning will be
      as much obscured as possible. The will be an endless talk about making things more
      efficient, bringing services close to the population, prophylactic (which is supposedly cheaper and more efficient) , doctors professional duty for society etc.

      When the situation finally downs to the population affected (it won’t take long)
      that will cause a huge uproar. To calm down the population, some universal coverage may be introduced with very basic services covered for all. Private companies won’t be able to increase premium indefinitely, therefore, they will also reduce coverage by wide margin.

      Doctors will be having a REALLY HARD time getting money transfers for their services. Top notch specialists, university professors,will be charging patients directly (similar to what plastic surgeons do now) and won’t bother with insurance companies. This way is currently employed in Israel.

      Doctors will always be in demand , but demand, as you may know is what people can afford to pay and not what they need (even when desperately need).

      If majority of your patients “are in their 60s and 70s and have abused their minds and bodies through the years” your next Mercedes may be much less affordable for you.

      Life expectation for men in SU was 72 years, it dropped to 56 by mid 90s. (it recovered to 63 recently). Cardiac mortality for cohort 30-75 years old in Russia is currently 9 times higher than in US for both sexes (JAMA report 2013).
      You may expect the ratio to be drastically changed in a future .

      As a money saving measure, I expect government to authorize Registered Nurses to prescribe non A schedule medications, at least for chronically sick patients.
      Moreover, it may even happen that the medications will be available over the counter without prescription at all ! Pharmacist will be expected to recommend medications and explain side effects. This is a current situation in Russia (no joking).

      That move will drastically reduce the need for family physicians and gerontologists.
      So perhaps your next car won’t even be a Mercedes after all….

      • Tom Wayburn says:

        Vazzellinn, You have a lot to say and a strong original voice to say it with. I truly believe that correcting the usage and grammar would detract from the interesting character of the messages, which I hope continue.

        • Vazzellinn says:

          Thank you Tom.
          It occurred to me that my apocalyptic scenarios may be way too depressing (and improbable) for the target audience of affluent gentlemen and ladies reflecting after a nutritious dinner on issues facing our planet . I’d rather stop at this point.
          The general idea what life in collapsed society looks like is given to you.
          Verbum sapienti satis est.

          • xabier says:

            Our friend Vazzellin has given us the pointers we need: I’d suggest reading up on contemporary Argentina and the Balkan wars to gain further perspectives on how economic shocks and societal collapse can act on modern societies. There’s some interesting personal stuff out there on the net. It does not make for happy reading, but it’s useful……

      • John Michael Greer gave a talk about how lodges and guilds functioned in the past, before health insurance. One of the things that some did was collect dues from their members, and use those dues to hire a physician to provide services for their members. This approach to funding for doctors kept costs down, and was one reason doctors very much opposed lodges–wanted fee for service, with insurance companies paying, so they could get more money, be more in control. Also, if the members did not like the services a particular doctor was providing, they would fire him.

        • xabier says:


          Doctors had a very low social status for much of history, and did not expect to get rich. It has all become profoundly corrupted.

      • Christopher Johnson says:

        Health care is the worst combination of medical practice and financials that could possibly be conceived. And it’s getting worse. Routine procedures cost 4, 5 or more times as much here (eg, colonoscopy) as Europe. The hospitals set the prices to make maximum bucks. Since the financial demand has been transferred to the insurance company — for the first procedure — it costs the patient relatively little, or so he thinks. Once hooked, his premiums skyrocket and he can afford more such treatment only by declaring bankruptcy and becoming a ward of the state. This route is followed routinely now by middle income, respectable elderly (former professors, etc), who wish to leave a little bit to their children..

      • Ed Pell says:

        Wow, a free market for medications exists in Russia but not in the U.S.

    • I keep thinking about writing about the health care system, but the connection between it and the other things I have been writing about is not terribly close (at least in some ways).

      My father was a doctor. I grew up hearing about doctors who made their livings doing hysterectomies for Catholic women who needed birth control, but the church wouldn’t allow. Also taking out normal appendices. Never reading a medical journal.

      Later I became an actuary, and got involved in Medical Malpractice, among other things. The more medicine, the more malpractice.

      And also the amount of medical care has very little to do with life expectancy. Our Standard American Diet is terrible. In terms of life expectancy, the United States ranks 17th out of 17 wealthy countries. In fact, the relative ranking has been going down, year after year.

      The amount we spend on health care in the United States is absurd, as well. Way higher than other countries.

      If we fixed our diets and exercise, quite a large percentage of our problems would disappear. More equal income distribution would help as well.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        “The amount we spend on health care in the United States is absurd”

        I believe it’s 16% of GDP, compared to 7% or less in Canada, Japan, Germany, and most of the rest of the industrial world.

        That’s a big part of why I left the US. You guys are getting ripped off.

    • beckyz says:

      Darn! I’m a med tech (run those zillion expensive tests) I see it all falling apart sometime soon. It’s too wasteful and expensive. I was hoping for *dis*confirmation.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        Beckyz, perhaps you can look into naturopathy, or take a course in medicinal herbs. That might be a way of leveraging your current skills and predisposition with the needs of an uncertain future.

        • beckyz says:

          Maybe. My chemistry skills are pretty rusty. Mostly I tend fancy machinery that does the actual work. The inexactitude of the old way will be a pain for me. That’s why I haven’t even made a tincture from the Valerian growing profusely in my yard.

  9. Perk Earl says:

    Speaking of learning new jobs, during the big recession my business was falling behind on bills, so at the age of 54 I took on learning how to make molds for figurative sculpture. Not simple 2 part box molds, 3D figurative molds for arms, legs, etc. in which part lines must be figured out, and then make a rigid mother mold over the rubber mold with different part lines. This was to take advantage of the opportunity to make molds for my wife as a commissioned Sculptor instead of subbing the work out. Let me tell you, mold making is very difficult to learn and execute because it requires a combination of mental and motor skills and there are not many people that will even give you a hint as to how to do it. Applying rubber is a timed event and how well your technique is determines the quality of the detail achieved. It requires full attention and the ability to physically work hard. In any case, I never expected at that age to have to push myself so hard to learn a new trade, but it paid off because we can keep more money from each project and keep paying the bills. I really hope my remaining years will not require learning another trade/profession, however my story is a reflection of a society in flux, unlike years ago marked by consistency in which most people learned just one trade or profession.

    Bernanke recently said most people entering the work force today will have to reinvent themselves many times to learn new jobs and Obama told a class of college graduates, “No excuses.” This is a reflection of survival pressures increasing as adaptation (to learn new jobs) demands greater flexibility from each one of us to out compete the one’s that will become disenfranchised.

    As we drop down the net energy ladder, it will in a sense be like a game of musical chairs in which some continue to do well while many others become disenfranchised from their jobs and assets. Unfortunately, those that still have chairs will probably be too busy (as the bottle-neck approaches) to get over wrought by those no longer having chairs, i.e. still in the game. For those that want to keep your chairs, remain as flexible as you can to the needs around you to fill those needs.

    • xabier says:

      Perk Earl

      Satisfying to make things, isn’t it?! A day spent making something well is quite as important as getting the money that’s needed. ( I find in my own craft that I’m treated with great respect by my customers – how many jobs are like that? It makes up for the bad times.)

      You are very right in saying that as this process unfolds the unlucky people will just drop by the wayside: they’ll just drop out of sight, family by family, region by region, industry by industry, as this Great Depression continues. That’s how economic failure and poverty always is. You fail, you become invisible. The rich won’t notice you, the struggling masses haven’t the time or energy.

      I think the line that politicians are pushing of ‘continual lifetime re-education’ is pretty fraudulent: it’s not the answer, particularly when each career change can cost so much in time and money.

      Well, maybe they could give a lead and step aside for some more competent people!

      It would be more to the point if they were to stand up and say: ‘Look, this is all unravelling, so don’t put all your trust in a failing economic model, learn to take care of yourselves rather than buying services, and relying on the State, and grow some food as an insurance policy.’

      And they could help us to help ourselves by reducing taxes: this is, of course, a fantasy…….we have to effect our own personal transitions while they attempt to keep this failing structure intact (by building more over-priced real estate with no gardens.)

      • I agree that it is VERY satisfying to make things. In my hobby, one learns to make everything – but not necessarily without consuming fossil fuel directly and indirectly. I don’t know of many activities that have absolutely no fossil-fuel energy load. In any case, I uploaded a few photos of a petroleum crude unit I am working on that will not contribute very much to climate change or resource exhaustion. In addition, it illustrates efficient material recycle. I don’t know if Energy Round Table photos are available to everyone, but these will be:

    • Pretty much all of the things I have learned about energy have been since 2005–a pretty recent timeframe. Of course, I learned about finding and analyzing data, and writing reports that lay people could understand long ago.

  10. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    As we try to visualize what ‘collapse’ looks like, there seems to be a tendency to assume a reversion to the most primitive possible technology. I would like to suggest an alternative. Bear with me for a paragraph or two.

    Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander, in Surfaces and Essences, are looking carefully at words and how they relate to concepts. They look at the way that children change the way they use language as their grasp of concepts expands with age and experience. As our world changes, we adults add new words (e.g., television) and drop old words (such as the words which described the six different medieval specialties which we now subsume under the name ‘tanner’ (of hides). On page 88 they examine certain common compound words such as ‘living room’ and ‘dishwasher’ and point out that a native speaker will not disassemble those compound words into their components, but will use them and perceive them as a single word denoting a single category.

    I am 72. On Memorial Day, we had lunch with two other couples and our combined married years totaled over 300 (6 people times 50 plus years). So we got to reminiscing about couples we had known who had spectacular breakups. I recounted my story about the two disastrous times I ‘aided and abetted’ a runaway wife (about as bad as a runaway slave, in North Carolina). The first time my wife and I were living in our first apartment. One of the apartments was occupied by a young woman and her husband. The young woman was almost always standing at the front window washing dishes in her sink. We called her ‘the little dishwasher’. One day I saw her walking with a suitcase, and stopped my car and picked her up. She said she wanted to go to the bus station, so I took her there. To make a long story short, she was going back to Mother.

    Now focus on that word ‘dish washer’. I am 73. To me, an automatic dishwasher is a ‘dish washing machine’. Even in our apartment in the late 1960s, there were no dishwashing machines. People washed dishes by hand. To have called the young woman a ‘little dishwashing machine’ would have been ludicrous. But, apparently, as I read Hofstadter and Sander, most English speakers now use the word ‘dishwasher’ to denote a machine. I am old enough and lived long enough without a machine and I wash the dishes 4 or 5 times a day while I run the machine only about every other day…that my language has trouble coping with the labeling of a machine as doing human work.

    If you worked for the farmer I work for, you would quickly find that there are several dozen tools designed to make dealing with soil and plants easier. There are all different kinds of hoes and seeders and screens for sorting seeds and implements for threshing seeds and Japanese and American scythes and the list is endless. If you looked at our concept of ‘horse’ and tried to have an intelligent conversation with someone from the 18th century, you would have a hard time. There were hundreds of breeds of horses, each best at doing some particular job. Likewise, there were hundreds of breeds of sheep and cattle. Conservancies exist today to try to keep the old breeds alive. Each breed was particularly suited to a climate, an ecosystem, and a purpose.

    One effect of Modernity has been to enormously compress the variety available. It is hard to find any ‘meat chickens’ in the United States which are not Cornish Crosses. Cornish Crosses have been bred to be exceptionally stupid, but to make enormous breasts real fast. And so people who have visions of ‘free range’ meat birds have to figure out how to deal with a chicken which is too stupid to live in a pasture. Similarly, cows have come to be ‘Angus’, which means ‘black cow’. They are exceptionally well suited for the industrial meat system which is just about the same around the globe, but they are woefully mal-adapted to making their own way with minimal human help in the real world. A friend of mine tried raising Bourbon Red turkeys. They taste delicious. But after a couple of years he gave up on them because ‘they are too smart and too mean for me’. Compare that with a Cornish Cross. In a collapse, which would you rather have at your homestead?

    If we look at old languages, we see very fine distinctions made, just as breeds of livestock were differentiated into innumberable niches. About 10 years ago I decided to study French again (I studied it one year in college, got a D, which got me out of college, having met my language requirement). I always liked the Maigret mysteries. Georges Simenon, the author, would take the Inspector from Paris into some sub-world in Paris or out in the provinces to solve some crime. The stories were ‘psychology rich’, so human behavior and human emotion and human thought were the key elements in the plot. I very quickly found that the sort of French-English dictionary you might buy at an airport was no help at all. As the Inspector moved into the sub-world, a very rich language was used. But the words were so obscure that I had to go to the library and use the unabridged dictionary way to often. Many of those stories were written in the 1930s.

    The common theme here is energy conservation. Just as there are hundreds of types of birds which use slightly different designs to maximize their ability to harvest and use energy in some particular environment, humans have used occupational specialization, language specialization related to conceptual specialization, tool design, domesticated animal design, crop design, housing design, and so on and so forth to make it possible to get along in a world which had little to no fossil fuels. Abundant fossil fuels allowed us to ‘simplify’ everything and just solve problems by overpowering them.

    I pose the conjecture that ‘collapse’ means ‘enormous differentiation in what humans do, think, speak, and how they construct their world’. We will largely reinvent the world of our ancestors.

    Don Stewart

    • Jan Steinman says:

      Lovely missive, Don, but I’m not sure I agree with your conjecture.

      HT Odum (et. al.) teach us that complexity is a function of energy. We may think of having six different sub-specialties of “tanning” or hundreds of breeds of horses as being a complexity, but compared to what goes into a modern leather factory, or a modern tractor, the complexity of bygone days is pretty minor.

      I’ve read that the human brain is shrinking. This may be due to specialization, driven by replacing intrinsic knowledge with extrinsic knowledge. The hundreds of breeds of horses were maintained by the living memories of living humans, whereas the tens of thousands of parts and bits of information needed to create and maintain a tractor is stored my microscopic bits of magnetic material, requiring a global supply chain, including the global financial system, the industrial education system, and much more.

      People will need to be generalists first in the future. This is reflected in basic ecology, where the most specialized species are found in high-energy environments, such as the tropics. Species in low-energy environments can’t afford to put all their eggs in one basket, and tend to be generalists.

      Perhaps we’re in “heated agreement” here. I just didn’t want the impression that things were somehow more complex in the past go unchallenged.

      • Don Stewart says:

        From the perspective of ‘requirements on human skill and cognition’ and ‘adaption to specific circumstances’, I think things were more complex. What I do at a small farm is a lot more complex than what a farmer with thousands of acres of corn does. The small farm does not require a hugely complex industrial society for what it produces, whereas the corn farmers with thousands of acres is utterly dependent on that hugely complex industrial society. If we are trying to answer the question ‘what does collapse look and feel like’, then I think it is worthwhile recognizing what it is humans are likely to be doing and how they will perceive the world (which is one of the fundamentals in Hostadter and Sanders’ book).

        By the way. If you want to make a pretty good first crude estimate of the population of the world after the Reverse Singularity, then get your spouse to engage in a parlor game. Start observing people and putting them into two categories: Bourbon Reds and Cornish Crosses. If 1 percent are Bourbon Reds and 99 percent are Cornish Crosses, then multiply 7 billion by 1 percent and you get (I think) 70 million people. Good for cocktail party chatter. If you are an academic, publish a paper.

        Don Stewart

    • Ert says:


      Good thoughts. Reminds me on the conclusion of the peak-oil study of the German military from 2010: We moved from redundant, robust and low-complexity systems to maximum lean, efficient and complex systems, as robustness and especially redundancy minimizes profit in a market driven economy. If something breaks or stutters… we will have immediate problems.

      Going back to the “old ways” is near to impossible for most people. Even if the old races, seeds, etc. would still exist, it would take a long time to re-adjust, re-learn and re-tool. I have a small garden – but living from it? Whoa… – that’s a different story and would require much, much more time to learn, scale up and take care of everything – especially preservation techniques.

      But with my parents generation the rest of that old knowledge passes away… and even they (>70 years) did not practice many of if – or reduced the scale – in the last 10 years since the stuff in the market is/was so butt-cheap.

      Another aspect is the available land. If you are jobless, live in the city, have no money – you may have no access to land and some basic tools. In Germany most one-family houses have between 600-900 square meters (6000-9000 square foot) total ground – there is not much left for gardening or some fruit trees if you deduct the space for the house, garage, paths, etc.

      This all will be an “interesting” journey…..

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear ERT
        See my answer to Jan regarding how to estimate the number of people who will make it through the Reverse Singularity. (On the Internet, you have to explain everything. The Singularity is Ray Kurzweil’s dream that someday our machines will know everything there is to know and we will all live on Easy Street. My ‘population estimation’ method is with tongue firmly in cheek. And I hope those things translate into German. After reading Hofstadter and Sander on the vagaries of translation, I shouldn’t take anything for granted.)

        Don Stewart

        • Ert says:


          Thanks for the quick answer. For “tongue firmly in cheek” I had to use a dictionary 😉 How many will live – depends on how fast collapse proceeds. I think diseases will take care of much, the Cornish breed people for much, too – desperation will sort out many other. Even I don’t know where I stand. Weather wise we have here enough rain but it’s quite cold – and this year is very cold and extreme wet.

          But here in the centre of Europe there are so many atomic power plants around – that what really worries me – if a collapse scenario may start big time (i.e. the issues regarding food may become essential).

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Ert
        Here is another example to contemplate. You might think that in a Post Reverse Singularity world cattle which can survive only on grass would be a really good idea. And it doesn’t seem to absurd–their wild relatives do fine on grass. But we humans have bred them down to Black Angus which need corn and the like and do well in feedlots.

        So a local guy plus five other cattle people from around the US hired a consultant to find the breed best suited for 100 percent grass. He came back with the recommendation for Red Devon cattle. They originated in Devonshire in England, but are extinct in England. They were once common in the US, but had gone extinct under pressure from the Industrial Model. They located some in New Zealand. With money from a foundation, they got some fertilized eggs in New Zealand, flew them to the US, and implanted them in, you guessed it, Black Angus. So they are slowly building up a herd across the US which is not dependent on the Industrial System.

        Don Stewart

        • Ert says:

          Yes, I know. If you put a highly “evolved” milk-cow on a grass-only diet, the cow will die.

          Who knows – we may be grow milk, meat, plant extracts (e.g. tomato-mash) in specialized facilities and tanks – thanks to DNA and nano-engineering before collapse happens. That way we could rid ourself totally of anything that may resemble the “natural” way – and the clean-up in the collapse phase would be must faster 😉

          Corn is already an abomination in regard to feed cows with it. And it is even worse as most corn in now GMO corn – probably with lots of residues of glyphosat (i.e. Roundup). That is a core reason I skip on all soy and corn products and avoid processed foods to a high degree.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            “If you put a highly “evolved” milk-cow on a grass-only diet, the cow will die.”

            As someone in the dairy industry, I must take exception. It is the opposite that is true; dairy animals not on a grass diet develop all sorts of health problems, “fixed” by routinely lacing their food with antibiotics, which are creating resistant strains.

            • Don Stewart says:

              We have had some local dairy people convert to an ‘organic, grass only’ regime. In the first year, they had practically no veterinary bills. That should tell you something.

              Don Stewart

            • Jan Steinman says:

              What are these “veterinary bills” of which you write?

              The only money we’ve spent on the vet in five years is for disbudding. I’d do it myself, but it breaks my heart…

            • Don Stewart says:

              I think the dairy guys spent no money at all on Vets in the first 12 months. The meat guy who started with the Red Devons seldom if ever sees a Vet on his property. He uses rotational grazing and his pastures are so beautiful it takes your breath away. Native grasses that had not been seen in 50 years have come back. The stream that runs through the pastureland has clear water in it. It’s truly Eden.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              We strive for rotational grazing, but goats are a bit harder to control than cattle. Alan Savory thinks rotational grazing can reverse climate change.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Alan Savory gave a talk at the farm I am talking about several years ago. When the farmer switched from regular grazing to rotational, it went from ‘nice’ to ‘sensational’.

              Don Stewart

            • Scott says:

              Hello Don, So the cows can actually still eat grass and nothing else?

          • Ert says:


            Thanks for the information.

            • Scott says:

              That was interesting what Jan said about cows no longer able to survive on grass. So I guess if the cows of today cannot survive on grass anymore they have changed from the old days and Gail said the horses were smaller then too. Farmers will still need to grow corn to feed the animals, sounds like corn will needed. The animals have changed due to breeding and feeding and drugs over time it seems. I guess humans have changed too and maybe not in a good way.
              Corn could be tough to grown without all the machines and water pumping.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “That was interesting what Jan said about cows no longer able to survive on grass.”

              Woa, Scott — I never said that, although it may have been in what I quoted.

              Cows are made for grass! I don’t know of any modern breed that could not survive on nothing but grass. They are only fed grain to either make them fat (corn, other carbs) or to increase production (oats, peas, other protein).

            • Scott says:

              Hi Jan, Sorry, I got your meaning that they will not do as well and get fat and meaty on just grass. Nothing like corn fed beef I guess. So they will live but maybe not as fat. That is what I think you meant.
              Kind Regards,

        • beckyz says:

          We raise a few Highland cattle originally from Scotland almost entirely on grass. We didn’t have to import them from any farther than 30 miles away. Why did they rate the Red Devon higher?

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear beckyz
            I was not involved in the group which selected the consultant who picked the Red Devon. There were six cattle people from around the US who were in the group. The criteria was ‘the breed which is best able to thrive and produce marketable Grade A meat solely on grass’. Grade A requires a certain amount of marbling.

            As Jan said, surviving on grass is what cattle do. But many of them don’t fatten on grass–just as a deer won’t fatten on grass. The typical fat content of a wild animal is similar to the fat content of a marathon runner. Fat prey animals don’t last long.

            Don Stewart

      • Christopher Johnson says:

        Some years, or decades, ago, Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers on ‘Car Talk’ asked their puzzler: if the world were to collapse, what kind of vehicle would best serve your survival needs? After lots of wrong answers, they provided the solution: a 1969 Chevy Suburban that’s been well maintained in Arizona or New Mexico — low humidity, less rust. After 1969 carburetors were replaced by fuel injectors and smog control system, so later model vehicles needed professional maintenance and specialized parts.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          I suppose a Chevy Suburban Subdivision (as Dave Berry calls it) would make a good shelter, but really — where are you going to get the fuel?

          I can grow the fuel for my fleet of diesel vehicles.

    • Scott says:

      Hello Don, Yes I think last time we experienced a collapse in America was the Great Depression of the 30’s and most still worked on farms and were much better prepared than our dependent generation that we have today. I imagine today that far less than half the people of the world have never grown their own food and far less that have worked on a farm.

      We now have all the machines doing most of it although there are a group of people but they are mostly running the machines and not on foot, but some crops are still harvested by hand and it is hard work.

      Those were simpler days in the 1930’s for sure and people had very little conveniences. But since then the world has changes so much and people are used to having so many things today, so my point is I think that will make things worse in the next collapse when ever it comes, people seem less prepared this time and have lost the knowledge of the way to make a simple life with less.

      • xabier says:


        More than that, they will look for someone to blame in their anger that ‘the good life’ has been switched off.

        I see some very nasty politics coming up if the financial system takes another lurch downwards.

        Equally, though, the urban young today are a lot softer on the whole than in the 1930’s, and so perhaps less of a threat because of that. No masses of hardened and bitter factory workers to revolt any more, and so on.

        In Spain they are saying that a very hot summer this year will see blood on the streets, but I’m not so sure: there’s more posturing today: that’s what Facebook is all about after all. It’s cool to protest, but I don’t see an ideology which would inspire real rebellion: in the 1930’s in Europe, Anarchism and Communism were very strong indeed.

    • We probably will have more differentiation, of the types you mention. But I expect we will also have to be more generalists in some sense. Instead of working in a particular “niche” world, working on some sub-specialty (say “refrigeration”) we will need to learn more about more practical subjects. We will in many ways need to be more broadly educated, so we can handle more tasks ourselves. We won’t be able to rely on our current system to hand us everything we need.

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