Oil Prices Lead to Hard Financial Limits

We live in a finite world.  Clearly, a finite world has limits of many kinds. Yet economists and other researchers use models that assume that these limits are unimportant for the foreseeable future. They have certainly not stopped to think that any of these might be very hard limits that are difficult to get around, and furthermore, that we might be reaching them in the next year or two.

What are the hard limits we are reaching? One of the main ones is that at some point, there is a clash between the oil prices importers can afford, and the amount oil exporters require.

Figure 1. Author's view of conflict in required oil prices

Figure 1. Author’s view of conflict in required oil prices

In fact, there can even be a conflict between prices producers in a non-exporting country like the US or Brazil need, and the prices citizens can afford to pay.

Why Oil Exporters Need Ever-Higher Prices

Oil exporters need ever-higher prices, partly because the cost of extraction continues to rise, and partly because oil exporters use taxes from oil to fund public works projects and to keep their many unemployed citizens pacified. The Arab Petroleum Investment House estimates this combined cost for OPEC countries to be increasing by 7% in 2013. Required prices by oil exporters are already in excess of current market prices for some countries, making the situations in these countries less stable. Examples of countries needing higher oil prices than current prices to balance their budgets include Nigeria, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq (APIH report) and Russia (Deutche Bank estimate).

There is evidence that the collapse of the Former Soviet Union in 1991 occurred when oil prices dropped too low. The Soviet Union was an oil exporter, but with the low oil prices, it could not afford to make investments in new productive capacity. It also could not afford to fund government programs. The collapse did not happen immediately, but happened after low prices had sufficient time to erode funding. Ultimately, the central government collapsed, leaving the individual state governments. See my post, How Oil Exporters Reach Financial Collapse.

How do oil importers reach price limits?

According to most economic theory, oil importers should never reach a price limit. If higher prices occur, as they did in the 1970s and early 1980s (Fig. 2), these higher prices should quickly lead to conservation, plus greater oil extraction and the development of substitutes.

Figure 2. World oil price (Brent equivalent) in 2011$,  based on BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Figure 2. World oil price (Brent equivalent) in 2011$, based on BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

In fact, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, high oil price did lead to changes of the expected kind. It was possible to replace oil-fired electric power plants with coal-fired power plants or nuclear electric power plants. It was also possible to replace the very large, fuel inefficient cars that US automakers were making with more fuel-efficient cars, including ones that Japanese automakers were already making. In addition, it was possible to quickly bring additional inexpensive oil on-line, such as from Alaska (Figure 3) and the North Sea. The decline in the 48 states production (excluding tight oil) was never really fixed.

Figure 3. US crude oil production, divided into "tight oil", oil from Alaska, and all other, based on EIA data.

Figure 3. US crude oil production, divided into “tight oil,” oil from Alaska, and all other, based on EIA data.

More recently, there has been much less success in increasing world oil supply. Higher oil prices eventually led to some new production, such as US tight oil (green in Fig. 3). But even with the new US tight oil production, world oil supply has not risen very much  (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Growth in world oil supply, with fitted trend lines, based on BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Figure 4. Growth in world oil supply, with fitted trend lines, based on BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

It is not clear how long the current run-up in tight oil production will continue. Current production is enabled by high oil prices, available credit, and low-interest rates. Even these may not be enough: a recent headline says, Shale Grab in U. S. Stalls as Falling Values Repel Buyers.

What happens when oil prices rise, and no additional supply or substitute is available?

Economists tell us that when oil prices rise, and no additional supply or substitute is available, demand destruction occurs. It turns out that demand destruction for oil corresponds to what most people would call “recession. It is as if the economy shrinks to a smaller size, so that less oil is required.

This economic shrinkage takes place in a number of ways. Higher oil prices make oil less affordable for consumers, businesses, and governments. The indirect result of this is job layoffs, because consumers cut back on discretionary items, such as vacation travel and eating out at restaurants. Governments cut back on projects like road repair, laying off workers. Businesses find they need to raise prices of goods they sell, because of the higher prices they pay for oil. The result is that their products are affordable to fewer consumers, again requiring laying off workers. So the net result is job loss, and continued weakness in hiring, such as the US has seen for several years now.

Governments are particularly affected by high oil prices, because with fewer people working, government tax collections are reduced. More people file for benefit programs, such as unemployment or disability coverage, when they cannot find work. This adds to government funding issues. If banks fail, governments may be called to bail them out, also adding to government expenditures.

There have been academic studies showing that high oil prices tend to create recessionary impacts.  James Hamilton has shown that 10 out 11 post-World War II recessions were associated with oil price spikes. He has also shown that oil price changes in the 2005-2008 period were sufficient to lead to the Great Recession (Brookings Paper). I have also written a related academic paper, Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.

Because of these issues, if high oil prices remain after a recession, we should expect continued recessionary impacts, such as an inadequate number of jobs for young people and growing government debt. The government can cover up these issues to some extent with ultra low interest rates. In fact, such low interest rates, together with continued deficit spending, seem to be the reasons the US has been in “recovery” since the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009. However, we still find (Fig. 5) that the big oil importing countries (US, UK, and Japan) have much lower GDP growth in recent years than the rest of the world.

Figure 5. Annual percent change in Real GDP by part of the world, based data of the USDA.

Figure 5. Annual percent change in Real GDP by part of the world, based data of the USDA.

These countries also have much less growth in oil consumption than the rest of the world, indicating that when it comes to oil consumption, citizens and businesses of the US, EU and UK are being outbid by businesses and workers elsewhere.

Figure 6. Oil consumption based on BP's 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 6. Oil consumption based on BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Workers elsewhere may use less oil per person, but because they have jobs, they are able to purchase new scooters and other goods they want. Their employers also use oil to make and ship goods, keeping their demand high.

In the US, EU, and Japan, we continue to lose jobs to automation and to outsourcing to low wages countries. As a result, wages are stagnating, and young people are having a hard time getting jobs, making oil less affordable. If only there were more high-paying jobs.  .  . Of course, in a globalized world using coal as a primary fuel, the goods we would make would be too expensive for the world market.

Related financial limits we are hitting

Oil importers around the world are disguising the effect high oil prices are having on economies, through low interest rates and continually rising debt. In doing this, oil importers are able to keep the price of oil that they can afford high. In other words, using these techniques, oil importers are able to keep the blue “affordable by importers” line high in Figure 1.

At some point, there is a limit to how much the adverse impact can be disguised. The following are several areas where limits are now being reached, that will tend to bring down the “affordable to importers” line in Figure 1.

1. Limits on the amount of governmental debt. In the US, the need to raise the federal deficit cap will come up again as soon and October. There will be pressure to try to reduce spending, to reign in the federal deficit. If the economy were growing faster, the debt limit would be less of an issue. But with continued high oil prices, growth is slowed. Debt limits can be expected to continue to be an issue.

2. Slowing growth, and related debt limits, in developing countries. High oil prices affect importers or all kinds, even developing countries that use less oil as a percentage of their total energy consumption. The slowing growth also makes debt harder to manage. News sources are talking about slowing economic growth in China, India, and Brazil.

A recent WSJ article about China is titled, Debt Drags on China’s Growth. According to the article, interest and principle payments on business and household debt currently absorb around a third of China’s GDP. Some debt is being taken on, just to allow interest on past debt to be paid. These high debt levels may cramp future growth in China.

3. Rising longer-term interest rates, because of scaling back or ending quantitative easing. As noted above, low-interest rates are helping to cover up our current issues of inadequate good-paying jobs and inadequate government revenue. If interest rates rise, the government will need to pay more interest on its own debt, leading to a needed tax increase.

Figure 7. Ten year interest rates based on data of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Figure 7. Ten year interest rates based on data of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Another effect of rising interest rates is that the market value of bonds outstanding will fall. This happens because the price of bonds is adjusted so the new owner will get the current (higher) yield to maturity, instead of the original low yield to maturity. Owners of bonds, such as the Chinese and Japanese, are aware of this, and have started selling their treasuries, before prices fall further. (See Reuters: China, Japan lead record outflow from Treasuries in June.) This type of sale of treasuries tends to raise the yield on treasuries, even before the Federal Reserves actually cuts back its monthly purchase of securities under quantitative easing.

If interest rates on 10-year treasuries rise, mortgage interest rates will rise, cutting back on the number of families who qualify for loans for new or resale homes. Last week there were articles saying, “New home sales plunge 13.4%,” presumably from the amount by which interest rates have risen already. If interest rates rise enough, there may also be a decrease in the value of resale homes, because there will be fewer buyers who can afford  move-up homes, lowering demand for homes.

4. Popping of asset bubbles, as a result of rising interest rates. At least part of the rising value of assets of many types (stocks, homes, farms, oil and gas leases) is likely  to related to the very low-interest rates recently experienced. Bubbles tend to occur, because with  debt earning very low-interest rates, borrowers are anxious to earn higher rates of return, however they can. Investors bid up prices using money borrowed at low-interest rates, in hope of making capital gains later. Of course, if interest rates rise, all of this may “turn around”.

One piece of evidence regarding the effect of rising interest rates on stock market prices, versus falling interest rates, for the period graphed in Figure 7, is the following: During the period 1957 between to 1981, when interest rates were rising, the S&P 500 rose by less than inflation. In contrast, during the period 1981 to 2013 when interest rates were falling, the S&P 500 stock market index averaged a gain of about 5% per year, over and above the inflation rate. The difference is in the direction a person would expect, and is quite large.

The Outlook 

As we reach financial limits of many  kinds, further recession, possibly quite severe, seems likely. Some of the limits are ones we have not encountered before, particularly the one with oil prices being too low for exporters, but too high for importers. This makes the situation particularly frightening. At some point, the clash between the price oil importers can afford and the amount oil exporters need could cause oil production to drop dramatically, over only a few years. Such a drop in oil production would likely have a very adverse impact on economic growth.

If oil limits indeed reduce economic growth, this makes models based on the assumption that the future will look like the past invalid. Instead, we need to expect a very changed world. At some point, we may even reach permanent contraction, as oil limits change the nature of the world economy.

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 financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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321 Responses to Oil Prices Lead to Hard Financial Limits

  1. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and End of More and Others
    Once you grasp the principles of biological agriculture and gardening, you begin to ask questions when ‘experts’ speak.

    For example, consider this article today about the looming phosphate rock shortage:

    You will find a lot of ‘scare words’ such as ‘no substitutes’. Now if you have your biological farming hat on, you will ask when was the last time anyone spread ground up phosphate rock on a virgin forest or an unplowed prairie grassland. You will ask why Martin Crawford’s food forest in Britain hasn’t required any annual dusting with phosphate. You will want to know why Martin says it is so tightly bound to healthy soil that it isn’t a problem.

    A good initial hypothesis is that the writers of the phosphate article don’t consider biological farming and gardening to be a ‘substitute’ for the current system. (I agree…it’s not a substitute…it’s a hell of a lot better).

    Then you run across someone like Blume. Blume quotes an impressive Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), which would indicate that he probably never adds any phosphate.. But then you think about his acreage in California and you think about the Mediterranean climate, with perhaps 4 months a year with no rain. He does mention that his land is terraced, and he claims a very high level of organic matter which retains water like a magnet draws metal to it. Still…4 months? And so you would want to probe. Maybe you find out he has a water hose somewhere, or maybe you find out his really clever solution to the problem. You also note that he has achieved an astonishing level of organic matter with only half his land in cover crop. I think that is better than John Jevons. And so you ask him how his results compare to Jevons, and if they are better, to what does he attribute his success?

    My point is that once you see the soil and its ecosystem as a living being, and if you have just enough knowledge to rise to the level of ignorance (from plain stupidity), you can begin to ask interesting questions and perhaps learn something useful.

    Don Stewart

    • The problem is of course that you need to make a transition to the new biological system, and that doesn’t take place overnight, even if everyone knew exactly what to do, and was convinced that that was the direction to go.

      • all biological systems—and there really are no exceptions—are genetically programmed to survive against all odds, or perish in the attempt.
        nature has no other function than that, everything else apart from eating and reproduction, is window dressing.
        this will be the case whether a change takes place through a gentle decline, or very rapidly.
        every species must promote itself to its utmost ability.
        if humanity manages to exterminate itself, other animal forms will rush to colonise the spaces we leave, they too will fight for supremacy as we have done.

    • xabier says:


      Economists and politicians often don’t perceive citizens as living beings, just economic units, so to expect them to see the soil as such is asking way too much.

      I was quite shocked recently by a phrase ‘ The natural world is a service-provider.’ Let’s just contemplate the mental and spiritual limitations embodied in that choice of words…….

  2. timl2k11 says:

    The world will need a great leader on the way down…

    • xabier says:


      I suspect it will get ‘leaders’ who are great in their own eyes, but that’s another matter entirely…….

      Some people in Spain are calling for a Dictator. How they miss Franco. I have even heard: ‘What we need is another Civil War!’ Incredible, but true. I’m not saying this is a common stance, but it’s there. But many do sympathise with’ soft-fascism’, both Left and Right. It’s expressed in corruption and the persecution of dissident opinion.

      The incipient elected-dictatorship in Argentina is worth studying: bribes to the mob, personality-cult around the leader, no concern for general prosperity and the middle-class, just buying off vested interests, corrupt politicians and big-business, personality-cult of Kirchner (she even sells cute dolls of herself from the Presidential Palace, I watched the video of her presenting them to the nation instead of addressing serious issues).

      Feminist dreamers and fascists both note, Kirchner in power is as corrupt and mendacious as any Alpaa-male dictator, and she doesn’t wear a uniform!…..

      Which raises another subject: Hitler was a feeble joke of a man, but with mesmeric powers: Alphas come in many shapes and sizes….. Sir Oswald Mosley was a magnificent figure of a man, and a good intellect, but his attempt to establish a dictatorship in the British Empire failed completely: the runt Hitler made it. Stalin was nobody.

      All dictatorships come from the people: they can’t run without them.

      We are certainly creating the conditions for new ones.

      • Xabier,
        I fear you are all too right in your assessment.

        • Scott says:

          Yes, Xabier, Jody and all, Sadly, it looks like civil war is like a contagious cold these days throughout the world and may be more in the headlines during the next year or two. Given the problems we face worldwide.


  3. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    We have touched on the issue of continued use of things like old tractors. Here is a peek inside an old tractor workshop in a rural community:

    Just from looking, you can see the opportunities and the threats. Will the fan belts and screws and nuts and bolts be available? But it is true that old tractors never die, they just sit in a neglected corner of the field. And a good restoration mechanic can bring dead tractors back to life. These tractors are not interesting to farmers operating really heavy equipment on vast farms…but they are interesting to small farmers.

    As discussed previously, a group of small farmers can reasonably make, from oil seed crops, the biodiesel to operate tractors. In a biological farming system, they would not be used to plow, but might be used for something like drilling grain seed into a field which is coming off pasture, such as the system shown by Darren Doherty which gave good yields, at low cost, and rapidly built topsoil.

    Don Stewart

  4. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    Lest I be accused of cheerleading for Permaculture. Here is a reality check that I think warrants some thought:

    ‘In the middle of fall planting or should I say replanting as that is how much of the last two weeks has been. Fall planting is actually a wide window in time. We actually start seeding some crops in the greenhouse as early as May (Brussels sprouts and Celery) so we can get them in the ground in July. Many transplanted crops are seeded in July and August to be planted out a month later. But starting the beginning of August we direct seed into the field a few beds of vegetables each week. Multiple plantings of carrots, beets, spinach, turnips and more so we can have as continuous a harvest as possible through the fall and early winter.

    Well August was so wet that we either had trouble getting into the field on time or the germination rate was not good or with the 3.5 inches of rain in an hour two weeks ago, just plain washed out. So last week we just re-tilled most of the early planted carrots and beets and started over. They are now up beautifully but will obviously be later than we had anticipated. Such is the crap shoot of fall plantings, usually the challenge is that it is so hot things just don’t want to germinate or get cooked off the soil after they do. If they survive that they then have to battle the onslaught of worms and grasshoppers and other pests until the weather cools down the end of September and everything seems to return to a happy state.

    It seems a bit brutal to plant when it is so hot but if we don’t get crops established as early as July, August and early September then the days get so short and cool that they will never mature before the really cold weather arrives. September is that great month when things do slow down a bit during the transition to true fall. We are taking out lots of crops, preparing tunnels for the winter season, taking soil tests and getting ready for the big annual soil turning and cover crop planting. Frost will be here before you know it, only eight or nine weeks away.’

    This is from a very good, veteran local farmer. Some of these things are just bad luck, some are to be expected with climate change, and some are due to the fact that we are manipulating Nature in a rather peculiar way that increases our workload. It’s the manipulation that I want to address.

    Today, we have certain season extension tools available to us that used to be limited to the French nobility. You can find orangeries at Versailles. But ordinary French farmers couldn’t order up an economical plastic hoop house and they couldn’t get shade cloth at the local Feed and Seed. This points to the important role that plastics play in what we might call mid-tech agriculture. This isn’t about skyscraper farms or creating ‘food’ from algae or vast acreages tilled by computer controlled tractors. So what is it about?

    Let’s first observe that the sun provides the most photosynthetic potential on June 21st (Northern Hemisphere, of course). I just went outside and took a UV reading, which was 35 on a clear, dry day in North Carolina. One June 21st, I have seen readings of 75 and the days are considerably longer. So the photosynthetic potential is much higher on June 21st than it is on September 6. Perennials are the plants which are naturally suited to take the most advantage of the summer solstice. They have a well developed root system which can support explosive growth as soon as the weather warms in the spring. Annuals have to get themselves established, which includes growing a root system–which is usually pretty puny and leaves them vulnerable to drought. By September, the perennials are packing it up for next year. They are making seeds and nuts and getting ready for winter.

    So what we are doing with mid-tech agriculture is using less than ideal conditions, but producing food anyway because we have the season extension tools to make it work. It’s more work for the farmer, it’s risky as you can see from the above narrative, and climate change probably will make things more risky–as, for example, it is really hot which stresses the plants but the sun just isn’t delivering as much photosynthetic potential..

    I have spoken about the layers approach to crops. More layers permits us to harvest more sunlight and use photosynthesis to produce more biomass. But if you want to grow annual crops in the fall, you need direct sunlight on them where I live. Again, complications and trade-offs.

    How do we think about this in terms of collapse? If financial collapse happens suddenly and takes down all the physical systems with it, most people will starve and that will be that. But suppose that the physical systems, for one reason or another, slowly adjust to a lower level of resource availability. Things like shade cloth and plastic hoop houses and drip irrigation systems are very valuable in terms of food production. And with some intelligence applied to the rationing, perhaps they will be around for some decades. In the long term, however, it is likely that we will go back to the late 1700s in France–the kings and queens will eat from fancy glass greenhouses, but the rest of us will be farming and gardening according to a natural seasonal rhythm. Or, perhaps we will have transitioned to a mostly perennial system.

    It is considerations such as these that can lead a Permaculturist to say that ‘we can probably feed 10 billion people now, but the population in the future will be a small fraction of 10 billion.’

    Don Stewart

  5. ravinathan says:

    The problem with the notion that we can scale back to a lower technology era, while warm, gooey and romantic is simply impossible. The world has over 400 nuclear plants which will go into critical meltdown if the grid ever fails. This will end most if not all life on earth, laying waste to visions of wise Don ‘Moses’ Stewart leading the permie flock into a golden dawn! Face it! We are locked in to the current system that is moving inexorably to disaster.

    • xabier says:


      Perhaps so. Those power plants are a worry…..

      All human endeavour is futile, all human existence tragic, from a certain point of view:

      ‘Conception a sin, birth an agony, life a torment and death inevitable’ as the Spanish proverb says.

      But from another point of view, this permaculture and homesteading looks like good fun, so why not? I’m no more concerned with feeding 10 billion than those 10 billion would be concerned about me.

  6. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Ravinathan and Others

    I’ve never been to Iberia. So Xabier might laugh at my crude comparisons. But here goes.

    Sepp Holzer did a project in Portugal which rescued a desertifying region which belongs to a genuine Princess and hydrated it with a series of lakes. Here is a link with some pictures. You will get the idea, although it is in German. By the reports I have read, it is beautiful and the Princess is happy.

    Toby Hemenway wrote this article for his website:

    ‘Here’s an example of how we can be misled by recipes. Holistic Management (HM) is a decision-making framework to help ranchers improve grazing-animal and grassland health. In a revealing article in the HM newsletter In Practice, permaculturist Aspen Edge describes her evolution from thinking of permaculture as a set of practices to seeing it as a way to design solutions. Aspen and her husband, David, with four years of permaculture experience in a temperate region, bought a farm in the hot, arid Mediterranean climate of southern Spain, and decided to create a food forest. Aspen writes, “Our permaculture mind applied those techniques which, if applied in a temperate or tropical environment, would build soil and conserve water. . . . Four years on, far from a complex, multi-stacking sward of vegetation, we had even less biodiversity and increased bare ground. . . . Nothing was performing in the way that we had expected.” They shifted gears, and tried the specific methods of Holistic Management for brittle (hot, dry, and fragile) landscapes, which involve rotational grazing and building soil via animal manures, and provide specific steps for ranch financial planning. The land, animals, and their finances rebounded beautifully.

    Their initial conclusion was that HM was simply better for drylands than permaculture. But they soon realized that HM is a recipe tailored for managing brittle landscapes like theirs, and nothing in HM was out of keeping with the strategies that a good permaculture design would arrive at. It was their perception of permaculture as a set of practices—that sheet mulching should be done everywhere, that all land wants to be a food forest—that was the problem. Holistic Management originator Alan Savory did not use permaculture as such to create HM, but he arrived at it by using the same observation skills and understanding of ecological processes that any good permaculture designer would. It is a recipe specifically for operating ranches, with brittle landscapes as its particular focus. ‘

    If you have read any of the references to Alan Savory’s work that I have posted, you know that it doesn’t use many bulldozers. Instead, it uses the fastest way to grow topsoil and put carbon in the soil: perennial grasses. The particular farm is in Spain.

    So…does Permaculture favor bringing in the bulldozers and creating lots of lakes in arid places, or does it favor creating rich grasslands? All I can say is that if you own property in Iberia, you have at least two examples from which to choose. Both use biological farming. One uses lots of earth moving.

    Don Stewart

    • Hello all,
      There seems to be quite a lot of discussion and some disagreement about the role and capability of permaculture. So I thought I would wade into the stream…as ugly as the some of the fish may be!

      Permaculture (which originally meant “permanent culture”) is a type of design that can be applied to many systems including agriculture. According to Wikipedia “Permaculture design seeks to minimize waste, human labor, and energy input by building systems with maximal benefits between design elements to achieve a high level of synergy.” In a world where we have peak oil, climate change, and resource depletion, I think this is the most logical approach.

      Originally it was focused on architecture, namely, how do we build economical and efficient housing for our masses of population, and have the water and power to operate them in an era of diminishing resources? Permaculture design as applied to agriculture relies heavily on ecology, land management and use, organic farming, and sound environmental principles. To say it is a broad field is a great understatement.

      I see permaculture as more of a philosophy, a way of looking at the world and understanding our place within the natural system in which our ancestors evolved. I don’t see it as a specific type of agriculture. I don’t think it’s useful to argue about how many people permaculture can feed.

      Earlier I told Don that I don’t believe permaculture can feed 10 billion people. The reason I don’t believe it will is not because it can’t, it’s because I don’t believe there are 10 billion people who will practice it. Of course we really aren’t arguing about feeding 7 or even 10 billion people, we are arguing about feeding the 2 billion people today who live a “modern” lifestyle and don’t want to change. There are far too many people in the developed world who don’t want to do anything to feed themselves other than drive to the grocery store and pick up whatever food they desire. The idea of having to raise their own food; to work in the soil, plant, harvest, and cook raw food is seen as a step back into the dark ages. It is too daunting to contemplate. I imagine there are probably 4 or 5 billion people who either already live this way or wish they could.

      Permaculture can’t replace a system of cheaply grown, cheaply transported, cheaply assembled/processed food with high quality organic food using a small fraction of the world’s population as farmers. But it can produce a large amount of high quality food using significantly less resources than our current system. The permaculture that I practice includes a home with a kitchen garden, compost bins, season extension, eating seasonally, eating much less animal products, cooking slow food, preserving food, and enjoying a life lived this way. I don’t see any other path forward and waiting too long will just make the transition more difficult.


      • Scott says:

        Hello, I think this is something that should be pursued, but we are facing limits on population and as the population rises the scale of these projects needed to keep us going get so large like the incredible hulk… they become hard to maintain and build. It seems to me we will have to keep both systems running side by side and try to move over to Permaculture as we can. It may maintain a small market share at first like organics but hopefully it will take hold. It is a good goal to head towards but will not happen fast. There are many good things happening in farming, but mainly driven by energy (oil, gas and electric that is), few farms would run without it.


      • xabier says:


        Lots to agree with there!

        I’ve seen it in a lot of threads: ‘I want to be Modern, no Dark Ages for me!’ A friend who loves powerful cars said to me ‘If we have to get around in those toy electric cars, I’d rather be dead!’ Don’t even ask him to get his hands dirty! And his granny was peasant who broke rocks in a quarry…..

        The ‘Dark Ages’ is actually in the minds of those who don’t wish to lift a finger for themselves.

        What defined the Dark Ages? People might answer: filth, violence, no beach holidays, barbarians running all over the place.

        But they were really defined by a loss of knowledge and a consequent inability to use resources productively. And by a rejection of unorthodox knowledge and new modes of living which offended prejudice and custom. The feudal lords really did drag people back to the land – the way of life that suited the lords economically – if they tried to get away and become, for instance, a townsman. Novelties could be seen as threats, sorcery or simply insane.

        Historically, the knowledge of advanced culture, manufacturing and agriculture shrank back to the Eastern Roman and Islamic Empires.

        Today, permaculture and modern homesteading, good custody of the Earth, seem to me to be very significant bodies of knowledge which shrunk back into the hands of very few people today, which have absolutely no backers among the corporations and politicians, and of which most ordinary people have lost any comprehension – lack of knowledge leads to suspicion: as you have pointed out, people can’t believe that productive gardening can be as easy as it is (given good instruction).

        Our civilization seems complete, but without an understanding of the land it is perhaps fatally flawed (particularly when one considers soil depletion and exhaustion).

        Anyone who draws attention to the urgent issues surrounding the regeneration of the land is today like a traveller in the Dark Ages informing benighted peasants and their calculating lords about life in the next village, or over the mountains. Some may listen, most won’t and few will have the ability to do anything. But it has to be done.

        ‘None so blind as them that won’t see’…….

        • Scott says:

          Hello Xabier, What you said which I will re post in quotes “Today, permaculture and modern homesteading, good custody of the Earth, seem to me to be very significant bodies of knowledge which shrunk back into the hands of very few people today, which have absolutely no backers among the corporations and politicians, and of which most ordinary people have lost any comprehension – lack of knowledge leads to suspicion: as you have pointed out, people can’t believe that productive gardening can be as easy as it is (given good instruction).”

          Very well said and sadly true,


          • xabier says:

            Thanks Scott! Still let’s not get depressed about it: we’ve got our small plots of earth, and I’m going to do some hard digging tomorrow for a new hedge, the leaves will make compost in coming years (thanks for the inspiration Jody!).

        • Xabier,
          Kind of ironic that the Europe fell into a period of declining civilization during the Dark Ages, while Arab countries were still advancing in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. Today the opposite appears to be happening in the sense that the Arab countries are descending into dark age barbarianism and the destabilization of the Arab countries might bring the whole global economic system over the cliff.

          I agree with you that “None so blind as them that won’t see”. Our economic and political leaders seem unable or unwilling to do anything that will effect a positive change in the system. The masses want to pretend there really aren’t any problems that economic growth won’t solve. There are the angry few crying in the wilderness “Repent and be saved”, but no one is listening. Others believe that if only people would drive a Prius and buy a rain barrel all would be well.

          Perhaps the group that suffers the worst are those who see and believe but can’t seem to find a path forward, leaving them depressed and ineffective. Even though it seems irrational to cling to a system that appears broken and unrepairable, we often hang onto what we know rather than leap into an unknown. I often think that if I had been born a man during the Age of Discovery, I would have been an explorer. I wonder what it is that makes some humans seek adventure rather than shrink back from the unknown? Wouldn’t it have been an adventure being on those ships sailing off into unknown seas (hopefully not as the captains cabin boy!)?

          I’ve heard it said that
          ‘A known devil, is better than an unknown saint’….


          • xabier says:


            The Islamic world declined from its advanced in the 13th century for many reasons, but a major one was that they made the wrong cultural and intellectual choices: science and philosophy were down-graded or extinguished and the priority given to reciting the Koran and studying the law. Society was given the wrong emphasis by fanatics, the least useful of all skills was most highly-rewarded – banking and finance anyone, versus farming?

            Thank your for your life-enhancing posts by the way.

          • Xabier,

            Well if the world is going to collapse, we may as well make the most out of each day we have until it does. And if by some miracle all us doomers and prepers are wrong, if our economic system somehow manages to keep chugging along (albeit at some greatly reduced level) at least I can look back and say I’ve lived a good life. I also think the changes we’ve made will make retirement more affordable, even with little or greatly reduced social security or medicare. We won’t have to worry about skyrocketing electricity or propane costs. We can probably still provide the majority of our fresh food. All that jogging and exercising my husband does will keep him in good shape to chop wood and weed the garden! (He thinks I’m kidding when I say that!)

            Why obsess about what we can’t control? This used to be good advice, even years ago before peak oil and climate change, when the only problem people worried about was death (and taxes).

            Glad you enjoy my posts. I also enjoy reading yours.

            take care,

          • xabier says:


            I like the Retirement Plan you have for your husband: he should be assured that not many things are better than swinging an axe ! (Basques and axes are synonimous, I have a nice collection). Maybe learning to carve utensils from wood would be a good hobby, too…… maybe best not mention that as well.

          • Xabier,
            Carving utensils and the potters wheel are my hobbies. Maybe I’ll consider letting him use my knives if he keeps them sharp. My sister is a master quilter. Her husband built some wooden doll beds for granddaughters and decided to make the small quilts to go with them. Now they find it enjoyable working together in her studio. Of course he has his own manly shop out back too! We all need our hobby space, Eh?

      • that’s always been my point Jody, perhaps the greatest failing of humanity has been the certainty that ‘now’ is permanent.
        We feed ourselves ‘now’, our supermarkets and filling stations (merely our prime energy sources) are full ‘now’, so they will always be full and available to us.
        What we deny to ourselves is that that ‘now’ is only 4 generations old, much less for many people. Only 10 generations separate us from an existence where the only light available was a naked flame and where 98% of people had to work the land to provide the necessary food excess for the other 2%.
        Oil has enabled an exact reversal of that, where 2% can feed 98%.
        This is what makes our ‘now ‘ unreal, because virtually all of those 98% now have no idea how to procure their means of survival. They (we) expect food and fuel to appear, and from conversations out in the real world, that expectation is an absolute.
        Any doubt is always countered with: ‘they’ will come up with something….perhaps the scariest comment of all.
        So given that certainty, there will always be conflict to preserve it because there is a refusal to accept that the party is over. As I’ve pointed out before, we have put ourselves in the same position as hamsters in a cage: Our food is delivered and our wastes are removed, and our employment is in a rotating wheel that takes us nowhere. Oh, and we can go on filling up our cage with more and more hamsters of course.
        Yet we will resist anything that alters that status quo, engaging in riots and wars brought about by the overcrowding in our cage.
        Even when the planet had more than enough resources for everyone, wars were still fought to acquire more.
        Expecting humanity to change its behaviour in a single generation and become benevolent ‘permaculturists’ after 10000 years of mass homicide, is I fear asking too much.
        It will happen of course, but not until we have worn out all our weapons (embodied energy) and reduced our numbers, trying to prove that it isn’t going to.

        • EOM,
          You are absolutely correct in what you say. I rarely find anything in your observations that I don’t agree with, except perhaps in the way they come across. It seems to me that your comments often convey a sense of bleakness, of hopelessness in the face of change. I’d like to know more about what you like about life, the things you value, the things you are doing other than trying to convince the masses we are heading for a cliff and we have no parachute. I’m sure that you have a bright side! 🙂

          • apologies for the way I put stuff across Jody, that’s not the real me I assure you.
            I suppose it is the love of everything that surrounds me here in the UK, the heart-stopping beauty of it, its deep history , and its seeming permanence that makes me think more deeply than is good for me. But I refuse to get depressed over it.
            Last weekend on a picnic, I spent an hour watching wasps tear a small piece of chicken apart and fly off with it, to recycle its energy. Small pleasures I guess, but very wonderful to see.
            And I’m not trying to convince anybody, maybe just pointing to the ‘Cliff’ sign?
            I live within 5 miles of where the industrial revolution started, (iron smelting with coke 1709) and during the research for my book http://tinyurl.com/oa854gt I stood on that exact spot (it’s now a museum) and gave some thought to what started there. It was impossible not to think of everything that derived from that ‘logical’ increase in productivity, and what became possible through access to new ways of using energy. Without colossal amounts of cheap iron and steel, and the embodied energy within it, humankind could not have prospered the way it has.
            It hasn’t been fossil fuel that created our wealth, so much as the ways we found of using it.
            So that’s the way my mind works. My research led me into the minds of scientists and other individuals far better qualified to comment on all this than I am. It was really scary to find them saying much the same thing. Or worse.
            What started as a straightforward commercial venture in 1709, now pervades everything we do. Every human enterprise now depends on burning fuel in one way or another, and converting that energy into physical assets. Despite my mental twisting and turning to elude that simple fact–the truth of it won’t go away: We equate burning stuff with prosperity, The magnificence of our surroundings and possessions confirms that the more we burn, the wealthier we become. We get even wealthier if we burn it faster. Only through fuelburning have we been able to hold heat cold gravity disease and hunger at bay for a while; we now demand that it goes on forever. So we vote for politicians who say it can. And the majority DO vote for it, because there are no political alternatives. In here we are preaching to an infinitesimally small converted, out there people refuse to accept reality, or at best adopt the Micawberish approach of: ‘something is bound to turn up’.
            What we are actually doing is voting to change the laws of physics, while believing that because energy gave us wealth, wealth will give us energy.
            Another big mistake there.
            Every item of data and research I use I quadruple check if I can, because I want to prove myself wrong, and I unravel every problem right to its fundamental roots, then work back from there to see if I reach the same conclusions.
            If I do, I use it.
            As to gentle downsizing, permaculture and so on. One reads what is or is not possible using various methods and crops etc. I approach the problem from another direction: To establish a viable food production base, you need two stable growing seasons– minimum. When the proverbial hits the fan, ask yourself what happens next?
            7 million city dwellers are not going to become gardeners, to think otherwise is delusion on a grand scale.
            One takes precautions as far as one can, of course; but to imagine a gentle transition into a future of bucolic peasantry is taking that delusion into very dangerous territory.

            • Scott says:

              Hello End of More, well it just looks like some of us will be gardeners that may need to guard our gardens night and day with dogs and guns eventually. My neighbors and I expect that at some point we think.

              Seriously, that is the major problem, city dwellers think food comes from the market.


          • Scott
            you’re lucky to have neighbours who think like you do
            mine wouldn’t get past: huh?

            • Scott says:

              Hello, From what I see here in Oregon…. In times of trouble, We would be fine it seems and many would make it, but it would be tough – but really tough, if they do attack us from the air, Most of us are vulnerable to that. That is where we could be in real trouble, air assaults. Most city dwellers would perish in such attacks and some tough folks would make their last stands in the mountains, but few would last the winter in the Cascades. A tough one.

              Otherwise, I think our locals could get by if there was no outside attack, but that is not likely if you are in a resource rich area such as hunting, water and mining and food production during harder times.

              I expect many of these areas will see a struggle between outsiders and locals for resources.

              Let us hope not to see this scenario anytime soon.


          • EOM,

            No apologies necessary. I understand where you are coming from and feel the same way you do about many of the issues we face and reasons we are in this mess. I have no illusions that what I do is a solution. As I’ve said before, we face a dilemma, and dilemmas have consequences not solutions.

            I’m glad to know more about your bright side. Thanks for sharing. I would love to watch a wasp tear apart and carry away a piece of meat. I love to watch preying mantis, but they always seem to know I’m watching and never go off hunting. I could swear they look at me and evaluate how easy a meal I would make.

            I have visited your home country and I agree it is beautiful and hard to avoid the history, which surrounds you everywhere. Although folks tell me East Anglia is the least scenic part of your country, I found many sights I enjoyed. We stayed at Mildenhall and I enjoyed the Roman structure still standing in the middle of town. The food was much better than the guidebooks said it would be. Lovely pasties that I could buy for about a dollar (in 1987) and were a very filling lunch. Breakfast at the place we were staying was beyond my expectations. It consisted of ‘cold’ offerings such as fresh grapefruit sections in a bowl, freshly squeezed orange juice, or tomato juice, various hearty cereals; and/or hot food such as eggs, fried potatoes, ‘bangers’ and sausage patties, fried tomatoes, and toast with marmalade. We could have any or all if we could eat that much! Dinner on the terrace was called a bar-be-que; grilled steak, baked potatoes, and a variety of salads and side dishes. Wonderful homemade potato salad!

            I loved visiting the churches and castles. The place that I remember vividly was Bury St. Edmunds where I toured the remains of a cathedral that had been torn down by the peasants after King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic church and formed the Church of England. All that was left of the original structure was the Abbeygate, a large archway which had actually been a relatively small side entrance to the Abbey. You can see it here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Abbeygate_In_Bury_St_Edmunds.jpg
            Inside the Abbeygate was a drawing of the original cathedral. It stunned me to see what must have been the size of the original structure relative to the size of the Abbeygate. It was amazing to think of just how large a building the English had constructed, the power of the Catholic Church it represented, and the feelings of the peasants towards this power when they tore it apart and carted off the stones. No, history is not always a nice.

            I like living in our modern world and making connections to our past world. I have hope but few illusions about our future. I don’t think the lifestyle I live is an answer to the dilemmas of our time. As I have said before, I don’t believe we can solve our problems, we can only suffer the consequences. I don’t believe that we can save even a fraction of the world’s population if we collapse. It can certainly be depressing to think about all the possible terrible things we might encounter.

            I think it was the realization of what peak oil meant, that finally gave me the impetus I needed to live life the way I truly wanted to live. Before that, I was concerned with my career, retirement accounts, making something of myself and my education…all the typical stuff. In some weird way knowing that our future was not going to be what I expected, freed me to create a lifestyle I wanted. I don’t have to worry about being thought of as eccentric. (Of course, the older I get the less I worry about eccentricity anyway!) I’ve always wanted to be like my grandmother, the gentle wise-woman who loved and cared for her family, living in her garden among her flowers and herbs, a pot of soup bubbling on the stove, knitting scarves and mittens to give for Christmas to her 16 grandchildren.

            We can’t change the world, but we can change ourselves. Living a life that is meaningful to our idea of ‘self’, is really the only reality we can know.

            all my best,

            • Scott says:

              Hello Jody, More and more people should embrace gardening at home, but understanding that it is not possible in much of the world, we have an uneven collapse. Some areas getting hit really hard first. -Scott

    • xabier says:


      This Frog would like to marry such a Princess! Thanks for the links.

  7. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    I want to add a personal observation on the issue of electricity prices and marginal cost. See:

    I worked in the headquarters of AT&T in the late 1960s and again before and after Divestiture in 1982. The Divestiture involved splitting the company into 8 pieces, and was demanded by the Reagan administration after many years of desultory meanderings in the antitrust courts.

    AT&T collected data on almost everything. Each year, it compiled a Bell System Statistical Manual. I discovered this Manual around 1968 when I was working on a particular project. One of the interesting statistics was the investment per mile in long distance transmission equipment. Beginning in 1919, when the Bell System was returned to private ownership after being nationalized in WWI, the investment had shrunk from 100 dollars per mile at the rate of a dollar per year. The technical impetus for the shrinkage was the deployment of continually improving carrier systems, which piggybacked many conversations on a single circuit. I left the Headquarters in 1970 and went to a field position, where people would occasionally tell me how ‘expensive’ long distance facilities were and how we needed to do all sorts of weird things with the prices in order to cause the customers to ‘conserve circuits’. No amount of explaining by me that circuits were cheap and becoming cheaper would sway the discussion.

    Back in the headquarters in 1979, I was involved, unwittingly, in the negotiations which led to the Divestiture Consent Decree. When I found out that the Consent Decree had split the Long Distance business from the Local Exchange business, I was alarmed. At that point, the investment per circuit mile had shrunk to 8 dollars (none of these numbers are inflation adjusted). It was very clear that a ‘long distance’ business would have a zero marginal cost in terms of physical facilities. Such businesses don’t tend to make very good investments because just a little overcapacity sinks the price to zero. The Executive Management didn’t want to hear about it. They amused themselves with the illusion that they were going to become another IBM.

    So they tried to become IBM and lost a lot of money, just as IBM was changing the way it did business. Meanwhile, MCI and Sprint were getting started. The AT&T Long Distance business was churning out the cash, which was being squandered by the Executives. When MCI and Sprint finally got their capacity in place, it became a war of TV advertising. For a while, the three companies were accounting for 40 percent of TV advertising dollars. But the Consent Decree was structured in such fasion that there was no real way to distinguish any one company from the other two in terms of physical characteristics. The Decree, in other words, made no sense at all.

    Eventually, all three companies essentially ceased to function. The solution was flat rate pricing. It didn’t matter how much you used, you just paid a monthly fee. Ironically, I spent time in the field in the hopeless task of convincing the public and the regulators that imposing ‘usage sensitive pricing’ on local calls was a really smart thing to do. If it had been successful, it would have taken another service which had essentially zero marginal cost and burdened it with very high administrative costs.

    So when you think about renewables and their zero marginal cost, think about the dangers that the utilities with high variable costs face. Think about a homeowner with solar PV on the roof and the sun shining…the cost of using more electricity is zero up until the capacity of the system is exceeded. Few people are thinking about this.

    Don Stewart

    • Scott says:

      Hello Don, I remember in the 1970’s my father who worked at IBM and Control Data Corp in San Jose CA and those were the days of growth in the so called silicon valley, this was the 1970’s and things were already changing fast in those fields. My Dad was a technical writer and in is last working years worked for himself and made great money.

      My father retired in the 1980’s and has recently passed away last summer. However, what I remember from those days was the fast growth and change. I do not believe we can keep up this pace forever.


  8. ravinathan says:

    Here is some support for Gail’s contention that solar energy is not a substitute for fossil fuels based on the actual experience of Spain which made a big push into renewables versus the largely theoretical exercises that we read about. The link is a book review of Prieto and Hall’s 2013 publication that is well worth a read. What amazed me was the extremely low realized EROEI of solar at less than 3 for sunny Spain and its even lower for Germany! Spain has really gotten itself into a pickle and I do hope that some of the people who go around claiming that pv power will save us will read this review and the book. The takeaway is that photo voltaics are only a fossil fuel extender, not a substitute, since pv cannot replace itself.

    • xabier says:


      Great link, thanks.

      Looks like it was an ideal scam for the get-rich-quick Spain of the early 2000’s which produced the real estate ‘boom.’

      And whatever happened -anyone? – to the EU idea of having huge solar plants in North Africa (nice peaceful part of the world for decades to come surely) to supply Europe? Did anything ever get built?

      • buying sunshine from Africa is about as safe and sensible as buying gas from Russia

        • xabier says:


          I know, but it’s incredible that such a project was ever given serious consideration!

        • Xabier,

          I wonder if it isn’t becoming very difficult and risky for companies to invest in business in North Africa? I would be concerned about long term solvency of operations in countries where civil unrest is becoming common. Also, it seems to me that China has taken a great interest in not only manufacturing solar devices but leasing farmland in Africa. Maybe they are looking at building the solar plants in North Africa too. The two things may not be related but China certainly seems to want to be the 800 lb gorilla in the solar power industry. Only Germany seems to be holding up under the competition, and they are struggling with the EU problems over Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy.


          • telegraph tim says:

            “Only Germany seems to be holding up under the competition, and they are struggling with the EU problems over Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy.”

            Talking of which:


            Meanwhile, over in Blighty:


          • xabier says:


            Oil pipelines are damaged in Libya, solar sites seem even easier targets: you can trash them without pollution.

            Europe now receives much of its basic goods from the East, above all China, and fuel from the Mid East and Russia – it’s not an encouraging scenario, to say the least. This is why fracking has such attraction for many, although many still have no grasp at all of the real energy situation of Western Europe.

            Without the cheap goods from China, many people in Europe would be very impoverished in terms of clothing, etc. Well-made clothes are now very expensive, but then historically they always were.

          • Xabier,
            Yes, I would not want to live in Europe because of all the issues you brought up, except perhaps Scandinavia. Might be hard to get used to cold winters and short summers though, even though I grew up with them in Minnesota.

            The one advantage Europe has is its extensive public transportation, lower energy use (so less far to descend), and better multipurpose urban design. When my husband visited Denmark he admired the areas of the city which had family homes, restaurants, stores, and business all located withing walking distance. Many families didn’t need cars. The U.S. and it’s urban sprawl will be a problem, as Kunstler has pointed out.

            The advantage here in Indiana is that our climate is moderate and we have good rainfall. We are not likely to become a desert. We have a very long growing season and extensive farmland (even if it is depleted in organic matter), and lots of woods and streams. Europe has a much higher population density and little forest left for people to get firewood.

            Until you mentioned good quality clothes I didn’t think about it. I usually shop at our Goodwill second hand stores. We have three very nice ones in town. I am always able to find good quality clothes there, and because they are used clothes it is easy to see how they are holding up. I think part of the reason there are so many good quality ones is because of the University. Professors buy lots of good quality clothes, rarely wear them out, and then donate them to the Goodwill. I guess that is an advantage others don’t have.

            It is true, and Scott mentioned it too, that in some places people will be greatly disadvantaged. I guess all I can say is if one can move it might be a good time to evaluate and then pick your location carefully.


            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Xabier and Jody
              Since Jody brought up the issue of her retirement plan for her husband, I decided to do a little research on my wife’s retirement plan for me.

              Having been married 50 years I know better than to ask a direct question. So I just went to my friend at the NSA and asked him to take a look at my wife’s recent Google searches which involved ‘husband’. It turned out that she had visited the sites of a number of Glue Factories which promise ‘discreet, no questions asked service…highest prices paid’.

              Is this a bad sign?

              Don Stewart

            • Scott says:

              Hello Jody and everyone, I guess it is true, Location, Location, Location! An uneven collapse hitting some places first and others later. The same goes for war that will likely be a byproduct of the collapse in areas of the world, right now we are looking at lots of places that are on the verge.
              If bombs start dropping in more places, especially the big ones, then collapse could expand very fast into our heartland in the west. (hope not). But if that happened then it would be WWIII.

              These are uncertain times and I suppose we are lucky that a bigger event has not happened in recent years given the instability of the nuclear world and the world in general. These subjects give me some concern and anxiety for sure.

              But we will continue on day by day and try not to worry too much about the world but steadily try to improve our own little situation in that regard.

              Tomorrow is harvest day for many veggies such as corn, celery squash etc – so we will be drying some of it in the food dehydrator for winter soups which should taste good when it gets colder as it surely will soon.


          • Don,
            If you don’t have a horse, it could be a bad sign!

            Now that you put my comment into this context, I’m wondering if my husband has a retirement plan for me. But before I can ask I have to think about whether or not it works best to ask directly or in directly. My mother told me that when she wanted Dad to do something she never told him directly. She would mention something in passing, wait a few days, and then ask him what he thought they should do. Somehow he seemed to come up with the exact thing she wanted him to do, and believed it was his idea. I always found that interesting. For a housewife without only a high-school education she was pretty smart!

            You give me so much to think about Don!

  9. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    This will be a little essay on the difficulty of being human and reasonably aware early in the 21st Century.

    James Howard Kunstler wrote this prognostication earlier this week, in praise of what he perceives will be valued after the Crisis:
    ‘The range of skills one might include under vernacular artistry runs from gardening, to cookery, to tool-making, to animal husbandry, to the building trades, to the lively, visual, musical, and medical arts — all the activities of everyday life. These are the things which, when done well, make life worth living. They all deeply involve taking care of things on the small and personal scale — which is exactly what you don’t get purchasing ready-made plastic crap from the WalMart on the highway strip, where nothing is really cared for and everything is disposable.’

    I did some of that stuff today. I participated in a group making some kim-chee. We took home some kim-chee made by our predecessors a month ago, and the kim-chee we made today will be eaten by a group which will gather about a month from today. Gardening, cooking (or, more precisely, the non-cooking of fermentation), the medical arts (fermented foods do wonderful things for the human body), and even tool making (the heirloom sauerkraut pounder) were all prominently featured. In addition, the building arts were present as we worked in a former horse stable which had been converted into a communal kitchen by volunteer labor. Outside the stable were evidence of more tool making in the form of an antique tractor and manure spreader. And it was certainly all about everyday life. A wonderful time was had by all, and it involved the sacralization of the ordinary as we gave thanks for the work of the microbes, using a hymn composed by Sandor Katz.

    Here’s the difficult part. I drove a 10 year old Prius 15 miles to the event, and then 15 miles home. In the kind of post-collapse world that Kunstler expects, driving 15 miles in an automobile will be out of the question. The cabbage, carrots, onions, and peppers were grown on the farm, but the spices came from across the oceans. (Remember the Spice Routes?)

    At the beginning of the event, I described to the group my special interest in using fermentation to preserve the harvest, and described my newly realized recognition that fall crops in this area are dependent on plastic in a number of crucial ways. I pointed to the plastic greenhouse on the farm and the piles of drip tape. I said that in the future we may get only a spring harvest of cabbage and need to preserve enough from that single harvest to last us all year. Several of the people had been in Korea and described how the Koreans buried their kim-chee in the ground to keep it without refrigeration.

    As I see it, a group of a dozen people gathered for a purpose can usually solve the practical problems. The problem I see is what I might call ‘insufficient density’. I think Kunstler is wrong to bad mouth the younger generation and the WalMart. There were 3 very young women in our group today. I didn’t see any of them lost in their iPhone. So his characterization of a generation is not getting it right. And we gathered in North Carolina, which he would have trouble referring to without profanity. So sectionalism isn’t the key point either. As for WalMart, I believe the crock that we made the kim-chee in came from WalMart. Crocks can be custom made by local potters, but WalMart is a convenient and economical place to buy them. So blaming WalMart isn’t on target either. The real problem, as I see it, is that it takes a 15 mile radius to collect enough people who look forward to getting together to make some kim-chee.

    When my family first moved to St. Louis in 1970, our old country Lutheran church engaged in two ancient traditions in the fall. The men got together and drank some beer and made sausage (which was not a fit place for dainty females to be). The women made apple butter. In 1970, few people drove 15 miles to this church. In 1850, almost everyone would have walked or ridden in a buggy on a country lane. Everyone needed sausage and everyone needed apple butter and so a community effort was an enjoyable social event and served a practical purpose.

    Perhaps, as things get tougher, it will be easier to get a neighborhood group together to make some kim-chee. Right now, even such a noble endeavor seems to require an automobile and well-maintained roads because of the low density of people wanting to do it. Here is where I part company with some doom-sayers. I think that participating in such a group now develops the skills to do it later. After a Collapse, those who know how will be sorely needed to teach the foolish grasshoppers who put nothing away for the winter. It’s not bad to spend some fossil fuels on group kim-chee making, it’s a good investment in the future. And the fact that some fossil fuels were spent doesn’t make it impossible to do it in the future without them.

    Don Stewart

    • Don,
      As always, I love your stories! I couldn’t agree with you more, and I will share some of my own similar activities.

      This week I invited a relatively new acquaintance over to help herself to tomatoes. My vines are producing more than I can use. She came in the morning, thinking that she would just stop by (even though we live almost 20 miles apart) and pick some tomatoes. When she arrived I was processing apples (and pears) for apple(pear) butter. While I was putting the cooked fruit through the hand cranked food mill we chatted about this and that. I told her she could go out to the garden and help herself but she said she didn’t have to be anywhere in particular and preferred to watch me work. She told me about her grandmother’s recipe for apple butter that contained ‘red hots’, something I decided I might like to try.

      It took me an hour or more to process the fruit but I ended up with about 20 quarts of it bubbling away on the stove. We each tested the batch and decided it needed more cinnamon and sugar. She commented on how wonderful my kitchen smelled and that it reminded her of her grandmothers. Then we went out to the garden and spent another hour and half picking tomatoes. She asked lots of questions about how I started my plants and what I did to get them so large. We also laughed and shared stories of our families, finding many things we have in common. It was a very pleasurable way of spending the morning.

      She was at my house for 3 1/2 hours and we both laughed about how time flew by. Always seems that way when women work together. I’m sure men enjoy something similar in working together. We picked about 2 bushels of tomatoes and she take home half a bushel, didn’t want any more. She sent me an email later and told me that she shared them with neighbors and friends, which made her and them very happy. She also said I had inspired her to start a garden of her own. If she does I’m sure we will be sharing lots more stories and ideas. We are looking forward to getting our families together again for dinner soon. It is unfortunate that we live so far apart.

      Yesterday I stopped by by neighbors house and dropped off a basket of veggies (sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, and basil) along with half a dozen fresh eggs. She is always so grateful for fresh food, and often waders through my garden helping herself. But bringing it over is a nice a way to visit. We talked about recipes for roasted peppers and salsa, her daughter who is 11 going on 20, and my teenage boys learning to drive. She offered them the use of their golf cart and jeep for practice, which was very kind. I told her we might be over for a swim in their pool later. Good to enjoy being with your neighbors!

      Yes I agree with you, Don, these are the kinds of connections that will help us in the future, and they make stronger neighborhoods and communities. I feel good about the skills I can share, and the things I learn from others. Spending time working together seems to make for such a lovely day!


  10. Don Stewart says:

    To All Those Who Think My Obsession With Food is a Sign of Insanity

    Come to our annual small farmer and gardener conference. More good stuff than anyone can possibly absorb in 2.5 days. Fabulous food. Relatively cheap. The parallel sessions mean I am sure to miss out on some wonderful talks and demonstrations.

    Don Stewart

    Click to access SACBrochure2013_v06.pdf

    • Don,
      Looks really interesting, but my husband will be traveling for business during that time and so I have to taxi kids to school and mind the fort. I though it interesting that Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance had a large advertisement in the brochure. Also the organic tobacco producer. Kind of shows what a large audience this kind of event attracts.

      • Don Stewart says:

        We usually have 1300 to 1400 and sometimes 1500 people when the event is in Durham, NC. The alternative years, when it is in South Carolina, we have around 900. We will have perhaps 100 vendors show up. To give you some sense of it…there will be about 15 people at the CFSA governance session on Sunday morning (half of whom will be board members), while many of the talks on the parallel tracks will draw standing room crowds. So it is a very ‘hands on’ crowd. The CFSA leadership always bemoans the fact that they can’t get people interested in the running of the organization.

        Don Stewart

        • Don,
          🙂 I think once people start making things by hand they quickly recognize that it’s labor not management that we need. Today’s over-priced CEO’s assume they are the most important by virtue of being in charge, and they think everyone else wants to be like them. Sad fact is that most administrators don’t produce much of value anymore. Goes back to the comment made by timl2k11…
          “The world will need a great leader on the way down…” I would qualify that to “a few” great leaders and lots more workers.

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