Reaching Limits to Growth: What Should our Response Be?

Oil limits seem to be pushing us toward a permanent downturn, including a crash in credit availability, loss of jobs, and even possible government collapse. In this process, we are likely to lose access to both fossil fuels and grid electricity. Supply chains will likely need to be very short, because of the lack of credit. This will lead to a need for the use of local materials.

The time-period is not entirely clear. Some countries, such as Greece and Syria, will be seeing these effects quite soon. Other countries may not see the full effects for perhaps ten or twenty years. What should our response be?

It seems to me that there are many different answers, depending on who we are and what our goals are. The various options are not mutually exclusive.

Option 1. Make the most of the time we have available.

If there are things that are important to you, do them now. If you have been meaning to reconnect ties with family members or old friends, now is the time to do it. If there are things you would like to accomplish that require today’s transportation and services, do them now. If you want to support local charities, now would be a good time to do it.

Appreciate what you have now. We have been privileged to live in a society where transportation is readily available and where most of us can live in homes that are comfortably heated and cooled. At the same time, we can still enjoy many of the benefits of nature—clear skies and plants and animals around us. Life expectancies in the past were generally 35 years or less. Most of us have already lived longer than we could have expected to live in the past.

Develop stronger relationships with family and community.  This is likely to be a difficult transition. It is likely to be helpful to have as many allies as possible in transition. It may be helpful to move closer to other family members. Another approach is to form or join community groups, such as a church group or a group interested in common goals. The ties a person can form are likely to be helpful regardless of what path lies ahead.

Option 2. Prepare at least a little for the future

Learn to bounce back from downturns.  When I was an editor at The Oil Drum, I was editor for a letter from a man who grew up in Kenya and returned there practically every year. He told that the people in Kenya were very happy, even though they had little material goods and mortality was high.  One thing he mentioned was that if things went wrong—the death of a child for example—people were able to mourn for a day, and then move on. They also rejoiced in things we take for granted, such as being able to obtain enough food for the current day.

Do what you can to improve your health. In the United States, we have been used to a combination of practices that lead to overweight: (1) much too large food portions, (2) much processed food including much sugar and (3) lack of exercise. If we can change our eating and exercise practices, it is likely that we can improve our health. If healthcare goes downhill, fixing our personal health somewhat protects us.

Learn what you can about first aid. Injuries are likely to be more of an issue, as we work outside more.

We will need some specialists as well. As long as we eat grains, we will need dentists. As long as babies are born, we will need helpers of some type–doctors or midwives.

If circumstances permit, plant a garden and fruit or nut trees. Eventually, all food production will need to be local. Getting from our current industrialized agricultural model to a model with local food production with little (if any) fossil fuel inputs is likely to be a difficult transition. One approach is to learn what local plants, animals, and insects are edible. Another is to attempt to grow your own. Doing the latter will generally require considerable learning about what plants grow in your area, approaches to building and maintaining soil fertility, methods of preventing erosion, and a variety of related topics.

Find alternative water supplies. We currently are dependent on a water supply chain that can be broken in a variety of ways—drought, loss of electricity, storm damage, or pollution problems. If the long-term water supply seems questionable, it may be helpful to move to another location, sooner rather than later. Alternatively, we can figure out how to bridge a gap in water supplies, such as through access to a creek or lake. For the very short-term, a water barrel of stored water might be helpful.

Figure out alternative cooking arrangements. We humans are dependent on cooking for purifying water, for allowing us to eat a wider variety of food, and for allowing us to obtain greater nutrition from the food we eat, without chewing literally half of the day. We now depend primarily on electricity or natural gas for cooking. Determine what alternative cooking arrangements can be made in your area, in the event current cooking arrangements become unavailable. An example might be an outdoor fireplace with locally gathered sticks for fuel, perhaps supplemented by a solar cooker with reflective sides.

Store up a little food to bridge a temporary supply interruption. We have troubles today with wind storms and snow storms. There are any number of other types of interruptions that could happen if businesses encounter credit problems that lead to supply chain interruptions. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

Option 3. Figure out what options might work for a few years for taking care of yourself and your family 

We have a lot of goods made with fossil fuels that probably will work for a while, but likely won’t be available for the long term. Examples include solar PV, batteries, power saws, electric pumps, electric fences, bicycles, light bulbs, and many other devices that we take for granted today. Of course, as soon as any part breaks and can’t be replaced, we are likely to be “up a creek, without a paddle.”

I expect that quite a few of the permaculture solutions and organic gardening solutions are temporary solutions. They work for now, but whether they will work for the long term is less clear. We are not going to be able to make and transport organic sprays for fruit for very long and irrigation systems will need to be very simple to be resilient. Plastic wears out and even metal tools will be hard to replace.

Purchasing land for agriculture can perhaps be a partial solution for some individuals, with sufficient skills and tools. Ideally, a person will want to be part of a larger group of people using a larger piece of land, rather than a smaller group, using a smaller piece of land, because of the problem that occurs if one worker gets sick or injured. It may be helpful to have multiple non-contiguous pieces of land, to help even out impacts of bad weather and pests. Ideally, the land should be large enough so that part of the land can remain fallow, or be used for feeding animals, and can be rotated with crop-producing land.

Security is likely be a problem, especially if a single home is distant from other homes. Ideally, a family will be part of a larger group in order to provide security.

Other issues include inability to pay taxes and the government taking over property. Because of the many issues involved, any solution is, at best, temporary. Unfortunately, that may be the best we can do. As parts of the system fail, a local group may be able to support fewer people. Then the group will need to deal with how to handle this situation–everyone starve, or kick out a few members from the group, or attack another group, with the hope of obtaining control of their resources.

Option 4. Work on trying to solve the long-term problem.

There are many studies of how pre-industrial societies operated without fossil fuels and without electricity. For example, Jared Diamond gives his view of how some very early societies functioned in The World Until Yesterday. The Merchant of Prato by Iris Origo documents the life of one particular 14th century merchant, based on old letters and other documents.

Through studies of how past societies behaved, it might be possible for today’s people to develop a civilization that could be operated using only renewable resources of the types used in pre-industrial times, such as wood, water wheels, and sail boats. Such groups would probably not be able to use much metal or concrete because of the problem with deforestation when wood is used for energy-intensive operations. (Today’s so-called “renewables,” such as hydro-electric, wind turbines and solar PV require fossil fuels for manufacture and upkeep, so likely will not be available for very long.)  Heating of homes will need to be very limited as well, to prevent deforestation.

As a practical matter, the groups best equipped to make such a change are ones that have recently been hunter-gatherers and still have some memory of how they operated in the past. Perhaps some former hunter-gatherers could give instruction to others in sort of a reverse Peace Corps operation.

We do know some approaches that have been used in the past. Dogs have been used to help with herding animals, for hunting, and for warmth. Animals of various types have been used for transportation and for plowing. The downside is that animals require the use of a lot of land to produce the food needed for them to eat.

Traditional societies have used the giving of gifts and the requirement of reciprocal gift giving to increase the strength of relationships and as a substitute for our money-based financial system. With such an approach, a person gains status not by what he has, but by what he gives away.

Storytelling has been a way of passing on knowledge and entertainment for generations. Songs, games, and simple musical instruments are also part of many traditions. These are approaches that can be used in the future as well.

Option 5. Take steps toward getting population in line with likely long-term energy availability.

The world is now overfilled with people and with the many animals that people raise for food or as pets. Without fossil fuels and network electricity, we probably will not be able to feed more than a fraction of the current population of humans and domesticated animals.

Some steps we might take:

Keep family sizes small. Encourage one-child families. When a family pet dies, don’t replace it (or replace it with a smaller animal).

Eat much less meat. This could be started even now.

Option 6. Rearrange personal finances.

Paper investments are, in general, not going to be worth much, regardless of how we rearrange them, if resource availability drops greatly. Ultimately, paper investments allow us to buy goods available in the marketplace. But if there isn’t much to buy in the marketplace, they are likely to be much less helpful than we assume. Precious metals have the same difficulty–they can’t buy what is not available.

Purchasing land is theoretically better, but even land can be taken away from us by taxes or by appropriation. There is also a possibility that we may need to move, if conditions change, regardless of what property ownership conditions seem to be.

We need to learn to take each day as it comes. If we find that our bank accounts aren’t there, or that only a small fraction of the money can be withdrawn, or that the money is in the bank doesn’t buy much of anything, we need somehow to figure out a way around the situation. Very likely everyone else will be in the same boat. This is a major reason for working on substitute access to food and water supplies.

Option 7. Put more emphasis on relationships. 

Studies show that relationships are what bring happiness—not the accumulation of goods. Starting to work now on developing additional strong relationships would seem to be a worthwhile goal. In traditional societies, extended family relationships were very important.

Religions can teach us how we treat our neighbors and thus about relationships. A version of the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have then do unto you) is found in several major religions. Many readers of this blog have given up on religions as hopelessly out of date, instead choosing such “wisdom” as, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” In fact, this latter wisdom is clearly nonsense. We can expect our fossil-fuel based “toys” to lose their usefulness before our very eyes in the not too distant future. Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen are not gods, even if we are told that they are all-powerful. 

Another aspect of keeping good relationships is finding ways to mend broken relationships. One such approach is forgiveness. Another is through reconciliation procedures aimed at returning broken relationships to wholeness. Such procedures are common in small societies, according to Diamond (2012).

Option 8. Find ways to deal with the stresses of a likely downturn ahead.

As much as we would like to take one day at a time, oftentimes it is easy to worry, even though this does no good.

Even though we think we know that outcome of our current difficulties, we really do not. The universe has many physical laws. Ultimately, the source of all of these physical laws is not clear–is there a Supreme Being behind them? The story of natural selection is in many ways a miracle. The story of human existence represents more miracles—learning to control fire; learning to control our environment through agriculture; learning to modify our environment further through the use of fossil fuels. In my own personal life, I see a pattern of circumstances working together in ways I could never have expected. 

We are not the first to go through hard times. Because of my background, I find myself comforted by many Biblical passages. I am sure other religions have other passages that are also helpful.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for though art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. .  . Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. . . (Psalm 23: 4, 6)

. . . in all things God works for the good of those who love him . . . (Romans 8:28)

For me personally, more things have worked together for good than I would ever have dreamed possible. I will not rule out the possibility of this happening again in the future, regardless of what the external circumstances may look like.

Option 9. For those who are concerned about Climate Change

In my view, the changes we are encountering will bring a quick end to the use of fossil fuels. Thus, the concern that future fossil fuel use will cause rapid climate change is over-blown. If individuals would like to personally reduce their own fossil fuel use, I would suggest the following:

  • Stop eating meat now, especially that raised in our current industrial system.
  • Get rid of pets that are not providing support functions, such as hunting for food.
  • Spend less of your wages. With more of the money left in the bank or in paper investments, this money will lose value and thus will reduce spending on fossil fuel-based goods and services. (While theoretically this money could be lent out and reinvested, lack of credit availability will put an end to this practice.)
  • Use a bicycle for transport instead of a car, when possible. Or walk.
  • Purchase a more fuel efficient car, if you need to replace a current vehicle.
  • Turn down the heat in your home or apartment. Don’t use air conditioning.

I would suggest quitting your job as well, but if you quit your job, the job is likely to go to someone else, resulting in the same fossil fuel use for someone else.  Even stopping a business you own will not necessarily work, if another business will expand and take its place. If the business that ramps up is in a part of the world that uses coal as its primary fuel, stopping your local business may lead to an increase in world carbon dioxide emissions.

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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503 Responses to Reaching Limits to Growth: What Should our Response Be?

  1. Interguru says:

    If you want something else to worry about: In 1859 a massive solar storm, called the Carrington Event , hit the Earth. It induced high currents across telegraph lines, disrupting communications and actually set some telegraph receivers on fire. Should such a storm hit today it might wipe out our electric grid for months or years. DHS has a report on this. Today this would result in not only no oil but much worse.

  2. Hotel California says:

    Very insightful blog and opinions & comments, even if we don’t all agree. Better than putting your head in the sand and thinking that oil will last forever. My immediate plans are to finish restoring my 1968 GTO and drive it as much as possible over the next few years. My wife and I are trying to figure out where we should move to so that our children and grandchildren will have a decent chance at nice lives. Our research is pointing us to East TX, GA, FL, Nor CAL or Southern OR. I still believe that solar energy will be the dominant energy source for houses after 2040. Yes, you need solar panels and battery for electricity or rubber hoses to heat water on your roof and store it for cooking & showers. I believe these will be plentiful thru oil extraction and recycling efforts thru 2099 or beyond. At some point refining what little oil is left to gasoline will be impractical and we’ll just turn remaining oil into plastics and rubber. And just think of how much fun it will be to ride the train, pedal that bicycle, go to church on Sunday and swap canned fruits & veggies with your friends and family again.

    • Interguru says:

      This reminds me of a probably apocryphal story of an european gentleman in the 30’s who saw the disaster of World War II coming, sold his house and business, and moved his family to the most isolated place on Earth he could find, an island called Guadalcanal.

      IMHO the only for-sure thing we can do is have a good social network.

  3. edpell says:

    Current “New Scientist” has an article on burning underground coal to produce methane. There is 15,000 gigtons of coal that can be used in this manner. There are several Australian companies doing this at several locations around the planet. It borrows technology from frack gas drilling.

  4. robdelate: I don’t think we know what forms that religion will take in the future. My guess is that it will be a lot like permaculture. Some kind of system of thought and action that makes people feel more secure about themselves and the future. Gods can be more or less secular, they don’t have to be ridiculously perfect like the god of Christian theology. It could be Mother Nature, Gaiia, or maybe the spirit of Bill Mollison. We got here by group selection, then cultural selection. Religion happens to be one of the strongest drivers of group and cultural selection. It’s why we’re here. Secularism has only been around since the beginnings of Capitalism and the age of Fossil Fuels. We can afford to be secular now, but once civilization collapses, most of us will be so scared that we will run right into the arms of religion.

    • Paul says:

      Sun-god worship makes a lot of sense to me — the sun brings warmth, food, security from the night — whereas the worship of pop gods has brought nothing but destruction to the world.

    • robdelaet says:

      Hi Charles, could well be that future generations that survived the collapse will be zealously religious of some sort. It just won’t work now for the ones who are not religious.

  5. Daddio7 says:

    I live in rural north Florida. There is a 40 acre potato field next to my house with the plants just emerging. The owner has a large barn and greenhouse two hundred yards from my house. The two nearest neighbors are Mormons. They all have young children, this old farmer (the farm used to be mine) will be a big help helping secure the area and work the greenhouse. We are all well armed.

    With the Balkan and Alaskan oil fields along with western coal we will have sufficient energy for our nation if it is distributed correctly. I’m hoping those two oceans will protect us from the rest of the world.

    Short term may be the worst. My wife worked at a Dollar discount store. One day the EBT system for the state was down all day. By the afternoon there were almost food riots in the parking lot. Imagine if the credit card machines were down for a week, or month! The government would have to declare martial law to protect food shipments. I have a month of staple food items stored and am starting my summer garden. I’m hoping order can be restored in amount of time. Many of my acquaintances are millionaire farmers. Their co-op meetings are held two miles from my house. Their grandfathers and great grandpas settled this area 100 years ago. They’re sure to make a plan.

    • Paul says:

      I hate to throw cold water on the plan but I don’t think the threat comes from outside the US rather the problem is with the 300M+ many of whom own copious numbers of guns and ammo.

      When the SHTF most people in the US will be starving — because most food in the US is produced using pesticides and fertilizers made from oil and gas. When they stop flowing — and as we can see from this article — that day is not far off — the massive industrial farms will cease to produce any food because the soil will be dead without these inputs.

      Once the killer zombies have looted Walmart (within hours) they will then set their sites on all but the most remote places that are producing food organically.

      Given the choice, the US is perhaps the last place I would want to be when the SHTF — imagine this with guns:

      • Yes, gun ownership is a problem. Makes it harder for someone to think he can set up a place in the country, with no interference. But violence has been an issue for a long time, with our without guns.

      • Daddio7 says:

        Our supply system is akin to a series of conveyer belts. A shock to our credit system could stop them but the materials will still be there. There is enough food and fertilizer for a couple of years if it protected, that is what the guns are for. Until the militias get handle on things the zombie hoard will pour out of the cities looking for food. Bad times for sure but oil and coal will not disappear over night. I hope our government has plans for long term shortages and the collapse of our privileged lifestyle but I’m prepared for the worst.

        • sheilach2 says:

          They have “plans” alright but their not for our benefit but for them to maintain control.

          Prison camps, deadly drones, military weapons used on civilians. The people who control the governments are ruthless & greedy & will do what ever it takes to control our lives & when that fails, they will kill us without regret as we are mere worthless eaters or cannon fodder and they are working to replace the cannon fodder with robots & killer drones.

          Don’t for one moment believe that the government is here to help us, they know there is no longer the resources to keep capitalism “working”, look at how the 5% now have 90% of the “wealth”, we are expendable, they will protect those they believe are useful to their ambitions.

          Real wealth won’t be in “money” but in fertile, watered LAND & organic non GMO seeds.

          Only when their oil runs out & their war machines stand idle can we have a chance against them, until then, act like a harmless “sheeple”. Baaaaa.

          • Paul says:


            Everyone knows about the military-industrial complex, which, in his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned had the potential to “endanger our liberties or democratic process” but have you heard of the “Deep State?” Mike Lofgren, a former GOP congressional staff member with the powerful House and Senate Budget Committees, joins Bill to talk about what he calls the Deep State, a hybrid of corporate America and the national security state, which is “out of control” and “unconstrained.”


  6. Pingback: Granice wzrostu: Jak mamy zareagować? | Exignorant's Blog

  7. Susan Norris says:

    Hi, Gail,

    Everything you mention in this post is what the “transition towns” movement is working on: relocalizing, reskilling, reconnecting with neighbors, etc. Have you heard of transition towns? It was started in the UK (and is apparently working very well there) but is having trouble getting folks interested here in the States (I know, I tried where I live).


  8. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    A common conclusion from discussions on this website is that everything is going to be horrible. I participated in a Webinar this evening that I believe everyone should pay attention to. It is a discussion between Ruth Buczynski, a psychologist in Connecticut and Kelly McGonigle, a PhD researcher at Stanford. The general subject was stressful situations and how an individual perceives them and reacts to them. Consider the following as bullet points written by an amateur, and most certainly not accurate in detail, but perhaps indicative of broad themes.

    Our brain changes itself much like a muscle. If we want to strengthen a muscle, we must strain it beyond its comfort zone. If we want our brain to handle stress better, we must stress it beyond its comfort zone.

    Stress makes us more social. We make more oxytocin, which is associated with loving and caring. The oxytocin effect is particularly strong in people who are not usually very responsive to oxytocin. So a person who is usually a loner, but who finds themselves in a stressful situation, and reaches out to others, shows the greatest increased response to oxytocin. This is in contrast to the assumption that the usual response is ‘fight or flight’. (It is also consistent with what Janine Benyus said at the Omega Institute seminar last fall.) Affiliation is a core response to stress.

    Cueing the affiliation response to stress makes you healthier. Oxytocin is cardio protective and anti-inflammatory. IF you choose the sociability response, rather than fight or flight. The affiliation response also changes our epigenetics, affecting the neuroplastic parts of the brain.

    Caring for others buffers us from stress. We can choose to train ourselves in compassion. Training in compassion, in Kelly’s lab, results in decreased worries, increased happiness, with no change in stress. (My comment: In short, the stress is real and recognized as such, but the emotional response changes.)

    A lab in Germany trains people off the street in about 6 hours.

    Increased activity in the reward networks in the brain. We no longer collapse in the face of suffering. The training fundamentally alters our tendency to avoid suffering or unpleasantness. The training can be seen as a chain of meditation techniques:
    1. Mindfulness meditation…what is happening right now?
    2. Metta meditation…good wishes for everyone
    3. Compassion…recognizing that bad things are happening and doing what we can
    (Sharon Salzburg led a compassion workshop at Duke Hospital a couple of years ago.)

    Kelly is currently involved in laboratory tests with patients with chronic pain and with war veterans with PTSD. Anecdotally, she is getting very good results.

    Pain is a complex mind/body experience. The mind interpretation is more important than the raw sensation.

    Suffering is particularly dependent on the Interior Cingulated Cortex. Patients in frmi machines can pretty quickly learn neurofeedback techniques to control pain. The machines, of course, are expensive. But it seems that ordinary meditation may have a very similar effect on the Interior Cingulated Cortex. So there are available methods for teaching your brain to regulate your brain.

    Finally, Kelly talked about willpower. Decades of studies have convinced most researchers that willpower is a finite resource. If we are using our willpower to resist sugary desserts, we have less to spend on exercising or resisting credit card debt. However, it turns out that the mindset controls the effect of the use of willpower. If we perceive that willpower is limited, it is limited and we don’t have enough to go around. If we perceive that will power is like a muscle, and the more we use it, the more powerful it becomes, then the more we have available.

    Final Advice: Embrace our brain’s bias for avoidance, and move away from avoidance strategies.

    My Coda: I hypothesize that people involved in Transition Towns and solar power and permaculture and ecovillages and such endeavors who are able to look clearly at the challenges, but remain focused on what they can do to ameliorate the situation, in association with others, will be far better off than those who delude themselves, or those who give up because everything is hopeless, or those who try to grab what they can for themselves while the grabbing is good.

    Don Stewart

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I expect that some religious people may also do better, if they do not have their focus on “more stuff” and “looking out for number one”.

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