Monday, November 01, 2010

Peak Oil is History

[Japanese translation (pdf) (Cached)]
[In italiano. Grazie, Paolo!]
[En français. Merci, Tancrède!]
The marketing blurb on the back cover of the first edition of my first book, Reinventing Collapse, described me as "a leading Peak Oil theorist." When I first saw it, my jaw dropped—and remained hanging. You see, if you run through a list of bona fide leading Peak Oil theorists—your Hubberts, your Campbells, Laherrères, Heinbergs, Simmonses and a few others worth mentioning, you will not find a single Orlov among them. In vain would you search the annals and conference proceedings of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil for any trace of your humble author. But now that this howler is in print and circulated in so many copies, I suppose I have no choice but to try to live up to the expectation it set.

My disqualifications aside, now does seem to be an auspicious moment to hold forth with a new piece of Peak Oil theory, because this is the year when, for the first time, just about everyone is ready to admit that Peak Oil is real, in essence, though some are not quite ready to call it by that name. Just five years ago everyone from government officials to oil company executives treated Peak Oil theory as the work of a lunatic fringe, but now that conventional world oil production peaked in 2005, and all liquids world production peaked in 2008, everyone is ready to concede that there are serious problems with growing the global oil supply. And although some people still feel skittish about using the term Peak Oil (and a few experts still insist that the peak must be referred to as "an undulating plateau," which, if anything, is a graceful turn of phrase) the differences of opinion now largely stem from a refusal to accept the terminology of Peak Oil rather than the substance of peaking global oil production. This is, of course, quite understandable: it is awkward to suddenly jump from shouting "Peak Oil is bunk!" to shouting "Peak Oil is history!" in a single bound. Such acrobatics are only safe if you happen to be a politician or an economist.

Now that the matter has been largely settled, I feel that the time is ripe for me to weigh in on the subject and declare, unequivocally, that Peak Oil is indeed bunk. Not the part about global oil production reaching a peak sometime right around now then declining inexorably: that part seems true enough. Nor the part about oil production in any given province becoming constrained by geology and technology once the peak is reached: that part, under properly designed experimental conditions, seems predictive as well. In fact, the depletion model has been confirmed beautifully by the example of the continental United States minus Alaska since 1970. But the idea that this same depletion model can be applied to the planet as a whole, is, I feel, something that must be rejected as utterly and completely bogus. To see what I mean, look at a typical Peak Oil chart (Fig. 1) that shows global oil production climbing up to a peak and then declining.


Observe that the upward slope has a lot of interesting structure to it. There are world wars, depressions, imperial collapses, oil embargoes, discoveries of giant oil fields, not to mention the ugly boom and bust cycles that are the bane of capitalist economies (whereas socialist ones have sometimes been able to grow, stagnate and eventually collapse far more gracefully). It is a rugged slope, with cliffs and crevasses, craggy outcrops and steep inclines. Now look at the estimated downward slope: is it not shockingly smooth? Its geologic origin must be completely different from that of the upward slope. It appears to be made up of a single giant moraine, piled to the angle of repose near the top, with some spreading at the base, no doubt due to erosion, with a gradual transition into what appears to be a gently sloping alluvial plain no doubt composed of silt from the runoff, which is then followed by a vast perfectly flat area, which might have been the bottom of an ancient sea. If climbing up to the peak must have required mountaineering techniques, the downward slope looks like it could be negotiated in bathroom slippers. One could do cartwheels all the way down, and be sure of not hitting anything sharp before gently rolling to a stop sometime around 2100. Mathematically, the upward slope would have to be characterized by some high-order polynomial, whereas the downward slope is just e-t with a little bit of statistical noise. This, you must agree, is extremely suspicious: a natural phenomenon of great complexity that, just when it is forced to stop growing, turns around and becomes as simple as a pile of dirt. The past is rough and rocky, but the future is as smooth as a baby's bottom? Where else have we observed this sort of spontaneous and sudden simplification of a complex, dynamic process? Physical death is sometimes preceded by slow decay, but sooner or later most living things go from living to dead in an abrupt transition. They don't shrivel continuously for decades on end, eventually becoming too small to be observable. The model on which the estimate of future oil production is based must be bogus. And so I like to call this generic and widely accepted Peak Oil case the Rosy Scenario. It's the one in which industrial civilization, instead of keeling over promptly, joins an imaginary retirement community and spends its golden years tethered to a phantom oxygen tank and a phantom colostomy bag.

The really odd thing is that the Rosy Scenario can be quite accurate, under ideal circumstances, when applied to individual countries and oil-producing regions. For instance, suppose one of the world's largest oil producers, which started out with more oil than Saudi Arabia, reaches Peak Oil in, say, 1970, but then promptly goes off the gold standard, foists its paper currency on the rest of the world by backing it up with the threat of force including the possibility of a nuclear first strike, eventually comes to import over 60% of its petroleum, much of it on credit, and, a few decades later, goes bankrupt. Then, over the intervening decades, its domestic oil production would indeed exhibit this wonderfully gentle geologically and technologically constrained curve—up to the point of national bankruptcy.


Past the point of national bankruptcy circumstances are bound to become decidedly non-ideal, but the implications of this remain unclear. Will that hapless country still be able continue borrowing money internationally in order to import enough oil to keep its economy functioning, and, if so, under what terms, and for how much longer? It would be nice to know how this story ends ahead of time, but unfortunately all we can do is wait and see.

But we do have another example (Fig. 3), which may offer some insights into what we mean when we say that circumstances will be “non-ideal.” The country that is currently the world's largest oil producer reached Peak Oil around 1987. Its sclerotic, geriatric, ideologically hidebound, systemically corrupt leadership was unable to grasp the importance of this fact, and just three years later the country was bankrupt and, shortly thereafter, it dissolved politically. In this case, plummeting oil production became the country's leading economic indicator: it plummeted, then the GDP plummeted, then coal and natural gas production plummeted, and a decade later the economy was down 40%. Behind these numbers was a precipitous drop in life expectancy and a pervasive atmosphere of despair in which many lives were either lost or ruined.


But as long as no messy internal or external political or economic factors interfere with the natural depletion curve, the après-Peak predictions of Peak Oil theory do seem to hold. (When I say “ideal circumstances,” I suppose that I must mean circumstances that are ideal from the point of view of sentient though irrational hydrocarbon molecules, whose desire is to be pumped out of the ground and burned up as quickly and efficiently as possible, because it is unclear who else ultimately benefits, but let's not quibble.) Since the problem of not having enough oil to go around is known to cause all sorts of nasty political and economic problems, and since this is exactly the problem we should expect to encounter soon after the world reaches Peak Oil, the base assumption on which the predictions of Peak Oil theory for global oil production rest is not realistic. The specialists who are in a position to predict Peak Oil are not able to gauge its economic and political effects, and so all they can do is give us the Rosy Scenario as an ultimate upper bound. However, this caveat is not spelled out as clearly as it should be. The result is that we might as well be working with a theory which predicts that, once global Peak Oil is reached, delicious chocolate petits fours will spontaneously bake themselves into existence and fly into our mouths on dainty gossamer wings of marzipan.

The Peak Oil theory-based explanation is that while the upward slope is economically constrained, the downward slope is only constrained by the geology of depleting oil reservoirs and by oil extraction technology, which is subject to thermodynamic limits and cannot improve forever without encountering diminishing, then negative, returns. While the oil supply is growing, oil demand fluctuates, resulting in numerous ups and downs in production superimposed on the overall upward trend as production tries to match demand. But on the downward side, demand permanently exceeds supply, and so every barrel of oil that can be produced at each instant will be produced.

When extrapolating the aftermath of local oil production declines to global Peak Oil, the unstated assumption is that the global economy will continue to function with uncanny smoothness at the level of demand that can be met, while unmet demand will be cleanly washed off into the gutter by a strong, steady stream of economic and political nonsense. This will all sort itself out spontaneously with rational market participants responding to price signals and deciding at each instant whether they should:

A. continue consuming oil in the manner to which they have become accustomed, or

B. quietly wander off and die without calling attention to themselves or making a fuss.

Where else have we seen such flawless organization, in situations where a key commodity—like, say, food, or drinking water—becomes critically scarce? Anywhere? Anywhere at all?

And I suppose a further unstated assumption is that a shrinking economy (what with all this unmet demand and resulting attrition among market participants) can function much as a growing one does, without suffering a financial collapse. Special financial instruments called credit-default swaps can be used as a hedge against increased counterparty risk from your counterparties dying in droves from self-inflicted wounds, although after a while these instruments would become a bit too expensive. But I don't suppose that much of anything can be done about the economic growth projections baked into every single financial plan at every level. Once these turn out to be unfounded, then all the debt pyramids will come tumbling down. And since a fiat currency (such as the US Dollar) is composed of debt—credit advanced based on a promise of future growth—it is unclear how and with what the remaining oil will continue to be purchased. The end of growth is an imponderable; start talking about it, and everyone suddenly decides that it's lunchtime and starts ordering drinks. At least the French have a proper word for it: décroissance (literally, “de-growth”); here in the anglophone world all we can do is gibber and mumble about “double-dips.” Perhaps Geithner and Bernanke can come up with a dance number to illustrate.

Let us look at it another way. As I mentioned, Peak Oil theory has been quite good at predicting the depletion profile of certain stable and prosperous countries and provinces. But these predictions become meaningless when extrapolated to the world as a whole, for one very obvious reason: the world cannot import oil. Let me say it again, this time in title-case, bolded and centered, to emphasize the significance of this statement:

Planet Earth Can't Import Oil

When faced with insufficient domestic oil production, an industrialized country has but two choices:

1. Import oil

2. Collapse

But when faced with insufficient global oil production, an industrialized planet has just one choice: Choice Number 2.

Some might argue that there is a third choice: start using less oil right away. However, in practice this turns out to be equivalent to Choice Number 2. Using less oil involves making some radical, often technologically challenging, politically unpopular, and therefore expensive and time-consuming changes. These may be as technologically advanced (and unrealistic) as replacing the current motor vehicle fleet with electric battery-powered vehicles and a large number of nuclear power plants to recharge their batteries, or as simple (and quite realistic) as moving to a place that is within walking or bicycling distance from your work, growing most of your own food in a kitchen garden and a chicken coop, and so on. But whatever these steps are, they all require a certain amount of preparation and expense, and a time of crisis (such as when oil supplies suddenly run short) is a notoriously difficult time to launch into long-range planning activities. By the time the crisis arrives, either a country has already prepared as much as it could or wanted to (thereby delaying the onset of collapse) or it has not, bringing the crisis on sooner, and making it more severe. The oft-cited Hirsch Report states that it would take twenty years to prepare for Peak Oil in order to avoid a severe and prolonged shortage of transportation fuels, and so, given that the peak was back in 2005, we now have minus twenty-five years left to lollygag before we have to start preparing. According to Hirsch et al., we have failed to prepare already.

Some might also wonder why a shortage of oil should automatically trigger a collapse. It turns out that, in an industrialized economy, a drop in oil consumption precipitates a proportional drop in overall economic activity. Oil is the feedstock used to make the vast majority of transportation fuels—which are used to move products and deliver services throughout the economy. In the US in particular, there is a very strong correlation between GDP and motor vehicle miles traveled. Thus, the US economy can be said to run on oil, in a rather direct and immediate way: less oil implies a smaller economy. At what point does the economy shrink so much that it can no longer meet its own maintenance requirements? In order to continue functioning, all sorts of infrastructure, plant and equipment must be maintained and replaced in a timely manner, or it stops functioning. Once that point is reached, economic activity becomes constrained not just by the availability of transportation fuels, but also by the availability of serviceable equipment. At some point the economy shrinks so much as to invalidate the financial assumptions on which it is based, making it impossible to continue importing oil on credit. Once that point is reached, the amount of transportation fuels available is no longer limited just by the availability of oil, but also constrained by the inability to finance oil imports.

The initial shortage of transportation fuels need not be large in order to trigger this entire cascade of events, because even a small shortage triggers a number of economically destructive feedback loops. A lot of fuel is wasted by idling in line at the few gas stations that remain open. More fuel is wasted by topping off—keeping the tank as full as possible, not knowing when and where you will be able to fill it again. Even more fuel disappears from the market because people are hoarding it in jerrycans and improvised containers. As the shortages drag on and spread, fuel is hoarded, and a black market for it develops: fuel diverted from official delivery channels and siphoned from gas tanks becomes available on the black market at inflated prices. And so the effect of even a minor initial shortage can easily snowball into an economic disruption sufficient to push the economy over physical and financial thresholds and toward collapse.

If at this point you are starting to feel despondent, then—I am sorry to have to say this, but you must be a lightweight, because there is more—lots more to consider. Peak Oil's Rosy Scenario may look pretty, but even a rose has its thorns. And there are a number of other issues which need to be considered and taken into account within a single, integrated view.

First, the rosy post-Peak Oil global production profile is based on reserve numbers which have been overstated. Much of the remaining oil is in the Middle East, in OPEC countries, and these countries overstated their reserves by various large amounts during OPEC's “quota wars” back in the 1980s. While other OPEC members sheepishly cooked up bogus numbers that looked vaguely real, Saddam Hussein, who was always a bit of a showboat, rounded up Iraq's reserve numbers up to a nice round number: 100 billion barrels. And so OPEC reserves turn out to have been inflated by some large amount—about a third at a minimum. Nor is OPEC unique in overstating their reserve numbers. Energy companies in the US play much the same game in order to please Wall Street. Set your bathroom slippers aside; to negotiate Peak Oil's downward slope you will need good mountaineering equipment.

Second, there is a phenomenon called Export Land Effect: oil-exporting countries, when their production starts to falter, have a strong tendency to cut exports before cutting into domestic consumption. To be sure, there are some countries that have surrendered their resource sovereignty to international energy companies and have lost control over their export policies. There are also some despotic regimes that starve their domestic consumers but to continue to earn the export revenue needed to prop up the regime. But most countries will only export their surplus production. This means that it will become impossible to buy oil internationally long before all the wells run dry, leaving oil importing countries out in the cold. Thus, if you live in an oil-importing country and thought you could negotiate the downward slope of Peak Oil in your hiking boots, put them aside. You will need a parachute.

Third, although total quantities of oil produced throughout the world were increasing up until 2005, the amounts of oil-based products (gasoline, diesel, etc.) delivered to their points of use peaked years earlier, in terms of usable energy derived. This was because more and more energy has been required to get a barrel of oil out of the ground and to refine it. Supplies of available crude oil have tended to become harder to extract, heavier, and more sulfur laden, plus the demand for more gasoline (as opposed to distillates or bunker fuels) with less lead for boosting octane add up to more energy being wasted. Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) went from 100:1 at the dawn of the oil age, when some strong-backed lads could dig you an oil well using picks and shovels, to an average of 10:1, now that oil production requires deepwater platforms (that sometimes blow up and poison entire ecosystems), horizontal drilling and fracturing technology, secondary and tertiary recovery using water and nitrogen injection, oil/water separation plants, and all sorts of other technical complexities which consume more and more of the energy they produce. As EROEI decreases from 10:1 toward 1:1, the oil industry comes to resemble an obese but famished wet-nurse ravenously sucking her own breast at the crib of a starving infant. At some point it will no longer be economically possible to deliver diesel or gasoline to a gas station. When that point comes is not certain, but there are some indications that 3:1 is the minimum EROEI that the oil industry requires in order to sustain itself. The effect of decreasing EROEI is to make the gentle slope of the Rosy Scenario much steeper. The slope no longer looks like a mound of pebbles—more like lava flowing into the sea and solidifying in a cloud of steam. There may be plenty of energy left, but much of it is going to go by the wayside, and you might not be able to get close enough to it to roast your marshmallows.

Fourth, we must consider the fact that our modern global oil industry is highly integrated. If you need a certain specialty part for your drilling operation, chances are it can be sourced from just one or two global companies. Chances are this company has some very important, highly technical operations in a country that just happens to be an oil importer. The significance of this becomes clear when one considers what happens to that company's operations once Export Land Effect becomes felt. Suppose you are a national oil company in an oil-rich nation that still has enough oil left for domestic consumption, although it was recently forced to fire all of its international customers. Your oil fields are huge but mature, and you can only keep them in production by continuously drilling new horizontal wells just above the ever-rising water cut and maintaining well pressure by injecting seawater underneath. If you stop or even pause this activity, then your oil, at the wellhead, will quickly change in composition from slightly watery oil to slightly oily water, which you might as well just pump back underground. And now it turns out that the equipment you need to keep drilling horizontal wells comes from one of these unlucky countries that used to import your oil but now cannot, and the technicians who used to build your equipment have given up trying to find enough black-market gasoline to drive to work and are busy digging up their suburban backyards to grow potatoes. A short while later your drilling operations run out of spare parts, your oil production crashes, and most of your remaining reserves are left underground, contributing to an increasingly important reserve category: never-to-be-produced reserves.

When these four factors are considered together, it becomes difficult to imagine that global oil production could gently waft down from lofty heights in a graceful smooth and continuous curve spanning decades. Rather, the picture that presents itself is one of stepwise declines happening in more and more places, and eventually encompassing the entire planet. Whoever you are, and wherever you are, you are likely to experience this as a three-stage process:

Stage 1: You have your current level access to transportation fuels and services

Stage 2: You have severely limited access to transportation fuels and services

Stage 3: You have no access to transportation fuels and severely restricted transportation options

How long Stage 2 will last will vary from one place to another. Some places may go directly to Stage 3: gasoline tankers stop coming to your town, all the local gas stations close, and that is that. In other places, a thriving black market may give you some access to gasoline for a few years longer, at prices that will allow some uses, such as running an electrical generator at an emergency center. But your ability to successfully cope with Stage 2, and to survive Stage 3, will be determined largely by the changes and preparations you are able to make during Stage 1.

It should be expected that the vast majority of people will have done nothing to prepare, remaining quite unaware of the fact that this is something they should have been doing. Quite a few people can be expected to take a few small steps in a sensible direction, such as installing a wood stove, or insulating their home, or in a seemingly sensible but ultimately unhelpful direction, such as wasting their money on a new hybrid car or wasting their energies on trying to form a new political party or to lobby one of the existing ones. Some will buy a homestead, equip it for life off the grid, start growing all their own food (perhaps transporting their perishable surplus to a nearby farmer's market by cargo bicycle or by boat), and home-school their children, putting an emphasis on the classics and on agriculture, animal husbandry and other perennially useful knowledge. Some will flee to a place where transportation fuels are scarce already, and where a moped is considered a labor-saving device—for your donkey or camel.

Unfortunately, it is hard to foresee which changes and adaptations will succeed and which will fail, because so much depends on the circumstances, which are sure to be unpredictable and vary from place to place, and on the person or persons involved: the uncertainty is just too great. But there is one thing of which we can be quite sure: that Peak Oil's Rosy Scenario, which projects a long and gradual global oil production decline, is bunk. Knowing this fact should impart a sense of urgency. Whether we use that sense of urgency foolishly or wisely is up to us, and our success may be a matter of luck, but having a sense of urgency is not at all bad. If we wish to prepare, we most likely have a few months, we may have a few years, but we certainly do not have a few decades. Let those who would have you believe otherwise first consider the issues I have raised in this article.


pheikki said...

Dmitry, I have been finding that even as we negotiate an increasing number of increasingly unpleasant bumps, people resist living with that sense of urgency. Even many people aware of the issues want to keep working on finding just the right process to engage the community, at the expense of growing food and making sure that they themselves are prepared.
Thanks for the excellent article.

Sixbears said...

Always enjoy Mr. Orlov's entertaining writing about an unfolding disaster. The whole thing is going down and we might as well enjoy the show.

Just as "We fight the war with the army we've got." We are going down the backside of Hubbard's peak with the preparations we have in place -if we have any at all.

As for me, I said the heck with it and turned most of my Federal Reserve Notes into a small sailboat.

DeVaul said...

Given the sense of urgency, which even the bloated military now understands, the amount of time and energy spent on lobbying and politicking, not to mention the enormous sums of money spent on advertising, seems to indicate that our species is no longer capable of grasping even basic concepts of reality.

At this point in time, the average deer in the forest has a greater chance of long-term survival than your average human with an oversized brain and a PhD in biology.

I find that very strange and ironic since it was our large brains that got us here today. Most animals can sense urgency and danger almost immediately. We sense almost nothing at all. What went wrong with our large brains?

Harry J. Lerwill said...

I believe demand destruction will make the slope down much more bumpy than the models indicate. The biggest impact will be unemployment; since consumers will give up almost everything else before gas purchase. While commuting to work is a requirement, gas is an essential for those with a job. Demand destruction equals income destruction. Anything else and we bounce off the ceiling of stagnant production.

I believe exporting countries will still be selling the technology to recover the harder reserves, but that technology may have a price in the form of military ‘assistance.’

I. M. Nobody said...

DeVaul said...

What went wrong with our large brains?

Short answer, they got too large. When the brains got big enough to work out the idea of civilization, we were already doomed.

In the late 1800's a man named Edward Carpenter lead the first chapter of his book Civilization Cause and Cure with this paragraph.

The friendly and flowing savage, who is he? Is he waiting for civilisation, or is he past it, and mastering it? –Whitman

We find ourselves today in the midst of a somewhat peculiar state of society, which we call Civilisation, but which even to the most optimistic among us does not seem altogether desirable. Some of us, indeed, are inclined to think that it is a kind of disease which the various races of man have to pass through-as children pass through measles or whooping cough; but if it is a disease, there is this serious consideration to be made, that while History tells us of many nations that have been attacked by it, of many that have succumbed to it, and of some that are still in the throes of it, we know of no single case in which a nation has fairly recovered from and passed through it to a more normal and healthy condition. In other words the development of human society has never yet (that we know of) passed beyond a certain definite and apparently final stage in the process we call Civilisation; at that stage it has always succumbed or been arrested.

I don't see how anyone can argue that we are not in a very unhealthy state. The prognosis is decidedly very poor and probably terminal.

Blockhill (NZ) said...

Fantastic article, successfully hilarious while delivering sober and serious information.

Personally I am in the group that is attempting to distance myself from the interdependent, energy intensive activities of modern life and convert my rural situation into a somewhat self contained and self supporting micro farm. Most recent project was installation of low tech solar water heating system.

However I will continue to milk the high technology industrial situation by working from home via a cellular internet link. The timing seems to be the biggest unknown and the wolf cries of previous generations often leave me wondering if my actions are an 'insurance policy' that will never be claimed... better safe than sorry.

I can imagine the situation in New Zealand going directly from stage 1 to 3 as we lose the purchasing power required to convince tanker loads of crude to visit our remote shores.

Keep up the good work :)

Irrational Athiest said...

People are procrastinators. They will only do something when suddenly the grocery stores are empty. Then it will be civil unrest. I lived with enough evacuations from hurricanes in thh south where I have an inkling of how it's going to go down. I can only hope that my friends and family can pull through.

Martin said...

Well to be fail DeVaul, most animals when presented with the material riches we have would gorge and reproduce themselves to overshoot just as we do, whereas we would know to flee from animal predators just as well as any prey. But we've industrialized and modernized and complicated our environment to the point where the dangers lie too far away and are too abstract to trigger the fear response in the ancient parts of our brain.

Brad K. said...


Your decline scenario, I think, should factor in - most nations won't welcome Stage 2. As Stage 3 starts interfering with nations around the world, I would expect many military adventures to seize control of dwindling oil production capacity.

After all - Stage 3 will idle most all military forces except the marching short sword and pike brigades - and they will be limited by food supplies and baggage train issues.

Not to mention, those dealing in black markets aren't likely to let their situations "run dry" without violence as well.

subgenius said...

I'm with Sixbears, I too turned my toilet paper collection into a sailboat.

I am just hoping that the system as-is holds together long enough for me to pull the motor out, build oars, and give her a solid bottom job next year - I am currently both time and paper poor, and about to be even more time poor as I have to teach myself celestial this winter...speaking of which I need to acquire (paper) charts for points south too...

A decent quantity of sailcloth and spare lines is also on the cards if I can find some paper to convert, otherwise I will have to sneak spares off some fancy Beneteau when the time comes. Luckily I have both a hand-crank-able sewing machine and numerous hand needles to re-size such borrowed "canvas".

Since I am on the subject....Can we have an article on sharpies soon?

Matthew said...

Another brilliant article, quite frankly I feel that you are too good a writer for the subject matter that you cover.

Not to sound like a nihilist or anything, but fuck it. Fuck this society, this planet, this civilization. I'm tired of waiting for armageddon. The end of the world couldn't come soon enough for me.

Chaos, destruction, the end of ages, I don't care anymore, I'm just sick of the way the world works. If everything is reset, maybe things will turn out better next time around.

If I live to see it, so much the better.

Keep up the good work.

Alex Smith said...

Basically, the old Mormons were right. The least we should do, personally, is to have one year's worth of food stored away for the family, plus seeds, shovel and hoe.

That way at least, assuming armed robbery doesn't become too common - more people would stand a chance of making it to the next harvest of their own food?

Of course, one needs the know-how to grow things, which takes practice. Even a small garden is a good start.

I've consulted with neighbors who agree we may dig out the bushes under the power lines, to prepare gardens.

That won't work for the many, but may save the few. We are headed into sad times.

Alex Smith
Radio Ecoshock

Larkin said...

It is said that civilization started with agriculture. At this time, one person could support with their own labor, an number of others allowing for the rise of specialization. A crucial element in the rise of civilization.

From that point the population was directly related to the level of food production. At the mercy of disease, bad weather and hungry neighbors, famines were regular occurrence.

Although portrayed as noble and virtuous, the very concept of war was to subdue a competing neighbor and take what was theirs for your own. Has anything really changed?

From the start, petroleum has been a population and technology accelerant. This world population is impossible without a continuing flow of petroleum. Just as you draw a parallel between miles driven and the GDP, a continuing flow of petroleum is required to maintain the current levels of population.
The balance between population and accessible energy and the food it produces will have to be equalized.

While the scenarios covered in Kollapsnik's previous article are certainly an accurate guess, it is just the beginning and it is almost polite for what lay ahead. It foreshadows a great population crash. In volume and scope it will rival and exceed anything that has ever occurred before. It may play out as a violent and bloody dark age and at its end, leaving a world, unrecognizable.

Robin Datta said...

An appropriate companion post:
Empire of lies

abelhas said...

nice article - you have managed to put into words my thoughts about peak oil.
what are you doing towards local food, preparation etc?

lemmiwinks said...

This was, more or less, posted by Dmitry on Culture Change a month ago. I knew I'd read it somewhere and it was driving me nuts. I'm grateful for the fresh posting today.

All the talk of growing one's own food etc is all well and good, and even I have a modest vegetable garden, but if TS does indeed HTF, then expect that those who are unwilling or unable to produce their own food will simply take yours from the ground. Do not imagine that you will be able to defend it, Mad Max style, from some fortress like structure, it ain't going to happen.

Brad K. said...


"those who are unwilling or unable to produce their own food will simply take yours". Um, not always.

See, part of surviving is choosing your alliances. Your community, or your leader, or whatever. Perhaps you will be leader, and assuring the strength, health - and progeny - of your allies and followers.

The time is now for communities to organize around strong leaders, those that are able and willing to bring the outliers - the scofflaws, those preying on the public and their neighbors - into line, or cleansing them from the community. A close knit community will suffer a lot less depredation than the loner survivalists (with their caches of food, valuables, and firearms and ammo - talk about your predator magnets, bush and pole beans don't begin to come close).

Communities that don't discriminate, that tolerate or indulge in careless abuse of respect and property, I expect they will degenerate quickly, and fade away not nearly quickly enough.

And, of course, the time to take responsibility has always been now. Tolerating those not contributing, directly, to community goals is a strength in communities - compassion, appreciation for differences, for creativity, and for valid limitations enables everyone. But parasites and predators are distinct problems. Communities of gangs and lawlessness, organized crime and drug-bound hell holes, they are already the problems you forsee. The solutions and responsibilities won't, I think, be substantially different than they are today: Empower respect in your community, compassion, responsibility, and honor.

xbornstubbornx said...

lemmiwinks, Good point, but been there, done that. The security situation in the foresight may seem scarier than it might actually turn out, but North Americans have to learn fast. Extra fast.
When I moved to U.S. from Russia a few things outright pissed me off for a while. Such as: Americans, especially suburbanites do not protect their properties and possessions. Like they just don't value these things. I can literally break into almost any house without even trying hard and get away with it. Many people don't lock their doors. Even if they do, I can enter through the basement or any window, without breaking anything. All the front lawns and driveways are not enclosed and nothing is there to protect the household, including people - everybody is tens of miles away working or passed out in front of the tv. SUVs, Harleys and bicycles resting on the driveways.. Being placed in that environment, my poor but witty compatriots wouldn't waste a minute. They would loot like possessed and take away everything they could carry, then they would come back and take away whatever else, including tiles from the bathrooms and wallpaper. Furthermore, did you see those solar panel powered road signs on the interstate highways? How outrageous is that! They dare to put these examples of hightech unprotected in the middle of nowhere in the potentially 3rd world country. That's practically a perennial free electricity for your home. That would be the thoughts in the head of an average Russian observing this landscape. Needless to say, those panels would be given a new house-warming party next morning be they placed on any road in Russia! I was even thinking of unscrewing a couple of those for myself..
So, what are the recipes? Simple. If you'd take a stroll through the average Russian rural community, you would see a thick fence at absolutely every property,without stupid redneck signs though, such as "Trespassers will be shot", short hackneyed messages on every surface are an American fashion. Obviously, trespassers would be fiercely confronted and it's clear to everybody there. Behind the each fence there is an angry dog on a leash which would at least wake everybody up in the house if danger is near. That actually creates an interesting rural ambient when you walk through the Russian village street, because in the meantime every dog in the neighborhood is barking at you, and after you're gone they bark at each other. Also, everybody in the neighborhood knows each other so everybody is twice as suspicious about any stranger. Secondly, in the cities at the condos and tower block bedroom communities there is a thick metal net on the every window at the first 2 stories of any building, followed by almost every apartment having a thick metal door, so even firefighters can't break in sometimes at the emergency situation. In this environment of distrust and suspicion you really have to be a professional felon to get what you want. People are forearmed because they are very well aware of what to expect from their fellow citizens at the never ending times of hardship. Works for Russians, will work for Americans. The latter even have an advantage - plenty of firearms, while Russia has restrictions on these things that literally leaves only outlaws armed.

M&M said...

Dmitry, I enjoy your writing.

If the majority of Americans don't even understand WHY protecting the Environment is important, WHAT chance do I personally have of surviving stupid dangerous people?
What use is any of it?

Do you have any advice for the despondant?

lemmiwinks said...

Brad K, depending on your level of indulgence of the disaster/collapse fantasy, your scenario may or may not unfold. Personally, if (and in my opinion this is a very big if indeed, but then I don't live in the northern hemisphere) there is a collapse, a cross between the current worst bits of the former Soviet Union, Cuba, rural/remote India/China, and backwards shit holes like Afghanistan (I'm not counting it as part of the former SU) is a likely outcome.

"Communities" would be very small, most likely mobile bands of people. I think a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle would be the most likely to succeed as the infrastructure which enables living in towns and cities fails quickly. Perhaps, if a few generations survive, then the transition to agriculture can once again be made. But it's a difficult transition, and to think that one can go from todays modern industrialized society and successfully transition backwards to an agrarian society without the petrochemical support we are accustomed to is beyond even fantasy.

I don't care how big the urban survivalists' cache of weapons, food and water is, nor how clever the location of their safe place to "bug out" to is, eventually it will run out or be discovered by others. Subsistence living as nomadic hunter gatherers (albeit with commensurate shortened life expectancy (at least by the standards to which we have become accustomed) and drastically reduced population, both of which would be a natural outcome of the standard collapse fantasy anyway) has worked well for many peoples for many millennia and is probably the best you could hope for in the short to medium term.

Certainly in the early days of this fantasy I would take whatever I wanted or needed by whatever means appropriate, just like xbornstubbornx suggests. Many, if not all would do the same (look to Hurricane Katrina/New Orleans for a recent example). I'm not saying I would rampage around Rambo style, quite the opposite in fact. The need for careful risk/reward assessment becomes vital when hospitals and medical care are barely functional or non existent.

People living together in one place like in that ridiculous TV series "Jericho" just isn't going to happen, but eventually there would naturally tend to be trade and non-violent interaction between groups that survive for long enough.

Personally I wouldn't encourage anyone to anticipate with excitement or look forward to a collapse of industrialized society. If (as I said, big if) it happens, anticipate total global population to rapidly return to pre industrial revolution figures, say one billion, possibly less. Likewise infant mortality (about 75% dying before 5 years of age) and average human life span (30-40 years).

Even if you are one of the long term survivors, you'll be living in an age when you can die from a scratch.

Brad K. said...


"But it's a difficult transition, and to think that one can go from todays modern industrialized society and successfully transition backwards to an agrarian society without the petrochemical support we are accustomed to is beyond even fantasy."

The problem that I have with that criticism, is that on the one hand for extensive agriculture, we still retain vestiges of the discoveries of the Anabaptists in Europe around the time of the Reformation. The forebears of modern Amish and Mennonites, the Anabaptists invented, without using fossil fuels, what became modern agriculture right up until the USDA and tractor makers began industrial agriculture back in the early 20th century.

On the other hand, intensive agriculture - gardening - that served the Russian peasant so well while the state farms did poorly, has spread to many more people. Not everyone depends on commercial pesticides and fertilizers, and hybrid seeds, for their gardens. Many do. But the use of "square foot gardens" and compost, using bird houses and flowers that tend to ward off pests - there are more gardeners using "retro" and sustainable techniques today, I imagine, than there are farmers in industrial agriculture.

That would be a lot of points of failure, to lose that knowledge in all those instances.

It could happen. Too many people don't know one of these non-industrial gardeners, too many people don't have access to non-industrial farms.

I imagine trying to convince "local food" efforts to also concentrate on "cheap energy free" operation - and transport - might be a tough sell. At least until the gas stations start closing 'cause there isn't any gas.

As for dying from a scratch. Maybe. But it is considered the food inspector, and the sewer engineer, that has actually improve the average life span. Modern medicine dramatically reduces the number of people crippled or confined to beds. But for the killers, that is the epidemic, the plague. Building the outhouse or dumping the garbage too close to the well. (cholera).

Some of this will be reasonably simple to let others know. For the survivors, that is.

lemmiwinks said...

Brad K,
"It could happen. Too many people don't know one of these non-industrial gardeners, too many people don't have access to non-industrial farms."

Indeed, even if they did, how adaptable is the average 9-5 office worker to this new life? Not only that, but there is no one, no matter how "green" or "off the grid" that is not dependent, in some way, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, on fossil fuel inputs.

The most organic gardner will still source their manure from a farmer (I doubt that most of them have sufficient livestock to provide it for themselves), who will in turn have trucked the livestock in, possibly some of the feed, or at the very least fertilizer for the feed, and doubtless the manure leaves on a truck.

There are endless examples, and once the links start to break down you get a domino effect. It's also why I imagine, indulging the worst case collapse fantasy again for a moment, that gardening would not be a viable proposition, at least not in the short term immediately post collapse.

In towns and cities there is the issue of no running water, disease brought on by the failure of waste treatment plants and groups of displaced people in search of food.

I maintain that small groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers stand the best chance because as they deplete the local natural food supply they move on to another area which is (hopefully) more abundant and the area they were in begins to recover. The issue of shelter is determined by the weather - much better to live a nomadic life following mild weather than try to survive a winter in Alaska in a house with no or limited electricity (my imaginary stolen solar panels wouldn't generate too much power in the 3 hours of weak sunlight) and no running water.

To this end a knowledge of "bush tucker" as it's known down here would be very beneficial. Sufficient knowledge could render gardening redundant. Prior to white settlement Aboriginal Australians raised no livestock, farmed no fruit or vegetables and domesticated no animals (except perhaps the Dingo but I don't actually know that). They did pretty good by all accounts.

Not that I would discourage anyone from gardening. I've actually just started myself. A very enlightening read is "Ten Acres Enough" by Edmund Morris, freely available as a PDF. I have the fifteenth version published in 1872. To me, even though it's a historical account (obviously written as contemporary), it's a far more likely outcome (provided enough generations survive) than any of the collapse fantasy garbage penned by Mr Kunstler etc.

Getting back to organic farming for a moment as there was no alternative in 1872, Edmund Morris eventually began to keep cows over winter to supply his manure. He had 25 plus calves, but even he had to buy them from someone ;-)

Anyone feeling depressed about the future should read "Ten Acres Enough". It's been done before, and could perhaps be done again.

kulturcritic said...

Lemiwinks, Brad, etc,

Perhaps the Siberians have something to teach us in this regard. I am sure Dmitry recalls this as well.

Mikhail Zadornov, a popular Russian comedian who likes to make fun of our cultural idiosyncrasies, often jokes about the biblical Apocalypse and how it might affect our two cultures differently. In my rough English paraphrasing, he says:

For Americans the Apocalypse [collapse] will literally mean the end of their world. Done! Finished! But for us Russians, what is this Apocalypse – bad weather all the time with no heat or air conditioning; and what? No electricity, no hot or cold running water, no gas; and what? Garbage and disease everywhere; and what? No jobs, no stores, no money; and what? So then we can just go to the forest and pick berries or hunt for mushrooms; go to our dachas and tend the gardens, or to the river and fish. Everyday is like an apocalypse here in Russia; we are accustomed to these things and we will survive. It will not mean the end of the world for us Russians.

Just a thought

obviouslyanon said...

this may be of interest:

and maybe this, sort of!

your posts are always of interest.

Nick said...

Wow. What a fantastic blog. I came accross this today and am pleased to see such rational thought and commentary from everyone.
I think our global rise in population thanks to oil and technology is overdue for reduction. I am suprised we have managed so well with so many people, look at China!
Dimitri is right - the rosy scenario is bunk. I think most places will move from 1 to 3 quickly. As this happens there will be mass panic and possible military conflict between nations and certainly civil warfare as governments lock down their borders/resources.
I feel that if you can survive the first few years of transition on your own somehwere you will be well placed to pickup the pieces once some sort of stability and new world order emerges on a domestic and international level.
We should all be thinking longterm but taking steps to survive the short term (intial 5 years of collapse) and be ready to adapt.
Human beings are VERY adaptable and will find a way to survive, but this makes us very dangerous when we are desparate during the intial shocks to reality.
I for one, cannot beleive how separated from this reality most people are. Infinite growth? Never ending prosperity? Just like the man who lives in the big house in the clouds who will rescue us eh?

zhu said...

"What went wrong with our large brains?"

Neanderthals had bigger brains than we do. They were around a 1/4 million years, too, in a difficult environment. I can't guess how long homo sapiens will be around.

xoddam said...

Hey Lemmiwinks!

"Prior to white settlement Aboriginal Australians raised no livestock, farmed no fruit or vegetables and domesticated no animals"

This is false I'm pleased to report.

Horticulture was indeed practised but did not form a major part of people's diets because there aren't any native vegetable crops with a high yield : it was worthwhile for delicacies only, only a few of which (juicy native root vegetables) are still known as "bush tucker" today. Fruit and nut trees were protected, coppiced and propagated; fresh pastures were maintained by regular burning to encourage grazing animals. For centuries massive aquaculture dams were maintained in the far west of NSW, raising Murray Cod and other native freshwater species in greater numbers than are imaginable today (now the water is all siphoned off for irrigated agriculture); and deliberate oyster farming (using semi-submerged logs just like we whitefellas do it today) was common in estuarine areas.

And yes of course the dingo was domesticated ... dogs were brought here on canoes not much later than the very first humans arrived.

Real agriculture wasn't practised by Australian Aborigines simply because they knew no crops with a sufficiently high yield that would have made the hard work and the sedentarism enforced thereby pay off. I'm sure at least the northerners met some of the root crops of Islanders, but they don't grow too well in northern Australian soils and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle must have retained some attraction.

kulturcritic said...


Do you get all of your knowledge from Wikpedia? Perhaps you should try some genuine research before you boldly proclaim someone's errors.

xoddam said...

A blog lurker responds to just criticism, @kulturkritik.

I didn't realise this was a wave off Maroubra I was trying to surf...

FYI the information reached me from sources including Jared Diamond's magnificent Guns, Germs and Steel and Kate Grenville's Searching for The Secret River (an autobiographical treatment of the research she did for her novel, The Secret River). Also ABC Radio :

spiorad said...

11/11 news item:

"International Energy Agency says 'peak oil' has hit"

Karrol Steeves said...

Hi Dmitry, I have read your book, and read your blog regularly. Thank you for your work. Then there are those of us that know what is coming but do not have the resources to put in a wood stove or move to a farm. I am worried about my future and the future of my children. What I wouldn't give to have enough money to do something to make this easier. I do have a small garden but my back yard isn't big enough to raise enough food to live on. I am illegally raising rabbits in the garage for meat but the does are losing half of their litter. I have not figured out why yet. I live in a neighborhood where I don't know my neighbors very well and from what I can tell they are all about maintaining the status quo and really have no idea what is coming. We have a community garden that you must rent a laughably small space to raise food in and the few that are growing anything in it are not tending them well or are growing flowers! We am stuck with a mortgage I may not be able to pay much longer and really no other options. I have made some efforts to get to know the neighbors but they do not seem interested in us. They all have young children and are "living the dream". I do have a good food storage but I live in a cold climate and I am worried we will freeze to death with no other resource but a small solar battery. Sometimes I am very scared.

Brad K. said...

@ Karrol,

The term, I think, is "triage", determining which needs should be addressed in which order. Those most urgent should be ranked by how many could be remedied with the time and other resources available.

It occurs to me that there are abandoned old houses and barns in rural areas, some of which wouldn't mind a responsible, respectful newcomer. I don't know how to find such places; I am still clinging on where I am.

But my thought is that when facing collapse, our notions of how to "survive" (house, electricity, Internet, water, heat, food) may all need to be re-thought.

Sharon Astyk (The Chatelaine's Keys, in past posts discussed adapting (to collapse) in place, as well as deciding whether to adapt in place or relocate for better prospects.

John Michael Greer (The Archdruid Report, has been going for a year and a half or more, on "green wizardry", developing skills and security to be a community resource during the transition as our industrial age ends.

One of the things you might be clinging to is the myth of the single family dwelling. Perhaps you have relations that would accept you. Perhaps they can teach you gardening or rabbit raising, in return for help and assistance. Perhaps you can fare better somewhere without a mortgage and part time, minimum wage work (beware -- it can get tiring, working short jobs here and there, and tired people risk making poorer judgements and choices).

In a crunch, any structure can be improved; in California in 1987 I met a woman and two teen daughters living in a 2-car garage, using an ice chest for refrigerator, and paying rent. Others I have met have built a house, essentially, by remodeling a section of barn under the barn roof.

You mention 'cold climate' -- have you considered a state that is weathering the economic storm in better fashion, like North Dakota or other Western states? That might be a move to a lower tax rate than most states, with better employment prospects and a lower range of property values. Just, don't act like a tourist because a little snow falls (like a couple-four feet at a time).

On the one hand you are looking for better answers before many of the rest of the nation, which leaves more options for you. On the other hand, we keep edging deeper into collapse, closer to an avalanche point, which means you have less time than if you started several years ago.

Blessed be!