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Peak Oil And Future History

By Peter Goodchild

23 August, 2008

Yes, there are other factors beside oil to consider in the Great Crash. We live in a morass of bad politics, bad economics, and bad education (and bad news media that spoon-feed us with half-truths), and we elect thieves and liars to guide us. But the loss of oil, which is almost the only support of our unique industrial society, will be the factor that brings all the rest down.

Transitional Silliness

The transition to global collapse should not been seen in terms of middle-class Country Elegance. There are no "transition towns" that acquire food, clothing, or shelter without large quantities of fossil fuels somewhere in the background.

Although we should all be preparing for the worst, it seems that some of us are heading into Eco-Silliness. For the most part, "transition towns" (a.k.a. "eco-villages" etc.) are just make-believe. Without fossil fuels, any country can support only about 4 people per hectare of arable land, as David Pimentel has explained in great detail. That puts many countries at well beyond the maximum sustainable size. What is going to happen to the excess population between now and the year 2030 (when oil production will be down to half of its present level)? Answer: either emigration or starvation.

The post-oil world will be much grimmer than these people imagine, and that is partly because they are not looking at the big picture. Hydrocarbons are the entire substructure of modern society. Electricity comes largely from coal or natural gas. The energy for mining comes mainly from diesel fuel, or it is transmitted through electricity. So without fossil fuels there will be no electricity, and without those same fossil fuels there will be no metals. We’re looking at something less than the above-mentioned Country Elegance.

Or are we supposed to believe that these middle-class people are wearing clothing made from the flax they grew in their own gardens, or from wool they plucked from their own pet sheep? And are we supposed to believe that they live in houses that used no fossil fuels or electricity when the materials were prepared, transported, and assembled? And are we also supposed to believe that these same nice people use donkeys rather than automobiles, and that their bathrooms are supplied only with sphagnum moss instead of toilet paper? Yes, it’s nice to start preparing for the future, but a doll’s-house mentality is a way of avoiding the truth.

Looking Ahead

There are two problems with writing about long-term survival, or more generally with the matter of what might be called future history. The first problem is that one must decide whether to talk about the near future or the distant future. I am working on the assumption that history forms a sort of bell curve: the events after about the year 2000 form a downward curve that somewhat mirrors the curve of events leading up to that same year. That bell curve will not be perfectly symmetrical, of course: the decline in modern civilization is likely to be swift. The 1972 Limits to Growth shows, in its Figure 35, "World Model Standard Run," a world that has pretty well sunk to rock bottom well before the end of the present century. The introduction to that same book tells us:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.

Whatever faults one may find with The Limits to Growth (and there are many), the growth trends did in fact "continue unchanged," and more-recent projections of future history often match that of The Limits to Growth. Although my own terms are largely arbitrary, I tend to think of a future transition from what I call a Neo-Victorian Era to a Neo-Alfredian one. In other words, the future will descend from an industrial age resembling that of Queen Victoria to a pre-industrial age resembling that of King Alfred the Great, whose reign was a thousand years earlier than hers.

Since the decline of our present civilization will be marked by a loss of fossil fuels, followed by a loss in both metals and electricity, there may be no point in preserving the knowledge of subjects that only make sense when they are supported by present technology. For example, there is little point in transmitting the vast amounts of data that constitute modern medicine if the requisite medications and machinery will no longer be available. For that matter, one might even ask if there is any point in describing how to build a simple cart or wagon if the technology for creating a set of wheels is no longer there.

So a writer must make a decision about the era to be described, or at least explain the differences that are entailed by each era. The topics that will be of interest or use to the inhabitants of the Neo-Victorian era will not be of interest to the Neo-Alfredians. When metal-working is done with a rock for an anvil, and a goatskin for a bellows, there will not be much point in talking about airplanes.

The second problem is that, if a book is written for people of a future age, one must decide whether the book will consist mainly of words, or mainly of pictures. The Bible lasted for many centuries because it could be copied with nothing more than pen and ink. If the Bible had been dependent on pictures it is doubtful if it would have survived for so long.

A book with many pictures and few words, of course, might be of great use to the Neo-Alfredians. King Alfred once remarked that "learning had declined so thoroughly in England that there were very few men on this side of the Humber who could . . . even translate a single letter from Latin into English . . . ." In our own day, there are not many graduate students who can grasp the grammar and spelling of English itself, their own one and only language. But a picture book would suffer distortions if it were copied over the centuries from one stack of vellum to another. Scribes made an attempt in earlier times with bestiaries and herbals, but the boundaries between science and superstition were not very clear in those days. Certainly the boundaries will again become fuzzy, but there have been writers who, in spite of these limitations, had a benign influence on readers born thousands of years later.

Primitive Technology

One reason why I’m unimpressed by most survivalist or primitive-technology books is that they say very little about how to get food. Perhaps that’s because it’s easy to talk about roots and berries, but not easy to explain that getting food may include hunting, trapping, and fishing. At least, that’s certainly true in North America north of about latitude 45, since the climate and soil are largely unsuitable for agriculture. It’s also true for any other geographical area that doesn’t have naturally fertile soil and good weather. But the problem for the writer is that hunting and trapping — and perhaps even fishing — are politically incorrect. We aren’t supposed to be murdering cute little animals, we’re supposed to buy our meat wrapped in cellophane, which is somehow not the same thing. The average survivalist book therefore teaches its readers how to make bowls and baskets but doesn’t tell them how to avoid starving to death in the meantime.

To deal with peak-oil preparation, one must also make some clear choices about the subject matter: the who, when, and where. There are far too many variables in future history. For a modern executive, peak-oil preparation means adding solar panels to a 20-room lakeside cottage. For that same executive’s grandchildren, it will mean scavenging, thievery, and prostitution — if not cannibalism. Our descendants will be smashing computers to get pieces of metal they can use as arrowheads.

I was once trying to find or create illustrations for some comments I had made about small-scale carpentry. How could I explain studs, plates, joists, and so on? But then I realized: Why bother? Without diesel trucks cruising along the highways, who’s going to deliver all those lovely 2' x 4's that are needed for putting a shed together? Perhaps the information would be of some use for a decade or so, but it may not be very long before the construction of houses will be based on logs, stones, bark, and straw.

When our descendants have to adapt to primitive technology, they won’t even have the advantages of our early ancestors. In 5,000 B.C. the earth was littered with vast quantities of high-grade copper. Those pieces of pure copper were sitting right on the ground, or not far below it. Even in the nineteenth century, the natives of North America’s northwest coast used huge lumps of pure copper as items of their famous potlatches. It is no longer possible to walk over the Earth and see such geological marvels. The rich ore bodies were all exhausted long ago, just as it is no longer possible to explore the mountains and find precious gems just waiting to be picked up.

The blacksmiths of the future will do what they can to hammer scrap iron into tools, but metals are always subject to a sort of entropy. Our distant ancestors could use metals because they were found in concentrated ore bodies, but for how many centuries will our descendants be able to keep melting and remelting the metallic garbage of the industrial past? We now produce 1.8 trillion metric tons of iron per year. How many skyscrapers are we going to build when iron ore must be smelted in small clay cylinders?

For further information:

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is

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