By Norman Church
17 July, 2006
"Down one road lies
disaster, down the other utter catastrophe.Let us hope we have the wisdom
to choose wisely." - Woody Allen
Oil depletion is just the
first of a series of resource crisis humanity is about to face because
there are just too many of us! This century we will face peak resources,
There are many fascinating
and exciting renewable energy developments. Wind turbines, solar energy,
geothermal, biomass, wave and tidal power schemes which are all important
energy sources for the future - and could at least help keep the electricity
grid going to some degree!
The popular assumption is
that these renewable energy sources, perhaps also including uranium,
plutonium and just possibly nuclear, which seems to be coming back on
the agenda, will smoothly replace fossil fuels as these become scarce,
thanks to our inherited technological expertise. However, although these
all produce electricity they are not liquid fuels.
Unfortunately, these popular
assumptions could hardly be more wrong.
The energy budget must be
positive. Output must exceed input. Too much tends to be expected of
renewable energy generators today, because the contribution of fossil
fuels to the input side is poorly understood.
For example, a wind turbine
is not successful as a renewable generator unless another similar one
can be constructed from its raw materials using only the energy that
the first one generates in its lifetime, and still shows a worthwhile
Or, if corn is grown to produce
bioethanol, the energy input to ploughing, sowing, fertilizing, weeding,
harvesting and processing the crop must come from the previous year's
bioethanol production. Input must also include, proportionately, mining
and processing the raw materials and building the machines that do the
work, as well as supporting their human operators.
There is nothing that can
replace cheap oil for price, ease of storage, ease of transportation
and sheer volumes in the timeframe we need.
There is continuing debate
over whether a suitable energy alternative might be found to replace
the energy from oil as it runs out, but there is certainly no compelling
evidence that a comparable substitute will be found.
It is difficult to think
about 'how things will play out' when an oil-based global economy loses
its cheap energy source. It has never happened before. It will never
Many of the solutions to
Peak Oil that are discussed revolve broadly round 'sustainability' and
'sustainable development', including replacement technologies and finding
an alternate source of 'sustainable energy'.
What is Sustainable
A Definition of Sustainable
Development: Development that meets the needs of the present without
compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
There are tremendous shortcomings
in this definition as there is no requirement to conserve specific resources.
It does not matter what mineral resources (e.g. fossil fuels, minerals)
are depleted so long as something is found to replace them.
From an economic perspective,
all that matters is market value, cost per unit, and economic output.
Any attempt by one generation to leave the world as it found it is unlikely
and infeasible. Instead, all that is required to comply with this definition
is that non-renewable resources that are used up must be replaced with
When one resource is depleted
or destroyed, just find a different way of doing things, or do something
else. Everything is expendable, everything is replaceable. All that
matters is economic output and economic efficiency.
Another way to put all of
this is that any group of beings (human or nonhuman, plant or animal)
who take more from their surroundings than they give back will, obviously,
deplete their surroundings, after which they will either have to move,
or their population will crash.
The Future Mirrored
in the Past
The farther backward you
can look the farther forward you are likely to see.
'Collapse' is the language
of the apocalypse and we find such issues difficult if not impossible
to deal with.
The long-term consequence
of Peak Oil will take decades to unfold as a series of rolling and interconnected
crises, each one more difficult to cope with than the previous as resources
become scarcer and as more and more systems break and infrastructure
However, let us be clear:
overshoot created by a lack of energy means the human population of
the earth will have to shrink to a sustainable number.
Ecologists use a technical
term, "die-off", to describe what happens when a population
grows too big for the resources that sustain it.
People are always saying
the world will end and it never does. Maybe it won't this time, either.
But, frankly, it's not looking good.
Almost daily, new evidence
is emerging that progress can no longer be taken for granted, that a
new Dark Age is lying in wait for us and our children. By some estimates,
5 billion of the world's 6½ billion population would never have
been able to live without the blessed effects of fossil fuels, and oil
We also need to remember
that when a civilization goes splat, the technologies that supported
it tend to go with it. This is particularly true of systems that are
based on highly interdependent technologies such as ours today.
Greer states in 'Facing the
New Dark Age: A Grassroots Approach'.
'Finally population die-off
begins as the wrecked industrial system no longer produces enough to
meet even the most basic human needs. The process ends with impoverished
survivors a century or so from now scratching out a meager living amid
the crumbling ruins of a once-great civilisation.'
'This Die Off scenario makes
a shocking contrast to the cozy fantasies of perpetual progress most
Those who study history,
on the other hand, will find it much more familiar. The same process
has happened dozens of times before, and our present predicament can
best be understood by paying attention to the past.'
Another crucial lesson is
that the common notion of holing up in a cabin in the hills with stockpiled
food and enough firearms to outfit a Panzer division. This is not a
It takes time for a civilization
to come apart, and the process is like rolling down a slope, not like
falling off a cliff.
We face a future of shortages,
economic crises, disintegrating infrastructure, and collapsing public
health, probably stretched out over a period of decades.
A few years of stored food
and an assortment of high-tech paramilitary gear are hopelessly inadequate
preparations in the face of this reality.
Stockpiles of precious metals,
another common hedge against collapse, are even more useless. All the
gold in the world means nothing unless people value it enough to trade
scarce resources for it.
Problems with Progress
How many people nowadays
can't light a fire without matches or butane lighter from some distant
The skills necessary to get
by in a non-industrial society, skills that were still common knowledge
a century ago, have been all but lost.
Knowledge is critical and
currently, there is little knowledge of basic survival skills, and even
less knowledge of the scope of the problems that are looming.
It's clear that whatever
the future holds, it will hold many fewer people than today's world,
and the road there won't be easy or pleasant.
If there are problems with
holding up in a cabin in the hills what about self sufficiency.
during the coming energy decline
"Those who already enjoy
a measure of self-sufficiency, such as ecovillages and other kinds of
sustainable intentional communities will already have some of the skills
and experience needed for re-localization."
In Powerdown, Richard Heinberg
notes that small, self-sustaining communities may become cultural lifeboats
in times to come.
He says, "Our society
is going to change profoundly-those of us who understand this are in
a position to steward that change. We are going to become popular, needed
people in our communities."
But no matter how prepared
an intentional community or organized neighborhood may be, it will be
adversely impacted in some way.
But is Community
Experts suggest several possible
scenarios for the coming energy decline and any of these scenarios will
present significant challenges for intentional communities.
Even in the "soft landing"
scenario, there will still be massive structural changes in society
and being in debt may be the undoing of many.
Common advice among many
Peak Oil experts is to get out of debt!
Let's say for example, that
a community is deeply in debt, and is still paying off its property
Let's say the community loses
its financial resource base-if members lose their jobs or if a weak
economy reduces the market for the goods and services the community
produces-the group could default on its loan payments, and may have
its property seized by the bank or other creditors.
A property-value crash may
worsen the debt situation for intentional communities. If a community's
property value falls below their equity in the property, they won't
be able to save themselves from defaulting on loans by selling off their
land, which is typically the last resort of farmers in debt.
All the shortages and systems
failures that can affect mainstream culture can affect intentional communities
A community may not have
enough foresight, labour, tools, or funds to create alternatives to
whatever their members use now for heating, lighting, cooking, refrigeration,
water collection, water pumping, and disposal utilization of gray water
and human waste.
Then there's the matter of
community security-a subject many find "politically incorrect"
to even consider. If the government fails; if the law and order system
falls apart, there can be various kinds of dangerous consequences. Desperate,
hungry people can loot and steal and take what they
want from others.
Vigilante groups can form
to either deal with the lawlessness, and/or take what they want themselves.
Government may declare martial law, rescind constitutional liberties,
and send in troops to restore order and/or take what they want from
others. Having supportive neighbors and good networking in the greater
community may help.
The social fabric has been
unraveling for several decades, and the lack of solidarity or social
cohesion is another one of the reasons there must be a collapse -- after
all, do you see community-spirit on the rise and an actual transition
underway to a sustainable and ecological society?
So would it be possible to
rebuild Civilisation after a collapse? Jason Godesky wrote in 'It will
be Impossible to Rebuild Civilisation',
"The current state of
civilization is dependent on resources that are now so depleted, that
they require an industrial infrastructure already in place to gather
those resources. We can fetch this fossil fuel only because we have
fossil fuels to put to the task."
He goes on to comment on
* That to maintain civilization, only some metals are useful.
* They must be strong enough for agriculture or war.
* They must keep an edge.
* They must occur in economically feasible quantities.
* They must have a melting point low enough to be worked.
Gold, silver, etc. immediately
fail as the quantities are insufficient, and they are far too soft.
There are many other metals
which are basically all alloys and would be all but unworkable in a
post collapse society. The metal that probably deserves the most attention
He says that iron although
problematic is not impossible and may well be the only metal that survivors
will have access to.
Most near-surface iron deposits
were exploited long ago. What remains is deep in the ground and is unlikely
to be accessible without fossil fuels, except in rare exceptions.
(2) Scavenged iron.
Scavenged iron is, especially
in the immediate aftermath of collapse likely to be the most abundant
source although most of the sophisticated alloys we use now rely on
the kind of high temperatures attainable only with fossil fuels.
This shouldn't matter too
much as there's still enough that can be done with heated and reworked
After a few decades the scavenged
metals will become more and more rusted and even worn out and the metalworking
will begin to diminish as it becomes harder and harder to make poorer
and poorer metal weapons and tools.
(3) Bog Iron.
The final source is bog iron
which is actually a renewable resource. About once each generation the
same bog can be re-harvested but it may be up to a century before today's
bog iron deposits are refilled; after that, it may enter the cycle of
once-a-generation per bog.
We should be aware of this
factor because of one other necessary resource that we have so far only
touched on briefly: knowledge.
The knowledge of how to work
iron and many other processes was accrued over centuries.
Those who know, no longer
do; those who do, no longer know. This may well end applying to a lot
How much knowledge will manage
to survive the post collapse period, for the time that comes after when
it may become useful again?
If it is insufficient, we
will be starting from scratch again. This will apply to all knowledge
and knowledge is a powerful thing, difficult to relearn from seed, and
How plausible would agriculture
be after the collapse?
Civilization is only possible
through agriculture, because only agriculture allows a society to increase
its food supply--and thus its population--and thus its energy throughput--and
thus its complexity--so arbitrarily."
Plants, like any other organism,
take in nutrients, and excrete wastes. In nature, what one plant excretes
as waste, another takes in as nutrients. They balance each other, and
all of them thrive.
whole fields of just one crop--sets fields of the same plant, all bleeding
out the same nutrients, all dumping back in the same wastes.
"The ecological effects
of fossil-based food production have been catastrophic, particularly
with respect to agriculture. As a result, the complex ecology of the
living soil is being destroyed, leading to increased wind and water
In the near-term, most arable
land has long been depleted, and is now utterly dependent on fertilizers
made from fossil fuels. In the course of our civilization we have used
up all of the surface and near-surface deposits of all the economically
viable fossil fuels and minerals.
The lack of metals will continue
to limit technological development after the collapse--and by limiting
technological development, it will also limit all other forms of complexity.
We are therefore talking
about a complete break with the end of our current civilization. Whole
generations will pass before civilisation becomes feasible again.
What, then, of the distant
The Distant Future
After the passage of millennia,
the soil may well heal itself, and the necessary climate may return.
In that scenario, agriculture may be possible in those same areas, and
under the same conditions, that it first occurred.
With the passage of geological
ages, though, this will pass. Fossil fuels will be replenished, and
metal ores will rise to the surface.
Then, if there are still
humans so far into the future--this is a matter of at least tens of
millions of years, far longer than humans have so far survived--then
there might be another opportunity to rebuild civilization.
So after the collapse, we
may see a brief Iron Age, but it seems more likely to fade away within
the next two centuries.
Living without oil, if we
don't start to prepare for it, will not be like returning to the pre
industrial world, because we will have lost the infrastructure that
made that life possible. We have also lost our basic survival skills.
Today, the UK population
is about 62 million. In 1750, when the Industrial Revolution was beginning,
it was about 6 million. It had never exceeded this figure, although
during the Dark Ages and after the Black Death it fell to one or two
Most people lived and died
in poverty. Pre-industrial farmers were pushed to the limit to feed
so many. The population increased slightly in years with good harvests,
but starvation and malnutrition cut it back to the 6 million norm when
harvests were bad.
Food is energy. And it takes
energy to get food. These two facts, taken together, have always established
the biological limits to the human population and always will.
The topic of Peak Oil is
at present enveloped by a great silence and the public seems unprepared
for rational discussion
This reminds me of a comment
made by Sherlock Holmes in A. Conan Doyle's story "Silver Blaze."
Inspector Gregory had asked, "Is there any point to which you would
wish to draw my attention?"
To this Holmes responded:
"To the curious incident
of the dog in the night time."
"The dog did nothing
in the night time," said the Inspector.
"That was the curious
incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
By asking himself what would
repress the normal barking instinct of a watchdog, Holmes realized that
it must be the dog's recognition of his master as the criminal trespasser.
In a similar way we should
ask ourselves what repression keeps us from discussing something as
important as survival long term after Peak Oil.
Curious, but understandable
- for the foreseeable future I think that our survival demands that
we govern our actions by the ethics of a lifeboat. Posterity will be
ill served if we do not.
Those who attended Peak Speak
1 in London last year may remember the lifeboat analogy I mentioned.
Greer uses a similar point
in his 'The Coming of Deindustrial Society'.
'Imagine that you're on an
ocean liner that's headed straight for a well marked shoal of rocks.
Half the crew is dead drunk, and the other half has already responded
to your attempts to alert them by telling you that you obviously don't
know the first thing about navigation, and everything will be all right.
At a certain point, you know, the ship will be so close to the rocks
that its momentum will carry it onto them no matter what evasive actions
the helmsman tries to make. You're not sure, but it looks as though
that point is already well past.
What do you do? You can keep
on pounding on the door to the bridge, trying to convince the crew of
the approaching danger. You can join the prayer group down in the galley;
they're convinced that if they pray fervently enough, God will save
them from shipwreck. You can decide that everyone's doomed and go get
roaring drunk. Or you can go around quietly to the other passengers,
and encourage those people who have noticed the situation (or are willing
to notice it) to break out the life jackets, assemble near the lifeboats,
take care of people who need help, and otherwise deal with the approaching
wreck in a way that will salvage as much as possible.
Although there is growing
awareness of the problem, there is also widespread ignorance and denial,
even by people who should know better.
Mankind has, it seems, an
infinite capacity for denial. The evidence is overwhelming that we are
in the "overshoot" phase of the industrial life cycle, yet
most people and most organizations refuse even to discuss this matter,
let alone acknowledge it. The world after the industrial age will be
very different from the world of today. For most people on Earth (if
mankind escapes extinction), it will be similar to the world of the
past millions of years - a primitive, natural environment (although
perhaps less bountiful and beautiful than before).
Although most people will
not survive the collapse of the industrial age, it will belong, in concept
and structure, to those who prepare for the great change that is about
The arrays of skills necessary
for people to 'thrive' and not just 'survive' in a non-oil economy are
many. Most people do not have the essential skills to reproduce (or
even repair) the technology on which we depend today.
We seem to be in a state
of delusional thinking and the only thing we're debating is how we're
going to keep the cars running without oil.
What I have said above is
not, as some one said after my talk last year, to get you all to wear
brown underwear. It is to try to show you that, even at this late stage,
if we all do not think seriously, realistically and logically about
the consequences of our inaction then what I have suggested may well
We will be faced with the
necessity to downscale, rescale and reorganize all the fundamental activities
of our daily lives; the way we grow food, the way we conduct commerce,
the way we manufacture things and school our children. We must learn
to do this tomorrow....at the crack of dawn.
We should seriously think
of breaking out the "Life Jackets" and "Manning"
the lifeboats which is as I said last year at least one step before
"deploying" the lifeboats.
References and sources
1. Greer. J.M. How Civilisations
Fall:- A Theory of Catabolic Collapse.
2. Godesky, Jason. It will
be Impossible to Rebuild Civilisation.
3. Godesky, Jason. Collapse
4. Greer J.M. Facing the
New Dark Age: A Grassroots
5. Godesky, Jason. Post Collapse
6. Jan Steinman and Diana
Leafe Christian 'Community survival during the coming energy
"Once the game is over, the king and the pawn go back in the same
"To our grandfathers
and grandchildren, the cavemen...."
(Rene Barjavel 1911 - 1985)
If you have any comments
on this please contact me on the below: