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Handy Hints For Post-Petroleum

By Peter Goodchild

22 November, 2007

The priority of these "hints" will vary as the years go by, but most of them will remain relevant over the course of the century. The slight bias toward northern North America is partly due to the fact that the area meets most of the criteria.

1 The world now has an average of 116 people for every square mile of land surface. In foraging (hunting-and-gathering) societies, on the other hand, there is an average of only about 0.1 person for every square mile. Since the survivors will be living closer to a "foraging" way of life than to an "industrial" one, the first and most obvious step is to move to somewhere with a low population density. (Crowded countries, on the other hand, will be experiencing famine.)

2 Everything in the modern world is dependent on hydrocarbons. From hydrocarbons we get fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, lubricants, plastic, paint, synthetic fabrics, asphalt, pharmaceuticals, and many other things. When oil goes, our entire industrial society will go with it. We must therefore look to "primitive" technology.

3 On a broader scale, one could can say that modern industrial society is based on (1) hydrocarbons, (2) metals, and (3) electricity. The three are intricately connected; each is only accessible — on the modern scale — if the other two are present. Electricity, for example, has been possible on a global scale only with hydrocarbons. The same is true of metals: most metals are now becoming rare, and the forms that remain can be processed only with modern machinery — which requires hydrocarbons. There is no way of breaking that "triangle." What we are then looking at is a society far more primitive than the one to which we have been accustomed.

4 It might be possible to grow one’s own food. The problem, however, is that only 13% of the world’s land is suitable for crops, and nearly all of that is already being used. Also, the "13%" refers to the land when it was virgin soil; since then it has been quite depleted. Nevertheless, people have drifted into urban areas to such an extent over the years that many rural areas now have a fair amount of abandoned but arable land.

5 Good soil has sufficient humus, and also adequate amounts of about 16 elements, especially nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — naturally occurring or otherwise. Compost and animal manure can provide humus, but they will do little to make up for missing elements. One should leery of "organic gardening" — much of it is little more than folklore, primarily for the reasons just mentioned. One should get one’s soil tested by a government-approved laboratory, while it is still possible to do so. While prices are still low enough, one should go to a farm-supply store and buy a lifetime supply of high-grade fertilizer.

6 It is possible to live mainly on cultivated plants, but at least 1/4 acre per person would be needed. (In most climates, "intensive" gardening is only possible with motorized irrigation.) Useful crops would be those high in carbohydrates and protein. Less useful would be those susceptible to diseases, bugs, bad soil, or bad weather. One of the most practical crops has the scientific name of Zea mays — and unfortunately too many common names: maize, corn, etc. (One should choose from the varieties commonly called field corn, grain corn, or Indian corn, not the "sweet corn" that is sold in supermarkets.) Beans and squash should also be high on the list. Most root crops are also worthwhile, but potatoes are subject to insects and diseases. Grains other than maize generally require more tools, but they can still be feasible.

7 Where farming isn’t practical, one might survive on foraging, especially in areas of very low human population density. It is generally impossible to live solely on wild plants, so it would be necessary to hunt, trap, and fish. The organs, fat, and marrow should not be wasted. The flesh can be dried. The hides provides clothing, the bones provide tools.

8 A rifle or shotgun would be handy until there was no more ammunition. Bows and arrows can be made and used; in some respects they are actually superior to firearms. Deadfalls and snares can be used for many species.

9 Basic medicine is worth learning. Most books on wilderness medicine assume one would be traveling with a suitcase full of drugs, which will not be the case; drugs expire. Training in so-called first aid would be more useful. Those who have lived a sedentary life should start developing their muscles — they will need them.

10 Living in the country has less to do with butterflies and flowers, and more to do with carpentry and plumbing, so one should learn how to do household repairs and improvement. When building, one should consider local materials: logs, bark, grass, moss, stones, clay. Local materials cost less, require less transportation, and are more easily replaced.

11 The only heating fuel will be wood. In a cold climate, from 2 to 10 full cords are needed for a winter, depending on many factors. A cord (128 cubic feet) is 4 trees of 12-inch diameter. Two acres of trees will provide 1 cord on a sustainable basis. With a non-motorized saw, one would conserve one’s strength by cutting logs less than 6 inches wide — also, they will not require splitting. The smaller the house, the less wood that will be needed. Rooms that are not needed should be closed off; windows should be covered.

12 Bicycles would be hard to repair. Paved roads might be unusable: the route will be blocked by smashed and abandoned cars, and everywhere the asphalt will be starting to crack. On foot, on horseback, or in a boat, one’s speed is about the same: 25 miles per day, if one is in excellent health.


Campbell, Colin J. The Coming Oil Crisis. Brentwood, Essex: Multi-Science, 1997.

Catton, William R., Jr. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Champaign, Illinois: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Deffeyes, Kenneth S. Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001.

Ehrlich, Paul R., and Anne H. Ehrlich. Population Resources Environment: Issues in Human Ecology. 2nd ed. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1972.

Gever, John, et al. Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger, 1986.

Gowdy, John, ed. Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader on Hunter-Gatherer Economics and the Environment. Washington, D.C.: Island, 1998.

Hopkins, Donald P. Chemicals, Humus, and the Soil. London: Faber & Faber, 1957.

Jacob, Jeffrey. New Pioneers: The Back-To-The-Land Movement and the Search for a Sustainable Future. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania UP, 1997.

Meadows, Donella H. et al. The Limits to Growth: a Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. 2nd ed. New York: Universe, 1982.

Pimentel, David, and Carl W. Hall, eds. Food and Energy Resources. Orlando: Academic, 1984.

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. He can be reached at [email protected].



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