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What Works, Maybe: Individual Options

By Guy R. McPherson

26 April, 2010

Like global climate change, peak oil represents a predicament, not a problem. There is no politically viable solution to either of these great challenges. Political solutions require economic growth, forever, and therefore no significant sacrifice on the behalf of the electorate. Further, the industrial economy is underlain by the assumption of growth: The industrial economy grows or it dies.

As should be clear by now, we cannot grow the industrial economy while reducing use of energy. As a result, we cannot grow the economy while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Thus, we’re stuck in a politically untenable situation: To save the living planet, including habitat for our own species, we need to shrink the industrial economy. But the industrial economy requires growth. Recent research indicates we need to shrink the industrial economy to oblivion to save our species. In other words, what we really need is to kill the industrial economy before it kills us. And by us, I mean all of us: the entire collection of wise apes. As a society, clearly we have made our choice. But as an individual, you can choose to the contrary, with benefits for your psyche and quite possibly your survival.

Crude oil is the master material, the energy source that provides access to all others. Economic growth requires ever-increasing supplies of crude oil. As availability of oil declines the price goes up (with considerable variability, as we have observed during five years since we passed the world oil peak) and the industrial economy starts to sputter. When the price gets high enough, long enough, the economy simply, finally, expires.

I know no energy-literate person who thinks we’ll be able to avoid the post-industrial Stone Age by 2025. Assuming a conservative 4% annual decline rate of crude oil between now and then indicates we will have access to the same amount of oil in 2025 as we did in 1970, when the planet held half as many people as it now does and the world was considerably less industrialized than it now is. And that’s merely the gross rate of decline, whereas the net rate of decline will be much more rapid because it takes so much energy to extract and deliver energy. Oil priced a $147.27 per barrel nearly brought down the industrial economy five times I know about, and we’re hardly out of the woods yet. There is little hope for the industrial era to persist more than a few years, and the next spike in the price of oil could very well be the trigger that brings the industrial era to a sudden close in an unprepared nation.

I suspect we’ll pass through a new Dark Age en route to the post-industrial Stone Age. Indeed, many countries in the world are already there because they lack the world’s reserve currency and the world’s largest military. Bully for us: We have both, thus ensuring a steady supply of fossil-fuel-driven energy into every city and town in the United States. Well, so far.

As an aside, how long do you think we can maintain a military and a functioning industrial economy if we keep spending 58% of our budget on the former? We could stop our involvement in wars, but that would be quite un-American, wouldn’t it?

The costs of maintaining the non-negotiable American way of life are huge, even beyond simple economics. The American suburbs are the antithesis of durable living, as they require us to live far from work, far from play, and far from the places we shop for disposable items in our throw-away culture. They require obedience at home and oppression abroad. American Empire is city living (i.e., civilized), writ large.

The relatively few people paying attention to the undercurrents of the industrial economy know the ship is taking on water faster than the governments can run the printing presses. As the industrial economy continues to lurch and stumble, the vaunted American consumer loses the ability to consume (in part because inflation is rampant on items that actually matter, notably including food). Because ours is a consumer culture, with personal consumption accounting for 70% of the industrial economy, the ship is listing. The next financial crisis is already unfolding — notwithstanding absurd reports from politicians, media, and the irrational exuberance, again, in the stock markets — and governments have nearly exhausted their supply of tools to deal with economic issues. We hit the iceberg of peak oil and, as government administrators busily rearrange the deck chairs, it’s time to launch the lifeboats, even if you believe consumption is a good thing. Personally, I think it’s not, in part based on the definition:


1. To do away with completely; destroy

2a. To spend wastefully; squander
2b. Use up

3. To waste or burn away; perish

Consuming gives most people a temporary emotional “high.” We’re addicted to shopping. But I trust it’s clear why rational people want no part of the consumer economy. If we cannot terminate the industrial economy, and soon, we’ll exhaust all habitat for humans on Earth by the end of this century (and, if the models are to be believed, much sooner). Along the way, if we have our way, we’ll destroy every non-industrial culture and every non-human species.

In the face of a contracting industrial economy and the knowledge we’re headed for a situation with extremely limited access to fossil fuels, a quote from Peter Drucker comes to mind: “You can either take action, or you can hang back and hope for a miracle. Miracles are great, but they are so unpredictable.”

What’s an individual to do, in light of the imminent collapse of western civilization? In addition to hastening the collapse, some tools for which I’ve listed before, I describe four points along a continuum for your own, individual, post-carbon future: (1) transition towns, (2) agricultural anarchy, (3) hunting and gathering, and (4) traveling. I will describe each approach, briefly, as a means of generating thought, action, and perhaps even discussion.

Transition towns allow us the fantasy of keeping the current omnicidal culture going, albeit in slightly different form. This model assumes a long descent that allows time for cities to develop alternative energy sources. Think solar on every rooftop, for starters, and gardens in every suburban lot. For this approach to work, though, the food shed must be sufficiently nearby and sufficiently productive to support all the people in the transition town. This seems hugely problematic in sprawling western cities, especially those with more than a few thousand people. And for areas with limited supplies of water, or water that is several hundred feet below the surface of the ground, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario that doesn’t include massive suffering along the way to a huge die-off. The inability to store energy in the absence of fossil fuels beyond a few years in expensive, transient, and toxic batteries is a microscopic problem relative to the absence of ready access to water and food. And there’s an additional problem with the transition-town notion: I seriously doubt we have access to the fossil fuels needed to create the needed infrastructure for the 250 million city-living Americans, much less the 3.5 billion people who occupy the world’s cities. Solar panels and batteries simply won’t make the grade — there’s not enough oil left to pull this one off.

When the lights go out in the city, chaos often erupts. Is your city different? If so, will that difference persist when the lights don’t come back on, ever? I’ve often said and written that I would give my life to terminate the industrial economy, if only to alleviate the burden of oppression on the living world. I’ve no doubt, in fact, that I will make this sacrifice. And that’s okay: My insignificant life pales in contrast to the living planet and the persistence of our species. On the other hand, although I loved city life, my city was not worth dying for. So I left to prepare, recognizing that fortune favors the prepared. In contrast, Michael Ruppert, moved to his home city of Los Angeles with full knowledge L.A. would be among the city to go up in flames. Ruppert is willing to die for the privilege of comforting the afflicted there.

Agricultural anarchy was offered as a model by Thomas Jefferson, and Monticello was the prime example before it became a museum. Contemporary examples are found in nearly every “third-world” country. A large proportion of the towns and cities in Central America and South America never have had ready access to abundant fossil fuels. As a result, communities have communal water sources and people dig shallow wells and harvest rain from rooftops. On a daily basis, local markets are filled with fresh food brought from nearby gardens and farms. The power goes out frequently, and nobody seems to mind because the towns and cities are actually located in livable areas in the absence of fossil fuels to heat or cool every building (cf. Tucson, Arizona). In short, agriculture has always been, and still is, at the center of everyday life.

Hunting and gathering will doubtless make a comeback for a very few hardy, quick-witted folks. This model resembles the prior Stone Age, and clearly is the most durable approach. It worked for the first 2 million years of the human experience, and we fled from it as recently as a few thousand years ago. But if you can’t find a tribe to go along, you’ll be as lonely as a Saguaro cactus on an ice floe.

Finally, individuals can largely avoid the ravages of collapse by traveling from spot to spot. History has been kind to travelers because people rooted in a particular place hunger for knowledge. If you’re to pursue this route, you’ll need to be quick-witted, good-humored, and willing to lend a hand when needed. Also, you’ll need to recognize and avoid danger. Traveling will be terrifying, but no worse than staying in one location. And you’ll get to see the world and live an adventure-filled life, just as promised by U.S. military recruiters.

None of these options offer a life similar to the one you’ve known. But a different life doesn’t mean a worse life, especially if you give a rat’s backside about anybody besides yourself. There will be plenty of opportunities to serve your community, as there has always been, in the months and years ahead. We’ll be living closer to our neighbors and closer to the living planet that sustains us all. For those courageous, compassionate, and creative souls willing to live in the world rather than in a cubicle, life’s about to get even more interesting. For the vast majority of industrial Americans, though, life is about to become miserable and surprisingly short.

This essay was inspired by a comment from Danielle Charbonneau.

Guy R. McPherson is Profesor Emeritus at the University of Arizona. Educated in the ecology and management of natural resources, his early scholarly efforts produced many publications of little lasting importance. In mid-career, he began to focus on development and creative application of ecological theory, primarily with an eye toward conservation of biological diversity. Currently, his scholarly efforts focus on social criticism, with results that appear most frequently on newspaper op-ed pages. In addition, he facilitates research by students and he prepares synthetic documents focused on articulation of the links between (1) environmental protection, social justice, and the human economy and (2) science and its application. These efforts have produced more than 100 scholarly papers and nine books.

contact information:

Guy R. McPherson, Professor Emeritus
University of Arizona
School of Natural Resources & the Environment and
Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Biological Sciences East 325
Tucson, Arizona 85721

email: [email protected]

Original aricle can be found here with hyperlinks