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Planning For A Post-Oil Economy

By Peter Goodchild

04 September, 2006

The most basic principle of post-oil survival is that one has to start thinking in terms of a smaller radius of activity. The globalized economy has to be replaced by the localized economy.

Most food will be produced at a local level. It is even likely that each family will have to produce its own food. The catch in growing food, however, is that about two-thirds of the world's surface is permanently unsuitable for growing food. In many cases, the climate is too severe: too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry. In other cases, the land is too barren to support anything but a sparse growth of wild plants, which in any case are simply growing and then dying and replacing their own material. The other one-third of the world's land has been used for agriculture for centuries, but the result is that the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium (N, P, K) and other elements, as well as the humus, have long been depleted, and food production has been maintained only by massive inputs of synthetic fertilizer. In addition, that farmland is crowded and expensive.

Nevertheless, a small human population might survive on agriculture, at least if it reverted to some primitive methods. Some Asian cultures brought wild plant material from the mountains and used it as fertilizer, thereby making use of the N-P-K (etc.) of the wilderness. The nutrient "source" of the wilderness fed the nutrient "sink" of the farmland. (This is the basic principle behind all "organic gardening.")

Other Asian cultures recycled all materials as much as possible, especially human and animal feces. Of course, one cannot create a perpetual-motion machine: every time those materials are recycled, a certain amount of N-P-K is lost to leaching and evaporation.

A third technique, found in Asia as well as in other parts of the world, is to grow legumes or other plants that absorb nitrogen from the air. Unfortunately there are no similar tricks for phosphorus or potassium; plants with very deep roots can draw some of these elements from far underground, but not enough to turn barren land into farmland.

All over the world, many primitive cultures simply grew crops in one area for a few years and then abandoned that plot, cut and burned another patch of forest or jungle, and started a new garden. Such a practice is hard on the environment, but for a sparsely inhabited region the technique is feasible.

If one is living mainly on cultivated plants, at least a half-acre per person would be needed. For example, one could live - barely - on about 800 pounds of dried non-sweet corn (maize) per year, but the yield per acre of corn, under primitive conditions, is not likely to be over 1,500 pounds.

The most useful crops would be those that are high in carbohydrates and protein. Crops that are susceptible to diseases, pests, bad soil, or bad weather should be avoided. In North America up to about the 50th parallel, the most important crops would be open-pollinated corn, beans, and squash - the same crops on which the native people were living for thousands of years. In other parts of the world, other grains might be more suitable: rye, barley, wheat, oats, sorghum, millet, rice, buckwheat.

Where farming isn't practical, foraging (hunting and gathering) may be the answer. It is generally impossible to live just on wild plants, so hunting, trapping, and fishing would be important skills. One is more likely to succeed - i.e. get at least something to eat - with small animals, but larger animals such as moose provide more food per hour of hunting. The hides provide clothing, the bones provide tools. A rifle or shotgun would be handy until there was no more ammunition. One should learn how to use and make bows and arrows. Deadfalls and snares could be used for many species.

Foraging was possible in ancient times only because there was low population density; that same low density might recur after the collapse of the modern western economy, as the result of famine, plague, and war. Latter-day foragers could also take advantage of the process of urbanization that has been characteristic of so many countries since the Industrial Revolution. As people moved from the countryside to the city, the result for those rural areas was sometimes not just a relative decline in population, but an absolute one.

Transportation will be limited. Asphalt is made from oil; as the price of oil rises, so will the price of asphalt, and paved roads will therefore go unrepaired. As social chaos intensifies, the maintenance of paved roads will be further reduced. When those roads are not repaired, it will take little time for them to become cracked and unusable, and they will often be blocked by smashed and abandoned cars. In any case, the main roads will generally be going in the wrong directions: from one city to another, exactly where people will not want to go - they will want to go over the hills, to greener pastures.

There would only be three practical methods of travel: on foot, in a non-motorized boat, or on horseback. One's speed by any of these three methods will be about the same: 25 miles per day, if one is in good shape. Even where paved roads are usable, bicycles would be hard to repair without the industrial infrastructure to provide the spare parts and the servicing.

Those who live in the country will be better prepared than those who live in the city. A city is a place that consumes a great deal and produces little, at least in terms of essentials. A city without incoming food or water collapses rapidly, whereas a small community closely tied to the natural environment can more easily adjust to technological and economic change.

Peter Goodhchild : Chicago Review Press has published Peter Goodhchild's Survival Skills of the North American Indians, Raven Tales, and The Spark in the Stone. He has an M.A. in English from the University of Toronto. For ten years he was a teacher in both English as a second language and computer skills; two of those years were spent in Japan. He now own and manage a market garden in Irondale, Ontario, where he is involved in issues of self-sufficiency and localized economy. He can be reached at









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