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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org