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Major Problems Of Surviving Peak Oil

By Norman

18 October, 2006

"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." -
George Orwell

Rob Hopkins says in ‘Why the Survivalists Have Got It Wrong’ that he has very little time for the survivalist response to peak oil, and refers to ‘Preparing for a Crash: Nuts and Bolts’ by Zachary Nowak.

Rob may well be partially right but he, like Zachary Nowak and many other ‘community’ minded people tend to miss or are just in denial with the true reality of what the effects of Peak Oil will really mean.


One of the words that seem to go with ‘community’ is ‘renewable’. These words seem to go hand in hand, so let us take a look at them starting with ‘renewable energy’.

There are many fascinating and exciting renewable energy developments from wind turbines, solar energy and biomass etc. These are all important energy sources for the future and they could help keep the electricity grid going to some degree!

The popular assumption is that these renewable energy sources 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.

On top of this we must remember that the energy budget must always be positive and 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 show a worthwhile budget surplus.

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.


In Powerdown, Richard Heinberg states, “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.”

He also goes on to say that, self-sustaining communities may become cultural lifeboats in times to come and that “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.”

Now this may be true but no matter how prepared an intentional community or organized neighbourhood may be, it will still be adversely impacted in some way. The changes that are about to effect the world will also affect these communities.

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 purchase loans.

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 as well.

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.

So we can see that although ‘communities’ are all very nice, and lets be honest, if everybody was a nice, honest, law abiding, thoughtful and loving citizens then ‘community’ would stand a chance. But we are not, we are generally self centred, selfish and only interested in self preservation, so ‘communities’ are going to be just as susceptible to the same problems others will have during the collapse.

They are also very likely to become the focal point for those who have got nothing or have done nothing and this is when those dangerous consequences may happen.

How reasonable do you think people are going to be when their children are dying of dehydration, they can't take a bath, they can't cook a hot meal? With our interdependent society once the power (electric) goes then other services like water and sewage will be close behind.

Most people have never had to cope with sustained, substantial levels of fear, either in themselves or in others in close proximity. I will say I believe you should be prepared to see and deal with behaviour you would never have believed possible from civilized humans. The reason you should avoid crowds has to do with the fact that individual frustration is one thing, but the frustration of many people feeds individual frustration and fear, which, of course, feeds the frustration of the crowd.

The cycle will feed itself until either the root source of frustration is relieved or there is a catastrophic event, such as a riot or even worse.

Welcome to the real world of social collapse, where families are sundered, and children and good, knowing people die because of the complacency, confusion, and naiveté' of the unaware, which are at least as hazardous as weather, injury, and malicious action.


Peter Goodchild in his paper ‘Peak Oil and the Problem of Infrastructure’ states:

‘Most schemes for a post-oil technology are based on the misconception that there will be an infrastructure, similar to that of the present day, which could support such future gadgetry. Modern equipment, however, is dependent on specific methods of manufacture, transportation, maintenance, and repair. In less abstract terms, this means machinery, motorized vehicles, and service depots or shops, all of which are generally run by fossil fuels. In addition, one unconsciously assumes the presence of electricity, which energizes the various communications devices, such as telephones and computers; electricity on such a large scale is only possible with fossil fuels.’……

He goes on to say:

‘It is not only oil that will soon be gone. Iron ore of the sort that can be processed with primitive equipment is becoming scarce, and only the less-tractable forms will be available when the oil-powered machinery is no longer available’……..

‘Without fossil fuels, the most that is possible is a pre-industrial infrastructure, although one must still ignore the fact that the pre-industrial world did not fall from the sky as a prefabricated structure but took uncountable generations of human ingenuity to develop. The next problem is that a pre-industrial blacksmith was adept at making horseshoes, but not at making or repairing solar-energy systems.’

‘Fossil fuels, metals, and electricity are all intricately connected. …..If we imagine a world without fossil fuels, we must imagine a world without metals or electricity. What we imagine, at that point, is a society far more primitive than the one to which we are accustomed.’

We seem to be in a state of delusional thinking and the only thing we’re debating at present is how we’re going to keep the cars running without oil.


Another thing that seems to be ‘politically incorrect’ and is therefore not considered or discussed is the notion that we will be able to continue to support the numbers that we do at present.

Clearly, when fossil fuels run out, mankind will be forced either to reduce its standard of living dramatically, or reduce its total population size dramatically, or turn to sources of energy other than solar which can not support the numbers that we have now.

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 meagre living amid the crumbling ruins of a once-great civilisation.’

‘This Die Off scenario makes a shocking contrast to the cosy fantasies of perpetual progress most people cherish.’

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 million.

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.

We are in fantasy land if we think that we can continue to support the number of people that we do now without the full input of oil and related products.

There are just way too many people who depend on civilization for their every day survival for there to be a "soft landing" as some would hope.

We have become so dependent on those fuels, that there is no way we can sustain ourselves at this population density and level of technology without them. Even something as basic as food becomes impossible to produce, process and transport without fuel.

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 happen again. I think it quite probable that it will start very slowly, may be so slowly that we may not even see it start.

It will take time for civilization to come apart, and the process will be like rolling down a slope, not like falling off a cliff. We will face a future of shortages, economic crises, disintegrating infrastructure, and collapsing public health, probably stretched out over a period of decades.

The notion of holing up in a cabin in the hills with a stockpile of food and firearms is also not a realistic response. 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 are going to value it enough to trade what will be scarce resources for it.

Many of the things that we take for granted -- food, water, heat, electricity, waste removal, medical care, and police protection -- will evaporate as the collapse accelerates. Riots will probably begin as food and water becomes scarce. Governments will attempt to take control of the situation and restore order, but it will become so widespread that it will be impossible. The primary killers will then become disease, starvation, dehydration, and suicide.

Of course once the fossil fuels run out, or become too expensive and/or problematic to extract then there will be no way to rebuild. There will be no energy source that can power a civilization like this ever again. We will have used it, squandered it and it can not be replaced. Full stop!

There may be pockets of survivors who will be able to harness wind, water and sun using civilized technology for a while, but eventually the machines will wear out.

Where do you buy replacement parts, how do you make parts without plastic or wires?

How do you refine the metals needed to make circuits and transistors?

Those who know, no longer do; those who do, no longer know. How much knowledge will manage to survive the post collapse period, for the time that comes after when it may become useful again?

The problem is that all the technology upon which we have come to depend requires a complete and sophisticated infrastructure to produce and maintain it, and that infrastructure is based on fossil fuels. Take that away, and the rest is all but impossible.


Firstly let me say that I do not believe or consider ‘communities’ to be a direct viable long term solution. For the reasons stated above I do not believe that communities that have been formed before the collapse will survive the coming chaos of the collapse.

There may be some groups or communities that may come through relatively unscathed but that will be more by luck than judgement and they will be in the minority.

Firstly a small community cannot hope to do more than exist and decline. Small communities will in the end, quite inevitably, gradually fade-out; if there are children you would only be able to spare enough time from your labour to give them just a rudimentary education; one generation further, and you would have savages or clods.

Larger ‘community’ groups sound good in theory but once you begin investigating actual examples, serious problems often become apparent. There are too many rules and regulations, or too few; there is great difficulty in getting a good balance of needed skills in the group since awareness of the needs do not even roughly coincide with a cross section of occupations in a balanced community.

I always work along the lines of ‘Prepare for the worst and pray for the best’. So I do not rely on people still being nice. I believe it would be foolish in the extreme to place ones hopes, and the well-being of one’s family, on the anticipation that in this respect the status quo will last.


My suggestion is that you have a built in redundancy. A second plan, have another string to your bow. I do not believe that we can stop the crash but I believe that we can, to a degree, prepare ourselves and those close to us for the aftermath.

The thing that needs to be understood is that the scale of the anticipated turbulence and its effects will be literally imposable to estimate. Firstly, the energy problem will not appear one day and be critical the next, but will build up over time. Government efforts to cope with the problem and its effects will bring ever more severe restrictions on energy use by individuals, reserving what is available for the high priority items that make civilisation possible. Mass transport, heating and, of course, the production and distribution of food.

These factors have to be taken into account in drawing up a schedule for implementation of the plans discussed below, since the inevitable restrictions on movement will hamper the effort. The worsening situation and official attempts to cope will have to be evaluated closer to the time and suitable measures taken to adjust the schedule and the plan.

It should also be noted that the event I’m talking about is the sort that completely rules out the possibility of a return to the way we are now, something that affects a significant section of the world’s population.

So firstly you need to be aware and watch for the signs of collapse, as already stated the collapse will probably be so slow that you will not know that it has started. This can be very difficult but by reading between the lines you should be able to get a very good idea of how things are going.

Secondly you need what I call a ‘bug-out bag’, also known as a go kit, go bag, 72-hour kit, run bag and other names, is a container which keeps essential survival items readily available in case of an emergency.

This should include short term supplies (like emergency food, matches, camping equipment, etc. that will get you through the first six months) and longer term supplies (like an excellent knife, magnesium fire starter, ceramic water filter, etc. that may hopefully last you for many years).

The kit should be easy to transport and not dependent on motorized transportation (since fuel may not be available). It should be something that you could carry easily, may be a back pack. You should also consider setting up a few caches particularly for your longer term supplies and items that will not deteriorate over time.

Knives are a must for inclusion in any BoB. In addition to usage as a weapon, knives are multi-purpose tools that can also be used as a cutting instrument, a hunting spear, a glass breaker, and steel against flint for fire starting, among other uses.

Next you need to prepare an escape plan in order to escape the destructive change that is likely to come. Where you plan to escape to will depend on where you live and it may be that you will decide that you would be better of staying at your current location, for an indeterminate amount of time but you should still have your escape plan and BoB for you never know.

When considering where you might ‘bug-out’ to give some consideration to having easy and safe access to relatively fresh water, away from (and preferably upwind from) major population centres, and with a reasonable food supply (i.e. lots of edible wild plants and animals). Also consider that there will be others in your chosen area and they may not be friendly.

It should be obvious that the mass hysteria and unbridled fear stemming from a crisis of the magnitude contemplated here will not have a calming effect upon the hatred and fragmentation that already exist in our society. In addition to the violence-prone, there will be the element of normally decent people who didn't prepare and who will try to take what they need by whatever means necessary to keep themselves and their families alive.

Clearly there are places where the odds of discovery would be greatly in your favour, but if you should be stumbled upon by looters, remote from any possible aid, the superior force would almost certainly prevail.

Further, if your security were to depend on remaining undiscovered for an extended period of time, the hardships and limitations placed upon you would be enormous.

For one thing, raising animals for food would be virtually impossible and even cultivating a garden conveniently near would be a hazard. The emotional strain of keeping constantly quiet and hidden would also be burdensome to most including particularly any children

Next is to learn about your chosen place. Learn about the land including what is edible or medicinal and what is not. Learn about the climate and seasonal patterns. Visit it as often as you can often and get to know its voice.

The last thing to do is to learn as much about primal living as possible. By primal living I mean learning the skills that will allow you to live in a post oil world the indefinitely.

The Importance of Skills and Knowledge.

These are the practical ‘survival’ skills. There are many who find even the word ‘survival’ difficult to understand, but survival is what it will come down to but having said that there will be no guarantee that you be among the survivors.

These skills must include (but are not limited to) building shelter, tracking, hunting, fishing, making tools, making fire, making clothes, preparing and using medicinal plants, finding water, and identifying edible plants. If possible you should get some practical experience with all of these, but at the very least you should read as much as you can so that you at least have a chance.

These skills would enable you to go into the woods and come out with food, give you the ability to make a fire without a match or butane lighter. You would be able to make a shelter capable of keeping you warm even during the chilliest of nights, and most important of all you should be able to find and purify water.

It would also help if you were able to make your own bow and arrows. I am not being silly over this but how long do you think bullets will last for your gun, and this would more of a problem here in the UK with current firearm laws.

These are not skills that you should take lightly; they are skills that you will need to know if you hope to survive. You may survive without a few of them for a while, but your odds of surviving throughout the first winter without civilized comforts and without these skills would not be in your favour.

Learn these things now. They are not things to look at and think that since you know how to do them, though not expertly, that you will survive. Learn them and then do them everyday as practice until you have to do them everyday because of necessity. Do them until your muscle memory could do them without you even having to think about them. Rely on your memory. Do not rely on something you may or may not have with you. Even more important, teach all of this to your children and grandchildren.

Some suggest that you then find a group of people who feel as you do and who share your core values, and plan to leave together when the time comes. Now it may be that you will be able achieve this, but sorry to say I feel it is utopia to expect a group to come together and stay together when you really have no idea how long society will take to collapse. I would suggest that you prepare as a family and if you can persuade others to see the forthcoming problems then help and persuade them to prepare as a family. Then if those families do manage to come together later then you may have the beginnings of a group.

I think that it quite possible that people and even your family will think you nuts and off your head to even contemplate such a thing. So having said that, it will I feel in all probability be that your group or ‘tribe’ will form after the collapse. I know this is not the best way but I feel that this is what may well happen.

We must remember that in the world post-collapse there will be many items that we would consider ‘must-haves’. Everything post collapse that a person needs that they currently depend on modern society to provide for them will have be made by hand.

"If you can't make it from scratch with what you find on the ground, don't expect to have it."

Each of this requires a lot of secondary knowledge that is not explicitly listed. For instance, learning how to make fire requires a certain level of knowledge about trees and tree identification. Making most weapons, tools, and clothes would require cordage. Flintknapping requires a rather thorough knowledge of a variety of stones and where to look for them.

Another thing to keep in mind is that this is only the must-haves. The like-to-have and would-be-nice-to-have lists are quite a bit longer. It is quite a bit to learn, but luckily it's all inter-related. Medicinal and edible plants often differ only in the method of delivery, part of the plant, and the amount ingested. Also, flintknapping will help with making those weapons. Depending on the shelter, the skills of making clothes, weapons, or skinning an animal might be relevant.

Let me close with quote from “Planning for a Post-Oil Economy” by Peter Goodchild.

‘The society of the future has never been described, but at least a number is available. Scholars in various disciplines have found that a "tribe" of about 100 people seems best. That is roughly the size of the "working group" to be found in most foraging or agrarian societies, as well as in many of the more advance types of society.

Small groups have their problems, but in terms of providing happiness for the average person, the band or village is more efficient than the empire.’

‘A small human population might survive on agriculture, at least if it reverted to some primitive methods.’……

"To our grandfathers and grandchildren, the cavemen...."

(Rene Barjavel 1911 - 1985)

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