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"Surviving Peak Oil:
Obstacles To Relocation"

By Cliff Wirth

04 September, 2008

Oil and natural gas depletion will soon begin to undermine the capacity of urban and metropolitan areas to sustain human life. Modern urban and metropolitan life depends on oil and natural gas for food production and distribution, residential heating, water purification and distribution, sanitation, and the power grid that delivers electricity for the pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, elevators, home heating controls, and automated building systems. As international food transport collapses, most oil rich nations face starvation too, regardless of how much oil they possess. Oil depletion means population decline for all urban areas.

The notion that urban and suburban dwellers will relocate to small villages in agricultural regions is unrealistic. In the ensuing Peak Oil generated global economic depression, the value of urban residential properties will plummet. Increasing unemployment will slow new house sales and accelerate mortgage and property tax foreclosures. With more and more urban homes up for sale, their prices will decline sharply.

And, as the price of urban property declines in value, rural property will increase in comparative value. Indeed, in the last few years, the prices of agricultural land have increased. Soon, to move to a rural area most urban home owners will have to sell at a low price and buy a rural property for a higher price. The financial loss in selling and buying property will stifle the relocation to rural regions for most people.

At the same time, the cost of building new homes in rural areas will increase with the increasing cost of oil and natural gas. Building materials (asphalt and fiberglass shingles, cement, plastic and aluminum siding, fiberglass insulation, glass, lumber, and bricks) are either made from oil or they are manufactured with the energy of oil, natural gas, and coal. All building materials and construction workers are transported using oil (diesel and gasoline).

Electricity that is used in the manufacture and construction of houses will also become more expensive. Coal (which is transported with diesel) and natural gas (which uses oil in exploration, drilling operations, and transport of workers) provide the energy for electric power generation. Thus coal and natural gas costs, as well as the cost of electricity, will increase with the increasing price of oil.

Similarly, the construction of residential water (wells and pumps) and sanitation systems (septic systems or outhouses in rural areas) will cost more and more as the price of oil increases..

Local governments would have to construct schools and some roads in rural areas with expanding populations in an era of declining local government revenues (due to declining property values and property taxes).. Local governments would have to raise taxes for new infrastructure at a time when citizens will vociferously oppose tax increases.

In colder regions of the world, including most of Europe and the U.S., urban to rural relocation means people moving close to wood supplies for home heating, but many agricultural areas lack significant forest land.

Inertia and procrastination are powerful forces in determining human behavior. It is basic human nature to deal with non-routine problems when they become obvious, not before. Very few people will study the Peak Oil future carefully to determine how it will impact them. Denial is encouraged by pervasive public, media, government, and business ignorance of Peak Oil impacts. Indeed, those who become vocal about Peak Oil face ridicule by the vast majority of the ignorant.

The combination of these obstacles means that only those who have ample resources and knowledge of Peak Oil impacts will be able to relocate, if they act sooner rather than later. Relocation will thus resemble a trickle of the affluent, rather than a mass movement.

As the Peak Oil economic depression undermines the value of investments and urban property, most people will be stuck where they are. When the highways fail, the movement of people from urban to rural areas will cease. That time is years away, not several decades.

Studies by scientific organizations and independent analysts indicate that global crude oil production will now begin to decline, from 74 million barrels per day to 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time demand will increase 14%. This is equivalent to a 33% drop in 7 years. The price of oil will skyrocket like never before.

No one can reverse this trend, nor can we conserve our way out of this catastrophe. Because the demand for oil is so high, it will always exceed the level of production; thus oil depletion will proceed at the same rate until all recoverable oil is extracted.

Alternatives energies will not fill the gap. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment. The proponents of the electric economy, the hydrogen economy, or an algal bio-diesel economy ignore the obvious. There is little capital, time, energy, or public will for such trillion dollar infrastructure makeovers. The belief in alternative energies is so strong that most scientists avoid examining obvious questions – does the development of alternative energies consume more energy than they provide, and do alternative energies consume liquid fuels and give us electric power, which is not what we need?

The U.S. government provides no studies to advise the Congress and president on what to do with this catastrophe. Congress and the president are so inept they don’t even know that they should commission the National Academy of Sciences to study the energy crisis and the advise the nation on how to plan for Peak Oil impacts. The NAS is the only objective body that can develop policy with the best scientists from many fields to work together cooperative to develop sound policy recommendations. And the NAS is the only authoritative source for making such policy recommendations to the nation. Thus Congress and the president grope around in the dark, relying on energy company lobbyists and well meaning “sages” who offer some plan to save the nation, but who know little about energy policy and Peak Oil impacts. FEMA has no Peak Oil risk management plans. Contingency planning for Peak Oil is an oxymoron. Around the globe, the governmental response is similar.

We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel trucks for maintenance of bridges, cleaning culverts to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables, all from far away. With the highways out, there will be no food coming in from "outside," and without the power grid virtually nothing works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated systems.

After the last power black out, the people living in rural areas will find that surviving will become increasing difficult without all of the goods from the “outside” (food, canning jars, fencing, roofing, hay, straw, seed, animal feed, plastic tarps, fertilizer, clothes, fabric, medicine, hardware, saws, wood stoves, etc.). The survivors will be the very few who live in areas with good rain and soil and who prepared intelligently for a life without oil.

Cliff Wirth is a policy analyst who writes and speaks about Peak Oil impacts, alternatives, survival, preparations, and relocation. He holds a Ph.D. in Policy Analysis and a Master's degree in Public Administration and taught policy analysis, energy policy, public administration, global urban politics, and Mexican politics at the University of New Hampshire for 27 years.

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