Briefing for the Descent

As evidence piles up for the reality of peak oil, and more and more people start to grapple with an issue that challenges almost every assumption our society makes about the future, the issue of what to do about it becomes harder to avoid. Predictably, survivalists are popping up again with their one-size-fits-all answer. That answer first surfaced in the 1920s, when the Evangelical Christian belief in imminent apocalypse fused with traditional American rhetoric contrasting the rich, crowded, and wicked city with the poor, isolated, and allegedly more virtuous back country to create the first survivalist ideologies. Since then, survivalists have insisted that the only response to any crisis you care to imagine – epidemic disease, nuclear holocaust, race war, the advent of Antichrist, the meltdown of the world’s computer systems on January 1, 2000, and the list goes on – is to hole up in the woods with plenty of food and firearms, and live the frontier life while urban America crashes down in flames.

From a survivalist point of view, peak oil is simply one more reason to head for the hills. Still, it doesn’t fill the bill very well. True, the peaking of world oil production will usher in an age of rising energy costs and dwindling supplies, and that will bring plenty of economic, social, political, and demographic problems in its train, but I have yet to see anyone make a reasonable case that these problems will cause civilization to collapse all at once. We’re facing decline, not apocalypse, and in the face of a gradual decline unfolding over a century or more, a strategy relying on canned beans and M-16s in a cabin in the woods is a distraction at best. A more realistic view, and more useful strategies, can be found readily enough by turning from the macho fantasies of surivalists to the facts of the industrial world’s predicament. Though the future we face is not an apocalypse, four horsemen still define the most likely scenario.

First out of the starting gate is declining energy availability. Sometime between now and 2010, world petroleum production peaks, falters, and begins an uneven but irreversible descent. North American natural gas supplies start their terminal decline around the same time. Some of the slack can be taken up by coal, wind and other renewables, nuclear power, and conservation, but not all. As oil depletion accelerates, and other resources such as fissionable uranium and Eurasian natural gas hit their own production peaks, the shortfall widens, and many lifestyles and business models that depend on cheap energy become nonviable.

The second horseman, hard on the hooves of the first, is economic contraction. As petroleum production begins to decline, energy prices skyrocket as nations, regions and individuals engage in bidding wars driven to extremes by rampant speculation. The global economy, which made economic sense only in the context of the artificially low oil prices of the 1990s, comes apart at the seams, driving many import- and export-based industries onto the ropes, setting off a wave of bankruptcies and business failures, and causing shortages of many consumer products, all the way down to such essentials as food and clothing. Soaring energy prices have the same effect more directly in many areas of the domestic economy. Unemployment climbs to Great Depression levels and poverty becomes widespread.

The third horseman, following the second by a length or two, is collapsing public health. As poverty rates spiral upwards, shortages and energy costs impact the food supply chain, energy intensive health care becomes unaffordable for all but the obscenely rich, and global warming and ecosystem disruption drive the spread of tropical and emerging diseases, malnutrition and disease become major burdens. People begin to die of what were once minor, treatable conditions, and chronic illnesses such as diabetes become death sentences as medicines price themselves out of reach. Death rates soar as rates of live birth slump, launching the first wave of population contraction.

The fourth horseman, galloping along in the wake of the first three, is political turmoil. What political scientists call “liberal democracy” is a system in which competing elite groups buy the loyalty of sectors of the electorate by handing out economic largesse. That system depends on abundant fossil fuels and the industrial economy they make possible. Many of today’s political institutions will not survive the end of cheap energy, and the changeover to new political arrangements will likely involve violence. International affairs face similar realignments as nations whose power and influence depend on access to abundant, cheap energy fall from their present positions of strength, while “backward” nations find their less energy-dependent economies becoming a source of strength rather than weakness in world affairs. If history is any guide, these power shifts will work themselves out on the battlefield.

The most important thing to remember about all four of these factors is that they’re self-limiting in the middle term. As energy prices soar, economies contract, and the demand for energy decreases, bringing prices back down. As the global economy comes apart, human needs remain, and local economies take up the slack as best they can with the resources on hand, producing new opportunities and breathing new life into moribund sectors of the economy. As public health fails, populations decline, taking pressure off all other sectors of the economy. As existing political arrangements collapse, finally, new regimes take their place, and like all new regimes these can be counted on to put stability at the top of their agendas. Thus we’re facing a period of crisis perhaps a quarter century long, followed by a period of renewed stability, with another round of crises waiting in the wings. Historically speaking, this is how civilizations fall, in a stair-step process alternating periods of crisis with breathing spaces at progressively lower levels of economic and political integration.

This is the predicament we face. Fortunately for us, it’s a familiar one for our species. None of the four horsemen I’ve just described are new arrivals on the scene; our great-grandparents knew them well, and today they are familiar to the vast majority of our species. Only the inhabitants of the world’s industrialized societies have had the opportunity to forget about them, and then only during the second half of the 20th century. Before then, most people knew how to deal with their presence, and those strategies remain viable today. The one hitch is that we have to be ready to put them into practice. Since the world’s governments have by and large dropped the ball completely, it’s up to individuals to get ready for the future ahead of us. Each of the four horsemen requires a different response, and so different preparations will be needed for each.

To cope with the first horseman, reducing energy use is the core strategy. The less energy you need to keep yourself alive and comfortable, the easier you can cope when energy costs spin out of control. Minor tinkerings aren’t going to be enough, though; you need to pursue the sort of comprehensive changes in energy use pioneered so successfully in the 1970s. Plan on cutting your energy use by half, to start with, and be ready to cut it further as needed. That means significant changes in lifestyle for most people, of course. In particular, commuting by car has to become a bad memory, and if this requires you to move, get a new job, or change your lifestyle, that’s what it requires. Get rid of your car if you can; if you can’t, trade in your gas hog for a light, efficient compact, and keep it in the garage under a tarp except when you actually need it. While you’re at it, practice coping with blackouts, brownouts, and other forms of energy shortage; they’ll be frequent visitors in the future.

To cope with the second horseman, choosing a viable profession forms the essential step. Most of the jobs in America today don’t produce necessary goods and services, and most goods and many ervices used in America today aren’t produced here. This mismatch promises massive economic disruptions during the crisis period, as an economy and a work force geared to sales, retail, and information processing collides with a new economic reality that has little room for these but a desperate need to produce food, clothing, and basic technologies. Anyone prepared to step into a viable economic role in this new reality has a much better chance of surviving, or even thriving. You need to choose a craft that can be done with modest energy inputs, and makes something people need or want badly enough to buy even in hard times. Think of market gardening, garment sewing, home appliance repair, and beer brewing as examples. You’ll need to get your training and tools in advance, of course, and the sooner you hang out your shingle the better, even if it’s just a hobby-business patronized by your friends until the crises hit.

To cope with the third horseman, taking charge of your own health is the central task. Modern medicine is one of the most energy- and resource-intensive sectors of the economy, and it’s already priced itself out of reach of nearly half of all Americans. By the time the first wave of crises is well under way, you can assume that your only health care is what you can provide for yourself. Plan on learning about preventive medicine and sanitation, taking wilderness first aid classes, and arranging for do-it-yourself health care in any other way you can. Don’t neglect alternative health care methods, either; while there’s some quackery in the alternative field, there’s also much of value, and the denunciations of alternative health care issued by the medical establishment are simply attempts to protect market share. Finally, get used to the inevitability of death. you probably won’t live as long as you used to expect, and if you need high-tech medical help to stay alive, you’ll die as soon as that stops being available. Death is simply part of the human condition. The stark terror of death that haunts people in industrial societies is a luxury a deindustrializing world can’t afford.

To cope with the fourth horseman, community networking provides the necessary response. This doesn’t mean the sort of Utopian projects that were tried, and failed so dismally, during the Sixties; it means the proven and effective approaches that have been used for hundreds of years by people who learned that working together is an essential tool for survival. If you’ve participated in a block watch, shopped at a farmers market, or belonged to a community service organization, you’ve taken part in community networking activities. In the future, local citizens will need to maintain basic community services such as sanitation, dispute resolution, and public safety during times when government no longer functions. Getting to know your neighbors, and participating in local community organizations, helps build connections that will make the ad hoc arrangements needed in a crisis a viable possibility.

Each of these strategies deserves further discussion on its own, of course. I’ll go into much more detail here in the weeks to come.