What happens after peak oil hits? James Howard Kunstler in his book, The Long Emergency, paints a dark picture of the “end of industrial growth, falling standards of living, economic desperation, declining food production and domestic political strife”.
History of Peak Oil
Peak oil is the new buzz phrase among the environmentally concerned and the survivalist groups. The Hubbert Peak Oil theory was introduced in 1956 by Doctor Marion King Hubbert, an American geophysicist who worked for Shell in a petroleum research lab. His original research paper was titled, “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels”. The basic premise is that oil is a finite, natural resource and depletes over time. Obviously, the more we consume the less that remains. In any location where oil is found, crude oil production follows a bell curve shape. First, the oil is discovered and the amount produced is at zero but increases rapidly. Eventually, more and more oil is extracted until it becomes more difficult and more costly, at which point the rate of production decreases.
An example of this bell curve collapse in oil production is Cantarell. An oil field in Mexico, Cantarell was the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Oil production peaked in 2004-05 at over 2 million barrels per day; 2006 saw a decline of 13% and 2008 saw a decline of 36%. Cantarell now produces just 772,000 barrels per day. (hubbertpeak.com).
Now, the first argument against Peak Oil is that we are still discovering oil reserves. Yes, new oil has been found in places such as Brazil and ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). But we are only finding roughly one barrel for every six barrels we consume. The International Energy Agency suggests that without huge investments, the decline in production of the 400 largest oilfields in the world will be about 9%. As Richard Heinberg points out: “Considering regular crude oil only, this means that 6.825 million barrels a day of new production capacity must come online each year just to keep up with the aggregate natural decline rate in existing oilfields. That’s a new Saudi Arabia every 18 months” (sharonastyk.com).
The second problem we face is that we are now left with poorer quality oil. The “fresh oil”—low-sulfur, sweet, crude oil—that was first discovered was easy to extract and relatively clean. The remaining oil is becoming increasingly more difficult to extract and also requires more refining—which is more expensive and less efficient.
Many people argue that renewable energies such as solar and wind will replace our dependency on fossil fuels. There are two problems with relying on these energies. First of all, we’re doing too little too late. According to the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), recent studies show that bio-fuels could supply 30% to 40% of U.S. petroleum products by 2030. That’s great—but that’s obviously not enough. Secondly, the production of renewable energies requires, guess what, fossil fuels. Solar panel production plants require a supply of oil and electricity (fired by coal). Oil is necessary for running the trucks that will deliver these new technologies. Any plastic parts require petrochemicals.
Possible Consequences of Peak Oil
Peak oil activists argue about when the peak will be, or if has already been reached. Many believe that oil production has already peaked, others argue that we can delay the peak. The other argument is about the severity of the consequences of the peak—will things deteriorate quickly or will there be a gradual decline? Will we see major effects in our lifetime or will the effects hit our children and grandchildren? Finally, what will the effects of peak oil be? Will we be able to rally some sort of defense?
For homesteaders, it almost doesn’t matter. A lot of what we do to work towards self-sufficiency is also useful when planning for peak oil. However, being aware of peak oil may help in planning and prioritizing. In what I will call a peak-oil world or a post-oil world, the government will probably not be equipped for handling the consequences of declining oil. The leaders don’t have a Plan B… but you can.
So what are some possible effects for you to consider? The difficulty of dealing with peak oil is that petroleum and its byproducts are so prevalent in our society. Some areas of concern as listed by peakoil.com are:
- Food production and packaging
- Roads and infrastructure
Does that list really leave anything out? Anyone who drives a car or heats with oil will feel the pinch of increased fuel prices. The same goes for businesses; airlines and shipping services already add a fuel surcharge for their services.
One of the industries that will be most heavily affected here in the U.S. will be the trucking industry. Since our country is so large, we rely heavily on the trucking industry to provide transportation between manufacturers and markets. How will a crunch in the trucking industry affect the already flagging economy or the transportation of goods, particularly food supplies?
Peak Oil Preparation
Recognizing that there is a problem looming is the first step. Regardless of how seriously you take peak oil, there’s no argument that fossil fuels are finite and that our need to switch over to something renewable will probably be bumpy, at least.
The next task, which will help you in the future no matter how rosy it is, is to learn how to deal with stress. Perhaps you once found solace in a spiritual practice but have let that practice go—consider taking it up again. Or maybe you could learn more about meditation or deep breathing. Do some inspirational reading about people who have made it through tough times: the early settlers and pioneers, the saints, the Ingalls. Really listen to the stories of your relatives who lived through the Great Depression.
In addition, look at the dynamics of your family. Do you and your partner have different strengths and weaknesses? What tasks would he or she perform better? What role do you have in the family? How strong is your partnership and is there anything you can do now to strengthen the bond? How strong are the relationships between parents and child(ren) and between siblings? In a peak oil world, families may be spending a lot more time together and may have to truly depend on each other for support and survival (think Grapes of Wrath). Would it be worthwhile to begin to spend more time together now? How might your extended family fit in? Would they need your help or would they possibly become an asset?
Next, begin forming your own Plan B. If gas prices were prohibitive, how might that affect you and your family? What would happen if you couldn’t get to work or your children couldn’t get to school? What if the cost of food rose to astronomical prices or if there was a shortage in your area? What if medical costs were too expensive or medical care was unavailable? Remember that one of the greatest antidotes to worry is preparation.
When looking around your home, think about ways you can cut energy costs (you probably do that already). One of your biggest cost probably is (and will be) your heating and cooling costs. Consider spending that tax refund for the installation of a wood stove. Use some birthday money to pay for ceiling fans. Already, people are feeling the crunch of paying for heating so develop an alternative for your home now.
Stockpiling food is always a good idea as it provides insurance against other, short term disasters or even against short term personal finance disasters. The following link provides a food calculator so you can get a sense of how much food and water you need to store per person: lds.about.com/library/bl/faq/blcalculator.htm. Recently our water didn’t work due to unseasonably cold weather. I was smug as I lugged our emergency gallons of water up from the basement—until I saw just how quickly we were using up that water—and that didn’t count bathing or washing clothes!
Some people balk at stockpiling because it takes too much money and/or space. Take baby steps. Adding just ten dollars to your grocery bill probably won’t make much difference but you could use that money to buy ten cans of beans. Plan on coming home from each trip with just a few more items to add to your pile. As for storage, get creative. Can you store stuff under the bed or in those hard to reach places at the back of the cupboard? Consider building a root cellar or even using season extension techniques (it’s easier to “store” produce in the ground until you need it).
Another way to boost your food supply is to plant some perennial plants this year—fruit and nut trees, timber trees if you can heat with wood, berries, and culinary and/or medicinal herbs. Try to invest in a few of these plants each year. This ensures that you have a variety of plants to eat from and it also reduces the number of materials you have to bring in each year. It’s possible that seeds may be harder to come by in later years but with perennial plants, you will still have food.
If you are still in the stages of looking for a homestead, peak oil activists disagree about the best location for thriving in a peak-oil world. Some have argued that living at least 200 miles from a major city is best. Others who are also concerned about global warming suggest moving much further north. I prefer Sharon Astyk’s suggestion to “adapt in place”. It may not be feasible to move to the country right now or to move to Canada—but it is feasible to begin working towards self-sufficiency right now, regardless of where you are.
Work on getting out of debt now. If the cost of things continues to rise, the last thing you want to be doing is making “useless” payments on debt. Learn to live at or below your means now. Once you pay your debt off, consider investing the money, either in actual investments or in your homestead and stockpile. Debt is always a problem hanging over your head—shoot it down as soon as you can.
Inflation is likely in a post-oil world and so you may want to consider investing against that inflation if possible. Some people suggest investing in TIPS -Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities. These are bonds guaranteed by the government that are also guaranteed to keep up with rising prices. You may also consider I Bonds, which are available from the government and are also guaranteed against inflation. Other advisers suggest investing in real estate or commodities such as gold, though these are considered riskier investments.
Jobs might change as a result of peak oil. Unemployment will probably continue to rise. Some jobs will become obsolete as industries change or disappear. The rise in part-time jobs, fewer hours, and fewer benefits will probably continue as well. Now is the time to see if you can make changes in your career. Perhaps you can convince your employer to let you work from home, at least some days of the week—this would save on transportation costs. It might also be helpful to develop a small side business, bone up on innovations in your field, or begin education if you were already contemplating a career change. The more skills and contacts you have, the better position you will be in to find new work or “supplemental income”.
Many argue that peak oil will bring about a collapse in our formal economy. At best, prices will probably continue to rise, making it increasingly difficult to purchase goods and we may begin to experience shortages of goods. Consider making better use of the informal economy. What skills can you barter to obtain what you need or want? Are you familiar with Freecycle? What resources do you already possess that you can trade for what you need?
Try to develop a frugal lifestyle. This allows you to prepare for a world in which costs may be quite high and/or products may be unavailable. If this scenario becomes reality, it won’t be as much of a shock to “make do or do without”. In the short term, a frugal mindset will help you with your other goals such as getting out of debt, preparing the homestead, and stocking up on essentials. You will also be learning necessary skills of making your own and keeping what you already have in working order. And start putting that money to good use right now. When you manage to avoid buying that six-pack of soda, take that same money and buy some canned fruit for your stockpile.
Hold occasional discussions with your partner, your children, and your extended family. See that you and your partner are on the same page; if you aren’t, explain why this preparation is important to you and how it benefits the family even if peak oil has minor consequences. Also, explain to your children why you are working towards self-sufficiency. Of course, the discussion should be age appropriate but even younger ones can understand the moral of Aesop’s “The Ant and The Grasshopper”. Finally, have some talks with your extended family. This one might not go as well but they’re probably used to your “kooky” ways by now. At least put the concept of peak oil into their consciousness. And try to get a sense of how prepared they are for any disaster. You might find that the older generation already has this mindset since they lived through the Great Depression and a World War.
Utility Free Weekends—take one weekend in the summer and one weekend in the winter and do without utilities. You will quickly find the holes in your system. Are you truly capable of keeping the house warm without the heating system? Do you have enough water saved for each person? How will you prepare your meals? These “utility boot camps”, as Sharon Astyk calls them, will help you figure out what to work on next.
If the national infrastructure begins to collapse, no longer will we be able to pretend that we are autonomous. We are going to need our local community. Reach out to your neighbors now. Make contact with local farmers, civic leaders, and religious leaders. Work out a bartering system with some of your neighbors now. Trade seeds and share gardening secrets. Ferret out local food sources and if the farmer is willing to share trade secrets, listen up! Building community is also helpful for skill swapping—maybe your neighbor would be willing to teach you how to sew if you agree to teach her how to can food. (Read Building Community Through Bartering and Trading)
Again, some of these skills could turn out to be extremely useful in a post-oil world but they are also useful for most homesteaders to cultivate—a win-win situation!
Join an Auxiliary: Joining the volunteer fire department or the search and rescue team allows for free training. It’s also a good opportunity to help strengthen the community and make new contacts which might prove useful.
Hunting, Fishing, and Gun Safety: Some people argue that the first purchases a survivalist should make are a gun and ammo. If we faced a situation of mass chaos, I don’t know how useful a single gun would be against hordes of desperate people. That said, there are potential benefits for learning how to use a gun now: in a post-oil world, it might take much longer for the police to arrive at your house, communities might have to set up local “militias” like the ones of the 1700s, and of course, and maybe most importantly, guns can be used to hunt. If you truly need to provide your own food, you may have to follow the previous practice of eating more produce in the summer and relying on meat during the winter. Of course, it’s important to learn (and teach) gun safety while learning how to shoot. Fishing is another related skill that may come in handy for supplementing your food supply.
Foraging: Learn how to safely supplement your food supply with wild foods. Find someone who is knowledgeable about mushrooms and go mushroom hunting. Learn how to use those bucketfuls of nuts that rain down on your car in the autumn. Don’t forget that many wild plants can be safely used as medicines if you find a knowledgeable guide to show you. (read Go Wildcrafting!)
Gardening: This skill is obvious—you will need to be able to grow most, if not all, of your food. And most homesteaders start with this skill. However, the difference here is that you need to consider how you can garden with little to no inputs. How will you amend the soil if you are unable to ship topsoil in from the local garden shop? How will you deal with pests if chemical pesticides and herbicides are not available? What if grow lights become cost prohibitive? Most importantly, how will you get seeds if you can’t afford to buy from the nurseries or seeds are just plain unavailable because of high demand or transportation issues? Next season, see if you can reduce the number of materials you need to bring in from elsewhere.
Medical Skills: Basic first aid is essential, even without the concern of oil depletion. Take a course from the Red Cross and learn first aid and CPR. Also, how will you handle things if you can’t reach a hospital or if the emergency room is too full to deal with all of the patients? Read up on birthing a baby or easing a person’s passing from this life. Consider taking a wilderness survival class that can teach you about making a splint, dealing with a concussion, recognizing hypothermia, stopping bleeding, and so forth.
Medications may be hard to come by as well. Many medications contain petrochemicals and so will be cost prohibitive or unavailable. Medical care itself may be beyond the reach of many (as it is already). Find a comprehensive medical book such as the Merck Manual and learn about basic diseases, how to recognize them, and how to treat them at home if that becomes necessary. Learn how to safely use herbs in case you can’t buy medicine. And practice prevention—eat healthy, reduce stress, get enough sleep, exercise, and maintain a healthy weight.
Home medical care also involves knowledgeable sex. Of course, sex also provides comfort and entertainment if you’re stuck at the house more often! Depending on your religious and/or personal beliefs, be sure you know how to prevent pregnancies. And if relevant for your situation, you may want to take something like a Fertility Awareness class since contraceptives might be harder to come by. Of course, it’s also wise to know how to deal with a pregnancy naturally if need be, including prenatal nutrition, prenatal self-checks, birth, breastfeeding, and postpartum issues.
Handyman Skills: Learn how to make simple repairs and how to make your resources last longer. Do you know the basics of how your plumbing system works? How the car works? Can you build simple structures? When faced with a need on your homestead, it would be very useful to have the ability to use what you already have and refashion it for a new use. Find a useful, basic series of how-to manuals and/or let your handy relative share his or her knowledge (and listen this time). And not to stereotype, but women, be sure your husband isn’t the only one with this basic knowledge—he might not be available to help and you might be on your own!
Fortunately, the planning and skills necessary for homesteading and for preparing for a peak-oil world are very similar. It can be depressing and overwhelming to contemplate the repercussions of a post-oil world. Instead, I hope you use this knowledge to further motivate your journey towards self-sufficiency.
You can learn more about peak oil and how to prepare for the possible consequences at Sharonastyk.com, peakoil.com, hubbertpeak.com, and theoildrum.com. Carla Emery’s book The Encyclopedia of Country Living provides a great start and overview of skills that are useful for self-sufficiency.