Life During The Great Oil And Gas Decline
By Robert Waldrop
Author's note: this is a work of speculative fiction. As such, it draws from all aspects of contemporary culture in developing its story. Nobody should assume that I personally am in favor of any particular "happening" in this text. I didn't invent the world, it is as I found it. I feel this is a plausible extrapolation of what may happen once the "great decline of oil and gas production" begins, based on current trends. In many cases, I wish the world was different, but it isn't. If this horrifies you, and perhaps it should, now is the taken to take action to ensure that a more beneficent outcome is in our future.
It's 18 years into the natural gas and petroleum decline. (About say, 2025 AD). Annual production and use of petroleum and natural gas is half of what it had been 18 years previously.
Most areas have daily electricity blackouts of about 8 hours. Most central heating systems have been replaced with small one-room heating units, usually only one or two to a house, even in the rich neighborhoods. Nobody heats water with natural gas anymore, it's solar or wood heated or people just use cold water. People only heat one or two rooms in their houses.
Fortunately, as prices increased during the first few years of the decline, most property owners invested pretty heavily in insulation and weatherization, so when they installed the new gizmo on people's meters that automatically shuts off their gas after they've used their share of whatever is available, people were able to adjust. Not many new houses are being built these days, and those that are are usually based on one or more of what used to be called "alternative building techniques" like rammed earth, strawbale, or adobe.
Everybody is a gardener. This started about ten years previously, 8 years into the decline, as transportation costs started raising the price of fresh vegetables, and also as they became unavailable during the winter months. The only salad anybody eats these days is what they manage to grow themselves, especially in the winter, all of those big irrigated vegetable farms are toast. I think the government managed to plant them with some kind of grass or ground cover to avoid another dust bowl the year the irrigation ended.
During the summer, fresh produce comes into cities from the market gardeners, which about 10 years ago began to spring up everywhere. Rising unemployment was causing a lot of people to look for work, and with the price of produce being what it was, people started ripping up their sod for gardens, both for personal consumption and usually also most people grew at least one item as a cash crop. Others invested their capital in five or ten acres, to produce seasonal vegetables and fruits for the local markets, also feeding their families in the process..
Most supermarket chains were bankrupt and closed, although their parking lots remain useful as flea markets. Their function in the food marketplace was replaced with direct market relationships between farmers and consumers (usually between coops of farmers and coops of consumers). People didn't eat a lot of meat anymore, but they had gotten good at calculating how much wheat their family would need to get through the year.
The big transnational ag corps like Archer Daniels Midland went belly-up with the rest of corporate America in the Ultimate Crash of 2013. I heard the other day that the last chairman of ADM was seen panhandling in NYC. Sometimes the world is just after all I guess.
As the troubles have grown, there's actually been some out migration from the US. Lots of Mexicans, in fact, and almost all of the Central Americans, decided that warmer is better and left the US for their ancestral villages. Nobody speaks Spanish Chicago or New York anymore. Early on there were some interesting news video of the modern "wagon trains" heading across the border. Looked like most of them had pretty much dismantled their houses and were taking a lot of the materials back home. We also heard that they were pretty heavily invested in seeds, hand tools, and other basic accouterments of low-tech civilization. Last I heard, their governments were complaining about illegal immigration of non-Latinos from the US and Canada.
The birth rate has fallen dramatically. Abortions are up, and many people who were medically frail haven't made it thus far. Medical care and public health programs were still around, but expensive operations like organ transplants were available anymore. If you had a standard reasonably common illness or medical situation, chances were good you would be able to find medical treatment. But if the disease was rare, your options were much more limited. The census of 2020 showed a national population of 250 million, down considerably from its previous peak.
The government is still very much in control, but the really important government in most people's lives is their city and county. Water and sewer systems have been maintained, although all of the sewer systems now produce both fertilizer and methane gas, and a lot of people have installed methane generators to produce cooking gas from their household humanure. Police and fire departments also dispatch, and the telephone and internet systems are still up and running, telephone is an activity of local and state government, white most internet ISPs are owner-operated or cooperatives.
The police, ambulance, and fire departments have priority claim on fossil fuels, both gasoline and diesel. The rest of us get 5 gallons/person/month. People can trade or sell their ration coupons, and there is a brisk business. the price per gallon for the coupon typically runs twenty bucks, and then of course the price of the fuel is nearly $50/gallon, with taxes.
So everybody takes the bus, walks, or rides a bicycle.
The big schools are all gone. Grade school is now strictly a neighborhood affair. The school districts bought houses in neighborhoods and converted them into old-fashioned "one room schools" for 30-40 kids, one teacher. Roving teams of specialists come by for foreign language, music, and science lab. High schools are also neighborhood schools, the largest high school these days has 300 kids in 4 grades. Life skills are big on everybody's curriculum. You can't graduate if you can't produce a year's supply of vegetables on your academic plot and bake an acceptable loaf of bread "from scratch"..
The crime rate has plummeted. Criminals have a hard time getting around, and its hard to do a drive by shooting when gas is fifty bucks a gallon. The legalization of drugs took away a lot of their money, and as poverty became a way of life, other traditional sources of criminal revenue dried up. I think it was about the same time that the corporations went belly-up that organized crime (both local and international) also went bankrupt. At first there was a bit of looting, especially during the Great Blackout of 2010 when just about everything west of the Mississippi was down for a week, but it got so that people had no patience, and if a riot started, store owners and people from the neighborhood just poured onto the scene with rifles and some pretty intense firefights ensued. Lots of dead rioters kind of spoiled the party, I guess.
There's a lot of talk going on about what we're going to do over the next 20 years. With natural gas and petroleum both in decline, and thus electrical generation also declining, within 20 years we'll only have half the energy available that we have now.
Lots of demonstration plots going up all around, new "planned communities" constructed from the existing materials and buildings in a given area. The Revolution of 2016 ended the mortgage banking scam, so everybody owns the place they live in.
Landlords went belly up when people couldn't pay their rent and most abandoned their properties. The Homesteading Act of 2017 provided that maintaining 3 years residency in an otherwise abandoned property vested the ownership in the resident. Since nobody was paying rent or mortgages, and most people didn't even own cars any more, and everybody was growing lots of food, people's need for money was a lot lower than it had been. Apartment buildings were taken over by their residents as housing cooperatives.
You had to pay your taxes, but most areas had a labor option where you could go and work off your taxes. Even though natural gas was scarce, the companies had all been nationalized after the corporation crash, so the price was fixed at an arbitrary level. The main thing was that you were only allowed to use so much each month.
The penalty for cheating was impoverishment -- the city would turn you and your whole family out into the street, with nothing but the clothes on your back, in full glare of television publicity, and it was illegal for anybody to take them in. The churches had really squawked about that, and there's an underground network to help such people, but most people have no sympathy for them. Impoverishment as a threat of punishment was a lesson that soaked in fast. It is one of the few things that impressed -- and thus made a difference in the behavior of -- criminal gangs. Desperate governments do desperate things.
Electricity is rationed via blackouts, and its price is also arbitrarily set. Also, it's illegal to posses or sell things like clothes dryers (washers are OK, if they pass the efficiency rating), dishwashers, disposals, trash compactors, big screen TVs, waterbed heaters, incandescent bulbs. Possessing something like this is another Impoverishment offense.
As a result of all these changes people weren't working as hard as they used to, in the ways they used to. Most people were doing more manual labor -- they planted gardens, people walked and rode bicycles a lot. But the need to earn large amounts of money wasn't so strong for many people. Thus, paradoxically, there's more leisure time now, and when the lights go off every day, usually at the same time, well, after a while that was just part of life. You planned for it and worked around it.
There were still jobs to be had, of course. The medical industry was still up and running, although it looked a lot different after its nationalization. More doctors had their offices in their homes, right in their neighborhoods, and served their neighbors. It was only if you had to go to a specialist that you would need to leave the neighborhood. Lots of nurses practiced independently too, and typically that was where you started. They did house calls! People really liked that.
Entertainers could always make a buck. Lots of people opened little coffee shops in their homes, and live music was making a real comeback.
Recycling is a big money maker, as is mining landfills.
But even if people wanted a job, they didn't necessarily want a full time job. Since everybody is a gardener, people had to have time for that. Plus as times had changed, people began to realize what a screwed-up rat race things had been. Everybody rushing around, using energy like it was plentiful. It's like we were insane or something.
This isn't what most people were thinking of when they thought about the decline and fall of the petroleum and natural gas civilization. There's been a lot of bitching and moaning, and the whining was intense for awhile. Many political careers ended precipitously. (People still make Democrat and Republican jokes.) It's been almost mundane. Everywhere things are about the same, some places have it a bit worse than others, but international famine relief still moves around and mass death has been pretty much avoided everywhere. It turns out there was a lot more wasted energy than most people thought -- this "wasted energy" included whole industries which don't even exist anymore -- like the military-industrial complex. Sure, people are still making rifles and handguns, but nobody's making or flying jet fighters or tanks or armored personnel carriers these days. Do you know how much gas those things used!
A lot of people worried about war, and there's been some of this, but as it turns out, war burns a lot of fossil fuel, and people just hate to do that these days. Air travel has just about ended everywhere, it's usually only used when no other source of transportation is available (like in parts of Alaska). nobody's making airplanes anymore, however. Armies, in fact, everywhere are much smaller than they used to be. They built up for a while, but it just became too expensive, and a series of UN brokered agreements lowered standing armies to police levels. Nobody is garrisoning other troops, the last US soldier came home more than a decade ago, and the Navy no longer goes sailing around showing the flag. The rich countries were worried for awhile about getting overrun by the poor countries, but as one Indian politician observed, "Why would we want to go someplace where it snows all winter long?" In fact, the equatorial countries seem to be doing the best of all. Lots of talent and capital has left the frozen north for the sunny and warm equator.
In many ways, things are much simpler now. It's been months since I've been as far as ten miles from my house. And when I did go over on the other side of town, I stayed for a week (one of my cousins got married and we had a big party.) These week-long parties, btw, is one of the best features of life in these United States. If you're e going to walk ten or twenty miles to see somebody, you aren't going to turn around after an hour and walk back home. People stay for a night, two nights, if its a celebration, it may go on for a week. I can usually pick up a couple of chickens or a few dozen eggs for a couple of days worth of music (I travel with a hammered dulcimer I made myself.)
Once a year, the grain harvest comes in, special trains from the countryside. It's kind of a festival, everybody takes off from work, it's one of the few times that you see trucks on the streets. Farmers come to town with their families, usually riding on the same trains as their grain, and a lot of buying, selling, bartering, trading, and dating goes on.
Same thing happens in the late fall when the cattlemen and pig farmers bring their stock to town. That's a bit more smelly, they travel down the interstate (they get to market the old fashioned way, via cattle drive), and as they get closer to the cities, they are followed by folks who pick up the cow patties to take home for fertilizer. You can pick out the steer or the pig you want, and it gets slaughtered and wrapped on the spot for you to take home for your freezer. They take gold, silver, gas ration tickets, other barter items, and some will even take US cash, although each year there's fewer willing to do this.
Refrigerators are pretty much a thing of the past, but everybody has a freezer, and an increasing number are solar powered -- using new plans based on solar/ammonia absorption plans..
Everybody belongs to something. A lodge, a church, an association, sometimes to more than one. As things have gotten more local and more simple, it's become obvious to even really stupid people that the old nuclear family isolation is a sociological dead end. As powerful as local governments are, the local Non-profit Alliance is just about its peer in most areas.
The radio said the other day that the entire interstate highway system was open for homesteading and recycling and would eventually be dismantled in its entirety for its raw materials. (Nobody makes cement anymore, so re-using existing concrete is a big money-maker, if that's what you're interested in.) Plus people would get the space underneath the highway they reclaimed.
Long distance gasoline/diesel vehicle traffic is just about non-existent, and may even be banned in the next Federal Gathering, but trains are going everywhere. Even small towns have passenger train serve two or three times a week. Mostly they use coal, but I've noticed an increasing number of wood-fired engines. I've heard that several railroad cooperatives had acquired some large tracks of land for wood farming to protect their fuel sources. They must be thinking about what's going to happen 20 years from now.
One of the most popular ways to pay your taxes, for young people anyway, is to sign up for four years of full-time Government Service. It's voluntary, but since you get 12 years tax exemption plus a basic liberal arts and life skills education (not to mention room and board, and the chance to travel a bit), it's too good of a deal to pass up. The demise of a lot of industries (all of the petrochemical and plastics industries, for example, are out of business) left a lot of polluted industrial sites. Government Service teams have been a key player in cleaning up those sites. I read the other day that the last petrochemical superfund site was just declared rehabilitated.
On one hand, just about all non-renewable electricity generation is done with coal, and some large public buildings like hospitals are heated with coal, so there is additional air pollution from this source. More people heat with wood, especially in rural areas where propane is no longer available. But this has been more than balanced by the demise of the car and the decline of heavy industries. Nobody is making aluminum anymore, there's still some recycling done, but no new aluminum is rolling out of the plants. Cast iron has become popular again, but there isn't much new steel being made, although here again there is a brisk market in recovered steel from dismantled buildings, factories, etc.
Many people have left the cities for rural areas and small towns. On the census of 2020, the majority of the people in the country lived in rural areas or towns of less than 25,000 population. Suburbs, in particular, have been depopulated, although some of them which started as towns have recovered their identities as the area population has shrunk. Elsewhere, probably the most notable population shift has been the Chinese move into Russia beyond the Urals, and the Indian move into Africa, where many countries had been seriously depopulated due to AIDS.
Wind generation is the biggest growth energy industry. Many people supplement their locally-supplied power with their own wind generators. The manufacture of solar cells is expected to end in another ten years or so, but in the meantime, lots of them have been made and you can see them everywhere. The manufacturers seem to think that most of them will be good for a century of production.
Heavy industry is about gone, but there is so much stuff laying around waiting to be reused, recycled, made over, remanufactured, that we seem to be OK in this area for the foreseeable future. Insulating materials are still manufactured, but cement, most steel, all petrochemicals and plastics, auto manufacturing, truck manufacturing, truck freight, airplane manufacturing, airlines, all these are gone.
Most computers are put together locally from regionally manufactured components, and the only thing keeping them going is the internet, because it's just about as cheap to hire people to type on manual typewriters as it is to equip an office with computers these days. Nobody's making photocopiers or laser printers, but you can buy a mimeograph machine. The household appliance industry has shrunk to making washers, TVs, radios, compact flourescent lights, and fans. No air conditioners, although in some areas you can find some old swamp coolers still in use.
Farming has changed radically. Farms are much smaller than they used to be, once again 160 acres is a large farm, and thus there are more farmers than the nation has seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. A lot of people are subsistence farmers, growing enough for themselves and maybe a small cash or barter crop. The most popular cash crops, other than salad vegetables, is biomass for energy production. Usually the processing into a biofuel is done on farm, or close by in conjunction with a local farmer's coop.
Farming cooperatives are popular. This is where 20 or 30 families will get together and farm maybe one section. Mules have made a comeback, and a lot of grain is being harvested these days with variations on the old McCormick reaper, and threshed with threshing machines. Some of this equipment was already sitting around in the sheds of farmers who were still on the land when the Decline began (farmers are notorious for never throwing anything away). My cousins found prototypes for everything they needed in one or another corner of a barn, shed, or in one case, in an overgrown corner of a pasture where some horse drawn machinery had been parked 50 years ago. It was pretty rusted, but the design was obvious and they remanufactured their existing equipment themselves.
Farmers are producing biodiesel and alcohol fuels for their own use. Some of this gets brought into the cities for trade (biodiesel being one of the most common cash crops), but not a real significant amount. It is enough, however, to get crops planted and cultivated, so thus far hand labor isn't universal in farm country. Herbicides and commercially manufactured fertilizers are no longer available. Cotton is chopped the old fashioned way (lots of farm wages to part time or seasonal workers are paid in kind with produce). City neighborhoods make deals with rural farmers and provide labor during peak production times in exchange for a share of the crop.
Not much grain is fed to cattle anymore, virtually all beef that comes to market is entirely grass or hay fed. people just don't eat as much meat as they used to. There's a lot of backyard meat production in the cities, mostly rabbits, chickens, pigs, and goats. (The miniature pet pigs are more popular than ever, just the right size for a small city backyard, and plenty of good eatin'.)
As far as crops being grown, there's a lot less corn, more wheat, beans (including soybeans), barley, rye, oats, and just about every farmer has a fruit and berry operation. there's not much irrigation, so agriculture has ended in a lot of areas in the West which were dependent upon irrigation. Any irrigation there is is small scare and gets applied to high value crops in backyard kitchen gardens. A lot of that irrigation is rain runoff and grey water, as one of the standard retrofits of the first few years of the Decline were systems for recovering waste water and for catching rainwater.
Everybody has to grow their own fertilizer, and besides compost, worms are big throughout farm country and the cities. Most humanure now goes back into the soil, and there's a lot less problem with erosion and loss of topsoil these days. In fact, I was reading the other day that the steady loss of topsoil has just about ended nationally, due to the change in farming methods including the use of much less heavy machinery. Yields declined rather precipitously at first, but they are recovering, and dryland wheat is now producing 40-50 bushels/acre, after several years of fertilizing with farm-made compost and the development of ways of growing wheat in beds so that machinery never passes over the growing area. No till farming and gardening is also a growth industry.
The food processing industry is pretty much toast. People in cities buy grain, and if it is going to be processed, they do it themselves. Home grain mills are as common these days as dishwashers used to be. A lot of people have bicycles rigged to power them. Some cheese comes to market, but a lot of neighborhoods keep milk cows, and people have learned how to make their own cheese. People do their own preserving too. Solar food dryers are very common, and just about every church has opened a community canning kitchen to help people process their own vegetables and make their own jams and such. If you want cereal, you make it yourself (you can get attachments for your grinders to help with this, plus there's lots of recipes).
Home freezers have been maintained, and this is still the primary way of keeping meat for home consumption, although its usually slaughtered and butchered in the neighborhood, rather than in a big processing factory somewhere. Ammonia absorption technologies powered by the sun are popular.
So, this is our life. It probably seems impossible by early 21st century standards, and certainly we didn't dive into this overnight, but rather it evolved one little bit at a time, without much overall direction, mostly doing the same thing evolutionarily that we've been doing for the past million years or so: encountering challenges and adapting to them.. Which is to say, we've muddled through thus far, which gives us the idea that maybe we can continue to muddle through the next 20 years.