Peak Oil News: Ten Ways to Prepare for a Post-Oil Society

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Ten Ways to Prepare for a Post-Oil Society


By James Howard Kunstler

The best way to feel hopeful about our looming energy crisis is to get active now and prepare for living arrangements in a post-oil society.

Out in the public arena, people frequently twang on me for being "Mister Gloom'n'doom," or for "not offering any solutions" to our looming energy crisis. So, for those of you who are tired of wringing your hands, who would like to do something useful, or focus your attention in a purposeful way, here are my suggestions:

1. Expand your view beyond the question of how we will run all the cars by means other than gasoline. This obsession with keeping the cars running at all costs could really prove fatal. It is especially unhelpful that so many self-proclaimed "greens" and political "progressives" are hung up on this monomaniacal theme. Get this: the cars are not part of the solution (whether they run on fossil fuels, vodka, used frymax™ oil, or cow shit). They are at the heart of the problem. And trying to salvage the entire Happy Motoring system by shifting it from gasoline to other fuels will only make things much worse. The bottom line of this is: start thinking beyond the car. We have to make other arrangements for virtually all the common activities of daily life.

2. We have to produce food differently. The Monsanto/Cargill model of industrial agribusiness is heading toward its Waterloo. As oil and gas deplete, we will be left with sterile soils and farming organized at an unworkable scale. Many lives will depend on our ability to fix this. Farming will soon return much closer to the center of American economic life. It will necessarily have to be done more locally, at a smaller-and-finer scale, and will require more human labor. The value-added activities associated with farming -- e.g. making products like cheese, wine, oils -- will also have to be done much more locally. This situation presents excellent business and vocational opportunities for America's young people (if they can unplug their Ipods long enough to pay attention.) It also presents huge problems in land-use reform. Not to mention the fact that the knowledge and skill for doing these things has to be painstakingly retrieved from the dumpster of history. Get busy.

3. We have to inhabit the terrain differently. Virtually every place in our nation organized for car dependency is going to fail to some degree. Quite a few places (Phoenix, Las Vegas, Miami ...) will support only a fraction of their current populations. We'll have to return to traditional human ecologies at a smaller scale: villages, towns, and cities (along with a productive rural landscape). Our small towns are waiting to be reinhabited. Our cities will have to contract. The cities that are composed proportionately more of suburban fabric (e.g. Atlanta, Houston) will pose especially tough problems. Most of that stuff will not be fixed. The loss of monetary value in suburban property will have far-reaching ramifications. The stuff we build in the decades ahead will have to be made of regional materials found in nature -- as opposed to modular, snap-together, manufactured components -- at a more modest scale. This whole process will entail enormous demographic shifts and is liable to be turbulent. Like farming, it will require the retrieval of skill-sets and methodologies that have been forsaken. The graduate schools of architecture are still tragically preoccupied with teaching Narcissism. The faculties will have to be overthrown. Our attitudes about land-use will have to change dramatically. The building codes and zoning laws will eventually be abandoned and will have to be replaced with vernacular wisdom. Get busy.

4. We have to move things and people differently. This is the sunset of Happy Motoring (including the entire US trucking system). Get used to it. Don't waste your society's remaining resources trying to prop up car-and-truck dependency. Moving things and people by water and rail is vastly more energy-efficient. Need something to do? Get involved in restoring public transit. Let's start with railroads, and let's make sure we electrify them so they will run on things other than fossil fuel or, if we have to run them partly on coal-fired power plants, at least scrub the emissions and sequester the CO2 at as few source-points as possible. We also have to prepare our society for moving people and things much more by water. This implies the rebuilding of infrastructure for our harbors, and also for our inland river and canal systems -- including the towns associated with them. The great harbor towns, like Baltimore, Boston, and New York, can no longer devote their waterfronts to condo sites and bikeways. We actually have to put the piers and warehouses back in place (not to mention the sleazy accommodations for sailors). Right now, programs are underway to restore maritime shipping based on wind -- yes, sailing ships. It's for real. Lots to do here. Put down your Ipod and get busy.

5. We have to transform retail trade. The national chains that have used the high tide of fossil fuels to contrive predatory economies-of-scale (and kill local economies) -- they are going down. WalMart and the other outfits will not survive the coming era of expensive, scarcer oil. They will not be able to run the "warehouses-on-wheels" of 18-wheel tractor-trailers incessantly circulating along the interstate highways. Their 12,000-mile supply lines to the Asian slave-factories are also endangered as the US and China contest for Middle East and African oil. The local networks of commercial interdependency which these chain stores systematically destroyed (with the public's acquiescence) will have to be rebuilt brick-by-brick and inventory-by-inventory. This will require rich, fine-grained, multi-layered networks of people who make, distribute, and sell stuff (including the much-maligned "middlemen"). Don't be fooled into thinking that the Internet will replace local retail economies. Internet shopping is totally dependent now on cheap delivery, and delivery will no longer be cheap. It also is predicated on electric power systems that are completely reliable. That is something we are unlikely to enjoy in the years ahead. Do you have a penchant for retail trade and don't want to work for a big predatory corporation? There's lots to do here in the realm of small, local business. Quit carping and get busy.

6. We will have to make things again in America. However, we are going to make less stuff. We will have fewer things to buy, fewer choices of things. The curtain is coming down on the endless blue-light-special shopping frenzy that has occupied the forefront of daily life in America for decades. But we will still need household goods and things to wear. As a practical matter, we are not going to re-live the 20th century. The factories from America's heyday of manufacturing (1900 - 1970) were all designed for massive inputs of fossil fuel, and many of them have already been demolished. We're going to have to make things on a smaller scale by other means. Perhaps we will have to use more water power. The truth is, we don't know yet how we're going to make anything. This is something that the younger generations can put their minds and muscles into.

7. The age of canned entertainment is coming to and end. It was fun for a while. We liked "Citizen Kane" and the Beatles. But we're going to have to make our own music and our own drama down the road. We're going to need playhouses and live performance halls. We're going to need violin and banjo players and playwrights and scenery-makers, and singers. We'll need theater managers and stage-hands. The Internet is not going to save canned entertainment. The Internet will not work so well if the electricity is on the fritz half the time (or more).

8. We'll have to reorganize the education system. The centralized secondary school systems based on the yellow school bus fleets will not survive the coming decades. The huge investments we have made in these facilities will impede the transition out of them, but they will fail anyway. Since we will be a less-affluent society, we probably won't be able to replace these centralized facilities with smaller and more equitably distributed schools, at least not right away. Personally, I believe that the next incarnation of education will grow out of the home schooling movement, as home schooling efforts aggregate locally into units of more than one family. God knows what happens beyond secondary ed. The big universities, both public and private, may not be salvageable. And the activity of higher ed itself may engender huge resentment by those foreclosed from it. But anyone who learns to do long division and write a coherent paragraph will be at a great advantage -- and, in any case, will probably out-perform today's average college graduate. One thing for sure: teaching children is not liable to become an obsolete line-of-work, as compared to public relations and sports marketing. Lots to do here, and lots to think about. Get busy, future teachers of America.

9. We have to reorganize the medical system. The current skein of intertwined rackets based on endless Ponzi buck passing scams will not survive the discontinuities to come. We will probably have to return to a model of service much closer to what used to be called "doctoring." Medical training may also have to change as the big universities run into trouble functioning. Doctors of the 21st century will certainly drive fewer German cars, and there will be fewer opportunities in the cosmetic surgery field. Let's hope that we don't slide so far back that we forget the germ theory of disease, or the need to wash our hands, or the fundamentals of pharmaceutical science. Lots to do here for the unsqueamish.

10. Life in the USA will have to become much more local, and virtually all the activities of everyday life will have to be re-scaled. You can state categorically that any enterprise now supersized is likely to fail -- everything from the federal government to big corporations to huge institutions. If you can find a way to do something practical and useful on a smaller scale than it is currently being done, you are likely to have food in your cupboard and people who esteem you. An entire social infrastructure of voluntary associations, co-opted by the narcotic of television, needs to be reconstructed. Local institutions for care of the helpless will have to be organized. Local politics will be much more meaningful as state governments and federal agencies slide into complete impotence. Lots of jobs here for local heroes.

So, that's the task list for now. Forgive me if I left things out. Quit wishing and start doing. The best way to feel hopeful about the future is to get off your ass and demonstrate to yourself that you are a capable, competent individual resolutely able to face new circumstances.


At 6:32 AM, February 11, 2007, Blogger Eric said...

A few years ago, it was difficult to find synthetic motor oils, and equally difficult to

find someone who admitted to using them. Nowadays, however, you can find synthetic motor

oils on the shelves of Wal-Mart, and other retailers, and the number of people turning to

synthetic motor oils, particularly in light of the recent events affecting fuel prices, has

risen greatly.

So why do people use synthetic motor oils rather than sticking with the old petroleum based

stand-bys which are admittedly cheaper?

1. Let's start with the cost per quart issue. Synthetic motor oils ARE more expensive at

purchase. However, these oils last longer, requiring fewer oil changes. As a synthetic motor

oil outlasts several changes of petroleum based lubricants, the ultimate out-of-pocket cost

of the lubricant is less. This cost savings becomes even greater if you have someone else

change your oil for you rather than doing it yourself!

At 10:13 AM, February 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why does electricity production become so unstable? Coal is abundant in the US and burning coal is not near as polluting to the environment as it once was.Natural gas is quite abundant also. Nuclear power is another stable alternative. There are also many advances being made in solar and even wind generated electrical systems.
You speak as if we will be living in the 1800's all over again.

"And trying to salvage the entire Happy Motoring system by shifting it from gasoline to other fuels will only make things much worse." Care to explain how switching to alternative fuels will make things worse than the future your article predicts?

At 7:38 AM, February 12, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

#1) Alternative fuels and synthetic lubricants available today are made using infrastructure powered by OIL and are nowhere near as inexpensive to produce. Coal, Gas and Nuclear power all depend upon an oil-based system to harvest and distribute, not to mention to maintain and develop. As the oil supply dwindles our ability to produce & distribute alternative fuels and energy sources will decrease.

#2) "trying to salvage the entire Happy Motoring system by shifting it from gasoline to other fuels will only make things much worse"

-because of the law of diminishing returns. No current alternative fuel on the table can possibly produce enough energy supply to match our current energy demand. Nothing else even comes close. It would be better to change our attitude toward our use of transportation now and conserve some of the oil that we still have so that we have a smoother transition out of the oil age.

Will we go back to the 1800's? No way. In the 1800's civilization was still in ascension, Post oil it is going to be very difficult for the people going through it to help but think of civilization as anything but in decline.
Unlike the people of the 1800's our culture does not have the education and training that we will need to live off of whatever we can find within walking distance of our homes.

The dangers that our culture faces are real and those who refuse to acknowledge or face the inevitability of the oil crash will probably not survive the transition.

At 9:26 AM, February 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

People, including politicians, refuse to have productive discussions about oil depletion, environmental degredation, overpopulation, pandemic threats, etc. Humanity is content to wither and breed simultaneously, and all the while mainlining their fixes of trash t.v., pornography and daily minutia. Each day I am astonished by the sheer stupidity of people who are elated by another birth. Who the hell would want to be born into this mess? But no one appears to ask her/himself this question. People are self-absorbed fools; period. We deserve a kick in the pants and better yet, extinction. So that the rest of life (what's left of it) may live.

At 8:29 PM, February 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Some great oil news at The site is under construction, but a great job being done. SEE

At 2:02 PM, February 23, 2007, Blogger Thom Foolery said...

"Coal is abundant in the US and burning coal is not near as polluting to the environment as it once was. Natural gas is quite abundant also. Nuclear power is another stable alternative."

Apart from the aforementioned fact that these fuel sources currently depend on an oil-based infrastructure for their mining, refining, transportation, etc. are the other serious concerns associated with each.

Coal mining is dangerous for the workers involved and is also incredibly detrimental to the environment. Just check out West Virginia. Or look up mountain top removal. Or look up coal slurry disaster to see what happens when a reservoir of liquid coal residues pours down into people's drinking water supplies. Plus you have the fact that coal burned produces more CO2 and increases global warming. Not really an option for a healthy future.

Natural gas is relatively abundant, but it too is finite and production will peak there too in the not so distant future, making an infrastructure transition to LNG (liquid natural gas) a losing economic proposition.

Nuclear is a joke. The only reason that nuclear power even seems economically viable is that the federal government has subsidized construction, waste management, and insurance for decades. Hell, Lloyds of London refuses to insure nuke plants, and so taxpayers pick up the tab. Plus you've got to factor in the finite nature of uranium fuel, the hazards involved in production and storage, etc. People talk about breeder reactors and fusion, but, as they say, talk is cheap.

Of course, I'm not an expert on any of this stuff. I'm merely repeating here what I have read elsewhere. But I think Kunstler's point, and Richard Heinberg's, need to be heeded----we need to make some serious demand-side adjustments and not merely wait for the technoscience cavalry to haul our asses out of the bed we've made.

At 11:15 PM, March 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is a very good conversation going here
the challenges to the assumptions are especially good
I offer this:
the current electric power grid is dependent on oil right now only because oil is the obvious choice, for the moment. everything depends on something else. this will be politically true and important no matter what large scale system ends up in place.
First, I say that the system will pretty much remain as it is due to the fact that the electric providers will be motivated to maintain the supply chain of the product in question for power generation. If they must develop solar electric trains to cart the stuff around, I hold that they both can and will do so. Whatever it takes to continue to take advantage of the relatively very valuable natural resources available will be done.
It is in the interests of those who already hold these reigns to continue to do so.
While the electric power grid may currently depend on oil to feed it, another power supply can be easily and cheaply, especially as it relates to value realized, be put in place from a variety of sources. All that must happen is that raw materials be obtained and moved around and processed. All activities that see regular replacement and upgrade of their respective machinery anyway. This is all very easy to make happen if you, say, have a couple billion dollars to throw around.

the bigger point i see here is the question of what we are finding to be valuable, as human beings, in our lives and whether this crazy tear we have been on for the past 150 years or so will continue. I am very happy to see a lucid encapsulation of the post- industrial situation and what people can do on an individual basis to minimize the jolt that is surely coming

does anyone out there really argue that locally produced products are inferior compared to what the cookie cutters offer? they win in every category

this is an intriguing way to look at the whole doom and gloom thing, good job!

At 7:15 PM, March 16, 2007, Blogger Searock said...

Hi, May I draw your attenton to this new oil information site?

Happy reading!


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