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Home arrow Energy and Survival arrow The Collapse: Looking Back - July 12, 2099
The Collapse: Looking Back - July 12, 2099 PDF Print E-mail
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by Peter Goodchild   
02 October 2010
ImageAlmost everything in the economy was either made from oil or required oil to manufacture it or operate it. As the price of oil went up, so did the price of everything else. This rise was referred to as “stagflation” -- stagnant incomes combined with price inflation. The hardest hit were those who had lost their jobs, followed by those with limited disposable income, which meant those most likely to have debts: car payments, house mortgages, credit cards, student loans. But everyone found that a dollar just didn’t stretch.

That was Phase One: economic hardship. Besides stagflation, the major issues were unemployment and a falling stock market. While money was still real, it was everyone’s obsession: as in Weimar Germany, it took the proverbial wheelbarrow of money to buy a loaf of bread. A depiction of the world of Phase One might be to say that it was shoddy, dirty, and disorganized.

Phase Two, much longer, was complete chaos. It was characterized by the disappearance of law and order and capable government. As these faded away, money had no use as a medium of exchange. When there was no more faith in the dollar, money was replaced by barter. From economic hardship of a financial kind we passed to economic hardship of a physical kind: manual labor and a scarcity of basic goods. The world of Phase Two was a different picture: shocking, horrifying, and deadly.

The first clearly visible sign of the Collapse was the increasing frequency of blackouts. Throughout the world, electricity came mainly from coal, natural gas, nuclear power plants, or hydroelectric dams, and all of them were bad choices. Most US and Canadian electricity was produced by fossil fuels, and in the US that generally meant coal. The first problems with electricity served as an advance warning, but the greatest danger occurred years later as the production of fossil fuels and metals was itself reduced by the lack of electrical power: a vicious circle was created.

The US and Canadian grid was a hopelessly elaborate machine -- the largest machine in history -- and it was perpetually operating at maximum load, chronically in need of better maintenance and expensive upgrading. Every part of those two countries was in some danger of outage over the years, due to inadequate supplies of energy. Texas was in the greatest danger, whereas Quebec (with the advantage of hydroelectric dams) was the safest area. But most Americans and Canadians still couldn’t think of a failure of electricity as anything more than a momentary aspect of a summer storm. In other parts of the world, the future was already there: the lights went out daily after four or five hours, if they came on at all.

The Collapse rarely appeared in the conventional news media, or it appeared only in distorted forms. Ironically, the world was plagued by a lack of serious information. One day’s news item was usually forgotten by the next. The television viewer had the vague impression that something had happened somewhere, but one could change channels all day without finding anything below the surface. The communications media were owned by an ever-shrinking number of interrelated giant corporations, and the product sold to the public was a uniform blandness, designed to keep the masses in their place. But the unreality of television was only the start of the enigma. The larger problem was that there was no leadership, no sense of organization, for dealing with the important issues.

Everyone lived on a separate island, lost, alone, and afraid. It was a “shame” to be poor, so one could not even discuss it with the neighbors. The press and the politicians largely denied that the Collapse existed, so there was little help from them. In general, it was just each nuclear family on its own -- for those who were lucky enough to have a family.

Part of the reason for those problems was that many societies, including that of the US, were “individualist” rather than “collectivist.” Yet we should not have forgotten the truism that there is strength and safety in numbers. Individualism was probably more beneficial in good times than in bad; Americans seemed to adjust poorly to crises.

As the Collapse worsened there were various forms of aberrant behavior: denial, anger, mental paralysis. There was an increase in crime, there were extremist political movements. Strange religious cults arose, and “fundamentalists” were on the rise everywhere. The reason for such behavior was that the peak-oil problem was really neither about economics nor about politics. Nor was it about alternative energy; there was no such thing. It was about geology. It was about humanity’s attempt to defy geology. But it was also about psychology: most people couldn’t grasp the concept of “overshoot.”

We couldn’t come to terms with the fact that as a species we had gone beyond the ability of the planet to accommodate us. We had bred ourselves beyond the limits. We had consumed, polluted, and expanded beyond our means, and after centuries of superficial technological solutions we had run short of answers. Biologists explained such expansion in terms of “carrying capacity”: lemmings and snowshoe hares -- and a great many other species -- have the same problem; overpopulation and over-consumption lead to die-off. But humans couldn’t come to terms with the concept. It went against the grain of all our religious and philosophical beliefs.

When we were children, nobody had told us that any of this would be happening. Nobody told us that the human spirit would have to face limitations. We were taught that there were no necessary boundaries to human achievement. We were taught that optimism, realism, and exuberance were just three names for the same thing. In a philosophical sense, therefore, most humans never became adults: they couldn’t understand limits.

As mundane as it seemed in such an “advanced” civilization, “peak oil” basically meant “peak food.” Farmers were invisible people, and middle-class city dwellers chose to pretend that the long lines of trucks bringing food into the city at dawn every day had nothing to do with the white-collar world. Perhaps it was a mark of the civilized person to believe that the essentials of food, clothing, and shelter had no relevance to daily life. Yet when the farmers stopped sending food into the great vacuum of the metropolis, the great maw of urbanity, the city rapidly crumbled. Nobody had thought to ask: Where was all that food coming from?

We finally pushed the planet Earth to the point where it could no longer maintain our population. We could convert great quantities of petrochemicals into fertilizers and pesticides, we could draw water out of the deepest aquifers and even desalinate the oceans, but at last we had to face the fact that the Earth was only a small rock, small enough that it could be encircled by a jet plane in a matter of hours. We had squeezed both our residential areas and our farmlands beyond endurance. When the spiral broke, it did so in a far more destructive way than if the problem had been solved earlier. When the human race suddenly found itself unable to manage the reciprocity of overpopulation and food production, there were no more choices left to make.

Humanity had always struggled to survive in terms of balancing population size with food supply. The same was true again, but population numbers had been soaring for so long. Without ample, free-flowing oil, it was impossible to support a population of several billion. Famine caused by oil-supply failure resulted in about 2.5 billion above-normal deaths before the year 2050; lost and averted births amounted to roughly an equal number. Eventually the population fell to less than one percent of what it had been at its peak.

Nevertheless, it was often hard to separate “famine deaths” from a rather broad category of “other excess deaths.” War, disease, and other factors had unforeseeable effects of their own. Because of the unusual duration of the famine, cannibalism was significant; to what extent should this be included in the calculation of “famine deaths”?

The problem of oil depletion turned out to be something other than a bit of macabre speculation for people of the distant future to deal with, but rather a sudden catastrophe that would only be studied dispassionately long after the event itself had occurred. Doomsday was upon us before we had time to look at it carefully.

* * * * *

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is odonatus [at] live.com. The above article also appeared in the Kerala, India-based website Countercurrents.org

Peter Goodchild's previous articles on Culture Change are
The Countless Centuries
An Experiment in Country Living
The Century of Famine
Post-Peak Economics
Food and Population
Depletion of Key Resources: Facts at Your Fingertips
When the Lights Go Out
Crime in the Post-Peak World
How Much Land Do We Need?
Putting Meat on the Table
Laborers Before Sunrise
The End of Electricity
Growing Your Own Grains
After the Age of Exuberance.

Comments (10)Add Comment
I'm tired of gloom-and-doom proprietors. Goodchild goes from "Phase One" to "Phase Two," as if no alternative realities could exist in our future. Oil is wearing thin, sure. But the human imagination isn't, and capitalist initiative reasonably assures that alternatives will arrive to avoid "the end of civilization as we know it." That's not saying we'll avoid transitional issues. Poverty, hunger, injustice... these are not new. They impact a significant % of global population today, as they have throughout history. Our energy transition will not help those people, and it will likely get worse. But Goodchild has far too little faith in the human spirit, painting with broad brush which assume the worst.

I think Peak Oil is a real problem, along with bio and genomic terrorism and warfare, dwindling water resources, population growth, environmental decline, and so much else. But I give humanity FAR more credit for dealing with its known issues and working towards a common good. As we all work towards this shared global betterment, the last thing I want to hear is some whiny gloom-and-doomer pumping abject negativity into the conversation. It's manipulative, unhelpful, and frankly offensive.
John L
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Votes: -17
The crux of this piece is "the failure" (so far) of most people to "come to terms" with the "concept" that our species [has probably] "gone beyond the ability of the planet to accommodate us," at least in the style to which most of us are accustomed. John L suggests that developing variations on a theme of hypothetical negative future scenarios is not most viable way to encourage such a "coming to terms" (or deal with some core associated challenges). It is worth thinking more, however, about better ways to do so, in spite of the limitations of politics and news media also rightfully noted.
Rosendo Green
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Votes: +4
Human beings employ hope and denial as psychological survival mechanisms. Thus, any negativity is viewed as unhelpful. However, one cannot look clearly at our problems if they are always colored by a filter of optimism. The point is not to be pessimistic, but rather to be objective.
I quite well believe that the current astonishingly high human population is sustained only by the flood of free energy we consume in multiple ways which comes from fossil fuels. Eliminate that energy in any way--actual depletion, depletion of easy extraction, collapse of transportation networks, collapse of artificial fertilization of ruined soil ecosystems--and it is the same as that free energy disappearing.
Current too-high human population is like a body builder on steroids--unnatural. Without that free energy, human population would have met its natural limits at about two billion, I estimate (that is, what would be the maximum if one could only burn wood). So, it isn't "pessimistic" to conclude that we are probably headed for a sudden, precipitous collapse in human population as soon as the free flow of oil suddenly becomes jammed up by practical obstacles--especially when absolutely no preparation has been made in anticipation of this event. It is the practical complications which will cause the sudden freeze-up of energy supply, and this will trigger a sudden collapse of human population. In this sense I think that Goodchild's scenario is mistaken in that he illustrates it as a dragged-out affair.
One also must ask the question: why should a human population curve be exceptional, and differ from all other population curves? Our tool-making ability only allows our graphed population curve to climb to celestial heights, but what goes up in such a manner always comes straight down.
I estimate that we have about ten years left before this happens, and that is about a proper confluence of ecosystem degradation, global warming triggers, continued human population growth, and energy depletion. This will result in a severe crash in human population to a sustainable, non-fossil fuel level, but one far below that hypothetical two billion mark because we will then have to survive on a severely damaged biosphere, which will take millennia to reconfigure and stabilize itself, sans homo sapiens.
Mark R
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Votes: +8
John L.:

"Oil is wearing thin, sure. But the human imagination isn't, and capitalist initiative reasonably assures that alternatives will arrive to avoid 'the end of civilization as we know it.'"

I assume, John, that you mean that the imagination of engineers, coupled with capitalist incentives, will save the day. Yet engineers and their capitalist sponsors have been running the whole show since the late 18th century and are responsible for both unsustainable population growth and global environmental devastation. Is that your idea of "imagination?"

Mark R. is probably correct. Massive die-off is inevitably right around the corner. Those humans who are left need to forget the Western engineering mentality and adopt more nature-centered ways of survival.
Peter Crabb
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Votes: +7
Dear John L.,
There are certain aspects of Peter's essay that are debatable, but he is not trying to nail down exactly what will happen; his essay is only a reasonable sketch based on trends observable today. His main purpose is to bring the subject of collapse to a higher level of discussion. Since it's suppressed, any honest effort to paint a picture of the future we are now creating should be appreciated and shared even if total agreement is impossible.
I for one am optimistic on what will arise from collapse, because we simply have to get it right if we are to escape extinction. I'm uplifted every day by much of what I see as a well informed observer and activist, but one has to admit that sharing this with many and getting them involved is extremely hard and uninteresting to the average consumer.
As you find Peter's analysis so negative, all efforts need to be made to improve the outcome. I'm sure he'd agree.
Jan Lundberg, Culture Change
Jan Lundberg
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Votes: +4
"one cannot look clearly at our problems if they are always colored by a filter of optimism"

Nor can one see clearly through filters of unsubstantiated negativity.

"the current astonishingly high human population is sustained only by the flood of free energy"

Agreed. As Smalley (Nobel, Nano Tech) pointed out during the last years of his life, energy and population are the two most pressing structural issues on the planet, and are in fact virtually interchangeable metrics.

"Eliminate that energy in any way...and it is the same as that free energy disappearing."

This is the manner of uncritical, non-objective, fear-infused writing I'm talking about. Energy is not "going away." The reality is: energy is getting harder to get, hence increasingly expensive. This will force lifestyle changes. In most cases, this is a GOOD thing! Will future demand for fossil fuel exceed our ability to supply? This is the core question. It is NOT about "energy going away."

"Without that free energy, human population would have met its natural limits at about two billion."

That's probably correct, but the real "free energy" comes -directly- from the sun (oil = preserved sunlight). The sun is our only real energy alternative if we need to grow our current demand.

"So, it isn't "pessimistic" to conclude that we are probably headed for a sudden, precipitous collapse in human population as soon as the free flow of oil suddenly becomes jammed up"

Again, there is nothing to indicate that energy will become "jammed up." This is far too simplistic a notion in light of capitalistic incentives to keep the energy flowing. Even in times of war, energy continues to flow to the citizenry, but at significantly reduced supply. And at such times, do we "die off?" Sure, the weakest parish. But the vast majority adapt and make the best of it.

"Our tool-making ability only allows our graphed population curve to climb to celestial heights, but what goes up in such a manner always comes straight down."

History proves you wrong. And after a whole bunch of hand-waving...

"a severe crash in human population to a sustainable, non-fossil fuel level"

sigh...
John L
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Votes: -2
"I assume, John, that you mean that the imagination of engineers, coupled with capitalist incentives, will save the day. Yet engineers and their capitalist sponsors have been running the whole show since the late 18th century and are responsible for both unsustainable population growth and global environmental devastation. Is that your idea of "imagination?""

If you're going to ascribe "fault" for our global issues (engineers, capitalism, etc.), you should also offer an alternative. Would you rather be governed by a king? A dictator? Would you rather that religions ruled our lives? Or how about reverting to a tribal system? Maybe you would prefer a world of libertarian warlords? What on earth is a "nature-centered way of survival?" Isn't this what we evolved out of when we lived in small warring tribes and hunted all day?

It's easy to point fingers at presumed "bad guys" - but what are the alternatives? If you remove the incentives for smart people to innovate (engineers, chemists, etc..), they become of little value to society. What's worse, you create a vacuum that becomes filled with lesser intellect and those seeking power for power's sake.

I'll take the smart innovators running the show any day, but I think we probably agree that we need better checks and balances all around, especially for those who do nothing but manipulate money (bankers, quants, etc.) as they seem to do nothing that truly betters our world.
John L
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"His main purpose is to bring the subject of collapse to a higher level of discussion. Since it's suppressed, any honest effort to paint a picture of the future we are now creating should be appreciated and shared even if total agreement is impossible."

Suppressed? By whom? Your website is not suppressed, your comments are not suppressed, and there are hundreds of freely operating doomsday, gloom-and-doom sites and books all over the Internet. One of the first tenets of doomsday thinking seems to be this idea that "we are suppressed" -- "our message isn't getting out" (etc.).

I follow a number of very smart futurists, and none of them are spouting gloom-and-doom, end-of-the-world scenarios. Most of them fully acknowledge the issues of peak carbon, peak water, population, etc... But none of them are writing anything like Goodchild's fear-based views.

"As you find Peter's analysis so negative, all efforts need to be made to improve the outcome. I'm sure he'd agree."

We all need to be working towards solutions to our problems. We don't need abject negativity to remind us. Goodchild is to futurism as the National Enquirer is to news.
John L
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Votes: -1
The simple fact is...we Americans are in for a slide DOWN the economy / lifestyle road. There is ZERO energy sources that will even begin replacing our hydrocarbon addiction.

IF we started now and made renewable energy a 'Manhattan Project' with half of the military budget used to accomplish it...we still couldn't begin to replace a significant percentage of our energy use.

Why? It takes huge quantities of the energy we are trying to replace to make any of the 'new' sources. HUGE quantities. Bio-fuels are a net loser of energy from farm to moving your car. Wind and solar are energy intensive to mine, manufacture, and install, not to mention needing a new grid to use it and back up energy to keep the lights on. Nuclear is a long time project and, by then, most of the easy to get uranium will be gone.

The key words are...EASY...TO...GET...i.e. cheap. Yes, we will have energy sources for a long long time...but...it will be ever increasingly expensive and there will be less and less of it every year. And there will be more and more people who want their share and will be willing to go to war to get it. America is already doing that all over the world.

'The world, it is a changing..."
Bill
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John L WRITES:
“As we all work towards this shared global betterment, the last thing I want to hear is some whiny gloom-and-doomer pumping abject negativity into the conversation. It's manipulative, unhelpful, and frankly offensive.”

Please inform me – who is “we all” I see very little evidence that ALL of us are working toward a betterment, in fact just the opposite which, a year later, we see all kinds of evidence of…..changing the attitude of the majority of folks who refuse to even entertain the idea of “collapse” is perhaps our biggest challenge. The 2o12 presidential campaign indicates a complete lack of addrressing future energy needs, debates regarding immigration, gay marriage and the health care “tax” take center stage. What is a FACT and can be worked out mathmatically, unless negative outcomes of equations are considered “whiney gloom-and-doomer abject negativity….” is we are running our of our prime source of energy at an alarming rate and once oil is gone there will be no more. The sun can never replace our current usage. wake up sir..this is a fiinite planet and our economic plan of unlimited growth coupled with unlimited population is shear maddness! if u think alternative sources of energy are at the top of the priority list for any major corporation you are severely disillusioned . true we are an imaginitive bunch but dreaming will not solve our problem and no one seems willing to even consider this very real, provable, logical and inevitable outcome. I don’t like it any more than you do but to write off well informed and well meaning critical presentations of FACtS is denial and that my friend is a far more unhelpful and offensive attitude in my opinion!
Jim M
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