(Survival manual/2. Social issues/ Post peak oil: Cuba and North Korea)
1. Historic & proposed responses to Peak Oil: A tale of two countries: How North Korea and Cuba reacted differently to a suddenly diminished oil supply
May 05, 2006, by Dale Jiajun Wen
That peak oil is coming is no longer a question. It’s only a matter of when. The global food system we are familiar with depends crucially on cheap energy and long-distance transportation—food consumed in the United States travels an average of 1,400 miles. Does peak oil mean inevitable starvation? Two countries provide a preview. Their divergent stories, one of famine, one of sufficiency, stand as a warning and a model. North Korea and Cuba experienced the peak-oil scenario prematurely and abruptly due to the collapse of the former Soviet bloc and the intensified trade embargo against Cuba. The quite different outcomes are partly due to luck: the Cuban climate allows people to survive on food rations that would be fatal in North Korea’s harsh winters. But the more fundamental reason is policy. North Korea tried to carry on business as usual as long as possible, while Cuba implemented a proactive policy to move toward sustainable agriculture and self-sufficiency.
The 1990s famine in North Korea is one of the least understood disasters in recent years. It is generally attributed to the failure of Kim Il Jung’s regime. The argument is simple: if the government controls everything, it must be responsible for crop failure. But this ideological blame game hides a more fundamental problem: the failure of industrial chemical farming. With the coming of peak oil, many other countries may experience similar disasters.
North Korea developed its agriculture on the Green Revolution model, with its dependence on technology, imported machines, petroleum, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. There were signs of soil compaction and degradation, but the industrial farming model provided enough food for the population. Then came the sudden collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989. Supplies of oil, farming equipment, fertilizers, and pesticides dropped significantly, and this greatly contributed to the famine that followed. As a November 1998 report from the joint UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program observed:
The highly mechanized DPR [North] Korean agriculture faces a serious constraint as about four-fifths of motorized farm machinery and equipment is out of use due to obsolescence and lack of spare parts and fuel. … In fact, because of non-availability of trucks, harvested paddy has been seen left on the fields in piles for long periods.
North Korea failed to change in response to the crisis. Devotion to the status quo precipitated the food shortages that continue to this day. Cuba faced similar problems. In some respects, the challenge was even bigger in Cuba. Before 1989, North Korea was self-sufficient in grain production, while Cuba imported an estimated 57 percent of its food, because its agriculture, especially the state farm sector, was geared towards production of sugar for export.
After the Soviet collapse and the tightening of the U.S. embargo, Cuba lost 85 percent of its trade, and its fossil fuel-based agricultural inputs were reduced by more than 50 percent. At the height of the resulting food crisis, the daily ration was one banana and two slices of bread per person in some places. Cuba responded with a national effort to restructure agriculture.
Cuban agriculture now consists of a diverse combination of organic farming, perma-culture, urban gardens, animal power, and biological fertilizing and pest control. On a national level, Cuba now has probably the most ecological and socially sensitive agriculture in the world. In 1999, the Swedish Parliament awarded the Right Livelihood Award, known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize,” to Cuba for these advances.
Even before the 1990 crisis, primarily in response to the negative effects of intensive chemical use as well as the 1970s energy crisis, Cuban scientists began to develop bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers to substitute for chemical inputs. They designed a two-phase program based on early experiments with biological agents. The first stage developed small-scale, localized production technologies; the second stage was aimed at developing semi-industrial and industrial technologies. This groundwork allowed Cuba to roll out substitutes for agricultural chemicals rapidly in the wake of the 1990 crisis. Since 1991, 280 centers have been established to produce biological agents using techniques and supplies specific to each locality.
Though some alternative technologies were initially developed solely to replace chemical inputs, they are now part of a more holistic agroecology. Scientists and farmers recognized the imbalances in high-input monoculture, and are transforming the whole system. In contrast to the one-size-fits-all solution of the Green Revolution, agro-ecology tailors farming to local conditions. It designs complex agro-ecosystems that use mutually beneficial crops and locally adapted seeds, take advantage of topography and soil conditions, and maintain rather than deplete the soil.
Agro-ecology takes a systemic approach, blurring traditional distinctions between disciplines and using knowledge from environmental science, economics, agronomy, ethics, sociology, and anthropology. It emphasizes learning by doing, with training programs allocating 50 percent of their time to hands-on work. The wide use of participatory methods greatly helps to disseminate, generate, and extend agro-ecological knowledge. In short, the agricultural research and education process has become more organic as well.
Important institutional changes have eased the transition. Big state farms have been reorganized into much smaller farmer collectives to take advantage of the new labor-intensive, localized methods. The change from farm-laborer to skilled farmer is not an overnight process—many newly established collectives lag behind established co-ops in terms of sustainable management, but programs are in place to help them catch up.
Cuba’s research and education system played a pivotal role in the greening of the country. The focus on human development has practically eradicated illiteracy. Cuban workers have the highest percentage of post-secondary education in Latin America. This highly educated population prepared Cuba well for the transition to the more knowledge-intensive model of sustainable agriculture.
In the 1970s and 1980s, most agricultural education was based on Green Revolution technology. The 1990 crisis rendered many agro-professionals powerless without chemical inputs, machinery, and petroleum. In response, agricultural universities initiated courses in agro-ecological training. A national center was created to support new research and the educational needs of the agricultural community. Now, courses, meetings, workshops, field days, talks, and experiential exchanges are organized for farmers. As some traditional methods of organic farming have survived among small farmers or in co-ops, farmer-to-farmer communication is widely utilized to facilitate mutual learning.
The coming of peak oil will shake the very foundation of the global food system. The hardship Cuba and North Korea experienced in the 1990s may very well be the future we all face, both already ailing rural sectors in many Third-World countries, and highly subsidized agriculture in the North. Cuban agriculture shows that there is an alternative—increasing output and growing better food while reducing chemical inputs is possible with proper restructuring of agriculture and food systems.
It is unlikely that we will have an abrupt peak-oil scenario where half the fossil-fuel agricultural inputs disappear overnight; more likely we will have gradually yet steadily rising oil prices, making conventional chemical inputs increasingly unaffordable.
This is the advantage we have over Cuba and North Korea — while virtually nobody predicted the sudden collapse of the Soviet bloc, we know peak oil is coming and have time to prepare. We have disadvantages as well: peak oil will be a global crisis, probably made worse by global warming, so there will not likely be any international aid to bail people out in the face of a major food crisis—either we deal with the problem now, or nature will deal with us.
Not only politicians, but also ordinary people need to consider the question: should we try to shore up the system and carry on business as usual for as long as possible, or should we take preemptive measures to avoid disaster? This choice may determine whether we end up with a more sustainable agriculture like Cuba, or with disastrous famine like North Korea.
2. Cuba – Overview of economy
Encyclopedia of the Nations:
Pasted from <http://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/economies/Americas/Cuba-OVERVIEW-OF-ECONOMY.html>
The Cuban economy has endured a number of upheavals over the past century. In the early 1900s approximately two-thirds of the businesses in Cuba were owned by U.S. citizens, and around 80 percent of the country’s trade was with the United States. In 1959, when Fidel Castro seized the country through revolution, the reforms enacted by the socialist government confiscated most of the privately-held property in Cuba. Relations with the United States became strained, and eventually ended in 1962 when the United States placed an embargo (prohibition) on trade with Cuba, which continues to this day. Cuba turned to the former Soviet Union for help, and soon introduced long-range socialist state-managed planning that followed Soviet models. The Soviet Union effectively subsidized the Cuban economy by repeatedly postponing debt payment schedules, creating new credit lines, paying high prices for Cuban exports, and offering military assistance. As a result, many Cuban economic problems did not manifest themselves until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba lost more than 85 percent of its trade and once again had to search for other markets to replace this loss. The 1990s were marked by a period of economic hardship; from 1990 to 1993, Cuba’s economy declined by 35 percent, causing the nation to fall into what Castro called “The Special Period in a Time of Peace.” The living situation of the Cuban people became very difficult. Because the Soviets had been a source of much of the country’s fuel supplies, Cuban homes and businesses suffered daily power blackouts, and the public transportation system all but stopped. Bicycles and horse-drawn carts and tractors had to substitute for motorized transport. Food became scarce, and many Cubans found themselves standing in long lines to procure rationed items or buy them from black-market (illegal) sources.
The inability of the state-controlled system to provide scarce consumer goods enabled the black market to assume a prominent role in the Cuban economy. During the 1990s, workers commonly stole goods from the state-run factories they worked in to use in their homes or to sell on the streets. As a result, the government was forced to make some drastic changes in policy. Many small in-home restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, repair shops, etc. that had previously been considered “black market” were legalized. State control was somewhat reduced. The government divided many large state-run farms into smaller cooperatives called Basic Units of Production Cooperatives (UBPC). While the farmers who worked for them still had to sell a certain amount of their produce to the government at set prices, they were now permitted to sell their surplus goods on the free market via agropecuarios (farmers’ markets). The government also began to require state-run enterprises to be more efficient; any enterprise not showing a profit would be eliminated. The government also began to allow more foreign investment, creating joint ventures with foreign companies and eventually allowing a foreign firm to own 100 percent of an enterprise. The U.S. dollar was legalized and, by 2000, became the most commonly used currency. In 1994 Cuba reported economic growth again for the first time since 1989, a situation that has continued into the new century. It is estimated that the continuation of these reforms should contribute to a growth of 4-5 percent in the year 2001. Still, the economy is in a difficult situation, and life for the average Cuban is not easy.
An important contribution to the improvement of the Cuban economy has been the tourist industry, which was the sector reporting the greatest growth in the 1990s. In the years immediately following the revolution in the late 1950s, the Cuban government discouraged tourism, which was viewed as a source of corruption of the Cuban people and a return to what it considered the decadent years of U.S. control (1898-1958). Beginning with some changes in the mid-1980s, the tourist industry is now viewed as an important way for Cuba to support itself while maintaining many of the reforms that had been instituted under the socialist system.
Besides tourism, important export sectors of the Cuban economy are agriculture, especially sugar, coffee, and tobacco crops, and nickel mining. Because of its long-term reliance on a single crop—sugar—the economy has often suffered when world sugar prices have been low. Petroleum is Cuba’s most important import. In the 1980s, Cuba received most of its oil from the Soviet Union, a supply that dropped by 50 percent between 1990 and 1992, causing widespread energy problems that severely stunted Cuba’s agricultural and industrial production. Cuba responded by reducing its energy use, as by cutting back on gasoline-powered vehicles and by imposing daily blackouts throughout the island. Cuba continued to get much of its reduced oil supplies from Russia, but was required to pay market prices instead of the lower prices that the USSR had traditionally charged Cuba as a gesture of solidarity. By 2000, Cuba was buying its oil at market prices from Venezuela, Russia, and Mexico.
Cuba had an enormous burden of unpaid external debt totaling more than US$10 billion by 1999. Cuba has repeatedly refinanced these debts but was forced to suspend interest payments in 1990 due to extreme economic conditions. Because of its poor credit, Cuba has been unable to obtain international loans that would enable it to buy many of the imports it needs. As the Cuban economy improved into the late 1990s, the country did receive more foreign aid. Although Cuba has not yet been approved to receive funds from either the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, it has received money from various United Nations organizations, but the amounts have been low in comparison to those received by other Latin American countries: US$44 million ($4 per person) in 1993, and US$80 million ($7 per person) in 1998.
3. Peak oil futures: same crisis, different responses
May 6, 2010, The Oil Drum,, by Gail the Actuary
From an article by Dr. Joerg Friedrichs, University Lecturer in Politics, University of Oxford>
My first two case studies are North Korea and Cuba, where something comparable to Peak Oil happened in the 1990s. In both cases there was a massive loss of subsidized Soviet oil deliveries. In either country, the availability of oil went down by more than 50% within a couple of years after the end of the Cold War. From the viewpoint of US foreign policy, North Korea and Cuba have often been presented as comparable countries. But they reacted in remarkably different ways to a very similar crisis.
In a recent article, I have investigated how different societies have responded to sharp and rapid cutbacks in their energy supplies. These responses may give us some insight into what might happen as our energy supplies shrink in the future.
In the examples I looked at, I found the following results:
• North Korea, 1990s: Response was totalitarian retrenchment
• Cuba, 1990s: Response was mobilization of local resilience
• Japan, 1940s: Response was predatory militarism
My case studies lead me to formulate the following three hypotheses, which I state upfront here to facilitate discussion. However, please note that they are actually developed from the cases.
Hypothesis 1: The shorter and the less a country or society has practiced humanism, pluralism and liberal democracy, the more likely its elites will be willing and able to impose a policy of totalitarian retrenchment on their population (as in the case of North Korea).
Hypothesis 2: The shorter and the less a country or society has been exposed to individualism, industrialism and mass consumerism, the more likely there will be a adaptive regression to community-based values and a subsistence lifestyle (as in the case of Cuba).
Hypothesis 3: The greater a country’s military potential and the stronger the perception that force will be more effective than the free market to protect access to vital resources, the more likely there will be a strategy of predatory militarism (as in the case of Japan).
In addition to my three cases, I also looked at the South of the United States after the Civil War, where the abolition of slavery led to sharp economic decline and a full century was needed for recovery. This case seems to suggest a fourth hypothesis in addition to the three hypotheses stated above.
Hypothesis 4: In the event of peak oil, we should not expect either immediate collapse or a smooth transition. People do not give up their lifestyle easily. We should expect painful adaptation processes that may last for a century or more (as in the case of the US South).
Based on this, I show how different parts of the world would be likely to react to a peak oil scenario. After discussing what happened in each of my four case studies, in the final section I extract lessons for the first two decades after peak oil (assuming an annual decline of oil supply in the order of 2-5 %).
A full version of my article, complete with detailed references to the relevant literature, is published by the journal Energy Policy under the title “Global energy crunch: how different parts of the world would react to a peak oil scenario”. The pre-print version is freely accessible.
A. North Korea, 1990s: totalitarian retrenchment
My first case study is North Korea, where something comparable to peak oil happened in fast motion in the 1990s. After the demise of the Soviet Union, there was a massive loss of subsidized oil deliveries. The availability of oil went down by more than 50% within a couple of years after the end of the Cold War. North Korea reacted by a totalitarian retrenchment to maintain elite privileges, irrespective of the cost to the people. The military and state apparatus were kept intact, while industry and agriculture were crumbling in the absence of fuel and fertilizers. This culminated in a terrible famine between 1995 and 1998 that led to the starvation of 600,000 to 1 Million people, or 3 to 5% of the North Korean population. The international community was eventually forced to step in with food aid, thereby unintentionally stabilizing the regime. From the cynical viewpoint of the North Korean regime it all worked out handsomely. While life for North Koreans is more solitary, brutish and nasty than ever, Kim Jong-il and his cronies have managed to stay in power thanks to brutal repression and nuclear blackmail.
Food production will become a problem of extreme urgency
Modern agriculture is merely a way of converting petroleum into food. Without energy, food supplies decrease and the current world population of 6+ billion has no hope whatsoever of sustaining itself at current levels.
It has been estimated that, without hydrocarbons to provide energy, fertilizers and pesticides, agriculture could not support a population greater than two billion. This reduction would take us back to pre-20th century levels but the disruption to society and its infrastructure would probably mean a reversion to pre-industrial revolution.
The example of North Korea shows us what happens to agriculture when oil products are removed. After the Korean war, it had developed a modern farming system depending on machinery and oil-based fertilizers. After the Soviet Union fell, Communist aid to the country stopped and they were unable to purchase oil and supplies. Without oil, farm machinery was sitting idle and large proportions of the people had to return to the agriculture. Unfortunately the soil had been drained of nutrients over the years and, without fertilizers, it was unable to produce the same output as before. Crop yields fell by 60% over the period 1989-1998. US congressmen and others who have visited North Korea tell stories of people eating grass and bark. Other reports talk of soldiers who are nothing more than skin and bones. Throughout the country, there is starvation to rival the worst found in Africa. Chronic malnutrition has reached the point where many of the effects are irreversible. Unless it can get access to oil and fertilizers again, the population will decline until it reaches a sustainable level and civilization will be faced with the delicate task of determining who survives. The history of North-Korea (DPRK) demonstrates how an energy crisis in an industrialized nation can lead to complete systemic breakdown
B. Cuba, 1990s: mobilization of local resilience
In the 1990s, Cuba faced a similar shock to North Korea. Subsidized oil deliveries from the Soviet Bloc were stopped, but the country could not afford buying an equivalent amount of oil on the world market. As a consequence, access to oil also fell by more than 50%. Cuba is seen by many observers as a Stalinist regime similar to North Korea. However there is an important difference. While Pyongyang relies on the atomization of society for political control, Havana on the contrary relies on grassroots organizations at the neighbourhood level. Ever since 1959, the Cuban regime has heavily invested in social cohesion. This was done for the sake of social control rather than empowerment, and ordinary Cubans were not consulted. Nevertheless, the accumulated social capital could be mobilized to weather the “special period” after the loss of Soviet subsidies. People helped each other at the neighbourhood level, and the wastelands of Havana and other cities were utilized for urban gardening. Unlike North Korea, Cuba did therefore not experience mass starvation despite considerable hardship in the so-called “special period”.
C. Japan, 1940: predatory militarism
My third case is imperial Japan on the brink of the Pacific War (1941-1945). Since the world economic crisis of 1929, Tokyo was committed to a strategy of military expansion into China. The objective was to construct a geo-economic bloc in which Japan could sustain itself as a great power. However, oil was Nippon’s Achilles heel. Japan was almost completely dependent on oil deliveries from California. The only alternative to importing oil from the United States was looting it from the Dutch East Indies and British Borneo. In anticipation of a US oil embargo, Tokyo radicalized its strategy of military predation and decided to attack the East Indies where there were abundant oil resources. To secure its flank and pre-empt a strike by the US Pacific Fleet, Japan famously attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
For the sake of maximum clarity, let me summarize the cases discussed so far in a table:
|North Korea||1990s||Loss of access to subsidized oil||Totalitarian retrenchment|
|Cuba||1990s||Loss of access to subsidized oil||Mobilization of local resilience|
|Japan||1929-1945||Dependency on imported oil||Predatory militarism|
The case studies seem to suggest that countries prone to military solutions may follow a Japanese-style strategy of predatory militarism. Countries with a strong authoritarian tradition may follow a North Korean path of totalitarian retrenchment. Countries with a strong community ethos may embark on a Cuban-style mobilization of local resilience, relying on their people to mitigate the effects of peak oil.
D. The South of the United States after the Civil War
After the Civil War (1861-5), the challenge for the former Confederate States of America was to abandon the slave economy and embark on radical socioeconomic change. This happened under the most favorable conditions. Southerners only had to look north to see industrial capitalism unfolding. They were operating in the same national economy, and the transfer of technology was no serious obstacle. Given the right incentives, it would not have been difficult to attract financial capital from the North. So Dixieland is the “most likely case” where we would expect to see smooth and successful adaptation. But alas, the historical record shows slow and painful adaptation: economically well into the 1950s/60s, politically at least until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and socially in part until the present day.
Dixieland is a cautionary tale for those who predict a smooth transition to a post-oil or even post-fossil world. If it took the South of the United States a full century to fully adopt an industrial upgrade, how much harder will it be for highly industrial countries to accept a de-industrial downgrade? In fact, an easy upgrade from oil to some superior resource does not appear to be in sight. Time is a serious issue. Oil exploration and exploitation takes considerable time. The invention and implementation of new technologies takes even more time. What takes most time of all, is socioeconomic adaptation and the formation of “new consciousness”. This can be gleaned from the painful adaptation in Dixieland.
Peak oil futures
My first case studies suggest different likely reactions to a global peak in oil production. There are other possible reactions, such as the mobilization of national sentiment by populist regimes. However, only for the scenarios depicted in my case studies could I easily identify historical precedents. It is possible to harness the knowledge gained from the case studies to develop plausible future scenarios.
The most obvious candidate for a Japanese-style strategy of military predation is the United States. There may be a point when the US will prefer the military stick to diplomatic skirmishes with people like Iran’s Ahmadinejad or Venezuela’s Chavez. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein has already experienced this. Other likely candidates for a military strategy are, although to a lesser extent, China and India. They do not have the ability to project power globally, but they may be tempted to scramble for oil in Central Asia.
North-Korean style totalitarian retrenchment is extremely repulsive to imagine, but we should not forget that even democracies may degenerate into autocracies. Remember Germany, 1933-45? Political elites are sometimes willing to “screw” their populations in order to preserve their own privileges. The ruling elites of certain petro-states, for example in Latin America and Africa, could be among them. There are many countries with an authoritarian or totalitarian past that might be recovered.
Cuban-style mobilization of local resilience is more appealing than totalitarian retrenchment. It may happen in places where industrialization has not yet eclipsed the traditional community ethos. Poor developing countries are more likely candidates for this than rich Western societies where individualism and mass consumerism have deep roots. Highly overpopulated areas may not be able to feed themselves in the absence of fertilizers and food aid, but other poor communities may become self-reliant.
Europe and Japan would be in a quandary because a strategy of rearmament and military predation would not be acceptable to citizens in the decisive phase of geopolitical positioning. Totalitarian retrenchment is hard to imagine because humanism, pluralism and liberalism are deeply rooted in these countries. And a smooth regression to a community-based lifestyle is also hard to imagine because societies in Europe and Japan have long been exposed to individualism, industrialism and mass consumerism. Europe and Japan have accumulated enormous wealth, but it is unclear how much this would help in adapting to peak oil (remember that we are assuming 2-5% decline of oil production every year).
Of course there would also be winners. Thus, oil producing countries in the Middle East are likely to prosper after peak oil. In some cases, ordinary people in these countries may benefit. We may imagine a certain inter-Arab solidarity, with migration flows redirected from an impoverishing Europe to an industrializing Muslim world. Russian elites could also afford distributing the gains from soaring oil prices more equitably. In other petro-states, from Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa, elites would be less likely to distribute a significant part of the national energy wealth to their populations.
Despite the difficulties, coal would become a more important energy source regardless of possible harmful consequences for the climate. This would particularly apply to Asia and Australasia, but also to the United States. By the same token available oil reserves (including “unconventional oil” from oil sands and oil shale) would be exploited regardless of the environmental consequences. There would be further investment in nuclear reactors, as well as relatively expensive forms of renewable energy. However, such investment would be seriously limited by the constraints imposed by economic turmoil.
4. Preparing For Life In A Peak Oil World
26 January, 2011, Countercurrents.org, By Gail Tverberg
We know that peak oil will be here soon, and we feel like we should be doing something. But what? It is frustrating to know where to start. In this chapter, we will discuss a few ideas about what we as individuals can do.
A. What will the first few years after peak oil be like?
It is hard to know for certain, but a reasonable guess is that the impact will be like a major recession or depression. Many people will be laid off from work. Gasoline is likely to be very expensive ($10 a gallon or more) and may not be available, except in limited quantities after waiting in line for a long time. Fewer goods of all types will be available in stores. Imports from third-world countries are likely to be especially unavailable, because of the impact of the oil shortage on their economies.
Gasoline prices may not rise as high as $10 gallon; the problem may be that at lower prices than $10 gallon, oil prices send the economy into recession. There may actually be a glut of oil supply because of recession or depression, because many cannot afford the high priced oil. For example, state highway departments cannot afford high priced asphalt. This is related to low “energy return on energy invested”.
If the goods and services made with oil aren’t great enough to justify its high price, high oil price can be expected to send the economy into recession. Countries that use a lot of oil for purposes other than creating new goods and services are likely to be especially vulnerable to recession.
Money may not have the same value as previously–opinion is divided as to whether deflation or rampant inflation will be a problem. Investments, even those previously considered safe, are likely to lose value. Things we take for granted–like bottled water, fast food restaurants, and dry cleaners–may disappear fairly quickly. Electricity may become less reliable, with more frequent outages. Airplane tickets are likely to be extremely expensive, or only available with a special permit based on need.
B. If a scenario like this is coming, what can a person do now?
Here are a few ideas:
• Visit family and friends now, especially those at a distance. This may be more difficult to do in the future.
• Learn to know your neighbors. It is likely that you will need each other’s help more in the future.
• If you live by yourself, consider moving in with friends or relatives. In tough times, it is better to have others to rely on. It is also likely to be a lot cheaper.
• Buy a bicycle that you can use as alternate transportation, if the need arises.
• Start walking or jogging for exercise. Get yourself in good enough physical condition that you could walk a few miles if you needed to.
• Take care of your physical health. If you need dental work or new glasses, get them. Don’t put off immunizations and other preventive medicine. These may be more difficult to get, or more expensive, later.
• Move to a walkable neighborhood. If it seems likely that you will be able to keep your job, move closer to your job.
• Trade in your car for one with better mileage. If you have a SUV, you can probably sell it at a better price now than in the future.
• If you have two cars powered by gasoline, consider trading one for a diesel-powered vehicle. That way, if gasoline (or diesel) is not available, you will still have one car you can drive.
• Make sure that you have at least a two-week supply of food and water, if there is some sort of supply disruption. It is always good to have some extra for an emergency–the likelihood of one arising is greater now.
• Keep reasonable supplies of things you may need in an emergency–good walking shoes, boots, coats, rain wear, blankets, flashlights and batteries (or wind-up flashlights).
• Take up hobbies that you will be able to continue in a low energy world, such as gardening, knitting, playing a musical instrument, bird watching, or playing cards with neighbors.
• Join a local sustainability group or “permaculture” group and start learning about sustainable gardening methods.
C. Do I need to do more than these things?
It really depends on how much worse things get, and how quickly. If major services like electricity and water remain in place for many years, and if gasoline and diesel remain reasonably available, then relatively simple steps will go a long way.
Some steps that might be helpful to add once the crunch comes include:
• Join a carpool for work, or make arrangements to work at home. If public transportation is available, use it.
• Cut out unnecessary trips. Eat meals at home. Take your lunch to work. Walk or jog in your neighborhood rather than driving to the gym. Order from the internet or buy from stores you can walk to, rather than driving alone to stores.
• If you live a distance from shopping, consider forming a neighborhood carpool for grocery and other shopping. Do this for other trips as well, such as attending church. If closer alternatives are available, consider them instead.
• Plant a garden in your yard. Put in fruit or nut trees. Make a compost pile, and use it in your garden. Put to use what you learned in sustainability or permaculture groups.
• Meat, particularly beef, is likely to be very expensive. Learn to prepare meals using less meat. Make casseroles like your grandmother’s, making a small amount of meat go a long way. Or make soup using a little meat plus vegetables or beans.
• Use hand-me-down clothing for younger children. Or have a neighborhood garage sale, and trade clothing with others near you.
D. Should families continue to have two, three, or four children, as they often do today?
With the uncertainties ahead, it would be much better if families were very small–one child, or none at all. The world’s population has grown rapidly in the last 100 years. Part of the reason for growth is the fact that with oil and natural gas, it was possible to grow much more food than in the past. As we lose the use of these fossil fuels, it is likely that we will not be able to produce as much food as in the past, because of reduced ability to irrigate crops, and reduced availability of fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides. In addition, manufactured goods of all types, including clothing and toys, are likely to be less available, with declining fossil fuel supply. Having smaller families will help fit the population to the available resources.
If couples have completed their families, it would probably be worthwhile for them to consider a permanent method of contraception, since birth control may be less available or more expensive.
E. Are there any reasons why steps such as those outlined in Question 3 might be too little to handle the problem?
Besides the decline in oil production, there are a number of other areas of concern. Hopefully, most of these will never happen, or if they do happen, will not occur for several years. If they do happen, greater measures than those outlined in Question 3 are likely to be needed.
• Collapse of the financial system. Our financial system needs growth to sustain it, so that loans can be paid back with interest. Once peak oil hits, growth will be gone. Economic growth may even be replaced with economic decline. It is not clear our financial system can handle this.
• Collapse of foreign trade. Many factors may come into play: The cost of transportation will be higher. Airline transport may not be available at all. Fewer goods are likely to be produced by the poorer countries of the world, because of power outages related to high oil prices. Rapid inflation/deflation may make monetary transactions more difficult.
• Rapid climate change. Recently, scientists have discovered that climate change can take place over a very short period of time–as little as a decade or two. Temperature and precipitation changes may cause crop failures, and may make some areas no longer arable. Sea levels may also rise.
• Failure of the electrical grid. The grid tends to be vulnerable to many kinds of problems–including deterioration due to poor maintenance, damage during storms, and attacks in times of civil unrest. Maintenance is currently very poor (grade of D) according to the “Report Card on America’s Infrastructure” by the American Society of Civil Engineers. If we cannot maintain the grid, and upgrade it for the new wind and solar capacity being added, we will all be in the dark.
• Water shortages. There are several issues–We are drawing down some aquifers at unsustainable rates, and these may be depleted. Climate change may reduce the amount of water available, by melting ice caps and changing storm patterns. City water and sewer systems require considerable energy inputs to continue functioning. If these are not provided, the systems will stop. Finally, systems must also be adequately maintained–something that is neglected currently.
• Road deterioration. If we don’t have roads, it doesn’t matter whether we have cars. In the future, asphalt (a petroleum product) is expected to become more and more expensive and less available. It is not clear whether recycling asphalt from lesser-used roads will overcome this difficulty.
• Decline in North American natural gas production. Natural gas is especially used for home heating, making plastics and making fertilizer. It is also used in electrical generation, particularly for extra load capacity when demand is high. Conventional natural gas is declining, and it is not clear that supply from other sources can make up the gap. We now have shale gas and other unconventional making up the gap, but there are uncertainties how long it will stay with us.
• Inadequate mineral supplies. A number of minerals are becoming less available, including copper (used in electric wiring), platinum (used in catalytic converters), phosphorous (used in fertilizer).
• Fighting over available supplies. This could happen at any level. Individuals with inadequate food or gasoline may begin using violence. Or there may be fighting among groups within a nation, or between nations.
F. Are there any reasons for optimism?
Yes. We know that people throughout the ages have gotten along successfully with far fewer resources than we have now, and with much less foreign trade. Financial systems have gotten into trouble in the past, and eventually new systems have replaced them. If nothing else, barter works.
We know that among the countries of the world, the United States, Canada, and Russia have reasonably good resource endowments in relation to their populations. They have fairly large amounts of land for crops, moderate rainfall, reasonable amounts of fossil fuels remaining, and populations that are not excessively large.
We also know that Cuba successfully made a transition from high oil usage to much lower oil usage, through the development of local gardens, increased public transit, and bicycles. A movie has been made about the Cuban experience.
G. What should we do, if we want to do more than described in Question 3?
Some web sites (such as Life After the Oil Crash and wtdwtshtf.com) advocate moving to a farming area, buying land and hand tools, and learning to farm without fossil fuels. Typically, an individual purchases an existing farmhouse and adds solar panels or a windmill. The web sites generally recommend storing up large supplies of food, clothing, medicine, tools, guns, and ammunition, and learning a wide range of skills. These sites also suggest storing some things (liquor, razor blades, aspirin, etc.) for purposes of barter.
This approach may work for a few people, but it has its drawbacks. Making such a big move is likely to be expensive, and will most likely involve leaving one’s job. The individual will be alone, so security may be a problem. The individual may be dependent on his or her own resources for most things, especially if the farm is in a remote location. If the weather is bad, crops may fail. Living on the edge of a small town may prevent some problems, but such a move would still be a major undertaking.
H. How about Ecovillages? What are they?
These are communities dedicated to the idea of sustainable living. These communities were set up in response to many issues facing the world, including global warming, resource depletion, and lifestyles that are not fulfilling. They were generally not formed with peak oil in mind.
Each ecovillage is different. Organizers often buy a large plot of land and lay out a plan for it. Individuals buy into the organization. Homes may be made from sustainable materials, such as bales of straw. Gardening is generally done using “permaculture”- a sustainable organic approach. Individuals may have assigned roles in the community.
The few ecovillages I investigated did not seem to truly be sustainable–they bought much of their food and clothing from outside, and made money by selling tours of their facilities. The ecovilliage approach could theoretically be expanded to provide self-sustaining post-peak oil communities, but would require some work. Some adventuresome readers may want to try this approach.
I. Is there a middle ground?
What should be people be doing now, if they want to do more than outlined in Questions 2 and 3, but aren’t ready to immerse themselves in a new lifestyle? As a middle ground, people need to start thinking seriously about how to maintain their own food and water security, and start taking steps in that direction.
_1) Food security. We certainly hope our current system of agriculture will continue without interruption, but there is no guarantee of this. Our current method is very productive, but uses huge amounts of energy. If we can keep our current system going, its productivity would likely be higher than that of a large number of individual gardens. The concern is that eventually the current system may break down due to reduced oil supply and need to be supplemented. Vulnerabilities include:
• Making hybrid seed, and transporting it to farmers
• Getting diesel fuel to the farmers who need it
• Transporting food to processing centers by truck
• Creating processed food in energy-intensive factories
• Making boxes and other containers for food
• Transporting processed food to market
If diesel fuel is allocated by high price alone, farmers may not be able to afford fuel, and may drop out. Or truck drivers may not be able to get what they need.
It is in our best interest to have a back-up plan. The one most often suggested is growing gardens in our yards–even front yards. Another choice is encouraging local farms, so that transportation is less of an issue. It takes several years to get everything working well (new skills learned, fruit trees to reach maturity), so we need to start early.
One type of crop that is particularly important is grain, since grain provides a lot of calories and stores well. In some parts of the country, potatoes might be a good substitute. It would be good if people started planting grain in gardens in their yards. There is a lot to learn in order to do this, including learning which grains grow well, how much moisture and nutrients the grains need, and how to process them. If the grain that grows well is unfamiliar, like amaranth, there is also a need to learn how to use it in cooking.
Individuals (or local farms) should also begin growing other foods that grow well in their areas, including fruits and nuts, greens of various types, and other more traditional garden crops, including beans. For all types of gardening, non-hybrids seeds (sometimes called heirloom seeds) are probably best for several reasons:
• It makes storing seeds after harvest possible, and reduces dependence on hybrid seeds.
• There is less uniformity, so the harvest is spread over a longer period.
• The reduced uniformity also helps prevent crop failure in years with drought or excessive rain. Some seeds will not grow, but others will. (Hybrids are all or nothing.)
Imported foods are likely to shrink in supply more quickly than other foods. If you live in a country that is dependent on imported foods, you may want to consider moving elsewhere.
_2) Water Security. Here, the largest issue is whether there is likely to be sufficient supply in your area. Another issue is whether there will be sufficient water for your garden, at appropriate times. A third issue is whether there will be disruptions in general, because of poor maintenance or because the process of treating fresh water (and sewage) is energy-intensive.
With respect to sufficient water in your area, if it looks like there is a problem (desert Southwest, for example), relocating now rather than later is probably a good idea. Transporting water is energy intensive, and new efforts at developing energy (like shale oil or more ethanol) are likely to make the water supply situation even worse.
With respect to water for gardening, consider a rainwater catchment system for your roof. Runoff water is saved in barrels, and can be used for irrigation in dry periods.
General disruptions of water supply are more difficult. Keep some bottled water on hand. You may also want to consider a tank for greater storage supply. Rainwater catchment can be used for drinking water, with the correct type of roofing (not asphalt shingles!) and proper treatment, but this is not generally legal in the United States.
J. What kind of investments should I be making?
A person’s first priority should be buying at least a little protection for a rainy day – some extra food and water, comfortable clothing, blankets and flashlights, I recommend at least two weeks worth of these items. If you have money and space, you may want to buy more.
Paying down debt is probably a good idea, if only for the peace of mind it brings. There are some possible scenarios where debt is not a problem (hyper-inflation but you keep your existing job and get a raise). In many other scenarios (deflation; job lay-offs; rising food and energy prices) debt is likely to be even harder to pay off than it is now.
Land for a garden is probably a good investment, as well as garden tools. You will want to invest in gardening equipment, some books on permaculture, and perhaps some heirloom seeds. You may also want to consider a rainwater catchment system, to collect water from your roof.
You may also want to invest in solar panels for your home. If you want round-the-clock solar energy, you will also need back-up batteries. Buying these is questionable–they tend to be very expensive, require lots of maintenance, and need to be replaced often.
There is a possibility that the financial system will run into difficulty in the not-too-distant future. Some ideas for investments that may protect against this are:
• Treasury Inflation – Protected Securities (TIPS)
• Bank accounts protected by the FDIC
• Gold coins
• Silver coins
If you want to invest in the stock market, we know that there will be more and more drilling done for oil and gas done in the next few years, so companies making drilling equipment are likely to do well. Small independent oil and gas companies may also do well, doing “work-over” business. We know that there are likely to be shortages in some metals in the years ahead (copper, platinum, uranium), so shares in companies mining these types of metals may do well.
Investments in biofuels should be considered with caution. Most ethanol from corn appears to be heavily dependent on subsidies. If it should ever have to compete with other fuels on a level playing ground, it is likely to do poorly.
I would be cautious about buying insurance policies, except for short-term needs such as automobile coverage, homeowners coverage, and term life insurance. If we encounter a period of significant deflation, insurance companies are likely to fail, because bondholders cannot pay their debt. If we run into a period of rapid inflation, the life insurance or long term care coverage you buy may have very little real value when you come to use it.
K. Should I move to a different location?
There are many reasons you might want to consider moving to a different location:
• To find something less expensive. If times are going to be difficult, you do not want to be paying most of your income on a mortgage or rent.
• To be closer to friends or family, in the difficult times ahead.
• To share a house or apartment with friends or family.
• To be closer to work or public transportation.
• To be closer to a type of employment that you believe will have a better chance of continuing in the future.
• To have better fresh water supplies.
• To join a community with similar interests in sustainability.
• To leave a community that you feel may be prone to violence, in time of shortage.
There are disadvantages as well as advantages to moving to a new location. If many others are trying to move at the same time, you may not be welcome in the new community. You will likely not have friends and the support group you would have had in your prior location. Because of these issues, it is probably better to move sooner, rather than later, if you are going to move. If you balance the pluses and the minuses, it may be better to stay where you are.
L. We hear a lot about various things we can do to be “green”, like buying fluorescent light bulbs. Do these save oil?
Most of the “green” ideas you read about save energy of some kind, but not necessarily oil. Even so, they are still a good idea. If there is a shortage of one type of energy, it tends to affect other types of energy as well. Doing “green” things is also helpful from a global warming perspective.
Here are some green ideas besides using fluorescent light bulbs:
• Move to a smaller house or apartment.
• Insulate your house, and have it professionally sealed to keep out drafts.
• If any rooms are unused, do not heat and cool them.
• Keep your house warmer in summer, and cooler in winter.
• If you no longer need a big refrigerator, buy a smaller one. Be sure it is an “Energy Star” refrigerator.
• If you have more than one refrigerator, get rid of the extra(s). Refrigerators are a big source of energy use. For parties, use ice in a tub.
• Separate freezers are also big energy users. Consider doing without.
• Eat less meat. Also avoid highly processed foods and bottled water. All of these require large amounts of energy for production.
• Get power strips and turn off appliances that drain energy when not in use.
• Turn off lights that are not needed.
• Rewire lights into smaller “banks”, so you do not need to light up the whole basement when all you want is light in a small corner.
• Get a clothes line, so you do not need to use your clothes dryer.
• When cooking, use the microwave whenever possible.
• Reduce air travel to a minimum. Air travel results in a huge number of miles of travel with corresponding fuel use.
• Recycle whenever you can.
• Eliminate disposables as much as possible (coffee cups, napkins, plastic bags, etc.)
M. Should we be talking to our local government officials about these problems?
Yes! At the local level, there are many changes that would be helpful:
• Laws permitting people to put up clothes lines in their yards.
• Laws encouraging gardens to be grown, even in the front yards of homes.
• Laws permitting multiple occupancy of houses by unrelated individuals.
• New local public transportation plans, particularly ones that do not require large outlay of funds. For example, a plan that is more like a glorified car pool might work.
• Allocation of funds to study the best crops to be grown in the area, and the best cultivation methods, if energy supplies are much lower in the future.
It would also be helpful to make changes at higher levels of government, but these are beyond the scope of the discussion in this chapter.