A Peak Oil Survival Manual (Part I)by Richard HeinbergMuseLetter #161 (September 2005)
During the past months many readers have contacted me to ask how they personally should prepare for Peak Oil: should they move, and where? How should they invest their savings? Should they quit school or go to school to learn new skills? Should they change careers? Since I am neither an investment counselor nor a fortuneteller, I feel uncomfortable answering these sorts of questions. Nevertheless, it is possible to compose some sort of useful reply based on general knowledge and common sense.
I suppose that, in the context of our litigious society, I should preface what follows with a disclaimer: Think for yourself. Don't take my advice unless you have thought through your personal situation independently and have come up with conclusions similar to mine.Why does Peak Oil Imply an Economic Crash?
First, before suggesting responses to Peak Oil, I should reiterate why you are likely to be personally economically impacted by the event. That we each will is not intuitively obvious to everyone: I have heard from quite a few people who believe that peaking will occur far enough in the future that we will by then have found substitutes for oil; or that the yearly shortfalls in oil production after peak will easily be made up for through efficiency measures (such as increasing the number of gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles on the road or building hydrogen-powered vehicles). The latter assertion seems to be supported by a recent study by Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute, "Winning the Oil End Game".
With regard to both points, I would refer readers once again to the Hirsch Report (see MuseLetters 158 and 160), "Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management", prepared by SAIC for the US Department of Energy and released in February this year. Hirsch, et al, conclude that "The problems associated with world oil production peaking will not be temporary, and past 'energy crisis' experience will provide relatively little guidance". They also note that efficiency measures will not be enough to forestall dire impacts, nor will it be possible to develop new supplies of alternative fuels quickly enough to avert shortages. The Report's authors also dismiss the oft-heard claim that the Market will solve any shortage problem (because higher oil prices will stimulate investments in alternative energy sources, more efficient cars, and so on). Hirsch et al maintain that "Intervention by governments will be required, because the economic and social implications of oil peaking would otherwise be chaotic".
Of course, government intervention of the kind and scale envisioned by the Report's authors is not currently occurring (in the US, anyway), and, prior to peak, is unlikely to do so because of the resulting career costs to politicians within the current American political climate. One only has to look back to Jimmy Carter's failed attempt, in the late 1970s, to warn the American people of the impacts of increasing US dependence on oil imports, and to the price he paid for his efforts, to appreciate these likely costs. In a two-party system, one party's calls for economic moderation are likely to be trumped by the other party's appeal to voters' higher material aspirations.
The situation internationally is a bit more encouraging: the Oil Depletion Protocol (see MuseLetter #160) will be a tough sell to Washington officials, but other countries are more likely to show interest in it, and I expect we will see at least nation sign on before the end of 2006. In addition, people in other countries are less energy-dependent to begin with: Americans use twice the energy per-capita as Europeans, forty times as much as people in the poorest nations. In other words, Americans have further to fall, and more expectations to be dashed along the way.
All of this has personal implications for individuals, especially in the US. Regarding the first point above (that peaking is unlikely to occur for at least a decade), I would encourage readers to ponder the question: How long would it take you personally to prepare for an entirely different economic climate - one characterized by dramatically higher energy costs, high unemployment, and reduced mobility? I would also advise careful reading of Chris Skrebowski's study, "Oil Field Megaprojects", updated in the April 2005 issue of Petroleum Review, which finds that new oil production capacity now in development will be unable to replace even half of new capacity that will needed over the next five years. The Hirsch Report forecasts dire consequences if efforts at impact mitigation are not initiated twenty years prior to the global peak; but if Skrebowski is right, we may have a mere one to three years before the event.
The Hirsch Report may be overly optimistic in another respect - in that it doesn't take into account the inherent fragility of the US economy resulting from decades of rising imports relative to exports, low savings rates, the hollowing out of the national manufacturing base, the explosion of government debt (especially during the past four years), and the substitution of speculation (for example, derivatives) for investment in infrastructure and productive capacity. Even if Peak Oil were not an issue, the American economy is still headed for a "correction" of historic proportions.
In sum, there are very good reasons for assuming that the effects of the global oil peak will be severe, that they will begin to appear quite soon, that they will affect you personally, and that - even if predictions of a near-term peak are still controversial - it would nevertheless be prudent to begin personal response efforts immediately.Think Great Depression
Most readers of my books, or long-time subscribers to MuseLetter, will not have needed the few paragraphs of introduction above in order to be convinced of the need for action. But I hope the exercise was helpful in any case (if you are a Peak Oil convert, you may wish to share this essay with friends).So: what to do?
The first thing I would suggest is to get some idea of what to expect. This can only be a general idea at best, as the behavior of large chaotic systems is hard to predict, and the world is both very large and very chaotic. Yet if we don't know what to expect, it's hard to prepare.
Of course, fuel will cost more, but so will food and just about everything else that has inherent value. Unemployment will increase, as will bankruptcies and foreclosures. These sorts of trends will likely lead to social unrest and, most likely, government repression.
Once you have thought through some of the mutually catalyzing implications, next begin to adjust your worldview to this future reality. Do some thought experiments: place yourself in the post-peak world and imagine what you could do, what you would like to do, how you would be challenged, and how you might contribute.
Here, as in so many instances, a little history is helpful. The past is never an exact guide to the future, but it may be possible to get inklings about life in our energy-starved future by identifying and examining other periods of shortage or privation, or other societies that have faced similar challenges. Past object lessons include the Great Depression of the 1930s (and some of the nearly-great depressions that are less often mentioned - such as those of the 1890s, 1907-8, and 1921), and the Cuban "Special Period" (1990 to 2000). Of course, we needn't necessarily look to the past for examples: Readers who have traveled to poor areas in Third-World nations will already have some personal knowledge of what it is like to live with much less energy, or in a country where unemployment figures are several times what we have been used to in post-World War II America.
The first lesson we are likely to take away from any such thought exercise is that dire conditions bring out both the best and worst in people. Some individuals seek unfair advantages; others tend to crumble psychologically, especially when privation comes on suddenly. However, many others quickly learn to cooperate, or discover unsuspected resources of creativity within themselves. Indeed, in hindsight times of extreme social stress are often searingly memorable, as Chris Hedges documented in his book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, and as also becomes clear from the interviews collected in Studs Terkel's Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression.
So if this is the case, one of our main goals in approaching "times that try men's souls" must be to make sure that we are among those who are psychologically prepared to respond to stress positively. Here you, the reader, should take heart: the fact that you are willing to contemplate the likelihood of a deeply challenging future and to prepare yourself for it - rather than to sink into denial or distraction - is strong evidence that you are the type of person who is likely to respond well under stress, and who will likely be a leader and catalyst for positive responses within your community.
Thinking about hard times is not a morbid pastime; it is a healthy exercise in realism. The world around us - in which most people are living in less-than-sublime ignorance while the ecological basis of their very existence is eroding from beneath them - is a seductive dream-world. As you confirm this for yourself, begin to awaken from that dream (or nightmare) and live a greater proportion of each day in more direct contact with reality. Turn off your television. Get outside and garden; pay attention to nature. Pare down, scale back, and adjust your expectations.
Appreciate simple pleasures. As you do, you may enjoy momentary epiphanies. Here is an example of one of my own. My wife and I drink tea, and, several months ago, we became curious about how tea is produced. We did some quick research. It turned out that we already had a tea bush growing in our yard (well, close enough - the proper plant is Camellia Japonica, while we have a Camellia Sinensis). We harvested some tender young leaves, heated them, and vigorously kneaded them by hand for almost half and hour. It was soon evident to us that producing tea for oneself is a very labor-intensive process. Now when I make a cup of tea, I still usually just reach into the cabinet and pull out a store-bought tea bag. However, I have a very different attitude toward the tea bag and the tea inside: I don't take it for granted to nearly the same degree as I did before. And as a result I enjoy my cup of tea far more keenly. Suppose this were my last teabag and the stores were closed for good, or had no tea to sell. How might I savor my cup of tea then?
What else am I taking for granted? Maybe this is one of the last times I will ever enjoy the convenience of any of a thousand little things. We might as well make the most of whatever comforts we currently enjoy while we have them; the main caveat is that we not be distracted by them from the job of adjusting ourselves to the coming reality.
Of all the high-energy benefits to savor, perhaps the most fuel-dependent and thus transitory is long-distance travel. I have taken some flak for advising young people to travel internationally before air fares become prohibitively expensive: after all, more air travel means more fuel used, more pollution generated. How irresponsible of me! Yet the timeframe in which such travel will be possible may be very narrow, and the benefits may be great. For Americans who have known only Mall Culture all their lives (and I am addressing these comments especially to Americans), a short low-budget visit to Europe or a poor African, Asian, or Latin American nation could be an experience to last a lifetime, and one to be passed down to children and grandchildren. Conserve energy, yes. Drive less. Stay at home and tend your garden. But do not reflexively pass up a fleeting opportunity to see what life is like in other cultures.Where Do You Want to Be?
Before undertaking really serious preparations, you should decide where you want to make your stand. There's no sense setting down deep roots in your community, or investing a substantial portion of your savings in retrofitting your house for energy efficiency, if you are in the wrong place to begin with.
But what is the wrong place? What is the right place? Only you can decide. In order to do so, you will need to develop criteria by which to judge. A few of the obvious ones include weather, soil, politics, culture, and the condition of both the economy and the natural ecosystem.
A small community may offer survival advantages over a large city. A city with a good public transportation system may be preferable over one without. A region to which food, water, and other basic necessities must be imported is probably not a good place to invest for your future, despite its other positive attributes.
If your current home community tests poorly for many of these criteria, begin drawing up a list of alternative areas.
There is a non-rational or super-rational aspect to this discussion. All of the study of objective criteria in the world will still miss important things. How does a place feel - to you? It may be better to survive a mere decade in a place that gives you joy than to soldier on for half a century in an environment that is merely survivable. Age plays a role here: the calculus looks different if you are twenty than if you are seventy (and this is true for a lot of preparation efforts).
How much personal investment have you already made in your place? The proximity of friends and family should not be given too little weight. Moreover, the advantages of living in a small community (as mentioned above) are less likely to be realized by perceived newcomers than by established community members. Community organizing can best be done in a place where people already know you. Trust requires time.
If your current place of residence still doesn't look good, start a search. Get an atlas or do online surfing regarding the criteria you have established.
Relocation may entail moving not just to a different town or state, but to another country. This may be especially true for Americans who are concerned about the current political climate in their country.
The challenges of relocating to another country may include the needs for fluency in another language, for a job offer in the new country, for a substantial sum of cash with which to buy one's way past residency restrictions, and for adapting to a different culture.
Americans of my acquaintance are considering relocating to Canada, Europe, New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Mexico.
If you are thinking of relocating, scout prospective sites thoroughly. The costs of relocating are high, and you don't want to make a mistake. And that is easy to do: favorable impressions from tourist visits may not provide an adequate basis for judgment (this, at any rate, is what I am told by some friends who recently moved to Hawaii and are now considering moving back).
I have heard of a few people living nearly full-time on sailboats: for those who love the sea, who are comfortable with a constantly mobile existence, and who cannot make up their minds which nation to set roots in, this could be an option worth considering.
If you plan to move and currently own your home, sell soon. The US housing bubble cannot remain inflated much longer, given pressures from climbing energy costs (not only of oil, but of natural gas as well) that are just starting to work their way through the economy as a whole. You might end up with a bundle of cash. But in that case there is the problem of how to preserve its value (we will turn to that subject in the next installment of this essay).
In case you're wondering, my wife and I have no current plans to move. In all, northern California is not a bad place to be, and we do not wish to give up the social capital we have accumulated here. I have no intention of abandoning my work at New College. Moreover, moving would consume all our time and personal energy for at least two or three months, and I am more interested in spending that time doing what I can to make the Peak Experience as survivable as possible for all of us.(To be continued)
Richard Heinberg is the author of Powerdown - Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World
. He is a journalist, educator, editor, and lecturer, and a Core Faculty member of New College of California, where he teaches courses on "Energy and Society" and "Culture, Ecology and Sustainable Community."
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