Sustainability: Planning from a Base of Zero

If we want to plan for truly long term sustainability, it seems to me that we need to plan from a base of zero in terms of fossil fuel usage, rather than from present day usage. This is very much a change from most thinking--how we can make tweaks to our current system to use less oil or gas. Over the long term, we know our current system won't work, so at some point we need to be thinking where we want to head, while we still have resources in hand that we can use to make changes.

We are so unaccustomed to thinking local, that it is hard to even contemplate the idea. What can be made with strictly local inputs, besides simple things like baskets and bricks? It is hard to even contemplate the idea, if one has to put all of the necessary steps in place, like transporting the raw materials to an area where they can be worked on, then working on the raw materials, and distributing the finished products to new locations.

When planning, we need to consider the actual state of our resources. At this point, our mines are generally fairly depleted, making it in general difficult to extract ores, especially if all one has to work with is local materials. The one thing we have to offset this is a huge amount of infrastructure that may be of little use if we have to go to almost strictly local economies. If any of the infrastructure can be recycled to make things we will need (like horse shoes and hand tools and nails), this may be helpful.

There might be the possibility of some fossil fuel use, if residents in a particular area can gather it (or extract it) using tools made from local materials. But the amount would likely be tiny compared to today's usage. There might even be some electricity, it residents can get all of the pieces together to create a generating unit of some type.

Some things we might want to consider:

Where People Will Live

We know where people live now, but over the long term, it seems like people will need to live where there is adequate food can be grown and there is sufficient water, so many will have to move.

If there is a great surplus of food, and there is transportation for food, it might theoretically be possible to have cities as well, but this cannot be counted on. If people live in cities, the nutrients they eat will not get back to the soil, unless some approach is set up to handle this issue as well. Because of the difficulties in trying to transport both food and nutrients, the most likely sustainable outcome is that most people will live in villages, in areas with adequate food and water.

Some people will do better in some parts of the world than others. I am a fair-skinned blue-eyed blonde. I would get sun-burned very quickly near the equator. People may need to consider moving back to the climate their ancestors were from.

Water Supply

Most water is pumped by mechanical means out of wells or from lakes, and treated with chemicals. Long-term, it is hard to see how this will continue, unless the pumping equipment and chemicals can all be made locally.

Somehow, each community will need to come up with its own supply of water. This may require wells that are really sustainable with local tools and equipment, or cisterns for holding rainwater. If irrigation water is used, it will need to be obtained by an approach that can be maintained with tools that are made locally. If small windmills can be made locally (perhaps from no longer needed infrastructure), they may be helpful for pumping water.

Food Supply

Somehow, we will need seeds for a wide range of foods for the various parts of the world. It would be helpful if the seeds are not too uniform, so that regardless of weather conditions, some crop is produced each year. The seeds need to be ones that farmers can collect and use the next year.

Plans need to be made for soil fertility. Part of this will involve recycling nutrients, and part will involve rotating crops, so as to keep fertility at adequate levels. Nutrients eaten by animals and humans will need to get back in to the soil. Some soils will naturally be more fertile--heavy rains seem to wash nutrients to levels deep in the soil, making the nutrients difficult to reach by other than deep-rooted trees.

Approaches will be needed for dealing with plant diseases and plant pests without chemicals as pesticides. One approach might be to plant a wider variety of seed types, so some will be spared, regardless of what diseases or pests are encountered.

Approaches will also needed to keep wild animals from eating the crops. If animals are raised for food, they will need also need protection from predators. This protection could involve fences (perhaps made from recycled materials). Shepherds with dogs might be another approach.

Methods will be needed for preserving food--probably not canning it, unless all of the necessary parts (glass jars, lids) are manufactured locally. Drying or salting food may be methods of choice.

Some method of cooking food will be needed, since nutrients in food are often more accessible if cooked. Cooking methods will vary in different parts of the world, but will often involve burning wood, charcoal, or animal dung. Deforestation may be a problem.

Tools for planting and cultivating crops will be needed. Perhaps these can be made from scrap metal from old cars or trucks.

Some areas may choose to use draft animals to help with cultivation of crops. If so, it would be helpful to start raising these animals in advance--perhaps now. People will also need to learn to train these animals to do the work that is needed.


One of the first questions is how roads will be paved. Traditional methods include stones or bricks. Or perhaps methods can be developed to re-use current asphalt and concrete.

What kinds of vehicles will travel on the roads we are able to maintain? Will it be horse drawn carts, or bicycles (assuming all of the parts can be created locally) or something else?

Will any type of rail transportation be possible, perhaps using existing rail lines, if they can be kept in adequate repair? What kind of fuel would be used?

If sailing ships and canoes are the boats of the future, perhaps we should be making some of them now, and training people to operate them.

Paper and books

We are used to books, newspapers, magazines, and paper money. Can mills be set up to produce paper locally, using local materials (so they can be repaired locally as well). How about printing presses?

Clothing and shoes

Local solutions will be needed--animal skins, wool, and cotton were traditional solutions. It will take some work to adapt them to local conditions, or perhaps new solutions can be found.

Home heating

It seems like this will be a real problem, quickly leading to a loss of forests. If peat or coal that can be gathered using low-tech methods, it seems like residents will do this.

Home lighting

Perhaps bees wax candles? Or whale oil? Or will it be possible to extract and transport enough petroleum products for lighting?

Money supply

Local currency will be much more of a challenge if paper is inadequate supply and if gold and silver are in very limited supply. Local governments will need to figure out something to use in lieu of barter--this may be a challenge. Perhaps melted down copper from wires?


I haven't more than scratched the surface, but one can see that we would have real challenges in a lot of areas.

This is a very different way of thinking about things. Do you think it is in any way helpful? What might we be able to do now, to enable society long-term to transition to a truly sustainable approach? How might starting now be better than waiting until there is no alternative?

While I understand and appreciate the thought and the long term goal of this post, I think it is clear that what is being considered and discussed here is so radical (perhaps its purpose) that it would almost certainly entail wholesale destruction of the majority of the current population of the world. At the very least people would fight very very hard to avoid this (perhaps even world or nuclear wars). To contemplate even relatively gradual disbandment of the majority of the cities on the planet would almost certainly mean that the majority of the current population of the planet would be homeless. Homeless people without easy access to amenities die very easily. There are just too many people in the cities for them all to become rural again. One of the reasons for the gradual migration of the people from the countryside to the cities over the last several hundred years is because of the population growth on the planet over that time. It seems that what is being discussed is the reversal of this process BUT with the population of the planet being many times higher. I am concerned (or even pretty certain) that this could not be done without wholesale destruction not just of the people of the world but also the world in which we live.

This does not seem like any kind of solution (to me) or even a desirable outcome of the changes that must be made to adapt to the decline in fossil fuel energy. Surely there are more innovative solutions that would mitigate some of the worst consequences of our existing BAU foolish lifestyle and change it to a less onerous system that would still allow for the majority of the population to live in cities?

Maybe it REALLY is time to consider Cold Fusion!


While I think it is useful to consider a zero fossil fuel availability world I think that even if there is complete societal collapse there will still be plenty of bits and pieces of technology and people who have knowledge and know how to organize things and use tools.

Home lighting

Perhaps bees wax candles? Or whale oil? Or will it be possible to extract and transport enough petroleum products for lighting?

We may not be able to light up cities filled with skyscrapers and neon lights but we will still have limited access to enough materials to be able to have some capability to produce electricity lights batteries etc... BTW since both bees and whales are already threatened I would suggest not planning anything around them...

How about we just all go to bed when dusk hits?

For me that would be 14 hours of sleep in the winter. Canucks would get more.

There are other things to do in bed besides sleeping.

...and then there is the population growth problem...

Will Stewart : "...and then there is the population growth problem..."

If it were an enlightened society aware of overpopulation and starting from zero, surely contraception would either be free and/or tantamount to mandatory?

That would be an enlightened society that still has manufacturing capability. We are talking about the time after there is no electric for lights requiring candles or early bedtimes. Such a society will NOT be manufacturing contraceptives.

While that used to be what folks did for millenia, what also happens is that people wake up during the night to move around, hit the bathroom, grab a snack (the remnant /relic of this in the English language is a "night cap"). Different people would wake up at different times, and the those circadian rhythm differences determine if you are a night owl or early bird.

Oil from non-edible or marginally edible (like acorns) seeds and nuts.

This does not seem like any kind of solution (to me) or even a desirable outcome of the changes that must be made to adapt to the decline in fossil fuel energy. Surely there are more innovative solutions...

Gail is really not presenting a solution so much as trying to provoke serious thinking about the problem. The way I like to pose the problem is that we will ultimately have to live exclusively within the confines of the above ground (surface) ecology. What we currently get via mining (hydrocarbons, metals, and many minerals) will no longer be accessible.

This means a return to the soil and reintegration with biological processes. And the above ground ecology is not the one that supported our ancestors -- it's a much degraded and depleted ecology: the oceans, the forests, the soil, the fauna, etc. We will have to develop a much more scientific and labor intensive style of agriculture that recycles all and sustains and even regenerates the soil. We will have to become active agents in reversing as much of the damage we've done as possible. I doubt that large numbers of us will be able to be very far removed from the soil.

Recycling metals and cannibalizing current infrastructure can ease the transition, but this too will trail off. We have a really challenging future ahead of us.

Right now, in addition to experimenting with new ways of living, and even more begiing to seriously retrench, the big thing is prevent as much as possible further damage to the surface ecology. It is the ONLY RESOURCE will have left down the road a piece. The efforts at resuming "growth" are all in direct contradiction to this. It's genocide against our descendants.

Taking stuff from the under ground and bringing to the surface, and restructuring the surface ecology in such a way that it is totally dependent on the continuance of that flow, is inherently a one-way process (on any timescale meaningful to humanity), is inherently unsustainable. That's inescapable.

Taking stuff from the under ground and bringing to the surface, and restructuring the surface ecology in such a way that it is totally dependent on the continuance of that flow

The term "mining" applies to more than just subsurface resources. It applies to the extraction of any capital resource - the forest, the soil, the thermal mass of the icecaps, the CO2 buffering of the ocean sinks, even species diversity.

We humans have been living off the conversion of our capital resources into waste. Mining. As if they are "our" resources in the first place.

Correction accepted to some extent. But some of the above ground mining is reversible in part. Forests, etc. The underground stuff is not. It's a one-way flow that will necessarily come to a halt at some point. That's why I put the emphasis there. The destruction of the above ground ecology will (or may) be partially reversible over time.

iwylie, I think that discarding an idea just because it may have bad outcomes is not a reasonable approach.

Gail has raised a good issue. It's starting to get to the hard of the matter. If we want to live in sustainable societies, we have to get real. We can't sustain the unsustainable, no matter how much we want to.

Living more locally appears to be something that is a requirement for sustainability. That doesn't necessarily mean our locale has to stay constant though I think there are probably too many of us to go back to a nomadic existence, so we should probably consider how we might live if all, or most of, the resources we have available are those that are local.

Food-wise, we should consider a complete change to how we produce our food. Much less meat is a smart idea, for efficiency, and techniques like forest gardening, permaculture and bio-intensive may exceed returns from modern industrial agriculture, and without fossil fuels, with less than 1 calorie being expended for each calorie gained. Borrowing ideas from nature seems like a good plan.

I don't think it's a given that billions need to die to get to a more local way of living but we certainly need a transition plan and we may need one fast.


OF course, I understand that more localization is desirable and inevitable. What I was trying to say, perhaps without sufficient clarity is that there is just not enough room (farmland, etc.) for the world's population to become farmers again and empty the cities. Rather than accept that possibility, and become homeless (and die in great numbers) the vast majority of the world's city dwellers will fight and fight hard. THere is plenty of historical precedent for THAT!!

So rather than say that not accepting the "inevitable" because of a possible bad outcome, I would say that the bad outcome (mass death) would actually PREVENT the de-urbanization of the world. It is truly hard to imagine the majority of the world's urban population abandoning their urban homes, quietly marching off to small farms and trying to scratch a subsistence level agriculture life from the ground. AFter World War II there was brief consideration given to de-urbanizing and de-instrializing the whole of Germany in order "to prevent them from ever again threatening world peace". However, it was concluded that the population density of Germany was simply too high to attempt it without mass starvation.

There are many countries in the world with higher population densities than Germany, e.g. Japan, Taiwan, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Singapore, etc. Without massive emigration (and how would you transport a few billion people??), the existing high population density countries NEED CITIES in order to keep their people from dying AND destroying the remainder of the environment. Cities are in fact a relatively efficient method (compared to subsistance farms) of organizing people.

Also, although I admit that this is mainly due to fossil fuel usage, the environment in many industrialized countries is improving! The reduction in acid rain, sulfur emissions, increased forest land/regrowth of the forests (e.g. Massachusetts), the recovery of prey species (e.g. wolves in Wisconsin and the Rockies and the Puma outside of the US mountain states), and the reduction in toxic chemical emissions (at least in Europe and North America), the recovery of the Great Lakes (e.g. Lake Erie), are encouraging signs.
There is even some evidence of a recovery in plant growth in the Sahara and sub-Saharan Sahel (although that may be due to the fertilizing effect of increased CO2 - more efficient usage of water for plants with more CO2 available).

So, in summary, I am not suggesting that more localization is not a good thing, but I am suggesting that evacuating the cities may NOT be necessary and would in fact be counter-productive (it WOULD cause war).


So you're saying that huge cities can be maintained within a sustainable society? Maybe so but what would the billions living in such cities do?

As for not enough land for people to become farmers again, do you have a reference? Do we have enough alternative energy and fertilizer to allow industrial agriculture to continue to feed a burgeoning population? Techniques such as permaculture, forest gardening and bio-intensive, can yield as much as industrial mono-cropping, if not more, but on a much smaller scale, and enhancing the environment at the same time. In principle, it may well be possible to move people out of cities and have them grow much of their own food.


I see that it seems to me that you have an unspoken assumption that we will go back to the early 19th century without oil.

We have learned a lot since everything had to be made locally. Electricity does not require oil to produce as an example and if you keep electricity you do not have to be exclusively local. Mr. Drake's electrified railroads come to mind.

Predicting the future has two approaches I am aware of. 1) Extrapolate a trend using math (M. King Hubbert) 2) Everything else is a guess.

My personal prediction for the future after Peak Oil is that we will be poorer. We may or may not be technologically unsophisticated and local as well as poorer.

Other than hydropower, what electricity supply do we have without fossil fuels? You can't make either wind turbines (of the type used to make electricity) without fossil fuels, nor can you make solar panels. The quantity we have of hydropower is quite limited--probably not enough to run trains.

If we have wind turbines, they will run as long as the system they are a part of works (transmission system, backup fossil fuel generation) and they themselves work. Solar panels that have already been made will continue working for some period of years--they would seem to be less dependent on an entire system working.

I'm not sure how long we would retain the NEED for it but small amounts of electricity can be generated by muscle power ,human or animal-enough to recharge flashlights, radios, and other small electrical items with batteries.

There will be many, many,millions of tons of salvageable steel available far into the future if industry collapses,as well as huge quantities of aluminum and copper.Metal will not be a problem for a very long time if it is needed in only small quantities to make tools and weapons.

I expect that a lot of the steel can be used as is for many purposes, without further working.If not, there's always charcoal and a hand operated bellows.

For instance the rear axle and wheels of many small front wheel drive cars can easily be used to build a very serviceable cart-and the odds are very high that the tires will rot off before there is a problem with the axle or wheels.The tires themselves will probably last up to fifty years if protected from the sun when not in use-remember this is a CART that won't go over 5mph or so.

I have three or four such axles on hand that I will use to build such carts one of these days.

Deforestation will not be much of a problem because if we go to scratch for some reason here won't be enough people left to burn enough wood to matter for a VERY LONG time.Ditto just about any resource you can name-we won't be using much of it unless and until the population rebounds from a very low level.

"Deforestation will not be much of a problem because if we go to scratch for some reason here won't be enough people left to burn enough wood to matter for a VERY LONG time.Ditto just about any resource you can name-we won't be using much of it unless and until the population rebounds from a very low level."

dieoff due to food shortages???
one of the hopes i have is that there will be such a dropoff of FF's that the wars will be short, over quick.

creg, surely all Four Horsemen will ride again-they are always in training and ready for fast deployment.

There would certainly be a lot of things like metal and wheels we could reuse. I think the metal would be mostly be used for low tech purposes, not for high tech things, because most of it would be of lower purity levels, so could not be used for things like computers or new solar panels.

At some point, it seems like we would have to figure out a replacement for rubber. Perhaps more railroad type tracks, with carts moving on them might work, if we had enough left-over steel that could be reworked.

It would be very useful to make strong and durable stainless steel hand tools (miscellaneous), so that we are able to make wood ships and canoes in the future.
For a long-lasting railroad transport, it would be good to make very reliable and durable diesel engines
(and lots of replacement parts) which can run on a variety of bio-diesels. And develop good-protection bio-lubricants
for the engines and transmissions.
It would be nice to make very durable stainless bicycle parts and equipment for making tires from natural rubber.

excellent idea about stainless or very durable tools/train engines, etc. !!!

How are we going to grow enough plants that yield oil for biodiesel, if we have only limited equipment? Where will we get replacement parts for diesel trains (or are they a one shot deal, until the first irreplaceable part goes?)

Where nearby do natural rubber trees grow?

Where nearby do natural rubber trees grow?

There was experimentation with goldenrods that had some success, synthetic rubber put it out of business. Thomas Edison started it all, bred a strain of high latex goldenrods. The rubber was soft and wore kind of fast.

We would have to make biodiesel for trains only, not for trucks.
And, to be very reliable, the diesel engines should be mechanically controlled; NO electronic controls.
Regarding replacement parts, it would be recommendable to manufacture in advance large numbers of difficult to make
parts, like crankshafts, valves, cylinder liners, roller bearings, etc.

"At some point, it seems like we would have to figure out a replacement for rubber."
Surely you are aware that 40% of rubber comes from rubber tree plantations.

I would challenger your statement that building new wind turbines( and repairing old) requires fossil fuels. The major metals ( iron aluminium, copper) and glass fiber require electricity. Epoxy resins can be generated from calcium carbide(limestone and charcoal), using electric arc furnaces, via acetylene and phenols. Transportation is a minor energy input and can be provided by electric/battery operated trucks similar to existing electric mining haul trucks.
Short of a full-scale nuclear war we are going to have electricity widely available, perhaps more expensive than today and perhaps not as many kWh/person/day but still an abundance of electrical energy, long after oil is too expensive to burn and is only used for chemical synthesis and lubrication.

Along with electricity we can have land transportation, irrigation, water and sewerage services to cities and towns, high rise elevators, electric lights.....and even electric cars using natural rubber tires.

For sustainability, we'd have to make sure we can have all of these things without depleting resources (and without damaging our habitat, of course). I'm not convinced that the kind of societies you imply are sustainable.

Neil, have you forgotten the problem of peak rare earth elements to make windmills and solar panels

Neodymium is not really "rare" , as this wiki article points out.

And even if it were, electric motors and generators have been made without them for about 100 years.

When I was a kid we ran our model airplanes on methanol. Neodymium motors and lithium batteries had not yet been invented way back then. lol

Yes we made electric motors and generators without neodymium etc. Why use them now. Perhaps because we wouldn't get high enough ERoEIs without them?

"Neodymium is never found in nature as the free element; rather, it occurs in ores such as monazite and bastnäsite that contain small amounts of all the rare earth metals. The main mining areas are China, United States, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka and Australia; and reserves of neodymium are estimated at about 8 million tonnes. Although it belongs to "rare earth metals," neodymium is not rare at all - its abundance in the Earth crust is about 38 mg/kg, which is the second among rare-earth elements after cerium. The world production of neodymium is about 7,000 tonnes per year.[6]"

If something is common but very dispersed then it takes energy to separate it from that which it is dispersed in. Thus areas where it is more concentrated are what are being mined now on the principle of getting the low hanging fruit first. Like oil. There will be oil we will never pump as it it is so deep or dispersed as to take more oil to get than it yields. Likewise when the neodymium takes more energy to get than it saves by using in motors, well we won't get it.

Rubber is a problem, because of our distance from where it is produced. Somehow, we would need sailing ships to transport the rubber, and roads and transportation vehicles at both ends. In a low fossil fuel world, it is hard to see how this would happen.

At this point, new wind turbines and solar panels require fossil fuels. You talk about what "can" be done. The point is that a huge amount of preparation and ongoing maintenance is required to make any of these things happen. Somehow, you need to import all of the lithium ( or other battery material) and make the batteries and the rest of the heavy equipment as well as maintain all of the roads. Without a lot of fossil fuel input, and globalization working well, it is hard for me to see this happening.


Water transportation doesn't need fossil fuels. It could work perfectly well with batteries, modern sail systems and PV. We could add fuel-cells with synthetic liquid fuels and/or solid biomass, for convenience, but it wouldn't be necessary.

Please see

Cant we just go back to natural rubber production? As long as there is international trade then South American and Asian countries would be doing well to export the stuff.
To limit transportation costs we could see more localized rubber plantations springing up as long as the climate is acceptable.

As long as there is international trade then South American and Asian countries would be doing well to export the stuff.

Rubber plantations might become practical in Canada, if global warming proceeds as expected. ;-)

There has been a lot of discussion here about when production of oil will peak. This discussion is about how things will be when production is below, lets say, 1% of peak. I think there will have been a crash of human population before the 1% level. This is just a guess but whatever conclusions follow might just as well have been arrived at by thinking about production falling to 0.1% or 1%%. The population will surely be small. There is a lot of technical knowledge that will survive. Much of it is quite unknown to current participants in this discussion, myself included.

All of our industrial processes were first developed at small scale in a laboratory. With a small enough population the production of a laboratory operation could be sufficient to satisfy World demand.

It is interesting to think about these things, but it is very unlikely that we will, in fact, hit on the scenario that actually happens. For instance, I think global war is very unlikely. No one will have the capacity to equip and transport an army.

If some government arsenal in the continental US, for instance, has the capacity to field a armored battallion, it might be used to pillage some grainary in the next county, but not to go on some adventure in Iran or India.

The British had already built most of their empire before London industrialized. In fact they had already conquered and lost the Americas by then.
If we can fight two world wars on the upslope of industrialization I'm sure we can manage to get a small world war in on the downslope. In the tank battles of the future the winners will probably be the ones with a few drops of fuel remaining in their gas tanks.

At some point those rechargeable flashlights etc will break and then how will we make more. At some point post peak oil we go back to life as humans lived for most of their time on earth. I don't know when this will be but it will happen unless we nuke or warm ourselves out of existence. Given that humans lived for hundreds of thousands of years successfully without petro or electricity surely it can be done again even in a depleted world. Humans have lived in very difficult environs for eons. I highly recommend the movie Grass "Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925) is a silent documentary film which follows a branch of the Bakhtiari tribe of Persia (today Iran) as they and their herds make their seasonal journey to better pastures. It is considered one of the earliest ethnographic documentary films. It was written by Richard Carver and Terry Ramsaye." Netflix carries it. Our life as mammals worked just fine. Our lives in the cages of civilization have been an unremitting horror.

The Bakhtiari were very practical. They had (have?) no resources to carry the sick and fragile, so they get left behind. And those that are, understand the necessity of this.

Mind you their existence is a sparse one. At least from our point of view. As there was a documentary about them in the 70s, they might still be wandering. But why would they choose such a life when alternative lifestyles were possible? It seems likely that they saw it as preferable to the lifestyles they must have been aware of, especially as they were the subject of a film crew.

Perhaps we don't make electricity without fossil fuels because we have not had to, but it does seem possible. These guys made a low producing wind turbine from wood They admit "This unit (we call it the “Wood 103”) is not intended to be a permanent addition to a remote home energysystem, but a demonstration of how simple it really is to produce energy from scratch—and to be a bit silly!"

Unfortunately, simple and scalable aren't the same.


I just finished posting a comment elsewhere in this discussion that also seems appropriate here. But I rephrase it here: Scalable may not matter. The population that can be served by a facility, any facility that does anything that humans deem useful, may be quite small and quite local.

The part of a wind turbine that generates electricity does, I think, require ferromagnetic material. This will be difficult to supply. Designs of wind turbines that are mainly wood, or fabric, and use metal only in the electric generation unit will be justified. That is to say wind turbines like nothing that makes sense today. And how many will be needed? By what sized community? Who will be responsible for fixing it when it breaks?
Surely its maker, who will be someone local.


I am sorry it took so long for me to get back to you.

Electricity without fossil fuels is quite possible-though more expensive. You can build nuclear plants without fossil fuels-it is just very hard and very expensive. I have personally worked in a uranium mine which did not require fossil fuels except for the commutes of the employees. Solar panels do not inherently require fossil fuels to manufacture and neither do wind turbines.

The image to keep in mind is of site preparation for a nuclear plant by using masses of manpower with shovels and wheelbarrows.

As I said earlier Peak Oil will most likely make us poorer but it does not require that we become technologically unsophisticated.

Why do you think we can have water but not wind to make electricity? Seems to me if you can have one, you should be able to have the other. Both are fluids.

Hydropower provides 19% of the world's electricity (says the wiki says the USGS). It continues that the DOE "estimated that only 40% of the US hydropower had been developed, and that 50% of the remaining potential was in microhydro sites." (hydro power is 6% +/- of US electricity now).
So -> we could increase by 75% US hydroelectricity by micro-hydro alone, cheaper, less damaging.

The is hard to get the info easily from, but trains use 3.6 billion gallons of distillate (2003) -> half a quad. The 2002 numbers from say hydro is 2.6 quads,
so we can power all the trains 5x. (the tiny remainder is taken by Lake Mead drying up, no more Hoover Dam Hydro ;-)

Tidal power seems promising, though most places require heavy duty engineering. Includes both ebb & flow tides and ocean currents.

- Wind -
Depending on the study, able to power the world several times over or just a major portion.
Ever hear of the Jacobs Wind Electric Co.?
They started in 1925. No Neodymium magnets in those babies.
Unfortunately, the New Deal gummit's Rural Electrification Administration trashed their market by subsidized (read: economic lying) electricity.
These are simple turbines - sure, not as efficient/large as composite ones, but plenty are still working with simple maintenance.
Simple Savonius wind turbines are easy to build, though inefficient. Beats no electricity.
(someone else answered on the "can't make wind turbines without fossil fuels").

- Sun - PV.
This resource is able to power the US many, many times over.
At what price/cost is the question (and prices are coming down).
The only reasons desert PV farms are being built/considered are economics and control by central operators. The rooftops on US buildings have enough free space to power the electrical needs of this nation.
It is possible to make a PV powered "breeder" plant. Wouldn't be economic at the moment, but might be sometime (or desirable for other reasons). It's really not that complex a technology. I could go back to ancient Rome and make silicon solar cells: Sulfur burned -> sulfuric acid. Part to Calcium Fluorite -> hydrofluoric acid -> clean white sand (acid washed?) -> fluorosilicic acid -> dry with concentrated sulfuric -> silicon tetrafluoride. Reduce with hydrogen made by sulfuric acid on zinc or (after we have some cells made) electrolysis, in ceramic tubes heated by a fire or the sun (remember Archimedes' mirrors?). When the tube is almost full of polysilicon, let it cool and bust it open. (melting technology in Rome wouldn't have melted silicon, so we're stuck with pipes vs solid ingots and wafers with a hole in the middle). Wafer with a hand (or water wheel or draft animal) powered wire slurry saw: wire and crushed abrasives. Take some more sulfuric acid, find some phosphate rock, make some phosphoric acid. Spray some on, let it dry - off to a hot furnace - voila, p-n junction. Remove the surface glass with some more hydrofluoric acid (as long as one has bees to make wax bottles to keep it in ;-). Thin silver wires to make a front grid, the first models wouldn't bother with a back surface field (what's aluminum?), some copper tabs soldered with silver/tin/lead, string them up as big as the glass makers can make module coversheets (or take them in when it rains). When you make enough, use the electricity to make some aluminum from clay, make a bigger glass furnace, a silicon casting furnace, etc.

- Sun - Solar Thermal Electric
OK, the PV in Rome thing is a bit complex and inefficient, probably about 5% efficient cells. Just use the mirror to boil water and run a small steam engine.

- Biomass -
Fire up the fireplace when the sun isn't shining, and run your boiler off that. Note the first steam engines applied to agriculture were threshing engines, pulled into the fields by horses, and burning the straw. Only later would they become self-powered traction engines.

A sub-category of biomass is hand-cranked, pedal powered, treadmill powered generators for humans &/or animals. Not much, but it beats nothing. Could be useful for boot strapping (i.e. soldering/electroforming copper for a wind generator...).

- Geothermal -
It ain't cheap except in places like Iceland, The Geysers, and Larderello, but it's widely available, and old oil wells have a lot of thermal energy in them (10 GW in Texas alone). Once people quite being idiots about fracturing connections (and causing earthquakes) and just drill them (horizontally - at least close, so the frac-ing is easy), heat mining gets to be a good idea.
FYI - check out the geothermal study at
This resource is also able to power the entire US many times over.

I may sound like a cornucopian to some, but I don't see myself that way.
I think both the pure cornucopian "no limits" and the pure doomer "all die" are both wrong. We WILL NOT, CAN NOT go on with BAU, not with oil, not with Phosphorus, not with farmland/topsoil and a few other things, nor with economic systems predicated on eternal growth. But sand and clay (glass, silicon, silicones, aluminum, bricks, ...) ain't never gonna run out, nor are sustainable quantities of grass/wood/etc. The sun will keep shining for a few more billion years -> PV, solar thermal, wind, waves, hydro. If people are not attached to overpopulation and/or economic fantasy, a fair number can indulge in incarnations on this planet under reasonable circumstances. If they are attached ("all suffering is caused by attachment"), then war/famine/pestilence/death are very real consequences of co-creating with nature and ignoring her realities.

We're in for some "interesting times" ahead.
The hard part is not ultimate limitation in energy supply, the hard part is getting sustainable (and how much) before a fossil fuel crash -> economic crash -> societal crash/loss of technological-commercial base.
It is thus a social/personal/political thing - that scares me.
The Hirsch report
was published when? (2005) And we haven't really done anything as a country to address that? Yikes!

Our choices on how we deal. Plan ahead (and how) or choose to not choose?
Choose to totally rely on "technology will save us"?
Choose to totally escape to the back woods with a lifetime of supplies?
Choose to get a Prius, then add a Hymotion PHEV kit, then go solar, ... ?

How effective are our beliefs and attitudes?
How effective are our thoughts and feelings?
How effective are our choices and decisions?
These 6 things are ultimately all we have.
And if we run out of time this go around, I guess we'll wait (not that we really know what time itself is) and come back later if we want a physical incarnation here.

You can't make either wind turbines (of the type used to make electricity) without fossil fuels, nor can you make solar panels.

Gail, what's your source for this idea? I see absolutely no basis for it - in fact, it appears completely unrealistic.

"Money supply
Local currency will be much more of a challenge if paper is inadequate supply and if gold and silver are in very limited supply. Local governments will need to figure out something to use in lieu of barter--this may be a challenge. Perhaps melted down copper from wires?"

Paper has no value (ala gold or silver), so why would coinage need to be of a particular value. It would seem that if we can print $100 bills, we could mint $100 coins out of iron or any other metal that is readily available. This would seem to be an improvement over paper, as metal does not wear out quickly.

Antoinetta III

I am not so worried about paper for money, but for other purposes! :-)

It is an interesting exercise to think about living from the ground up, but I don't believe that we will actually get to that point. I was listening to On Point on NPR on the way home from work tonight, and the discussion was on the equivalent of the Sputnik efforts occurring for renewable energies. So that tells me that there will be some electricity. I also believe that when peak everything hits, there will be some major adjusting and conflicts. But I don't believe we'll be starting from ground zero.


I don't believe we'll be starting from ground zero.

I agree, Giant. We won't be. Gail is wrong in thinking we need to rethink this as starting from zero. In fact, we are starting from behind, with a huge handicap, with a toxic environment, with climate change destroying established ecosystems. With the products of global commerce - like the Longhorned Beetle - destroying the Acadian hardwood ecosystems.

We are not starting from zero. We are starting with a huge environmental debt. We need to take down dams TEN YEARS AGO so we have salmon to eat. Gail, we are NOT starting from zero.

We're not in a position where we need merely to replace our fossil energy or even to maintain what we have. Repair is the order of the day. But no, we cannot afford the repair. Think about it, what we need for resources to repair has already been destroyed.

cfm, the growlery, gray, me

You make some good points. Starting from zero is still a lot farther back than most commenters have thought about.

Wileycoyote in the air way over the rocks. "I know what to do," he says, "I'm going to stop this flailing with my legs and put all my energy into getting sustainable."

Crow flies by and says to coyote, "Make sure you pick the right paradigm, else all your efforts are wasted."

Coyote had been thinking of building a silver ladder so he could climb down. Locally obtained silver from the dump.

Beep! Beep! Cue the buzzards.

"like the Longhorned Beetle "

...and the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid and the Emerald Ash Borer and...

bye bye Louisville Slugger...

Starting from scratch is a good exercise, though. It gets us thinking about the minimum we (or most of us) need to live a comfortable, satisfying life. I think it's easier to work up from nothing than to work down from, relatively speaking, having everything. When people think about what they have, they generally don't want to give much of it up and that leads to endless essays and comments about how to substitute that for this, as though tweaking one or several particular aspects of our unsustainable lifestyles will somehow sustain the unsustainable.

Thinking from scratch, we might find that, actually, we could live sustainably and comfortably, and so start to work to that point from where we are, rather than trying to hold on to this or that aspect of our lives now.

Well, I think abandoning the economies of scale of large scale systems is sure to be a big mistake. We really can't go backward without becoming backward I don't think.

Let's say we solve the intrinsic problem of money, so we no longer have a growth imperative and only need to worry about stabilizing our impacts on the earth, balancing our books, living well. We'd still have a free market economy, but without limitlessly concentrating wealth and power, in a somewhat scaled down economy. I say somewhat scaled down because I think the decreasing EROI of all our energy sources will not allow us as much overhead. We'll have a painful time cutting back some of our overhead costs probably.

Say we end up using 50% less energy, cutting back fossil fuels 90% and substituting nuclear and solar for 40%, or... basically going back to ~1960 lifestyles when we used half the energy we now do. The crunch would come in getting rid of the 50% of what we now get from energy use and don't really realize.

If we were to also then, cut our ties with the larger economy and live in semi-self-sufficient little city states, I think we'd loose another 50% or more in economies of scale.

I am struck by how much globalization adds to what we can do now. We can combine both materials and expertise from around the world. At some point, it seems like we will have to scale back in a very major way in this regard, if for no other reason than there won't be sufficient fossil fuels around to do all of this sharing. There is a lot of metal that can be recycled, but most of it will be of lower purity. I would expect it could be used for wheelbarrows, but not for new computers or new portable phones.

I am struck by how much globalization adds to what we can do now. We can combine both materials and expertise from around the world.

I'd argue that globalization is destroying what we can do now. Its relentless drive to simplicity and one-size-fits-all makes many things impossible and destroys diversity. Once again, the Asian Longhorned Beetle (disease vector globalization) and the destruction of salmon (disease vector corporate finance). The materials we take from Africa to power our EVs and the expertise we employ to impoverish Africans as we take those materials don't fit on my solution side. Think Nigeria. Think Somalia.

And once again, this is all only a rhetorical game. We humans will continue as we do until it is impossible - until carrying capacity has been reduced FAR FAR FAR below what it was when my grandmother was born 100 years ago. It's just that in Nigeria and Somalia that point has aleady been reached.

cfm, the growlery, gray, me

Dryki, I agree it is a rhetorical game. The reason it is engaged in is because as long as we are asking how will we cope we assume that we are still in charge. It serves to aid and abet denial but unless someone is willing to get off the web, and seriously devote themselves to learning survival skills, arguing about it is something to do to pass the time and relieve the fear as we head down the far side of Peak Oil. The future is out of our hands, always has been but fossil fuels and the resultant technologies served to make us think we were controlling our destiny. We in the west espcially don't think Nigeria, Somalia, Zimbabwe could ever happen to us. We are so smart, so full of knowledge. We will forger our future....oh well.

First, the book "The World Without Us" sheds light on the complexity of the world as we know it and ways in which it is maintained that we either don't even know or take for granted. For instance I had no idea about the huge quantity of water that is pumped out of Manhattan every day, something like 13 million gallons. If we are not able to maintain the pumps and keep them pumping eventually subways and basements would fill with water, the foundations of the skyscrapers will rot and down they will come. Just as a for instance. Another is nuclear power plants. How long would they be maintained on a declining resource base, and what about decommissioning? I am sure there are many systems, and subsystems, and inputs that we ignore or take for granted that will have unexpected and catastrophic consequences when they deteriorate due to reduced energy supplies.

Second, there is a book by René Daumal called "Mount Analog" in which there is a story of a destructive landslide. When there is an investigation it turns out that a mountain guide killed an old mountain rat, and this rat, because it was old and not able to get around as easily as when it was young, ate certain wasps. Mostly it ate sick and injured wasps by which it culled weak members and helped the wasps, which were ground wasps, in that valley to be healthy. After this rat was killed the wasp population declined from disease and the loss of the beneficial effects of their burrows caused a cascade of effects which eventually led to the landslide. The mountain guide's punishment was that he could go no higher on the mountain than that valley, and that he had to single-handedly repair the damage and do what was needed to restore the rat and wasp populations. (It has been a long time since I read the book but this is the essence of that subplot)

I think there's a "fine line" being missed, as it is both true that globalization is a powerful solution and powerful problem. It's a powerful solution is that it allows extreme specialization and variety in talents to be combined. It's a powerful problem because the intrinsic problem that continual growth is needed to keep our economic system stable.

All we need is a way to allow the economies to remain stable without continual growth and the linking of complementary differences that globalization allows will be a continuing net benefit, and helping to responsively solve the resource constraints and protection needs.

There's rigorous physics for open systems to this, pointing to why multiplying your profits until it collapses your environment is a bad idea, among other things... ;-)

Thanks sounds like a good book - I just added it to my Amazon wish list

Recycle alum and steel into wheelbarrows and hand tools

also recycle glass and other materials into solar ovens

Material have been traded around the world before the advent of fossil fuels. "Technologies" like trade, specialisation and mass production have a huge EROI and work without fossil fuels. Why would we give up trade if fossil fuels became scarce?

Expertise is information, and that will continue to flow around the world. It takes very little technology to make a radio. There are enough parts in the average junked TV to make several crystal radios that can run without power and have a life time of hundreds of years. A hand powered radio can communicate over international distances. There are billions of junked TVs, phones, etc.....that means we have a minimum of global communication at a 1940's level for 100's of years.

Computers and mobile phones could last a very long time if energy invested was a key design feature. Short life time and inefficient use of energy is a design decision, not a fundamental part of electronics. With no moving parts, electronics is fundamentally very reliable. The EROI of electronics is very high - it can save you walking 100km if you have a radio to get information. Why would we give that up?

Power lines don't need much fossil fuel input to be maintained. Some guys are working on power lines down my street right now. They move down the line at walking pace. It's mainly human labor while sitting on top of a ladder.

I don't think Gail was saying trade would stop, only that global trade would almost stop, relative to what we have now.

A lot of what you say may be possible - a scaled down society, maybe even with greater inter-community exchanges and trade that Gail might envisage. But it would require us to avoid complete collapse. That is, it would require societies and nations to actively pursue a scaling down of their economies. At the moment, that looks far fetched and so a collapse is more likely, at this point. If societies around the globe collapse, then repairs to internet cables and radio transmitters probably won't get done. These kinds of facilities, if they exist at all in some areas will be much less pervasive and useful than they are now.

Certainly, there can be some trade, but on a much lesser scale than today. And to do this, we would need whole new mechanisms in place--perhaps sailing ships, and animal drawn carts at either end.

I find high tech hard to believe for very long. With only local and recycled products, it will be hard to do very much. If nothing else, we will not be able to mass produce in the way be do today. And what good is a radio (or telephone) if the infrastructure for transmission in missing?

There is a big difference between "don't need much" and "don't need any". Getting "some" requires a huge amount of working logistics in place.

Even in a global collapse scenario lets say at least one city/state/country through good luck (lots of hydro or fossil fuel reserves, good government, good people, isolation, local food) retains the capability to make simple semiconductor, like a transistor. We used to do this at our university as part of our engineering course. There are probably 10,000 cities with this capability today.

If you have a modest amount of energy, the rest is possible, as the raw input is sand for the silicon. This city then decides to trade. At 1g/transistor they can ship 1 million in just 1 tonne of cargo. Add some other locally produced parts and that's enough for a simple radio in 1M homes. Even by sail this is a very profitable cargo and will have a huge demand in tech-starved world. So the world gets radio again and global communications at a 1940's level. Radio needs no infrastructure except for a transmitter and receiver.

So if anyone retains any tech capability, they will trade. If they trade (and why wouldn't they, given the insatiable demand) we all get boosted back up to a tech level approaching something a few decades back from today. That I see as the "tech floor" - if we get organised it could be much better.

A high power radio transmitter is straight forward to make with vacuum tube technology (glass blowing). You only need one per city (or state if the cities go) so power requirements are modest, e.g. a wood powered generator.

So, societies collapse but 10,000 cities remain coherent enough to utilise their resource locations and start trading again with collapsed areas? Not only that but this trade then restarts economies and technologies so that we don't have to live sustainably any more?

Part of this sounds plausible (if worrying) but unlikely, I think.

No. Read my post again.

If (and it's a big if) there is some sort of global collapse you just need 1 out of 10,000 cities to retain enough tech to make semiconductors. Trade will then spread it to other areas. Like much of todays technology, Semiconductors can be made sustainably (sand and renewable energy). We simply choose to do it otherwise today for economic reasons.

Trade will always be around at any level of society, so if one person gets some tech, we will eventually all get it.

If the collapse is a BIG one - as many here fear - severe shortfalls of basic needs like food, clean water and fuel for heat and cooking may cause many cities to degenerate into severe misery and lawlessness. The idea of one such city deciding to manufacture and trade semi-conductors may be a bit of a stretch.

If the decline is gradual and more broadly planned for than at present, then it seems quite plausible. But whether we in the U.S. - with our massive debt burden and dearth of manufacturing - will have anything of value to trade *for* these semi-conductors is another issue.

FYI - semiconductor fabs/areas I can think of in the U.S. off the top of my head.....

Silicon Valley (San Francisco Area) - dozens, large & small, including a couple of university MEMs fabs.
Portland Oregon (Hillsboro) Intel and Solarworld and Sanyo and ???
Boise Idaho - Micro Technologies
Chandler/Phoenix Arizona - Intel, ex-Motorolla
Dallas Texas - Texas Instruments
Austin Texas - Cyprus, AMD, ???
East Coast - ?Virginia - Cree and ??? - LEDs, Silicon Carbide diodes
New York - IBM Fishkill, etc.
Boston - some small exotic plants doing LEDs, Gallium Arsenide, etc.

Things would have to crash incredibly fast/violently to have to "start from zero".

Hmm, so just 1 city needs to retain the ability to make semi conductors and to do something useful with them, enough to tempt other collapsed cities to trade something else for them. I'm not sure what they might want to trade for semi-conductors or what they'd then use them for.

Semi-conductors can't be made sustainably. It takes more than just sand and energy though, even it it took just sand and energy, the sand is finite. OK, there's a hell of a lot of it, but that doesn't make it's consumption sustainable, since it is finite. Nor will it be possible to make any amount of semi-conductors. And would the devices that those semi-conductors are placed in be made or used sustainably? What about any effect on our habitat by the extraction of the materials, the refining, the manufacturing process, the delivery and the use of the products?

In the end, though, you're talking about just one city being able to kick start this whole sorry mess yet again. What a terrifying thought.

It's mysterious why people don't recognize that all commerce consumes energy. On average any commercial transaction consumes approximately 6000btu/$, because every service that contributes to it does too. That's called "embodied energy", and if you don't consider the contributing energy uses (the energy spent delivering the goods) then your "huge EROI" is missing nearly all the energy inputs and the comparison of input to output is illdefined for making comparisons.

The "null hypothesis" for the energy content of anything is the average, and then you adjust that for the particular reasons you think one or another product has more or less than average. That's the scientific approach I think.

Good point. Somehow, there is the impression that commerce can continue effortlessly, regardless of how much energy availability declines.

Obviously something like 90% of the population must die soon. The cities will be largely abandoned. The question is how can any potential survivors scratch out a living like you outlined here? They will be facing at a minimum hordes of refugees, desperate well-armed starving people, nuclear fallout, civil wars, and lack of police protection. All while they need to re-learn all the difficult skill of surviving that our ancestors used to use. And we don't have intact ecosystems, a stable climate, fertile top soil, clean water and all the other amenities that were here 200 years ago.

It doesn't look very promising to me. I anticipate human extinction.

Maybe we need a reverse Peace Corp with some Africans who are living very simply, to teach us some of the skills we have lost.

Sort of like the "barefoot doctors" from Cuba, offered but refused by US after Katrina. Sounds way better than health insurance "reform".

If you read any history of US actions in 20th century in developing world, or eg. Choamsky's "Hegemony or Survival" you'll very quickly realize that the sort of activity the US will see from Africa etc. will not be "helpfull" (to the US in maintaining status) by any stretch of the wildest imagination. Almost certainly too late to correct.

Kuntzler is more pessemistic than Greer, calling the future a long emergency. For Greer it is a long descent, incremental, taking 250 or more years.

I hope that Greer is "the man." I am preparing for the emergency, though.

I think those that can command the production of value, whether gold, food, technology, steel, or whatever, will not be lacking in protection. Isolated areas of technology will be exceedingly valuable, and will take any steps necessary to keep the rampaging Huns at bay. This will likely be the argument for large-scale liquidation of people -- they're devolving into animals, so shoot them like the rabid dogs they are.

The population problem will solve itself faster than technology will fail, I surmise. Unpleasantly, though.

On the water aspect, I think water filtering can be done quite reasonably, though distribution may be difficult. But existing water lines are durable for a long time, and PVC pipe doesn't take that much hydrocarbon. Sand filters, in a multi-stage filtration system with some charcoal, can readily clean ground water or lake water for consumption -- it might be turbid, but it will be quite safe. A little chlorine or UV would take care of the rest. This won't be enough for a wafer fab or a city, but it would serve a small town for its drinking water.

Once the die-down completes the first couple of rounds and the wars subside, there will still be a lot of well-educated and highly-motivated individuals to recover what's left of knowledge and technology. Those with expertise will be viziers to the warlord king, and we'll rapidly rebuild technology on a much smaller scale. The key is to maintain a food system that allows a good number of people to do thinking work, to re-establish the production chain. It's not hard to envision an 1850's technology base, and going from that to the moon took only a 120 years the first time. The second time we won't have oil, but we will have some remaining hydro, nuke, solar, wind, and so forth to help things along...and of course some coal.

Gee, that's the most Utopian I've seen myself get for quite a while, though it is still quite Dystopian along the path to the end.

useful exercise gail, so thanks.
such a stark exercise is chilling but requires we consider the most basic of the natural/physical processes we are all webbed to.

we have defied the laws of the nature over & over mindlessly & now must backtrack to find resilience, & sustainability.
if indeed some places do not experience this 'depravity' of FF in several decades then surely shortages will require extensive prioritizing that this thinking will sharpen.

for example several have said what a marvel a gas powered chainsaw in accomplishing the gathering of firewood, so we think maybe save the last gallon for such.

will we experience social chaos, & disorder getting even close to such scenarios; absolutely yes, but the very thinking done here will allow us to chose safety over comfort/luxury/BAU when our social web is orlov says;'don't have just one plan'. staying near resources out of our attempts to procure FF's during social disorder will significantly increase our risk in almost all situations.

so yes; 'Villages'; tis the communication/relating model that works within our wiring , & i have come to this conclusion as well[& i am someone who loves deep wilderness, & have very seriously considered such-& may use such for brief periods for safety].

for less than a decent used car price my wife & a friend bought a lot[+ run down-but livable by 2nd world standards] in a very poor'village' that was once a thriving small town in early, & pre-FF times. tis at least my kids future , & i believe i'll live to see that 'village', or another as 'home'.

It seems extreme to assume a life without any oil..we'll be extracting somewhere in the 22nd century. It might not be much, but we will still have petroleum products.

As for us returning to the stone age. Typical FUD of this oil, no mankind. While it will take some serious adjustments on how we use energy, it's very feasible to run most of the economy off electricity. That might mean that mines are run by equipment run on hydrogen cells but I think we'll survive.

Too much of this site has no vision. We just don't "believe". As for population decline, we could be near zero in just 70 years..soon as we stop having kids.

The catch is that we have to generate electricity and this nearly always requires fossil fuels. Even nuclear and wind and solar depend on fossil fuels in their production. We use fossil fuels to mine uranium and to make wind turbines and solar panels. Hydroelectric probably depends least on fossil fuels, but even it needs fossil fuels for maintenance of transmission lines and for other repairs.

Just because we currently use fossil fuels to build wind generators and solar panels now, doesn't mean it's impossible to build this kind of equipment without fossil fuels. Same goes for biofuel.

It might be impossible.

Why do folks just assume that something else will come along ?

At least give it a 50/50 chance that there might not be a way out.

Exactly. At least not a way out for BAU to continue.

Too much of this site has no vision.

I was thinking the same, but in completely the opposite way to you. Many of the comments and many of the posts (at least from time to time), assume that there is a solution that will allow unsustainable societies to be sustained. This, to me, is a lack of vision. Vision would allow us to come up with a way of living that is sustainable for roughly the population that the earth has now. I see little evidence of such vision; there are still far too many people who simply can't conceive of a lifestyle that is very different to what we have now, or that is not simply and evolution of what we have now.

The problem is the innertia within the society in which we live. If you were to impose radical solutions to our population problems you would just end up with rebelion or revolution on your hands from those who cannot or will not adapt.

I've seen several proposals for societies which would work without money but after thousands of years of using it as a medium of exchange could society adapt to something so different?

Probably not. But therein lies a problem. If societies don't become aware of how unsustainable they are, then they will remain unsustainable until they collapse.

Only if the collapse is slow but obvious will we have a chance to turn things around, it seems. But we've had a long period of depression before so most people will assume it'll turn around eventually.

The future is not looking too rosy.

Financial Sense Newshour for October looks to be all over the map in re: our fossil future: Richard Heinberg and Morgan Downey are guests, as is hydrocarbon uber-bull Robin Mills; plus if you take issue with Richard's ostensible political posture you can tune in to some AGW opponent and the odious Michelle Malkin.

I notice Heading Out reviewed Mills's book in February: "The Myth of the Oil Crisis" - A Review (Part 1), "The Myth of the Oil Crisis" - Part 2. Recommended reading, despite still agreeing that we face near term peak. Often I wonder if much of the people in the petroleum industry just roll their eyes at this peak oil stuff - Lynch likes to suggest as much, and both Lynch and Mills insist that Laherrère/Campbell/Skrebowski are far from the consensus industry outlook. If that matters. And not that I've listed everyone. Anybody conducted a poll?

Good find (on Heading Out's review). And good review!

I was curious about the Mills' notion that Norway imports polluting coal power from Denmark (part 2 of the review).

First stop:
2005 numbers: 137.8 TWh total, 136 TWh hydro (136,000 GWh), 860 GWh thermal, 499 GWh wind. No listing for imports, are they in the thermal/wind #'s?
Does this mean Mills the economist fibbed when he chides Norway for importing dirty Danish coal power? n.b. 860 GWh/137,800 GWh is 0.6% of the supply - noise! (or didn't get that TWh/GWh are different?)

The annual report of (agency in charge of water/power licensing/landslides/floods) at
says for 2008 142.4 TWh produced, 128.6 TWh consumed in Norway.
What happened to the other 13.8 TWh?

back to the wiki, thence to
which unfortunately only has up to 2007 numbers in Table 11.
134,736 GWh hydro (a fair bit of small scale hydro recently), 1,536 GWh thermal (apparently a lot of co-gen district heating plants have gone in recently - free electricity by heating your house or free cooling for your power plant depending on your perspective;-), 892 GWh wind.
Imports 5,284 GWh, Exports 15,320 GWh - Hmmm net exports higher.
Gross consumption 127,128 GWh, consumption in power plants 558 GWh,
consumption in pumping stations 1,543 GWh, losses 10,079 GWh, net consumption 114,948 GWh.

Mills' book (out in 2008) is screwed up here.
Norway *exported* 10 TWh in 2007, most of which *had to be* hydro!
Even if all the imports were dirty coal, it was tiny. (and much of the imports were surplus wind from the Netherlands and Denmark).

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it" - Upton Sinclair.

BTW - a large amount of metallurgical silicon and thence fair amount of more pure silicon for solar cells is made in Norway - why? lots of cheap, clean hydropower.

So many things to consider. There are answers for most. For instance, "If there is a great surplus of food, and there is transportation for food, it might theoretically be possible to have cities as well, but this cannot be counted on. If people live in cities, the nutrients they eat will not get back to the soil, unless some approach is set up to handle this issue as well."

A mere 48 years ago, I lived in Europe. There, at that time, a local gentleman collected human waste from the drop tubes in apartments and the outhouses, etc., and processed it to be used as fertilizer. I believe his vehicle was called a 'honey wagon.'

As for the fear that we will have no way to manufacture solar panels, wind turbines, or other 'modern' machinery to create electricity, I believe that there will be sufficient oil to create the plastics [the biggest fear Kuntzler mentioned], though it will be expensive. Metals are present in our landfills and overbuilt infrastructure, again at a cost, but not absent.

You seem to forget that heating [water and homes] can be done with solar power, using crude pipes and black pigment. Solar ovens were in use hundreds of years ago, and are not hard to figure out or create.

Water may be a bigger problem, depending on how far along global warming goes. However, irrigation is not something to be considered as a widespread answer since it depends on excess water being transported from point A to point B, and the folks at point A may have something to say about that. Better you should chose a location where natural rainfall is adequate, and plant crops that will prosper in those conditions.

Of course, the major problem is food. There are, simply stated, 6 to 8 times more people than the planet can carry sustainably. And, when those people get hungry enough, they are not rational, and... well, you can figure out where that goes.

We may be certain that in a world with inadequate fossil fuel, long distance transportation of food is illogical and contrary to logistics. Trade will still be possible, using advanced techniques for sailing ships. That would include wind turbines to power refrigeration units as well, so that some crops that are highly valued may be imported.

The future we envisage will be difficult, but not impossible unless Mad Max gets you. In many ways it may be more satisfying - in other ways frustrating, especially for those of us who remember the 'golden years' so quickly vanishing today.

A mere 48 years ago, I lived in Europe. There, at that time, a local gentleman collected human waste from the drop tubes in apartments and the outhouses, etc., and processed it to be used as fertilizer. I believe his vehicle was called a 'honey wagon.'"

must be a tradition of sorts. i took kids overnite caving. our 'bucket' was called the 'honey bucket'.

maybe that is 'true'!!!

An excellent post, posing some of the very real problems and solutions that are awaiting us.

In the case of rail, light rail can be pulled by animal power for example.
Self-propelled rail has to be fairly heavy, due to traction and braking issues. The lightest trains in our line-up - they were designed for metro use - often have braking and starting problems; in wet weather, the wheels just slide on the track, not having enough weight to 'bite' into the track. Some bigger locomotives have a sand-spraying device, to augment traction in bad conditions. This also means greater friction, and faster replacement of track.
Cars pulled from traction on the ground (horse-drawn, for example) can and should be kept as light as possible - at lower speeds, braking is less of a problem, and you still get a serious efficiency boost from low friction.

I would, however, like to point out that a few problems are quite pressing.

We are getting close to 7 billion. Today, 'only' 1 billion experience famine. That number is about to jump dramatically, as the middle classes are dropping into poverty in ever greater numbers, and climatic effects are playing havoc with agriculture(september rainfall in Belgium dropped 60% from the mean this year, delaying and possibly destroying the potato harvest - and mind, Belgium is about as wet as England).

The problem is, how do we handle mass poverty in a world of mass inequity?
Do we have war between rich and poor? The rich have weapons, the poor have numbers.
Do we ration resources equitably? Are we able to relinquish our status of being better off?
What do we do when there really isn't enough to go around? How do we decide who deserves to eat and who doesn't?
What do you do when you and several million others live 20 miles from the nearest arable land, and the land is already taken? (this is the land-export model on a small scale - resources go to inhabitants first).
How do you convert paper pushers and dog hairdressers into food producers? Used to be, only the king and his friends were parasites on productive society. We have metastasized into an over-populated civilization that has 99% live off the product of 1%, and the richest 2% take half the cake...

It should seem, that mobs will be making calls for justice. And it is quite evident, that the owners of the world are taking battle positions : police and security remain solid in a rapidly declining jobs market. Penal policy is being imposed at the supra-national level, effectively turning most of the world into an American dominion. Weapons research on crowd control is a booming business.
It looks like the haves are preparing for war with the have-nots, whereas a most of the have-nots don't know it yet. Just got knocked out, and they don't yet know who's hitting. Mind you, the hitters have superb pr.

Hi Gail,

Will it be horse drawn carts, or bicycles (assuming all of the parts can be created locally) or something else?

Assuming you are asking these questions without regard for timeframe - it could be 10 years from now or 200 years. I wonder about Human Powered Vehicles (HPV). On one hand, bikes, trikes, etc can manage well in a wide variety of terrains (smooth roads being the best, but mountain trails are still manageable). HPVs provide a significant multiplier of effort when trying to move about the surface of our planet.

On the other hand, HPVs are very sophistocated examples of engineering, metallurgy, plastics, rubber, etc. We will very clearly know how a good HPV should be designed and built (barring the most massive destruction of all human knowledge). We will be able to create some of the parts under the most pessimistic scenario (frame made of bamboo instead of hi-tech steel), and some of the parts can be hammered out of the scrap metal that will be around for centuries. Some things like bearings, cables, chains, etc will be hard to produce with simple hand-made methods.

But, given the real (and great) value of HPVs, I wonder if bike components will be the next currency? I wonder if people will demonstrate great ingenuity in fabricating these components in relatively low-tech shops?

It would seem like figuring how to make HPV with local materials would be a useful exercise--perhaps something high school and college students could compete for prizes on. I know there are some types of contests now--why not make something with a practical long-term use, with materials local to a particular area?

I think that is a very good idea!

Approaches will also needed to keep wild animals from eating the crops. If animals are raised for food, they will need also need protection from predators. This protection could involve fences (perhaps made from recycled materials). Shepherds with dogs might be another approach.

May not be a problem. If food is hard to come by for a lengthy period of time wildlife populations may take a hard hit.

Maybe we need a way to protect the wildlife from the masses instead! (Just like the forests.)

I can't imagine any animals larger than rats eating much of our food in future short of food-Maybe there are some animals that are inedible but if so none of them live around here.

Rats and birds are small enough and quick enough to be hard to catch or kill and will continue to raid our crops.

Larger animals will not survive if they raid farmers fields.

I personally intend to eat a lot of venison this year-I don't really care about hunting or venison but the deer are so numerous that we 've got to thin them out-nothing is safe from them anymore.One hour , one cartridge, one deer in the fridge.

Back when jobs were scarce and there was no money to buy groceries , deer were hunted to extinction in this area.Even squirrels, raccons, opossums, and rabbits were hard to find.

I was middle aged before I saw the first deer on our place.

If the economy keeps going downhill,I guess I will have seen the last one within five years or so-the state will not be able to enforce the game laws without money,and a man with an empty stomach could care less.

Livestock theft was extremely rare locally in the thirties.
I tend to think that this time around a lot of cows will be mistaken for deer;)

I think this is a given unfortunatly concidering it happened during the Great Depression and more recently in Zimbabwe.

I disagree with the premise of this piece.
We cannot start by wishing away fossil fuels.
It cannot be done without going back to the 18th century and
a population of ~2-3 billion people.
Fossil fuels represent a huge reservoir of stored energy.

Fossil fuels buy time for scientists to develop new power sources assuming they exist in the next 100 years.

To replace an average sized coal fired power plant of 500 MWe running 8760 hours per year would take 180 square miles of forest.

To replace a 500 MWe coal plant producing steady power 24/7 would take more than 2000 giant 1 MW wind turbines (10 per square mile?) with 8 Gwh of mega batteries covering a 1/2 square mile.

In solar cells it would take 12 square miles of solar cells (3.2 GWp) with mega batteries.

To replace 50 million gallons of gasoline (1 million barrels of oil) with switchgrass cellulosic ethanol would take 150 square miles of grassland.

To replace 50 million gallons of gasoline with zero emitting hydrogen would take 400,000 tons of coal(11 railcars of coal per day for a year) or 8 bcf of natural gas(22 mcf per day for a year).

We need to admit our addiction to fossil fuels and put our efforts into capturing and sequestering CO2 gas deep underground.
We have the fossil fuels to burn and the sequestration sites to bury the CO2.


Not sure where you got the figure of 2-3 Billion

791 million ? ....

Yeah, I assume that some science and technology can boost the
population above 1 billion sustainably.

Pure optimism.

Well we do have a better understanding of basic sanitation now. I was dismayed to see a report on Zimbabwe last year during the cholera outbreak where a man said that when he could afford wood to boil his water before drinking he did so. He did not always have money for the fuel though and therfore sometimes drank the water without preparation knowing it could make him sick.

I like your link.
People need to understand what going back means.

It doesn't help to admit our addiction to fossil fuels and then continue to burn them like they are an infinite resource. This article is about living sustainably, not about how to make the most out of fossil fuels, whilst we still have them.

BTW fossil fuels only buy time for new power sources if there is actually a plan to move to a different power source (not that doing so can sustain the unsustainable). If there is no plan, then no-one is trying to buy time. Instead, everyone is trying to get the economies of the world back to a state where they continue to use increasing amounts of fossil fuels, just because they can (until they can't).

I think people will cling to fossil fuels like a shipwreck survivor clings to a floating barrel, but there's another facet to this future you're missing. If we haven't *already* set ourselves on the path to the permanent destruction of human habitat with CO2 emissions, continuing to emit at anywhere near the current rates will undoubtedly do so. For that reason, I think there will likely be sabotage of fossil fuel infrastructure. Even if this doesn't materialize, fighting for dwindling FF resources is likely to destroy much of the infrastructure for their extraction. So whether we do it voluntarily or otherwise, I think FF will be disappearing in short order, and I also think lots of people will disappear with them.

People powered vehicles certainly help with fuel consumption, but they're still fully reliant on an industrialized society for their production. I don't see it as likely that fuels and stability will be sufficient for their production. If you can't get a replacement chain or tires, you might as well make a flute out of your bike.

I guess I just don't see any chance of a "gradual" descent from industrialized society, as so much of it depends upon social stability, which I think will be seriously wanting.

5 years ago I was thinking more along the lines of running a biodiesel car; now I'm running a small farm with horses. I can already see major vulnerabilities with my current plans where I'm shooting for more of an 1800's lifestyle. While I don't need any external fuel inputs to grow food or heat my house, I'm still fully dependent upon a functional industrial society for things like implements or roofing my barn.

My 150 year old house was built just after sustainable lifestyles disappeared from the midwest with the destruction of the native american societies, and I suspect it will survive to see the return of the next sustainable society -- which will by necessity resemble the one which disappeared not so long ago.

You are right about social stability being very important in keeping our current society together. That issue by itself might be just as important as continuation of global trade, and continuation of our international banking system.

Fighting over existing resources is a real concern. One needs a lot of high tech equipment to get fossil fuels out (possible exception--smaller quantities of coal available with low tech methods). The high tech methods seem to me to be particularly at risk. We already have issues in Nigeria.

Just a thought: use sandbags as a building material. I'm looking into it for a future residence. Cheap materials, both in monetary and energy terms, similar benefits to a rammed earth home.

How long-lasting are the bags themselves? I think this will be the issue.

As we eventually move toward more local societies, we will need to build with different materials in different locations. I don't know what areas with sand will use. It is hard to believe that there would be durable enough fabric for sand bags. I would think something made from reeds or other plant product, that would need to be replenished regularly. What did Indians in Florida use for housing material many years ago?

Lots of us around here live in houses that were built up to seventy or eighty years ago out of rough sawn local lumber-the costs of building such a ouse today would be a smal;l fraction of the cost of using standardized milled and dried shipped lumber, and the house would last longer too.

Two by fours really wewre 2x4 back then .
now they are 1 and 5/8 by 2 and 5/8.

nearly all these old houses will last almost forever and the curren t owners have generally insulated them and installed new windows ,etc to keep down thier consumption of firewood-most have central heat but the wood stove is still the primary heat source.

Of course it's against the law to build such a house nowadays-the building inspector will haul into court if you try.

This is liberalism at it's worst- the building code-a good idea taken to a ridiculous extreme.

Gotta protect people from themselves of course!

You don't live in Georgia. Here, the termites will take your wood-frame house down in a matter of years, if you don't buy chemical termite protection (or keep replacing the sections that get eaten up) There is a saying here, "There are two kinds of houses: those that have termites, and those that will have termites."

Carpenter bees are another issue-- not as bad though.

You have a point about termites.But a house that is built well off the ground out of green oak and kept dry is not that hard to protect with the use of
some chemicals and a few tricks like metal shields on the foundation piers.Termites don't live in dry wood unless they have mud tunnels back down to damp earth.The shiels work just like the ones that keep squirrels from climbing the poles on bird feeders.

There are some houses around here that are pretty old that have never been infested at all even without any chemicals.

And a rough cut air dried white oak genuine two by four is still stronger after termites have had thier way with it than a pine so called two by four which is only one and five eighths by three and five eighths.Termites hollow wood out but they don't actually eat it all.

I hear there are some new kinds of imported termites in the deep south that are really bad news.

I hope the weather in the winter keeps them from moving this far north but some think they will move maybe all the way into the northern states since they can shelter in heated buildings during the winter.

Up here in New England a house that is 70 or 80 years old qualifies as a new house. In NH where I used to live 200 year old houses are known in almost every town... not many maybe, as a lot of them burned over the years, but they are there. Carpenter ants are a problem, but water and poor upkeep are the real problem, along with poor stove and chimney maintenance. OFM there are reasons for some of the code provisions, particularly those relating to fire safety and solid fuel appliances. I just spent weeks studying Mass building code, and it is surprising how much is useful, and will save lives. Sometimes it might be the life of the firefighter on the roof who can see a skylight under the snow, because code requires a curb of several inches for skylights so he won't fall through the glass... I suppose someday it will be like my mother described in the Connecticut countryside of her childhood where people would just watch the houses burn because it would take so long for the fire department (such as it was) to get there. Half of the town I lived in in NH burned after a blizzard in 1935 because the snow kept the fire trucks in the barn...

The skills to build a house of hand hewn beams and posts is scarce but still around, but we would eventually need water-powered sawmills in the absence of fossil fuels. I would not be anxious to be the bottom man on a pit saw.

Blue, I'm not opposed to building codes and recognize thier value.

What I am opposed to is simple minded one size fits all regulation of our lives.

Most inspectors I have talked to agree with me-they are aware that houses built with rough lumber can be and generally are just as safe and livable as those built with planed and dried lumber.

The more intelligent ones say they wish thier hands weren't tied.

The dumber ones take great satisfaction in exercising thier power.

There are very few houses in my nieghborhood over eighty years old simply because there were very few people here previous to that.

I expect most of the houses built by local guys back in those days to still be in use for a very long time but as you say-old chimneys ,accidents,substandard wiring installed by people who don't know what they are doing take a toll.

The old chimneys are imo much the worst part of the problem.

The lumber story over here is that 2x4 were with rough saw cut and planing of course made the dimensions smaller. Its only about a decade since the inches went away over here, the carpenters were among the last people to use inches. Planed 45 x 95 mm is the standard now but galvanized steel is extremely common in contracted work for inner walls since it is a little easier to work with.

Most commercial buildings larger than a house are built with steel and concrete in the US so far as I know-certainly all the construction jobs I have been around or on were built this way.

A few people have started using steel framing to build houses here in recent years but the average residential home builder /carpenter and his customer are slow to change thier ways.

Personally I hate concrete floors but steel framed walls are nice-they are dead straight and the metal is as you say light and easy to work with,not to mention proof against rot, fire and bugs.

I don't understand the point in bringing up the problem of sustainability in such an extreme way. Like if we had learn absolutely nothing since the invention of the candle and coton clothes, is it a resonable statement that we are going to restart from scratch ? why not proposing to start from hunter gatherer life-style in that case? the move to sustainability will require population adjustement or/and drastic lifestyle changes but these adjustements don't need to happen overnight since the problem of resources depletion and environment destruction won't operate overnight either. Adjustement can happen by itself it doesn't need to be a collapse or ar havoc, because it will spreads over time, people will gradually cope with it, even if it means reduction of life expectancy (like it happened in Russia after the collapse of the soviet system) population is litteraly shrinking in Russia, still people are not calling it the end of the world, they try to maintain a "normal life" even it is not easy.


That's about how it looks to me, too.

I picture a long interim period of gradual impoverishment during which we in America get by with much less, greatly reducing our energy consumption.

Perhaps when high costs of transport force us to recentralize, we will live three or four to a room as do people in poorer countries, as many of us did in times past.

Instead of filet mignon and salmon, we'll eat rice and beans and inexpensive seasonal vegetables, purchasing these at small "general stores" situated near rail lines on which trains are powered by steam, if wood is all that is affordable.

There'll be little travel away from home. Few lavish entertainments. Socks will be darned, shoes resoled, and stylish clothing will once again be a privilege of the rich among us. As our colossal prison system becomes unaffordable, justice will once again be harsh and haphazard, as it was in Colonial times.

Our lives will be simple, again, and rather dull. But in America, so long as we can protect ourselves from enemies, external and internal, so long as we can just keep our heads together, we won't see a "collapse of civilization".

What follows this interim period will depend partly on how many Americans we have to feed when fossil fuels are effectively exhausted.

The problem as I see it, is that we run out of options the longer we wait.

so what are we waiting for ? .... fewer options ??

Or some techno fix ?

No, you are waiting for old leaders to throw their last parties.
Some of them also tries to get their projects working with the
methods that worked beutifully when they were in their primes.

But this does not mean that this article is correct. Planning from
a zero base of oil is almost as dumb as planning from a zero base
in knowledge. Neglecting to use the numerus possibilities given by
the inherited infrastructure, old factories, modern knowledge and
small sources of liquid fuel like biofuels and the oil avialable
durning the peak oil downslope is dumb beyond words if you care
about peoples short and long term wellfare.

That's not how I read the article. Indeed, it even mentions re-using some of the stuff that our industrial age leaves behind.

What is dumb is trying desperately to return to the magical kingdom of endless economic growth. That is what the world's governments are trying to do now.

This is an exercise in thinking about a sustainable society without the baggage that our industrial age has loaded in our brains. However, if the world continues on its present course, we could well have to start from scratch (though being able to recycle a lot of materials).

jmygann, we are not waiting for anything, we are using discussion and debate to deny that we have a big problem and it is here now.

And you suggest we do what ?

You know I live in US but I am not american so I had the privilege to visit Cuba, well people had a hard time striving through every day light, as I was invited (guess why ?) by an incredibly sexually attractive and smiling creature to visit her home, a superb old buildig sitting along the Malecon Bvd, I could have a glimpse at her every day life. Well, it was not pretty, a huge empty space with walls collapsing slowly as the rain was leaking in the house, the furniture was quasi inexistant, a striking impression of sadness. In general poeple stay in these house until the roof start to collapse, which was close to happen in that case. My beautiful hostess asked me if I had shampoo and also soap that I could give her, and of course if I had any plans for the night... I promised her to bring her back soap and shampoo from my hotel which incidentally meant that I wouldn't stay alone for the night. Nights in la Havane, or in Cuba in general, are a all about dancing, there is no other place in the world where you can enjoy the trance of the dance like in Cuba, and you don't need money for that, they don't have heavy electronics and speakers but they have real musicians, no wisky, red wines, or sophisticated cocktail but they have Mohito. Well you can have a night life even if you don't have money in Cuba it is all in the street.

Food is scarce in Cuba but it is not because Cuba can't produce food, it is because the government just prevent people to produce it and to sell it, the smallest profit are so heavily taxed, why would anyone try to earn money? The only profit that Governement can't tax is prostitution so there is a lot of prostitution in Cuba.

Anyway I lost my train of thoughts, keep in mind that decline in itself is rarely perceived as such at the time, it is only recognized in the mirror (just as peak oil) that what's make it sustainable. Honnestly if there is difficulties ahead most of people will try to do something to improve their every day life, growing food in their backyard, taking their bike if they don't have a car, repairing their clothes, in countries like Cuba or Yougoslavia, undeclared work represent 1/3rd of the GDP...people will take even better care of themselves if government fails, because they won't expect anything them from the governemt they will kick their a...

Ok all these collapse scenario ignore the possibilities of huge gain in energy efficiency that are possible in our today wastful lifestyle, so even in a declining supply of energy we will maintain our mobility and heat in our houses and food supply. Turning to vegetarian diet not only requires 1/3 of the land an energy than if you eat meat but also improves your health so means also big saving on the healthcare, that what I call coumpoud benefits.

Ok time to go to sleep

"Ok all these collapse scenario ignore the possibilities of huge gain in energy efficiency that are possible in our today wastful lifestyle, so even in a declining supply of energy we will maintain our mobility and heat in our houses and food supply. Turning to vegetarian diet not only requires 1/3 of the land an energy than if you eat meat but also improves your health so means also big saving on the healthcare, that what I call coumpoud benefits."

Any energy efficiency savings that we make, in a capitalist system, will just be invested back into national growth.

Thank heavens I'm not the only one mentioning this. The whole economy responds to efficiency gains by multiplying energy uses... always has, and always will until we switch the purpose of investment from multiplying investment to something sustainable.

On average, if some efficiency lets us turn off 1 power plant then the economy is so pleased with that it builds 2.7 new ones... !fact!

I've been talking about this confusion in our approach to reducing our impacts, and how it actually has the effect of multiplying them, for years. Maybe I'm learning how to present it. I'm not sure.

The analytical problem is that an economy is not a linear system, and everyone has been using linear shortcut thinking (I=PAT) to represent it. What everyone forgets is that the system is closed, so whatever is saved (money or energy in this case) gets used for something else. In an auto-catalytic growth system when one part does more with less it leads to the whole system doing more.

Improving technology has always been a whole system economic accelerator, never a decelerator. Think of what the money saved gets spent on. Think of all the previously uneconomic things that can now be done with the saved energy. Think of how businesses target the key efficiencies that let them increase their uses of *other* resources, to increase output and "keep up with or surpass the competition".

The easy example is water saving that lets you build larger subdivisions. There’s no reduction of stress on the water supply because users increase to consume the surplus created by the efficiency. Plus you get all the other impacts of building and occupying more houses…. These kind of systemic feedbacks are what is always involved in a growing complex system, and why you get very different results if you consider the effects on the system as a whole or only the local chains of effects you can easily trace… ! ;-)

Jevon’s paradox does confirm that the locally traceable rebound effect dissipates. What it doesn’t show is the rebound effects that multiply, the system wide opportunistic effects. I seem to be the only person who figured out how important that is, and how to make it useful.

So…. Not I=P*A*T unless you substitute d(P*A)/(P*A) = 4*d(T)/T if T = efficiency of the whole economy in using energy to create GDP and P*A=GDP

IMO Cuba isn't that good of an example (Hawaii either). These places are real estate that is ideal for human life, which makes poverty a lot easier to take. Imagine travelling to a small Siberian village at the Cuban poverty level (in January)-my grandparents lived there and there wasn't any dancing or joy to be had. This is one of the reasons IMO places like Hawaii, etc. have a huge advantage-it is simply a better place to be very poor than most. There is absolutely no comparison between the standard of living of the homeless in Hawaii and the homeless in Toronto or NYC-none at all.

I think you are right. Climate makes a huge difference. We have learned to expect heating during the cold months. Without it, life becomes almost unbearable in colder climates (but there are native populations who have lived for years near the poles, so some manage to adapt).

And I'll mention again that like this fellow (who is now farming a lot I formerly owned), any US citizen could get 3 acres on the big isle for about 25k. There will be problems, but heating, cooling, and water are not an issue.

Adjustement can happen by itself it doesn't need to be a collapse or ar havoc, because it will spreads over time, people will gradually cope with it, even if it means reduction of life expectancy (like it happened in Russia after the collapse of the soviet system) population is litteraly shrinking in Russia, still people are not calling it the end of the world, they try to maintain a "normal life" even it is not easy.

As I understand it, Russia is trying to incentivise people to have more kids. If successful, the population decline in Russia will reverse.

Adjustment will not just happen, without collapse. There needs to be a concerted effort to avoid collapse. We are already hitting limits but the world is still in denial. Does that sound like adjustment will happen by itself, without a collapse?

Isn't a shrinking population what has to happen in Russia, to achieve sustainability?

Yes, as in a lot of countries, if the leaders were thinking about moving toward sustainability they would be looking to shrink the population.

In the UK and most of Europe (don't know about Russia), our glorious leaders are thinking about our aging population and the rising cost of looking after them; and therefore they're looking to grow the population so there are more young (working, tax-paying) people to pay the costs for looking after the elderly.

Our leaders are focussing on the wrong problems...


Maybe we have gradual impoverishment; maybe we don't. To assume gradual impoverishment, one has to assume that world trade and globalization will hold together in its current form for many years, so that we can continue to manufacture high tech goods and send them around the world. Maybe this will happen; maybe it won't. A belief in continued BAU underlies most plans today.

At some point, our current system of high tech manufacturing and great amounts of long distance trade won't work any more. We can deny it, or we can attempt to plan for it. I expect most people will think like you. This can't happen--no need to plan. Without planning, it seems like the outcome will be even worse than otherwise.

I thought about this problem, of going to "zero fossil fuels" in relation to the "romantic" idea many techophiles have over colonizing Mars or the moon. It makes me want to laugh to hear the grand plans of living sustainably on worlds so much less hospitable compared to the earth. But its still interesting to try to imagine a "biosphere II" that can recycle resources like the lifecycle on earth, ultimately all on solar power, since neither the Moon nor Mars are going to have anything like fossil fuels to burn, much less the oxygen to burn them!

But the "engineer" in me is attracted to A. C. Clarke's "Sands of Mars", imagined discussion between a journalist and colony leader, talking rationally about all the resources they were dependent upon and how they were moving towards independence, AND the politics of being dependent upon the good will of people on earth to continue subsidizing their colony and what would happen if they were cut loose too soon!

The rationalist in me is attracted to the "knowledge based" approach, recognizing dependencies and limits and applying rational limits based on long term sustainability and risks.

But then I realize the limitation of "reason" and prudence is that it must terminally offset short term benefits against unknown long term risks. It ends up as a "fear based" structure which is GOOD when immediate survival is at stake, but fails to be inspiring for the long term, ESPECIALLY in an age of "miracles and wonders" where you believe the next new thing will change all the rules.

I'm reminded that modern culture is immature by necessity, unable/unwilling to see its own blindnesses. We lifted ourselves out of an age of locality and explicit fear and superstition into one of global dependence and mythic fear and superstition. We gained a confidence in reason by building a society based on irrational infinite growth, and so there's demons hidden in our mind, eroding the foundation even as we avoid looking back.

These thoughts take me back into the human mind, belief and psychology, and Daniel Quinn's, Ishmael and Story of B, of a great forgetting of our connection to the world. I don't think he's got it all right at all, but it just reminds me that we're all sort of "trapped" by the illusions around us, so reason really can't get through until the bubbles burst.

On practical steps, I guess a book like "When technology fails" is a great source of confidence, having skills and knowledge (or knowing those who do) to handle problems in crisis situations.

The main "unlearned lesson" I get from Quinn's tribalism is we're all individually very powerless now in our consumer world, where everything is reduced to financial transactions, hiding behind ideas of what's fair and this system allows us to remain rather unaware of all the "trust structures" needed for more "tribal" cooperative work to be done.

A part of me almost wonders if we need a "story of B" type mythology to get people imagining themselves outside of the wider illusions that keep us going in our little lives.

"since neither the Moon nor Mars are going to have anything like fossil fuels to burn, much less the oxygen to burn them!"

Actually, Mars and the Moon

both have water. The water molecule is easily split into hydrogen (for fuel), and oxygen (for oxidizer and for breathing).

Sometimes the lack of technical competence is truly amazing. No wonder some of you are yearning for a pre-industrial civilization.

Bill Mollison of Permaculture fame would often start his lecturers with the observation that overnight be had come up with a solution to the worlds problems.......One half of the worlds population should eat the other half.....

I think Bill is the only Permaculture lecturer to claim that he is sure he has tasted human kind on more than one occassion.



Wow, challenged on chemistry!? That's the only thing I CAN defend!

Suggesting the existence of water on the moon means energy on the moon is irrational nonsense! Water and CO2 are tightly bound molecules that TAKE energy to split. Easily split?! I'm glad water is not easily split, or we wouldn't have oceans of it here on earth!

The best your suggestion might be is a "solar battery", nothing remotely like what the concentrated energy of fossil fuels provide!
H2O + solar_energy --> H2 + O2 --> H2O + energy

"Easily" as in the technology has been around for a couple of hundred years. Sorry you've never heard of it before.

There's plenty of solar energy available on the Moon to provide current for electrolysis. As far as fossil fuels providing more energy than hydrogen, I beg to differ. Hydrogen is what the Saturn rockets used to get to the Moon.

And exactly how will you be gathering the water on the moon? I'm curious. The fact that it's there doesn't mean it's easily available. Heck, the ocean is filled with dissolved gold, but it's not exaclty like you can go to the beach and scoop up gold nuggets.

This might be a good excercise for someone. What lunar resources could a permanent colony on the Moon expect to find, how would they gather and utilize them, what essentials would be required from Earth shuttles and how large a colony could be maintained in this way for x years?

Sci fi....

There will need to be something better than just water for humans to want to go and live there concidering the fuel costs each time we have to use to break free from Earth's gravity.

There is something better - lower gravity. It's much easier to get resources off the Moon than off the Earth.

Think maglev.

Oh yes, the moon and Mars are just swimming in the stuff. Very easy to scoop up as much as you want and get the powerful solar generators splitting it all up into enormous quantities of fuel, at a net positive energy, and air, including nitrogen and all that other good stuff.

Sometimes the lack of rationality is truly amazing.

No you wouldn't get nitrogen that way. Of course you don't really need nitrogen to breath.

Oh, I'm pretty certain that we need nitrogen for a healthy existence, long term. Pure oxygen is bad for us long term. Humans, and most of the life on earth, evolved with an air mixture that contains mainly nitrogen. I'm not sure why you think nitrogen is of no use to us or the plants we would need to survive up there.

But, as others have pointed out, how do you get enough water to perform the electrolysis on and how do you get enough energy to stuff into the process to get a fraction of that energy out?

Conservationist-there is a rather substantial difference betwween water on the one hand and free hydrogen and oxygen on the other.

Somehow methinks you either watch too much star trek or read to many old sci fi novels, both of which are very good for the imagination but utterly worthless as science lessons.

If the entire world was under a single government we still couldn't afford move enough materials to Mars to set up a colony-and the technology to make everything on site from local materials is utterly non existent.

Not much into scifi, but I've always been interested in what NASA was up to. Do you think they found water on the Moon by accident? And if you really think permanent outposts in space are scifi, you should write your Congressmen and tell them to stop wasting taxpayer dollars. Because that is what NASA is working on.

Yup, you should all write to your congressman to stop wasting tax payers money, though it's probably a drop in the ocean compared to the money wasted in trying to get an unsustainable economy moving again.

Jeez! Not enough hands-on hardware people around here. I have always lived on stuff people throw "away". I have table top fans in my house, each one labeled "NFG" and tossed into a dumpster by a local business. Usually took me about 5 minutes to fix them.

Look at all the cars in used car lots- and in junk piles. And fridges, and crankcases full of oil and metal, and you name it. every one of these things is full of raw materials for all sorts of good stuff. Ever look in a automatic transmission for a car? Full of bearings and other goodies, like gears.

Rear axles from old detroit iron are perfect for wagons. I never bought a wagon. Axle and wheels from a junk car, box from local wood. Everybody around here does it.

You can make a local transport wagon that way, with the people in it pedaling. Gear it way down.

Electricity? Easiest is a gasifier- IC engine. You can gasify almost anything that will burn, including starved people, and we will never run out ( at least for a very long time) of IC engines- we already have them around everywhere, no need to make any more.

There are lots of other ways too; none of them take any petroleum. I will not bore you with detail.

And here I put my head on the chopping block- cannibalism is perfect logic in really bad situations- allows some to survive, and reduces the drain on the environment. Remember how Amundsen got to the south pole? Ate his dogs. Scott didn't and died anyhow.

So I vote for the gradual slide- way too much opportunity for lower level survival for anything else to happen.

NB- I am way too old and skinny to be worth eating. And wouldn't make much for the gasifier, either.

You can make a local transport wagon that way, with the people in it pedaling. Gear it way down.

At the Cumberland Fair there is one of those hand powered railway carts on a little section of rail. I can move it with a single finger. Going up a grade with a load, that would be a different matter. Recumbent model (spider rail) + slave would be more comfortable.

cfm, the growlery, gray, me

Gail, I do not think that this post has been all that helpful.

To say "from a base of zero" is equivalent to saying assuming that an energy sources or class of energy source stopped tomorrow or at least its ability to support growth was stopped.

The premise is not realistic and therefore the entire post has taken some weird turns, IMHO.

If oil, or inded any of our major energy sources disappeared of the face of the earth tomorrow, then might I suggest we would be in an extremely tricky place. In such a circumstance wondering about beeswax candles, or the general availability of whale oil and the nature of the distribution system that would be needed to get whale oil to the midwest consumer or what steps I might take to ensure that the International Edition of the Financial Times was still on my front door step, is, in my opinion a little weird.

It is not possible to conjecture transition assuming a "base zero" start point. Transition is all about starting from where we are and establishing sustainability.

Now if we really wanted to challenge the current paradigm then might I suggest a read of "Treading Lightly" by Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorpe. Now the culture discussed in that book is totally sustainable and has been for 40,000 years. The way sustainability was maintained is indeed interesting to contemplate. But we are as unlikely to go there as we are to start a culture from a "base of zero". At least not om a "whole of society" basis.

Perhaps a more interesting direction for this discussion is "If the depletion protocol became federal law tomorrow....." what might that mean?

Starting from a "base zero" is not a helpful or indeed hopeful place to come from. Starting from where we are and establishing where we need to perhaps more useful.

Kind Regards


The base knowledge and skills required to successfully live a basic subsistence lifestyle are formidable. So called "primitive" hunting and gathering societies were based on knowledge and abilities developed over centuries while being passed from one generation to the next. The primary means of transferral was via apprenticeship where the young learned directly by emulating their elders. The same process applied to early subsistence farmers. For the great majority of the current population most will not be inclined to acquire the rudiments of subsistence living in time to avoid starvation. Indeed, even if everyone could learn the basics there would not be enough productive land, potable water and other essential resources for all but a fraction of those now alive. Given the stark realities of a post carbon era, it is almost certain that there will be large scale loss of life. Needless to say, the struggle for survival could get ugly very fast. In effect, much of the human race may reduced to fighting over declining scraps of a post carbon civilization. Those who have the courage and foresight to walk away from the garbage piles of the past and earnestly begin the difficult process of becoming truly sustainable will have a far better chance of survival.

The base knowledge and skills required to successfully live a basic subsistence lifestyle are formidable.

I agree and anyone who thinks about this scenario for a while would hopefully look at possible alternatives.

With society facing declining fossil fuels we have to get ahead of the curve and make oil and gas expensive enough for alternatives to be viable. This can only be done via taxes. A good government would use this money to rebuild the rail system, in the US half has fallen into disrepair.
Zero carbon houses exist already, all new building built need to be zero carbon.
Any US government raising petrol tax so it costs $7 a gallon would have to be very convincing that there is no alternative, other than war.

Wheeldog said:

The base knowledge and skills required to successfully live a basic subsistence lifestyle are formidable. So called "primitive" hunting and gathering societies were based on knowledge and abilities developed over centuries while being passed from one generation to the next. ...

I disagree - I don't think either I or my base knowledge is formidable, yet I'm confident I could survive "in the wild" here in Norway by the Fjord of Oslo. At least if given a modest starter kit consisting of some good clothes, a tent, sleeping bag and a knife. But then, my base knowledge is far greater than zero...

First, there are plenty of mussels along the shoreline, easy to find, easy to catch and nutritious. Ants also are good to eat and easy to find; they could make a living winter food storage: mark the anthills with sticks or something during the summer so you can locate them in the winter; dig up at your leisure to find a dense, nutritious ball of ants. (I was known as "the Anteater" in school, because I - after seeing a television programme about stone-age people in Norway that said ants were a major source of protein for them - not only proceeded to try out ant for myself, but was naive and enthusiastic enough to volunteer a demonstration. Taste is quite good BTW, at least the common red-and-black forest ant. A little acidic). There's rosehip; the fruits contains lots of vitamin C and are easy to sun-dry. If I got a small band of people together, we could catch deer: there are natural ravines around here that could function as traps: drive the deer into the ravines, or stone them at the brink if they don't jump. Given the ability to catch deer (and my knife) I could make passable clothes, needles, strings... and fire, using a bow and wooden drill. The wood has to be completely dry for that, but once you have a fire it's easy to keep embers going indefinitely.

I could go on (a long time), but to cut to the point: If everybody, or almost everybody, dropped dead right now, elecricity and FF disapperared, my store of food burned up, I could cope. Given an able-bodied and resourceful spouse I am confident we could even raise a few kids!

BUT, and this is the crux, only if there is no or very little competition. There's plenty food around here for a smallish band of hunter-gatherers; but there's the small matter of a city of half a million people, here. If all of us were to forage for food and fuel it would not last long, and the ecosystem would be completely wrecked in the attempt.

ANY level of technology can be sustainable, IMO. But the higher the level of technology, the larger the number of people that can be sustained - and vice versa. (Perhaps obviously, I consider the "knowledge and abilites" of hunter-gatherers "technology"; and the mature hunter-gatherer societies observed today or in the recent past obviously possess(ed) better tech than what I would start out with. But I wold contend that that just enable(s/d) them to sustain a larger population, and to exist in less hospitable habitats. I suspect a shoreline is the easiest place to get by in).

Excellent analysis KODE! I completely agree, but would add one thing. While greater technology allows people to survive in greater numbers, I believe that this improved technology typically comes at the expense of "capital resources", whether that's topsoil, climate stability, or clean water/food/air, etc. You never get something for nothing, but it's quite easy to rob the future for current benefit as we're now doing.


In this world you are describe, you will have other problems then just finding food. Desperate gangs armed with guns will raid homes for whatever they need. If most forms of commerce breaks down there will be no taxes to pay for police, hospitals schools etc. What would you do if you needed a apendix operation? use your penknife?

Hunting is fine if few a doing it but when thousands are trying to stop their families from starving is a slightly different situation. My father went though a time like that and he describes people killing for a loaf of bread.

We need to inform governments so they implement the right solutions, survivalist fantasy is not much help.

I think we agree; those "other problems" you mention are part of what I had in mind when I said "only if there is no or very little competiton" and brought up the matter of half a million people next door. Read my post like a sort of reductio ad absurdum, if you will: We get an impossible result, therefore at least one of the premises must be wrong. Hundreds of thousands of people hunting/foraging/scavenging a small area will devastate it. They will even devastate a large area, as the recent story of the Saiga shows:

"The saiga’s fate has been closely tied to economic changes in the former Soviet Union, whose breakup in 1991 was accompanied by the collapse of rural economies causing widespread unemployment and poverty."

And yes, it is a fantasy, I am very aware of that 8-) A part of me would love to put it to the test for a year or two, knowing that I had modern city life to fall back on... But firstly, many of the tricks I'd have to resort to would be illegal today; justifiably so, because they'd be very hard on the wildlife. It's important not to waste energy chasing things - go for the easy targets: eggs, newborn young, spawning fish, etc. And that's the second reason I will never do something like this unless I absolutely must, I just couldn't. I hate killing things, and particularly defenseless baby things. I would prefer killing a human for a loaf of bread.

As for informing governments so they implement the right solutions... I have no idea what those would be, frankly. Or, I have some ideas, but perhaps the most realistic one is: educate/brainwash/meme-engineer every human on the planet so they become superrational and aware of our predicament; everything solves itself from the bottom up, case closed.

Educating people is the only way foreward. In the uk the government had adverts running about using seatbelts and informed people about how many deaths were caused from not wearing them. When they made it law to wear seatbelts, it was accepted far more readily as people realised it was for their benifit.
The same has to be done regarding peak oil, telling people how many countries are in production decline and even more in export decline. Informing people that importing more oil, which will become more expensive will bankrupt the country. People will understand this and most will be willing to use cars less.
Massive investment in electrified public transport needs to be done, if it is clean, reliable and safe(cctv and enough transport police) then people will use it. New York turned around their system.
Matt Simmons in an interview said. "If we attend to these problems now, the less painful they will be in the future, it does not have to destroy the economy.

Some people on this website think nothing can be done, in that case why talk about it. They turn peakoil into a domesday cult.

"I disagree - I don't think either I or my base knowledge is formidable, yet I'm confident I could survive "in the wild" here in Norway by the Fjord of Oslo. Kode"

You make some valid points, Kode, although I cannot agree with all of them. You do live in a resource abundant coastal setting, and you are obviously confident that you could carry on a sustainable subsistence lifestyle if forced to do so. A positive attitude is an important component in dealing with survival situations. You are also to be commended for you willingness to make use of resources (ants) that most would find repelling. There is a definite advantage to living in a coastal setting where you can access a broad spectrum of sea life. However, I suggest that you should thoroughly test yourself insofar as surviving exclusively off of these resources for an extended period, at least several weeks or months. Chances are that you could do it, but it could prove to be more difficult than it first appears. A small family can quickly consume easily available resources within a short radius, particularly between migrating fish runs. That is a primary reason past hunter gatherers were mobile much of the time so as not to exhaust limited local food, fuel and other essential resources. Another consideration is that loners generally do not fare well at subsistence living. It takes a cooperative social group to meet the bigger challenges of subsistence living, one of these being security. Tribal people often viewed strangers as enemies and competitors and treated them accordingly.

I expect to see modern society, particularly in the U.S., disintegrate over a period of many years until reaching a "bottom" of relative stability. Indeed, it seems to already be underway. Once the general public realizes that the assurances of governments and corporate leaders that the economy will surely improve are founded more on desperate faith than facts we will likely go through a period of intense political and social turmoil. It will probably be more severe than the response to the Great Depression, in part, because people are less prepared to grow their own food and maintain a basic standard of living absent the high energy modern support system. Desperate people tend to do desperate things.

One thing that is different in this era is the availability of reliable birth control. Sustainability starts with fewer people reproducing, and that's happening now in Europe. What I can't figure out is why all the authorities are decrying the development. Yes, there are fewer workers, but this could be a one or two generation overhang, and the problem of too many people on pensions will be softened necessarily [not desirably] by gradual cuts in benefits, or the equivalent in monetary policy. Many people will keep working either legally or illegally longer than their official retirement age. I don't see how this development can be avoided.

Sustainability starts with having fewer children.

Pension plans are set up with the idea that there will be workers still working to pay for all of the retirees. If too many people retire, relative to the current work force, the plans (especially government-sponsored plans) don't work. Even private plans won't work--they are invested in securities, and need to have the bonds pay off according to plan, and stocks appreciate in value. With declining populations, and negative economic growth, this is unlikely to happen.

So sustainability starts with having fewer children, and people working longer.

I propose a new tag for stories/comments 'SUV axle rating' after my favourite post I read proposing that we all re-train as blacksmiths to forge useful farm implements from leftover bits of said vehicles.
This tag should be applied to posts or stories that are several degress removed from reality and fail the test of 'Where are we going in the most likely scenarios and how do I mitigate the impact on me'

Examples :

One axle:
Electric cars will save us
Switch to natural gas
Change my light bulbs

Two axles:
Home food growing your own carrots while the country starves around you
Ditto running a generator
Run for the hills !

Three axles:
Abiotic oil
Gaia strikes back
We'll all die off to medieval population levels, eating dried poo and using snails as money

Some go beyond and into wild fantasy and this article is a prime example. We may as well discuss what would happen if Aliens landed or the sun exploded for all its worth.
I have 4 very influential people in my in-laws family including one fortune 250 CEO and I would very much like to be able to seek their opinion on the broader points debated on these pages day to day. These people make multi billion dollar decisions affecting the lives and businesses of millions of ordinary Joes and ARE the ones who could press change. Unfortunately they would read articles like the above and dismiss the whole site and 'movement' as fringe lunatic.
So we all get pasted when this kind of rubbish is allowed. Editors asleep here.

My view ?

We are going to ramp up renewables fast as possible
We are going to use all the cheap oil
We are going to use all the coal while we wait for renewables
We are going to split into very unequal classes on a national and global scale
We in the West are not going to afford the living standards we had for the last 40 years - that means we don't need half the houses we have built, advanced medical care will be scifi unless you're rich, ditto tertiary education
We are going to bomb people and places to get the oil and coal we need but they will increasingly bomb us back
We are going to push the climate past a tipping point but it will be mostly the 3rd world that cops it
Wealthy people will do just fine as usual

love Mark

IMO your summary isn't perfect but it basically sums up the situation.

I have 4 very influential people in my in-laws family including one fortune 250 CEO and I would very much like to be able to seek their opinion on the broader points debated on these pages day to day.

Which is why you put "Gaia strikes back" in the three-axle category along with abiotic oil. Though technically you have weasel room; it's her dance partner, Shiva, that does the striking. And it's not a will; even though the pace is picking up of late, the dance is always ongoing.

Six weeks till snow flies outta here.

cfm, the growlery, gray, me

Shiva's Dance comes closer all the time. The problem with the objections to this article and the axles is that they haven't been thought through to their conclusion, which is very grim.

I am wondering, at what point do the industrial processes hit a tipping point? When is the throughput in an oil refinery to small to keep it operating? I am sure you can think of many industrial processes that have a point at which it simply won't function, regardless of the financial aspects. The rich may fare well, as usual, for a while, but after that it will be a different story.

We are forecast for snow tonight in the high places.

I've seen the snow flies in Maine, they are almost as big as the Black flies

We ARE Shiva's Dance

Gail, welcome to the world of post-peak civilization visioning. You've mentioned this before, of course, but this is the first full article you've dedicated to the subject.

Scary? Yes, though one thing we have over yeast is we can forsee resource issues (at least some can);

"We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted..."
-- Theodore Roosevelt

The topics you raised have been discussed in depth on some other sites for years; I've been at in the Planning for the Future forum for the last 5 years under the name "skyemoor", for example.

There are any number of scenarios of how energy descent will play out;
- Cornucopian ("Don't worry, be happy", there's plenty of energy to continue BAU)
- Soft Lander (a smooth transition will take place to a post-oil world)
- Hard Lander (world economies will go through wrenching dislocations before a post oil transition is realized)
- Die-off: There are two general categories;
-- Soft Doomer (civilization will collapse back to fuedal societies)
-- Hard Doomer (civilization will collapse back to the Iron or Stone Ages, or humankind will simply become extinct)

Rob Hopkins in "Transition Town Handbook" goes over many different approaches to post-oil states and transitions, outlining the scenarios presented by Holmgren, Heinberg, FEASTA, Gallopin, Foresight, and of course there are others such as Kunstler, Hanson, etc.

I personally believe there will be difficult times ahead, though for those who plan and prepare carefully, there is reasonable hope for all of the joys, sorrows, and poignant moments that were experienced by our forebearers in centuries past. It's all in the attitude of what it takes to realize contentment.

"Who is rich? One who is content with what they have." -- Talmudic saying

This is all a very difficult subject. It is pretty clear from the comments that a lot of people cannot even think about this issue. It seems like if we are going to plan, though, we need to understand what the long-term scenario is we are up against.

Thanks for the links!

Yes, Gail, it is a difficult subject, but real progress toward a viable lifestyle requires an unflinching look at the reality we face. There has been too much effort and time wasted trying to soft peddle and sugar coat the probable fallout of the era ahead. This is not fatalism or defeatism but rather realism. The possible ways the unraveling of the carbon era can play out are infinite, but the basic facts seem plain. There will be less - much less - of most things we now take for granted. There will be hardships. There will be political and social upheaval. Not everyone is going to make it. Indeed, most won't. Those who do make it will probably be part of a social group that work together to share the load and support one another.

It seems like if we are going to plan, though, we need to understand what the long-term scenario is we are up against.

Your proposed "long term scenario" is quite useless for planning and is simply wrong. Too many reasons ATM to explain why you are simply going done the wrong analytical path.

100 years is about as far in the future as we should expend but effort planning for.

One example of many, Niagara Falls will still be generating most of the current 4 GW even without major maintenance (North Korea gets much of their electricity from plants built in the 1920s and 1930 with minimal maintenance since then). 4 GW is enough to operate an industrial civilization with. Quite a few 1 GW and larger dams are scattered around the world.

Look at WW II Switzerland. By 1945 their annual per capita oil use was < an average American's DAILY Use ! How long before oil production drops 99% ? 99.6% ?

How much lower could the Swiss oil consumption have gone with proper planning and lead time ?

I suspect that the Swiss could have gotten to zero fossil oil use (some very limited bio-fuels) with an extra decade, coupled with a western industrial democracy.

I see that the Swiss experience is lacking from your proposed long term scenario.


"100 years is about as far in the future as we should expend but effort planning for."

That's one opinion, of course. Should that be a rolling 100 years? So, 5 years after the 100 year plan, we only have 95 years left. Should we plan for the next 100 years then?

For a business, small time horizons may seem reasonable. For a government, ditto. For humanity, though? Nah, 100 years is nowhere near enough. Why not plan for sustainability? That seem sensible, to me.

I have to say I love this campfire posts which triggers radical, ou-of-the-box thinking. Many good points being made above, living truly sustainable life is the ultimate goal I've set. Rest asured I'm nowhere near this, but I hope to accomplish a basic framework from where to build out a sustainable lifestyle.

Where people will live
I hope to be able to purchase a small farm in the medium term. In the vicinity of a small town or village, a forest, and a clean stream.
Straw and loam make excellent construction material. Wood too

Water supply
From the stream and rainwaiter collection. Perhaps a wind/solar- or animal powered pump.
If you choose the right location, watersupply should be covered. Now what about booze?

Food supply
Growing a variety of grains, vegs, roots, fruits(ah, booze problem solved), and hemp. Raise sheep (wool, milk and meat!), rabbits, chickens. Keep cats to keep stored grain safe from rodents. Mean lean guard dog to keep out unwanted guests, human and non-human. Many tools can be made out of animal components (fishing hooks, crossbow string)

We've got legs (well, I miss 1 half, but most people do anyway). Handcarriages go a long way.

Paper and books
Hemp makes good paper (and rope , too). Who needs printing if you don't have to reach the masses, but just a local community? Charcoal can be used for writing, among a lot of other things.

Clothing and shoes
See "raising sheep" and "keep cats" and "crossbow". Wooden shoes are also very durable.

Home heating
If a forest is not overexploited I don't see any problem using wood. Just make sure that where you live excludes overexploitation.

Home lighting
Hempseed oil, sheep fat.

Money supply
Coins of various metals. But who needs money when living sustainable?

I understand the above sounds all to easy, and there will be many problems to contemplate, and more problems you will unexpectedly run into. I think it's worth it anyway. For example one might just be able to squeeze enough oil from the hemp seeds to run a small tractor for ploughing land.
I also think that wind and solar and solar water heating have a place in the above for convenience (home lightning/heating). And that it won't be to difficult to keep these operational.

You do hit it home when asking "How might starting now be better than waiting until there is no alternative?" considering the law of residing horizons. Unfortunately I'm not yet in the position to make the above move. But it is the goal I've set.

OK, now you're all going to shoot me as a romantic dreamer, right?

I think, in general, we have to dispense with the idea of "going back to".

Although history shows that events can be cyclical, i.e. civilizations collapse, grow again, collapse again through resource depletion and environmental degradation, grow again, the world never re-enters the same state twice. i.e. the base state of the world, in terms of population, location, resource availability, political structure, country boundaries, changes with each growth-collapse event.

The base-state of our world, should there be a fast collapse, will be like no other in history. While we may be able to mine the historical record for methods which worked in the past, much of this will have to be adapted to current and future circumstances.

I rather think survival in the future will be more about adapting to existing conditions, with whatever is at hand, rather than trying to re-implement past methods, although they may provide some useful guidance.

I agree people will have to move - we have become too accustomed to the idea that, wherever we choose to live, e.g. the desert, we can behave as if we live by a river by having water piped to us. People living in arid areas will have to learn behaviour appropriate to an arid area, if they wish to stay.

I don't agree that the notion of a city will die, and we will all live in villages. Cities that are situated in what I call a "nexus" location, i.e. places where there is agricultural land, water and a means to transport goods back and forth, on a regular trade route, will continue to exist as places where people will congregate (albeit on a very different scale from today), because these locations will offer things that cannot be found in rural areas - trade, eduction, specialization of skills, to name a few.

It is problematic to assume that people already living in an area which has sufficient local resources to sustain that area will just accommodate in influx of "have-nots" from areas that have nothing. I suspect people trying to relocate will face the pitchforks, unless they exhibit some particularly useful skill, or bring some valued resource that the locals do not have.

Also, I think, in trying to plan forwards, one has to set a time horizon - short-term, medium-term, long-term.

I suspect most of us will be living in the short- to medium-term, so planning would be most appropriate for that horizon, so while starting from zero is a good thought-exercise, the reality of what we may face is somewhat different, and will be different for everyone, depending on their current location, current skills, and a detailed analysis of their current circumstances.

The key to thinking local is to evaluate what each person's present geography can accommodate and work with that.

BTW: If we lose the bees, all planning is moot, since, without pollinators, we effectively lose most of the flowering plants, and, with them, most of the rest of the biosphere.

I think, in general, we have to dispense with the idea of "going back to".

Yes, absolutely, and I think that this idea of "going backwards" is a very fundamental problem. We are not "going back" anywhere, and we couldn't choose to go back even if we wanted to, because there are things which have irreversibly changed and cannot be undone. There are also things that we have learnt and should not un-learn.

Those who worry that we are "going back" to some pre-industrial hell-hole (or indeed celebrate that we are "going back" to a pre-industrial agricultural idyll) are fundamentally lacking in imagination and as someone else said above, lacking in vision. The future will not be like the past. Assuming that we can "go back" is both a denial of the challenges we have created for ourselves and a denial of the power of our greater knowledge to imagine a better future for ourselves.

Great post and great discussion. This is the sort of positive thinking that will get us out of the mess.

True you can't put the genie back in the bottle. There are going to be great strides going forward and also great problems. That's always been the history of the human condition.

Some of the more disappointing articles I've read recently:

Our biggest problem is that Homo sapiens has become a monoculture. We dress the same, we eat the same, we build the same, and everyone in the world aspires to the same model.
This is self-defeating in the end, since we know from species diversity that success is in local adaptation, and resilience is in having multiple options.
The most disturbing thing I noticed when I first moved to the US was that every town looked the same - same chain stores, same shopping malls, same hotel menus, same street names, same consumer brands...
I drove from Dallas to Chicago and passed Springfield at least 3 times - it was like "Groundhog Day".
Now you can visit London or Tokyo or Madrid or Paris, and while the language may be different, same stores, same brand names, same hotel menus....
We are going to have to change that approach. One size will definitely not fit all.

every town looked the same - same chain stores, same shopping malls, same hotel menus, same street names, same consumer brands

Not so in New Orleans.


Yes, true, for the most part. Especially the French Quarter. I visited New Orleans one year for Jazz fest - had a great time. I love the courtyards with the patterned wrought-iron fences, the building colors, the historic homes. Unfortunately I stayed in one of the newer cookie-cutter hotels, but I know better now ;)
I hope reconstruction doesn't destroy too much local character.

BTW: If we lose the bees, all planning is moot, since, without pollinators, we effectively lose most of the flowering plants, and, with them, most of the rest of the biosphere.

Halictids pollinate too. They're a diverse group (4 subfamilies, 25 genera, 2000 species), colonies are tiny (a dozen or so) so a single pathogen is unlikely to impact the whole clade. Halictids are the most numerous bees in the Northern Hemisphere.

Sweat bee gathering pollen,

There may very well be some cities--but much smaller than we have today, and in as you say "nexus" locations. Also, I agree that areas are not likely to be terribly welcoming to newcomers, if there are not resources to go around.

Pollinators are a big issue. All of our pesticides and cutting of wild grasses has hurt bees. I understand wind turbines are a problem for bats (also pollinators).

Pesticides will fade, weeds will grow, and bees (of some sort) will rapidly come back as soon as modern agriculture fades.

Not fast enough to prevent mass starvation, perhaps, but fast enough to feed those who remain.

Long time reader, first time posting.

I'd like to voice the opinion that no level of societal organization above that of hunter-gather is 'sustainable'.

I'll point to resources such as

& derrick jensens work:

for a comprehensive exposition of such an opinion.

The difficult question to ask, i think, is not 'how' it will be done, but for 'how many' it can be done (sustainable existence on earth).

By postulating a hunter-gather existence, i'm not saying technology will simply be forgotten, as obviously, the remnants of our culture will be as much an aspect of the environment as the natural world. & as another poster stated, the tools of survival in previous cultures were refined & handed down through generations, which will take some time to be fully relearned.

I think there is definite truth to what you are saying about hunter/gatherers. Readers are having a hard enough time with my scenario regarding going back to an agricultural society. I am sure even more would find it ridiculous to think about going back to hunting and gathering. But to prevent soil erosion, one really has to leave soil in place. And a person gets a much more varied diet by getting a variety of foods from hunting and gathering. The problem is that a sustainable population is even lower yet--which may be the truth, whether we like it or not.

As I see it one of the biggest problems in a post-oil society is going to be wood.

A lot of people on this page have talked about using wood for a lot of things - building houses, fuel for heating homes, cooking, boiling water (for drinking), making charcoal (so we can work metals)...

If we have 6+ billion people looking for wood to cook their dinner, there ain't going be any forests left very quickly.

There are just way too many people on our planet; take away the current fossil fueled status quo and environmental and ecosystem destruction will happen even quicker than it is happening now.

So in the absence of a planned and managed decline, future human population will be a lot lower than it otherwise could be sustainably.

Wish I could see some light at the end of the tunnel (other than the headlights of the oncoming train).


I agree. Wood is going to go fast, if we don't have fossil fuels. This would be just as bad for the planet as some other outcomes.

This exchange of ideas and opinions is excellent. While the topic is challenging, even disturbing, the willingness of participants to explore possibilities for a future low energy life shows that there is plenty of room for hope. Let me throw a few more pebbles in the pond:

1. Much of what now exists in the way of technology will be of little value in the future. This is particularly true of complex machinery and electronic devices and other tools that involve foreign manufacture or long distance shipping. Batteries will probably become increasingly difficult to obtain and keep charged.

2. Data stored on computer discs and other such devices will degrade. Lacking hard copy backup on durable paper a great deal of data will simply disappear.

3. The verbal passing of information, stories, myths, etc. between generations will become increasingly important.

4. Modern nations, especially those requiring huge expenditures of energy to maintain cohesion, will find it increasingly difficult to exist. The U.S. may become a loose federation of states or semi autonomous regions. Reduced travel will encourage people to identify themselves more on a local and regional basis rather than a national basis.


I agree. We may have thousands of countries around the world, instead of hundreds. This will make international trade even more interesting. Does one encounter a new currency at every border?

We are so unaccustomed to thinking local, that it is hard to even contemplate the idea. What can be made with strictly local inputs, besides simple things like baskets and bricks?

Gail, there's a huge assumption here: that long-distance transportation won't be possible.

what's your source for this idea? I see absolutely no basis for it - in fact, it appears completely unrealistic.

Long distance land shipping can go by electrified rail, local can go by plug-in hybrid truck, and water shipping can find substitutes for oil.

Substitutes for oil for water shipping? Pshaw, you say.

No, really. Substitutes include greater efficiency, wind, solar, battery power and renewably generated hydrogen.

Efficiency: Fuel consumption per mile is roughly the square of speed, so slowing down saves fuel: in 2008, with high fuel costs, most container shipping slowed down 20%, and reduced fuel consumption by roughly a third. For example, Kennebec Captain's ship carries 5,000 cars from Japan to Europe (12,000 miles) and burns 8.5 miles/ton of fuel at 18.5knots, for a total of about 1,400 tons of fuel. At a 10% lower speed of 16.6 kts, the ship burns 21% less fuel (about 300 tons).

Size brings efficiency: the Emma Maersk uses about 320 tons of fuel per day to carry 220,000 tons of cargo, while Kennebec Captain's ship uses about 60 tons to carry about 23,000 tons (see ), so the Emma Maersk uses roughly 60% as much fuel per ton.

Other substantial sources of savings include better hull (I've seen mention of "axe cleaver" designs) and engine design (very large (3 story!)marine diesels can get up to 50% thermodynamic efficiency), and low friction hull coatings (the Emma Mærsk saves about 1.3% with special paint, and bubbles work too).

Wind: kites mounted on the ship's bow have been shown to provide 10-30% of ship's power - this is cost effective now. See and It's astonishing what can be done with modern materials, computer-aided design, and electronic control systems, to turn the old new again.

Solar: The first question is: is it cost effective? Sure - it's just straightforward calculations: PV can generate power for the equivalent of diesel at $3/gallon (40KWH per gallon @40% efficiency = 16 KWH/gallon; $3/16KWH = about $.20/KWH, or $4/Wp, which large I/C installations have already surpassed.

Let's look at the Emma Mærsk . With a length of 397 metres, and beam of 56 metres, it has a surface area of 22,400 sq m. At 20% efficiency we get about 4.5MW on the ship's deck at peak power. Now, as best I can tell it probably uses about 10MW at 12 knots (very roughly a minimum speed), 20MW at 15 knots, and 65MW (80% of engine rated power) at 25.5 knots (roughly a maximum). So, at minimum speed it could get about 45% of it's power for something close to 20% of the time, for a net of 9%. Now, if we want to increase that we'll need either higher efficiency PV, or more surface area from outriggers or something towed, perhaps using flexible PV.

Here' a fun example of a boat that's 100% PV powered:

Batteries: Large batteries could provide most of the remaining power needed, to be recharged at frequent port stops, as used to be done with coal (just as they picked up coal 60 years ago - that's why the US wanted the Philippines military bases, and why they're not needed in the oil era). Let's analyze li-ion batteries: assume 20MW engine power at a cruising speed a speed of 15 knots (17.25 mph) or 20MW auxiliary assistance to a higher speed, and a needed port-to-port range of 2,000 miles (a range that was considered extremely good in the era of coal ships - the average length of a full trip is about 4,500 miles (see chart 8 ). That's 116 hours of travel, and 2,310 MW hours needed. At 200whrs per kg, that's 11,594 metric tons. The Emma Maersk has a capacity of 172,990 metric tons, so we'd need about 7% of it's capacity (by weight) to add batteries.

So, li-ion would do. Now it would be more expensive than many alternatives that would be practical in a "captive" fleet like this - many high energy density, much less expensive batteries exist whose charging is very inconvenient, but could be swapped out in an application like this. These include Zinc-air, and others. It should be noted that research continues on batteries with much higher density still, as we see here and here, but existing batteries would suffice.

Hydrogen fuel cells: they can't compete with batteries in cars, but they'd work just fine in ships, where creation of a fleet fueling network would be far simpler, and where miniaturization of the fuel cell isn't essential. If batteries, the preferred solution for light surface vehicles, can't provide a complete solution, a hydrogen "range extender" would work quite well.

Hydrogen has more energy per unit mass than other fuels (61,100 BTUs per pound versus 20,900 BTUs per pound of gasoline), and fuel cells are perhaps 50% more efficient, so hydrogen would weigh less than 1/3 as much as diesel fuel.

Electricity storage using hydrogen will likely cost at least 2x as much as using batteries (due to inherent conversion inefficiency), but will still be much cheaper then current fuel prices. Fuel cells aren't especially heavy relative to this use: fuel cell mass 325 W/kg (FreedomCar goal) gives 32.5 MW = 100 metric tons, probably less than a 80MW diesel engine.

Hydrogen would have lower upfront costs versus batteries, and a lower weight penalty, but would have substantially higher operating costs. The optimal mix of batteries and hydrogen would depend on the relative future costs, but we can be confident that they would be affordable.

Here's a demonstration project on a small boat.

Are shipping lines working on this?

Yes. Here's an example:

"The Auriga Leader, operated by NYK Line, was launched in December 2008 and can transport up to 6200 vehicles. NYK Line has set a goal to reduce car carrier energy consumption by 50 percent by 2010 through solar power generation, ship operation improvement, redesigned hull form, propulsion systems energy savings and improved cargo handling."

I suspect that container shipping will be able to out-bid other uses for FF, like personal transportation, for quite some time. We'll see the gradual addition of direct wind propulsion, like the Skysails, along with engine electrification and the addition of PV.

What about nuclear propulsion?

It would work, I would be skeptical that it could beat the alternatives on cost or speed of deployment.

Don't forget that commercial nuclear plants are built as large as possible to maximize cost-effectiveness. The US Navy doesn't have to worry about cost-effectiveness - it chooses nuclear not on a cost basis, but on an operational effectiveness basis (maximium range without refueling).

The US Navy maintains a rigorous, labor intensive, costly safety program. Per Wikipedia, "A typical nuclear submarine has a crew of over 80. Non-nuclear boats typically have fewer than half as many. " The Emma Maersk, the largest container ship in the world, sails with only 13 crewmembers!

My litmus test for nuclear proposals is their effect on weapons proliferation, especially relative to the complete fuel enrichment cycle. Per Wikipedia, "reactors used in submarines typically use highly enriched fuel (often greater than 20%) to enable them to deliver a large amount of energy from a smaller reactor." This doesn't seem encouraging.

What about the NS Savannah? It was designed as a show vessel, not a workhorse, but it was only a few years after it was decommissioned as "uneconomic" that oil prices shot well above its parity point.

That parity point compared operating cost (excluding 1950's era capital costs, maintenance and disposal, etc) of nuclear to conventional operating costs, including fuel oil at $80/ton in 1974 dollars. I was comparing nuclear to non-oil alternatives - they will be more competitive.

What about air transport in this age of just in time supply chains?

I would estimate less than 5% of plane transport is represented by the kind of small industrial components that go by air. The ratio of fuel cost to product cost is probably .1%. If Fedex fuel costs were to go up by 10x, it wouldn't have any significant effect on the affordability of sending such a part by air.

re 10x fuel costs for air transport:

There are a lot of things like flowers/fruits/fish that are going by air for timeliness.
Fuel costs are somewhere between 25 to 30 % of airline expenses, per:
Fig. 5, pg 6. (data only went to 2007).

10x fuel means "ticket price" goes up by up to 4x.

How much are you willing to pay for a New Zealand apple, or Columbian Rose?
(In Europe or U.S.?)

10x fuel means more unemployment, less/no income to share/pass on, more unemployment, ... .
Hopefully someone finds some efficiencies elsewhere in the economy to counter that.

Thanks - I should clarify that.

I don't expect prices to exceed an inflation adjusted $150/b anytime in the next 30 years in a sustained fashion - other things will change to prevent prices going over that level, including reduced fuel consumption by personal transportation & commuting, and US economic stagnation. My point is that the kind of small industrial components that go by air will be able out-bid other forms of fuel consumption.

You seem to be arguing that changing the mode of power or becoming more efficient can allow unsustainable systems and behaviours to be sustained for a bit longer. Whilst that is probably true, it just means we hit the same problem again a bit later. There is only so much time that you can squeeze out of an unsustainable way of life.

To find out if it is sustainable, ask these questions at the end of each year.

Did we consume any resource beyond its renewal rate?
Did we (further) damage our only known habitat?

As long as we have a plan to ensure that the answer to both those questions is "no", then we can be unsustainable a bit longer. Eventually the answer will be "no" (hopefully). If there is no plan and we are just hoping to keep it all going a bit longer, the answer will be "yes" and collapse will come closer each year.

I agree - sustainability is important. I'm most worried about species extinctions and climate change.

Some forms of sustainability don't worry me that much. For instance, we're going to stabilize our consumption of iron and aluminum (and then recycle) long before we reach the limit of the resource.

Isn't it good to know that there are effective, affordable, sustainable, high-EROEI replacements for FFs?

Well, if it were true, it would be good to know. I've yet to see a convincing claim made that there are any sustainable replacements for FFs. There's a lot more to sustainability than renewability, and a lot of the world's energy comes from FFs. Consider the totality of the resources that go into providing those replacements, the scale of those replacements and what the impact of using those replacements might be.

I'm not sure why you'd separate out those resources that may have a very large resource base and the consumption of which may level out before limits are reached. Even if what you appear to have great faith in is true, an unsustainable society will never reach the limits of some resources because it will collapse before doing so.

Consider the totality of the resources that go into providing those replacements, the scale of those replacements and what the impact of using those replacements might be.

Well, to replace coal with wind power in the US would require about 300GW of average generation, or about 1TW of nameplate generation. That's about $2T of investment. Done over only 10 years, that's $200B per year. That's equal to about 7M cars, which is about the amount by which car production has dropped due to the recession. When you take into account that not all of the wind investment is manufacturing - some is construction - and that the utility industry normally invests something like $50B per year in generation anyway, we see that this level of investment is no big deal.

an unsustainable society will never reach the limits of some resources because it will collapse before doing so.

We use a lot of resources simply because they're convenient, or slightly less expensive, not because they're truly needed. There are very, very few truly irreplaceable resources.

I agree that we face some big problems - species extinction and climate change being the biggest. I don't see us collapsing due to lack of energy, or mineral resources.

It's not just the level of investment. You claim that unsustainable energy sources can be replaced with sustainable energy sources. What source of energy would be sustainable at the level of that currently taken via unsustainable means and allow for unending growth?

There only has to be one irreplaceable resource for there to be a major problem once that resource limit is hit. However, for the kind of lifestyles taken for granted by most people in the developed world and aspired to by many developing nations, there will be many irreplaceable resources or resources that can't be replaced at the scale and utility of the incumbent resource.

Climate change is a big problem. Overpopulation is a big problem. Energy most certainly is a big problem and mineral resources are a big problem. I'd certainly like to be wrong on any of them but the only arguments I've seen against amount to, effectively, wishful thinking. We can't assume we can exceed the annual budget afforded us by the earth and sun, for ever.

What source of energy would be sustainable at the level of that currently taken via unsustainable means

Wind, at 72TW, and solar, at 100,000TW. This compares to our current consumption of about 12TW.

and allow for unending growth?

We don't need unending growth. Resource consumption follows an s-curve and levels out.

there will be many irreplaceable resources or resources that can't be replaced at the scale and utility of the incumbent resource.

Could you identify some? I've reviewed all of the proposed culprits, and so far I don't see it. Copper, for instance, can be replaced with aluminum and carbon fiber. Phosphorus can be recycled.

Climate change is a big problem.

I agree. It will be very painful. That doesn't mean we won't adapt to it.

Overpopulation is a big problem.

Yes. OTOH, don't forget about the Demographic Transition. And, in the long-run, I don't see why we can't reduce our footprint per capita and in total to the point of sustainability.

Wind is renewable. Harnessing wind is not necessarily renewable. Same for solar. Redirecting that much energy may have implications locally or globally - the due diligence hasn't been done on that, as far as I've seen.

Unending growth is what the world wants. Governments even talk about "sustainable growth" - Obama mentioned it the other day. Your faith that resource consumption will level out is - I was going to say laudable, but that kind of faith can lead to bad decisions. Even if it does, what level of resource consumption is sustainable? Hint - the earth is finite?

Can I identify irreplaceable resources? Well, clean air, topsoil and clean fresh water are the obvious ones but surely it's a no-brainer that as resources have to be substituted for declining resources, there will eventually be a declining resource that can't be substituted any more. Not only that but for every use, we'll hit on the ideal resource, for utility, efficacy and extraction, so any substitution after that will be at a lower efficacy. My guess is that we've probably hit that high point for many resources we currently employ.

Of course the world will adapt to climate change but your comment suggests that humans will, relatively easily, adapt to it without some big changes and big dislocations, even high death rates. That seems optimistic, perhaps extremely so.

The demographic transition is an hypothesis and applies, if at all, only in a BAU scenario.

Harnessing wind is not necessarily renewable.

I'd say it's the very definition of renewable: you build it, and then you just maintain it, forever. For instance, if a blade breaks, you fix it: remold it, patch it, recycle it, etc.

Redirecting that much energy may have implications locally or globally

There have been studies. Wind has a minor impact - much less than other energy sources. Solar would have no impact at all: sunlight is always partly reflected and absorbed, and PV wouldn't change that. Maybe PV would change the albedo by a tiny % - it wouldn't be hard to paint a few things white to compensate. Keep in mind how small human energy consumption is in comparison to total solar insolation: about 1% of 1%.

Unending growth is what the world wants.

Sure, but it doesn't require growth in resource consumption to get there. An EV will take you places even better than an ICE, and if the electricity comes from wind...the passengers don't feel any difference.

The consumption of hard goods in developed economies levels off. Take a look at car sales and Vehicle Miles Travelled in the US: they've both levelled off. Ask Whirlpool if washer/dryer sales are continuing to grow exponentially (they'll tell you no....).

clean air, topsoil and clean fresh water

Those can be used renewably. We don't have to foul our air and water. Soil can be renewed and used without destroying it. And, in the very long-term, there's no reason we couldn't build food production that's completely isolated from nature: enormous hydroponic hot-houses. That's pretty theoretical, but I think that's kind've how you're thinking: where will we be in 500 years? Well, the answer is that there's no physical, technical reason we can't be just about wherever we want to be. If we want to reduce our footprint on wildlife habitat by retreating to giant domed cities that occupy 1% of the world's land (kind've like Singapore)....we could do so. If we really wanted to and needed to.

surely it's a no-brainer that as resources have to be substituted for declining resources, there will eventually be a declining resource that can't be substituted any more.

Not really. There are a lot of good resources that are much, much larger than the amount we might ever want to use, like iron,aluminum, carbon and silicon.

Not only that but for every use, we'll hit on the ideal resource, for utility, efficacy and extraction, so any substitution after that will be at a lower efficacy.

How about copper for telephone wires? It turns out that glass fiber works much, much better. We have a lot of silicon.

My guess is that we've probably hit that high point for many resources we currently employ.

Well, can you identify one? And, is the difference large enough to matter? For instance, copper for household power wiring can be replaced with aluminum. That's slightly inconvenient, especially as a retrofit, as the connections between copper and aluminum have to be done carefully to avoid fire hazards (that was a problem in the US a few years back), but basically it works just fine.

Of course the world will adapt to climate change but your comment suggests that humans will, relatively easily, adapt to it without some big changes and big dislocations, even high death rates. That seems optimistic, perhaps extremely so.

No, I think we may have some "big changes and big dislocations, even high death rates", especially in some poorer countries, like Pakistan and Bangladesh. Still, a 5% death rate for 20% of the world's population, while an enormous tragedy, would, I think, be very different than what you may be envisioning. Similarly, I suspect we'll lose 1/3 of Florida. Still, that will take place over decades, and...we'll just move people. That will be a "big dislocation", but it's doable. It would be a lot smarter to build a few wind-turbines instead...but we can handle it, if necessary. Not without a lot of pain and suffering...but we'll get through it.

The demographic transition is an hypothesis and applies, if at all, only in a BAU scenario.

The demographic transition is not an hypothesis! It's happened already in the majority of the world, and is in progress in most of the rest. Really, I don't mean to sound condescending, but you should do some research, as your intuition really needs to be educated on this.

If we want to plan for truly long term sustainability, it seems to me that we need to plan from a base of zero in terms of fossil fuel usage, rather than from present day usage. This is very much a change from most thinking--how we can make tweaks to our current system to use less oil or gas. Over the long term, we know our current system won't work, so at some point we need to be thinking where we want to head, while we still have resources in hand that we can use to make changes.

Wow! You actually read my posts! Whew! I was getting tired of saying we should figure out where we need to be and work backwards from there...


I have read through a lot of the comments to this article and there is one thing I've missed in the discussions - healthcare. There is a lot of petroleum involved in manufacturing and distributing the drugs we use on a daily basis, not to mention that used to produce the medical diagnostic machines and to support of medical complexes and hospitals that have helped people to live longer (at least in the 1st world countries).

There has been talk here of mass die offs from other means - war, starvation. I would have to think that without the medical infrastructure and pharmaceuticals we currently have, it may not take large scale wars, civil unrest, etc. to reduce the number of people. Consider how many people are alive now that would not be alive without medical/pharmaceutical intervention. Starting from birth, how many live through medical intervention that would not live otherwise. The same on the other end of life with an aging population how many would live without their statin drugs, blood pressure medications, asthma treatments, radiation/chemotherapy, oxygen generators, etc. What happens when we don't have the powerful antibiotics, the flu shots, and other immunizations to prevent disease and infections.

While we have a vast wealth of information on herbal remedies that have worked over the centuries and we have knowledge how to avoid some of the health problems that we didn't have in the past, it won't be enough to save many with serious medical problems. It won't be enough when epidemics and pandemics race through the population. It won't be enough when that heart attack or stroke hits and there are no ambulances or helicopters to race the patient to a hospital or medical center where the latest in drug therapy and surgical procedures can pull a patient through. If global warming continues, there is a high likelyhood that what were one time considered tropical diseases will move into our present temperate zones (for example, mosquito-born diseases).

If we come to a point where, due to the lack of petroleum based fertilizers which produce the food for high density populations, people become weakened due to malnorishment/starvation, we'll see an increase in disease. Without our modern pharmaceudicals and healthcare, many of these will likely die off. Add these numbers to the ones that cannot sustain their lives without medical/pharmaceutical intervention and those killed off in wars/civil unrest and the population will decrease.

There is a lot of petroleum involved in manufacturing and distributing the drugs we use on a daily basis, not to mention that used to produce the medical diagnostic machines and to support of medical complexes and hospitals that have helped people to live longer (at least in the 1st world countries).

Not really. Both manufacturing and medical complexes & hospitals mostly use electricity.

Health care does rely on transportation, but that can be electrified.

France, for instance, is planning for a market share for EV's of 7% by 2015, rising to 27% in 2025.

it's very useful and interesting information. thank you.