I think it was Lenin who said that there are decades in which nothing happens, and then there are months in which decades happen. It’s a useful reminder that the pace of historic change is not smooth. We’ve all seen immense changes take place over the last few decades, but in the industrial world, at least, most of them have happened slowly. Recent headlines suggest, though, that the pace is picking up to a remarkable extent. A brief survey of the landscape of crisis ahead of us may thus be helpful.
As I write these words, to start with, Russian forces on the eastern front of the Russo-Ukrainian war have pushed their way through the Ukrainian lines and are moving to encircle the fortress city of Avdeevka, the linchpin of the Ukrainian defenses in the western Donbass. At the same time the war between Israel and the Hamas militant movement is blazing, as 300,000 Israeli troops converge on the Gaza Strip while Israeli and Hezbollah forces exchange rocket fire across the northern border. An assortment of other wars flare elsewhere, unnoticed by most people in industrial nations; the outrage fanned by our corporate media is as always highly selective.
The two wars just named are important, to be sure, and so are the ones that aren’t getting the same attention. One of the ways that you can tell that a regional or global hegemon is strong is that wars in their bailiwick tend to decrease in frequency; one of the ways you can tell that a hegemon is losing its dominant position, in turn, is that wars imitate June in the song from the musical Carousel and start busting out all over. Russia and Hamas both gambled that the US and its allies were too weak to be able to stage an effective response to war. With Hamas, it’s much too early to tell, but Russia so far has done very well by its war in Ukraine and seems to be confident pushing it forward.
Meanwhile several less dramatic but equally explosive crises are building. Those of my readers who pay attention to the economic news already know that real estate markets worldwide are in trouble. There’s a fine witch’s brew of reasons for the impending crisis, but the most important is that the big players in real estate financed their purchases with cheap short-term debt. Now debt isn’t cheap any more and the big players are over their heads in loans they can’t pay off, or even cover interest. Plenty of other economic interests are in deep trouble as a result, and the possibility of a really ugly global recession can’t be ruled out.
Nor can the US simply keep printing money and churning out unpayable IOUs to cover the gap and keep the economy humming away, as we’ve done for the last fifty years. The deficit spending of the last half century was possible because the US dollar was the global currency of trade, and economic globalization forced every bank around the world to stockpile dollar-denominated investments as a basis for credit-based cash flows. Now the global economy is coming apart as other nations realize that the ongoing inflation of the dollar imposes a hidden tax on every transaction, and Russia demonstrates that being able to make everything you need within your own borders has certain hard advantages. The dollar isn’t going to be forced out of global trade all at once, nor will any one competing currency replace it overnight. Instead, the dollar faces the same death of a thousand cuts that doomed the British pound sterling’s once-inviolable status as global reserve currency.
What makes this a challenge is that at this point the United States is effectively bankrupt. The US national debt is well over 33 trillion dollars now, and something like half of that staggering sum has been accrued since 2008. So huge a sum can never be paid back; the only questions remaining are when the default happens and what form it takes. This matters because the entire US economy, and the lifestyles of most Americans, depend on gargantuan inflows of raw materials and manufactured goods from abroad, paid for by the unpayable IOUs mentioned above. When the market for those IOUs dries up—and it’s faltering—Americans are going to have to get used to living with a lot less energy and a lot fewer consumer goods than they think they’re entitled to. I can’t say I expect many of them to take that well.
All this is happening, furthermore, just when our old friend peak oil is rearing its head again. That was always inevitable; the downside of running a civilization on a finite nonrenewable resource is that no matter how much money you throw into finding and developing new sources, no matter how eagerly you exploit low-grade reserves like oil shales and tar sands, that doesn’t solve your problem—it just kicks the can a little further down the road. Depletion never sleeps, and so every barrel of liquid fuels you burn today is a barrel you will not have tomorrow. Combine that with steadily rising fossil fuel consumption, in a world where nearly all transport still relies on fossil fuels, and you have a recipe for a real mess.
As we’ve already learned the hard way, we can’t rely on windpower, solar power, nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, or any of the other standard nostrums to bail us out. We’ve been building the first two frantically for decades, you know, and fossil fuel consumption just keeps going up in lockstep. That’s not just because wind and solar are too intermittent to provide more than a trickle of power to the grid most of the time, though that’s true; it’s also because it takes vast amounts of fossil fuel energy to build, install, and maintain wind and power installations. As for nuclear fission, it never pays for itself—that’s why utility companies walked away from it—and fusion costs so much more than fission that even if a commercial fusion reactor can be made to work, it’ll be hopelessly unaffordable.
All these possibilities were discussed and explored at length half a century ago. All the gimmicks being hawked on the internet today by people who think they’re being original were being hawked on less transient media back then; they were tested, and most of them were found wanting. The first hard lesson to take in is that we can’t deal with the end of the age of oil by increasing production of some other energy resource. The alternative resources won’t cut it, and the other fossil fuels are already being used as fast as they can be mined or pumped from the ground. The second hard lesson is that there’s no way to make the standard lifestyles of the Age of Extravagance sustainable in a postpetroleum future. Those lifestyles, with their gluttonous appetite for energy and their reliance on petroleum-based materials like plastic, were born with the age of oil and will die with it.
That doesn’t mean that we’re inevitably headed back to the sort of primeval squalor modern mythology likes to project onto the past. It’s possible to support a literate, urban, humane society on a tiny fraction of the energy and resource consumption modern industrial societies consider necessary; the proof is that this has been done many times. What’s more, many discoveries and inventions of the last few centuries could be put to work to make a future society with modest energy consumption much more comfortable and viable. Consider how much has been learned about the physics of energy, for example, and how that could be combined with architecture to make buildings that are comfortable 365 days a year on little or no heat input. That can be done; I studied how to do it in Master Conserver classes in the mid-1980s.
In the year 1800, the region where I now live was full of thriving communities with their own libraries, newspapers, democratic governments, and trade and information links to the rest of the world, without any dependence on fossil fuels. In the year 2100 the same thing could be true, with improved sanitation, superinsulated homes, shortwave radio, and ultralight aircraft, among other things, making things even more comfortable and interesting than they were in the Federal era. That’s a future worth having, and it’s a future we can still achieve. Is the global population too high for that? That’s a question that has not yet been settled; meanwhile every continent but Africa has already gone into population contraction and Africa’s following the same trajectory, just a little more slowly. By 2100, if current trends continue, there will be fewer people on the planet than there were in 2000, and the downslope is expected to continue from there.
The one difficulty with this pleasant picture, of course, is getting there. We’ve already thrown away two chances to make the transition. When the first oil crisis hit fifty years ago in 1973, the industrial world still had huge reserves of fossil fuels and used them at a much more modest rate than today. A transition to the kind of future I just outlined could have been launched then at an equally modest cost. That didn’t happen; instead, after several years of flailing, not to mention high oil prices, the US and its allies doubled down on fossil fuels, relying on the North Sea and Alaska oil fields to bail them out. By the time the second oil crisis hit in 2005, the North Sea and North Slope fields had been pumped nearly dry. So we went through several years of flailing, not to mention another round of high oil prices, before frantic efforts to extract liquid fuels from oil shales brought supply more or less back into balance with demand, at prices that had been considered disastrously high a few years before.
Even then, American oil shale reserves could have been used sparingly to keep the price of oil below ruinous levels while other measures were put in place to deal with the end of the age of oil. Of course that’s not what happened. Instead, the shale reserves got drained as fast as possible for short term gains. Now most American shale provinces have been tapped out, and the one left standing, the Permian shale in Texas, is losing ground fast. So once again we can look forward to several years of flailing before another temporary substitute gets jammed into place, and this time the US won’t be able to draw on the oceans of cheap credit that made fracking financially possible. No doubt some gimmick or other will be found, but it won’t be easy or cheap.
So there’s good reason to think that over the next few years, we’ll be facing a steep lurch downward along the ragged trajectory I’ve named the Long Descent. It’s not the end of the world, though doubtless we’ll see the usual flurry of gloating predictions of imminent doom from the various apocalypse lobbies. What it means is that there’s a high probability that the months and years to come will see very hard times for a great many people across the industrial world, especially in the United States and its allies. Thus it’s time to circle back and revisit some of the themes I discussed at length between 2006 and 2009, during the early days of my blogging career, and talk about how to deal with the twilight of the age of oil.
Let’s start with a point that should be obvious, but apparently isn’t. No, I’m not saying that you should move to the country, by yourself or with a group of friends, and settle into a lifestyle of bucolic bliss as a subsistence farmer. To begin with, farming is a skilled trade; if you didn’t grow up doing it, or haven’t spent years on working farms learning how it’s done, you don’t know enough to keep yourself from going broke or starving to death. (It takes five to ten years of hard work on average to get past the learning curve and reach the point at which you can feed yourself by farming.) Since we’re not talking about the end of the world, furthermore, you can expect to have to keep paying a mortgage, utility bills, and taxes while you fling yourself into brutally hard physical labor from sunup to sundown.
Americans have this weird cultural fixation about going back to the land, and the dominant role of American culture worldwide over the last century or so has inspired a lot of people in other parts of the world to fall into the same mental trap. Here in the US, for a certain broad class of well-off urbanites, moving to a rural area and spending a few years playing at farming is an approved way to have your midlife crisis and finish the task of wrecking an unstable marriage. (I’ve watched this happen tolerably often.) It’s not a viable way to deal with an impending economic and social crisis—again, not unless you grew up farming or have some other access to extensive hands-on experience.
So what approach do I recommend for my readers, who are watching industrial civilization lurch and shudder under the weight of its own idiotic choices, and want to protect themselves and the people they care about from the consequences? I’ve talked about that in quite some detail in the past, but that was a long time ago and it bears repeating at intervals. The principal rule can be summed up in a single sentence: “Collapse now and avoid the rush.”
Let’s unpack that a bit. At the end of the period of crisis that seems to be approaching, if you and the people you care about make it through, you’ll be getting by with less energy, and fewer of the products of energy, than you use today. Electricity, heating fuels, and transport fuels will all be much more expensive than they are now. Food will likely cost much more, too, especially if it’s the kind of packaged processed stuff so many people in the industrial world rely on. If the impending real estate crash goes far enough, you may be able to make up some of the difference by a decrease in housing costs, but I don’t recommend counting on that.
Those of my readers who’ve been poor, as I have, know that it takes a fair amount of skill to live comfortably on a scant income. The more practice you have, and the more time you have to explore the options before it counts, the easier it will be for you to get by. Since the crunch hasn’t hit yet, you have the chance to get some of that practice and some of those explorations out of the way now, while you still have your current income and resource base to fall back on if you need to. That’s what collapsing now, ahead of the rush, gives you the freedom to do.
Imagine for a moment that your income were to drop sharply—or, which amounts to the same thing, that runaway inflation were to make it worth much less than it is today. Take some time over the next few days to figure out where you would cut back so that you can get by on less. Focus on ways to decrease your outgo, not to increase your income; that latter’s a different project for another day. Make a list of possibilities. If you live with other people, discuss the subject with them and, if they’re willing, get them involved in drawing up the list.
Then—before raw financial necessity forces you to do so—take some of the items on your list and put them into practice. Make some changes to save money, cutting an expenditure here, doing things in a cheaper way there. Pay attention to the results, and discuss it with the people you live with. Then try something else. Get some experience under your belt so that, when the crunch arrives, you aren’t left flailing. (I received a lot of thank you notes after the Covid hysteria from people who followed this advice a decade ago, and were much better prepared to cope with the shutdowns and layoffs of 2020-2022.) And if I’m wrong and the crunch doesn’t arrive? You have a bunch of extra money in your bank account. What’s not to like about that?
There are deeper dimensions to this little experiment, of course. The habits of spending money you’ve picked up over the course of your life may not be helping you achieve the life you want. In fact, it would be astonishing if they were. The entire structure of the consumer economy is set up to fool you into spending money you can’t spare on things you don’t need (and may not even want), so that you remain hooked into the system, trudging to work day after day to make enough money to pay your bills. The same structure is also set up to trick you into handing over your own competences to other people—“don’t do things for yourself, pay lots of money to have other people do it for you!” is the siren song of the machine that keeps you in chains.
That’s why the media and the political establishment love to define you as a “consumer.” Take a moment to think about what that word implies. If you define yourself as a consumer, you’ve given away your capacities as a creator, a producer, a maker of things and experiences. You’ve pigeonholed yourself as a passive recipient of other people’s productive activity. Multinational corporations and their corrupt stooges in government and the media benefit mightily from getting you to think of yourself that way. Their benefit, of course, comes at your expense; “the man in the suit,” to borrow a line from another song, “has just bought a new car from the profit he’s made on your dreams.”
The secret of collapsing now, ahead of the rush, is that it makes you a creator, not a consumer. You, not the man in the suit, get to choose how you’re going to spend your money, and thus what you’re doing to do with your life. Sure, the man with the suit will have to postpone buying his new car. So may you—but among the payoffs coming your way is a great deal of increased resilience in the face of a very troubled future.
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Two additional notes. First, back when I was last writing about peak oil, I arranged to scan all the handouts I received as a student of the Master Conserver program in the mid-1980s. Yes, this was like the Master Gardener or Master Composter programs that some municipalities still offer, but it focused on conserving energy; some of the advice is dated but much of it can still be put to good use. You can download the whole set here. Given that rising energy prices may be a major factor in the mess ahead, you might want to consider learning a little about conservation, and this is a good place to start.
Second, my commentariat tends to be astonishingly well informed about odd things, and unusual ways of saving money are among those things, so getting some of that information spread a little more widely strikes me as a good thing. I’m therefore going to launch a new weekly feature on my Dreamwidth account at https://ecosophia.dreamwidth.org – Frugal Fridays. I’d like to ask each reader who wants to participate to consider posting one tip for saving money each Friday. (Yes, just one tip per person per week! Data dumps are a pain in the rump for me to moderate and for other people to read.) Discussion and comparing notes is also fine. See you there!