Sunday, May 9, 2010

Preparing, REALLY, for Collapse

From a slide show by Dmitry Orlov
Our Future and the End of the Oil Age:
Building Resilience in a Resource-Constrained World

Scraping the bottom of the oil barrel
The new oil is not like the old oil:
Energy Returned on Energy Invested has gone from 100:1 to 10:1 and is heading down
We are using up the dregs: deep offshore, heavy/sour crude, tar sands, arctic oil...
Oil consumers will run out of money before oil companies run out of places to drill.
The agony of the industrial age can be prolonged by destroying what's left of the biosphere.

...the bottom of somebody else's barrel
The US has to import over 2/3 of its transportation fuels.
High oil prices mean extra revenue for oil exporters.
Oil exporters invest that money in their domestic economy.
Their domestic oil consumption increases.
Consequently, there is less oil for them to export.
Net exporters become net importers even while they are still pumping some oil (just as the USA did in 1970).
Many oil importers end up left out in the cold.
Oil importers who ride scooters and use kerosene lamps do a lot better than oil importers who drive SUVs.
This is not a contest for who can use the most oil.
This is a contest for who can grow their economy using the least amount of oil.
We have already lost; let's regroup and try again.

Why can't this show go on?
A system that evolved in conditions of continuous growth of material resources cannot shrink controllably.
The key ingredient is confidence; once faith in the future is lost, everyone's behavior changes radically.
Everyone at the top already knows that this show cannot go on and are (attempting to) plan accordingly, for themselves.
The name of the game is "Keep the rest of them fooled for as long as possible".
People are still paying down their mortgages, putting money in their retirement accounts, etc.
Being fooled this way can make people very angry.

The logic of diminishing returns
Joseph Tainter, in his Collapse of Complex Societies, pointed out that social complexity increases until further investment in complexity becomes counterproductive.
He also pointed out that complex systems do not self-simplify; they collapse catastrophically and are eventually replaced with much simpler systems.
Diminishing returns are observable and measurable.
Diminishing returns cannot be explained using the internal logic of the systems involved.
The people involved in maintaining these systems struggle along, but are eventually forced to give up.

Examples of diminishing returns
Each additional dollar of debt causes the economy to shrink even faster.
Each additional dollar of defense spending makes the country less safe.
Each additional dollar spent on health care makes the country sicker.
Each additional dollar spent on education makes the people more ignorant.
Each additional dollar spent on the justice system increases injustice.
Each additional dollar spent on job creation increases unemployment.
Each additional dollar contributed to a political campaign makes the people even more powerless.

Escaping from diminishing returns
What can we do to avoid wasting our efforts on perpetuating doomed systems? How do we construct alternatives?

Lower your official exposure/profile
Decrease your environmental footprint and burn rate
Avoid financial arrangements and legal documents
Rely on personal connections and relationships
Avoid the mainstream, look for fertile margins, fringes, niches
Be hard to classify

Reasonable expectations
Money will not be very common or useful (government defaults, growing joblessness, savings wiped out or taxed away, access to imports lost, etc.).
As the US loses ability to import 3/4 of transportation fuels, economy will stall and population will become stranded.
Political system will maintain appearances as long as possible - "Proud and Purposeful Paralysis".
Many local authorities will fail (close police stations and fire departments, stop supplying sewer, water and garbage removal services).
Other local authorities will try to charge confiscatory rates, and fail just a little bit later.
Various officious busybodies will have a hard time figuring out whose side they are on, and will probably need help.

The Big Transition
BEFORE                                        AFTER

Cars and trucks                             Bicycles, boats, 2 feet
Municipal water supplies              Rainwater collection, wells
Municipal sewage                         Composting toilets
Trash removal                                Local junkyards, incinerators
Garbage removal                          Local compost piles, recycling, reuse
Fast food                                        Community kitchens
Supermarkets                                Open-air markets
Hospitals                                        Local clinics
High Schools                                 Home Schooling
Colleges                                        Apprenticeships
Office work                                    Physical labor

The future is very unpopular
Each resident of North America employs the equivalent of 100 "energy slaves": services provided by machinery that runs on fossil fuels. But emancipation is at hand!

People do not like to be persuaded by fact or logical argument.
People like their comforts: cars, HVAC, etc.
People are seduced by TV, consumerism.
Manual labor and farming are low-status activities.
People lack the skills to lead a non-mechanized existence.
It is almost impossible to convince people to do what will be necessary - until it becomes necessary.
It will be almost impossible to do what is necessary without a significant amount of preparation.
Those who take the trouble to prepare will be a tiny minority.

Enough food to feed a family can be grown on 2000-3000 sq. feet (It takes a bit of practice to get this going.)
Some foodstuffs (cooking oil, grains, wine, coffee, chocolate) need to be "imported" somehow.
A lot of wild foods can be gathered (berries, mushrooms, roots & shoots, nuts, [white] acorns.
"Edible Forest Gardens" can be planted on public lands - useful plants surrounded by thorny thickets.
Community kitchens are more efficient than personal ones.
Eliminate all food waste: chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, carp, catfish, crayfish - something out there will eat it all up.
Nanny goats can provide milk for infants/children.
Seasonal migration out to the land to grow food.
Harvests have to be "floated out" (road transport expensive).

Municipal water = bad risk.
Flushing with potable water = insanity!
Many grades: drinking water, washing water, irrigation water, gray water, "lively" water.
Sewage is a very bad idea; composting much better.
Roof rainwater collection, barrels, filters for drinking water.
Swales dug into hillsides can boost groundwater.
Hot water for washing: rocket stoves fed by brush piles.
Passive irrigation systems instead of pumps and hoses.
Runoff from disused parking lots and other structures can be saved in cisterns.
Flat roofs can be planted with sod to soak up water and keep buildings cool.
Proper placement of shade trees and evaporation pools can make air conditioning unnecessary.


Single-family dwellings are no longer affordable for nuclear families; single-family dwellings become extended-family GULAGs where the residents eventually go insane.
There is a lot of unused commercial real estate that will belong to nobody in particular once all parties are bankrupt.
There are a lot of unused shipping containers that are very easy to customize for a wide variety of uses.
Large structures are cheaper and easier to retrofit for off-grid use than small ones.
Transportation needs are much reduced if the entire town relocates into the shopping mall and the office park.
Basements of demolished suburban houses can be flooded and used for aquaculture, or for tree nurseries, etc..
Freed-up land can be used for community agriculture.

Medical "care"
Stay healthy: eat little, mostly vegetables, avoid exercise, but do some physical labor, sleep plenty and get lots of rest, avoid stress, have a sense of humor
Avoid doctors and hospitals (they prescribe toxic drugs, spread disease and deplete family savings)
Know how to treat/cure yourself and the people around you - good hygiene, herbs, massage, rest & TLC
For serious medical needs, have a medical evacuation plan in place - to a country with a functioning medical system (Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Russia...)
Know when it's time for you to go (your life isn't worth half a million to extend by a year or two, no matter who you are - the country can't afford it)
Avoid American medical "care" if at all possible.
Making a profit off of sick people is deeply unethical.
Health is not insurable. If all houses burned down, there would be no fire insurance. Nobody dies healthy..
Resist efforts to tie you to a "job" by the threat of cutting off your access to medical "care".
Resist efforts to force you or your family into medical bankruptcy through medical extortion.
You have no choice of doctor who isn't an American doctor and violates the Hippocratic oath by putting financial and legal considerations ahead of what's good for the patient.
And now, you have no choice but to buy federally mandated private health insurance.

To recap: 2/3 of transportation fuels are imported, and these entire 2/3 are going away.
Daily trips to town by private motor-car will once again be reserved for the aristocracy (chauffeur not included).
There is not much hope for continuation of air travel, air freight or interstate trucking.
Rail freight could actually be revived at very little cost (much more cost-effective than road freight).
Water freight is supremely efficient, especially if by sail.
Our harbors, bays, sounds, estuaries, rivers and canals are our prime regional transportation assets.
Many people will be delighted to once again be able to make a living on the water.

In conclusion
Many people can't be persuaded by either fact or reason. Let's hope you are not one of them.
Running out the clock on our current living arrangement is a bad idea: the longer you wait, the fewer options you will be left with
A rather exciting time to be alive, wouldn't you say?


  1. I've never seen homeschooling included in lists like this before, that's interesting. I like the idea of the return to trains, too.

  2. Great article. I have a few questions regarding technology and communication that I hope you can answer:

    Do you think the internet will exist after the oil crash?

    Would education be provided with the help of the internet and technology?

    How will towns communicate with each other post-oil?

  3. These are great questions for which I haven't any final answers, nor, I suspect, does anyone else.

    I would have to say, in traditional Permaculture style, it all depends on how fast collapse happens, where you are located, whether the internet gets attacked and a myriad of other "what ifs".

    They are the kinds of very serious questions being asked in Transition Town communities all over the planet and by more and more people everywhere. You should be asking them of leaders in your community, too. If you are not a member of a Transition group in your region, join up now. If there is no local or regional org near you, you should seriously start to create one. Start first by going to Transition US (at ) to find people near you. They may have already begun to address these and other questions related to preparation and community resilience in the face of this and other converging challenges. This is a unique moment in human history and it will take most of us to deal with it, especially those of us who live in the "developed" world. Apply the first and unwritten permaculture principle, "Get help!". It's too big to carry alone.
    Good luck.

  4. How we manage collapse is critical in determining how much suffering there will be. There is still time for mass social changes. Running for the hills may be as dangerous as your 401k.