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We have been living, working and retiring in a growth economy, made possible by the ready availability of cheap energy/oil. This has produced growth in jobs, growth in suburbia, and growth in government which, with its optimistic predictions for ever-continuing growth, have led to its willingness to use unlimited deficit financing to cover new programs and lush pensions and entitlement programs. It’s been a great life!

That era of growth has ended, and our life-style has now begun to change. But why has it ended and how will it change?

The predictable cause is the diminishing amount of oil that can be extracted together with the increasing amount of energy it takes to extract each of those new barrels of oil; this together with the growing and increasingly industrialized population which is dependent on that oil to maintain its increasingly pleasurable lifestyle. Other negative (and interactive) complications include a breakdown of the financial system as governments max out their credit cards and banks become unable to hide their overvaluation of assets, global warming, continuing loss of potable water reserves, war as in Israel-Iran or ?, failure of the earth to be able to provide enough food for its growing number of inhabitants and failure of the oil-exporting nations to be willing to share the pain of others which do not have enough oil for their people. Each of these could only make things worse, so let’s just take a quick look at oil now, recognizing that it presents a best case scenario.

First, our concern is the availability and cost of energy, so why look at just oil? Why not include solar, wind, geothermal, …? Because none of them have the potential to replace the fall-off in oil, either in magnitude or timing. And  because as we talk about the energy each can produce, little is said about the energy (usually from oil) that takes to get that energy from these new sources. They can be an aspirin for some, but they are not a potential cure for our problem.

The term Peak Oil refers to reaching the maximum rate of oil production. Oil is an exhaustible resource and this peak is followed by a decrease in availability  and an increase in cost. We have either reached that peak recently or are now about at it. But discussions of this peak usually miss two important points, termed net peak oil and net peak oil per person.

Net peak oil recognizes that it takes energy to extract that oil. In the early days, it took the energy in about one barrel of oil to produce about a hundred barrels of (high quality) oil; now with deeper wells, offshore drilling and older fields nearing exhaustion, it can take up to about twenty barrels of oil to produce a hundred new barrels of (lower quality) oil. So net oil is well past its peak right now and, with the world population increasing, net oil per person looks even worse.

Of all the sources of energy, oil is unique in its use for transportation. Decreasing availability, immediately reflected in higher prices, will have a crippling effect on global commerce, making more expensive whatever food and other goods from distant sources remain still available.

And our agri-business industry is heavily dependent on oil, as for tractors and trucking and fertilizers.  And think of the driving we all do to work and for shopping, all a part of suburban living. We are of course dependent on oil for much more than transportation, e.g., plastics.

And how rapidly might this change in our lifestyle happen? The change from a growth economy is already underway, as evidenced by the job shortage and the increasing indebtedness of governments. The onset of a more rapid change is likely to be determined by one of the other factors. No real solution is in sight for rescue of the euro, breakdown of which would have world-wide implications. If China stopped buying our bonds our system would break down. If Israel acted on its threats to Iran, at best our oil imports would collapse. Our demand for oil is rather inelastic so a small decrease in supply would lead to a big increase in price.

Bottom line: Things will get worse as oil availability continues to fall, but we can’t be sure if or when there will begin a more rapid deterioration.

So, what can we as individuals do to reduce our discomfort or to increase our survivability? An open-ended question. In hard economic times we want to at least reduce what we have to spend, including particularly on energy in its many forms. Possibly we also would want to try to ensure availability of the essentials, i.e., shelter, food, water, warmth, while searching for ways to avoid friction with those nearby who find themselves lacking in one or more of these essentials.

What a Pandora’s Box! There are books on just this, and it’s too much to get into here. I urge everyone to look into this seriously, hopefully not on their own. But there’s one course of action I want to highlight, having in mind that food shortages are seen as being a major problem, now in some parts of the world, and relatively soon for us. Most of those living in the suburbs have a yard of some sort, and most of these yards have conditions suitable for starting a garden. Growing some/more of your own food offers much in savings, quality, variety, accessibility, and survivability. But it can take some time (although not much money) to establish your garden and to establish you as a gardener. Getting started on this now is IMO one of the best things you could do, being likely to pay off quite satisfactorily even if the coming downhill slope turns out to be shallower and to start later than we now see as likely.

To become a gardener, you need to study, to plan and to act. You study what conditions it takes to grow food that appeals to you, you study where in your yard or other available space you can best approach those conditions, you plan what best to do within your capabilities, you start accumulating/buying materials you will need, you get in contact with others of like mind (neighbors, through classes, …). And you start NOW. For example, if you want to convert your lawn, you’ll be pleased when you discover lasagna (no digging) gardens and you’ll start saving your newspapers right away to put down on the grass where you’ll be building your garden (learn more). And if you’ll want compost next spring, get it now when the demand is low. (We use several three-yard truckloads each year.)

And in addition to this preparing, you’ll do well to start spreading the word about why you’re doing this. To be the only one in the neighborhood with access to fresh food could well generate some awkwardness, so the more who join in these activities, the better for all.

The longer we put off planning for and then starting a transition in the way we live, the more abrupt and painful the change will be, like a downhill slope steepening to a cliff.   Start now!!

Don White worked as a physicist in GE’s R&D Center, retiring in ’85. He and Nancy currently revel in a new solar home. One of his main interests is gardening, where he pays special attention to many kinds of berries (and is delighted to share plants) and to shade-loving flowers and herbs, with a particular focus on ramps, ginseng and eleuthro


  1. OEIC default avatar cdecesare December 28, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    Important topic - thanks for sharing - I like change but this is scary - I think foraging experience / skills are important too - Thanks again, Carl

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