What will life be like when petroleum is no longer cheap the way it is now, or maybe not available at all? Are we heading for a Mad Max scenario? As Amanda and I envision Longleaf Breeze, the answer almost has to be no. So I was glad to read a thought piece on Energy Bulletin from Brian Kaller: Future Perfect: The Future is Mayberry, not Mad Max.
In our role as subsistence farmers, we’re prepared for many unpleasant developments, like the collapse of the financial system and the collapse of the food system. We’re even more or less prepared for sharply higher cost of transportation, because one of our three principles is to move closer and closer to the point at which we will need to buy almost nothing. What we’re NOT prepared for, and what scares me personally, is a breakdown of law and order.
We’ve never been gun people. Like all farmers, we’ll own a shotgun and/or a rifle, because you sort of need that in the country, but I don’t look forward to using either of them. Farmers can act to fortify their farms, but every moment, every dollar spent fortifying is one moment or one dollar less spent growing. So of course farmers hope to do a minimum of fortifying. It makes me shudder to read in the news that gun and ammo sales are increasing even as people cut back nearly every other expenditure.
So when I read a piece like Kaller’s, I sit up and take notice. I cling to every word, hoping, hoping, that he’s right.
Kaller is an Irish journalist. He says that the most likely result from the peaking of the flow of petroleum will not be a sudden and complete collapse but a series of small breakdowns, price hikes, and local crises. He says this may prolong our complacency but that it should give us a little time to adjust. And then he talks about how.
Kaller says we Americans can afford to trim down in several ways. About 70% of us are overweight, we throw away 1/3 of what we grow without consuming it, and we transport food thousands of miles that we could produce nearby. And he says much of the time and energy we spend on food is for processing it rather than for growing it, converting wheat to Wheaties and figs to Fig Newtons. Much of our electricity is lost in transmission, and a great deal of the heat we generate to stay warm goes right out the window.
Kaller says that the Long Emergency could look a lot like World War II, when most Americans planted Victory Gardens, helped their neighbors, and recycled their metal and rubber. “The same habits that helped us through that crisis–recycling, thrift, gardening–will help with this one.”
Kaller says that the loss of cheap fossil fuels will not require that we regress 150 years, because fossil fuel consumption has exploded only within the last couple of decades.
The world in 1950 used 10 million barrels of oil a day instead of our 85 million, and only a third of that increase is due to population growth. The rest is just us–and it is mostly us in the West–driving, flying, buying, consuming, and discarding more in a month than our grandparents did in a year. The popular image of the ‘50s as an age of conspicuous consumption, suburban sprawl, and TV dinners misses the point. Those things were newsworthy then because they were new and unusual. Their equivalents today have so insinuated themselves into our lives that we accept them as natural, like omnipresent casinos or television violence.
And he says Andy Griffith’s Mayberry wasn’t a bad place to be. Nobody had a lot of money, but people helped each other and looked after other people’s kids. What was missing from Mayberry, of course, was any hint that the races didn’t get along, and I can’t for the life of me remember any episode dealing with Gomer Pyle’s homosexuality. “Surprize, surprize, surprize. Goober’s my man-squeeze!” But Kaller’s basic point is that living with a lot less petroleum doesn’t necessarily mean our society will collapse.
Kaller’s view of the future is more hopeful, more gentle, than the post-oil warnings from Jim Kunstler and Richard Heinberg. “We need a common vision that avoids post-apocalypse yarns as well as Star Trek fantasies in favor of something both realistic and hopeful. Handled right, peak oil could bring a revival of small-town America, local farming, small businesses, and an economy that centers around Main Street rather than Wall Street. It wouldn’t require us suddenly to turn Amish. With solar, wind, and nuclear power to maintain the Internet, commuter rail, and other technologies, we could continue the global exchange of ideas.”
Oh boy, do I hope he’s right.