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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Embracing the Doom Pt 2: How Doomy, how Soon?

Having arrived at the point were I’ve admitted I’m a doomer and have decided that that the only course of action for me is to adopt an “adapt in place” strategy I must start setting my priorities and start planning. To set my priorities and plan actions I must first analyse the threat, how long do I have to prepare and how bad will it get?

As with all survival planning one has to look at the possible crisis and decide how this will impact ones life. With peak Oil there has been a great deal written by the likes of Kunstler, Heinberg, Astyk and many others who have looked at the issue discussing economic impact and opportunities, social upheaval, and adapting to the new reality of a low or post carbon society.

Looking at all the scenarios put forward I’ve chosen to believe that peak oil will progress in a pattern of strong price spikes and retrenchment such as the one we are in now. The traders and markets know that a diminishing resource is a money maker but they don’t want to have just one kick at the can and will encourage volatility as a way of making the same play year after year. The pattern however cannot ignore the real decline in resources which will usually result in the top and bottom reached in any one cycle being higher than in the previous cycle. In a decade $150 oil may be considered the yearly low not the high.

While it’s probable that depletion will be more of a slow grind than some huge messy crisis there will still be fluctuations in supply and demand causing regional shortages, perhaps as soon as a year or two out. This is not just a lack of oil issue but an overall infrastructure problem as many pipelines and refineries are either too old or too poorly maintained to be reliable. Demand and refining capacity have been so closely matched in N.A. for nearly a decade that it’s been impossible to schedule full maintenance shut downs reducing both the level maintenance and upgrades on our refiners. This lack of maintenance increases the chance of breakdowns and accidents, and more accidents which are becoming a regular occurrence.

Refineries must also be designed or at least tweaked for a particular grade of oil. As more light sweet oil fields are depleted they are more often than not replaced by poorer quality heavy sour oils requiring more extensive treatments. Plant breakdowns or the lack of the right grade of crude can both cause major regional shortages even if the world market appears to have adequate supply. NA also imports a great deal of already distilled product like diesel making us reliant on someone else’s supply, refining capacity and stability. The first Crisis will likely be the end of next year when Mexico is expected to become a net importer of oil.

Of course there is always the danger huge messy crisis like a war, terrorism or political manoeuvring that cuts off supplies from the Middle East or North Africa….. yikes!

So how bad will it get?

I believe we will be living in a world where lack of energy, economic collapse and the damage done by climate change will impact food production, medical care, water supplies and even world charity to the point that a major die off of humans will occur. Yes, there will be new technologies that could mitigate some of the problems associated with peak oil and climate change but I don’t believe they will be practical, affordable, timely enough, or scalable to maintain a growing population of 6.7 billion people plus.

James Lovelock of the Gaia hypothesis fame has recently stated that he sees a world population of 1 billion people in 100 years. I wouldn’t argue Lovelock is wrong, in fact some days I actually hope he’s right and the sooner the crash the better so that the most diversity, carrying capacity and quality of life will be maintained for a smaller human race. I don’t believe that we were put here to breed the planet full and I would prefer a smaller population of healthy diverse cultures rather than a homogeneous mass of flesh choking on its own filth. A people to poor to have any culture but desperation.

Breeding is not a right that allows us to kill the beauty and genetic diversity of the planet in order to fill up all the empty space. As the only species without a natural predator and with the means to destroy it all, we have to temper all our actions even breeding with humility and responsibility. At least some of us are willing to acknowledge the need to curb rabbit like behaviour!

While shortages and crisis may or may not arise immediately, the price of heating our homes, driving, and manufacturing will continue trend higher for years if not decades before a new equilibrium is established by an entire population that has been forced to adapt. The rising costs for everything will create hardship and job displacements. Many “Normal” consumer goods will enter the realm of luxury goods and the age of consumerism will fade away. If you make your living selling anything but essentials you should expect that a change of employment will part of the adapting process.

Infrastructure and government services will both suffer as it becomes obvious that the constant growth required to sustain today’s perks on tomorrow’s earnings can no longer be counted on. Tough decisions will need to be made between roads and health care, education and social assistance but no mater what decision are made we will get less than we used to and we will be forced to become less reliant on state. (at least the libertarians will be happy)

In some countries it won’t take long for the complex systems of Western society to fall apart. In my opinion Mexico is just such country on the verge of becoming a failed state. As depletion causes oil exports dry up, Mexico will lose 40% of its direct government revenue, economic spin offs from the oil economy and lower remittances from family members working in the U.S.

Mexico is already in what can only be described as a civil war with drug lords taking over entire cities in the north as well as the treat of terrorism and insurrections in the south of the country. While some countries are destined to fail anyway for a myriad of otehr reasons, Peak oil in particular is a powerful force that will push some like Mexico over the edge quite quickly.

For us the biggest single whammy will likely be in food production where every step from planting, fertilizing, harvesting, spraying, processing, and shipping uses huge amounts of oil or Natural gas. Some farmers have found that a reduction in chemical fertilization and lower yields are better for business as the extra fertilizer costs were not justified by the yield increase. If farmers purposely lower yields to increase profit margins prices could go to the moon. Today we have increasing populations and increased asian afluence leading to higher meat consumption, any reduction in yields will quickly impact an already tight market for grain products.

Eventually, long term, labour will be foreced to move back to agriculture to offset inaccessible energy. The labour costs of food production will soar as will retail prices. Like Victorian times, we could go back to an era where food was one of the biggest parts of a household budget.

So do we have time to adapt?

Yes and No!

Yes, we do still have time but No you cannot put it off indefinitely. Indeed the sooner you start the process the more control you will have over how you adapt and trust me you want to have some control. The choice of ignoring the issue until you are forced to change is available, waiting however will not save you money now, will not lower your carbon foot print now, will not allow you to moderate the pace of change, and instead it will be like a bucket of cold water thrown over the shower curtain on an unsuspecting victim. Zyban vs. cold turkey! It’s your call, but the choice to change can only be delayed not avoided.

You also can’t just turn a switch and say “today I use 80% less carbon, I will become food independent on Wednesday, and on Friday I will bring about world peace and create an unlimited alternate energy source”. It’s just not that easy or that quick to achieve.

The process of adapting is a journey that could take a considerable amount of time and if you stall too long, you may not have enough time. To adapt you will need to learn new skills, routines, attitudes/expectations and incorporate them into your normal life

It’s not only you that must adapt to survive; society and the market place must all adapt together. If everyone decided to eat local today there would not be enough food available in stores. If everyone tried to buy tools and seeds for this spring the market could not meet demand, if we all go to the farmers market on the same Saturday all the stalls would be sold out by 9 am. A sudden panic with everyone tyring to adapt at once when the SHTF is destined to fail making it that much more important that we all start making some changes now even if they are only small ones. There are leaders, followers and victims, and your level of preparation will be a great determinator of what you will become in the future we doomers expect.

Learning to adapt is going to be different for each person. Some people may look first at those things that give them the most bang for their buck or the low hanging fruit, others may see adaptation as an opportunity to learn some long desired skill or perhaps take a hobby to the level of small business. Someone who is infirm or has no access to land may not be able to garden yet they have a house that is adaptable to passive solar. Some adaptors may have financial resources allowing them to go off the grid while others will have no choice but learn to do without 20 electric appliances. Adapting could mean renovations to make your house more efficient or suitable for more people, something that will take considerable time or materials you might need to save for. Adapting could also mean looking for a new career path that will be in demand in a lower carbon economy. Selling speed boats and snowmobiles are definitely dead end jobs while repairing things or installing solar water heaters may be in great demand.

Regardless of the direction someones adaptions takes them it will take a considerable amount of time to reach that goal, Start Now and embrace the doom!

Associated Posts

Embracing the Doom Pt 1: What Kind of Doomer am I

Embracing the Doom Pt 3: Urban Adaptors and FoodRecommend this Post


Sebastian Ronin said...

Good post! For the most part and for the current time, "Doomer" blogs are preaching to the converted. The arrogant smugness of society in general (a very wide brush, that one) continues to amaze me. I am at the postition now where I am convinced that the ONLY motivator will be the whack of social pain that lurks on the horizon. Then there will be a stampede. Is it any wonder that the preparation for police states is well under way in pretty well all western countries? Speaking of...

Re "While some countries are destined to fail anyway for a myriad of reasons Peak oil in particular is a powerful force that will push some like Mexico over the edge quite quickly."

IMO, ALL large industrial nations are destined to fail, not merely some. One hundred and fifty years of cheap energy flow through has created the large industrial nation state. The depletion of this flow through will result in its opposite. The NAmerican secessionist movement is in its infancy, yet it is the future.

BTW, "Doomer" is a corporate media spin for the purpose of framing us as wingnuts. No surprise there. In time, and this responsibility falls largely to us, that label will need to be re-invented, i.e. the responsibility falls to us to be pro-active and determine our own identity as opposed to being patsies for others' purposes.

Glenn Hubbers said...

To Sebastian Ronin...

I agree with you on the "Doomer" terminology. Do you have an alternate suggestion?

Sebastian Ronin said...


I don't have the foggiest. I imagine what may likely happen is that someone may come up with something at a conference or gathering (possibly very unintentionally) and it will be the "right" label/brand/identity. It will hit home...and it will spread.