The End of Oil: Collapse vs Powerdown and the Choice of Economies

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It’s good to see a few other blogs coming to grips with the coming social and economic collapse of our unsustainable civilization, and talking in practical, non-ideological terms about preparedness for it. One of the best is Adaptation, a ‘zine and blog by Paula Hay, which Dale Asberry put me on to.

Paula recently wrote a two-part series called ‘Fear of Money’ (part 1, part 2), which makes some important points about preparedness. She writes:

We will all face economic problems much sooner than we will face blackouts; we will lose our jobs and our homes long before the lights go out…Preparation effects which ignore economic issues will actually put any given community in a worse situation than had it not prepared at all…Ignoring economic issues as they relate to collapse preparation sows the seeds of community violence, both from within and from without. A community that sinks its energies into preparing for what comes after collapse, without considering the 15-20 or more years of economic hardship between now and the time when hand tools become necessary, is essentially committing suicide.

The basic problem is not that money, markets and commerce are evil. The problem is that these are currently structured to be tools of governance for the ruling eliteóin other words, money is a weapon used to keep the masses in check. We all know how this works: we work longer hours just to stay in place, which robs us of time and energy we would otherwise spend pursuing creative projects, athletics, education, politics, or even our own entrepreneurship. Entertainment becomes our shore leave, and ìstuffî becomes our reward for making it through yet another year with no reprieve, save our two-week vacation.

Economists admonish us that our doom-and-gloom is silly, because the Invisible Hand will save us from collapse. This is absurd on its face, and anyone with a shred of common sense can see why: hitting the brakes after we drive off the cliff will not save us from driving off the cliff. Markets are reactive, and are therefore not an appropriate hope where proactive strategy is required.

This is brilliant stuff, and it’s about time we started talking about it. But I have a few quibbles with Paula’s arguments, and they’re not minor ones:

  • There’s More Than One Kind of Economy: In the first place, it’s not ‘fear of money’ that causes the neosurvivalists to shun currency, trade, and the idea of an organized economy. Money is, as Paula points out, merely a medium of exchange. There is a certain ideological romanticism at work here, and it’s all about the folly of trying to go backwards (to a pre-industrial life) rather than forwards (to a post-industrial one). What the neosurvivalists (she calls them “peakniks” and “preparation paradigm” — versus “powerdown paradigm” — advocates) fear is that any non-anarchic economy will simply perpetuate the unequal distribution of wealth and resources, and must therefore be avoided. Paula is so distraught about this that she is abandoning the Northwest home of the “peakniks” to take up the “powerdown” cause. The peakniks’ error is equating economy with market economy (this is another “it’s the only way we know” problem). Paula is right in asserting that the post-industrial chaos will be worse without an economy. But there is more than one kind of economy, and some of the alternatives don’t require money at all. As my readers know, I’m partial to a Gift Economy — or what I think is more accurately called a Generosity Economy.
  • It’s Coming, But Not So Fast: I think Paula makes the very common mistake of seeing what’s coming accurately, but seeing it as more imminent than it is. We usually tend to over-estimate the degree of short-term change and under-estimate the degree of long-term change. I believe the economic depression that Paula predicts will occur between 10 and 30 years from now (somewhere between 2015 and 2035). A post-industrial society, where oil (and its products, from 90% of what we eat to 90% of medicines, plastics, textiles, asphalt, protective coatings etc.) and electricity are as rare and costly as gold, is likely to take a half-century longer, and come into effect gradually (so it will dominate the last two or three decades of this century) and unevenly. So what we need to be doing now I think is learning the lessons from the last great depression and preparing for the next one in our lifetimes, and helping prepare future generations to do things without oil, oil-dependent products and electricity. Just as the alarmists of the 1970s were wrong to predict a massive population crash would occur in the 1980s, and retreat to subsistence farms in Montana, it would be foolish for us to try to stock up on hoes and canned goods today.
  • We Are, By Nature, Reactive: Paula says “markets are reactive, and are therefore not an appropriate hope where proactive strategy is required”. She is right that markets are reactive, but all systems in our society — economic, political, social, technological, educational — are reactive and always have been. It is human nature to think short-term, and we cannot change that. I think Paula is naive to believe we can develop any kind of organized plan for any major change that has not yet occurred, at least until we are absolutely positive it will occur. Just look at New Orleans, global warming, or our lack of preparation for the next influenza epidemic as proof of that. Paula uses as examples two things we are starting to do that would/will be very helpful in coping with the coming crisis: file-sharing and buying local. But both examples were reactive, not proactive. File-sharing was a work-around in reaction to oligopoly and price-gouging in the music ‘industry’. Buying local is a reaction to growing awareness that the food we eat and the goods we buy from big corporations that travel huge distances to reach us are bad for our health and bad for our local economy. We have reaction to corporatist greed, not proactive thinking, to thank for these innovations.
  • How the Last Great Depression Worked: The scenario Paula lays out for the coming economic depression — “loss of jobs, hyperinflation, dollar collapse, loss of manufacturing capacity and distribution infrastructure, home foreclosures and apartment evictions” in which the neosurvivalists become the new “haves” and the unprepared rest of us the new “have nots”, is mostly right, but ignores some of the important lessons of the last great depression (my grandparents were wise enough to tell me many stories about the 1930s). The workers suffered the most from the last depression, because they were the ones with the greatest debts: the middle class owned their own homes or had relatively small mortgages that they could continue to make some payments against, so they weren’t the ones who lost their homes to foreclosure and eviction. It was the generosity of the middle classes, in giving anything they didn’t need to the oceans of poor, in hiring people they didn’t really need as domestics, and in providing them with food or room and board, that helped prevent a descent of society into civil chaos and anarchy. Most people pitched in and helped each other. Even ardent “not my brother’s keeper” conservatives, when they saw people they knew, in rags, begging for food, realized that blaming the poor for their lot, their unpreparedness for this disaster, was folly.

In fact, I have argued that for many reasons, including the need to make the transition from industrial to post-industrial society, we need to be working now to actively disrupt the existing market economy and replace it will an economy that will be better suited (to put it mildly) to a sustainable, post-industrial world without oil. The four elements of that economy are: peer-to-peer information and exchange networks; local, natural enterprises; personal ‘radical simplicity’ sustainable living programs; and intentional communities. We need to start learning now how to live in a post-industrial society, so that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be prepared and will be able to establish the radically new infrastructure needed to make this economy work. In the meantime, these four elements will also serve us very well during the pre-collapse economic depression, perhaps as little as a decade away. And they’re good for the environment, and will make us healthier andhappier as well.

The key, as we are hearing more and more, is not utopian or dystopian disaster planning, but learning, and teaching, resilience.

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14 Responses to The End of Oil: Collapse vs Powerdown and the Choice of Economies

  1. Perhaps the reason this is being so widely ignored is that it’s so scary for people to think about. I find that I sort of freeze up each time I attempt to think it through as thoroughly as I should. But, like the inevitability of the tides, it isn’t going away. In fact it’s closer each day. I’m not sure most people know where to begin to prepare.

  2. Paul Cox says:

    You articulate the situation well. In terms of oil and gas, the industry will be the first to move to the new methods you talk about. I have been writing about this for a few months now and would be interested in knowing some of your readers comments. As Ms. Klaser expresses her fear, I can only see the opportunities.

  3. From what I have learned from Martin Prechtel but not his words but mine.I think people such as yourself expect the world to collapse quickly. I think you are wrong. We have great store houses of supplies, and the rich have been preparing for such a thing as they have the money to stock up. But not for their survival but for gaining wealth. With their stock piles they can charge more. Also the oil scare is totally false, which people seem to keep feeding into. If only it were true, then life would be easier. Mobil has made no moves into alternative fuels, so that basically says there is tons of oil, but that they can charge higher prices as people think there is less.People are too addicted to everything from cars, to clothes, to computers which are all made out of plastic and oil to give it up. I don

  4. It’s not just oil and gas. I am afraid of the opportunities.

  5. medaille says:

    I think it’s fairly certain the initial problems are not going to be coming from lack of resources, but instead from the lack of money to get resources. The social elite have always had only one goal, to take as much power over others as they can. When money and oil are power, they grab money and oil, but the goal is power and the means is manipulating people to give up their power willfully.We are in a race (or a war if thats a better image). The two contestents are the social elite (representing the way things are now – centralized power) and the revolutionists (those representing distributed power). If centralized power wins, we further continue into the doomsday predictions. This is inevitable because there is only one winner in Monopoly (current day capitalism). Everyone else loses. We’re all aware that by idolizing money we do stupid things like pollute and create poverty instead, and some are aware that specialization and compartmentilization leads to more ignorant people than diversification and self-independence.If distributed power wins, we have the potential to escape our problems. Centralized power and overpopulation have created a lot of problems to overcome namely environmental problems and resource scarcity. There is a strong chance that we’ll run into the decision of choosing between the earth we inhabit in the future or sustaining our overpopulated selves with only the hope of making it work. There is no technology that will allow continued population growth.Yes we are reactive, but we are also proactive. It all depends on how well we understand the model of the system we are working with. Up until now, we haven’t known it well enough to make wise decisions. All of our decisions are based on our past experience (or experience learned from others). Despite complexity saying we can’t know it perfectly, we can know it well enough to make the right decisions. We just need to change the forces that push towards certain results. Of course there may be unexpected results, that’s what happens without omniscience. Its irrelevant to declare us either proactive or reactive because we can be nothing but both. That said, the path is clear. Know as much as possible so that when decisions are made they are made correctly more often than ones made by the ignorant. Distributed power leads us to no better place if the decisions made by the masses are just as ignorant as the decisions made by the few. A simple classification doesn’t mean much. Intent matters though.Centralized power leads to bad things because those with no power have no power to help themselves. Distributed power creates redundancy and buffers people from other peoples decisions.Chris Brainard,I see an interesting mix of emotions in your text. Its characteristic of awakening. On the one hand you have anger for the ignorance that people have, but you also have hope and faith that the ignorant will also awaken and the course of humanity will change course. Is that accurate? I think soon, if not already, you will feel acceptance towards those that drink, do drugs, hate, fight, etc, because they are not ready to help themselves yet.Dave has said it on a number of occasions but I’ll bring up the quote, There is a certain ideological romanticism at work here, and it’s all about the folly of trying to go backwards (to a pre-industrial life) rather than forwards (to a post-industrial one). Technology (oil-based or not) is not an addiction. The addiction is seperate and is culturally based. The addiction will be made weaker when people become empowered enough that they are more powerful then the addiction. The more power they retain for themselves (through distributed power methods or means) the less the addiction has on them, because they realize the power they have inside them. Centralized power is all about making people ignorant of that fact, so that they unknowingly give that power up without realizing the mistake they made.

  6. Sam Taylor says:

    I agree with you to some extent, in that this situation will arise at some point in the next 20 years. However, I do not believe it will grow into the radical survival/societal collapse situation you discuss for a few reasons:1. Technological change is accelerating. In 20 years, computing processing power will have surpassed the human brain, and then will leap past it into exponential growth. Just accepting Moore’s Law shows this to be the case, but I believe we will surpass Moore with new paradigms in quantum and DNA computing. When this happens, we will have the organizational and processing power to solve unpresidented problems of mass engineering. The average laptop in 2020 will have the processing power of 10 of today’s supercomputers. Imagine the level of growth in knowledge and collaborative thinking that will arise from this. Yes, greater society may lag, but the rapid sharing of information will indeed give rise to collective problem solving unforseeable at this time. If not, soon our worries will be alievated by…2. Nanotechnology. The key concepts for nanotechnology will surround the assembler and disassembler, miniscule robots capable of engineering and constructing matter at the atomic level. These intelligent machines will be able to first disassemble an object, mapping its molecular structure. In doing so, the energy released by the severing of each atom from the whole object will power these machines, rendering them truly self-sustaining. Once disassembled, a schematic of sorts will be uploaded to the network, and assemblers everywhere will be able to assemble the given objects from any store of atoms lying around, even garbage. Granted, this technology is far away, probably 30 to 40 years, but I believe the development of nanotechnology is the only way for humanity to surpass and survive the coming decades. It will render money a useless object, providing for true equality. If everyone has access to whatever material objects they need, andthe ability to design new objects and tools through semantic interface, our ideas of wealth will move from the material to the spiritual, the intellectual, and the viceral. With it will come dangers, dangers we will have to assess and prevent, but how is that unlike the road we are on now?In my opinion, the future of humanity must not be a degradation to an idealized past. I don’t want to have to live in the woods, scouraging for food and having to protect myself from my fellow man. While I am admittedly prepared for that possibility, I would consider having to resort to it a tragedy. I don’t want society to collapse, I would like it to evolve. I WOULD like to see a return to community, and I agree with you, that will happen. It is a natural progression in this world of massive dehumanization. Perhaps, though, these communities will not only be in the physical world, but the virtual as well. This blog, like others, for instance, are evidence of the beginnings of this movement. The open sharing of information is but the infant step of humanity towards the future, a future that doesn’t have to be doom and gloom.In short, it doesn’t have to be that bad, but we must be prepared to leave behind this flawed model of society and truly think about where our values lie. We must stop staring back at the past and start seriously considering our future. We need creative solutions, from the ground up. This movement will not filter down from the top, the tycoons and tyrants, but will rise from the people through avenues like this.-Sam

  7. medaille says:

    While I like technology as much as the next person, technology isn’t what’s holding us back right now, and it’s not what will bring us to where we need to be in the future (although it could play a role). The most fundamental thing that needs to happen is that the personal power of the society needs to be decentralized. That’s it. That’s the most important thing. We are not in a fight against nature. We are not in a fight against other nations. We are in a fight with ourselves, a fight amongst people within our own nations and within our own world. Technology will only be of benefit if it redistributes the power back to the people. There are some technologies that can help do that. Peer-to-peer information distribution helps bypass centralized media and thus returns the power held by the media back to the people where it belongs. I fail to see what the benefit of supercomputers. They would help in the information distribution aspect because they could increase scouring the database for relevant information, but if they’re not making the decision makers more knowledgable (currently our decision makers don’t even try to be knowledgable because its not important because they don’t have our interests at heart) it doesn’t matter.I like the idea of nanotechnology being able to reshape matter. I haven’t really thought of it this way, but maybe there is potential for providing everyone with what they need (or more luxuriously what they want). But we have that now. We have all we need/want right now (assuming you don’t include biodiversity/environmental health) in that arena. It’s just not being distributed properly. Its more of an issue for us to just figure out why its being distributed unequally (capitalism and the rich making the rules to benefit themselves) and fix that. We don’t need machines to just make more stuff got everyone. We’re not in the situation because of lack of stuff we have, we’re in it because we can’t see how our power gets takenfrom us.

  8. medaille says:

    Zach,I went to their site and read around. It was pretty neat, but it seems like that technology even in its largest format would be too ineffectual to really make a big difference in the problems it was addressing (of course what single process could make a big difference?). The thing that comes to my mind after reading that site is that it makes no mention of the needing to “power down.” I think its pretty obvious that we could dramatically cut down both our usage of energy and our production of waste without any real negligible effects on our happiness. Maybe they have a reasonable chance of sinking carbon into the ground, but it seems to me that the majority of the carbon is still going to be burned as fuel and released into the air. Their technology towards the “economic crisis” is pretty irrelevant because the economic crisis has more to do with the widening gap of the rich and the poor than it does with how well Americas economy is doing. Its biggest impact would be with the energy crisis in that it would allow us to ease a little bit of the pressure to import oil.Overall I think its nice that they are trying to think a bit about reducing waste a bit, but I think its more shiny than substance. I tend to be a bit cynical about these types of wonder technologies, so if I’m looking at it wrong, please feel free to make mention of it.

  9. zach says:

    It’s a working technology, they have two plants up and running. At the pilot plant they have converted garbage, tires and plastic into oil, fertilizer and water. The technology is real and it works.

  10. Daniel W. Givin says:

    I do not believe you can solve any problem by using the same mechanism that created the problem in the first place. I do not believe that the dilemma that human kind faces can be solved by any technology. What we need is an evolution of the human “spirit”. Until we live with humility and no longer have infantile egos, which must be satisfied on a continual basis, we will not be able to create a more just and peaceful version of our physical plane of existence. The answer lies, as many do, in exactly the opposite direction from that in which we seem to be currently reaching. We think, because of our egos, that we are smart enough to solve any problem. I personally think we must ask for divine help, or we will all perish.

  11. Steve Wohlrab says:

    Forgive the manic shorthand – too much to cover – saw the discussion and felt compelled to comment.Where to begin?Money/economics – such a crucial issue, thanks to Paula for bringing it up – however I believe her arguements flawed, the responses seem just as troubling – Dave’s comments too, well intentioned, but also problematic.First point, I think there is a serous need to re-visit scenarios here – need better scenario building as well as better info/data to base them on. Too quick to dismiss more dramatic possibilities/ramifications surrounding peak oil. May not be as gradual or as far into the future as is suggested here. Second point, as a Northwest Green “Peaknic” (I’ll own the handle – please forgive my defensiveness), speaking for myself, I believe we need to move beyond pre and post tech. dicotomy – adopting greener healthier lifestyles/building community reflects affirmation of a possible a future model (not anti as much as pro)- toward the life I’d prefer to lead (esp. if you start to examine/understand the economics of “savage” capitalism/globalization) economic justice demands re-localization as much as environmental common sense. Third Point – Powerdown (for me) is ultimately an ethical choice – how I want to live even if cheap oil where abundant. Lifeboat (preparation) within that context is “worst case” common sense. (stuff happens – should I not prepare). I don’t know who Paula been hanging out with but if anyone thinks we’re not considering money/economic implications of peak oil, they’ve seriously mistaken. We need to do both! Growing my own food has an economic impact for me now! Intrinsic aspects of self-sufficient lifestyle also seems under-rated here (e.g. gardening as part of spiritual practice) #4 I believe underlying issue regarding over-consumption/materialism reflects fundamentally flawed ontological assumptions – wealth accumulation beyond basic needs is ultimately a type of soul sickness involving fearof ego death/basic human existential issue – yeah, we need a planetary transformation/more spiritually evolved and emotionally mature humans – does anyone realistically see this suddenly happening overnight? Re-educating/awakening the masses (forgive my condescending pressumptousness) may take awhile – in the meantime …tick, tick, tick.Its not “us” vs. “them”, us is them – we’re all in it together (I’m still part of this culture – maybe on the fringe but I grew up in it) – doesn’t matter – transition aint looking pretty – “bukle up, we’re in for a bumpy ride.” Community is key – organized, perpared, self-relient, resilient communities seem like our best hope (with access to basic resources in temperate climate zones better still). move back to PA? – used to live there – nice countryside, good people, anyone remember Valley Forge? might want to re-think that one.#5 – Falacy that technology will save us (many think its already too late – reached tipping point) Praying they’re wrong but please, if anyone has a alternative source of cheap clean energy (including inputs as well as outputs) let us know – show us! Technological advances are probably much further out and likely cost prohibitive – nothing on the horizen comes close. We will not gonna be able to continue to live the way we’re used to (in our lifetime now, not your grandkids! – how dramatic and sudden the change will be is open to debate – transitioning now will ease demand, create lifeboats which will also serve as teaching models. urgency demands action! #6 – according to most knowledgable, reliable, best sources, Peak oil is more urgent problem then anyone seems willing to accept here – most are in denial – a basic human reaction/defense mechanism – please consider this possibility. #7 – The other “large creature” in the room for most of us green peaknics is really security (guns?)Large numbers of hungry people looking for a way to survive – worst case scenario but a possibility – how you gonna deal with it – other then denial? So, consider this – scenario building exercise – multi-scenarios playing out at same time.Timing of peak oil coincides with others (need I list them) Peak Oil doesn’t occur in a vacuum! (FYI – Peak Oil is a complex situation involving macro-economic issues as much as geology – its serious – it occurs when demand exceeds supply – not just when half the oil is pumped. Hirsh sees a lag between alternatives compensating for losses if problem is left unmitigated). Our thinking must involve preparing for worst case – Northwest is succeptable to most major natural and man made disasters (need I list them?) Hoping for best (no sane person “looks forward” to crisis) prepare for worst – seems reasonable in light of the facts and implications. Hienberg recommends both a lifeboat and a powerdown strategy – and doing all we can to raise awareness sad to hear Paula/others see it differently – doesn’t reflect how most progressive folks in S. Oregon or N. California are thinking.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Don’t know what to add to all this, except to thank you all for your comments, and thank Medaille again for responding so promptly to commenters, and saving me a lot of work. As I’m sure you know by now, I don’t believe technology or a global social awakening is likely to come to the rescue of this situation. Kunstler has been pretty thorough at deconstructing all of the alternative energy sources, all of which will be needed but none of which will be nearly enough, or soon enough, to address the problems. Robin: The data consistently shows that progressives donate more to charity than conservatives. My comment was about that specific segment of conservatives that believe ‘we are not our brother’s keeper’ not all conservatives.

  13. Sniffy the Capricious Goatherder says:

    Conservatives need to be fed to lions. Nutjobs should be eaten not heard.

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