What is Collapse, Anyway?

With any reasonably successful blog, you have a conversation going on, often between an author and commenters who have a long history and background, and people coming into the conversation for the first time. Sometimes the people coming in are hostile, sometimes curious, sometimes troubled by what they are learning, annoyed by you or dismissive. Sometimes they stay, and sometimes they look in and look out. Balancing the degree to which you write for the regulars and to those new to you is always an interesting exercise. That's been an issue for me lately - I've now been at science blogs a couple of months, and so there's been an influx of people new to me. Obviously, this is a good thing, but it means a balancing act - how much background do I give? How much do I go back and cover things that many of my readers may take as a given, for those that don't?

PalMD, in a perfectly reasonable fit of crankiness, just exposed one of the places where I'm clearly not doing a good enough job of articulating for new or casual readers what my underlying assumptions are, and I'm sincerely appreciative of that. He writes,

Finally, I love love Sharon Astyk over at Casaubon's Book---I really do, but I don't really get it, on a fundamental level. I love her IRL experiment in (illusory) sustainable living, but her type of sustainable living seems really anti-social to me. It's about surviving some sort of society-disrupting disaster alone. Today's post is about getting your family on board with creating your absolutely necessary food reserve, and the day before was about how to get your family to eat all the rotten food you preserved. It's all very interesting, but hardly seems relevant in the real world where when The End comes, some white supremecist militia is just gonna kill you for your pickled kale before they resort to eating each other.

I'm clearly not doing something right - and one of those things is assuming that people know why they would want to store food, or eat locally year round. PalMD's assumption is that food storage is for the apocalypse, and it is private, rather than communal. And in some measure, that's a fair assumption - I write about collapse a lot. It is a term that comes with a fair amount of "zombies, white supremacists and killing each other for kale" baggage on it.

I'm actually going to riff for a bit on PalMD's point, which is kind of annoying of me, and I wouldn't blame him if he then found me to be a bigger pain in the ass than he does up to this point ;-). I know it is irritating when you write a funny toss-off piece and someone writes a long, terribly serious analysis in response, and I do apologize for doing it ;-). For me, it was just this was what made the lightbulb go off over my head, and I really do appreciate him giving me an excuse to stop the book review I was writing and go to something more interesting!

In fact, "collapse," as we actually use the term for most societies doesn't usually involve any cannibalism at all - odds are pretty much against the baby-on-a-spit model. The taboos against cannibalism are so strong in our society that for the most part, human beings will die in huge numbers and endure total starvation rather than violate them, as we know from societies with large famine rates - it almost never happens - see Margaret Visser's book _The Rituals of Dinner_ for why cannibalism is almost never undertaken as a response to hunger, but almost always as a highly ritualized and carefully structured practice, often associated with formal warfare. Nor does it necessarily look like Mad Max. I've already written about some of this in my response to Zuska on precisely this subject, but I thought this time I'd take a more pragmatic approach - in this century, when societies have collapsed, what actually happened? How bad is it? Are there ways of reducing the badness? While historic events can't give a totally accurate picture of the future, they can at least give us some ground to stand on.

When looked at this way, "collapse" is actually an extremely common phenomenon in nations and societies - societies rise to a particular level of function, they run into hard limits, often ecological limits, as documented by, among others, Jared Diamond in -Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail_, and Joseph Tainter in _The Collapse of Complex Systems_, and they fall to a much lower level of functioning. How low is up for grabs, and depends on the kind of response the society makes. At times this level can be extremely low - there's Easter Island for example. More recently several Rwanda and Burundi have several times in my lifetime collapsed into untenable violence and endless civil war, with horrifyingly bloody consequences for the people, ones that don't look that far off of Mad Max.

On the other hand, we could look at the most recent society that has collapsed - Iceland. In 2008 and into 2009, Iceland which had become enormously wealth and prosperous underwent an economic collapse, the effects of which are still playing out. The banking collapse in Iceland was the largest ever suffered, relative to the nation's size, in economic history.

What happened in Iceland is probably very reassuring for people who are worried about collapse - the situation wasn't at all pleasant for people, but compared to Rwanda, it was a walk in the park. There was rioting and the government was broadly speaking, changed, some suicides and emigrations. The costs of dealing with the crisis were enormous, there was widespread unemployment, interest rates shot up and imports stalled, there was a foreclosure crisis, many formerly high paying professionals had to go back to the fishing industry which promptly began to see fish stock collapses, imported goods became expensive, and people got a lot poorer. On the other hand, one's pickled kale was comparatively safe.

So the first thing we can say about collapse is that it is highly variable - you can have economic collapse, you can have an energy supply related collapse, a political collapse, collapse into civil war - and that some collapses are better than others. Indeed, Dmitry Orlov, the author of the superb _ReInventing Collapse_ which compares what he believes is the coming US collapse with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he in part witnessed, has written the very thoughtful and funny essay "The Five Stages of Collapse" where he makes precisely this point:

Although many people imagine collapse to be a sort of elevator that goes to the sub-basement (our Stage 5) no matter which button you push, no such automatic mechanism can be discerned. Rather, driving us all to Stage 5 will require that a concerted effort be made at each of the intervening stages. That all the players seem poised to make just such an effort may give this collapse the form a classical tragedy - a conscious but inexorable march to perdition - rather than a farce ("Oops! Ah, here we are, Stage 5." - "So, whom do we eat first?" - "Me! I am delicious!") Let us sketch out this process.

I admit, I find it enormously difficult to imagine a scenarion in which the US does not collapse on some level - in nearly every available measure, the US is in danger of doing so. Certainly, while we trumpet that we've averted economic collapse, more accurately, we've pushed some of it off for a few years, and made it more likely that crushing economic burdens will fall more heavily on people under 50 and future generations. Much the same can accurately be said of our energy crisis and certainly, of climate change. I think it is hard to imagine anyone who would deny that in all three areas, our policies are short term, designed to forestall us immediately bearing a burden, rather than to actually avert a crisis.

What leads me to believe that the crises in these regards will be as severe as a collapse? In general, the analysis of fairly trustworthy and impartial analysts. For example, in 2005, the US Department of Energy commissioned the Hirsch Report to evaluate whether peak oil was a meaningful threat. Robert Hirsch, the lead scientist in the report has since become a peak oil believer, but didn't start out that way. The DOE report concluded that with 20 years of WWII-level investment, we could avert collapse, but that less than 20 years means a major crisis. That's not my conclusion, but the DOE's - since we're not engaged in a WWII-level build out of renewable energies and even the USGS predicts peak oil by 2023, simple arithmetic suggests that we are headed for some fairly serious problems. The US Army has produced a similar report on peak oil with related conclusions.

What about climate change? Well, consider The Stern Review, compiled by Sir Nicholas Stern on the economic consquences of climate change. Among his conclusions (and this was based upon a now-out-of-date set of assumptions about climate targets and their viability - he assumes that 550 ppm avoids more consequences than it probably does), was that unchecked, climate change could lead to mitigation costs of up to 20% of world GDP - a burden no economy could bear without, well, collapsing. Given that we show no signs of being able to stabilize our ecology at the lower levels we know are safe, it seems reasonable to presume we are facing high mitigation costs, with heavy economic consequences.

The same is true of my assumptions about the practical, material consequences of climate change - the predictions of the IPCC and other studies suggest that among the logical effects of climate change will be large numbers of refugees, conflict over scarce resources, drought, lowered rates of food production, increases in disease, heavier storms and more natural disasters, etc... Not only do these things have economic costs, they have material ones - they result in collapsed societies - New Orleans, for example, can be reasonably said to have collapsed to a much lower level of function for quite a long time, and it isn't totally clear whether it will ever come back.

I don't think I actually need to explain why I think an economic collapse could happen - we know that it does all the time. Moreover, we know it nearly did by most assessments in fall 2008.

We also know energy supply collapses happen - often along with economic collapses for example, former Soviet Prime Minister Yegor Gaider wrote a book arguing that the Soviet Union Collapsed (under his watch, actually) due to its dependency on foreign energy exports and the shift of its population out of the countryside and into cities. For a long time, the Soviet Union was able to rely on energy exports to allow them to pay for food on foreign markets, but when energy prices collapsed, there were not enough farmers left to grow food for the population, and the government could not hold.

We know that this caused some subsidary collapses - Cuba collapsed because the Soviet Union collapsed, and stopped sending oil imports. We know that Cuba lost 1/5th of its energy imports, and the societal structures fell largely apart - people went hungry and started eating fried grapefruit peels because of lack of energy to run its highly technological agricultural system.

What's interesting about the examples of Cuba is that it is further evidence to suggest that fairly small energy resource shocks can cause fairly serious consequences - 1/5 of all oil shouldn't actually have caused people to starve - most people would reasonably argue that waste in the system and proper allocation of resources should have been able to absorb this - or will argue that the fault was the Cuban government's. To some extent that last point is probably true, but we should remember that we have examples from the US that show that small energy supply disruptions can be extremely destructive - the oil shocks of the 1970s and the subsequent major recession that followed it resulted from a reduction in imports of just over 5%.

So yes, I think we're on a path towards some kind of collapse, without necessarily assuming cannibalism or even roving gangs of white-supremacist kale eaters. I would like such a collapse to be averted very much, since I actually have other things to do too ;-), plus I've got kids, but I find it increasingly unlikely that we will avert it. When I began writing about this stuff in 2003, I felt that it was much more likely that climate change would unfold more slowly and that we might be able to tackle one crisis at a time.

Now, I think the evidence is becoming compelling that we are going to be facing an economic, energy and climate crisis all at the same time - and that I find it hard to imagine us navigating successfully. Is it impossible? Probably not impossible, but certainly improbable - the societal restructuring would be enormous - and would have to involve nearly all the things I'm suggesting anyway. Nearly everyone dealing with these issues talks about WWII style build outs and war footings - having to do something roughly equivalent to the 1940s build out (Niels Bohr famously said that it would be impossible to develop the atom bomb without turning the entire nation into a factory, and then, in 1944, observed that we had). Having to do such a thing while dealing with a multi-front crisis seems even less likely.

At a minimum, however, I think we should assume the possibility of failure. And that's a problem in a society that seems to think that there's an either-or relationship to failure - that you shouldn't prepare for lack of success, or have a backup plan for failure. I think psychologically, we tend to assume that once we begin to think hard about the possibility we might not succeed, it becomes inevitable. Thus, we don't like to make wills because it seems morbid. We don't prepare for disasters, even when they seem likely. We don't keep food around, even though both FEMA and the American Red Cross advise us to and the FEMA chief recently acknowledged that the first line of defense was personal preparedness. We tend to take an either/or approach, when in fact, we often need both - a will *and* care crossing the street, to build up the levies *and* have an evacuation plan, food in the pantry *and* stronger social supports.

Moreover, most of what I recommend works well for people who are not in an official collapse, but whose lives are undergoing collapse - they are out of work, they are losing their homes, they don't have enough to eat, they have a medical crisis and no health insurance... that is most of the things that I encourage people to do, including building up a reserve of food and strengthening social supports works for the *people* who are experiencing collapse even if their society doesn't officially get that label.

What are the common features of collapsed societies? I could go back to Rome, of course, but there's probably no need. There are some common features of modern collapses that we can speak of.

1. People get really pissed at their government. This usually leads to some measure of civil unrest, and often government change. Sometimes this is good, sometimes this is bad - it also, as we know, can lead to the government or others scapegoating someone or other, which is really bad. Generally the better outcomes come when the government seems to respond to the people, and also, when the government gets out of the people's way and also lets them respond.

2. Crime rates go up and services like police protection are less available or privatized - one universal features of collapsed socities is that they are more violent. But that doesn't tend to mean warlords killing everyone in their path - it tends to mean more street violence, robbery, rape, and murder, along with sometimes for-profit kidnapping. It tends to mean that people are vulnerable, and afraid, and often can't trust the authorities - it could be rather like being African-American in many poor urban neighborhoods, or it could be like living in Baghdad. Generally speaking, you don't want your kids to go out very much, you tend to avoid going out yourself, and safety becomes a serious issue.

3. Everyone gets poorer fast - this perhaps the most universal outcome. When societies collapse, the percentage of people who are poor goes way up - in Argentina, for example, the 2001 collapse virtually wiped out the middle class and pushed poverty levels up from lows around 20% to nearly 57%. This, I think, is the one universal likely outcome, and of course, right at the moment it is occurring.

4. The cost and attainability of food becomes an issue. Accounts from Argentina, which was previously both stable and affluent suggests that many desired foods, particularly imports are often unavailable, and more importantly, widespread economic impacts make it harder to buy food. Health impacts from this, and lack of medical care, along with depression and drug and alcohol use begin to show up.

5. Services and utilities are widely disrupted. Sometimes the disruption comes, as is common among the US poor, because people can't afford to pay the bill - tens of thousands of US households, for example, will have their utilities cut off on April 1, just as soon as it is legal (most utilities can't cut off a household in the winter). But people also endure service interruptions because of aging infrastructure and because of social disruption. You are much more likely to spend time with no power, have no trash pickup, run out of gas and have the delivery trucks not come through...

6. People are pushed together - whether they are herded into ghettos or lose their housing, extended families, biological and otherwise come to rely on each other. So do communities and neighbors - when someone has food, you share. When someone needs a place to stay, you let them come in. A culture of sharing emerges, and it is extremely useful to have stuff to share.

These are the near-universals - all these things happen in collapsed societies pretty much inevitably. Now in some collapsed societies, your neighbors start murdering you, or gangs terrorize your neighborhood - but this isn't inevitable.

Now, the question is, if collapse is likely, where do you concentrate your efforts? Do you try and prevent it, even if that is increasingly unlikely, or do you focus your efforts on, as Orlov puts it, stopping the elevator to the basement? I think the answer is both - but that emphasis should be put on strategies that are dual purpose - whenever you face a likelihood of major systems failure, multi-purpose strategies that both reduce impacts and increase resilience are clear winners. I like to think that most of what I advocate - not all - falls in those categories.

If a collapse of some sort does happen, what helps? We know for example, that social supports make an enormous difference in a collapsing society. _Reinventing Collapse_ for example, finds that the major factors in keeping the Russian people from disaster were a system of social supports. Making medical care, food and shelter available to people in crisis keeps things from being too awful. In Cuba, for example, for all its limitations, the Cuban government did some things that were remarkable, because they are precisely the opposite of what America has been doing - they strengthened social supports at the expense of potential growth. That is, in the face of the "special period" they expanded educational programs into more smaller campuses, put more clinics out into rural and underserved areas, and expanded food support programs. As I argue in _Depletion and Abundance_ this is precisely what's needed here - that investment in health care, food security, education and safety net programs for the elderly, disabled and children should be our highest priority. What's useful about this as a political strategy, IMHO, is that it turns out that all the things that people say they care most about personally in the political sphere turn out to be what actually matter.

Unfortunately, that's not the culture we live in - Americans uniformly respond to economic and social crisis by beefing up government and military programs and by cutting social safety networks. We're already seeing this happen - which is one of the reasons I put so much effort on truly local safety nets, private (not in the sense of ability to pay, but familial and community-based for those within the community) and other smaller resources, rather than large scale programs - such programs serve as a last layer of support for people who have fallen through the sliced nets above them, but are likely to survive even in the absence of federal or state funding, because they can operate on a fairly small scale. That doesn't mean I'm for the gutting of other social programs - I'm manifestly not and have written about the importance of universal health care, funding LiHeap, Food stamps, WIC and programs for the disabled and elderly many times over the past years. But while I expend some energy advocating for these programs, I also think that building more localized backups underneath them is urgent.

The other thing that matters to reduce the rate of descent towards the basement are self-help strategies. In Cuba, for example, small scale agriculture in urban centers did a lot (not everything, imported staples also mattered) to alleviate hunger and nutritional deficiencies. In Russia, by all contemporary economic analysis, there should have been widespread starvation - instead, there was not, largely because small scale localized economics arose to replace what was missing. In Argentina, cardboard scavenging came to support 40,000 people - just barely though. In the US, during the Great Depression, which is an example, I think, of near-collapse in many ways, the number of informal economy jobs skyrocketed. In 1932, the New York Times observed that there were now 7,000 people, most of them adults, shining shoes in NYC, while in 1928, there were less than 200, almost all children.

Self-help/subsistence strategies and social support networks are not in conflict in these situations - both are needed, particularly when social support programs are under-fire or overwhelmed, as they are in the US at present. Neither alone can support the population or mitigate the worst outcomes - but simultaneously, in the best case scenarios, they can keep people alive and fed and reasonably secure.

On some level, it seems churlish, I think, to settle for that. Everyone wants better for themselves, their friends, the world, their children - I do too. Unfortunately, I think it is extremely unlikely that we can achieve much better - I realize this is a terribly depressing thing to say, and it is the kind of thing that turns people off. In some ways it would be nicer if I could believe that collapse will be good for us - but it won't. There are examples of people doing better in certain situations after a society has collapsed and reconstituted itself, but it is safe to say that no one likes the process. The project, then, is about how to avoid it being too awful, or resulting in a lot of death.

And this underlies my own assumptions about my personal project as well. PalMD thinks that my attempt to live sustainably is illusory - and he's right in some measure. I can document precisely what resources we use, because I've been tracking it for four years now - our family of six produces about 15% of the US average household emissions. We also produce about 20% of the garbage, use 40% of the water of an average US household, and spend 10% of the US on new consumer goods. The average American household has 2.6 people in it, so our actual usage is lower than that, as we are a family of six, but being that we're a large family, the least we can do is cut our usage.

But all of this does rely on a base of imported resources - our lives would be very difficult without them. But while my hope is that other people will also cut their energy usage (and since we've done this without major investments in things like solar panels, and since other members of the Riot for Austerity have demonstrated that something like it is feasible for people all over the world, in cities and suburbs as well as the countryside, for single parents and extended families and etc...etc... we know it can be done). But I'm under few illusions that this will become so trendy that it saves the world - even if it did become trendy, it is probably too late, and we'd still probably have to cut our emissions by another half or so.

Besides the moral reason to do this - because it is the right thing to do, because we know that our emissions do harm and we're supposed to do as little of that as we can, the real reason to do it, I think is that it enables you to function both individually and collectively - that is, building up a reserve of food, or organizing in your community allows you to both make sure your neighbors are eating, have something to give away, and also make sure your kids don't go hungry. They allow you to take some pressure off when you lose your job, but they also allow you to keep up the food pantry donations when your hours are cut back. They function both in collapse and out of it to make things better.

They don't function very well in the outer ends of the collapse spectrum - that is, if we start treating each other like Tutsi and the Hutu have since the 1970s, all the pickled kale on earth won't do you any good. If we install a fascist government that blames the Jews, the intellectuals, the athiests, the immigrants...we're fucked. The best strategies involve putting the brakes on where it seems most feasible to put them on. I wish very much that it was possible to hit the brakes before we get to collapse at all - I think it is probably not. Instead, I think the relevant strategies involve putting on the brakes so that you end up as close to Iceland and as far from Rwanda as you can.


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Sharon wrote "I'm clearly not doing something right " ...

My dear Sharon, this is nonsense!! :) You are doing just fine the way you write; readers have to make some efforts to understand what the author/authoress/blogiste is trying to say, otherwise why are they reading the authoress' material!?

In the time I have been reading you, books et al., you have always tried to find a way to explain things to almost any kind of reader you might have. and I think you usually do a pretty good job of it.

Myabe not everyone who reads you will get the messages you're delivering. So be it. Someone else will have to be the messenger for them or they will comprehend it later on or maybe never!

This is not a slam again PalMD just a hightly prejudicial anecdotal fond defense of what you do in your writings.

a highly prejudiced reader with an anecdotal, somewhat random opinion .....

Peace to All,

Why does everyone have to be so damned nice around here?

I'm reading, Sharon, and I'm also agreeing with the comments that asked if you could repost some basics from your old blog.

Sie gezunt!

You've left out a very important part of your approach, Sharon: FUN!

Whatever you talk about in your columns, you do it with verve ... that's the real secret of your appeal, at least for me.

I've noticed that almost all the sustainability activists I've met are enjoying life to the fullest, despite the grim nature of the problem. They bicycle, they read scores of books, they argue, they emote, they garden, they write blogs. They are interested in a cornucopia of subjects ... after all, everything in the universe is connected to everything else, isn't it?

Having become active in sustainability about 8 years ago, it seems as if I've come home. This is a much better way of life than the corporate/consumer existence.

As a Harvard-educated, kayaking, dairywoman grandmother said in our permaculture class, "Our side will win because we have more fun."

Bart / EB

Preach it sister!

As a Harvard-educated, kayaking, dairywoman grandmother said in our permaculture class, "Our side will win because we have more fun."

See, Bart, that's the smug kind of hoo-ha that makes me grind my teeth in frustration. Who is "our side"? A relative of mine, with no Harvard degree, who lives in a tiny apartment with nowhere for her to grow her own food and barely enough room to store her cooking utensils and clothes, let alone a two weeks supply of food and water - is she on "our side"? The people of Norristown, PA, who are finally - finally - getting their first full-service grocery store in a generation, so maybe if they want to think about storing food they can finally go somewhere to buy it - are they on "our side"?

What constitutes "winning"? Collapse comes and we all spend our days grinding out subsistence farming to stay alive? Yay, we won! No more extravagant consumer lifestyles! I will wink and nod at you as we harness ourselves to the plow and start down the row, not being able to afford an expensive plow animal. Are we having more fun yet?

Sharon is talking about surviving a sort of sliding collapse that goes on while we still have some fossil fuels to maintain a relative level of comfort and produce the tools we need to keep certain things going - like this cozy little blog community here where we all get together and chat about "our side". Eventually, though, that's all going away. Amirite, Sharon? Or am I not?

very nice summary. I keep telling people that I don't believe in the fast collapse scenarios - you're fine one day and the next there's no more food and people are shooting at you. Collapse can happen quickly, of course, but you outline much more realistic scenarios.

By derek jacoby (not verified) on 16 Feb 2010 #permalink

Thank you for providing some examples of modern collapse. I'd read Jared Diamond's book,_Collapse_, but it was difficult for me to see what a collapse in the US would look like. Since I'm not one wanting to ride the elevator to the bottom, understanding how and where to stop is a big help.

@Gary #6 - Practice is one thing but it's way better to have someone else show you how to do it first. You may not be able to find a cooper or a boatwright but look around your area, you might find people who have a wealth of practical knowledge. Sometimes nothing you would expect - for instance, up here in Anchorage, AK, I've joined the Alaska Pioneer Fruitgrowers Association. While "organization" would not be the word I'd use to describe the group, the collective wisdom goes back several decades (particularly with regard to growing apple trees) and every member is actively engaged in growing any and all kinds of fruit. They sponsor an apple grafting workshop every April and I'm always impressed at the variety of scion wood that the members contribute. I didn't know that so many types of apples could survive (and thrive) at latitude 61 and change. I can't tell you how much I've learned since I joined 18 months ago. From all this knowledge comes the practice - I've been practicing pruning and planting and selecting fruits that might have a chance at surviving. The benefit of learning from my "elders" so to speak is that the mortality rate of what I've planted has been extremely low. Practice works best when you've gotten good instruction at the outset.

By Kerri in AK (not verified) on 16 Feb 2010 #permalink

Sorry Zuka that you feel impelled to attack.

For what it is worth, I have been through poverty and bad times, and I have been around people who have been through worse. If one is going to survive, the most important thing is to have a positive outlook -- that doesn't mean Pollyannish, and it doesn't mean unrealistic.

It does mean that you have to pay attention to morale, and making the most of the situation. Doing what you can instead of focusing on all the terrible things that might happen.

I've read the survival manuals from the armed forces and studied the groups who made it through difficult times (e.g. in World War II). They are unanimous about the importance of morale and accentuating the positive. Yes, and that means having fun too.

// A second reason for emphasizing the positive, rather than dwelling on collapse, is the importance of spreading the message. And people are much more open to the idea of a better, satisfying way of life than they are to grim visions. Thus the widespread popularity of the Transition Movement.

// A third reason is that I think we will experience powerdown as economic and political turmoil, rather than outright shortages of food and fuel. It will be long-term rather than abrupt. Survivalism which is centered on visions of collapse is not appropriate for those circumstances. Much more appropriate is a return to traditional ways of coping with adversity (community, thrift, common sense) and politics.

Energy Bulletin

Sorry, Bart, that you feel impelled to misinterpret frustration and sarcasm as attack. My comment is not about you personally, dude. "Surviving long-term powerdown" sounds lovely and all, and I have no doubt that it can be done but at least some of us in a manner that is not as unpleasant as it would be if we had not prepared for it. But eventually the power source is, indeed, going to be all gone. And, as Sharon points out, we are doing squat all in the way of preparations to replace it. So that means somebody - maybe not you or me, and maybe not even your kids or my nieces and nephews, but their kids, perhaps - is going to end up pulling a plow across a field again someday. No? Or a magic energy supply IS going to just appear? Are you looking forward to the jolly times around the campfire after a hard day of hand plowing a field? Remember, everything you love about your life now that is powering with fossil fuels is gone. Including this computer you are reading and typing on now.

Repost, I can do ;-). In fact, that's awesome that there's an audience for this, because I've got a book deadline in less that six weeks. That's part of why I honestly haven't done much sitting down and thinking about how to approach the new site in some kind of organized way - all my rather limited organizational powers are focused on finishing TDB (the damned book) and making it GO AWAY for a while so I can have a life and do other things ;-).

Bart, I agree with you that having fun is useful and important - I generally advise people not to have a lousy time preparing for collapse, because while you might live a life you hate for a while getting ready, for the most part, people will abandon it if the disaster doesn't occur immediately. I also totally agree with you that focusing on common ground is central - I do a lot of stuff with a lot of people who don't share all or even any of my worldview, but care about education, good food, saving money, etc... I don't really care that my neighbors are storing their food for the rapture - what I care about is that both they and I have some food and will share it with our neighbors who aren't.

That is, I see Zuska's point too - there are a lot of people for whom these cahnges will not be fun, no matter how you wrap them up in clean linen. What I think can be fun is the practice - that is, the work of growing things or cooking things or making things. The life changes mostly aren't fun, and they are scary and they are downright awful for some people - and some people like doritos and not making things ;-). You can call this false consciousness, but it is not unreasonable (I actually like doritos and not having to make things some days too).

I don't think it always does have to be fun - frankly, I think fear and dread get underrated as motivators. Sure, you can get some people to stop smoking by telling them they'll feel better and have whiter teeth. And some people you have to show the diseased lungs too and talk about not getting to see your grandkids.

In Bart's defense, I think we have confirmation bias towards hating the unknown - I always think of this as appearing best in our relationships to cars. Whenever we talk about not having gas, or giving up cars, most people instantly imagine themselves in a circumstance where their child/husband/beloved is dying, and you can't get them to a hospital. Now this is a real circumstance, it happens to people in low gas societies, including the Amish and many nations in the Global South.

On the other hand, statistically speaking, we also know that the number of deaths because of cars would go down dramatically, but we tend not to go there in out thoughts. Just as some people over-romanticize the benefits of a different kind of life, a lot of people over-emphasize the negative realities - and, of course, a lot of the time it depends on the person - the person who loses a loved one because an ambulance doesn't come sees those consequences, a person who loses one to the ambulance striking them sees the other side.

For me, the issue is balancing both kinds of confirmation bias - bias that assumes that our lives will turn to endless, miserable unending drudgery, that having to grow food or fix your own stuff means your life goes to hell (in part I have a problem with this because I think it has a lot of implied ugly class prejudice that suggests that the people of the past and the world's poor now don't have lives worth living) and also the romantic bullshit that suggests we're all going to be happier without this crap. I don't think I've done a very coherent job, though of articulating what I'm going at, and that's why I'm genuinely appreciative of PalMD.


It's a nice article but I'm not sure how much mileage there is in using 'collapse' to cover everything from extinction-level events, such as Easter Island, to moderate economic disruption, such as Iceland, and perhaps a finer-grained taxonomy would be useful. Also - but I realise that I'm really pissing in the wind here - not everyone reading this blog lives in America, or even the - allegedly - developed west so the 'we' sounds a bit odd.

A fine post, Sharon. Useful to pass around.

So I am thinking here about Zuska's challenge... who is "our side"? I think our side is the people who see what is coming and are willing and able to get off their duffs and do something. Even a person living in a tiny apartment can build community, or share an old-timey skill that she has gone off to acquire that can be of use. Or even talk to people about what she understands and sees coming. Etc. Scoffing and doing nothing doesn't qualify to be on "our side," no.

As for "everything going away" -- well, a lot of that is up in the air. How much goes away will depend on us, in part. So what are you willing to DO, Zuska? Jeering from the sidelines does not go very far, does it?

Zuska, I know you don't want to pull a plow, and I don't blame you for that. I admit, though, I really have a problem with the rhetoric you are using - it seems to be infused with the idea that 30% of the world that grows some significant portion of their own food has lives not worth living, without joy, without pleasure. Given that there are tens of thousands of farmers all over the world who have stood up in protests begging that they not be driven off their land, that they not be shunted into cities to make their living selling trash picked metal or work in factories, that they be permitted to continue farming as they have, I don't think that holds up to scrutiny. There are people who value precisely the way of life you think seems like the end of the world enormously. I can understand "I don't want it" and I can understand "I have a hard time imagining that any of us really want it." But I'm troubled by the idea "it is terrible, so terrible there are no compensations and we shouldn't think that anyone could live a decent life like that" that seems implied in your comments.


Dan, I tend to try (and sometimes fail) to be clear about when I'm speaking about America. In this case, I am speaking about America - and I thought I said so. I think there are some countries that may not collapse, depending on how climate change plays out. Sweden, for example, is well on its way to being a fairly functional low energy society - how its economy will work, I honestly can't say - I don't know enough about Sweden to answer that. I don't feel that I'm competent enough to speak about how a collapse may play out in other nations, so I generally don't.


it means you fall and don't get up again..think about that--
don't-get-up-again..everything else about what that means is just the nasty details..


Planting fruit trees for the future. Eight apple trees last year, three pear and three cherry this year, plus six blueberry bushes. Wish I'd done this five years ago.

Very nice response. While I don't agree with the urgency of your predictions, I do believe we are headed for some very difficult times in the next 50 years.

FWIW, I won't be around 50 years from now, and I don't have children. I feel sorry for those that do, as their children are going to be worse off than their parents, for perhaps the first time in the history of the U.S.

You scare the daylights out of me by providing valuable reality checks, thus creating impetus to get my ass in gear, instead of just daydreaming about all the things I would like to do, and you provide much-needed comic relief along the way. Seems like a fine combination to me. I also really appreciate the calm approach to the doomsday scenarios. There certainly are horror stories available, but in general, it seems to me, human history has consisted mostly of decent people living the best they can under their circumstances, and mostly managing to be happy along the way, despite ordinary poverty and personal tragedies, not all of which technology can alleviate. I've been thinking for years about a comment my father once made, that before, well, now, , people's lives were so hard "they weren't worth living." I'm sorry, but that's just silly, and I don't think he was really thinking about what he was saying. I enjoy my hot running water, freezer, car and electric lights and heat, too, but sheesh. They're luxuries. And luxuries millions currently live just fine without, at that. It is good to remember that, and I thank you, Sharon, for regularly reminding us of it. Even if I do have days when I'd rather sulk and whine than agree. ; }
Zuska, that doesn't mean I look forward to collapse, or that I don't realize that we will lose some things that for many people are not luxuries, and that that will be terrible. It doesn't mean that I don't want to weep with grief and shame when I think of the destruction we have perpetrated, and continue to perpetrate. But what good does despair do?

Sharon, what I am pushing at is this notion that seems to float through the comments and your blog about, as Bart put it, "surviving gradual power-down". Which sounds like it will be troublesome, and difficult, but not all that bad, and no one is really talking about what happens after all the power is gone. When you've broken your last canning jar and there's no factory to make more of them to replace it.

The way my family lives changed enormously from my grandmother's lifetime to mine. She once baked bread in a communal outdoor oven; I buy mine at a grocery store, or sometimes at a local bakery. Much was gained, but much was also lost, in all that was changed. Sure it would be cool to regain some of those things in a different configuration of living, but I have no illusions about what we will be giving up. It seems so often that when people are dreaming about the pastoral life and its contents, some itty bitty remnant of fossil fuels sticks around to make that life work more smoothly. Could be for us, could be for our kids, maybe even their kids. And then what?

@Zuska: and then what after the power's gone? Then people (maybe us, maybe our kids, or our descendants) go back to living the way your great-great-grandmother did, which was pretty similar to the way people have lived for the majority of human history, and the way many people still do live. Why is this so hideous? It will be different. It will be vastly harder in some ways, and probably vastly easier in others. I mean, yes, I get that this freaks your sh*t--that's being clearly conveyed. But humans survived, and--dare I say it--even had *worthwhile lives* without electricity, oil, or canning jars. Do I have a clue how to live in a world where I can't even get canning jars? No, I don't--I have no experience here, and no way of getting it right now. So I'm gonna make some educated guesses, and learn what I can about what seems likely to happen, and adjust my life where I can now so that I can learn different ways, and then if everything really goes pear-shaped I'll hope and pray that some of it has done me some good. Maybe canning jars will be the first to go, and my Whole Plan Will Be F*cked! Or maybe not. Maybe I learn to can, and to root cellar, and to overwinter. Maybe we'll retain the ability to make glass even without factories (oh surely not!) and decide that canning jars are a worthwhile investment. Maybe we'll keep the canning jars, but use a communal outdoor oven. Or maybe my neighbor will decide that there's good eatin' on my bones. Or maybe my garden will be The Thing that gets us all through. I'll check my crystal ball and plan accordingly.

I think I just don't get you. You seem to broadly agree with Sharon's assessments, so what do *you* think we should be doing instead?

Thanks Sharon. As a long-time reader of your blog, I don't mind your backgrounding or repeated themes. We need to keep hearing it...maybe even without arguing.

I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the likelihood of cannibalism in the event of famine. Cannibalism has taken place during the Siege of Leningrad, North Korea's famine in the 1990s, Easter Island's collapse, WWII concentration camps, etc.

The logic behind Mad Max scenarios is that the economy, climate change, soil and water depletion, and peak oil together pose a huge threat to our food supply. Before the industrial revolution, the world's population was roughly 6 billion less than it is today. The world's carrying capacity was also much higher back then than it is now. When (not if) our food system fails, we'll face an unprecedented global die-off. It'll be violent because that's what happens when people are hungry and desperate.

I think people that think human nature is basically good are going to be disappointed. We're in this predicament in the first place because we're collectively incapable of doing the right thing.

By inverse_agonist (not verified) on 16 Feb 2010 #permalink

Hi Sharon & thanks a gain for your unique contribution to this conversation. Which I think is largely the reality check. I hear a fair bit of talk on various sides of these issues, and with that I hear a lot of fear coming through. So I think it is valuable that you are giving tangible evidence that normal people can live reasonably well with a lot less wealth, or fossil fuel, or whatever.
My experience has been that the biggest hurdle is psychological. The fear is scary & difficult, but digging that garden bed is not that hard. The one person I know who grows all of his own food, and also makes his monetary living gardening, has more free time than anyone else I know, including certain panhandlers. So don't be afraid of the future, just do what you can, and be generous with your neighbors.

By Eric in Kansas (not verified) on 16 Feb 2010 #permalink

Several times when I have commented here, other commenters have remarked something to the equivalent "I get that you are freaked by all this". Thanks for that pat on the head, but I am not making my observations out of a freaked out state of mind, as if I had never before contemplated these things before Sharon started blogging at ScienceBlogs and ZOMFG! who knew!?!?!?! I will be long dead before the time comes to hook myself up to the plow, either from natural causes, or simply because I am manifestly unfit to survive any ugly resource war scenarios (if only because lack of access to high-priced intensive Western medical care will hasten my demise).

But I've had ample opportunity to chat with the elders who grew up with the communal outdoor bread ovens, and who cooked and baked on coal stoves. My grandparents had a huge garden, and another plot in a communal gardening area to which my mother had to help haul water by hand every day. Though she recalls the food and tastes of that time quite favorably, she doesn't have any nostalgic longings for any of the work. (And the water she hauled was at least available through central plumbing, making the chore as easy as it could be.)

I like eating local, eating fresh and in season, making as much of my own food as possible - it tastes better, it's healthier, it's good for the local economy and the local land and the local farmers. But it's so much easier to do all that with the wonder of my modern kitchen (which isn't even all that fancy).

When all the power's gone, and we go back to living the way people did "before"...well, they didn't all live on a happy commune sharing and sharing alike, in a free democratic society where blacks and women were enfranchised, and where LGBT people could at least find enclaves where they were accepted, if not have full civil rights in the larger society. There were peasants and there were lords in the castle who took most of what the peasants grew. Collapse will take away more than just the intertoobs.

I am stating what I see as the likely outcome, if Sharon's predictions about near simultaneous peak oil, economic collapse, and climate change are reasonably on target. Now you can dismiss this as "poor Zuska, she's so freaked out" if you want, or you can explain to me how a two week supply of food will help in a true collapse scenario - when the economy really does go south for good, when climate change makes growing your own food nearly impossible for a whole host of reasons, when peak oil has come and gone and we've deforested the planet trying to keep warm in winter. I had a food supply on hand that made getting through last week's snowstorms much more pleasant and easy than it would have been otherwise, for sure. So there's good reason to have a food supply on hand. But as a hedge against a collapse whose shape and characteristics we can at best make shadowy forecasts of? I am doubtful.

zuska, i'm just curious, so please don't take this immediately into the deeper implications of this discussion, but do you personally find activities like growing plants (even the studio apartment dweller -i was one myself for years- can find a spot for a single plant, if they want to grow one), cooking/baking, or "crafty stuff" like candle making or sewing or knitting enjoyable on any level?

because it you don't, that's fine. if you've never tried any of the above that is also totally fine (although it would make it harder to determine if such things could ever be "fun" on any level).

people are different. some get a kick out of growing plants (ornamental, food, fiber/dye/recreational/other use), or raising animals (pets/companions, livestock, draft, etc.), or "doing other stuff" which may seem only "needed" for low-impact campers, the super-diet concerned, the historical lifestyle re-enactors (like the 'buckskinners'), the survivalists, or the amish, the people in current '3rd-world' economies, and the people in current bush alaska, etc, when those doing so don't have the environmental or economic need (which is the first half of my example list, not as much the second). but some hate this stuff in general, as an activity (including some of those who currently have no choice).

some people just enjoy these activities in general, and some do not -in a context where they are fully voluntary- and that's okay.

and i fully admit that many people who love a supplemental summer herb garden or an in-house orchid collection might A: be fully incapable/unwilling to turn this "fancy" into a realistic subsistence farming ethic, and/or B: want to, try to, even have some skills, and still see that such a life is a hell of a lot of occasionally hellish work and hate it.

but if you don't enjoy any activities of this "live from the land" type on even a hobby level in a time of personal and social ease, it will obviously color your emotional view of the whole idea of "shit, i need to do this stuff to stay alive!"

so, in general, on a hobby/fun level, does this kind of "stuff" (growing, cooking, canning/drying, hunting, textiles, etc.) seem "fun" to you in your current life? again, simply curious.

Hmm, perhaps I am not communicating well. Okay, first of all, I don't think the arguments I am positing here have anything to do with whether or not I personally enjoy growing plants or canning, but to answer your question, I have been an avid gardener for the past twelve years (though I would not say I am great at it) and a dilettantish one for some years before that - that is to say, I grew a few herbs and other plants without really having a clue what I was doing. The local critter density in the woods off my backyard (including a sizable deer herd that really isn't sustainable in a 9 acre woodlot) precludes food gardening without the installation of expensive fencing I can't afford and which, in any case, the peculiar geometry of my lot makes nearly impossible. So now I focus my gardening on native plants - anybody else a fan of Douglas Tallamy's Bringing Nature Home? - and trying to reduce the amount of lawn in my yard, as much as I can afford as time goes by. And I buy local produce at farmer's markets and through Philadelphia Winter Harvest, and my husband and I cook as much of our own food as we can given the constraints of his work and some health challenges and some family responsibilities outside our home. I like cooking, and I like gardening. I used to like knitting before a near encounter with carpel tunel in the workplace ended my knitting - and pretty much any similar handicraft - days.

I am not personally healthy enough to live the kind of life Sharon describes herself living, or that others here talk about. But I think that's irrelevant. It's also irrelevant whether I like to cook, or garden, or have thought about learning to preserve some of the stuff I buy at the summer farmer's market - my mother's cousin preserves all sorts of stuff, and I could learn tons from him. He makes the best pickles, and I'd have loads of fun doing it.

It's just that I don't think my cousin's pickles are going to help me survive collapse, for the some of the reasons I've outlined above. And I don't fancy putting up pickles (or worse) for some lord of the manor as the cost of living in my shack on the edge of his estate (and don't kid yourself - it will be his estate).

Some of the things that matter most for the liberation and freedom of women in any society are education, and being able to control her own fertility. Well, you might be able to keep some reasonable sort of education going on post collapse, but fertility control is going to be tough. Again, not an issue for me personally, but not something pretty to contemplate for women of the future.

zuska, thank you for the response, my curiosity was just triggered noting the exchange that bart's "we" 'have more fun' instigated.

i wholly agree that allowing women the knowledge and the means to control their own fertility is absolutely VITAL to "thwarting collapse." this is personally close to my heart as while i got to spend half a year in the peruvian amazon the joint peru/US non-profit i worked with was in name about "rainforest conservation", by it was quickly and wisely determined (after over 5 years of on the ground efforts) that giving village women a voluntary option of preventative birth control (and doing this in the medium of peruvian female university graduates who wanted to do it, i worked with a female anthropologist who had also basic nursing/EMT type credentials) was phase one of this idea. i came into the project and worked with 3 peruvians my age (25-30) in the field to visit villages and do just this. i was really their grateful, spanish-challenged shadow in a program they'd created (my best 'help' was finalizing english-based grant applications).

but it was unmistakable that women, given a choice, want to control their fertility -particularly in regions where recent improved general access to western health care has reduced both child and childbirth mortality- (which alters local population dynamics within a single generation.....and amazonian village people are just like any people anywhere, they notice that having any exponentially expanding subsistence type village, all-of-the-sudden, changes their dynamic relationship to their immediate environment). the same non-profit also focused on aguaje palm (mauritia flexuosa) dwarf and non-cut agriculture, and working to get new government-recognized preservation areas, but it was working with the women, giving them options (pre-conception preventative options only, depo provera and condoms being most popular, IUDS were being introduced as a new option. but if anyone cares, i'm pro-choice) that i did in the field and struck me.

so i very much get that this is a real issue.

but back to the blog topic at hand. i think that you are missing something from sharon's general blogging (and i could be wrong, i'm no "sharon expert") but: i think she is advocating a whole different style of living, for those who can, and also the development of tighter small social networks to aid those who can't [farm and such] to get social support.

i think she is saying "so if you live in an apartment (and don't have access to some kind of community gardens/free plots) extend your social network and your windowsill herbs, store what you can, visit local markets, if you can. BUT for anyone else who has any dirt, to some degree you can grow stuff! and, with a few days of effort, eating that stuff you grew need not end on the first frost." and this food tastes better. and you know how it was grown. and converting a seed packet to a bushel of food is vastly cheaper than a bushel of food at a grocery.

so yeah, i might be off base, but i read her as saying not merely "keep a full 2-week pantry", but rather start to try to learn a whole new way of eating, based on the food that can grow where you live.

you know in the wizard of oz where they wanted to shelter from the twister in the root cellar? having a root cellar, or canning some tomato sauces when the garden is ripe and frost is threatening (which compels even the home gardener to harvest every last tomato, any color, or just let them become slush-on-a-vine) doesn't make you a doomsday-freak or make you someone acting out in protest of modern fun like the internet.

it just makes you someone wanting to preserve local produce for winter, as opposed to importing it from chile or australia, etc. every next month (something i personally still do, but would like to do less).

again thanks for the response. in short, the whole point seems to be if you start really eating local and preserving as a habit now, you are way ahead of any "apocalyptic shortage" that may come when global food transport networks might be disrupted. and if they are never disrupted, well, you can be happy that you have some tasty, cheap food, and you know exactly how it was brought to your table, so no losses there.


I think that what Zuska is saying is that human extinction on this planet is inevitable. There is no journey away from this. The first steps on such a hoped-for journey, such as being less dependent on the current industrial/commercial state, are, in her final analysis, futile.

I can understand what I take to be Zuskaâs general feelings about the back-to-land happy-clappy permie-type stuff. I was born in England but Iâve lived in rural Thailand in a farming community for a long time and I donât have any illusions about the wonders of community. Yes, at harvest especially, everyone pulls together, thereâs a very strong sense of belonging, and a high degree of mutual aid but you canât take a shit without half the village gossiping about it, alcoholism is rife (meth abuse has fallen in the last few years but thatâs mainly because police-run death-squads executed all the dealers), domestic abuse â both physical and sexual - is extremely common, its oppressively conservative in all the wrong ways, and life is generally pretty fucking poor and hard. There are no kayaking grandmothers here because by the time most men and women reach that age, their bodies are broken by a life in the fields. No parents in my village â and I mean nobody â wants their children to follow in their steps and, in fact, thereâs pretty much nobody in the village between 20 and 45 because working in the fields is so grim and financially unrewarding that making Nike trainers in sweatshops seems pretty attractive by comparison. Now, I know Sharon walks the walk but there is, undeniably, a very strong tendency to romanticize this lifestyle and thatâs just bullshit. Loafing around in Starbucks playing with your iPhone may not be the most spiritually enlightening life but pretending that back-breaking labour with no chance of escape or reward is better is just ridiculous and pretty much nobody who has the option to choose between the two chooses the latter. I donât deny that the climate change-peak oil nexus of â probably â insurmountable problems means that weâre almost certainly not going to have much choice in our future and whether we like it or not poverty and really hard work are going to come back to the west and strengthen their hold on the global south but letâs not pretend that this is something other than a really shitty turn of events.

Sharon identified the problem when she talked about the fear of the unknown. There is the feeling that any diminution of our current energy and resource use spells the end of civilization. That life will become miserable, dangerous and brutish.

I guess I don't see it. Yes, there will be changes, some inconveniences ... But I would much rather be living here and now than in most other periods of human history.

Compare for example, what life was like on the Eastern Front during World War II, or in Occupied France. Or what life is like now in poor, corrupt, war-torn countries.

Unless we in the US really blow it, we can manage energy descent. We are rich in natural resources and our government (for all that I am critical of it) is much better than what most peoples have had to suffer under.

I know life can be very good on much fewer resources because I've done it. And much of the world does it now.

Manual labor won't kill you, and if you're healthy and not exploited, it can be fun.

The things that make life miserable are humiliation, cruelty and coldness. These factors are independent of the number of barrels of oil we use a day.

What **WILL** happen is that existing social problems will be exacerbated. The people who are currently on the edge are going to suffer mightily. It will be all too easy to fall into wars and political strife.

For this, the response has got to be political and community-oriented. Looking outwards instead of inwards. Re-learning what our ancestors knew about prudence and working together.

Bart /EB

There seems to be much mirth about kayaking grandmothers.

My grandmother was bicycling in her 80s and 90s. She wanted me to take her out kayaking when she was 100 years old. She raised five kids on not very much money. She had joie de vivre and very little self-pity. She devoted her life to her family, friends and community. She was always a kick to be around.

That's the way I want to live my life. And peak oil or no, that's what I'm going to do.

bart a.

i've never met you or your grandmother (obviously) but you describe a life i envy.

having lost, in person, a grandfather to end-stage alzheimers (when, nothing else obviously kills you, you just "forget" to eat, and then to breathe....it all makes some sort of neurological sense, but sucks to watch), i'd give anything to be active and have my wits to the end, whenever it comes.

so i don't really understand why the tale of your active grandma inspired so much cynicism, oh well.

bart, in re-reading, i note she -the kayaking one- is not a bio grandma to you, but a classmate (still a very good person to potentially learn from), heck, you may've made her "family by choice" for all we blog-peeps know. and your bio-g-ma also wanted to kayak 'till the very, very end? how unusual.

so much "elder lady" wicked kayaking touching one younger life. weird, but awesome. i think i'll buy it, cause i love kayaking (and sea more than river). but if you're joshing it's still a great sentiment.

all i can say is that they sound like very inspirational women.

By luna1580@gmail.com (not verified) on 16 Feb 2010 #permalink

If you take away the wealth America accrues as tribute extracted from its empire, I suspect that peasant life will seem rather less attractive. Even if you're not consuming this wealth yourself, you're benefiting from it indirectly in the services made available so if that same wealth comes instead directly from your labour, rather than the labour of a Brazilian soy farmer or an Indonesian factory worker, I'm a bit doubtful about how much fun tilling the soil is then going to be.

I am stating what I see as the likely outcome, if Sharon's predictions about near simultaneous peak oil, economic collapse, and climate change are reasonably on target. Now you can dismiss this as "poor Zuska, she's so freaked out" if you want, or you can explain to me how a two week supply of food will help in a true collapse scenario - when the economy really does go south for good, when climate change makes growing your own food nearly impossible for a whole host of reasons, when peak oil has come and gone and we've deforested the planet trying to keep warm in winter.

If the worst happens, we're fucked and there's nothing we can do about it. The question is, do we do nothing because of that possibility, or do we do what we can and hope for the best? Or do we just kill ourselves now and save ourselves the trouble?

I used to live my life on the basis that, as Cat Stevens put it, "I might die tonight." As I grew older, I started thinking "But what if I don't?"

At the very end of the day, you can live (with all of life's problems and hardships) or you can die. There are no other options, and we all die eventually. But most people try to put it off for as long as humanly possible and grab whatever pleasure they can in the meantime.

Sorry, I missed some of this for sleep ;-). I think Zuska's question is totally legitimate, and I appreciate her patience in clarifying what I was clearly not getting.

I think the answer to your question is yes - at some point the fossil fuels run out. How long? I have no idea - in a voluntary reduction scenario, it might be possible to piggyback technologies to provide needed resources for many generations - there's a lot of oil left in the ground. Some of it will be inextractable, but those wells that have been petering out in Louisiana for 30 years are still producing a little bit of oil. But at some point - one generation, two generations, three generations... or less, if some people's arguments about what the marginal returns on an industrial society are.

I don't usually focus on this time frame, simply because I think there's enough to worry about in the more immediate time frame, but yes, that's a fair point. The question then becomes - to what degree can we preserve the best of what we've got without the energy that accompanied it. That is, if the energy resources disappeared on Thursday, we would plummet in technological level back - but we wouldn't be come pre-modern people. We'd still have the germ theory of disease and quantum mechanics and the idea of women's rights. So the question becomes whether and how we preserve these things.

And the answers don't seem self-evident to me - we have the example of Roman pottery as one model - that the rich were using crappier pottery than the poor in Rome 2 centuries later, because they'd lost the technology. So we certainly know we can lose a lot of knowledge. We also know that we can preserve it - the monastic tradition was one model, the Jews did it another way, simply by requiring everyone to make use of things like literacy and languages.

In practical terms, if you could approach the project of some kind of voluntary, managed decline, you should be able to keep the good stuff like lowered infant mortality, printing presses and egalitarianism going. And I don't think it is actually too late for that - it might be, of course, we could descend more rapidly into chaos, but if you were to set about the project of managing remaining resources to a. stretch them out for a long time for future generations and b. use what's left to provide lasting infrastructure, you probably could do it. That seems likely within the possibilities. That said, are we going to do it? Not immediately, anyway. The window for that seems potentially larger, though, so I wouldn't rule it entirely out, but let's just say that I tend always to assume that the most logical response won't be our first one ;-).

The food storage is a transitional strategy - it allows you to get through a crisis. I certainly advise more than two weeks if possible (and it is often possible even for people with no or minimal income - for example, many food pantries get donations of whole grains and beans but can't give them away because most people don't know how or have the capacity to cook them). Two weeks is FEMA's technical guideline, they also admit that in a epidemic situation where large-scale social distancing was necessary or in some other scenarios, two months would be necessary).

But, of course, it also is not a transitional strategy - to live as human beings, we're going to have to store food, because, well, that's how human beings lived with lower energy. The pickled kale and the sacks of beans and the other stuff you put up is going to go up - not in canning jars, but dried in the sun, and salted and root cellared. Any given jar of pickled kale doesn't help that much - but that is how human beings got to survive so long - by storing food to get them through winters and bad harvests.

It is possible, of course, we could see absolute absence of fossil fuels in the next 50 years, but I don't think it likely - reserves of everything are lower than we thought, but that doesn't make them 0. The questions for this generation and the next will be how to work out the transitional strategies in a way that leaves the best possible legacy for the future. So no, the pickled kale doesn't do more than get you a decent meal during the transition. But given the likely length of the transition, that's not totally valueless.

The reasoning behind focusing so much on the transition (and I'm using this in the small t sense, not talking about Rob Hopkins and the Transition Movement) is this - the other option is that we all just muddle along through the transitional period, getting as much energy out as we can, doing whatever we have to to survive, and then, we give a generation or two a more deforested, more depleted, more raped environment, with infrastructure totally inappropriate to what they face. The reality is that that may be true overall. But it seems useful to try and make it less awful.

It is a really fascinating question to me, what can/do we keep and what do we let go - and how much do we even get to choose.


OK, I'm a newbie here, but I find this subject fascinating. Recently, we were hit with an ice storm. For the next three days, we were house-bound, without water, phones (not even cell service) or power...

I used to work in the software industry and had a house in the burbs, but my concerns about collapse (and corporate dehumanization) motivated me to make some big changes.

Today I live on five acres in the country, 13 miles outside of a smallish city/town. I'm in the process of putting in a large garden, getting chickens, bees, and eventually a pig or two.

When the power went out, I fired up my kerosene heater to keep warm. We used the top of the stove to heat water. We always fill up the bathtubs with water before a storm, just in case, and we had plenty of bottled drinking water on hand. My deep freezer is stocked with beef, pork, fish, and chicken. There's 30 pounds of fermented kim-chee on hand as well. In a pinch, you can live off of that stuff.

The power came back on and the roads thawed just about the time we were starting to worry about our supply of heating oil. In a previous storm, we were snowbound for four days before a plow came through to clear the road.

We got through this recent event with relative ease, but I realize it was due, more to luck, than skill. I can see now that we really need to get a wood stove with a cooktop, generator, and tractor for plowing snow when the county infrastructure falls apart.

Our goal isn't to go "Amish." My wife works in the city and I work on a farm. We've got most of the modern tech toys and are far from the survivalist type. We just decided to face reality and realized that we needed to make changes so that when the machine powers down, well be able to gracefully adapt and adjust.

By PlaydoPlato (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

And the answers don't seem self-evident to me - we have the example of Roman pottery as one model - that the rich were using crappier pottery than the poor in Rome 2 centuries later, because they'd lost the technology.

Ooh, pet peeve... Technology does not fall out of use because it gets forgotten, it gets forgotten because it's fallen out of use. It's not like all those potters woke up one morning, looked at the work they'd been doing the day before, and though "Wow! How did we manage to do that?"

As Steve Jobs would say, "Oh, and one more thing..."

Regarding fun:
This is extremely important. The hardest part of being housebound for days on end (assuming you have food water and shelter) is boredom.

We have plenty of books, games, etc. and we read a lot, so there's always something to talk about. Some kind of rechargeable/replaceable battery powered DVD player would be nice as well.

I don't think we'll see a third World type collapse, but what I do see, already, is the beginning of the slow collapse. Diminishing govt. services in the form of libraries closing, deteriorating roads, and most troubling, a general acceptance of these things without the understanding of what they mean.

Regarding Community:
We've got great neighbors. Anyone who's thinking about powering down their lifestyle needs to realize that the people you live closest to will either make or break you. And don't forget, good fences really do make good neighbors.

Regarding Quality of Life:

I definitely don't want to pull a plow. People who envision that as the natural outcome of the ongoing collapse should be heartened to know that it isn't.

The more people in your community who are producing food, the less food they each have to produce individually. Working smart further reduces the amount of labor you have to put in. Two foot raised bed gardens can often out produce a traditional furrowed row. Incorporate animals into your operation and they will actually help you produce food.

Living a slower, sustainable kind of life can actually be quite enjoyable. I've found that I'd much prefer spend the day throwing dirt than being entombed in an office in some infantilizing, dehumanizing corporation.

By PlaydoPlato (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

Dunc, I didn't think I did say that - in fact, I don't think I talked about how the technology was lost at all.


Zuska, I'm sorry, btw, if you feel you are being condescended to here. I certainly don't intend that - perhaps because your style is to frame larger questions through personal language "I get to be hitched to the plow" - I actually have had a hard time figuring out when you are speaking personally and when you are speaking of larger issues - but that problem is probably mine in large part. I apologize.


Much of this was predicted by Charles Galton Darwin (grandson of Charles the Evolutor), in a pre-WWII book called The Next Million Years. Though he didn't offer a timeline, he forecast that reaching the limits of fossil fuels and easily mined ores would at some point force society to return to a pre-industrial level, where it would remain until natural selection would transform the human species into something else. He was, we can now see, an optimist.

The last time we had a really wide-scale collapse was the Black Death (roughly 1/3 of Europe, maybe 1/2 of Asia, unknown in Africa, apparently no effect in the Americas). That was rough and scary, but affected only population, not resources, so the rebuild was relatively easy and in some ways an improvement.

Before that, maybe the biggie was the climate shock of 535-536, apparently due to a volcanic blast in what is now the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java (see Daniel Keys, Catastrophe: A Quest for the Origins of the Modern World). Again, though the impact was global, most areas were able to reconstruct after a generation or three.

Other collapses, however large, were localized. Either there were no ripples (Easter Island) or they presented opportunities for less-affected neighboring societies to invade or expand (e.g, US growth after Europe tore itself apart in WWI).

The coming unpleasantness differs significantly from those preceding:

* Non-renewable resources are disappearing - you know the list.
* Renewable ones (forests, soil, fisheries...) are being scoured to the point where restoration will take centuries.
* The wars guaranteed to accompany resource depletion will multiply the damage incalculably.
* We have accumulated a huge mass of long-lived toxic wastes, including radioisotopes, presently contained only by continuing effort. Once those get loose... well, yuck.
* And never before has there been a collapse starting with a population over 6.5 billion (or more). Considered sociologically, epidemiologically, or ecologically, the synergistic effects are likely to make the bubonic-plague era seem relatively utopian.

None of which stops me from planting fruit trees, organizing against the current wars, or talking up contraception whenever opportunity allows. It's not that I think our problems (gee, I didn't even mention greenhouse effects) are humanly soluble, it's just that my self-image won't allow me to go down without resisting every way I can.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

Side point that you might be able to shed light on, as long as we're talking about zombie cannibal apocalypse: I'm reading this book Origin of Species by some Darwin guy, and in it he claims that the "savages" of Tierra del Fuego eat old ladies during times of famine because old ladies aren't as useful as dogs. While I totally agree that old ladies aren't very useful, except for that one dude I know who's into old lady porn, which is totally weird but seems like it ought to work out well both for him and for some old lady somewhere, Darwin's claim struck me as preposterous. I don't suppose you anything about that?

You write "some collapses are better than others."

2. Crime rates go up and services like police protection are less available or privatized - one universal features of collapsed socities is that they are more violent... it tends to mean more street violence, robbery, rape, and murder, along with sometimes for-profit kidnapping.

Why in Rwanda and not Iceland?

"For a long time, the Soviet Union was able to rely on energy exports to allow them to pay for food on foreign markets, but when energy prices collapsed, there were not enough farmers left to grow food for the population, and the government could not hold. "

Complete bullshit. USSR produced enough food to feed everybody. There were problems with distributing it, however. Also, meat was scarce, but you can live without it. After the collapse of USSR there were no food shortages exactly because there was enough food.

Small-scale food production helped, of course, but it was not critical. I lived in Russia back then, and we had our own vegetable garden. We mostly grew apples, cucumbers, tomatoes (and yes, I know how to pickle them) and a little of potatoes. We could have lived without them.

In modern economies you don't need more than 2-3% people working on agriculture to produce food for other 98%.

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

Dunc, I didn't think I did say that - in fact, I don't think I talked about how the technology was lost at all.

Sorry, my misinterpretation.

When I speak of "collapse" I mean population collapse. Energy supply collapse, economic collapse, collapse of social support networks, etc., are ancillary & precursorial. When populations exceed carrying capacity, they collapse. Human population exceeds carrying capacity sans fossil fuels by an unprecedented degree among large vertebrates. Human population collapse is inevitable. QED. Who survives population collapse will be random, if anyone survives it. Attempting to live "sustainably" may be morally commendable but it won't avert human population collapse nor will it provide any survival advantage when collapse occurs, as it must.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink


Great stuff. I've been forwarding your columns to my wife and college-age daughter who find that you speak to them of these issues in a way that my own writings can't. Good work.

I've been involved in a dialogue on another discussion board regarding the on-the-ground manifestations of collapse, particularly how we might deal with lack of heating oil in the middle of a New England winter. My thoughts were that our now mature second-growth forests would be rapidly depleted by desperate people just looking to keep warm, sterilize water, and cook food. I wonder if you or anyone else is aware of any "modern" historical analysis of this type of behavior during a collapse?

Chris R.
The Localizer Blog

Hey Alex,

WRT cannibalism: it appears that cannibalism was common enough for our recent paleolithic ancestors that we evolved some protective mechanisms against prion disease.

Mead, Simon et al., "Balancing Selection at the Prion Protien Gene Conistent with Prehistoric Kuru-like Epidemics," Science 300:640-643 (2003).

By Edward Bryant (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

This is a fascinating discussion. Cultures around the world value education and label physical work as drudgery. This partly evolved because (in the past) you would do the work and so much of it would be lost because of weather, insects, etc, etc. So farming and manual labor was considered "thankless work". Now with all our knowledge, fungi, bacteria, small scale irrigation, animal husbandry to name just a few, even when we have to go back to growing our own food, we will not be so helpless as humans were in the past. So that is one point that makes the future "better" than low energy life in the past. I actually look to the Amish as a guide. I don't follow the religious part of it but I think their ideas of valuing hard work, modesty (something we have completely lost in our culture) low environmental impact, simple, no consumer lifestyle is to be emulated. They are an example that you can be happy living in sync with nature and living with less.
Attitude is important. The task at hand is daunting, there is no doubt about it. (This is a glass half empty lecture) I don't think any of us (Sharon's old readers) have any illusions about the odds and how ugly things can/could get. I am at the point where, I get the odds and the ugliness (Iactually am more pessimistic than Sharon and would say that we will be completely out of oil before 50 years) but dwelling on it gets me nowhere. All I can do is prepare one step at a time. I am not living the lowest energy life I can live but I am making incremental steps mentally and physically in that direction.

Just what I wuz gonna say, Karen. The Amish are not run into the ground by the age 60. They have very good lives.

The farming life has been held in abhorrence since the ancient days, and people felt free to abuse and exploit the peasants they depended on. Part of the disease of empire, I figure...

There is no reason to live without glass jars, is there? Even the ancients knew how to make glass. So why don't we simplify the process while using modern sophistication so that high quality glassmaking can survive? Same with contraception. Zuska, if this is what you want to go on, then encourage your colleagues to do a project on the side, into the public domain, that improves on herbal contraception, whether ingested or in a sponge (the ancient Egyptians used vinegar, surely something better can be used). And herbal abortifacents exist, let's figure out with the help of modern science how to make them safer and more effective. So much neat stuff to do! Scientists, stop serving the empire full time and carve out bits of space to help the rebel forces! :-D

I like Karen and Vera.

But will you guys quit reinventing the wheel.

Quit chipping out flint pessaries *flinch* and I'm a guy.

Find a pregnant lady, a pregnant horse, a bucket, a sunny spot and tah dah....The Pill.

Or just lower the pH to about 3 when ovulating like the Egyptians told you. Normal girl range, deadly for swimmers.

"There is no reason to live without glass jars, is there? Even the ancients knew how to make glass."

You answered your own question. It has been an interesting week and proof again that once a cataloging collections curator always a cataloging collections curator.

The entire back stock from a turn of the century to 1942 drug store got stuffed in a leaky pigeon/rat/roach infested room of an old fallow building near my office so of course they called me to "make it disappear".

Nothing evil or hazardous, just the turned contents of a couple hundred patent medicine bottles that I am properly legally emptying and giving a good clean (the labels are gone alas).

I stuck a 1914 glass lab bottle on the mantle for a moment while sorting, only to realize I had placed it next to a 2000 year old Sepphorean glass decanter.....twins.

The more things change the.. well you get the point.

I think we are going to be okay even if we need to rebuild the Jacksonian orangery and put sheep back on the White House lawn.

I may send Sharon a few gallon amber glass upjohn bottles if I can overcome my own acquisitiveness. Heee heee heee mine mine mine.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

Sharon, I'm new to your blog so please forgive/direct me if you have already talked about this, but I wonder if you would comment on contemporary end-of-the-world depictions in pop culture, like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the movie Children of Men, or the book World Made by Hand, etc. Are the more terrifying scenes in these stories (especially The Road) what you're trying to steer us away from imagining? What role do you think they play in our approach to these problems as a society?

In practical terms, if you could approach the project of some kind of voluntary, managed decline, you should be able to keep the good stuff like lowered infant mortality, printing presses and egalitarianism going.

That "lowered infant mortality" is a direct function of some pretty intense industrial infrastructure, notably water purification/distribution and vaccine production. Your chances of vaccine production in a deindustrialized society are in the slim to none range. The odds of retaining pure water systems are less crisp but still not good in the absence of mechanical power systems and a chemical industry.

And did I mention other communicable diseases? Being well off in a 17th-century sort of way didn't change the odds of dying of things like pneumonia that we mostly consider annoyances today. Less than 100 years ago communicable diseases were the main causes of death by a large margin; knowing the germ theory of disease is not a great deal of help when you don't have a chemical industry based on stainless steel.

Lower the agricultural productivity of the average farmer, increase the infant mortality, and shorten the adult lifespan through communicable diseases (and ask Amy Tuteur about the maternal death rate absent late-20th-century medicine) and you have a society where a woman's reproductive capacity is a lot more valuable to the tribe than many of her other abilities we value today.

When the tribe is doing well to maintain its population even with every uterus running at capacity, you may find that reproductive choice gets a whole lot less respect.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

Good points D.C. Sessions. Don't forget later fertility due to poor nutrition. Good call on constant respiratory infections from non-circulating unfiltered air. TB is gonna explode in the thousands of buildings and homes with windows that were never built to open.

Oh and you forgot the parasites. Mmmmmm parasites.

If we really hit the century reset button I've got the bottles and my own still. I guess I'm ready to be the patent medicine king of Hooterville.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

Adding to Rachelle's comment above: I am also surprised by the post-apocalyptic settings in many children's books and movies. Are we subconciously preparing our children for an unpredictable future?

Good call on constant respiratory infections from non-circulating unfiltered air. TB is gonna explode in the thousands of buildings and homes with windows that were never built to open.

Did you know that prior to diphtheria antitoxin in the late 19th century, diphtheria alone killed one in ten children before the age of ten in New York City?

Hey, even with 21st century medicine, HIV is well on its way to depopulating sub-Saharan Africa. Take away antibiotics and antivirals, and how long do you think it will be before STDs are back as one of the primary population limiters? Even with condoms being handed out in bulk on college campuses, syphilis is back to a very high incidence -- take away the antibiotics and we can expect PID to make some serious dents in the overall fertility stats.

At which point, of course, we're also back to widespread premium prices for women who have been kept in purdah to guarantee their virginity.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

So what makes a comeback (absent my lucrative quackery) in a non industrial 21st century medical future?

You have projected the return of Victorian (or mormon) secks. But what should Sam Drucker stock?

my bets are;

1. Lots of alcohol based antiseptics

2. vinegar

3. carbolic

4. boric acid

5. copper pots and pipes

6. high glaze tile

7. glass/ceramics

8. steam heaters

9. pain killers

10. quicklime

11. peroxide

12. sulfonamide synthesis doesn't take much of a lab so maybe sulfa powder?

Your turn D.C. Sessions. What do you see on the shelves?

By Prometheus (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

Your turn D.C. Sessions. What do you see on the shelves?

Mercury salts, for one -- don't knock good old mercurachrome.

Chloramphenicol has its problems but it's particularly good against typhoid, which we can expect to make a comeback.

As SBM reminds us, ether makes a total difference for even what we consider minor surgery.


Turpentine- and sulfur- based salves (they never really went away, but they'll be back in spades.) Don't forget the lice.

Beeswax, both standing alone and as an ingredient in other goods.


By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

I think we will see backyard grown opium based pain killers and we need some way of putting people out for surgery like chloroform or ether. Not the most wonderful methods but better than nothing when your appendix ruptures.

Lots of good comments - DC, Prometheus - I agree with all of the above - sulfa and chloramphenicol (not ideal) are likely to be viable. Vaccines, as I understand it aren't at all out of the question - innoculation for smallpox preceeded fossil fuels. They are likely to be more primitive and have some of the side effects people actually claim vaccines have now ;-). Not all of them will be viable, of course.

We don't go back to being pre-Semmelweiss, and with doable anaesthesia we should be able to do a primitive c-section with surviving mothers (mostly). Clean water is pretty doable in some place if the worst climate outcomes don't occur, and if we can get over our habit of flushing. My guess is that will be highly locally variable - and probably require high levels of authority. Oral rehydration fluids are viable.

But honestly, all of this is about how fast and hard it goes down, and what we piggyback onto our infrastructure - it is true that some children die because there aren't any oral rehydration fluids or vaccines, but more die because they can't afford them or get to the places that have them. It really depends on how we formulate the project of governance and how we organize ourselves, and at what level.

I also suspect we could piggyback some long term renewables if it was done right - which would be a huge quality of life improvement. But again, it depends on how it plays out.


"Cuba collapsed because the Soviet Union collapsed, and stopped sending oil imports. We know that Cuba lost 1/5th of its energy imports, and the societal structures fell largely apart - people went hungry and started eating fried grapefruit peels because of lack of energy to run its highly technological agricultural system.

"What's interesting about the examples of Cuba is that it is further evidence to suggest that fairly small energy resource shocks can cause fairly serious consequences - 1/5 of all oil shouldn't actually have caused people to starve"

A bit of proofing and fact-checking needed. In the first paragraph 1/5 of energy imports, in the second 1/5 of oil. In the first the consequence is hunger, in the second starvation.

(The consequences did indeed include some hunger and malnutrition, but I haven't heard suggestions of starvation before. My understanding is overall consequences in health terms were positive with reduced deaths from diabetes, heart disease, cancer and all causes (Franco et. al., 2007 Am. J. Epidem.)

None of this takes away from your core point of consequences depending on preparedness and reactions. I would score Cuba low for preparedness and v. high for reactions.

By José Marti (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

I'm dumb.


We go to all this effort to sustain reproduction and for what?

A barn full of cretins that we can't watch because we can't turn our heads due to giant goiters.

How do you do fin de siecle sutures without iodine?

My worst-case-scenario-fu is weak. Help me practice.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

Jose, absolutely correct - my errors. I meant 1/5 oil, and I shouldn't have said "starvation" - I meant not that people had starved to death, but that their hunger had been sufficiently acute that there was a great deal of suffering, but that was very imprecise of me.

Prometheus - I would think that transport of seaweed from the oceans should be pretty viable in the longer term - you can even farm dulse.


"Prometheus - I would think that transport of seaweed from the oceans should be pretty viable in the longer term"

I Don't.

We will be cooking seaweed down for soda which should have been on our lists.
Phosphorus is gone so...
No soda no clean bandages.

Start taking the word transport out of your calculations. Our entire transport infrastructure is based on long haul trucking which will be the first thing to price itself out of existence.

That's the problem with vaccines. They aren't immunity kevlar they just make you resistant. Unless they can be made by the multi millions and distributed before they spoil they, like antibiotics, don't do much good.

Vaccines and antibiotics aren't petro heavy industries but the firebreaks of herd immunity that prevent epidemics are.

"Clean water is pretty doable in some place if the worst climate outcomes don't occur, and if we can get over our habit of flushing."

Yea, well sorry but you are going to need a shovel and a lote of lime from Mr. Drucker because a house with a composting toilet is a mausoleum in an epidemic world.

Flush toilets and sewage systems have saved more lives than vaccines ever will. Why not build a nice cistern and reinstall the American Standard?

Or just build an outhouse and use that quicklime for a less depressing purpose.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

Prometheus, the lime isn't necessary in properly composted humanure - I don't think the the current model composting toilets are nearly as good as the carefully made bucket models, actually. The flush toilet works well because of what it does, not because it is a flush toilet - that is, it separates us from our excrement and carries away from human dwellings. This can be done other ways - not easily.

I'm aware our current transport infrastructure is built on long haul trucking, but that doesn't mean we won't have non-trucked transport - people have been moving things around the world for a long, long, long time - and light things, shipped dry are fairly easy to transport - most of the cities that have existed in the long term exist because of their ports, which will be more, not less important.

It would make a lot more sense to deal with phosphorous through humanure composting and bone composting - both artificial nitrogen and mined phosphorous will have to be replaced with human manures, handled wisely, or in the longest term, we won't eat. So we might as well start handling our outputs better soonest, and figure out how to do it without a wild excess of disease spreading.

Aaron and I actually spent a good bit of research time for _A Nation of Farmers_ analysing the persistence of both phosphorous and nitrogen in human urine and feces - and they are extremely persistent, if correctly handled. Having built up a dependence on these excesses, we've put enough of it to hold a large population for a long time, again, if wisely managed.

Don't get me wrong - I don't assume we will manage them wisely, but we technically could ;-).


Vaccines, as I understand it aren't at all out of the question - innoculation for smallpox preceeded fossil fuels.

Smallpox is a very special case. The fact is that it's much milder if contracted cutaneously, and of course Jenner's discovery of its cousin vaccinia made for a very simple alternative to variolation.

None of the others are remotely so easy to immunize against. Polio, just to name one (assuming we don't wipe it out before turning off the lights) required a major research program to produce a usable killed-virus vaccine and the live-attenuated one (better for spotty coverage) is even harder. Pertussis vaccine is really ugly because of the bacterial fractions that you have to separate out.

Oh, and on the subject of eradication: I hope everyone appreciates that smallpox is only a few codons away from a common animal virus. It happened in nature before and there's no reason it can't happen again.

Prometheus: transport isn't a yes/no issue. All through the 18th century and well into the 19th transport across and between continents was widespread with nothing but renewable resources. More expensive? Sure. No California strawberries on Toronto tables in January, sorry. But vaccines and other high-value, low-bulk, low-mass goods will always be candidates.

In fact, it's pretty unlikely that we'll completely lose the ability to ship goods rapidly -- it'll just be more expensive to send things cross-country by alcohol-powered transport so low-value goods won't be worth it.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

"I hope everyone appreciates that smallpox is only a few codons away from a common animal virus. It happened in nature before and there's no reason it can't happen again."

It's true that monkeypox is genetically similar to human smallpox, and that monkeypox can be vectored to humans not only by monkeys but even by prairie dogs. It's also true that monkeypox could mutate into a form more virulent to humans, resembling human smallpox. The thing is, tho, that in order to propagate, some minimum population density is required. When human population collapse comes, it will happen with such rapidity, fragmenting & isolating relict populations so thoroughly, that the possibility of epidemic transmission will be nil. It's waterborne disease that will be the great killer, not viral epidemics.

I wouldn't be worrying too much about anesthesia for C sections and other surgeries. It won't prevent gangrene.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

"In fact, it's pretty unlikely that we'll completely lose the ability to ship goods rapidly"

I agree. We will become much more rail dependent. But one of the problems with going from the fine spray of high speed distribution fridge truck to a "you've got to come to the hub" distribution is that it creates new and exiting disease vectors like they have now in sub Saharan Africa.

The tragedy is that in the same pattern where people travel to the vaccine they get exposed to and carry the infection home.

The old timey way of dealing with this was quarantine until you could create a vaccinated ring around the geography and the infected island resolved itself. Like a demo/geographic cyst. I wonder if we have gone too far in our self indulgence to tolerate quarantines again.

They are going to start swabbing at airports, so probably not.

In helpful hints: I type to fast and was too pejorative about the perish-ability of antibiotics....Amoxicillin's listed shelf life is listed to prevent under or over self medicating NOT efficacy. It is at over 99.5% of original potency in a cool dry place after 15 years according to the army and two full courses per household resident is de riguer for any fashionable root cellar/disaster pantry/bomb shelter/fuhrer bunker/kitchen drawer, even without the shuffling footfalls of our zombie overlords on the garden path.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

Fantastic stuff! Does anyone know a website that specializes in looking at what we want and can take with us into the simpler world, and provides the recipes? Recently, I looked into how to make iodine tincture by hand, and could not find much of use... Also, how to make properly dosed thyroid pills from pig thyroid... This was done 80 years ago... where to find the recipe?

It's true that monkeypox is genetically similar to human smallpox, and that monkeypox can be vectored to humans not only by monkeys but even by prairie dogs.

Cowpox is more likely thanks to widespread human contact.

It's also true that monkeypox could mutate into a form more virulent to humans, resembling human smallpox. The thing is, tho, that in order to propagate, some minimum population density is required.

Population density was plenty high enough to not only establish smallpox in a virgin population but maintain it for the last several thousand years, and there's no particular reason to believe that population density will drop seriously below the 18th century level.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

"..there's no particular reason to believe that population density will drop seriously below the 18th century level."

With all due respect, D. C. Sessions, I think that you grossly underestimate the severity of the situation humanity, biodiversity, and the biosphere, faces.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

Oh Lordy, I think I'm starting to get a handle on this preparedness stuff and then a whole new area I hadn't even thought about crops up! Thanks Prometheus & D. C. Sessions. It's amazing how this blog can inform, educate and entertain. Thank-you Sharon.

My uncle used to keep a year's worth of canned goods in the basement, rotated and replenished regularly. I don't but may start building up stocks.

I'm in an excellent inner-ring suburb, living here in part (besides my love of art museums, good libraries, the opera, and other people to talk to) because when we moved here, living in a recycled (read old) house near public transport seemed the lowest-carbon way for our family to live. I have lots of old timey, housewifely, economically worthless (as Sharon has pointed out in another post) skills: child-rearing, gardening, baking, cooking, sewing, crocheting and so forth. Recently I've learned to darn socks. Yet like Zuska, I don't relish the thought of living the life of my even-more-skilled great grandmothers who truly understood and appreciated what the advent of electricity meant in their lives (I know because they told me so).

For a city dweller in the north the big immediate fear, as someone else has mentioned, is the electricity and heat going out in January. My family doesn't have the money for geothermal. Moving to a condo doesn't seem wise. Nor, since we have great community and family here (diligently cultivated), does heading out for the country. So what to do during descent? How to prepare? Can someone point me to blogs on urban resiliency? What are other urban dwellers doing now? (I've no room for chickens.)

Adrian, Sharon has written some posts in the past month or two about how to stay warm without electric heat, that you might find helpful. You could try to find someone in the area who does have chickens and is willing to sell you eggs, grow what you have room for, look for a local community garden or CSA (try http://www.localharvest.org/). Also somewhere in the archives, she's talked about how viable she believes urban dwelling can be during descent.

Thanks, NM. I do grow herbs and berrries, and subscribe to a CSA grower. I'll hunt up those posts you mention.

I guess I'm also in a way worrying about the whole project of urban life. We are so dependent on "the grid," which is totally beyond our individual control, and prior to the 20th cent. cities were such centers of disease and general ill-health. All that crowding and little-to-no sanitation. If descent means returning to those kinds of favela-like conditions, does one make the right choice by staying? So far I'm committed to working to help "green" urban life.

prior to the 20th cent. cities were such centers of disease and general ill-health.

I hope you aren't under the illusion that rural life was much better.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

D.C. Sessions:

Not in the least: see my comment about my great grandmothers. They lived in the country and sent their children to the city for education and a better life. The way Sharon portrays it, country life can be much better now.

But I've heard that during the early industrial revolution the death rate for rural migrants to the cities in search of work was something like 50% because they caught new diseases. Of course that suggests what they were willing to risk to escape grinding poverty.

I've also heard that, a. poor country men signed up for the British navy in the 18th century because at least they'd get enough food, maggoty though it was; b. in this country (USA) most recruits during WW I were from the country and most were malnourished.

Women everywhere had the dangers of childbirth.

So I guess the conclusion is that, unless one is a member of the sheltered elites, it doesn't much matter where one lives during the descent? My city has a good water supply and isn't on a low-lying coast.

"in this country (USA) most recruits during WW I were from the country and most were malnourished."

I hear that a lot and while it is true many people take it to mean underfed.

They actually suffered from a variety of mineral and vitamin deficiencies(Rural). We had a percentage approaching a quarter that were 4F whereas England was almost half largely due to respiratory infections related to working conditions(Urban Industrial).

What made us hale and hearty and added 4 inches to our average height (not hormones in meat) was a federal enrichment program by a saint of the flying spaghetti monster named Benjamin Ricardo Jacobs, Ph.D. .

He figured out what micronutrients were being lost in the milling process of flour, pasta etc. in the 20's and just put them back in.

Since then we have been war ready beasties....grrrr.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

#67 Sharon

Whoops, I completely ignored Sharon's potty talk.


âPrometheus, the lime isn't necessary in properly composted humanure â

Unless somebody is infected with typhoid fever and you would rather somebody didnât become everybody until you can get some Cipro from Mr. Drucker (should be on the Thursday train unless it gets hijacked at Bugtussle).

Remember we are spit balling slow collapse here.

âThe flush toilet works well because of what it does, not because it is a flush toilet - that is, it separates us from our excrement and carries away from human dwellings. This can be done other ways - not easily.â

Yes, Sharon but I don't own any slaves and I know King Minos had a flush toilet but what I meant was the little present from a Scottish watchmaker in 1775. The s curve water seal. Sheer brilliance.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

I've just been reading about what life was like after the collapse of Argentina in 1999-2002. (How many of us were even aware of it?) www.silverbearcafe.com/private/10.08/tshtf1.html Keep in mind that the bog was written in 2006, after things had supposedly become better. The middle class had been wiped out by "wealth transfer," many died of malnutrition or oppression and daily life was MUCH more dangerous.
Part Three particularly got to me, as he describes how they got used to living as people in First World countries just don't expect ever to have to endure. By "got used to" he does not mean that it became less stressful, just that they accepted it as their reality.
Particularly interesting is his description of the school class in which his teacher used pyramid diagrams to show the students what was happening and they suddenly understood that the lives they had expected were now impossible.
Shivani in WI

"Vaccines and antibiotics aren't petro heavy industries but the firebreaks of herd immunity that prevent epidemics are."

You need to be able to manufacture heat-stable epitopes. There are currently a great many ways to do this: transgenic milk animals, recombinant vaccines with the epitope coupled to a highly stable protein (e.g. adjuvant-type bacterial proteins), recombinant epitopes expressed on a whole-bacteria ghost. Personally I'd go with a humanized yeast recombinant coupled to an Archaeal or Deinococcus protein, those things can take a direct hit from a nuclear warhead and come back smiling. Plus, you can grow the yeast in the nearest convenient beer cellar. Making the DNA would not be so bad: before we had thermocyclers, we did short 20-30X cycles using water and oil baths at different temps, and it was the job of the poor tech to move the test tubes around. Transfection is easy-peasy, even with the fairly antique methods we'd have available.

Clarification and prep can be done with diatomaceous earth filters. Final filter through cellulose--yep, layers of sterile paper. It's fancy, overpriced paper, currently in use to filter modern vaccines & biotech drugs, but should not be an impossible challenge to make, and there are plenty of manual pumps available to create the pressure gradients that drive most purification processes.

Antibiotics are MUCH easier to make, even without electricity.

The reason we do not currently have shelf-stable vaccines that keep well and can be widely distributed is because as it is, manufacturers have to be pre-paid by governments to produce any at all. The cost-benefit is not there. And countries in equatorial lands with poor distribution networks cannot afford to pay the bribe--errrr, guarantee the up-front payment. There's no technical reason though, and some literature on the subject.

[/biotech process geek]

"The s curve water seal. Sheer brilliance."

Alas, no, prometheus. Sheer brilliance can only be reserved for systems that get manure to the soil. Getting it into the waters does not deserve any accolades at all. Yuck.

Protection against prion disease would equally well help to survive eating other primates. It needn't imply cannibalism.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

I observe that Indian physicians of 2000 years ago had (very dangerous) herbal anesthetics, cataract surgery, plastic surgery techniques to create new earlobes and noses, and techniques for repair of gut wounds (for which they clearly understood the need for cleanliness), though, lacking microscopes, they had no germ theory as such. There is no reason that basic medicine should vanish in parallel with globalized industrialism, if and when the latter disappears.

Would all pharmaceuticals vanish? They shouldn´t. Everyone from medieval Arab pharmacists to ancient Egyptian perfumers made complex botanical extracts to relatively precise specifications. Basic chemistry would have been well within their capabilities. The Romans had standardized glassware; classical Greeks had invented the vending machine and music-playing automata. Do we think those artisans would have been incapable of manufacturing basic modern-style lab equipment, had it been requested of them? I will not claim that complete synthesis of taxol would be practical in a non-industrialized lab, but extraction of thyroid hormone or penicillin would be entirely feasible.

Sheer brilliance can only be reserved for systems that get manure to the soil.

With or without pathogens?

Getting it into the waters does not deserve any accolades at all.

So what's your plan for keeping fecal pathogens out of groundwater and thus drinking water?

Once you get past the single farming family living far from others, there's this little problem of collecting the waste. Once upon a time (and many places until this very day) that was handled by tossing chamberpots into the street. If that bothered you, you could pay someone to come around with the honeywagon and collect -- but a lot of people have better uses for the money and the results aren't that much better for you if your neighbors still use the windows. Tragedy of the commons and all that.

Using pipes to automate the process of removing waste to where it can be treated to make it both harmless and useful (composted) is, of course, optional. There's been a lot of discussion here about the dignity and joy of manual labor, and I suppose we could also bring back the honey wagons and the jobs that they produce as an alternative to municipal sewer systems -- but personally, I admit to reservations about (among other things) the health of the people doing that job.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

Composting kills most pathogens. Human excrement & urine are too valuable as fertilizer for it to be wasted. Rather than paying someone to haul it away, those who need it for fertilizer can pay to take it. Or trade it for food or rent, as was done in east Asia until about a century ago.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

Composting kills most pathogens.

Sorry, I call BS. Unless you invest in isolating your compost, you're going to get leaching into groundwater and thus disease transmission. Those isolation systems have economies of scale that strongly favor concentration rather than dispersion.

Human excrement & urine are too valuable as fertilizer for it to be wasted.

Straw man. Nobody is seriously proposing dumping municipal sewage into surface water when there are much better alternatives.


That said, we're still presuming that people aren't going to follow the path of (stupid) least resistance and toss chamberpots out the window. There are certainly plenty of places today where people do exactly that despite the extremely widespread knowledge of the consequences. Historical examples abound, too -- Leviticus is quite clear on some pretty good hygenic practices, but Christian Europe took pride in rejecting them.

Never underestimate the power of rationalization and denial.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

"Nobody is seriously proposing dumping municipal sewage into surface water when there are much better alternatives."
That happens now, every time a hard rain causes the sewage treatment plants to overflow ... straight into the river. Despite being a violation of state permits. If there's less money to maintain infrastructure, seems likely to happen more.

DC, I'm calling BS - are you serious? Haven't you ever lived in a city waterway? On a good day, you can sometimes see the turds floating down in the leak areas in the Charles and the Hudson, etc...

As for composting - yes potentially it could contaminate groundwater. I assume you've heard of septic systems, where we deliberately put them in the ground... ;-).


There is such a habit on this site of trying to dispose of other people´s opinions, or their criticisms of one´s own, by yelling "straw man," usually without any justification whatsoever to show that the charge is warranted. DC Sessions above at pleast provides a single-sentence explanation, but it is not one that makes any sense. The fact of the matter is that plenty of phosphorus and nitrogen from treated sewage flows into the ocean around the U.S. every day, and that from the perspective of land-dwelling animals, this is waste. You may say nobody is "seriously proposing" it - no, they´re doing it!

The fact of the matter is that plenty of phosphorus and nitrogen from treated sewage flows into the ocean around the U.S. every day, and that from the perspective of land-dwelling animals, this is waste. You may say nobody is "seriously proposing" it - no, they´re doing it!

Of course they do -- and they also toss chamberpots out the window.

The fact remains that the investment needed to convert existing municipal sewage systems to well-behaved recovery ones is trivial compared to the cost of converting to dispersed, everybody-does-their-own systems. High-density housing doesn't lend itself to septic tanks, after all. There's a reason they're not allowed in most cities.

One reason cities can't readily justify proper conversions is that petroleum-based nitrates and mined phosphorus are dirt cheap so there's no market for the results [1] -- but the premise for the discussion is that those will no longer be the case. Milwaukee and Phoenix (to name two that I know of) actually operate their sewage systems as profit centers. Sort of like the smelters that fought for years to avoid cleaning up their emissions, only to find out that doing so was a money-maker.

[1] Another reason that cities don't use municipal sewage for agriculture is that people still dump toxic waste (especially heavy metals) down the drain. Much less common now than it once was, and it'll be even less common in the future as the economics change some more.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 20 Feb 2010 #permalink

This was fun and informative but now is becoming some kind of generalized roundhouse bar fight.


I get why you don't like strawman accusations so be fair as well and don't start post hoc ergo propter hoc and the false correlatives.

To wit:

"The fact of the matter is that plenty of phosphorus and nitrogen from treated sewage flows into the ocean around the U.S. every day,"

Treated sewage utilizes bacterial and algal populations that consume the phosphorus, nitrogen and other by-products of organic decay as well as competing pathogens out of the medium. That is the whole point. The origin of pollutant phosphorus, nitrogen etc, is over fertilization run-off from drainage systems, not sewage systems.

You know that.

Just like Sharon knows broken sewer pipes don't invalidate the benefits of urban sewage treatment any more than the dozens of things that can go wrong with a septic system or leech field invalidates those systems. Calling BS on BS.

Now let's lighten up and get back to the atavistic game of zombie apocalypse medicine cabinet (thank you Lora for the interesting data about antibiotic manufacture).

I'll start.

How complex and petro-heavy is bleach manufacture?


I'm thinking about water purification as well as cleaning because the poop talk has made me want to boil everything I own.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 20 Feb 2010 #permalink

Agriculture indeed has a lot of runoff to answer for - we run a lot of food though cows on its way to us - but it is simply not true that no nutrients from human waste, including nominally "treated" waste in practice, end up in the ocean. To say that this happens is not post hoc or false anything. I could tell you things about my city´s sewer system that would make your hair stand on end.

While we are tossing around the vocabulary, DC above seems to offer us a false dichotomy between American-style sewerage and chamberpots emptied "out the window." There are, of course, more ways to handle these things than have been done in the West.

I think in this case most of us are desperate for a business-as-usual solution to avoid serious cognitive dissonance. It is simply a fact that essential nutrients are cycled through animal feces, and that far too many nutrients are run through the feces of six billion large animals to remove from the ecosystem without consequence. It is also true that shit is icky and gross, and that IF AND ONLY IF it is carelessly or inappropriately handled it will spread disease. We would all really like to have a system where we can just push the handle and send that stuff "away," without having to think about it, look at it, or, gawd forbid, touch it, and without reducing the carrying capacity of our environment. In the long run, though, I question whether that is possible, as the use of sewage sludge for fertilizer neither reclaims all the nutrients nor avoids health risks of its own. No, I really don´t want to use a composting toilet - but future generations may have a real need to get over that kind of squeamishness.

Re: disinfectant manufacture

There are multiple ways to do this. Did you want to
-manufacture actual hypochlorite to be sold in bulk
-manufacture highly concentrated H2O2 to be sold in bulk
-create family-sized disinfectant devices using ordinary household chemicals
-large scale ozone disinfection
-any scale UV disinfection
-treat groundwater in general for pathogens and solids removal
-treat actual solid sewage for pathogen removal
-manufacture medical-grade high level disinfectant

Different methods for all of these goals. Hypochlorite would probably be my last choice because, and municipal water folks rarely will admit this, many bacteria in and around major cities are already chlorine-resistant.

I have this burning question that I wasn't quite sure where to ask.This post seems to be the best place.Since we are or may soon be at peak phosphorous I need to know if my current usage of animal bones is returning this element to the soil.We raise all of our meat;goat,lamb and several poultry species.After every shred of meat is eaten by something,the bones go into the compost or are left on the pasture if they were given to the pastured chickens.Dead animals are composted or buried in the garden,very deeply.I have no means or desire to grind the bones into bone meal.The name of my garden is The Boneyard!Thanks,Lisa


One of my thoughts was small scale manufacture for water storage rather than purification of an already contaminated supply.


Sludge is a whole different can of worms and needs its own thread where we talk about algae treatment and bio diesel and char treatment and methane and......Sharon can restart that one as a separate roll or "What is collapse II" but we are up to 97 posts already. I think it is a worthwhile topic but probably needs it's own thread.


The answer is yes and no. Bones have a lot of phosphorus in them but the release is very very slow and dependent on things like the ambient level of moisture, length of growing season etc, (the rate of microbial breakdown).

Rose growers know, for instance, you are doing nothing by mealing the roses more than once every three years.

Keep doing what you are doing you are doing and over time there will be an accumulated sources release that will provide a sort of on demand calcium and phosphorus level in your soil.

Good job.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 21 Feb 2010 #permalink

Prometheus,thank you.I've been doing that for about ten years now,thinking that it must somehow be beneficial.

We live on generally northwest facing terraces above a small river on the Colorado Plateau, just upstream of the mouth of this river, a tributary of the Rio de San Juan. Our irrigation water comes from a long established acequia (ditch) above and across the road from the property, which heads on a different river that empties into the San Juan about a kilometer upstream of the mouth of the river at the bottom of the property. We have a septic tank but no longer routinely use it for the disposal of human waste. The leach field of this septic systems is just above the 100 year floodplain of the river. There is coliform contamination of the San Juan (hopefully not from our system) that is probably more a consequence of cattle grazing than it is from poorly functioning septic systems.

We generally don't use our septic system anymore because we now compost our wastes and use the compost as fertilizer & soil amendment. We have a plywood box that is open on the back side and has a hole & toilet seat installed on top. Excrement & sometimes my wife's pee (my son & I usually pee outdoors), along with used toilet paper go into a five gallon plastic bucket inside this box. Afterwards straw, peat moss, grass hay or other organic materials, kept nearby in another bucket, covers the waste. When the bucket is full, it is emptied into the 4'x4'x4' compost heaps behind the garden, which are constructed of cinder blocks, and the contents covered with composting materials. The compost isn't turned but is transferred to the next bin after several months, after its bulk has been reduced by about half and thermogenic decomposition has ceased. In the next bin it is allowed to rot to completion for a few months longer, before being taken by wheelbarrow & applied to the garden & orchard. The bottoms of the compost bins are dirt. It's possible that coliform bacteria & other potential pathogens leach into the soil. However, it is several hundred meters lateral distance to the river and tens of vertical meters. There is lush thickets of Rhus, Ribes & Forestiera, under a canopy of Fremont cottonwood, between the bins & the river. I doubt very much that these practices contribute to coliform contamination of the river systems. Perhaps they do but if so, such contamination is minimal compared to contamination due to arroyo runoff from grazing lands.

This system may not be perfect but some such system must be the wave of the future. Human excrement is simply too valuable for fertilizer for it to be wasted. If widespread contamination of surface waters by coliform bacteria & other pathogens becomes a problem, people may simply have to resort to boiling or otherwise rendering their water supply potable. I have a Katadyn filter, for instance, that filters to .2 microns. Traditionally, Chinese peasant farmers boiled water for tea, as the preferred method of avoiding waterborne disease.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 24 Feb 2010 #permalink

Wow, that is truly commendable that you are going to that effort. There will need to be other alternatives, though, for people who don't have the necessary space or distance from neighbors. Another Asian custom was for farmers to build roadside toilets to encourage passers-by to donate fertilizer. I could see house-to-house collection of compostable wastes in urban environments - not a nice job to be sure but if well organized, surely no worse than the portapotty-vacuuming job recently featured on that Undercover Boss show after the Super Bowl. In truth, we don't actually now have a system where "we" don't have to handle excrement - we have a system where successful people don't have to handle it, and the people who do are invisible.

I am, of course, aware that urine is normally sterile and if one grows any living plants at all there is no reason it must be fearfully processed - just pee in a bucket, dilute and dump. My DH flatly refused to do this, but if we were ever actually depending on our garden for basic nutrition I bet he would start to sing a different tune.