Unprecedented warnings from the scientific community indicate that the planet's ecosystems are stressed near the point of collapse; business as usual is no longer possible, and we have little time left to respond. Civilization is also approaching a nexus of social crises. All of these problems result from the nature of capitalism, and we cannot expect solutions from political leaders or corporations. Therefore, this author is soliciting advice from experts and from anyone who might have suggestions as to what measures can people of limited means undertake to ease their transition into a post-petroleum world. Submissions will be published in a book, the profits of which will be used to inform people and possibly provide grants in order to help people prepare for the coming transition.
1. A Planet in Crisis
2. Business as Usual
3. The Result of Business as Usual
4. An End to Business as Usual
5. Submission Guidelines
A Planet in Crisis
The world's scientific community has issued an unprecedented series of warnings over the past decade.1 They have worked feverishly to assess the state of the planet, and have found that all of the Earth's ecosystems are suffering, with many near the point of collapse. They warn us that we have one generation, or at most two, to remedy this situation.2 Yet even they do not understand how little time we have left. They tell us that business as usual cannot go on. And their assessment goes unheeded.
We are warned that the planet is threatened by global climate change and by ozone depletion. Ice masses in the Arctic and Antarctic are beginning to break up, and species vulnerable to increased UV penetration are diminishing. Skin cancers and eye cataracts are on the increase, as is desertification the world over. Northern species are retreating as warm-loving species expand from equatorial regions to high latitudes, bringing with them diseases once termed tropical. And plant species the world over, including many of our important crop species, are stressed by increased ultraviolet penetration.3
We are already in the middle of the third greatest extinction event in the history of the planet. The extinction rate is from 100 to 1,000 times in excess of the natural rate of extinction.4 The diversity of life on this planet, which is a clear indication of the health of the biosphere and its ability to adapt to change, is severely diminished. Humankind has appropriated fully half of the incipient sunlight on this planet available for photosynthesis, and has put into cultivation virtually all of the arable land on this planet.5 The rest of the biota is forced to make due with the marginal lands which are left, or to scavenge from our refuse.
Modern agriculture is draining the soil of nutrients far faster than they can be replaced, while soils are being eroded wherever they are exposed. Surface water is being diverted to the point that in many riverbeds barely a trickle remains, and groundwater is being pumped out for agricultural and industrial use at rates exceeding the recharge rates many times over.6 The world's fisheries are collapsing.7 Everywhere, supplies of vital resources are being depleted.8
At the other end of the entropy scale, garbage dumps are overflowing. Pollution, heavy metals and manufactured chemicals are tainting the atmosphere, the water, and the ground, entering into food chains everywhere. It is doubtful that there is a person alive today who is not storing manufactured poisons in her or his body.9
This is but a sampling from a myriad of problems associated with conducting business as usual. The world scientific community is warning us that we must deal with these problems now, while there is still time, or these problems will deal with us. Yet few of these scientists know how very little time we have to deal with these problems. We do not have a generation or two. In all likelihood, we have at most a few years.
Within the next 5 to 10 years, our energy base will begin to contract irreversibly. This shrinking energy base will be due to the inevitable peak and decline of global oil production. We currently live in the opulence of the oil age. Each of us has the energy equivalent of at least a dozen slaves to do our work for us, and to pamper us with all of the latest technological comforts. Hydrocarbons are used as feedstock for over 500,000 different products: fertilizers, medicines, plastics, insulation, computers, asphalt, inks & toners, paints, glues, solvents, antiseptics, golf balls, CDs, trash bags, nail polish, detergents, and chewing gum - to name but a few.10 And virtually all of our industrial processes are run by the energy of hydrocarbons.
Hydrocarbons have provided us with a treasure trove of high-quality, easily obtainable energy, from which we could draw at an unlimited rate for so long as the supply lasted. And it is that abundant energy store which has powered all of our technological advances, including the green revolution, making possible a nearly logarithmic growth in human population. When it comes to the bang for the buck, there is nothing to equal oil. One liter of petrol holds as much energy as 1,000 liters of natural gas, 3 kilograms of firewood, or 24 solar panels working all day in sunny Brisbane.11 Oil provides 1.3 to 2.45 times more economic value per kilocalorie than coal.12
Yet we are fast approaching the day when we will have produced all the easily obtainable oil.13 From here on out we must invest increasing amounts of energy to produce oil. In short order, we will reach a day when it will take as much energy to produce (i.e., extract and, ultimately, refine and bring to market) a barrel of oil as we will get out of that barrel of oil. Past this point, the net energy of oil production will fall into the negative range. We will never run out of oil; there will always be some oil in the ground. Oil wells are not abandoned because they dry up - they are abandoned because the net energy production has reached zero.
Nothing has the bang for the buck of oil, and nothing can replace it - either separately or in combination. Ethanol has a net energy value of zero (not accounting for soil and water damage and other costs due to unsustainable agricultural practices) - it is subsidized as a boon to agribusiness.14 Solar energy produces marginal net energy, and solar photovoltaic cells (PVC) are built from hydrocarbon feed stocks. Wind turbines do have an appreciable net energy profile - but the wind is intermittent at best.15
The highly touted hydrogen fuel cells are not an energy source at all, but are more properly termed a form of energy storage. Free hydrogen does not exist on this planet. It requires more energy to break a hydrogen bond than will ever be garnered from that free hydrogen. The current source of hydrogen is natural gas - that is, a hydrocarbon. In the envisioned system of solar PVC & hydrogen fuel cells, every major component of the system, from the PVC to the fuel cells themselves will require hydrocarbon energy and feedstocks. The oil age will never be replaced by a hydrogen fuel-cell economy.16
Coal is abundant, but its net energy profile is poor compared to oil, and will continue to diminish fast. Coal production is extremely harmful to the environment, and burning coal is far dirtier than oil.17 Nuclear power plants are simply too expensive to build, uranium is rare, and the wastes (including decommissioned plants) must be stored and guarded virtually forever.18
Industrial, green revolution-style agriculture is particularly energy intensive. Every calorie of food produced today requires 10 calories of hydrocarbon energy.19 This includes the energy of packaging and shipping to the store, but not the energy of consumers traveling to and from the store, nor the home energy costs of cooking the food. Without hydrocarbons, this planet can only produce enough food to sustain a population of 2.5 billion. The current world population is in excess of 6 billion. In the US, without industrial agriculture, we will only be able to feed 2/3's of our current population.20
Our energy base will soon begin to contract. The planet's resources are being depleted, and we are being faced with a planet in crisis. Business as usual cannot go on.
Business as Usual
Instead of focusing on these critical problems, which threaten to undermine the quality of life on this planet, we have chosen to ignore them. Instead of looking for and implementing answers, we put the bulk of our efforts into denying the very existence of these problems or, failing that, denying that anything needs to be done about them. At most, we shake our heads before continuing with our conspicuous consumption and our push for a global free market.
Neo-classical economists tell us that the market will solve all of our problems. They assure us that pollution, resource depletion, the collapse of ecosystems and the failure of agriculture will produce economic stimulus which will spur the discovery of new resources and the development of new technologies. The market, they say, will maintain equilibrium no matter how much people and the environment have to suffer as a consequence. But we must avoid any impetus towards regulations which might restrict economic growth. They have no clue how economic growth can be maintained with a shrinking energy base, so they blithely deny any possibility of the latter.
The neo-classical economists believe that free market capitalism has proven its supremacy through the collapse of authoritarian communism. Globalization is the endgame of capitalism, pushing for open access to resources throughout the globe while driving down labor costs to provide cheap products and maximum profits. All we have to do to share in the benefits of this supposedly benevolent system is to consume, consume, and consume more.
Yet the power disparity upon which this system is based has been exaggerated to the breaking point. The royalty and the robber-barons of previous eras never dreamed of such a concentration of wealth as that experienced now by the Waltons, the Gates, and the Eisners of the world. In the United States as of 2002, the average CEO made 282 times as much as the average worker.21 And the average worker today in the US is actually making comparatively less than 30 years ago, though worker productivity has increased.22
Outsourcing has given corporations the ability to move jobs to wherever workers can be paid the least, and where their operations will be subjected to the least regulation and the least taxation. White collar workers are no less vulnerable to outsourcing. Even service sector jobs are moving out of the US whenever possible. And to fill the poor paying jobs that remain, corporations are bringing in tens of thousands more immigrants every year. As a result, globalization has become a race to the bottom for the working class, for communities, and for ecosystems throughout the world.
Not only are people in the working class working harder for less pay, they are also receiving fewer benefits than comparatively 30 years ago.23 In the US, consumers are maintaining a record level of personal debt, and personal bankruptcy now exceeds the divorce rate. Meanwhile, our social safety net is being dismantled and our infrastructure is being allowed to decay, where it is not being privatized. Public education has to go begging while the prison industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the country.24
Rugged individualism is the standard of the day, forcing all of us into direct competition. The basic human instinct toward cooperation has been all but forgotten in the mad rush to push everyone else aside. Our society has become atomized; the village green has been replaced by the shopping mall. Open debate and the free communication of ideas and news can now only be found in cyberspace.
Yet, at the same time, true individuality and originality has become suspect. People are encouraged to conform. Cultural distinctions are being lost in the homogenization of the cultures of the globe - what Benjamin Barber called "McWorld."
Much of the public is becoming increasingly bovine, unquestioningly following authority. Critical thinking has been replaced by reactionary impulses, response to emotional appeals, and other substitutes for rational debate. Atomized and removed from direct interaction with the world around them, the overworked populace are largely dependent on the cultural fodder which is tendered to them by the marketplace. It's a diet of mental junk food, blended of anxious fantasy, appeals to consume, fear mongering and quietism, promoted by media industry whose paying advertisers prefer an audience of passive spectators, addicted to entertainment and largely unable to govern their own affairs.
The Result of Business as Usual
None of this should come as a surprise. This is all a natural and foreseeable result of business as usual in a capitalist system. In that system, capital generates profit through the exploitation of labor and resources. So, as capitalism approaches its climax on a global scale, it has to result in an unstable power disparity with the concentration of wealth among a small and exclusive upper class, an impoverished and disempowered working class, bankrupt communities, overstressed ecosystems and a depleted resource base. The only way to avoid this is to do away with capitalism.
Capitalism cannot be reformed. Any attempt to regulate it more fairly, any attempt to reform capitalism - be it monetary reform or any other sort of reform - is destined to fail due to the basic unalterable nature of capitalism. Regulations and reforms may help to level out the playing field for a time, but in the long run capitalism will find a way to circumvent or deregulate any attempt to temper it. Capitalism is a system of exploitation which is ultimately unsustainable.
As such, capitalism is antithetical to democracy. A system is democratic only to the extent that its citizens are equal - in their political rights; in their access to participatory social space; in their opportunities to secure purchasing power without the threat of poverty or asset seizure; and in their recourse to the law, whose equal protection must be guaranteed to everyone if the term "democracy" is to meaningfully apply. Genuine popular sovereignty (the literal meaning of democracy) is sustained by an informed citizenry. Yet capitalism is based upon the exploitation of power disparities, and its smooth operation is maintained by a disempowered, uninformed working class.
Here lies the reason for the failure of democracy in the US. And here is the secret of why our founding fathers chose a system of representative democracy, and why the ratification of the US Constitution was resisted by the public in its day. The framers of the constitution were, without exception, rich white males worried about a popular uprising. Under the draperies of democracy, they designed a political system where decision making power was insulated from the general population and easily controlled by the rich and powerful. This disparity was later heightened by granting a protected status and legal rights to corporations.25
As a result, every war the US has ever fought, every intervention the US has ever sponsored, and every bit of foreign aid the US has ever supplied was undertaken to support the right of the upper class to exploit labor and resources, all under the guise of democracy.
An End to Business as Usual
Business as usual can no longer be allowed to proceed. To go on with business as usual is to promote the collapse of civilization, the destruction of ecosystems, the death of billions of human beings, untold suffering and impoverishment for those who survive, and just possibly the extinction of life on this planet at a level to match or exceed the end of the Permian Era.26 And all this to ease our consciences, as we allow the end play of unbridled greed and ignorance.
We cannot trust our elected leaders to do the right thing, much less our corporations. There is very little time left, and it could very well be impossible at this point to redesign our entire civilization. But we can possibly restructure our own lives and our local communities to survive the transition. This is our duty to generations to come, and to the rest of the biosphere.
But we need options and advice. We need practical suggestions which can be undertaken by individuals, families and small communities. We need guidance on what can be achieved at a local level with limited means. And we need advice on how to achieve this in the most democratic and egalitarian manner possible.
To aid in this, I am here soliciting advice from specialists in various fields, such as permaculture, social ecology, progressive labor, and other disciplines. And I am putting out a call for articles from anyone who feels that she or he has some advice to offer. The topic is: Given the conditions set forth in this paper, what measures can people of limited means undertake to ease their transition into a post-technological world?
The resulting suggestions will be collected, along with this essay, and published. Any profits from this project will be used to educate people about the changes ahead, and hopefully to offer grants in order to help people prepare for the transition.
Dale Allen Pfeiffer
Geologist, Science Journalist, Novelist
Holly, Michigan, USA
April 26th, 2004
Suggested chapter headings are as follows. These may be altered or additional headings may be added.
General Topics (Topics which can apply to anyone anywhere in the world)
1. Food (permaculture & sustainable agriculture, etc.)
2. Building (building and remodeling for sufficiency, etc.)
3. Energy Generation (Wind turbines, methane generation, etc.)
4. Transportation (bicycles, horses, etc.)
5. Barter and Alternative Local Economics (economies of scale, alternatives to money, etc.)
6. Organizing (community organizing, cooperatives, etc.)
7. Democratic & Egalitarian Models (consensus decision making, and other techniques to ensure democracy but avoid the dictatorship of the majority; worker owned businesses, reparations)
8. Urban Survival (urban gardening, water gathering, etc.)
Regional Sections (Advice for particular regions, generalized for the main ecosystem types on the planet, though area specific papers are welcome.)
1. Temperate Forests
3. Coastal Areas
4. Fresh Water Areas
5. Mountain Regions
11. Scrub Brush Regions
Dale Allen Pfeiffer
PO Box 892
Clarkston, MI. USA 48347
1 For the story of these warnings see The End of the Oil Age, Chapter 15,
Imminent Peril, Part 1, by this author; (http://www.lulu.com/allenadale).
Or find the same article in the archives at www.fromthewilderness.com.
The individual warnings can be found online:
Population Growth, Resource Management and a Sustainable World.
Joint Statement of the Royal Society of London and the US National
Academy of Sciences, 1992. Archived at http://www.dieoff.com/page7.htm
World Scientists' Warning to Humanity. Union of Concerned Scientists, 11/18/1992. http://www.ucsusa.org/ucs/about/page.cfm?pageID=1009
Joint Statement by 58 of the World's Scientific Academies. US National
Academy of Sciences, 10/27/1993.
Joint National Academy of Sciences and Royal Society Resolution:
Towards Sustainable Consumption. US National Academy of Sciences, 1997. http://www4.nas.edu/NAS/nashome.nsf/Multi+Database+
World Scientists' Call for Action. Union of Concerned Scientists, December, 1997. http://www.ucsusa.org/ucs/about/page.cfm?pageID=1007
Transition to Sustainability in the 21st Century: The Contribution
of Science & Technology. InterAcademy Panel,
May 2000. ">www4.nas.edu/iap/iaphome.nsf/weblinks/SAIN-4XVLCT?OpenDocument
2 An overview of these global assessment studies can be found in
The End of the Oil Age, Chapter 15, Imminent Peril, Part 1, by
this author; (http://www.lulu.com/allenadale). Or find the same
article in the archives at www.fromthewilderness.com. The actual
assessment studies can be accessed via these links:
Guide to World Resources, 2000-2001: People & Ecosystems;
The Fraying Web of Life. World Resources Institute, April 2000.
Global Environmental Outlook-3. United Nations Environment Programme,
May 22 2002. http://www.grida.no/geo/geo3/
State of the World 2003. Worldwatch Institute, June 2003.
3 The story of industry-induced global climate change is presented in my
ongoing series Global Climate Change and Peak Oil, which can be found
The scientific case for industry-induced climate change, and its impact,
are discussed in full detail at Climate Change 2001, The Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
And a statement of the world's scientific academies supporting this study
can be found at The Science of Climate Change. 5/17/2001.
Some web sites with information about ozone depletion are:
4 An excellent website for information on the current mass
extinction is: http://www.well.com/user/davidu/extinction.html
5 Human appropriation of the products of photosynthesis, Vitousek,
P.M. et al. Bioscience 36, 1986. http://www.science.duq.edu/esm/unit2-3
Land, Energy and Water: the constraints governing Ideal US Population Size,
Pimental, David and Pimental, Marcia. Focus, Spring 1991. NPG Forum,
6 For information about the effects of modern agriculture, see
The End of the Oil Age, Chapter 17, Eating Fossil Fuels, by this
author; (http://www.lulu.com/allenadale). Or find this same article in
the archives at www.fromthewilderness.com.
Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy, Executive Summary,
Pimentel, David and Giampietro, Mario. Carrying Capacity Network,
7 Collapse of Wild Fisheries, Western Canada Wilderness Committee.
Co-published by Wilderness Committee and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs,
Vol. 21. No. 5; Fall, 2002.
Why Fisheries Collapse and What To Do About It, Roughgarden,
Jonathan, & Smith Fraser. Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences, Vol. 93, pp. 5078-5083; May, 1996.
8 The Limits to Growth, Meadows, Dennis, et al. Universe Books, 2nd Edition.
Limits to Growth: the 30 year global update, Meadows, Dennis,
Randers, Jorgen, & Meadows, Donella. Chelsea Green Publishing Company,
Influence of Capital Inertia on Renewable Resource Depletion,
Weisbuch, Gerard, et al. Labratorie de Physique Statistique de l'Ecole
Normale Supérieure; February, 1997. http://www.lps.ens.fr/~weisbuch/inert/p3/p3.html
10 The Oil Crash and You, Thomson, Bruce. Look in the RunningOnEmpty2
Yahoo Group's files section. Document name: !CONVINCE SHEET v19.doc. 9/2/2001. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/RunningOnEmpty2/files/
11 Oil Crisis Powerpoint Presentation, Stasse, Mike. Look in the
RunningOnEmpty2 yahoo group's files section. Document name: oil crisis.ppt. 2/14/2004. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/RunningOnEmpty2/files/
12 Synopsis, edited by Hanson, Jay. March 8, 2001.
13"Petroleum experts Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrere, Brian Fleay,
Roger Blanchard, Richard Duncan, Walter Youngquist, and Albert Bartlett
(using various methodologies) have all estimated a "peak" in "conventional oil"
around 2005. Moreover, the CEOs of Agip, ENI SpA, (Italian oil companies) and
Arco have all published estimates of peak in 2005. So it seems like a reliable
estimate." Synopsis, edited by Hanson, Jay. March 8, 2001.
For more information on the peak of global oil production, see The End
of the Oil Age, by this author. Lulu Press, April, 2004.
www.lulu.com/allenadale. Or The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the
Fate of Industrial Societies, Heinberg, Richard. New Society Publishers, 2003.
The Energy Information Administration and the US Geological Survey estimate
peak world oil production around 2025 to 2030. But their methodologies have
been highly criticized, and members of both agencies have privately
expressed doubts concerning these estimates.
14 Ethanol from Corn: clean renewable fuel for the future, or drain
on our resources and pockets?, Patzek, Tad W. Dept. of Civil and Environmental
Engineering, University of California, June 14, 2003.
Ethanol from Corn: just how unsustainable is it?, Patzek, Tad W. Seminar
at Stanford University. http://pangea.stanford.edu/ESYS/Energy%
15 The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies,
Heinberg, Richard. New Society Publishers, 2003; pp. 139-146.
16 For a critical look at some of the problems associated with hydrogen
fuel cell technology, see The End of the Oil Age, Chapter 8, Much Ado
about Nothing, by this author. Lulu Press, April, 2004. http://www.lulu.com/allenadale
Or see The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies,
Heinberg, Richard. New Society Publishers, 2003; pp. 146-149.
17 The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies,
Heinberg, Richard. New Society Publishers, 2003; pp. 129-132.
Beyond Oil, Gever, John, et al. Univ. Pr. Colorado, 1991. pp. 65-68.
18 The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies,
Heinberg, Richard. New Society Publishers, 2003; pp. 132-139.
19 The Tightening Conflict: Population, Energy Use, and the Ecology
of Agriculture, Giampietro, Mario and Pimentel, David, 1994.
20 The End of the Oil Age, Chapter 17, Eating Fossil Fuels, Pfeiffer, Dale Allen.
Lulu Press, April, 2004. http://www.lulu.com/allenadale
21 Executive Excess 2002, Anderson, Sarah, et al. Institute for Policy
Studies & United for a Fair Economy, August 26th, 2003.
22 State of Working America 2002-2003: Executive Summary
and Introduction. Economic Policy Institute.
24 The Prison Industry. http://www.corpwatch.org/issues/PII.jsp?topicid=119
25 Toward an American Revolution: Exposing the Constitution and other
Illusions, Fresia, Jerry. South End Press, 1988.
A People's History of the United States: 1492 to present, Zinn Howard.
Perennial, 2003 (latest edition).
26 The Permian Era ended approximately 250 Million Years Ago, in an extinction
event which killed off 95% of all marine life on the planet, and 70% of all land
families. It was much worse than the end of the dinosaurs, which ranks a
distant second on the list of extinction events (the current extinction event
ranks third). It is now most widely accepted that the Permian Extinction began
with volcanic outgassing leading to global warming, which in turn sparked off
massive methane venting from permafrost and from the ocean floor, resulting
in runaway global warming. The implications for modern global warming are
For more on the Permian Extinction, a good starting place is: