Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Economics: Avoiding the Y2K Fallacy

The end of the age of cheap fossil fuels heralds a total revolution in economic affairs worldwide. For the last three hundred years, the key to prosperity has been the replacement of human skill with mechanical energy. The steam-powered factories of 18th century England heralded an economic order in which technological progress and soaring rates of fossil fuel extraction went hand in hand, and success went to those who pushed mechanization into new economic sectors – replacing sails with steam, farm horses with tractors, local theaters with movies and TV, folk culture with mass-produced pop culture, and so on.

Hubbert’s peak marks the limit of this process. Mechanization depends on massive infusions of cheap energy, and that combination of abundant energy at low cost is exactly what won’t be available in the future. If the last three hundred years funneled wealth to those who could exploit fossil fuels to the fullest and build centralized, technologically driven economic structures, the next three hundred years will see exactly the opposite; success will go to those who get ahead of depletion curves by reducing their reliance on fossil fuels further than others, and relying instead on human skills and sustainable, low-intensity energy inputs.

These changes won’t take place overnight, though. Hubbert’s peak occurs when approximately half the world’s accessible petroleum has been pumped out, and so the slope down from it will more than likely parallel the slope up to it. This means that in 2030, for example, the world will be producing about as much oil as it produced in 1980, and very significant amounts of coal, natural gas, hydroelectricity, and other energy sources will also be available. All that energy will still be available to power factories, fuel transportation, and fill other economic roles. It will be more expensive, less reliable, and spread more unevenly among a larger world population, but it will still be there.

Thus the survivalist fantasy that peaking oil production will lead to sudden collapse can’t be justified. What we face instead, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is a long period of economic contraction and technological decline. There will be plenty of bumps and potholes on the long road down, to be sure. Systems failures like the one that accompanied Hurricane Katrina last year, and reduced large portions of coastal Louisiana and Mississippi to a Third World level from which they show no signs of recovering, are likely to be regular occurrences. Still – and this has to be grasped in order to make any sense at all out of the future – systems failures don’t automatically spiral out into total collapse.

This point has been notably lacking in many discussions of the economic impact of peak oil. It’s commonly argued, for example, that the financial shock imposed by rising energy costs will cause the entire global economy to come apart at the seams, leaving people unable to get food and other necessities and turning them into the marauding hordes of the standard survivalist fantasy. This is a classic example of what I call the Y2K fallacy, and revisiting the Y2K fiasco will cast some light on where current speculations about peak oil have run off the rails.

In the late 1990s, as my readers will doubtless remember, computer experts began to warn that many older computer systems had no way to process year-numbers beginning with a 2 rather than a 1, and could crash when the calendar rolled over from 1999 to 2000. Early surveys of the problem showed that a very large number of systems could be affected, especially in banking, telecommunications, and government. By the beginning of 1998 or so, it was clear that a major mess was in the making unless something was done.

This real and serious problem, though, quickly got blown out of proportion by the apocalypse lobby – the sizeable number of people for whom faith in the imminent collapse of civilization is an emotional necessity. By 1999, survivalist visions of social collapse and mass death via Y2K spilled out of this subculture and percolated through American society. I knew many people who confidently expected the end of civilization as we know it on New Years Eve of 1999, and waited all night in their basements for the blackouts, systems failures, and rampaging mobs that never came.

Some pundits have used these failed predictions to argue that the whole Y2K crisis wasn’t real in the first place, but this misstates the whole lesson of the experience. The threat was real; the apocalypse lobby simply missed the four most important words in the prediction – “unless something was done.” Faced with a credible threat, a hard deadline, and a clear course of action, people responded predictably by doing something about the situation. Sales of Y2K-compliant computers and software soared off the charts, and software jockeys made money hand over fist reprogramming old machines. Some of us used simpler fixes; I simply reset the calendar on my old and non-compliant computer to December 31, 1949, and went through the rollover to January 1, 1950 with no trouble at all.

The fallacy that bedeviled the Y2K survivalists was the belief that government, business, and ordinary people, faced with an immiment threat and obvious responses to it, will sit on their hands and do nothing until catastrophe overwhelms them. This same odd belief can be found all through discussions of peak oil. As oil plateaus and then declines, energy prices will rise sharply; that’s the threat. The obvious response, which succeeded brilliantly in the 1970s, is to reduce energy use through conservation. This factor is already helping to drive swings in energy prices, as demand for petroleum and natural gas fails to meet speculators’ expectations.

The collision between declining fossil fuel production and increasing demand, in fact, is far more likely to cause drastic swings in the price of energy than the sort of sustained rise imagined by some peak oil theorists. As energy prices rise, speculators dive into the market, driving up prices further than actual shortfalls in production capacity would justify. Many energy consumers respond by cutting back on their energy use by means of lifestyle changes and conservation technologies, while others are simply priced out of the market. The result is that demand drops, stockpiles rise, and prices start to slide. The speculators dive out of the market, driving down prices further than actual declines in demand would justify, and the cycle begins again. The resulting whipsaw movements in the price of energy can cause plenty of economic damage all by themselves, but there again it’s possible to respond to volatility constructively – for example, by stockpiling fuel when it’s cheap and drawing down those stockpiles when prices spike.

The same logic needs to be applied to other aspects of our economic situation. The United States today, as many people have pointed out, is a spendthrift debtor nation, borrowing more than $2 billion a day from overseas to pay for imports that far exceed its exports and a standard of living that can’t be supported by its anemic manufacturing and resource-extraction base. These factors are unsustainable, and major shifts in the world economic order are inevitable as the resulting imbalances work themselves out. Those who claim that the result will inevitably be social collapse and a Road Warrior future, though, haven’t been paying attention to world economic affairs. Over the last fifty years or so, quite a few nations have borrowed and spent their way into fiscal crisis. Some responded with austerity and periods of recession; some inflated their currencies, went into hyperinflation, and came back out of it; some repudiated their foreign debts and weathered the international reaction; others simply muddled through. All of them survived the crisis and rebuilt afterwards, and so will the United States.

Most people nowadays, it has to be said, underestimate the resiliency of the modern nation-state. A US government faced with a severe economic crisis has plenty of options. It can respond to a market crash by flooding the economy with essentially free credit, as Japan did after the 1990 stock debacle. It can respond to currency collapse by abandoning its old currency and issuing a new one with solid backing, as Germany did in the 1920s to end its bout of hyperinflation. It can manipulate markets, nationalize industries, enact wage and price controls, levy punitive tariffs and embargoes, subsidize basic necessities for the population, and impose rationing of fuel and food. If necessary, it can declare martial law and use the military and National Guard to restore civil order. All of these things have taken place in many other countries in the last half century or so, when governments have faced the possibility of chaos. Any or all of them could readily happen here – and for that matter, some already have.

There are still very rough times ahead, to be sure. After a quarter century of reckless borrowing and waste fueled by absurdly extravagant use of the world’s finite energy resources, America is likely to face a period of contraction as bad as the Great Depression, and an economic breakdown on the scale of the one that engulfed Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union is far from impossible. Still, the United States still existed after the Depression, Russia still exists today, and millions of people came through each of these economic crises with their lives, families, homes, and livelihoods intact.

Thus we can expect the next few decades to see a great deal of economic volatility and wrenching change, and quite probably some very hard times for many people. Energy costs will be impossible to predict as prices spike and crash, trending slowly but very unevenly upwards, and economic sectors dependent on stable access to energy will face a very rough road indeed. On average, those people and industries that require more energy will do worse than those that can make do with less, and those professions that meet actual needs will do much better than those devoted to the mass production of the unnecessary. Two weeks from now, I’ll make some suggestions about how individuals can prepare to deal with the new economic world of the deindustrializing future. Before that, though, it’s necessary to take a second look at the economy and draw some rarely noticed distinctions between the real economy of goods and services and the fictive economy that currently dominates the way goods and services are produced, distributed and sold.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Energy: Preparations and Possibilities

Last week’s Archdruid Report post sketched out the future that the shortsighted choices and missed opportunities of the last thirty years have made inevitable: a future in which energy of all kinds will be less available, more expensive, and increasingly uncertain with each passing year. At this point in history, that can’t be prevented, and today’s governments are so blinkered by the myth of progress and so beholden to the existing economic order that the chance they’ll pursue a constructive response to our predicament is slim at best. The one remaining option is preparation on the personal, family, and community level.

This offers more possibilities than a casual glance might suggest. One of the many ironies of our present situation is that today’s energy-squandering lifestyles actually give us more room for maneuver as energy supplies decline. Especially in the United States, we waste so much energy on nonessentials that a large fraction of our energy use can be conserved without severely impacting our lives. Consider the suburbanite who mows his lawn with a gasoline-powered mower, and then hops in a car to drive down to the gym to get the exercise he didn’t get mowing his lawn! From Christmas lights and video games to three-hour commutes and Caribbean vacations, most of the absurd extravagance that characterizes energy use in America and other industrial countries only happens because fossil fuel energy has been so cheap so long.

It’s been pointed out many times that the average American uses between two and four times as much energy each year (depending on your choice of estimate) as the average European. It’s much more rarely noted that the standard of living Americans buy with this extravagance isn’t significantly better than the one Europeans enjoy at a quarter of the energy cost. This means the average American could theoretically cut her energy use by up to three-quarters without seriously affecting her standard of living. Most European countries have infrastructure and urban design that supports relatively low-energy lifestyles, while most of America lacks these, so that theoretical possibility isn’t a practical option for most people. Major cuts, though, are well within reach.

Mature technologies and proven lifestyle changes already exist that can save half or more of the energy the average American family uses in the course of a year. Nearly all of them were already on the shelf by the late 1970s. At this point it’s simply a matter of putting them to work. Since most of them require modest investment, and prices for many of the materials involved are likely to soar once energy prices shoot up and conservation becomes a matter of economic survival for all but the very rich, getting them in place as soon as possible is essential.

Let’s start with transportation, the largest single energy use for most Americans. Commuting by private car swallows a majority of most people’s gasoline budget and a very large fraction of their total energy use. Few aspects of today’s American lifestyle are as dysfunctional in a deindustrial world as our habit of driving long distances between home, work, and access to goods and services. After fifty years of car-centered land use planning, getting out of the commuting lifestyle takes careful planning and a willingness to do without certain amenities, but it can certainly be done.

If your present job uses local materials and labor to produce goods or services people need, and thus will still be viable in a deindustrializing world, you need to live within walking or, at most, bicycling distance of your workplace. Otherwise you won’t have a job once shortages hit and commuting becomes impossible. (You won’t be able to rely on public transit, since millions of other people will be trying to use it at the same time you are.) If your present job is like most American employment and produces nothing people actually need, you need to switch to a career producing necessary goods and services, and so you need to live within walking distance of your future workplace and the people who will patronize you—and in either case, you need to be within walking distance of other people who can provide you with goods and services you need.

The best way to manage this is to live in an old-fashioned mixed-use neighborhood that includes homes, small businesses, and public facilities such as schools and libraries, all within easy reach of one another. The neighborhood can be in a rural area, a town, or a small or middle-sized city. It can even be in the sort of old-fashioned suburb that surrounds a small business district or retail core. Moving to such a neighborhood can involve giving up amenities many Americans prefer, but to be frank, you’ll just have to live with that. A lifeboat is more cramped and less comfortable than an ocean liner, but if the liner’s sinking the lifeboat is still a better option.

Don’t let the first wave of crises find you living in a bedroom suburb miles from the nearest shopping or employment, or the sort of lone house or cabin far out in the backwoods that most of today’s survivalists fancy, unless you plan on meeting all your own needs for food, fuel, clothing, health care, police protection, and everything else. As I’ll show in next week’s post, all these things will still be available during the crisis years; supplies will be sporadic and shortages common, but local economies will emerge as the global economy comes apart, and barter and foreign currencies will come into use if the dollar becomes worthless. In the decaying suburbs and the rural periphery, though, none of these things will be within reach, and unless you’ve thoroughly practiced self-sufficiency skills and are willing to embrace a primitive lifestyle, trying to get by in isolation is a one-way ticket to starvation, exposure, and death.

Other aspects of transportation are easily handled, once you can get to essential goods and services on your own feet, and local economies will generate their own transport networks as supply and demand come back into balance. The great challenge will be getting through the first wave of crises, as the commuter economy grinds to a halt and the transitional economy that will replace it struggles to get going. Preparation is essential. For example, the sooner you start commuting on foot, as well as walking to the grocery store and bringing home your purchases in cloth bags or a backpack, the less difficulty you’ll have when this is the only option left.

So much for transportation. Household uses account for most of the remaining energy that people in today’s America actually need, and here the conservation techniques developed during the 20th century and perfected in the 1970s can be put to use. Few of today’s houses have adequate insulation, and little tricks like putting gaskets behind light switch plates and electrical outlets have been all but forgotten since the beginning of the Reagan years. Fixing these things – adding insulation, weatherstripping, storm windows, and the like – can save a great deal of energy. More ambitious steps such as solar hot water heating, passive solar retrofits, earth berms, and the like can also be put to good use. Sweaters, quilts, and other ways of conserving body heat also have their place. While you’re at it, learn to be comfortable with changes in temperature; your great-grandparents got along just fine without air conditioning and central heating, and so will you.

Having a backup source of heat for your home is essential in a future where blackouts and fuel shortages will be a common occurrence. In many cases, a wood stove or fireplace insert will be your best option here, since the fuel can be produced locally. Coppicing and other methods of producing firewood that don’t impact surviving forests will be essential, and a likely growth industry. Using wood as a heating fuel will increase the death rate from asthma, but not doing so will increase the death rate from hypothermia and infectious disease; in the future ahead of us, such bleak tradeoffs will be commonplace.

Other household issues can be dealt with similarly. You’ll need to have at least one backup method of cooking food, and you should be prepared to wash your clothes in the bathtub and take care of other necessities when the power is out or the price soars out of reach. Assess every appliance and amenity you have, and make sure that you can either do the equivalent by hand, using tools you own and know how to use and maintain, or do without it altogether. The time to do that assessment, of course, is now, while the tools you’ll need are readily available.

It’s important to recognize that the benefits of doing these things aren’t limited to the people who do them. The logic here is the same that makes airlines tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help anyone else get theirs on; you’re not going to be able to help anyone else survive the crises of the approaching deindustrial age unless you’ve taken care of your own basic needs first. If you’ve already learned the skills and made the adjustments the end of abundant energy requires, you can show other people how to make the same changes. The experience of the 1970s shows that, in the presence of the sort of hard economic incentives rising energy prices bring, many more people will embrace necessary lifestyle changes than not.

The same principle works on a wider scale as well. Critics of conservation programs often point to the Jevons Paradox as an argument against trying to save energy. First described by the 19th century economist William Stanley Jevons, this holds that when new technology allows a resource to be used more efficiently, the amount of the resource being used goes up, not down, because the increased efficiency makes it cheaper compared to alternatives. This is only true, however, when the only limit on using the resource is how much it costs. When the resource itself is running short due to physical limits, increases in efficiency blunt the impact of the shortage by making up some of the shortfall, and prevent the price from rising as far and fast as would otherwise happen.

In the opening years of the deindustrial age, this will be crucial. The longer the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves can be stretched out and used to cushion the decline of industrial civilization, the less traumatic and chaotic the transition will be. Every gallon of gas and kilowatt of electricity that doesn’t have to be spent on household use will be available for trains that bring grain from farms to cities, factories that build wind turbines and solar panels, and a hundred other desperate necessities. The same factors that made gasoline rationing and victory gardens essential during the Second World War will play at least as vital a role in the forced transition to sustainability ahead of us.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Energy Predicaments and Prospects

Last week’s post on this blog argued that four main trends – declining energy production, economic breakdown, collapsing public health, and political turmoil – define the framework upon which our future will take shape. I promised then that the following posts would go through these in more detail. We’ll start here with the top of the list, the approaching energy crisis. This week, I’ll try to sketch out the energy future waiting in the wings; next week, I’ll outline specific responses to that future that individuals can set in motion right now.

Of all the many aspects of the predicament of industrial society, the peak of world petroleum production will likely have the most drastic impact in the short and middle term. Now it’s true, of course, that plenty of other resources are also running short worldwide, from topsoil and fresh water to dozens of minor but economically important minerals. In the latter days of a system designed and built to pursue the delusion of infinite material growth on a finite planet, shortages are inevitable, but no other globally traded commodity is as central to the world’s industrial economies as oil, or faces so imminent and irreversible a decline.

Thus the end of the age of cheap oil promises a sea change in the world’s economies and societies as significant as the beginning of the fossil fuel age some three hundred years ago. Its impact can easily be overstated, though; indeed, it has been overstated by quite a few writers on the survivalist end of the peak oil community, who insist that the inevitable result of declining petroleum production will be the rapid collapse of civilization worldwide in an uncontrollable spiral of violence, anarchy, and mass death. As a result, too many people are still convinced that the only possible response to peak oil is the old fantasy of holing up in a cabin in the hills and waiting for the rubble to stop bouncing.

This is as mistaken as it is counterproductive. It’s certainly possible to dream up worst case scenarios that might conceivably result in a sudden collapse, but these scenarios run headlong into an awkward historical fact: declines in petroleum use equal to the ones we face on the downslope of Hubbert’s peak have happened many times in recent history, without producing anything like the consequences the survivalist theory predicts. In America, World War II saw gasoline rationing and sharp reductions in the use of oil throughout the civilian economy, and the energy crises of the 1970s saw steady declines in petroleum use that went on for more than a decade. Unlike the future we face today, those periods of declining petroleum use proved to be temporary, but they show that American society can use less oil without collapsing.

Overseas, far more drastic reductions in petroleum supplies and energy use have happened a good deal more often. The results have included hard times and human suffering, but the collapse of civilization? Hardly. Two world wars, the greatest depression in modern history, and plenty of less global but no less severe crises have forced individuals and economies to make do with much less for extended periods. Except in a few exceptional and very short-term situations, social order has remained intact and economies have adapted to extreme conditions, shedding energy- and resource-intensive sectors and establishing new networks to get food and other necessities to those who need them. This, rather than the total social collapse of the survivalist fantasy, is what we face in the next few decades.

Here in America, the end of cheap oil will be made more complex by another factor: a large fraction of electricity and home heating nowadays comes from natural gas, and North American natural gas reserves are depleting fast. Over the next decade or so, as the inevitable shortages hit, natural gas will price itself out of both these markets. Some writers have claimed that this will lead to the total collapse of electric power grids nationwide, but this hardly follows. As the supply of electricity decreases, prices rises, and demand goes down as people cut their usage or are disconnected for failure to pay their bills; economists call this “demand destruction.” As shortages become more severe, grid operators and governments have plenty of options to hand, ranging from mandatory conservation programs, through rationing schemes, to cutting entire sectors out of the grid so that power can be saved for other uses. None of these will allow current rates of energy use to be maintained, but all of them will cushion the descent into a deindustrial world.

Where electrical power is concerned, in fact, the 21st century is likely to look like a film of the 20th century run in reverse. As the 1930s were the decade of rural electrification in America, when electricity finally made its way to farm families nationwide, the 2010s may turn out to be the decade of rural de-electrification, when rural America goes off the grid for good. Well before 2050, electricity will be what it was in 1900, an urban amenity generated by hydroelectric, wind, and coal-fired plants, and used mostly by the wealthy and the middle classes. By 2100 most of the coal will be gone and other fossil fuels will be a fading memory, but wind and running water will remain, and cities will likely have their own sustainably powered electrical grids providing modest amounts of light and power to the homes and businesses of the well-to-do.

Transportation is a more complex matter. A transportation network of the sort we have today requires not only fuel and vehicles, but a sprawling and energy-intensive infrastructure of highways, bridges, gas stations, tanker truck fleets, storage depots, highway police, and more, all demanding constant investment. As costs soar and resources run short, expect to see that network come gradually unraveled. Rural areas far from major routes are already seeing infrastructure collapse as roads are no longer repaired and gas stations far from the freeways go out of business. As this process speeds up, resources will concentrate on critical freeway corridors and urban regions, contracting over a period of several decades until it drops below a critical value and truck transport stops being economically viable at all.

On a more local level, the private car never did make much sense except as a way to maximize employment in the manufacturing and construction sectors of the economy. Soaring gas prices will render most of American human geography worse than useless, as people no longer can afford to shuttle among retail cores, employment centers, and suburban bedroom communities many miles from one another. The “donut geography” of American urban centers, with decaying urban cores surrounded by prosperous suburbs, has already begun to reverse in many areas as middle-class families move to gentrifying urban neighborhoods, while their former suburban homes sink into poverty. Expect this trend to accelerate over the next few decades, as today’s suburbs become slum districts like those surrounding Third World cities today, and the suburban tract housing spawned by the now-deflating housing bubble turns into raw materials for the shantytowns of the permanently poor.

Trains, which require a much simpler infrastructure and use much less energy than trucks to move cargo, will be potentially viable much longer. The immediate problem here is that America’s railroad network has been subjected to many decades of malign neglect, and unless significant resources go into maintaining and upgrading it soon, it may not be able to provide a viable transportation network nationwide. Even if the railroads get the emergency investment they need, it’s an open question whether rail travel can keep going over the long term without fossil fuels. If the railroad network unravels in the same way as the highways, the social and political consequences will be immense. Lacking cheap transcontinental transport, it’s unlikely that the present United States will be able to maintain political unity for long.

The transportation network of last resort depends on water. America’s navigable waterways have suffered as much neglect as the railroads, but can be maintained and rebuilt at a much lower level of technology, and several crucial links – above all the Erie Canal and St. Lawrence Seaway, connecting the Great Lakes and the eastern seaboard – remain intact. If the railways fail, the economically viable region of America will contract by more than half, as the inland West loses any effective way to import goods or export its own produce. Still, waterways weave together the Atlantic seaboard, the Great Lakes states, and the Mississippi valley, extending north into eastern Canada and south along the Gulf Coast to Mexico’s east coast. The harsher topography of the west coast offers far fewer options for water travel; the Columbia and Sacramento watersheds connect agricultural regions in the far west to coastal ports, but a regional waterway network is out of reach even with today’s machinery, and regional and local devolution will be hard to prevent.

The end of cheap energy thus promises to remake the human geography of North America and completely reshape the lifestyles of almost everyone living on the continent. The transition to the new deindustrial society, though, will take place over decades, not overnight, as governments, businesses, and individuals scramble to deal with shrinking supplies of fossil fuel energy. So much time has been wasted, and so little done to prepare, that a great deal of human suffering and deprivation is inevitable at this point. Still, much can still be done, and most of it can be done by individuals and families working on their own. In next week’s post, I’ll talk about some of the available options.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Briefing for the Descent

As evidence piles up for the reality of peak oil, and more and more people start to grapple with an issue that challenges almost every assumption our society makes about the future, the issue of what to do about it becomes harder to avoid. Predictably, survivalists are popping up again with their one-size-fits-all answer. That answer first surfaced in the 1920s, when the Evangelical Christian belief in imminent apocalypse fused with traditional American rhetoric contrasting the rich, crowded, and wicked city with the poor, isolated, and allegedly more virtuous back country to create the first survivalist ideologies. Since then, survivalists have insisted that the only response to any crisis you care to imagine – epidemic disease, nuclear holocaust, race war, the advent of Antichrist, the meltdown of the world’s computer systems on January 1, 2000, and the list goes on – is to hole up in the woods with plenty of food and firearms, and live the frontier life while urban America crashes down in flames.

From a survivalist point of view, peak oil is simply one more reason to head for the hills. Still, it doesn’t fill the bill very well. True, the peaking of world oil production will usher in an age of rising energy costs and dwindling supplies, and that will bring plenty of economic, social, political, and demographic problems in its train, but I have yet to see anyone make a reasonable case that these problems will cause civilization to collapse all at once. We’re facing decline, not apocalypse, and in the face of a gradual decline unfolding over a century or more, a strategy relying on canned beans and M-16s in a cabin in the woods is a distraction at best. A more realistic view, and more useful strategies, can be found readily enough by turning from the macho fantasies of surivalists to the facts of the industrial world’s predicament. Though the future we face is not an apocalypse, four horsemen still define the most likely scenario.

First out of the starting gate is declining energy availability. Sometime between now and 2010, world petroleum production peaks, falters, and begins an uneven but irreversible descent. North American natural gas supplies start their terminal decline around the same time. Some of the slack can be taken up by coal, wind and other renewables, nuclear power, and conservation, but not all. As oil depletion accelerates, and other resources such as fissionable uranium and Eurasian natural gas hit their own production peaks, the shortfall widens, and many lifestyles and business models that depend on cheap energy become nonviable.

The second horseman, hard on the hooves of the first, is economic contraction. As petroleum production begins to decline, energy prices skyrocket as nations, regions and individuals engage in bidding wars driven to extremes by rampant speculation. The global economy, which made economic sense only in the context of the artificially low oil prices of the 1990s, comes apart at the seams, driving many import- and export-based industries onto the ropes, setting off a wave of bankruptcies and business failures, and causing shortages of many consumer products, all the way down to such essentials as food and clothing. Soaring energy prices have the same effect more directly in many areas of the domestic economy. Unemployment climbs to Great Depression levels and poverty becomes widespread.

The third horseman, following the second by a length or two, is collapsing public health. As poverty rates spiral upwards, shortages and energy costs impact the food supply chain, energy intensive health care becomes unaffordable for all but the obscenely rich, and global warming and ecosystem disruption drive the spread of tropical and emerging diseases, malnutrition and disease become major burdens. People begin to die of what were once minor, treatable conditions, and chronic illnesses such as diabetes become death sentences as medicines price themselves out of reach. Death rates soar as rates of live birth slump, launching the first wave of population contraction.

The fourth horseman, galloping along in the wake of the first three, is political turmoil. What political scientists call “liberal democracy” is a system in which competing elite groups buy the loyalty of sectors of the electorate by handing out economic largesse. That system depends on abundant fossil fuels and the industrial economy they make possible. Many of today’s political institutions will not survive the end of cheap energy, and the changeover to new political arrangements will likely involve violence. International affairs face similar realignments as nations whose power and influence depend on access to abundant, cheap energy fall from their present positions of strength, while “backward” nations find their less energy-dependent economies becoming a source of strength rather than weakness in world affairs. If history is any guide, these power shifts will work themselves out on the battlefield.

The most important thing to remember about all four of these factors is that they’re self-limiting in the middle term. As energy prices soar, economies contract, and the demand for energy decreases, bringing prices back down. As the global economy comes apart, human needs remain, and local economies take up the slack as best they can with the resources on hand, producing new opportunities and breathing new life into moribund sectors of the economy. As public health fails, populations decline, taking pressure off all other sectors of the economy. As existing political arrangements collapse, finally, new regimes take their place, and like all new regimes these can be counted on to put stability at the top of their agendas. Thus we’re facing a period of crisis perhaps a quarter century long, followed by a period of renewed stability, with another round of crises waiting in the wings. Historically speaking, this is how civilizations fall, in a stair-step process alternating periods of crisis with breathing spaces at progressively lower levels of economic and political integration.

This is the predicament we face. Fortunately for us, it’s a familiar one for our species. None of the four horsemen I’ve just described are new arrivals on the scene; our great-grandparents knew them well, and today they are familiar to the vast majority of our species. Only the inhabitants of the world’s industrialized societies have had the opportunity to forget about them, and then only during the second half of the 20th century. Before then, most people knew how to deal with their presence, and those strategies remain viable today. The one hitch is that we have to be ready to put them into practice. Since the world’s governments have by and large dropped the ball completely, it’s up to individuals to get ready for the future ahead of us. Each of the four horsemen requires a different response, and so different preparations will be needed for each.

To cope with the first horseman, reducing energy use is the core strategy. The less energy you need to keep yourself alive and comfortable, the easier you can cope when energy costs spin out of control. Minor tinkerings aren’t going to be enough, though; you need to pursue the sort of comprehensive changes in energy use pioneered so successfully in the 1970s. Plan on cutting your energy use by half, to start with, and be ready to cut it further as needed. That means significant changes in lifestyle for most people, of course. In particular, commuting by car has to become a bad memory, and if this requires you to move, get a new job, or change your lifestyle, that’s what it requires. Get rid of your car if you can; if you can’t, trade in your gas hog for a light, efficient compact, and keep it in the garage under a tarp except when you actually need it. While you’re at it, practice coping with blackouts, brownouts, and other forms of energy shortage; they’ll be frequent visitors in the future.

To cope with the second horseman, choosing a viable profession forms the essential step. Most of the jobs in America today don’t produce necessary goods and services, and most goods and many ervices used in America today aren’t produced here. This mismatch promises massive economic disruptions during the crisis period, as an economy and a work force geared to sales, retail, and information processing collides with a new economic reality that has little room for these but a desperate need to produce food, clothing, and basic technologies. Anyone prepared to step into a viable economic role in this new reality has a much better chance of surviving, or even thriving. You need to choose a craft that can be done with modest energy inputs, and makes something people need or want badly enough to buy even in hard times. Think of market gardening, garment sewing, home appliance repair, and beer brewing as examples. You’ll need to get your training and tools in advance, of course, and the sooner you hang out your shingle the better, even if it’s just a hobby-business patronized by your friends until the crises hit.

To cope with the third horseman, taking charge of your own health is the central task. Modern medicine is one of the most energy- and resource-intensive sectors of the economy, and it’s already priced itself out of reach of nearly half of all Americans. By the time the first wave of crises is well under way, you can assume that your only health care is what you can provide for yourself. Plan on learning about preventive medicine and sanitation, taking wilderness first aid classes, and arranging for do-it-yourself health care in any other way you can. Don’t neglect alternative health care methods, either; while there’s some quackery in the alternative field, there’s also much of value, and the denunciations of alternative health care issued by the medical establishment are simply attempts to protect market share. Finally, get used to the inevitability of death. you probably won’t live as long as you used to expect, and if you need high-tech medical help to stay alive, you’ll die as soon as that stops being available. Death is simply part of the human condition. The stark terror of death that haunts people in industrial societies is a luxury a deindustrializing world can’t afford.

To cope with the fourth horseman, community networking provides the necessary response. This doesn’t mean the sort of Utopian projects that were tried, and failed so dismally, during the Sixties; it means the proven and effective approaches that have been used for hundreds of years by people who learned that working together is an essential tool for survival. If you’ve participated in a block watch, shopped at a farmers market, or belonged to a community service organization, you’ve taken part in community networking activities. In the future, local citizens will need to maintain basic community services such as sanitation, dispute resolution, and public safety during times when government no longer functions. Getting to know your neighbors, and participating in local community organizations, helps build connections that will make the ad hoc arrangements needed in a crisis a viable possibility.

Each of these strategies deserves further discussion on its own, of course. I’ll go into much more detail here in the weeks to come.