Sept. 7, 2006 -- 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 Jan. 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.