We cannot go back

Co-worker Chet stops by my office and chats every once in a while. We both grew up on a farm, we share similar views on the world, and have similar concerns about the current economic situation. One of the concerns is the potential for world wide economic collapse. This has lead us to ponder how we might deal with the collapse of technology. How would or could we survive in a world with greatly diminished supplies of various natural resources such as oil, metals, fuels, and even water (electricity is needed to move it for irrigations as well as direct human consumption). As a consequence of those reduced supplies the food supply would be dramatically reduced. Our total population as well as the distribution of that population would make “going back” even to the time of our childhood (the 50’s and 60’s for Chet and I) nearly impossible without dramatic and extremely painful consequences.

Some of the concerns are that food production today is heavily dependent on oil based fuels, fertilizers, and pesticides. The yields (bushels/pounds per acre) on the farm today about almost 50% greater than what they were when I was a small child yet our food surplus is smaller than what it was then. If we were to attempt to go back to horse powered farm production it would take something like 20 years to increase the horse population adequately and it requires about 1/3 of the farm capacity to feed them.

The food distribution problems are just as bad. The populations of major cities require food (and frequently water) be brought in from at least 100 miles away if not 300 miles away simply because the land within a smaller radius is not capable of supporting a population that size. How do you transport the food with greatly reduced oil supplies? We can’t produce enough fuel on our farms.

Shall we talk about heating? Coal, natural gas, and oil either directly or indirectly via electricity produce much of the heat for our buildings. How are those supplies going to hold up in an economic collapse? The metals to distribute electricity are already being stolen and sold for scrap (H/T to Roberta). Read Doctor Zhivago or watch the movie. It’s a novel but it was based on events from the Russian revolution and civil war of the early 20th century. People will burn their furniture and even their own houses to keep warm. In todays world I expect even pieces of streets and road (asphalt) will disappear in the night to be burned as heating fuel.

Apparently these concerns are far from new. Yesterday Chet sent me an email (bold added):

As we have discussed several times we cannot easily go back to our parents or grandparent’s way of life if we lose today’s technology.

It looks like this idea has been known for some time. I found this quote in ELEMENTS OF TECHNOLOGY published in 1831 (second edition).

“The augmented means of public comfort and of individual luxury, the expense abridged and the labor superseded, have been such, that we could not return to the state of knowledge which existed even fifty or sixty years ago, without suffering both intellectual and physical degradation.”

Full book at: http://www.archive.org/details/elementsoftechno00bige

That is from 1831!

The civil unrest in the Mid-East is not just something that happens someplace far away. Wisconsin may be the first sign of stress in the U.S. but other states are very close behind and things are going to get far worse before they get better. The attitudes of the people protesting economic belt tightening and demanding revolution will guarantee it. A lot more people need to do a reality check to avoid disaster.

A brief family discussion about these concerns late last year resulted in daughter Kimberly taking it upon herself to read up on how to make your own simple medicines, grow various foods, and we made plans to plant fruit trees on some of our land. Kimberly now has avocados trees about two feet tall and pumpkins blooming in our living room:

KimsPumpkin

We might not be able to go back without suffering intellectual and physical degradation but some people will survive. Will it be you? Or should anyone even be concerned? I am concerned. Far, far from everyone has sufficient land or a Kimberly in their family.

32 thoughts on “We cannot go back

  1. We can go back, because when it breaks we will have to re-invent a way to fix it. The collapse of the technology, the distribution system and such is not a fairy tale. There are places in the current world where it is happening now. It becomes a hidden but interesting part of the news. Somalia is what? Zimbabwe is where who wants to live? We just have to accept lots of lives lost, and will rebuild with those that survive, being one of the old and useless I will watch until my lights are turned off.

  2. We will deal with it the best we can. We would have no choice. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best and all that. If you aren’t already in to preparing you might want to go check out Jack’s place http://www.thesurvivalpodcast.com/
    Our ancestors managed to deal with revolution, bloody civil war, a great depression, a couple of global wars and a decades long cold war against an implacable foe with a vast nuclear arsenal. We can handle this. It may be brutal. It certainly won’t be all roses, buttercups, and fluffy puppy dog tales, but we can handle a rough road. It has been done before.

  3. My SO, Chris, and I do what we can. We keep an heirloom-only garden in the yard, and I’ve started looking into homeopathic homemade medicines/painkillers/etc. I intend to start canning some of our yield (assuming we get a decent season this year).

    Some have called me a hippie, or a treehugger, or a weirdo for doing all this. I call it a significant interest in self-preservation.

  4. Allow me to expand a bit on the water part. Much of our water must be chlorinated to prevent cholera and other water borne diseases and epidemics as were common in the past. Most of our chlorine is derived by the electrolysis of salt harvested from great salt lake. This is a very hazardous material to handle and transport to thousands of water supplys.Think about haiti for a moment, no longer or you might have nightmares.

  5. Honestly, though, there’s no reason civilization needs to collapse. If we can stop the ecofascists from stalling nuclear power production, we will have a grand future. If not, make sure you have plenty of food and ammo stocked away. (Actually, have it stocked regardless).

  6. My folks have a well–it isn’t chlorinated, we just run it through a Pyrolox filter to get rid of the sulfur smell/taste. No one has gotten cholera yet.

  7. My wife and I have discussed the possibility of some kind of collapse for several years now. In my experience, people will often seize on one possible collapse scenario and then either convince themselves that it is inevitable or rationalize why it would never actually happen. I’ve brainstormed dozens of different scenarios for which some wort of preparation would be advised. A few have to do with worldwide calamities, more would constitute some sort of regional disruption, and some would only have an effect on a personal or family level. I do not think that a worldwide collapse is certain, nor do I believe that it is impossible.

    The point is, preparation is good policy no matter what you believe might happen. Have some non-perishable food stored away just in case. Store some water with a means to purify more if needed. Learn to garden, hunt and preserve food. Have the means to defend yourself and your family.

    If nothing happens, then you’ll be out some storage space in your basement and possibly save yourself a few trips to the grocery store later on. But if disaster does strike, even in the relatively minor form of a local natural disaster or temporary supply disruption, you will sleep easier knowing that you are taken care of and not dependent on the aid of a government that may never come.

  8. Read the book “One Second After”, for a look at an instant collapse, from an EMP strike, that could happen tomorrow. Seems we are very vulnerable at this point, both here and elsewhere.
    Just the loss of insecticides/anti-fungals (chemicals, mostly petro derived) will cost us 1/3 of our typical food production from the farms. BTW, that’s what “organic” grown food costs to produce.
    If you want to see the lifestyle of losing our tech base, read the novel “Dies the Fire” by S M Stirling. Actually, more like losing the basis for technology, but shows going back to a horse based civilization.

    Not pretty, either. No matter how it happens, figure maybe 80-90% death in the US.

    BTW, the amount of horseshit that collects in a large city like New York boggles the mind. I’ll try to remember where I saw the data, but’s incredible. Prior to cars, it was a MAJOR problem. You know how brownstones have steps leading up to the entrance? That was to keep them from flooding with a river of shit when it rained.

  9. dunce,

    The family farm I grew up on and the farms of all the neighbors all had wells which pumped the water directly out of the ground into the homes. No filters or chemicals added. But then we lived in Clearwater county with our streams all draining into the Clearwater River so our experience may not be typical of most of the U.S.

    Will,

    In addition to the manure there were the dead horse that needed to be removed. IRRC it was on the order of 700 horses and 20 tons of manure per day. And that was when the population of the NYC was something like (order of magnitude approximations) 1 million instead of 10 million people.

    And as Chet told me this morning the energy issue is probably the biggest factor. We don’t have a new energy source coming on line with the capability to replace oil. Nuclear power plants would help but that is a lot of infrastructure to upgrade because in addition to the plants themselves the power distribution system will need to be upgraded to handle the increased load from switching oil to electricity for transportation. And there are issues such as trucks, tractors, and large earth moving equipment that would require batteries so large that I’m just not sure it is feasible to replace oil with electricity. On major highways electricity could be made available as part of the road for everyone (with the user paying for what they used of course). But in the middle of a field/woods/desert on a farm/logging/mining/etc. But being tethered to the grid probably isn’t an option for many of the current applications of internal combustion engines. Can we make portable nuclear power plants safe enough and small enough to use in these environments? Maybe.

  10. My first wife and I had a subsistence farm for about 15 years, as in we produced as much of our daily needs from it as possible. I have to laugh at the arm chair preppers I come in contact with who have no idea what skills would be needed to survive in a collapse of some or all of our current technology. I think One Second After is optimistic. People who lived 100 or 200 years ago were every bit as smart (or smarter) than anyone living today and were used to much more hardship. Most modern people would fold up a and die should such a disaster happen.

  11. A little OT (but not really)…

    Did you listen to the leader of Libia’s speech yesterday? He mentioned that a revolution in Libia would not be bloodless like in Egypt because everyone in Libia has guns. Then today, I hear he is bombing his own people using warplanes.

    This is why 2A is useless to prevent tyranny anymore. Personal self-defense? Yeah. Defense from a controlling government? Not a chance.

  12. ubu52,

    I didn’t listen to the speech.

    But did you notice that some of the pilots refused to bomb their own people and flew their warplanes to Cyprus?

    And if the tyrannical Libya government falls will you admit you were wrong?

  13. Joe,

    LA just replaced their entire bus fleet with buses that run on natural gas. I’m sure that would work for bigger equipment like tractors, etc.

  14. ubu52,

    And where does natural gas come from?

    My expectation is that there is a high correlation of the availability of NG with the availability of diesel. If the diesel supply dries up so will the natural gas supply.

  15. Joe, I believe the Japanese already have small reactor generators. IIRC they are about the size of a semi trailer and output something on the order of one MW. They are sealed and are good for about 6-7 years before needing refueling.
    Of course as long as we allow the greenies and their dhimmi allies to determine our energy policy, we will continue to be forked and done.

  16. emdfl,

    I am aware of those but I don’t know the characteristics well enough to know if they could be adapted to field work. Can they respond appropriately to rapidly changing loads? Can they be made small, light, and rugged enough (with scaled down power output of course) to be luggable through fields, trees, and on steep hillsides?

    It was with those in mind that I said, “Maybe”.

  17. A certain amount of fuel for transportation uses might be derived from the electrolysis of water and subsequent catalyzation of hydrogen and carbon dioxide into methanol. The process appears attractive when viewed in the context of a nuclear reactor as a power source (high temperatures/pressures and a ready source of electricity).

    http://www.usc.edu/uscnews/stories/6606.html

    Unfortunately, the idea comes about thirty years late and perhaps too late entirely. What appears most likely to me is a global reversion to a greatly lowered standard of living and technology. If we are fortunate, something akin to John Robb’s idea of “resilient communities” may evolve:

    http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2010/05/the-decline-of-the-west.html

    The worst part of what may be to come isn’t that people will forget how to do certain things. It will be that they will lose their capacity to reason and forget that certain things are even possible at all. This seems to be a defining characteristic of Dark Ages. The current irrationality rife in politics, language, schools, science and nearly everywhere else is a very bad omen.

  18. Another problem with running large vehicles off of electricity is getting the materials for the batteries. The batteries going into most new electric and hybrid vehicles use lots of lithium and rare earth metals. I’ve read some accounts that indicate that we might run out of lithium sooner than we run out of oil. 90% of the world’s rare earth metals are mined in China, which has started clamping down on their export.

    Toyota has already started researching battery technology that doesn’t rely on rare earth metals, but I haven’t seen any indication of imminent breakthroughs.

    The point is, it looks like there are no easy solutions for replacing the internal combustion engine that our society relies on so heavily.

  19. The worst part of what may be to come isn’t that people will forget how to do certain things. It will be that they will lose their capacity to reason and forget that certain things are even possible at all. This seems to be a defining characteristic of Dark Ages. The current irrationality rife in politics, language, schools, science and nearly everywhere else is a very bad omen.

    Case in point: Anyone who claims a kitchen tool is a “unitasker” falls into this category already. I know a woman who can only cook from recipies as they’re written; she has a very hard time deviating from the instructions and thinking creatively. (She’s in her 70s and is an admirable woman in many other respects.) I’ve seen how this carries over into other areas; for instance, she has a very nice generator hardwired into the house, but gets agitated if I ask how she’ll manage if the fuel runs out and she can’t get more. (She also tells me that I don’t need a handgun because my SigOth is a big guy and owns several.) The odd part is that she stocked up for Y2K, so she can and does think along preparedness lines. She just doesn’t follow them far enough to their nasty, bedrock conclusions: namely, that the infrastructure in general may suffer widespread failure.

    I imagine a lot of people fall into the same trap.

  20. I’d say it would probably be a good idea to get that old wind mill working at 100% back on the farm…

    Honestly, latel this scenery has been on my mind, with a wife and 3 young children the possibility of having to “go back” scares the hell out of me.

  21. The progression for some will be straight to horses. Steam is a viable technology and mobile, as in steam tractors, trains and cars. Electric generation via steam is current, just the source of the heat changes, we can burn atomic fuels, gas, oil coal or wood but they all boil water.

    Battery/electric travel, LEAD my dears as in lead acid, Overhead wires as in trolly and electric buses running via electricity from that coal fired steam.

    the economy of cheap energy is at risk not technology.

    Eck!

  22. Joe, again going from memory, I believe that those gens were designed to be placed in “neighborhoods”. The idea was to reduce the need for long interconnected electrical lines/systems. They certainly weren’t small and portatble.
    OTOH, NASA at one time did have a really small reactor designed to power some of their larger satellites – the K-series spy-sats IIRC. I thinks these finally got nixed because of the concern of fall-back.

  23. As I’ve been reading all these comments, I’m reminded of a realization I had a few months ago. I used to be a “Peak Oil” denier–I’m confident that there’s far more oil in the Earth than we realize, even today, and that we can even figure out how to make more, if we needed to–but then I realized that, with sufficient regulations, government can destroy *anything*.

    And that’s what’s happening today: we can’t drill, we can’t make solar panels, we can’t build nuclear power plants or recycle the waste. It would take years (with lots of resources wasted on environmental impact lawsuits) before we’d be able to open a new rare-earth mine–or any mine, for that matter. We *can* do absolutely stupid things, like corn ethanol or wind power–stupid, because they *can’t* give us the energy we need. Our stupid regulations have made us vulnerable! If we hit “peak oil”, it’s because we’ve tied our own hands, and did everything we could to make it possible.

    Ultimately, it will be up to us to prepare for disaster, and we’ll have to do what we can to make up for what government failed to do–things that we probably should never have entrusted to government in the first place!

  24. There are so damn many horses around that you can’t give one away where I live. The legislation prohibiting killing them for dog food pretty well wrecked the market. The case against farming with them is usually overstated. They can eat a lot of grass which will grow where grain crops won’t, the reproduce themselves, you can eat them when they get too old to work, the manure is fertilizer, etc., etc. No, we can’t overnight switch to horse farming, but we can go forward to a time when we do a fair amount of work with them if we keep our heads about us.

    The idea that manure is a problem is just weird. I have a two acre truck patch, and I hauled in about 20 tons of manure from the local sale barn last fall. Glad to get it, and would have done more. Spread it with a pitchfork which saved any need to spend money on a gym membership. Last I heard the Koreans were SELLING human manure because their farmers can’t get fertilizer.

    Solutions abound, but you got to look hard and set aside pre-conceptions.

  25. Outstanding piece, Mr. Huffman. I personally expect us to drop back to at best late 18th-early 19th century technology levels although we will probably retain some electrical and steam technologies. One of the biggest problems I see is the collapse of the continental (and eventually world wide) transportation web.

    If an honest-to-goodness civil war breaks out, no trucker or railroad engineer is going to want to haul anything cross country where they might get shot. Correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that cities have AT MOST 4-5 days of food on hand at any one time. That means food riots are going to break out fairly quickly. Especially if any armed group attempts to control access to what remains. The result will be that our cities will be death traps. People will begin fleeing the cities for smaller outlying communities which will in turn become death traps themselves. Imagine a plague of 1.5 – 2 meter tall bipedal locusts – SOME WITH GUNS, YET!

    The safest places to be will be somewhere a week’s walk or more from major population centers. My son has a dozen or so acres abutting a lake in a southwestern state. The nearest population center has only a couple of thousand people. The next nearest is several day’s walk across essentially the back side of the moon. He has an artesian well so water will present no problem. The property was at one time a self-storage place and small RV park so there is space that can easily be converted to living quarters and a septic system that could easily handle a couple dozen people. I have also had my son quietly buying up out of commission generators and motor homes. Wiln will provide what little electricity we might need. I have also acquired a rifle that will easily put paid to anything I’m likely to encounter south of the Colorado border. It will easily bring down any game plus it will do for varmints – whether 4-legged or 2. I expect bandit gangs to rise as well as local strong men looking to build some sort of feudal fiefdom.

    I hope I am wrong but I EXPECT the world as we know it to end soon.

    Bad Cyborg X%-er
    Burying your head in the sand only makes your a** a better target.

  26. Something I didn’t say in the above post but did in the comments to one or more of the posts that linked to my post is that I don’t think a sudden (happening in a week or even a month) collapse is all that likely. I think it will be much more gradual. Certain things will become more expensive and shortages will gradually occur and then become more frequent. The gas lines of the 70s and the rolling blackouts in California in the early 2000s being examples.

    If I am correct then the food riots and “death traps” will be less likely to occur. A lot of people will probably still die but it will be over months or years through disease, malnutrition, and inadequate heating/cooling in the winter/summer than through traumatic injury or the food/water supply suddenly being “turned off”. In other words I expect we are more likely to sag into a collapse rather that fall over the cliff.

    This means self-defense training and tools are less important than the skills and means of self-sufficiency in that environment. Stock traders and basket weavers could, in essence, trade social standings.

  27. Joe: Check out Hyperion for small nuclear plants http://www.hyperionpowergeneration.com/product.html that support about 20,000 homes for 7 to 10 years.

    I also like the earthship idea: http://www.earthship.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=711&Itemid=3

    There was some work done at MIT a few years back that coated panes of glass with a dye that redirected the sunlight to the edges of the pane where it was concentrated and turned into electricity via photovoltaic cells. The PVs are the expensive part. Glass is cheap. They might use them in windows of buildings letting in enough light to see and capture a lot for electricity. That might all of a sudden make solar panels affordable for electrical generation. http://www.scientificamerican.com/gallery_directory.cfm?photo_id=23C5D042-A396-2D2A-DE22B7B7B49D3487 and http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7501476.stm
    Before oil we had coal and before coal we had wood. We need to realize that the world is changing and work on new, cleaner, better distributed forms of energy. I don’t think we have to give grants or subsidies, just stop giving them to the utilities and oil companies.

  28. Excellent post. I can only hope that this is how our society falls, rather than being taken over by an Islamic dictator. I can handle hardship and 1800s technology… I know that it would be hard, but that’s something that I would do my best to live with. I’d wear a burka over my dead body though.

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