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Systemic collapse, the coming crash – there are many names, and they do not all correspond to exactly the same thing, but there is a widespread suspicion that something strange is happening (William R. Catton, Jr., Overshoot). This event has several elements, each with a somewhat causal relationship to the next. The first are (1) fossil fuels, (2) metals, and (3) electricity. These are a tightly knit group, and no industrial civilization can have one without the others.

As those three disappear, (4) food becomes scarce – grain and fish supplies, for example, have been declining for years. (5) Fresh water also becomes scarce – water tables are falling everywhere, rivers are not reaching the sea. Matters of infrastructure then follow: (6) transportation and (7) communication – no paved roads, no telephones, no computers.

Those are followed by a final and more general element that is (8) chaos, which results in the pervasive sense that “nothing works anymore” – nothing that is easy to define, but the subtle indications of general dysfunction.

Oil is everything. That is to say, everything in the modern world is dependent on oil and other hydrocarbons. From these we get fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, lubricants, plastic, paint, synthetic fabrics, asphalt, pharmaceuticals, and many other things. On a more abstract level, we are dependent on these fossil fuels for manufacturing, for transportation, for agriculture, for mining, and for electricity. When oil goes, our entire industrial society will go with it. There will be no means of supporting the billions of people who live on this planet. Above all, there will be insufficient food.

A good deal of debate has gone on about the “peak,” the date at which the world’s annual oil production will reach (or did reach) its maximum and will begin (or did begin) to decline. The consensus is that the peak of “conventional” oil was somewhere between the years 2000 and 2020. Perhaps the most useful data is the annual reports of BP, one of the oil and gas supermajors.

Unconventional” forms of oil, from tar sands and shale and so on, have increased production since around 2005, prolonging the overall peak, but supplies of unconventional oil are not expected to last much longer. Coal and natural gas are also not as plentiful as before.

In terms of its effects on daily human life, the most significant aspect of fossil-fuel depletion will be the lack of food. Modern agriculture is highly dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers, pesticides, and the operation of machines for irrigation, harvesting, processing, and transportation. Without fossil fuels, modern methods of food production will disappear, and crop yields will be far less than at present, as David and Marcia Pimentel explain clearly in Food, Energy, and Society.

As Michael T. Klare has shown in Resource Wars, much of modern warfare is about oil, in spite of all the rhetoric about the forces of good and the forces of evil.

The first distinct sign of systemic collapse will be the increasing frequency of electrical-power failures, as Richard C. Duncan has explained in “The Olduvai Theory.” Throughout the world, electricity comes mainly from coal, natural gas, nuclear power plants, or hydroelectric dams, and all of them are bad choices. Most electricity in the US and Canada is produced by fossil fuels, and in the US that generally means coal. The first problems with electricity will serve as an advance warning, but the greatest danger will occur years later as the production of fossil fuels and metals is itself reduced by the lack of electrical power.

The US and Canadian grid is a hopelessly elaborate machine – the largest machine in history – and it is perpetually operating at maximum load, chronically in need of better maintenance and expensive upgrading.

Computers will cease to operate, and computers have insinuated themselves into almost every device we use. There will be no long-distance communication: no telephones, no Internet, no electronic transmission of data from anywhere to anywhere.

Eventually money will largely cease to exist, because there will be no electronic means of sending or receiving it, and no way of balancing accounts. Banking machines will cease to operate. In fact money nowadays is generally not reckoned as coins or bills, but as data on a screen, and the data will no longer be there.

Modern medicine will vanish. Doctors will not have the modern means of taking care of their patients.

The police will be immobilized because they will have no means of sending or receiving information.

There is a dangerous relationship between electricity and nuclear power. Nuclear reactors need electricity to run the cooling, among other things.

It will be impossible to jump into a car and get help because cars require gasoline, and the gas pumps are run by electricity. In any case, the oil wells and the refineries will have ceased operation.

Alternative sources of energy will never be very useful for several reasons, but mainly because of a problem of “net energy”: the amount of energy output is not sufficiently greater than the amount of energy input. With the problematic exception of uranium, alternative sources ultimately don’t have enough “bang” to replace the 30 billion barrels of oil we use annually – or even to replace more than the tiniest fraction of that amount.

Wind and geothermal power are only effective in certain areas and for certain purposes. Hydroelectric dams are reaching their practical limits. Nuclear power will soon be suffering from a lack of fuel and is already creating serious environmental dangers. The current favorite for alternative energy is solar power, but it has no practicality on a large scale. There is a great deal of solar energy reaching the Earth, but it is too diffuse to be of much value. Proponents of solar energy must therefore close their eyes to all questions of scale.

When news articles claim that there are simple painless solutions to the oil crisis, the reader’s response is not awareness but drowsiness. We are rapidly heading toward the greatest disaster in history, but we are indulging in escapist fantasies.

Over the course of the next few decades, all that is certain is that the future of humanity will start to resemble its distant past, except that much of the natural resources will be missing. However, the planet will still have about 100 million square kilometers of wilderness, ravaged though parts of it may be, and the “economy” in the depths of that world will be the same one that has been there for millions of years.

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  • Peter Goodchild

    Peter Goodchild's most recent book The Western Path, published by Arktos, may be purchase at

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