Friday, February 12, 2016

Peak Oil, Peak Everything

Perhaps the most common response to the peak-oil problem is: "The oil isn't going to disappear overnight. We have a century to prepare." Unfortunately, the fact that the decline in oil is a curve, not a vertical line, makes it difficult to comprehend. What matters is that the serious damage will have been done long before we get to those tiny remaining drops. That damage started around 1970, and it was not confined to oil.

Also, there are "curves within curves," so to speak. "Peak oil" in an ABSOLUTE sense was around 2010, but "peak oil" PER CAPITA was 1979, when there were 5.5 barrels of oil per person annually. According to UN estimates (admittedly quite uncertain), the world's population will rise to about 8 billion or more in 2030, whereas a look at the usual (or, at least, realistic) estimates for oil production show a decline to about 15 billion barrels in 2030, giving us a "per capita" figure of less than 2 barrels. That figure will not constitute an "on/off" situation, but by that year 2030 the human race should probably say goodbye to the Oil Economy.

It is not only oil, but in fact the entire North American economy that has followed something like a bell curve. In many ways it was not 2010, or any other year in the early 21st century, but the year 1970, that was the Peak, the Big Peak of Everything. Backward or forward on that curve, we see a dirty, noisy, crowded world. Right on that Peak, we see the Golden Age -- Beatlemania, "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll," Easy Street. As Dickens might say, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." The gap between the rich and the poor was not so bad in those days, whereas according to the US Census Bureau the mean income of the richest 5 percent of American families began to skyrocket shortly before 1970. In the year 1968, there was the Tet offensive, the turning point of the Vietnam War -- from an American military point of view, the downturn. In the year 1969, there was the first moon landing -- "the Space Age" began, although within a few years the expression (like "the Atomic Age") would be just an embarrassment.

The above-mentioned statement, "We have a century to prepare," also raises the question: Who is the "we" here? All human beings? A small group of dedicated survivalists? If the answer is the former, then the statement is false: humanity, as a whole, never makes any decisions. The human race, taken in its entirety, simply does not behave in such a sophisticated manner; the human race much prefers ignorance, superstition, cruelty, and intolerance. Robert Kaplan's book The Ends of the Earth is one of many texts that elucidate the harsh reality of human nature.

What about the coming several decades? Of course, a great deal depends on which time period one is discussing: the world of 2100 will be very different from the world of 2030. The question of slow versus fast collapse will also have a big effect on future scenarios. But if we look at tangible events of the last hundred years, two possible conceptions of the future stand out most clearly. These have best been illustrated by novelists (although not with peak oil as the setting) rather than by sociologists.

The first is that of a slow slide into an impoverished police state, as illustrated by George Orwell’s 1984. In this scenario, government does not disappear. It is here to curse us forever. We may be poor and living in chaos, but we will live in relentless drudgery. This is roughly the same scenario as that of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The second is that of a nuclear war that throws humanity back into a quasi-medieval world, as in Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz. In the fight for the remaining resources, civilization is largely destroyed. Such a scenario is just as plausible as that of George Orwell.

All civilizations grow too large to support themselves, and their leaders have little foresight. These civilizations then collapse and are buried in the sand. The same will happen to American civilization, but human shortsightedness prevents us from seeing it as only one among many. The USA, in other words, is seen as "civilization" in a generic sense, when it is really just one single civilization in a quantifiable sense. Unlike that of ancient Egypt, however, it is not likely to have a lifespan of three thousand years. Nor is it likely that another will take its place.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Bargain-Hunting in the Post-Apocalyptic

I'm becoming more and more convinced that the following are becoming "hot" items -- any non-electric tools, not broken, worn out, badly pitted with rust, or of no practical use. Mainly things to do with home building, repair, renovation, and also gardening. The older the tools, the better -- the metal was apparently better in the old days, and I'd be inclined to avoid anything chrome-plated (as most of the modern tools are) -- these seem to rust very quickly. In any case, go on Google now to find simple methods of removing rust (e.g., with salt and vinegar). All these things are going for pennies now, but not for much longer.

Hammers (old ones with wooden handles) seem to vanish quickly. But I picked up a lovely drawknife recently (probably about $60 when it was new), and some hatchets and pliers. The big prize was a practically unused bit brace, with a couple of dozen bits to go with it -- a set like that would sell for perhaps $200 new, but even then you might have quite a hunt just to find one.

I suspect knives would be greatly prized, especially hunting knives. I paid $8 for an excellent new sheath, which now holds an ancient Bowie knife I've owned for years. In fact I bought two of those sheaths – such things wear out much faster than the knives.

Quite likely there are other objects that are getting grabbed for similar reasons, though I've only got started (via kijiji, flea markets, etc.). Certainly books are in that category – at the moment I can hardly convince anyone that old books on farming and vegetable growing will be worth a zillion times more than the one dollar that they're now going for, but there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth when the Internet crashes and people want to know which end of a bean goes into the ground first.

Other tools and books -- for hunting, for fishing, for trapping? For medicine? For edible wild plants? For making clothing? Containers of any sort, from buckets to backpacks. Any non-electric kitchen appliances. And so on. But avoid plastic – in general, when it breaks it can't be repaired.

Slightly more upscale in technology – compasses, wind-up clocks, slide rules.

Nearly forgot – stock up on clothing, but especially boots.

Oh, well, the list goes on.

The Coming Famine

Humanity has struggled to survive through the millennia in terms of Nature's tendency to balance population size with food supply. The same is true now, but population numbers have been soaring for over a century. Oil, the limiting factor, is close to or beyond its peak extraction. Without ample, free-flowing oil, it will not be possible to support a population of several billion for long. Without fossil fuels for fertilizer and pesticides, as well as for cultivating and harvesting, crop yields drop by more than two-thirds (Pimentel, 1984; Pimentel & Hall, 1984; Pimentel & Pimentel, 2007).

Over the next few decades, there will be famine on a scale many times larger than ever before in human history. It is possible, of course, that warfare and plague, for example, will take their toll to a large extent before famine claims its victims. The distinctions, in any case, can never be absolute: often "war + drought = famine" (Devereux, 2000, p. 15), especially in sub-Saharan Africa, but there are several other combinations of factors.

Although, when discussing theories of famine, economists generally use the term "neo-malthusian" in a derogatory manner, the coming famine will be very much a case of an imbalance between population and resources. The ultimate cause will be fossil-fuel depletion, not government policy (as in the days of Stalin or Mao), warfare, ethnic discrimination, bad weather, poor methods of distribution, inadequate transportation, livestock diseases, or any of the other variables that have often turned mere hunger into genuine starvation.

The increase in the world’s population has followed a simple curve: from about 1.7 billion in 1900 to over 7 billion today. A quick glance at a chart of world population growth, on a broader time scale, shows a line that runs almost horizontally for thousands of years, and then makes an almost vertical ascent as it approaches the present. That is not just an amusing curiosity. It is a shocking fact that should have awakened humanity to the realization that something is dreadfully wrong.

Mankind is always prey to its own "exuberance," to use Catton’s term. That has certainly been true of population growth. In many cultures, "Do you have any children?" or, "How many children do you have?" is a form of greeting or civility almost equivalent to "How do you do?" or, "Nice to meet you." World population growth, nevertheless, has always been ecologically hazardous. With every increase in human numbers we are only barely able to keep up with the demand: providing all those people with food and water has not been easy. We are always pushing ourselves to the limits of Earth’s ability to hold us (Catton, 1982).

Even that is an understatement. No matter how much we depleted our resources, there was always the sense that we could somehow "get by." But in the late twentieth century we stopped getting by. It is important to differentiate between production in an "absolute" sense and production "per capita." Although oil production, in "absolute" numbers, kept climbing -- only to decline in the early twenty-first century -- what was ignored was that although that "absolute" production was climbing, the production "per capita" reached its peak in 1979 (BP, annual).

The unequal distribution of resources plays a part. The average inhabitant of the US consumes far more than the average inhabitant of India or China. Nevertheless, if all the world’s resources were evenly distributed, the result would only be universal poverty. It is the totals and the averages of resources that we must deal with in order to determine the totals and averages of results. For example, if all of the world’s arable land were distributed evenly, in the absence of mechanized agriculture each person on the planet would still have an inadequate amount of farmland for survival: distribution would have accomplished very little.

We were always scraping the edges of the earth, but we are now entering a far more dangerous era. The main point to keep in mind is that, throughout the twentieth century, while population was going up, so was oil production. Future excess mortality can therefore be determined -- at least in a rough-and-ready manner -- by the fact that in modern industrial society it is largely the oil supply that determines how many people can be fed.

There is no precise causal relation, of course, between oil production and famine. To suggest such a thing would conflict with other ways of estimating future population. Another figure, closely related, might be the ratio of population to arable land. Even then, the history of famine does not suggest an exact correlation between population and arable land; certainly in the 1950s there were major famines although the world population was only a third of that today. Ó Gráda claims that the worst famines in recent times were actually in countries which rate relatively well in terms of the ratio of population to arable: Angola, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, Afghanistan, and Sudan. In fact famine, at least up to the present time, seems to have been more related to politics than to arable land or other resources.

Famine will also cause a lowering of the birth rate (Devereux, 2000; Ó Gráda, 2007, March). This will sometimes happen voluntarily, as people realize they lack the resources to raise children, or it will happen involuntarily when famine and general ill health result in infertility. In most famines the number of deaths from starvation or from starvation-induced disease is very roughly the same as the number of lost or averted births. In Ireland’s nineteenth-century famine, the number of famine deaths was 1.3 million, whereas the number of lost births was 0.4 million. The number of famine deaths during China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), however, was perhaps 30 million, and the number of lost births was perhaps 33 million.

The "normal," non-famine-related, birth and death rates are not a factor in determining the future population figures, since for most of pre-industrial human history the sum of the birth and death rates -- in other words, the growth rate -- has been nearly zero: 2,000 years ago the global population was about 300 million, and it took 1,600 years for the population to double. If not for the problem of resource-depletion, in other words, the future birth rate and death rate would be nearly identical, as they were in pre-industrial times. (And there is no question that the future will mean a return to the "pre-industrial.")

Nevertheless, it will often be hard to separate "famine deaths" from a rather broad category of "other excess deaths." War, disease, and other factors will have unforeseeable effects of their own. Considering the unusual duration of the coming famine, and with Leningrad (Salisbury, 2003) as one of many precursors, cannibalism may be significant; to what extent should this be included in the calculation of "famine deaths"? In any case, it is probably safe to say that an unusually large decline in the population of a country will be the most significant indicator that this predicted famine has in fact arrived.

We must ignore most previous estimates of future population growth. Instead of a steady rise over the course of this century, as generally predicted, there will be a clash of the two giant forces of overpopulation and oil depletion, followed by a precipitous ride into an unknown future.

We are ill-prepared for the next few years. The problem of oil depletion turns out to be something other than a bit of macabre speculation for people of the distant future to deal with, but rather a sudden catastrophe that will only be studied dispassionately long after the event itself has occurred. Doomsday will be upon us before we have time to look at it carefully.

The world has certainly known some terrible famines in the past. In recent centuries, one of the worst was that of North China in 1876-79, when between 9 and 13 million died, but India had a famine at the same time, with perhaps 5 million deaths. The Soviet Union had famine deaths of about 5 million in 1932-34, purely because of misguided political policies. The worst famine in history was that of China’s Great Leap Forward, 1958-61, when perhaps 30 million died, as mentioned above.

A closer analogy to the coming "petroleum famine" may be Ireland’s potato famine of the 1840s, since -- like petroleum -- it was a single commodity that caused such devastation (Woodham-Smith, 1962). The response of the British government at the time can be summarized as a jumble of incompetence, frustration, and indecision, if not outright genocide, and the same may be true of any future responses by government.

As previously mentioned, population is not tied with mathematical precision to oil production; the latter provides only a rough indication of the former. To some extent, people will learn to live with less. Certainly most westerners can cut their living standards considerably and still live healthy lives -- perhaps even healthier, since they would be eating less and walking more. People will also switch to other sources of energy: in particular, firewood can replace fossil fuels for heating, though the amount of wood will not be sufficient for billions of people. All these adjustments will alleviate matters for a while, although the basic problem will remain: that fossil fuels will decline at a much faster rate than any voluntary reduction in births.

The above predictions can be nothing more than approximate, but even the most elaborate mathematics will not entirely help us to deal with the great number of interacting factors. We need to swing toward a more pessimistic figure for humanity’s future if we include the effects of war, disease, and so on. One of the most serious negative factors will be largely sociological: To what extent can the oil industry maintain the advanced technology required for drilling ever-deeper wells in ever-more-remote places, when that industry will be struggling to survive in a milieu of social chaos? Intricate division of labor, large-scale government, and high-level education will no longer exist.

On the other hand, there are elements of optimism that may need to be plugged in. We must not forget the sheer tenacity of the human species: we are intelligent social creatures living at the top of the food chain, in the manner of wolves, yet we outnumber wolves worldwide by about a million to one; we are as populous as rats or mice. We can outrace a horse over long distances. Even with Stone-Age technology, we can inhabit almost every environment on Earth, even if most of the required survival skills have been forgotten.

Specifically, we must consider the fact that neither geography nor population is homogeneous. All over the world, there are forgotten pockets of habitable land, much of it abandoned in the modern transition to urbanization, for the ironic reason that city dwellers regarded rural life as too difficult, as they traded their peasant smocks for factory overalls. There are still areas of the planet’s surface that are sparsely occupied although they are habitable or could be made so, to the extent that many rural areas have had a decline in population that is absolute, i.e. not merely relative to another place or time. By careful calculation, therefore, there will be survivors. Over the next few years, human ingenuity must be devoted to an understanding of these geographic and demographic matters, so that at least a few can escape the tribulation. Neither the present nor future generations should have to say, "We were never warned."


BP. Global statistical review of world energy. (annual). Retrieved from

Catton, W. R., Jr. (1982). Overshoot: The ecological basis of revolutionary change. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Devereux, S. (2000). Famine in the twentieth century. IDS Working Paper 105. Retrieved from

Ó Gráda, C. (2007, March). Making famine history. Journal of Economic Literature. Retrieved from

Pimentel, D. (1984). Energy flows in agricultural and natural ecosystems. CIHEAM (International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies). Retrieved from

------, & Hall, C. W., eds. (1984). Food and energy resources. Orlando, Florida: Academic Press.

------, & Pimentel, M. H. (2007). Food, energy, and society. 3rd ed. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press.

Salisbury, H. E. (2003). The 900 days: The siege of Leningrad. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press.

Woodham-Smith, C. (1962). The great hunger: Ireland 1845-1849. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Principles of Survival

Modern industrial civilization is based on fossil fuels; we have been burning about 30 billion barrels of petroleum every year. Fossil fuels make possible our manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, mining, and electricity. The problem is ''peak oil'': the world’s supply of usable, recoverable oil is on a long and bumpy plateau that will become less horizontal as time goes by. Production will drop to half of the peak amount around 2030. In fact, oil production per person (as opposed to oil production in an absolute sense) declined from 5.5 barrels per year in 1979 to 4.3 barrels in 2013.

Fossil fuels are in decline, but metals are also becoming less plentiful. Electricity will be in decline worldwide because it is produced mainly with fossil fuels. These three -- fossil fuels, metals, and electricity -- are highly interconnected: if one of the three fails, then so do the other two.

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. Alternative sources simply don’t have enough ''bang'' to replace 30 billion annual barrels of oil -- or even a small fraction of that amount.

''Peak oil,'' however, basically results in ''peak food.'' Without mechanization, irrigation, and synthetic fertilizer, crop yields will drop considerably. It's more than a mere question of "sustainability" -- as the population shrinks from several billion to several million, vast numbers of people are going to starve to death.

The following suggestions will vary in their applicability as the years go by, but most of them will remain relevant over the course of this century. The slight bias toward the United States and Canada is partly due to the fact that these areas meet most of the criteria for a suitable post-oil habitat.

1. Preparing for the post-oil world, which is really the post-almost-everything world, is quite different from preparing for the short-term emergencies covered in most survival manuals. The future will not consist merely of "stocking up," waiting for the big moment, and then locking your doors and waiting for "the authorities" to arrive. In fact, you should stop thinking of it as an "emergency" -- after all, your ancestors lived in that same "emergency" for millions of years.

2. The world now has an average of more than 100 people for every square mile of land surface. In foraging (hunting-and-gathering) societies, on the other hand, there is an average of only about 0.1 person per square mile. Since the survivors will be living closer to a "foraging" way of life than to an "industrial" one, it would be better to move to somewhere with a low population density.

3. Those who live in rural areas will be better prepared than those who live in a city. A city is a place that consumes a great deal and produces little, at least in terms of essentials. A city without incoming food or water collapses rapidly, whereas a small community closely tied to the natural environment can adjust more easily to technological and economic troubles.

4. Learn to grow your own food. However, only about 10 percent of the world's land is suitable for crops, and nearly all of that is already being used. Also, the "10 percent" refers to the land when it was virgin soil; since then much of it has been quite depleted. Nevertheless, people have drifted into urban areas to such an extent over the years that many rural areas now have a fair amount of abandoned but arable land.

5. No matter how many books you've read, it takes years of large-scale gardening to become sufficiently skilled that you could safely grow enough food to keep yourself and your family alive through a winter. Learning to raise animals takes even longer. A further restriction is that you'll probably be living on only marginally usable land.

6. Good soil has sufficient humus (organic matter, perhaps from compost or from animal manure), and also adequate amounts of about 16 elements, especially nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium -- naturally occurring or otherwise. Humus will do little to make up for missing elements. (Be leery of "organic gardening" -- much of it is little more than folklore.) There's no practical way to turn sand, rock, or swamp into a garden large enough to feed a family. If you're planning to grow anything, you'll need to find good land.

7. It's possible to live mainly on cultivated plants, but at least half an acre per person would be needed, because the plants need to be spread out to catch whatever water falls from the sky. (''Intensive" gardening is possible only with motorized irrigation to supply sufficient water.) Useful crops would be those high in carbohydrates and protein. Less useful would be those susceptible to diseases, bugs, bad soil, or bad weather.

8. Where farming isn't practical, you might survive on foraging (hunting and gathering), especially in areas of very low human population density. It's generally impossible to live solely on wild plants (in most of the north, blueberries are the only wild plant food worth serious attention), so it would be necessary to hunt, trap, and fish.

9. A gun would be handy until there was no more ammunition. There's no such thing as a perfect gun, so you have to make your own decisions. A .22 is quiet, with very lightweight ammunition; even large animals can be killed with such a gun (although perhaps not legally) if you hit the vital areas. A 12-gauge shotgun will take a variety of ammunition, but it's good only for short distances. Probably most people would do best with a rifle in .308 or .270 caliber. Bolt (and, to some extent, lever) actions are less trouble-prone than either pump or semi-automatic.
10. A possible problem with hunting for game, in post-collapse times, is that there might be too many people doing it. However, the shortage of fuel will cut down the number of motorized vehicles on which modern hunters depend. Also, most people in modern industrial civilization lack the physical stamina to go wading through a swamp all day, looking for a moose. Finally, there are simply not that many people who have the skills for serious hunting.

11. The only heating fuel will be wood. In a cold climate, from 2 to 10 full cords are needed for a winter, depending on many factors. A full cord is 128 cubic feet , which is 4 trees of 12-inch diameter. Two acres of trees will provide 1 cord on a sustainable basis. With a non-motorized saw, conserve your strength by cutting logs less than 6 inches wide -- also, they will not require splitting. The smaller the house, the less wood that will be needed. Rooms that are not needed in winter should be closed off; windows should be covered.

12. Except for a very few people who have the temperament and the skills, living alone will not be practical. "Dunbar's number" of the maximum practical size for a human group is 150, but in reality a tribe takes generations to form, so a rapidly assembled group might be much smaller. For the most part, it is the family -- the ties of blood or marriage -- that serves as the basic unit of any society. Groups of the size of a village are viable because everyone knows everyone, and a smaller community has a greater chance of cohesion and consensus.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Corn and Beans as a Survival Diet

A common and rather basic diet for humanity is based on a 5-to-1 ratio of corn (maize, Zea mais) to beans (Phaseolus spp.), although these 2 foods are supplemented with meat and other foods whenever possible. This simple diet has been the norm in many parts of Latin America and southwestern North America. It is also found in other parts of the world, because these New World food-plants have spread considerably since pre-Columbian times. David and Marcia Pimentel (2008, p. 63) note:

. . . The majority of humankind has had to depend primarily on plant materials for energy and other nutrients. Even today most of the world's people live on about 2500 kcal per day and obtain most of their food energy protein from grains and legumes. . . .

A study of 12 rural villages in southern India showed that individuals consumed, on average, between 210 and 330 g of rice and wheat, 140 ml of milk, and 40 g of pulses and beans per day. . . . This diet provided about 1500 kcal and 48 g of protein per day, with the major share of both calories and protein coming from plants.

In Central America, laborers commonly consume about 500 g of corn per day. . . . Along with the corn they eat about 100 g of black beans per day, and together these staples provide about 2118 kcal and 68 g of protein daily. The corn and beans complement each other in providing the essential amino acids that humans need. Additional food energy is obtained from other plant and animal products.”

The above quantities are obviously intended to indicate dry weight, since 1 kg of dried corn supplies about 3,600 to 3,800 kcal, though estimates vary. (One kg of dry cornmeal is about 1.25 L, or 1 L is about 0.8 kg.)


"Corn" or "maize" here does not mean the vegetable that is normally eaten as "corn on the cob," but the types that are mainly used to produce cornmeal; these are sometimes referred to as "grain corn" or "field corn." Corn is very high-yielding and can be grown easily with hand tools, but it is only practical in areas with long periods of warmth and sunshine; even in most parts of North America it is not easy to grow north of about latitude 45. Corn also needs a good deal of light, so it is not planted where trees are going to cast a shadow.

In North America, both corn and beans need to be planted late in the spring, when all danger of frost is past, but that did not stop the native people from growing these crops quite far north; even the Huron of southern Canada had large corn fields.

Under primitive conditions, corn plants need plenty of room: the kernels should be planted about 2.5-5 cm deep and about 60 cm apart, in rows that are about 1 m apart, for a total sowing of only about 10 kg/ha. In an arid area, it might even be necessary to increase these distances. Many of the native tribes planted the kernels, not in rows, but in small clusters separated by perhaps 1 m in every direction; this method may have conserved water or ensured that a few plants would survive depredation by animals. At least after the corn had germinated or had grown a few cm, no water was used except whatever fell from the sky.

Most of the corn was left on the plants until it had dried, and the ears were then picked and hung up to dry more completely indoors. The dried kernels were stripped from the cobs and later made into a powder, either by being pounded in a huge wooden mortar and pestle, or by being crushed between two stones, the bottom one wide and flat, the top one smaller and rounder. The finished cornmeal was used to make several kinds of soups, pudding, or bread.

Corn is low in isoleucine and lysine, 2 of the essential amino acids that make up protein. To remedy this deficiency, corn should be eaten with beans, which have roughly the opposite amino-acid composition.

Corn is also low in vitamin B3 (also known as nicotinic acid or niacin), and this deficiency can lead to pellagra. The problem was usually remedied either by eating meat occasionally, or by soaking the corn in an alkaline (lye) solution, often made of wood ashes. In what is now the southwestern United States, the whole kernels were soaked for a few days in water with ashes. The ashes were make by burning juniper wood, corn cobs, saltbush (atriplex), or bean vines. The amount of ash used was between one-tenth and one-half as much as the amount of corn. (Ash water was sometimes prepared separately and strained through a grass or sage stirring brush to separate the ashes from the water before the maize was added. Ash water might also be prepared by boiling.) The soaking separated the hulls from the starch. The hulls and water were then discarded and the grains were thoroughly washed in pure water. This treatment reduced some amino acids but greatly increased the content of both niacin and the amino acid lysine, thus preventing pellagra.


Beans are another very important food, but especially for people living on a largely vegetarian diet. Beans are high in protein, they will grow almost anywhere, and once they have produced a few leaves they need little or no irrigation. Beans and other legumes also add nitrogen to the soil.

In modern times, beans are usually planted in rows, but the native people planted them like corn, in holes, with several to a hole, so that even if some did not sprout, or if they were eaten by animals, enough plants would grow. The natives generally planted the beans (and often squash) in the same fields in which the corn was planted, with the vines of the beans running up the stalks of the corn, and in that way more food could be grown on a piece of land.

When using primitive technology, about 120 kg/ha are sown. However, a harvest of about 20 kg of dried beans would be plenty for 1 person for 1 year, even on a vegetarian diet. To produce that amount, one would need about 140 m2 of room, about 12x12 m. That would mean sowing about 3 kg of beans.

One can also broadcast beans (scatter them randomly over the tilled ground), if it is desirable to save time and energy. The soil must be well dug, and there must be adequate moisture around planting time. Some of the seed beans may be wasted by broadcasting, but that method is quicker and easier than planting in rows. About 120 kg/ha are sown, as for row planting.

When the plants are brown, they are pulled up, and the pods are stripped off and put on a clean surface. The pods are left to dry further and turned occasionally, until the pods are so brittle that they crumble. The pods are then beaten thoroughly, or stamped on, to get the beans out.

The beans are winnowed to rid them of the bits of pods, leaves, and stems: on a windy day, the beans are tossed into the air, or poured from one container to another. Then the beans are left to dry for another week or so. They are stirred and turned until they are thoroughly dried. Beans often look dry when they are not, but if they retain moisture they will eventually rot.

How Much Land Is Needed?

Corn has a higher yield per hectare than any other temperate-climate grain (although, of course, no one would live entirely on corn). With non-mechanized agriculture, however, the yield of a hectare of corn is only about 2,000 kg, a third as much as with modern production. The resulting food energy from that non-mechanized hectare is about 7 million kcal. In less affluent societies, people get by with only about 2,500 kcal per day, or 900,000 kcal per year. On the other hand, a hard-working adult in the average modern country might burn about 5,000 kcal per day, or 2 million kcal per year. In other words, that non-mechanized hectare would support a maximum of somewhere between 3 and 8 people.

To supply the same number of kilocalories, beans would require about twice as much land as corn, but of course beans offset their low yield in calories by their high yield in protein: beans supply about 25 g of protein per kg, whereas corn supplies only about 3 g.

Further Reading

Bradley, F. M., & Ellis, B. W., eds. (1992). Rodale’s all-new encyclopedia of organic gardening. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale.

Goodchild, P. (1999). Survival skills of the North American Indians. 2nd ed. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

-----. (2013). Tumbling tide: population, petroleum, and systemic collapse. London, Ontario: Insomniac Press.

Lappé, F. M. (1991). Diet for a small planet. New York: Ballantine.

Logsdon, G. (1977). Small-scale grain raising. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale.

Pimentel, D., & Pimentel, M. H. (2008). Food, energy, and society. 3rd ed. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press.

Weatherwax, P. (1954). Indian corn in old America. New York: Macmillan.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Cycle of Civilization

Chapter 30 of Tumbling Tide

From a Darwinian perspective, civilizations are rather brief interludes in the story of mankind. Homo sapiens and other members of our genus have walked the Earth at various times over the course of about 2 million years, but civilizations have existed for only about 5,000 years. Humanity's "uncivilized" past, therefore, is greater than its "civilized" phase by the enormous ratio of 400 to 1. Considering the brevity of the latter, it might almost be said that civilization is merely an experiment, the results of which are not entirely clear.

All civilizations grow too large to support themselves, and their leaders have little foresight. These civilizations then collapse and are buried in the mud. The fall of the Roman Empire, for example, has been ascribed to various factors, from laziness to lead poisoning. The impoverishment of the soil, and the consequent lack of food, may have played a large part. No doubt it was also a combined military and economic problem: there wasn't enough money to pay for all the soldiers guarding the frontiers. Pestilence may have been another significant factor. Perhaps a more correct answer would actually be a more general one: the empire was too big, and it was poorly led.

The main difference between the past and the future is that the cycle of "civilization" can no longer be repeated. Oil is not the only mineral that will be in short supply in the twenty-first century. Industrial civilization has always been dependent on metals, but hematite, for example, is no longer sufficiently common, and mining companies now look for other sources of iron, which can be processed only with modern machinery. In fact most metals are globally now either declining or heading in that direction.

The technology of one century built the technology of the next. The technology of the past -- the hammer, anvil, forge, and bellows of the ancient blacksmith -- made it possible for later generations to extract the lowgrade ores of the present. Very low-grade iron ores, for example, can now be worked, but only because there were once better, more accessible ores. This "mechanical evolution" is, of course, liable to collapse: when Rome fell, so did literacy, education, and technology. Eventually that knowledge was recovered, though, because the natural world was fundamentally unchanged.

In the future, however, after the collapse of the present civilization, the necessary fuels and ores will not be available for that gradual rebuilding of advanced technology. The loss of both petroleum and accessible ores means that history will no longer be a cycle of civilizations.

By the year 2100 there will not be many humans left, and those who hope to stay alive will have to approach the matter of their survival as if planning the colonization of a distant planet. But the collapse of industrial society may have a happy ending of some sort, or at least a semblance of redemption. The somewhat upbeat ending to the story is that there will be, so to speak, a "return to Nature."

In many ways the most important event in the development of mankind was not the transition from the Stone Age to civilization, but rather from the Paleolithic (the Old Stone Age) to the Neolithic (the New Stone Age). Specifically, the major event was the shift from foraging (hunting and gathering) to agriculture. Ultimately this event was a bad choice. Even at the present time, among surviving primitive societies, one can see that foraging has advantages over agriculture.

As Richard Lee (1968) and Brian Ferguson (2003, July/August) have both explained, there are many disadvantages to agricultural life. In the first place, agriculture does not generally lead to leisure and the consequent opportunity for intellectual refinement, contrary to popular belief. If there is any leisure, it is only for those at the top, whose easy life is dependent on the less-easy life of those at the bottom. Foragers, on the other hand, spend only about 20 hours a week on actual work.

Secondly, with agriculture and permanent settlements come the woes of social inequity: foragers are nomadic because of the cycle of the seasons, so they have little means of storing and transporting food, and in any case little need to do so, whereas the settled life of agriculture allows the rulers to accumulate food and hence other forms of wealth produced by the workers.

Thirdly, agricultural societies generally include violence in all its forms, because the wealth of the elite provides a motive for robbery within the state, and for warfare between one state and another.

Fourthly, agriculture is destructive to the environment: it causes soil depletion and desertification.

Finally, agriculture leads to poor health, at least in the sense that people who live mainly on grains are less healthy than those who live on a highly varied diet of wild plants and the flesh of wild animals.

The theory that the Paleolithic was better than the Neolithic is far from proven, of course. If we look at various societies, past and present, it may not be the case that they can all be divided into "happy foragers" and "unhappy farmers." Nor does it seem absolutely clear that foragers always work less than farmers: part of the problem there is that in any society the dividing line between (food-related) work and non-work is not always easily defined, so measurements are uncertain. Some of these controversies might be a matter of over-generalization: it may well be, for example, that foraging requires less work but that some foraging societies are nevertheless violent.

Also in favour of the theory of the "happy forager," however, is the matter of our present ideological fallacies. Nowadays it is largely assumed, without any real evidence, that human life gets better from one century to the next. The belief in "progress," however, has not always been a common assumption. In fact it really dates only from the eighteenth century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment, the birth of industrialism.

Nevertheless the belief in progress now has a great hold on many people, and to a large extent it acts as a substitute for religion. The basic tenet is that humanity has gone from an unhappy world of savagery to a happy world of industrialism.

Yet as soon as we start to question this belief, its illogicality is obvious. Even in "developed" countries, there are the billionaires and the homeless. Warfare and general political strife are rampant, and there seems to be no such thing as honest government anywhere. The modern business world makes a mockery of our beliefs in democracy and equality: to succeed in business one must often be ruthless, unscrupulous, and devoid of a conscience. And instead of living a life of leisure, the average moderner tries desperately to find enough minutes to maintain a home, a family, and a job. Where, then, are the rewards of civilization? In an afterlife?

We must consider further implications of a belief in the Paleolithic ideal. In the first place, it is one thing to say that the Paleolithic was a happier time; it is another to say that people now living in technologically advanced societies should revert to Paleolithic ways of living. To do so, it would be necessary for the human population of Earth to drop from its present level of 7 billion to about 10 million, as it was toward the end of the Paleolithic, i.e. to shrink to much less than 1 percent of its present size. In addition, the Earth no longer has the abundance in flora and fauna that it had 10,000 years ago, so foraging would no longer be as easy as before. Finally, even if foraging is easier than farming, the average person living in industrial society nowadays has not been raised to a physically active life and by adulthood is probably permanently incapable of anything but a sedentary occupation.

A reply to this question of the logical consequences might be that if civilization in general will come to an end, the difficulties must simply be dealt with, although it will certainly take more than one generation to make the transition. A theory of a post-industrial primitive culture might require a great stretch of the imagination, but human cultures have always been capable of variation.

A further thought is that a return to the Paleolithic is, in any case, inevitable. Individual civilizations have come and gone over the last 5,000 years, but eventually civilization as we know it will come to a permanent end. Civilization destroys its own environment: already there are far too many humans, natural resources such as metals and fossil fuels are starting to decline, and arable land is crowded and less fertile. From the first civilization to the present day is a rather short time, compared to the 2 million years of hominid evolution. In the not-so-distant future, all that we now call civilization will be regarded merely as an aberration in the foraging way of life to which Homo sapiens is better suited.

When we lose our fossil fuels, we will have to go back at least as far as to an agrarian way of life. But that's just the first half of the problem. The other is that agriculture itself is just not "sustainable," if I may use a frequently misleading word ("sustainable" for a week? for a million years?). That is to say, agriculture causes the destruction of arable land: the more we farm, the more the farmland becomes eroded. "Organic" farming and similar practices can reduce the rate of loss, but only to a certain extent: elements such as phosphorus and calcium get washed away, no matter how we try to rationalize our behaviour. The result is ever-increasing famine.

The only way of life, therefore, that is in any way "sustainable" (although again there is that vague word) is foraging: hunting and gathering. But there is even more to the story, a psychological consideration, namely that walking around naked like the Australian aborigines may be simply too depressing to think about. We have been led to believe that the (foraging) life of man in a state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," as Hobbes said three centuries ago. It turned out not to be true, but nothing will stop the popular belief in the greater blessings of farming (not foraging) life.

Even then, that foraging way of life will not last for eternity, because the cave dwellers of the future are eventually going to increase their numbers. So then the whole game will start over again. But it's also true that it took hominids the long space of 2 million years to get from zero to a population of 10 million, after which it was agriculture that fostered a much greater leap in the birth rate. So perhaps, after the end of civilization, Homo sapiens can once again maintain a small population for millions of years.

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 kilometres of wilderness, ravaged though parts of it may be, and the "economy" in the depths of that natural world will be the same one that has been there for millions of years.

The intelligent thing to do would be to take control of that transition, to enter the future with both eyes open. Finding a new world for tomorrow means finding a way of life that is more attuned to the land, the sea, and the sky. There is no way for a small group of people to prevent systemic collapse, but it may be that things will be better when the collapse is completed. At the moment, there is only one direction, and that is out. We must literally step out of the present economy -- and by "we" I mean those few who are clever enough to be saved, those few who make the effort to pack their bags. We must stop being part of "society." The details are uncertain, but the general picture is not too hard to draw. I envision a world where people can wake up each morning and greet the sunrise. I imagine a world in which people can live with nobility, dignity, and grace.


Ferguson, R. B. (2003, July/August). The birth of war. Natural History. Retrieved from

Lee, R. B. (1968). What hunters do for a living, or, How to make out on scarce resources. In R. B. Lee and I. DeVore, eds., Man the hunter. Chicago: Aldine Publishing. Retrieved from

Friday, January 8, 2016

Rhymes for Darkness


There were dregs creeping round the cornfields at dawn, in late summer just as the crop was getting ripe enough to harvest. Red-faced from sunburn or alcohol, their clothes faded and ragged, slouching like beaten dogs, with stupid grins as if they were drunk or mentally retarded. You could see them in the shadows, you could just feel their presence.


I woke up with stomach trouble and an eye infection, and there was still no electricity. When I tried to call the power company again, the automated answering service told me to stay on the line, and said I'd be able to connect with a representative within half an hour or an hour. The wind was so strong it threatened to blow my canoe off its winter platform. I crushed the snow down to make a path to the old outhouse. On my way back I picked a few kale leaves exposed by the melting of the snow. What would the future be like?

I was always telling people to be prepared, but I was often the least prepared of all. Don’t fall into the river when you dip the bucket. A foot-thick spruce had snapped off and gone somewhere downstream. Two days later, there was still no electricity. The wind was gentle for an hour or so, and then it started to build again. The automated answering service stretched across the empyrean, telling me I'd be connected with a representative at some time. Angels we have heard on high. Food, water, firewood, one day at a time.


The building lobby and stairwell were pitch-dark. I was also concerned because half the time most of the land-line telephones everywhere seemed to have stopped working. I always kept a cell phone but I only intended it to be used for emergencies, and then it failed when I needed it most. The fees and taxes were outrageous, and we paid for incoming and outgoing calls, but couldn't get the services we expected. And at one point none of the radio stations was broadcasting.

I was working on my computer in my office when the lights began dimming a bit every few minutes. I saved the document and a few minutes later the power died. I was downtown, I walked down about thirty flights of stairs. I just wanted to get home before dark.

All I keep hearing from the news media was how it was so great that everyone was pulling together to get through this hardship. But I never saw any of my own neighbors checking on anyone else. Anyway, why bother? I knocked on a couple of doors to see if anyone needed help and they all looked at me as if I was a rapist or a murderer. Then when I called the city to ask where I could get water, although I had no electricity even to boil water, they said just keep checking the stores. I didn't have enough fuel to go driving all over town looking for water. What I heard later was that all the bottled water was soon sold out anyway. The power went out on the first night and came back on a few hours later. Whatever power I did get was shaky. I lost power again for short periods of time.


I normally had a two-hour drive to the cottage. I decided to spend the night in the apartment and head north early in the morning. It took three hours due to all the traffic lights out and so many other people on the road, and the roads were icy, and there were no snowplows. But there was a fair amount of cooperation. Volunteers were directing traffic at intersections, people were helping each other and so on.

Electricity came back on for a moment in the early morning before I left for the cottage, but there was still no TV, and then there was no phone service. The water came back on though. There didn't seem to be any pattern to it.

The worst part was that nobody at any level of government went on air to address the public until the second day. What were they waiting for? Maybe nobody wanted to take the blame.

The news media were making a huge deal out of it right from the beginning. The loss of power wasn't life-threatening at first, hospitals had generators. Telecommunications had generators as did major data centers. I admit this was all a major inconvenience for people anyway.

It took a long time even to get out of town. Much of the time, vehicles were just moving from one area to another, trying to find a way out. There were empty buses that seemed to be going nowhere, and many cars had only one person.


We'd never really spent much time at the cottage in winter, but the summer before the blackout we'd had a cast-iron wood-stove installed. We didn't know much about such things, and now that we really needed it we were having trouble with it. Sometimes we spent several hours just trying to prepare a simple dinner and get the fire going. The stove was cold when we decided to make dinner, of course. Getting the stove going again, after it had been out for several hours, could be murder unless we'd got perfect materials -- such as an armload of well-seasoned twigs, all a half-inch thick. On the other hand, if we kept the fire going non-stop for days, we had no trouble at all getting it to burn new or wet wood. But once it had gone out, nothing seemed able to bring it back to life. Newspaper, pine cones, birch bark -- ten minutes later, it had all fizzled out again.

It was sometimes so cold in the house that we walked around gritting our teeth. Once, a couple hours after the sun came up, I was sitting about six feet from the stove but I was so cold that I was shuddering, although I was wearing several layers of clothes. It was slightly below zero outside, not extremely cold. I got so frustrated that I went and woke my wife up and told her we had to do something. The inside of our house was still under construction, and there were various kinds of heat loss. So we did some instant "home repair and improvement" -- we'd bought curtain rods and curtains for the French windows and for the main window in the living room long before but hadn't found time to put them up. A few hours after we did so, it seemed warmer. Snow fell all day.

That morning had felt too much like a brush with death from hypothermia. Getting warm would require doing a lot of work on the house. Because of the perpetual cold, however, we'd been getting too tired and too numb, as the weeks went by, to do anything, even if it meant improving our living conditions. It had started becoming a vicious circle.

Some of the neighbors showed us that it was important to build up a really good fire in the stove and then keep it hot by adding wood on a regular basis, every half-hour or so, not letting it die down to nothing but coals. They also explained that we should have kept the damper wide open much more often than we had been. Generally we'd just been loading up the stove with cold wet wood and then expecting to be warm. Anyway, finally the house was warm enough. New wood or old wood didn't really make much difference, as long as the wood was being put into what was literally a roaring fire.

Another problem we hadn't quite got around to dealing with was wood that had been thoroughly soaked by rain. It always took about three days inside for such wood to lose enough water to burn properly, and even then it was not so good. We had one big pile of firewood under an old sheet of corrugated fiberglass, but we still needed to cover the other big pile.

But one day we had the feeling that at last we were beating the cold. There was often quite a blizzard outside, but inside it was pleasant enough.

By the end of winter, we got one or two "warm" days -- I mean, days that didn't remind me of the more-tragic aspects of polar expeditions. But the long weeks of cold weather had been causing some further problems. We'd been keeping the curtains closed to get some more warmth in the house, but then ice had been forming between the curtains and the windows. And in the bedroom there was a huge patch of dark blue mold developing in one corner. I didn't know if that problem was related to the temperature, but I suspected that the warm air from the living room was condensing in the cold bedroom, creating ideal conditions for this primitive vegetation.

By early spring there were one or two days when the mountain of snow on top of the roof started to drip, to melt, to form giant columns of clear ice, to remelt and then freeze again. I got the bow saw out of the basement so that I could finish a few more logs. Now, every few weeks, in between the "real" work of getting seeds into the ground, there might be a few minutes left over to cut some more wood.

On the first real summer day, the corn started to come up. By a month later the corn was about a foot high. Three weeks after that, it was about three feet high.

The wild geese declared war. Twice a day, morning and evening, they'd wander around eating grass seed, but then they'd slowly drift into the garden to nip what they could. They basically ignored me when I chased them. But I learned some tricks. When they fanned out, I chose one creature and stuck with it. One at the far left or right of the flock was worth choosing, or one that had already become isolated. I then walked after it, not letting it walk in a circle; if it turned, I headed it off so it turned the other way. It was impossible to hit a goose with a rock -- they were too far, and always moving -- but when I threw three rocks at once at a flying goose I nearly hit it.

In late summer we collected our first six ears of corn. The geese were still there. I got my old twelve-gauge shotgun and put a shell in each barrel. I walked out the back door and pulled one trigger, missed, pulled the other trigger, and one flopped over, dead.


The dregs operated mainly, not with violence as such, but with the threat of violence. If they used veiled threats, over a long period of time, gradually increasing the intensity of the threats, you yourself would become gradually more nervous, more fearful, and they would win without having to risk using weapons. You might be telling yourself if you were nice to them, maybe they'd go away, and conversely if you weren't nice to them, they'd hurt you. Neither theory was very accurate.

They rarely acted alone. They knew that there was safety in numbers -- even if the good guys had trouble catching on to this bit of wisdom themselves. Conversely, if you could catch a dreg alone, since he was unaccustomed to acting alone, you had him in your power. He would then play dumb or play dead, hoping you'd change your mind about him.

You couldn't assume that if you lived far enough off in the boondocks, the dregs wouldn't find you. On the contrary, a lot of dregs knew that isolated houses were easy pickings.

You had to convince a dreg that you were crazier than he was. If you gave the impression that you regarded your life as infinitely precious, he would have an advantage over you. If, on the other hand, you convinced him that your blood-lust was greater than your will to live, he might decide that tackling you was not worth the bother.

If you were having serious trouble with one, and you knew that talking would accomplish nothing, then you had to move fast. When faced with imminent violence, an important rule was that of first strike. If you hit a dreg hard enough, long before he was expecting it, he would be literally shocked and surprised, and you might save yourself a good deal of pointless conversation -- or from being able to do nothing but stand there quivering.


Even if you didn't have a handgun, there were three kinds of long guns that would be of use if your life was at risk. A .22 rifle might not kill a dreg, although he might die slowly from internal bleeding later. In any case, it would certainly slow him down. The ammo was so small that it was both cheap and easy to store. Other types of rifle were roughly .300 caliber -- this ammo was bigger but far more powerful than .22 ammo. The third type of long gun was the shotgun.

If you chose a shotgun, you didn't really want anything lighter than a 12-gauge. A double-barreled shotgun allowed a fast second shot. Sawing off the barrels -- and maybe you could get bluing to prevent rust in that area -- would make the gun easier to carry.

"Down" didn't always mean "out." The dreg might get hit three or four times and yet rise again to finish you off. You didn't want to put your gun away just because he had his eyes closed -- he might open them later.


When a dreg had to be butchered, the first thing was to bleed him, unless the bullet had gone straight through and left a large exit hole that drained the blood. It was important, as I said, not to leave your gun and rush in on a dying dreg to work on him, because he might turn out to be less dead than he looked. So you had to put a bullet or a knife into his heart or spine. Then you had to get the guts out in a reasonable time, or gas would build up inside and you'd have a problem with rotting.

It didn't make a great deal of difference what order you did things, or maybe even how you did them, but it generally went something like this. You stuck the point of your knife through the skin over the belly, just below the breastbone, and cut down to the area of the genitals, but never letting the knife go deep enough to cut into the intestines. Then you started where you originally put the knife in, and slit upward to meet the neck. To remove the hands and feet, you cut a little below the wrists, and likewise a little below the ankles, cutting straight across through the skin and muscles, in front, and the same behind, and then snapped them off. Then you slit the skin along the inside of each arm and leg, up to the cuts you'd made in the belly and chest.

To remove the head, you cut the neck through the skin, the flesh, and the gullet to the backbone. Then you found a joint between the surfaces of two vertebrae, separated these as far as you could, and then twisted the head round and round, until it broke off.


This country had become just like one of the many collapsed societies that could already be found between West Africa and Southeast Asia, where uniforms were deceptive and official borders were meaningless. When much of the world consisted of bandit hordes riding across a wasteland, it would have been laughable to worry about inflation, unemployment, and the stock market, as we used to do long ago.

The term "developing countries" had become merely a euphemism for "dying countries": the basic characteristic of such lands was summarized by the Spanish word mañana, a word signifying the prevalence of low morale. A foreign visitor might describe the average inhabitant of such a land as "rude, lazy, stupid, and dishonest," but that was somewhat begging the question.

How could a person have such traits if they led only to self-destruction? But chronic frustration led to what psychologists called "displacement": an animal placed in a situation in which neither of two opposite choices is rewarding eventually becomes apathetic. In a failed state, the visitor's strongest impression was this was a country where nothing worked properly -- and nobody cared.