I’ve been reading up on the issue of peak oil for a while now, and have begun to think about what life might be like in a post-peak oil world.
Bicycles may become the most common mode of transportation in cities and small towns. People in Europe still use bikes for a lot of their transportation needs. Horsepower may come back in a big way, because oil is going to become scarce, and behemoth tractors, cars, buses and 18-wheelers use a lot of oil products for fuel and lubrication. I see that as a good thing for several reasons. First, horses are my favorite quadruped. Second, they eat stuff you can grow – no dependence on oil. Third, they fertilize the areas in which they roam. Fourth, they can reproduce themselves. Fifth, they are multi-purpose; a horse can pull a cart or a plow or be ridden or carry a pack or provide the power for mill wheels or water systems. While you could drive a tractor to town, it’s a little chilly and wet in the winter, and I don’t suggest trying to plow a field with your Ford Explorer. I can see a day when the farmer may reserve his or her allocation of rationed fuel to drive to town once a month. Meanwhile, the farm work will get done with horses, mules or oxen. The big tractors will be cannibalized for useful pieces and otherwise left to rust.
I think farms may get smaller because of the horsepower/oil issue. It’s much harder to work large acreages with horses – not impossible, but much harder – partly because of the travel time inherent in large farms. If it takes you half a day to get a team to the north four thousand, you can’t get a lot of work done once you get there unless you are prepared to camp out for a while. Smaller farms may mean more people coming back to the land and actually being able to make a small living, or at least feed themselves. Think of how much worse the Great Depression would have been had America not been still primarily rural. The Amish are a good example of a horse-driven society, and you don’t usually see them with farms running to the thousands of acres. Actually, I think the Amish are going to come out way ahead in this peak oil deal, because they already are much less dependent on oil and oil products than most Americans.
Trades and crafts that are now nearly extinct may come back, and people who practice those trades and crafts will be in high demand. Horsepower requires farriers and blacksmiths (not the same thing – one shoes horses and one builds things out of metal). Harness makers and horse-drawn implement builders may enjoy a resurgence in a society with more horses. If we don’t have oil to power electric plants, we may need people to make candles. All sorts of hand crafts may go from being fun hobbies to being desperately necessary for basic necessities. Soap makers, dyers, seamstresses, tailors, cobblers, millers, woodworkers, weavers and who knows how many other craft experts will become more necessary, and many of these crafts will be done by hand or on old-fashioned hand or foot driven machines. If you don’t have a job, you may be doing many of these things yourself because you can’t afford to purchase them or because there aren’t any shoes, clothes and such to purchase. Even if you do have a job, you may need to do at least some of them.
Food will be local and I suspect healthier. Certainly it will be fresher in many cases, as well as unprocessed. Translation: you better know how to cook from scratch with ingredients on hand. Oil will not be available to ship things thousands of miles – heck, air travel and overseas shipping may pretty much cease to exist, although there may also be a resurgence of wind-powered sailing ships. Local food means fresh, seasonal produce. Eggs will come from real chickens that spend time in the fresh air on green grass and eat bugs. People are going to be a lot more interested in gardening for food, and those of us who save our own seeds may be able to develop a good business. Fast food places will be few and far between – they depend on the current agribusiness conglomerates for their Chicken McNuggets and a mobile population that thinks nothing of revving up the Suburban to drive twenty miles for dinner.
Homeowners’ associations will quit fussing about whether you grow zucchini in the front yard, because everyone will be doing it (assuming they have a source of water). Homeowners’ associations will also quit fussing about clotheslines, because nobody will be using a clothes dryer. The fusspots who care more about esthetics (and their personal definition of same) will either be too busy trying to survive or they’ll be shouted down by folks who are sensible enough to realize they have to grow some of their own food and dry their clothes in the open air.
Modern medicine may gradually revert to herbalism, methods of strengthening the body’s immune system and providing supportive care while the body heals itself. I see that as a good thing in many ways. Our obsession with cleanliness and germ prevention has led to resistant organisms, while our poor diets and dependence on modern drugs to manage symptoms instead of effecting a cure has led to over-medication and excessive side effects. The human body is much better adapted to herbal medicine for most things.
Our rivers and streams may become less polluted once we don’t throw medicine down the drain and are using fewer chemicals in general. CAFOs – confined animal feeding operations – may go away, because they depend on cheap oil and diesel to move cattle from the ranch to the stockyard to the CAFO to the meat plant. Grass-fed beef and other meat will once again become the norm, assuming your area has grassland to raise the critters. You may find yourself eating more goat or lamb, as they can do quite well in areas where cattle can’t survive.
Barter will enjoy a resurgence; actually it already is, especially in smaller communities like mine. It may be on the upswing in the cities, too, but since I avoid them like the plague, I don’t know. People will go back to being Jacks and Jills of all trades. There will be precious little money to hire people to make, fix and build things for you. If you are one of the lucky few who already know how to do things like butcher a chicken, make butter, sew your own clothes, create herbal medicines or build everything from a house to a milk cow stanchion, you will probably thrive. Your knowledge will be especially valuable to those who don’t have many skills beyond tapping a keyboard or watching “American Idol.” Teaching these kinds of basic skills may also be a way to earn some barter points if not actual income.
Family and community will become more important, partly because you won’t be able to get away from them very easily and partly because you will need both to survive. Children may actually play real games again instead of spending hours in front of beeping, flashing machines or IPods. People might actually read books and talk to each other instead of sitting in front of a babble box or zoning out with ear buds.