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What to do

Twilight of world picture

The Four Stages of the Breakdown

When considering what to do about the upcoming collapse of modern society, we have to be aware of what will happen. When speculating on the future, we can envisage four stages which can be defined by the three factors of energy source, interdependence and security.

Three factors

Stage 1: Awareness

This is the stage we are at now. We are using hydrocarbons as our principal energy source and we are at a high sense of interdependence – that is, everybody has a specific job and we all rely on others to do their own jobs. As an example, the farmer grows corn, the driver takes it to the factories, the factory workers convert it to bread, other drivers take it to shops, shopkeepers sell the bread. If any one group of people fail to do their job, the process fails. The farmer, for instance, cannot turn his corn into bread and the shopkeeper is unable to grow his own corn to sell.

We also have a high security level meaning that the government, authorities, police and military generally maintain organisation and the rule of law so that individuals do not need to worry too much about these things themselves.

Awareness stage detail

Awareness is low at the moment although the rise in oil prices in 2005 and now 2008 have made more people inquire into oil and the term 'peak oil' is beginning to filter into the media. But the Stage will not end until just about all of the world's educated population knows of this problem (there will always be some who do not learn of peak oil in the same way as there are many now, especially in the developing world, who are unaware of climate change.) But as awareness will tend to rely on signs of peak oil, this stage overlaps with the next.

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Stage 2: Transition

This is the actual long period when we switch from our modern, hydrocarbon-based society to whatever comes afterwards. It begins with price rises, recessions and blackouts, and ends with riots, wars and famines. Transition can be subdivided into two further phases: Ordered and Anarchic.

2a: Ordered Transition

Initially, the three factors still remain similar to our present situation, especially security. The deprivations of oil shortages can be mollified somewhat by welfare, and the health and emergency services. Governments still retain control so blackouts do not generally collapse into looting and food shortages do not lead to riots. Unemployment and higher costs will encourage some people to grow more of their own food and manage their own house/vehicle maintenance so we will see a small move across the interdependence scale.

2b: Anarchic Transition

As the Transition continues and oil becomes more scarce, order breaks down. The threatened lootings and riots of the Ordered Transition become fact. Our interdependence becomes a danger as certain stages of processes become weakened or unavailable (what happens with our corn-to-bread line when the lorries cannot obtain the diesel to transport the goods?) The authorities find it harder and harder to keep control so that we are increasingly forced to look after ourselves, growing our own food and protecting our homes against the poor and starving.

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Stages of breakdown

Stage 3: Scavengery

Transition ends when just about all hydrocarbons are unavailable. National security has disappeared, interdependence is unsustainable. We are forced to live in small groups of village or tribal size, growing our own food, maintaining our own buildings and providing our own security. Those who are not in village groups will be forced to steal from others.

This period is called Scavengery because we will be forced to rely on the remains of our present industrial society. There will be little wood for fuel or building until the trees have had a chance to grow, and it will take many years to learn the skills of self-sufficiency and prepare the farmland. Our societies will have to change dramatically with, for example, practices such as monogamy possibly giving way to polygamy, and interdependence becoming multi-skilling.

Stage 4: Self-Sufficiency

The final, permanent stage will be Self-Sufficiency. By now, everybody who is unable to convert to a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle would have died off, leaving only those in organised, independent groups to remain. With no oil or gas, and little accessible coal, industrial society will never return although we might eventually 'progress' to something like a Medieval level of civilisation. It is important to realise that when we talk of 'renewables' as the energy source here, we are not talking of modern day renewables – wind turbines, solar cells and hydroelectricity. It is extremely unlikely that these complicated constructions of electronics, plastics and finely-tooled machinery can survive long without oil, factories and ample amounts of energy. Electricity itself may become a rarity, seen in only a few locations. For most of us, it will be a return to animal energy and mechanical windmills.

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Public Actions

The politicians already know of peak oil – at least, they have been told. Whether they believe it or not is another matter. Colin Campbell made a presentation to a House of Commons All-Party Committee as far back as 7th July, 1999. Unfortunately so did the oil companies and government actions since then suggest that the danger was not recognised.

That does not mean though that we should stop telling them. At some point, everyone will be forced to recognise peak oil. If you have never been told of the problem, you probably won't see it until the television news comes on after a four-hour-long power cut and informs you that the world is facing a crisis. If you have already heard about it but don't believe it, a bell might go off in your head when you hear that world oil production has fallen for the fifth year in a row. It is important therefore to keep badgering politicians, religious leaders, media heads, etc, even if they initially ridicule your pleas.

Be cautious with your initial statements. Terms such as "the end of civilisation" can mean instant rejection as a fanatical doomsayer. Convince them of the problem first, then introduce the consequences. Technical terms such as "proved reserves" and "The Hubbert Curve" can be useful with some to show that you have done your research and are not just responding to a casual suggestion. Above all, give them something to follow up – a link to a website with more information, such as this one or those on the Further Information page.


Generally, younger people are more open to ideas than older people (and I speak as someone in my early 50s). The older person is less likely to want to change, less likely to accept the need for change, and has distant memories of the 1970s and how "everybody was predicting disaster then". There is also the feeling that, even if this does happen, they'll be long gone by then.

Discussing peak oil with a class of schoolchildren or students can be worthwhile. They are often interested in environmental subjects anyway and oil depletion is more immediate than climate change. In the same way that one of the most effective ways to get an adult to stop smoking is to get their kids to nag them, getting young people conscious of and interested in peak oil is a vital step to world awareness.

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Personal Actions

Crusoe image Personal actions will clearly depend on your own circumstances. If you are a single person with ample funds and no ties, your choices are different from somebody with a spouse, 2.2 children, a mortgage and a bank account in permanent overdraft. The most important thing to bear in mind is that our present society will not continue for much longer. Ideas of finding a job at 18, marrying, acquiring a house and a family, then retiring at 60 or 70, belong to history.

The stock market, for instance, will be a volatile place once the world is aware, although some shares such as renewable energy might do well. If you have shares, you can always sell them once you see the signs of collapse, but things such as pensions which rely on the stock market are less helpful. If I was under 30, I would not bother with a pension – you could not claim it for another 30 years or so and who knows what the financial institutions would be like then, if they still exist. A better option would be to put money away regularly in a savings account. If you are planning a family, be cautious about the number of children you have. At the moment, you might have regular income and child welfare to supplement it or fall back on. State support will not always be there.

During the Awareness and Transition periods, adaptability will be the most useful trait. Recession and the rise of unemployment may mean changing jobs – multiple skills and ample savings will help you through. Having at least some method of generating power and heat – solar panels and water heaters – will ease the effects of blackouts. Growing your own vegetables in the garden will reduce food costs. As the oil shortages grow worse, so does society. Unemployment and the cost of living will rise, governments will find it more difficult to pay welfare. People may well turn to crime to obtain what they need. Ordered Transition becomes Anarchic Transition. Riots may break out. Life in the towns and cities will become harsh and uncomfortable.

Thoughts of retreating to a piece of farmland in the wilderness may seem attractive but should be treated with caution. An independent community needs a certain minimum size to be self-sufficient so it will be difficult to remain isolated and away from envious eyes. The only certainty about the the Transition will be that it is unpredictable. Wars and plagues may spread your way. The government may requisition your land for agricultural use. Those fleeing the towns and cities may stumble across you. You may need to be prepared to flee your hard-worked homestead. An ability to be flexible and access to usable transport may be the survivor's most important qualities.

In the final term, the Self-sufficiency period, we may well end up in isolated villages, living a medieval-type lifestyle. It does not necessarily mean the end of civilisation since the Egyptians and Aztecs managed perfectly well without oil and coal. It may not necessarily be a bad outcome: a return to social lifestyles and a reduction in materialism and greed. But that is a difficult situation to forecast, so much depending on what wars are fought in the upcoming decades and how they effect you. It may be beyond the years of anyone reading this.

I have written about the contents of this page in more detail in a separate PDF document called the "Twilight of the Modern World' (click here to view/download). You can also read more in a Word document by Ronald Greek entitled "What to Do" on the Further Information page.

Also see the Sustainable Society page and the Sustainable Example page.

For examples of how to live a more sustainable lifestyle, visit the Centre for Alternative Technology.



Four stages of breakdown

Public actions

Personal actions


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