What to do
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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'
here to view/download). You can also read more in a Word document
by Ronald Greek entitled "What to Do" on the Further
Also see the Sustainable
page and the Sustainable
For examples of how to live a more sustainable lifestyle,
visit the Centre for