What is Peak Oil, and how does it affect hand crafters and homesteaders?

When Tracey, Buffie and I talk about how to run our homestead, or practice our crafts, one thing which often shapes the conversation to a large degree is an understanding of peak oil. Recently Tracey mentioned that I’d been writing as if this was a universally understood concept, when perhaps it merits a little explanation.

(by tatianes on flickr)

(by tatianes on flickr)

You might have heard the phrase “peak oil” in the news recently, particularly as the price of oil was spiraling upwards in the first half of this year. If you’re not already familiar with it, stay with me for a moment while I explain what this term refers too. Since we first started to extract oil commercially (about 150 years ago), we’ve discovered more and more of the stuff under ground. Initially, it was used for lamps, and then we started making petrol cars and wanting more and more of this black oily stuff to power them. As people demanded more, we built more and more oil derricks, and pumped more and more of the stuff out of the ground. With a few exceptions, each year since we started extracting it we’ve extracted more oil each year than we did the year before.

Now oil is a finite resource. There’s only a certain amount of it under the ground. It’s made by a naturally occurring process, but that process requires certain geological conditions, like warm seas full of plankton blooms. It occurs on earth every two hundred million years or so. The point here is that the ground isn’t magically making more oil as we speak, and so within the timeframe of the human species, we can consider oil to be a once-off limited resource.

Since there’s a limited amount, clearly we can’t go on extracting more and more each year. This isn’t a “theory”, or in dispute in any way, it’s simply an unavoidable fact. At some point will come the year that we’ve pumped the most oil we can in any given year, and the next year we’ll pump a little less.

It’s hard to spot when that year is for the whole world, except in hindsight. In a particular country though, it’s much easier. In the 1950’s, a geologist named M. King Hubbert predicted that the peak of oil production in the USA (which was the world’s biggest oil producer at the time) would be 1970. At the time he was laughed at, but the peak turned out to be only a couple of months into 1971. Since then, no matter how many new oil rigs the USA builds, it still produces slightly less each year. From being the world’s biggest produces, the US now imports about two thirds of it’s oil needs.

So basically, “peak oil” is that point where we’ve used up about half of the oil in the ground, and now it’s no longer coming out faster and faster, but is in fact slower each year. The global oil peak is really hard to compute, but most oil geologists suggest that it was last year, this year, next year maybe, or in other words, around about now.

So are we running out of oil? Absolutely not. There’s still around a trillion barrels of oil in the ground around the world. What is happening though is that we get a little less of it each year, and unfortunately our whole society is based on the idea of growing each year.

There is a lot that can be said about what this means. Opinions on what can happen range from a slow shift to alternative energy technologies (hopefully renewable ones) to the total collapse of society as we know it. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

What does it mean for crafters, homesteaders and pioneers like ourselves?

(by gazzat on flickr)

(by gazzat on flickr)

Well, on that front I like to look at the good news. For starters, the world is growing again. We used to talk about the world shrinking, about global markets and just-in-time delivery systems. In the last year, the cost of shipping goods internationally has approximately doubled. The cost of airline flights has increased, and about 20 airline companies have gone bankrupt this year, with predictions that it’ll include another 30 before the year is out.

It’s no longer economically profitable to earn a livelihood from local crafts because it’s hard to compete against products made in factories in China, and elsewhere around the world. As transport costs go up, this starts to change. Higher transport costs mean less ipods and world trip holidays, but they also mean more local jobs and more locally made products.

Oil is also incredibly energy dense. There is so much easily available energy in a barrel of oil that other technologies we have for generating power don’t look able to make up the gap in the near future. In a world with less energy available each year for running complex machines, you can easily imagine that the things that people find valuable economically will change. Expect hands-on people, particularly those growing food, to be much more valued in such a society.

I’m by no means a luddite. I’m a computer programmer, and like listening to my ipod while knitting my own socks. I’m not suggesting that a return to an agrarian society is going to happen, or is desirable, but I think that at the moment we’re a little out of control and could use a bit of time to slow down and value the things that are just outside our front door. It’s my hope that we’ll navigate all these changes well, and perhaps end up with a world where surfing the internet and weaving (or woodworking, blacksmithing, sewing, etc) are all highly valued.

I’ve mainly covered the good side of things here, and there are also plenty of dangerous waters to navigate in the years ahead, but I think that it’s easy to dwell on these a little too much. For more information about peak oil, how it relates to climate change, and what people and communities can do to adapt to the changes being forced upon us, I’d recommend taking a look at the Transition Towns network.

http://transitiontowns.org.nz (New Zealand)
http://transitiontowns.org (UK and global)

If you want a more balanced and properly researched and referenced explanation of peak oil, check out this page from the Oil Drum website.

5 responses

  1. this worries me greatly personally speaking as i’d be unable to get affordable yarn if i had to buy it locally. i live in scotland, and the british textile industry is very close to dead.

    despite the fact that knitting yarnm costs an absolute fortune (twice as much as in iceland, and prices in iceland are double that in britain, which makes it four times as expensive) your farmer is still lucky to get anything at all for his fleeces. all you can use the stuff for is insulation, unless you’re going to process it yourself. which is gradually driving the sheepherds off the land

    this is environmentally a good thing i reckon, as sheep are an ecological disaster with the necessary gunning-down of all predators, causing a blooming in the rabbit population, who then go on to decimate vegetable gardens and crops. if the farmers get affected by this then they tend to gas, poison or mixie them, variously leaving the countryside full of little furry corpses and poisoning the entire food chain. gotta love those industrial farmers.

    however, the price of cloth will go through the roof in europe anyway, as we’re completely dependant upon potentially hostile foreign nations (china and russia) for the huge majority of all our manufacturing and energy needs. it’s a ridiculous situation for a country to be in.

    luckily we’re close enough to scandinavia to be trading partners with them when everyone east of the ukraine tells NATO where to shove it, but things are still going to be bad i reckon, especially with this control-freak police state that’s slowly emerging from the corpse of british democracy.

    however, back to my original point. the cost of yarn is high already, the only stuff i can afford to use comes from china, so there’s mixed blessings in international trade i suppose. it’s worth considering that the more steps there are in a manufacturing process, the more people have to get paid along the way, and for every step there’s also a parasite doing none of the work and taking all of the profit. if you import the yarn or the fibre and turn it into cloth yourself you inevitably remove most of the steps of production from the capitalist economy, and also remove the need to pay all the leeches along the way, so i think there are serious savings to be made.

    i think it’s possible to live an economically viable life as an indpendent/co-operatively organized hand-crafter.

    personally, i aim to establish a semi-industrial weaving mill run along the lines of industrial democracy, but in the meantime i’m teaching myself by hand and trying to figure out how to scrape some sort of a marginal livign out of handcrafting.

    i should go to class now, stream-of-conciousness over


  2. That raises a whole lot of interesting issues Andrew. I don’t know you’re local ecosystem or economy, but that being said my first question would be “what about linen”? Linen from “english flax” is one of the longest plant fibres around, and I’ve used it for making clothing, sewing leather, and making bowstrings. However, I’m not really familiar with it in it’s raw state. I do know that several hundred years ago it was a mainstay of the textiles industry in the British isles, and perhaps could be again.

    And on the sheep issue, have you considered Alpacas? I think they do a bit better with larger predators than sheep do.

  3. apparently cloth in scotland was originally made with a linen warp and a woolen weft (or maybe the other way round) until christianity took hold and the old testament fabric laws forbid the mixing of fibres in a web.

    the main issue with yarn production in this country isn’t the lack of raw materials, far from it, you can’t move for sheep, it’s rather the state of the industry. you see, it’s that way that if one step in the production chain breaks down in a locality, then the entire industry suffers, so if the local finishing plant closes, then the local weavers can’t get their cloth finished at a decent price and they go out of work, thus affecting the spinners, dyers and eventually the shepards.

    mainly, as i say, it’s a question of industrial capacity and market demand. without a strong weaving sector, there’s no incentive to open a spinning plant, and without spinning plants, the weaving sector can’t get affordable local produce.

    it’s one of those things. i can only assume it’ll straigthen itself out eventually when international trade becomes expensive enough to make having everyday necessities manufactured on the other side of the world prohibitively expensive, but there’s no way around it the now.

    actually, the silk/wool mix that i’m quite fond of (cos it’s nice and cheap and only slightly flecky) is a mix of chinese silk and australian and south american wool, and spun in scotland. so at least the spinners are local 😉

    however, there is no local finishing plant, i think the nearest is somewhere south of inverness (i’m on the north coast). but that’s not really a problem as i have no intention of going into large scale fabric production without a degree and i’m not thinking of settling here anyway.

    i’ve got half a mind to emigrate to australasia if things get much worse on the british political scene to be honest with you. soon enough they’ll be tracking the movements, shopping patterns, bank accounts and internet habits of every single individual in the UK, and that’s not good.

    Did you know there’s been 3 people jailed in britain in the last 2 years for thought crimes. that is for saying things, not for conspiring to commit terrorist attacks or organising in anyway, but merely for making foolish statements on internet forums. Of course, it’s muslims they’re victimising the now, so i’m currently safe, but 10 years ago it was the irish. the big difference being that 10 years ago if they wanted to send an irishman to jail they had to frame him for a crime he didn’t commit, now all they have to do is prove you’re muslim and don’t like the government.

    i know it’s a bit off topic, but to be honest creeping totalitarianism worries me a great deal more than peak oil or climate change. i’d much rather be killed by a hurricane or a flood or something natural like that than rot to death in a prison cell for my opinions and my friends’ actions. it saddens me, because i remember when this country was a liberal democracy and people had faith that voting could change anything.

  4. interesting discussion – just 2 points:
    I am an organic farmer, with 20 acres. Farmers around here don’t gas/ poison or ‘mixie’. myxamatosis was released in Australia in 1950, illegally imported to france two years later then spread across europe. Rabbit Traps, Long Netting, Lamping, Shooting, Ferretting and Rabbit Fencing are most popular on the welsh borders.
    alpacas cost a prohibitive amount and are more needy than sheep.
    can’t argue with the diatribe tho… but it’s not totalitarianism, just the arse end of capitalism. look at permaculture and transition culture – positive thrusts on a changing world.

  5. right enough. i know not all farmers are the same. there’s just a lot of large agribusiness, and everyone around here mixies the rabbit, and the golf course gasses them.

    i’ve not spent a lot of time in wales, but it seems that people are a bit more forward thinking there.

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