Life after reliable energy

In April 2009, the History channel aired the Pilot for the series “Life after people”. The basic plot of this non-fiction speculation is that humans somehow disappeared. They went away in one second, never to return. The gist of the pilot was what would happen as a consequence of that.

When I saw it for the first time, I was hooked. I love speculation and I am some sort of a prepper type. You know those people preparing for hard times. 

I do it not with basements full of food and fuels. I strive to develop capabilities that allow me to tackle any problem I may encounter. I know how to live in the woods, how to hunt, what plants to eat, how to build shelter and provide safe drinking water. 

I know how to fix anything at home. I have programming skills and speak at least 10 languages at a basic level. I know my city, the ins, and outs and the choke points. I know what to do if a zombie apocalypse strikes. 

Sounds crazy? Maybe – but when hard problems hit us, I am ready to take the beast by the horns.

But I digress. Back to the TV series. What it showed was how fast the modern infrastructure and processes would fail and crumble.  Our modern lives depend on them. It also shows how nature would take over. The core idea was that the planet would heal from the scourge that humans are. Not that I think that humans are a problem for this planet. But I said it above, I love speculation on what might be.

But what also becomes painfully clear is how dependent we are on the energy sources we currently harness. Planes fall from the sky as they run out of fuel. Nuclear power stations shut down as their safety switches kick in. All kinds of other industrial processes go on autopilot and eventually fail. Domestic animals die from hunger as they had never learned to take care of themselves. And without maintenance, even the mightiest constructions humans have adorned the planet with, crumble.

Such is the nature of decay. 

Let’s assume now that it’s not humans that have magically disappeared. Rather it’s fossil energy that goes bye-bye with the flick of a finger. Surely, green utopists and enviro radicals would rejoice. Their rejoicing would be extremely short-lived as they might be among the first to die.

They would be most exposed as most of them are city dwellers. Also, many of them engage in more abstract careers that don’t need a lot of hands-on skills. They consider themselves to be part of the elites so manual labor is beneath them. 

Curiously, this also makes them very dependent on the very thing they fight – fossil fuels. With those gone, they would quickly face impossible odds.

Also, there won’t be an economy for the kinds of services they are used to deliver anymore. Anything wonky – gone. Anything ethereal – gone. Who will pay for it? 

So, city dwellers are in a rough corner now. Just like city dwellers always are when the normal structures of society break down. They need everything from outside the city but transport is unobtainable. Food will be high on the list. Most city dwellers would have problems to provide the minimum amount of calories needed for physical survival.

How many of us would die?

Fossil energy started to make its victory race around the world about 350 years ago. It was a time of the age of discovery, the age of enlightenment and the industrial revolution. Those three paradigm changes started to blend into the most important advance in human civilization ever. 

Those changes created extraordinary turmoil and mayhem.  But they also lifted a sizeable part of the world’s population out of the most abject of poverties. Look back just 500 years. The vast majority of any population lived in absolute destitution and squalor. 

Today, even those without a job live better lives than the kings of the age. In developed countries at least. Without fossil fuels, this could not have happened.

Let’s take a look at populations. It took humanity almost 2000 years to grow from 200 million to 500 million in 1600. A mere 200 years sufficed to double that and another 200 years made it grow to 16 times the level at 1600. 

This gives us some ideas about the carrying capacity of the planet without fossil fuels. Before fossil fuels became the default mode of energy in industrialized nations, there were 500 million people. That’s our carrying capacity. Let’s be generous and assume that better technology would multiply that number by 4. We are about 2 billion people. One-quarter of today’s world’s population has a basis for survival in a world without fossil fuels. Maybe. 

None of those numbers are calculated. I pulled them out of my hat. Hit me with different numbers if you want. I am quite willing to discuss but one thing is most certain for me. If we subtract fossil energy forms from our lives, the planet won’t be able to carry all of us.

Need a little hors-d’oeuvre? 

The PG&E crisis in California hives us a good one. It shows us that most people live paycheck to paycheck. Their capability to absorb shocks is wafer-thin. Their lives would instantly go up in flames the moment something bad happened. A one-week power shutoff causes small businesses to lose one-fourth of their monthly revenues. This often equates to a death sentence.

Those small businesses support a lot of jobs. Those are gone in an instant. All too often, they wipe out a significant part of family income. And that’s true for vast swathes of any population. Businesses will shut. Jobs will be lost. Wealth will evaporate and social services will buckle under the stress and eventually fail. 

The strain on the economy would be deadly. This means that our current way of life will disappear at a rapid clip. All the social and governmental structures we have built up would be overwhelmed and shutter up. This will leave people to fend for themselves. The last step towards anarchy.

It would be like the late Middle Ages complete with diseases, insecurity, and mortality that those times featured. Wanna cook some food? Fetch the firewood first. Wanna take a bath or dress? Wanna stay up after dark? All things that need major efforts now. 

The elites won’t have to worry about that of course. They will live their perfect lives courtesy of renewable energy. They can pay for this expensive treat. And the buffering systems that make sure that electricity is not only available when the wind blows or the sun shines. 

But most people won’t be able to. They will be reduced to live as serfs like it was hundreds of years ago.

Today’s food production is completely mechanized. None of it would work without fossil fuels. But without it, there won’t be enough to eat for everyone which would result in horrific famines. Remember those pictures from Ethiopia some decades ago? This would be far worse. Expect cannibalism in some pockets and the slaughtering of zoo animals.

Drinking water depends on pumps doing their work. But the energy for those pumps is scarce now and it’s unreliable. As soon as reservoirs run empty, it’s back to the bucket. People with water wells would have to remove electric pumps and install handpumps. 

The sewers won’t work anymore. Gravity-fed sewage systems will clog. Fecal matter will come back into our daily lives and spread disease. It will join the garbage that will pile up in the street as collection depends on fossil fuels to work. 

The smug will say they have solar panels but don’t rejoice too early. Chances are that they are grid-tied which means they won’t work for you anymore. No grid, no solar energy and there is no more backup capacity on the grid. 

But that won’t stop those that have no solar installations to go after those that have. They won’t listen to your pleas that they don’t work anyhow. 

Civilization as we know it will end. There will be no silver lining. It will be back to the strong feeding on the weak. It will be back to dirt and pestilence. 

Those who can will try to escape the cities. The cities will die and the rest of the world will adapt.

Did you see the Mad Max movies? If you liked them as I did, you won’t need to watch a movie anymore. You will live Mad Max every day for the rest of your shorter life.

You will say that I am overdoing it. You will say that there is no way it will be getting this bad.

Think again.

Look at Venezuela. Watch how a once-thriving country was reduced to people eating from a garbage collection truck because they are starving. But that’s different you will say. They have fossil fuels so it’s something different.

And it’s true. What happens to Venezuela today is a stale taste of what would hit us without fossil fuels. 

We will be farmers and foragers again. Most of those who survive will. A tiny elite will live the big life but think again. How big can you be when everyone is so very small now?

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