Bryan Appleyard Waiting for the lights to go out

Bryan Appleyard. October 16, 2005. Waiting for the lights to go out. We’ve taken the past 200 years of prosperity for granted. Humanity’s progress is stalling, we are facing a new era of decay, and nobody is clever enough to fix it. Is the future really that black?,,2099-1813695,00.html

The greatest getting-and-spending spree in the history of the world is about to end. The 200-year boom that gave citizens of the industrial world levels of wealth, health and longevity beyond anything previously known to humanity is threatened on every side. Oil is running out; the climate is changing at a potentially catastrophic rate; wars over scarce resources are brewing; finally, most shocking of all, we don’t seem to be having enough ideas about how to fix any of these things.

It’s been said before, of course: people are always saying the world will end and it never does. Maybe it won’t this time, either. But, frankly, it’s not looking good. Almost daily, new evidence is emerging that progress can no longer be taken for granted, that a new Dark Age is lying in wait for ourselves and our children.

To understand how this could happen, it is necessary to grasp just how extraordinary, how utterly unprecedented are the privileges we in the developed world enjoy now. Born today, you could expect to live 25 to 30 years longer than your Victorian forebears, up to 45 years longer than your medieval ancestors and at least 55 years longer than your Stone Age precursors. It is highly unlikely that your birth will kill you or your mother or that, in later life, you will suffer typhoid, plague, smallpox, dysentery, polio, or dentistry without anaesthetic. You will enjoy a standard of living that would have glazed the eyes of the Emperor Nero, thanks to the 2% annual economic growth rate sustained by the developed world since the industrial revolution. You will have access to greater knowledge than Aristotle could begin to imagine, and to technical resources that would stupefy Leonardo da Vinci. You will know a world whose scale and variety would induce agoraphobia in Alexander the Great. You should experience relative peace thanks to the absolute technological superiority of the industrialised world over its enemies and, with luck and within reason, you should be able to write and say anything you like, a luxury denied to almost all other human beings, dead or alive. Finally, as this artificially extended sojourn in paradise comes to a close, you will attain oblivion in the certain knowledge that, for your children, things can only get better.

Such staggering developments have convinced us that progress is a new law of nature, something that happens to everything all the time. Microsoft is always working on a better version of Windows. Today’s Nokia renders yesterday’s obsolete, as does today’s Apple, Nike or Gillette. Life expectancy continues to rise. Cars go faster, planes fly further, and one day, we are assured, cancer must yield. Whatever goes wrong in our lives or the world, the march of progress continues regardless. Doesn’t it?

Almost certainly not. The first big problem is our insane addiction to oil. It powers everything we do and determines how we live. But, on the most optimistic projections, there are only 30 to 40 years of oil left. One pessimistic projection, from Sweden’s Uppsala University, is that world reserves are massively overstated and the oil will start to run out in 10 years. That makes it virtually inconceivable that there will be kerosene-powered planes or petroleum-powered cars for much longer. Long before the oil actually runs out, it will have become far too expensive to use for such frivolous pursuits as flying and driving. People generally assume that we will find our way round this using hydrogen, nuclear, wave or wind power. In reality, none of these technologies are being developed anything like quickly enough to take over from oil. The great nations just aren’t throwing enough money at the problem. Instead, they are preparing to fight for the last drops of oil. China has recently started making diplomatic overtures to Saudi Arabia, wanting to break America’s grip on that nation’s 262 billion barrel reserve.

Even if we did throw money at the problem, it’s not certain we could fix it. One of the strangest portents of the end of progress is the recent discovery that humans are losing their ability to come up with new ideas.

Jonathan Huebner is an amiable, very polite and very correct physicist who works at the Pentagon’s Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California. He took the job in 1985, when he was 26. An older scientist told him how lucky he was. In the course of his career, he could expect to see huge scientific and technological advances. But by 1990, Huebner had begun to suspect the old man was wrong. “The number of advances wasn’t increasing exponentially, I hadn’t seen as many as I had expected — not in any particular area, just generally.”

Puzzled, he undertook some research of his own. He began to study the rate of significant innovations as catalogued in a standard work entitled The History of Science and Technology. After some elaborate mathematics, he came to a conclusion that raised serious questions about our continued ability to sustain progress. What he found was that the rate of innovation peaked in 1873 and has been declining ever since. In fact, our current rate of innovation — which Huebner puts at seven important technological developments per billion people per year — is about the same as it was in 1600. By 2024 it will have slumped to the same level as it was in the Dark Ages, the period between the end of the Roman empire and the start of the Middle Ages.

The calculations are based on innovations per person, so if we could keep growing the human population we could, in theory, keep up the absolute rate of innovation. But in practice, to do that, we’d have to swamp the world with billions more people almost at once. That being neither possible nor desirable, it seems we’ll just have to accept that progress, at least on the scientific and technological front, is slowing very rapidly indeed.

Huebner offers two possible explanations: economics and the size of the human brain. Either it’s just not worth pursuing certain innovations since they won’t pay off — one reason why space exploration has all but ground to a halt — or we already know most of what we can know, and so discovering new things is becoming increasingly difficult. We have, for example, known for over 20 years how cancer works and what needs to be done to prevent or cure it. But in most cases, we still have no idea how to do it, and there is no likelihood that we will in the foreseeable future.

Huebner’s insight has caused some outrage. The influential scientist Ray Kurzweil has criticised his sample of innovations as “arbitrary”; K Eric Drexler, prophet of nanotechnology, has argued that we should be measuring capabilities, not innovations. Thus we may travel faster or access more information at greater speeds without significant innovations as such.

Huebner has so far successfully responded to all these criticisms. Moreover, he is supported by the work of Ben Jones, a management professor at Northwestern University in Illinois. Jones has found that we are currently in a quandary comparable to that of the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass: we have to run faster and faster just to stay in the same place. Basically, two centuries of economic growth in the industrialised world has been driven by scientific and technological innovation. We don’t get richer unaided or simply by working harder: we get richer because smart people invent steam engines, antibiotics and the internet. What Jones has discovered is that we have to work harder and harder to sustain growth through innovation. More and more money has to be poured into research and development and we have to deploy more people in these areas just to keep up. “The result is,” says Jones, “that the average individual innovator is having a smaller and smaller impact.”

Like Huebner, he has two theories about why this is happening. The first is the “low-hanging fruit” theory: early innovators plucked the easiest-to-reach ideas, so later ones have to struggle to crack the harder problems. Or it may be that the massive accumulation of knowledge means that innovators have to stay in education longer to learn enough to invent something new and, as a result, less of their active life is spent innovating. “I’ve noticed that Nobel-prize winners are getting older,” he says. “That’s a sure sign it’s taking longer to innovate.” The other alternative is to specialise — but that would mean innovators would simply be tweaking the latest edition of Windows rather than inventing the light bulb. The effect of their innovations would be marginal, a process of making what we already have work slightly better. This may make us think we’re progressing, but it will be an illusion.

If Huebner and Jones are right, our problem goes way beyond Windows. For if innovation is the engine of economic progress — and almost everybody agrees it is — growth may be coming to an end. Since our entire financial order — interest rates, pension funds, insurance, stock markets — is predicated on growth, the social and economic consequences may be cataclysmic.

Is it really happening? Will progress grind to a halt? The long view of history gives conflicting evidence. Paul Ormerod, a London-based economist and author of the book Why Most Things Fail, is unsure. “I am in two minds about this. Biologists have abandoned the idea of progress — we just are where we are. But humanity is so far in advance of anything that has gone before that it seems to be a qualitative leap.”

For Ormerod, there may be very rare but similar qualitative leaps in the organisation of society. The creation of cities, he believes, is one. Cities emerged perhaps 10,000 years ago, not long after humanity ceased being hunter-gatherers and became farmers. Other apparently progressive developments cannot compete. The Roman empire, for example, once seemed eternal, bringing progress to the world. But then, one day, it collapsed and died. The question thus becomes: is our liberal-democratic-capitalist way of doing things, like cities, an irreversible improvement in the human condition, or is it like the Roman empire, a shooting star of wealth and success, soon to be extinguished?

Ormerod suspects that capitalism is indeed, like cities, a lasting change in the human condition. “Immense strides forward have been taken,” he says. It may be that, after millennia of striving, we have found the right course. Capitalism may be the Darwinian survivor of a process of natural selection that has seen all other systems fail.

Ormerod does acknowledge, however, that the rate of innovation may well be slowing — “All the boxes may be ticked,” as he puts it — and that progress remains dependent on contingencies far beyond our control. An asteroid strike or super-volcanic eruption could crush all our vanities in an instant. But in principle, Ormerod suspects that our 200-year spree is no fluke.

This is heartily endorsed by the Dutch-American Joel Mokyr, one of the most influential economic historians in the world today. Mokyr is the author of The Lever of Riches and The Gifts of Athena, two books that support the progressive view that we are indeed doing something right, something that makes our liberal-democratic civilisation uniquely able to generate continuous progress. The argument is that, since the 18th-century Enlightenment, a new term has entered the human equation. This is the accumulation of and a free market in knowledge. As Mokyr puts it, we no longer behead people for saying the wrong thing — we listen to them. This “social knowledge” is progressive because it allows ideas to be tested and the most effective to survive. This knowledge is embodied in institutions, which, unlike individuals, can rise above our animal natures. Because of the success of these institutions, we can reasonably hope to be able, collectively, to think our way around any future problems. When the oil runs out, for example, we should have harnessed hydrogen or fusion power. If the environment is being destroyed, then we should find ways of healing it. “If global warming is happening,” says Mokyr, “and I increasingly am persuaded that it is, then we will have the technology to deal with it.”

But there are, as he readily admits, flies in the ointment of his optimism. First, he makes the crucial concession that, though a society may progress, individuals don’t. Human nature does not progress at all. Our aggressive, tribal nature is hard-wired, unreformed and unreformable. Individually we are animals and, as animals, incapable of progress. The trick is to cage these animal natures in effective institutions: education, the law, government. But these can go wrong. “The thing that scares me,” he says, “is that these institutions can misfire.”

Big institutions, deeply entrenched within ancient cultures, misfired in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1933, producing years of slaughter on a scale previously unseen in human history. For Mokyr, those misfirings produced not an institutionalism of our knowledge but of our aggressive, animal natures. The very fact that such things can happen at all is a warning that progress can never be taken for granted.

Some suggest that this institutional breakdown is now happening in the developed world, in the form of a “democratic deficit”. This is happening at a number of levels. There is the supranational. In this, either large corporations or large institutions — the EU, the World Bank — gradually remove large areas of decision-making from the electorate, hollowing out local democracies. Or there is the national level. Here, massively increased political sophistication results in the manipulation, almost hypnotising, of electorates. This has been particularly true in Britain, where politics has been virtualised by new Labour into a series of presentational issues. Such developments show that merely calling a system “democratic” does not necessarily mean it will retain the progressive virtues that have seemed to arise from democracy. Democracy can destroy itself. In addition, with the rise of an unquantifiable global terrorist threat producing defensive transformations of legal systems designed to limit freedom and privacy, the possibility arises of institutional breakdown leading to a new, destructive social order. We are not immune from the totalitarian faults of the past.

The further point is that capitalism is one thing, globalisation another. The current globalisation wave was identified in the 1970s.

It was thought to represent the beginning of a process whereby the superior performance of free-market economics would lead a worldwide liberalisation process. Everybody, in effect, would be drawn into the developed world’s 200-year boom. Increasingly, however, it is becoming clear that it hasn’t happened as planned. The prominent Canadian thinker John Ralston Saul argues in his book The Collapse of Globalism that globalisation is, in fact, over and is being replaced by a series of competing local and national interests. Meanwhile, in his book Why They Don’t Hate Us, the Californian academic Mark LeVine shows that the evidence put forward by globalisation’s fans, such as the World Trade Organization, conceals deep divisions and instabilities in countries like China and regions like the Middle East. Globalisation, he argues, is often just making the rich richer and the poor poorer. It is also destroying local culture and inspiring aggressive resistance movements, from student demonstrators in the West to radical Islamicists in the Middle East. Progress is built on very fragile foundations.

Or perhaps it never happens at all. John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, is the most lucid advocate of the view that progress is an illusion. People, he says, are “overimpressed by present reality” and assume, on the basis of only a couple of centuries of history, that progress is eternal. In his book Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, he argues that human nature is flawed and incorrigible, and its flaws will be embodied in whatever humans make. Joel Mokyr’s institutions, therefore, do not rise above human nature: they embody it. Science, for Gray, does indeed accumulate knowledge. But that has the effect of empowering human beings to do at least as much damage as good. His book argues that, far from being a medieval institution as many have suggested, Al-Qaeda is a supremely modern organisation, using current technology and management theory to spread destruction. Modernity does not make us better, it just makes us more effective. We may have anaesthetic dentistry, but we also have nuclear weapons. We may or may not continue to innovate. It doesn’t matter, because innovation will only enable us to do more of what humans do. In this view, all progress will be matched by regress. In our present condition, this can happen in two ways. Either human conflict will produce a new ethical decline, as it did in Germany and Russia, or our very commitment to growth will turn against us.

On the ethical front, Gray’s most potent contemporary example is torture. For years we thought the developed world had banished torture for ever or that, if it occasionally happened here, it was an error or oversight, a crime to be punished at once. Not being torturers was a primary indicator of our civilised, progressive condition. But now suicide terrorism has posed a terrible question. If we have a prisoner who knows where a suitcase nuclear weapon is planted and refuses to talk, do we not have the right to torture him into revealing the information? Many now reluctantly admit that we would. Even the means of his torture has been discussed: a sterilised needle inserted beneath the fingernail. Having suffered this pain for a few seconds when having an anaesthetic injection prior to the removal of a nail, I can personally attest that it would work.

The Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz is now arguing for giving proper legal status to torture. “Torture is a matter that has always been unacceptable, beyond discussion. Let’s not pretend, those days are passed. We now have ticking-bomb terrorists and it’s an empirical fact that every civilised democracy would use torture in those circumstances.” Dershowitz doesn’t like the “surreptitious hypocrisy” that allows torture but pretends it doesn’t. Look, he says, at the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Al-Qaeda planner captured in 2003 in Pakistan. American interrogators subjected him to “water-boarding”, effectively threatening him with drowning. This wasn’t classified as torture because he wasn’t hurt, but of course it was.

Dershowitz thinks a legal basis for torture would prevent abuses like the horrors perpetrated in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. If, for example, Tony Blair or George Bush had to sign a torture warrant, the whole business would be kept visible and legal. For Gray, torture represents obvious regress. Dershowitz partly agrees but argues that progressives must be ready to do deals. “Terrorism is a major step backwards in civilisation. Hitler was a major step backwards. Sometimes we have to step backwards too to combat such things. But progress happens in other areas. A generation now growing up may have to accept more security measures and less privacy, but in other areas like sexual conduct we are making progress. I don’t think overall we are making a step back.”

Progress, therefore, is faltering but, on aggregate, it moves in the right direction. Hitler was defeated and judicial torture may, in time, defeat terrorism. We just have to accept that three steps forward also involves two steps back. The point is to keep the faith.

But what if it is just faith? What if the very “fact” of progress is ultimately self-destructive? There are many ways in which this might turn out to be true. First, the human population is continuing to rise exponentially. It is currently approaching 6.5 billion, in 1900 it was 1.65 billion, in 1800 it was around a billion, in 1500 it was 500m. The figures show that economic and technological progress is loading the planet with billions more people. By keeping humans alive longer and by feeding them better, progress is continually pushing population levels. With population comes pollution. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming caused by human activity is happening. According to some estimates, we will pass the point of no return within a decade. Weather systems will change, huge flooding will occur, and human civilisation if not existence will be at risk. This can be avoided if the US and China cut their carbon-dioxide emissions by 50% at once. This won’t happen, as they are fighting an economic war with progress as the prize. There are many other progress-created threats. Oil is one diminishing resource, and fresh water is another, even more vital one. Wars are virtually certain to be fought to gain control of these precious liquids.

In addition, antibiotic drugs are currently failing through overuse. No new generation of medicines is likely to be available to replace them in the near future. People may soon be dying again from sore throats and minor cuts. The massive longevity increase in the 20th century may soon begin to reverse itself.

Joel Mokyr’s response to all this is that our open-knowledge societies will enable these problems to be solved. John Gray replies: “This is faith, not science.” We believe we can fix things, but we can’t be sure. And if we can’t, then the Earth will fix them herself, flicking the human species into oblivion in the process.

Of course, the end of the world has been promised by Jews, Christians, Muslims and assorted crazies with sandwich boards for as long as there has been a human world to end. But those doomsdays were the product of faith; reason always used to say the world will continue. The point about the new apocalypse is that this situation has reversed. Now faith tells us we will be able to solve our problems; reason says we have no answers now and none are likely in the future. Perhaps we can’t cure cancer because the problem is simply beyond our intellects. Perhaps we haven’t flown to the stars because our biology and God’s physics mean we never can. Perhaps we are close to the limit and the time of plenty is over.

The evidence is mounting that our two sunny centuries of growth and wealth may end in a new Dark Age in which ignorance will replace knowledge, war will replace peace, sickness will replace health and famine will replace obesity. You don’t think so? It’s always happened in the past. What makes us so different? Nothing, I’m afraid.

WHY I AM SAVING THE WORLD [here is where Bryan becomes unhinged by the knowledge, as so many of us felt initially]

So, as a new Dark Age approaches, are you just going to carry on living your life as if nothing has changed? John-Paul Flintoff, for one, decided he couldn’t bury his head in the sand. He explains how he went on a one-man crusade to show that humanity can adapt and survive

I had just dropped my daughter at the nursery when I began to save the world. I mention this detail because it’s important to emphasise that Nancy loves her nursery. If she didn’t, I wouldn’t drive four miles from home — into London’s congestion zone, at a cost of £8 a day. I wouldn’t have found myself in Connaught Square that morning, fretting about newspaper stories suggesting the price of petrol was going up. I wouldn’t have seen a woman sitting inside a peculiar car parked beside me. Nor would I have noticed, on returning to my VW Golf from the nursery, that the car had moved some yards away and the woman had disappeared.

Intrigued, I wandered over and scribbled in my notebook. When I got home I began to investigate what I had seen. It may seem grandiose to describe my actions that morning, and in the days that followed, as “saving the world”. It may be factually incorrect, because I may not have averted global catastrophe after all. You decide — but first get your head round the following, rather terrifying background information. A barrel of oil contains the equivalent of almost 25,000 hours of human labour. A gallon of petrol contains the energy equivalent of 500 hours — enough to propel a three-ton 4×4 along 10 miles; to push it yourself would take nearly three weeks. To support economic growth, the world currently requires more than 30 billion barrels of oil a year. That requirement is constantly increasing, owing to population growth, debt-servicing, and the rapid industrialisation of developing countries such as India and China. But we are about to enter an era in which less oil will be available each year. And many believe that industrial society is doomed. Are we really running out?

Well, half of all supplies come from “giant” oilfields, of which 95% are at least 25 years old; 50% have been producing for 40 years or more. In the North Sea, production peaked in 1999. Late last year, Britain began to import more oil than we export. Worldwide, discoveries of new oilfields peaked in the 1960s; and despite technological advances, new discoveries are at an all-time low. A recent story in The New York Times suggested that oil companies are failing to recoup exploration costs: significant discoveries are so scarce that looking for them is a monetary loser. Not that I normally read The New York Times’ coverage of the oil business — like most people, I have tended to consider news about the oil industry to be extremely dull. That started to change when it crept out of the business pages and into the general news, and into advertisements. Practically every day, it seemed, a big oil company took a whole page to promote the fact that we are facing a crisis. One, paid for by Chevron, called on readers to help find a solution. I visited Chevron’s website,, where a whirring clock monitored worldwide oil consumption: nearly 1,500 barrels a second. The more I read, the scarier it became. Michael Meacher, who was Britain’s environment minister for six years, is plainly terrified. “The implications are mind-blowing… Civilisation faces the sharpest and perhaps most violent dislocation in recent history.”

Matthew Simmons, a Houston-based energy-industry financier and adviser to George Bush and Dick Cheney, was asked in 2003 if there is a solution. He replied: “The solution is to pray.”

These people are not loonies. Optimists believe that the market — the law of supply and demand — will solve the problem. As oil becomes more expensive, we’ll shift to some other energy source. But do high prices really cut demand? Since early 1999, oil prices have risen by about 350%. Meanwhile, demand growth in 2004 was the highest in 25 years. That’s bad news, because the market won’t push energy companies into pursuing alternative sources of energy until oil reaches considerably higher prices. And then it will be too late to make the switch.

The former oil-industry executive Jan Lundberg reckons the crisis will be sudden. “Market-based panic will, within a few days, drive prices skyward,” he says. “And the market will become paralysed at prices too high for the wheels of commerce and daily living.” So forget the price at the pump: when oil becomes truly unaffordable, you will be more worried about the collapse of distribution networks, and the absence of food from local shops.

Ecologists use a technical term, “die-off”, to describe what happens when a population grows too big for the resources that sustain it. Where will die-off occur this time? Everywhere. By some estimates, 5 billion of the world’s 6½ billion population would never have been able to live without the blessed effects of fossil fuels, and oil in particular: oil powered the pumps that drained the land, and from oil came the chemicals that made intensive farming possible.

If oil dries up, we can assume, those 5 billion must starve. And they won’t all be in Africa this time. You too may be fighting off neighbours to protect a shrinking stash of canned food, and, when that runs out, foraging for insects in suburban gardens.

Dr Richard Duncan, of the Institute on Energy and Man, has monitored the issue for years. “I became deeply depressed,” he notes, “when I first concluded that our greatest scientific achievements will soon be forgotten and our most cherished monuments will crumble to dust.” Of course, this isn’t the first time people have predicted imminent apocalypse. During the late 19th century, Londoners feared they would all be killed by the methane in horse manure. But oil is certain to run out eventually, and most experts believe that will happen during the lifetimes of people now living. Pollyannas point out that the size of official oil reserves went up dramatically in the 1980s, and the same will happen again as oil companies discover new oilfields. But geologists say the world has been thoroughly searched already.

Not everyone believes we’re doomed. Cheerier prognostications suggest that our future will more closely resemble 1990s Cuba. The American trade embargo, combined with the collapse of Cuba’s communist allies in eastern Europe, suddenly deprived the island of imports. Without oil, public transport shut down and TV broadcasts finished early in the evening to save power. Industrial farms needed fuel and spare parts, pesticides and fertiliser — none of which were available. Consequently, the average Cuban diet dropped from about 3,000 calories per day in 1989 to 1,900 calories four years later. In effect, Cubans were skipping a meal a day, every day, week after month after year. Of necessity, the country converted to sustainable farming techniques, replacing artificial fertiliser with ecological alternatives, rotating crops to keep soil rich, and using teams of oxen instead of tractors. There are still problems supplying meat and milk, but over time Cubans regained the equivalent of that missing meal. And ecologists hailed their achievement in creating the world’s largest working model of largely sustainable agriculture, largely independent of oil.

Can we steer ourselves towards the Cuban ideal? If so, how?

Well, let me tell you what I did. First I switched exclusively to wind power as the source of my domestic electricity, through a company called Ecotricity, which promises the price will not differ significantly from what I paid before. Then I got a man round to give us a quote for installing double-glazed sash windows. The latest, high-specification glass, I was told, traps domestic heat but allows sunlight to pass through, which means you can turn the thermostat right down in winter. I contacted a company that specialises in solar power. If I acted quickly, I could get government subsidies. I put my name down for a domestic wind turbine — apparently, traffic at the end of my street makes a greater racket, but I would need planning permission. The turbine would cover roughly a third of my electricity needs. The cost: £1,500.

I bought a tray for sprouting seeds (highly nutritious, apparently) and started the long process, as yet unresolved, of persuading my wife that we must dig up our flowerbeds and turn the garden into an allotment. I even got in touch with a local vicar who keeps chickens in his garden, and asked how I might do the same.

Does this really amount to “saving the world”? I’ve saved the best till last. Remember Nancy’s nursery, and the peculiar car I saw in Connaught Square? The car is called a G-Wiz; it runs entirely on electricity, has four seats and storage in the bonnet, and is no bigger than a Smart car. A G-Wiz costs as little as £7,000. It does not incur road tax. It’s in the cheapest insurance bracket, and exempt from the congestion charge. In Westminster you can park for nothing in pay-and-display spaces, or in your local car park, with free electricity to charge the batteries.

The downside? It can’t go faster than 40mph, and the batteries go flat after about 40 miles. That didn’t bother me: we’d use it in London, and for trips further afield we could hire a car. There was one problem. Unless local councils install a socket on the pavement, the only people who can run an electric car are the lucky few with off-street parking.

So I started a campaign. I wrote a letter to drop through my neighbours’ doors, explaining about the coming oil crisis and describing the electric car. I promised to write to the council urging it to install electric sockets if at least a few of my neighbours would do the same. Within hours, two names appeared. Over the next couple of weeks, eight others had joined them. With this support, I wrote to my local councillors. For good measure, I sent through government proposals to subsidise that kind of installation by up to 60%. Placing my order for the G-Wiz, I popped a non-refundable cheque for £1,250 in the post. I would just have to hope Barnet council comes through before the car arrives.

I felt proud to belong to a district that was saving the world. And, to be honest, I felt rather pleased with myself. I sent for some fake parking tickets to leave on the windows of petrol-guzzling 4x4s. And I wrote a letter to the Saudi oil minister, urging him to invest in alternative energy technology before it’s too late.

It has been a long and tiring campaign. I realise it may not work. I don’t honestly believe most people will be motivated to match my shining example. Eventually, the government will impose the kind of restrictions normally used in wartime. When that happens, we’ll move out of London to begin a new life of genuine self-sufficiency.

Oil isn’t only useful as fuel

Most oil we consume is burnt as fuel. But hundreds of everyday objects are made from petrochemicals. We take them for granted now, but to drive your car, or fly away on a holiday that might just as well have taken place near home, is to burn a valuable resource that can be used to make products like these:

Household: Ballpoint pens, battery cases, bin bags, candles, carpets, curtains, detergents, drinking cups, dyes, enamel, lino, paint, brushes and rollers, pillows, refrigerants, refrigerator linings, roofing, safety glass, shower curtains, telephones, toilet seats, water pipes.

Personal: Cold cream, hair colour, lipstick, shampoo, shaving cream, combs, dentures, denture adhesive, deodorant, glasses, sunglasses, contact lenses, hand lotion, insect repellent, shoes, shoe polish, tights, toothbrushes, toothpaste, vitamin capsules.

Medical: Anaesthetics, antihistamines, antiseptics, artificial limbs, aspirin, bandages, cortisone, hearing aids, heart valves.

Leisure: cameras, fishing rods, footballs, golf balls, skis, stereos, tennis rackets, tents.

Agriculture: Fertilisers, insecticides, preservatives.

Other: Antifreeze, boats, lifejackets, glue, solvents, motorcycle helmets, parachutes, tyres.

How to survive when the oil runs out

Living without oil, if we don’t start to prepare for it, will not be like returning to the late 1700s, because we have now lost the infrastructure that made 18th-century life possible. We have also lost our basic survival skills. Dr Richard Duncan, of the Institute on Energy and Man, believes that we will return to living in essentially Stone Age conditions. Here is a taste of how to deal with the essentials.

Water: Animal trails lead to water. Watch the direction in which bees fly. Make containers from animal bladders and gourds.

Food: To remove the bitterness from acorns, soak them in a running stream for a few days. The common dandelion is a versatile and delicious plant. Open pine cones in the heat of a fire to release the nuts inside.

Luxuries: Make soap using lye (from hardwood ash) and animal fat. For candles, sheep fat is best, followed by beef. (Pork fat is very smelly and burns with thick smoke.)

Medicine: Use hypnosis for pain control. Frame suggestions positively. Use the present tense. Be specific and use repetition. Keep it simple.

Develop a survivor personality: Survivors spend almost no time getting upset. They have a good sense of humour and laugh at mistakes.

From: When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance and Planetary Survival, by Matthew Stein

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