Friday, August 22, 2008

A Safety Net Of Alternative Systems - Skills and Time

First, a bit of news. I mentioned in my last post that I believe that the world oil supply situation is being gamed by major players to mask the reality of constrained oil supplies. I had also previously mentioned that after Saudi Arabia's recent promise to increase oil production, a news story surfaced that stated that certain regions in the north of Saudi Arabia were running low on diesel and refined petroleum products for consumers, even though the Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil corporation, denied that shortages were occurring. This implied that the Saudis were boosting their “official” production figures by shorting some of their own citizens, in order to have more oil to export, since they probably could not raise production.

On Monday, 18 August 2008, another story was published confirming that shortages were actually occurring, and featuring hasty explanations for the shortages from Saudi Aramco officials. Check it out at

This is more evidence that world petroleum production may be past peak and in decline, and that reporting of production numbers is being deliberately fudged. I expect that we will be seeing more news stories of fuel and petroleum product shortages appearing in surprising places like Saudi Arabia as time passes.

I want to talk a bit more about the sort of adjustments that may help to prepare for life on the downside of Hubbert's Peak. Again, I do not claim to be an expert, nor a terribly deep or original thinker (though I think some of the ideas presented in today's post may be new to readers). As I mentioned last week, the first step is to fully acknowledge and admit to oneself that a drastic change is coming, and that life is about to get a lot harder. Part of the preparation for such a change is to be willing to learn to do without many of the conveniences that cheap energy, cheap consumer goods and cheap credit have brought to us.

But another part of preparation involves acquiring things that really are valuable in preparing for this new way of life. Those two things are time and education. The aim of this “education” should be to equip oneself with new skills that are useful in a time of economic decay and uncertainty, the skills of self-reliance and learning to be a maker or provider of things or services that are essential. In short, if our present official system is breaking, we must take time to learn to build alternative systems. Portfolios of skills will vary from person to person, depending on what each person thinks our energy-depleted future will look like.

Some believe that a world of declining oil production and increasing climate change will descend quickly into chaos, that civilization will end abruptly and soon, and that we will all suddenly be thrown back into a primitive, lawless existence like characters in a science fiction movie. (This scenario looks a lot like what some people were predicting regarding the Y2K computer issue.) Others believe that we will simply slide gradually into a worldwide depression that simply keeps getting worse each year. Yet others say that advanced society, especially the West, and particularly the United States, will follow a trajectory of decline similar to that of the decline of the Roman Empire, and that the whole decline will last several centuries.

I'll be the first to admit that I don't know which of these scenarios is most likely. A lot depends on the rapidity with which oil and other resource production declines, as well as the rapidity with which the Earth's climate is disrupted by manmade changes. However, I do think that the United States at least is in for some very disruptive events over the next few years, events which will drastically diminish our power and wealth as a nation and force us to live within our means. When that happens, we will see how much our means are reduced because we squandered those means.

I think things may be better for a while in the rest of the West, namely Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But I believe that worldwide oil production will decline rapidly each year, causing disruptions in other Western nations. And Asian economies will be disrupted by the collapse of globalism as their customers evaporate. The only nations that may do well for a time will be the nations that are now net exporters of petroleum. But these conclusions don't even begin to take into account the shortages of resources other than oil which are now appearing.

Since I can't tell how far or how fast the impending changes will go, I have decided to hedge my bets a little. I haven't quit my day job to go back to nature. But I am trying to acquire the skills which I believe would be useful in the coming uncertain times. One obvious skill is growing vegetables. This year I learned quite a bit about growing things in the Pacific Northwest. One must be much more careful about some things here than one would need to be in Southern California, because here we have seasons. Last winter, I attended a one day workshop in yarn-spinning. I was the only male in the class, and almost no one got it when I explained why I was there ;). I found out that spinning is a lot harder than it looks! This weekend I will attend a class on making solar ovens and a class on home food preservation.

And I am beginning to form a systematic approach to picking what skills I should learn. In my mind, those skills should fall into three groups: first, learning to be self-sufficient as much as possible; secondly, learning to make things from scratch or fix things that wear out; and third, learning basic service skills to meet special human needs. Skills in the first group involve what used to be called “home economics.” Skills in the second group would be useful if cheap imported manufactured goods suddenly became unavailable. Skills in the third group might include everything from the obvious choices of frontier health care to such things as transportation by sailboat or long-distance communication via simple radio sets. I think a person who is known to have such skills will be more highly valued by his neighbors when things get difficult, and may have an easier time than someone who is unskilled. And there are craft and hobby clubs and enthusiasts who are happy to teach these skills now, even though many of them are still viewed as no more than a hobby.

But learning such skills, even as mere hobbies, takes time. Time is one thing that in short supply for many Americans, saddled with debt as they are and working long hours just to keep ahead of the bill collectors. This is why I believe that a key to adjusting to the times now coming upon us is to get out of debt. The best way to get out of debt is to lower one's desires until they are in line with one's income, rather than being sucked by advertising into hyper-consumption. Once a person is debt-free, he discovers a shocking secret: that the 40-plus hour workweek is not mandatory. This frees up a great deal of extra time to pursue things other than a job.

And it is something that is possible even for career professionals. I first heard about part-time professional engineers in 2004, when I met a woman who was married with children and who had negotiated a deal with her employer for a part-time week with the same benefits as a full-time employee. I think only her vacation time was reduced. Now it is true that she had proven herself to be a valuable, knowledgeable asset to the company, which is why they were willing to negotiate such a deal with her. But when I switched jobs, I met a few other people, both men and women, who had been able to work out deals with their employers for part-time professional positions (some companies call these “modified full-time” positions).

This year, I took the plunge and asked to be placed on part-time professional status. It has been an interesting experience so far: while at work, I am usually in overdrive because I am trying to do 40 hours' work in the space of 30 hours, but I can also do work on the bus/train rides between work and the point where I begin my bike commute home. And I have two and a half extra hours for myself each evening. I realize that the arrangement will work only so long as I show my employers that they are getting extra value for their dollar with this arrangement. I'll keep you posted on how it's going.

In short, Hubbert's Peak means that the present global system known as the “official economy” is in danger. Therefore, to adapt, we must each begin the work of building up safety nets of alternative systems. But this takes time. A key to adapting, therefore, is for people to reduce their dependence on the official system by reducing their debt load as much as possible so that they may have time for the learning of alternative skills.

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