When the Lights go out
by Peter Goodchild
The first distinct sign of systemic collapse will be the increasing frequency of electrical-power failures (Duncan, 2000, November 13; 2005-06, Winter). Throughout the world, electricity comes mainly from coal, natural gas, nuclear power plants, or hydroelectric dams, and all of them are bad choices. Most electricity in the US and Canada is produced by fossil fuels, and in the US that generally means coal. The first problems with electricity will serve as an advance warning, but the greatest danger will occur years later as the production of fossil fuels and metals is itself reduced by the lack of electrical power.
The US and Canadian grid is a hopelessly elaborate machine — the largest machine in history — and it is perpetually operating at maximum load, chronically in need of better maintenance and expensive upgrading. Every part of these two countries will be in some danger of outage over the next few years, due to inadequate supplies of electricity (NERC, 2008). Texas may be in the greatest danger, whereas Quebec (with the advantage of hydroelectric dams) may be the safest area. But most Americans and Canadians still cannot think of a failure of electricity as anything more than a momentary aspect of a summer storm. In other parts of the world, the future is already here: the lights fade out daily after four or five hours, if they come on at all. Actually Americans and Canadians are in far better shape than the citizens of other countries. Thanks to political bungling, even “civilized” Britain will apparently be losing 40 percent of its electrical power in the next few years (Booker, 2008, June 10; Harrabin, 2009, September 11).
The use of electricity worldwide rose 54 percent from 1990 to 2005, while the production of energy rose only 34 percent (BP, 2010; Duncan, 2000, November 13; 2005-06, Winter; EIA, 2008, December 31), so it will not always be possible to meet the demand for electricity. The result will be widespread power shortages, some of these deliberately imposed, some of them not.
It is easy to assume that the only issue with fossil-fuel depletion is the problem of what to put in our automobiles. But the effect of that depletion on the production of electricity will be a problem of at least equal seriousness. If we have unavoidable world-wide blackouts and brownouts, the final result will be a sudden and catastrophic chain reaction. Fossil fuels and electricity are tightly integrated. We cannot have one without the other. Without fossil fuels, we can produce no (or not much) electricity. Conversely, without electricity, we lack the “nervous system” (a useful analogy, since nerves work by ion transfer) to control any equipment that uses fossil fuels.
The problem of electricity, therefore, is one more factor to be tossed into the synergistic muddle of fossil-fuel depletion. Perhaps what we should be thinking of is not the familiar slope of depletion depicted in most studies, but a figure consisting of a relatively gentle slope that continues for only a few more years and then becomes a steeper curve downward, as resource depletion enters what may be called a second phase, perhaps roughly simultaneous with an economic second phase signified by the disappearance of government and currency. When fossil fuels are inadequate for maintaining electricity, the further results will be manifold. Fossil-fuel production itself will cease, and so will a great deal else.
It is not only fossil fuels and electricity that form a tightly integrated group, but a triad: fuels, electricity, and metals. Without fossil fuels and electricity, we cannot produce metals. For now let us focus on the first two of the three, but we should never forget that the production of metals is also a vital issue.
When we no longer have enough energy to channel into necessary electricity production, the game is over. Yes, we can divert some energy sources away from other uses towards the production of electricity, but such a diversion causes its own problems. For better or worse, the sources of electricity are mainly hydrocarbons, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future; as these hydrocarbons reach the down-slopes of their production curves, electricity will follow a fairly similar curve.
The only remaining question is how quickly the various events will unfold. That in turn must be subdivided into questions on such matters as the supplies of the sources (oil, natural gas, coal, hydroelectricity, nuclear power, etc.); on global production of goods and services; on global population; on the amount of electricity generation; and on the chances of deliberately conserving electrical power.
We must not forget the above-mentioned chain reaction — the feedback mechanism. As less fuel (or any other source of energy) is available to produce electricity, there is less electricity to produce fuel. As less electricity is available to produce fuel, there is less fuel to produce electricity. The end is swift.
The answers are also complicated by the fact that the global data are not reflected in more-localized data. For some countries, blackouts and brownouts have been a way of life for years. But no country should assume that it is safe. In the US, the main energy source for electricity is coal, and there have been several reports that coal in the US is not as abundant as once assumed (Höök & Aleklett, 2009, May 1; Smith, 2009, June 8). The remaining coal is of poor quality and difficult to extract.
Richard C. Duncan emphasizes the fragility of electricity in the several versions of his “Olduvai” essay. An important addition to his 2005-06 version is his emphasis on “proximate” versus “ultimate” causes of systemic collapse. “. . . Permanent blackouts . . . will be the proximate (direct, immediate) cause of the collapse of industrial civilization. In contrast, [there will be] many ultimate (indirect, delayed) causes. . .” (2005-06, Winter, p. 9; emphasis in the original).
Duncan also points out that the importance of electricity is overlooked because it is not the underlying giant problem of “the limits to growth.” As any science-minded person knows, electricity is not even a source of energy, it is merely a carrier of energy. Fossil fuels are the primary sources of energy in our industrial civilization. Yet electricity is subtle, and its importance is easily underestimated. It is “end use” that is significant:
Electricity wins hands down as our most important end-use energy. To wit: I estimate that 7% of the world’s oil is consumed by the electric power sector, 20% of the world’s natural gas, 88% of the coal, and 100% each for nuclear and hydroelectric power. The result is that electric power accounts for 43% of the world’s end-use energy compared to oil’s 35% (Duncan, 2005-06, Winter, p. 4).
There are always many problems with the use of electricity. It is certainly costly. Duncan notes that, according to the International Energy Agency, the worldwide investment funds required for electricity from 2003 to 2030 will be about $9.66 trillion (2005-06). That sort of money is simply not available. Duncan also mentions that electric power systems are “complex, voracious of fuel, polluting, and require 24h-7d-52w maintenance and operations” (2000, November 13, p. 2).
Personally, I think of the great blackout of August 14, 2003, when a large part of northeastern North America came to a halt; Congress later called for up to $100 billion to renovate the power grid, but the money was spent on wars instead (Leopold, 2006, October 17). I remember that day very well. No gasoline, because the pumps required electricity. Still, many Torontonians came up to cottage country, where I was living, to wait out the troubles. There were no bank machines working, so it was cash only. There were big sales of batteries and candles, and of bottled water.
But that was only one day, with a few serious problems on following days. Independent generators kept hospitals and restaurants going. Water trucks solved a problem for cities that did not have gravity-fed reservoirs. But what if the problems had continued for a much longer time — perhaps forever — so that those clumsy attempts at rectification were no longer operating?
When the lights go out, so does everything else. There will come a time when the house or apartment will be largely non-functioning. Not only will there be darkness throughout the dwelling between sunset and sunrise, but all the sockets in the wall will be useless. The “four major appliances,” stove, refrigerator, washer, and drier (if anyone still owns such things), will be nothing more than large white objects taking up space, so there will be no familiar means of cooking food or preserving it, and no practical means of doing laundry. There will be no heating or air-conditioning, because these are either controlled by electricity or entirely powered by it. For the same reason, the plumbing will not be working, so clean water will not be coming into the house, and waste water will not be leaving it. For those living in high-rise apartments, there will be many stairs to climb because the elevators will not be operational.
And that is only one’s own habitation. The entire country will be affected, the whole world will be affected. Computers will cease to operate, and computers have insinuated themselves into almost every device we use. There will be no long-distance communication: no telephones, no Internet, no electronic transmission of data from anywhere to anywhere.
Eventually money will largely cease to exist, because there will be no electronic means of sending or receiving it, and no way of balancing accounts. ATMs will cease to operate. In fact money nowadays is generally not reckoned as coins or bills, but as data on a screen, and the data will no longer be there.
Modern medicine will vanish. Doctors will not have the modern means of taking care of their patients. Pharmacies will be closed, so drugs will not be available. Medicare will not be depositing funds into doctors’ bank accounts. Hospitals will be burdened with the sick and dying, and there will be no means of taking care of the sick. With refrigerating not working, hospitals will not even be able to take care of the dead. There will not even be a means of removing and burying the bodies.
The police will be immobilized, because they will have no means of sending or receiving information. Since police forces anywhere have only enough personnel to deal with fairly average crises (but not enough to deal with the great majority of minor crimes), their duties will be limited to protecting the rich and powerful. Eventually they will find that they are powerless to do anything but stay home and protect their own families.
For anyone, it will be impossible to jump into a car and get help, because cars require gasoline, and the gas pumps are run by electricity. In any case, the oil wells and the refineries will have ceased operation. The biggest “vicious circle” will have taken place: no electricity will mean no fossil fuels, and no fossil fuels will mean no electricity.
“When the lights go out” is largely a figure of speech, of course, because the incandescent or fluorescent light bulbs in a house will not be the major concern: in the daylight hours, one does not need light bulbs. But the flickering of bulbs will nevertheless act as an early-warning system — the canary in the coal mine, so to speak. During a severe storm, it is the flickering of light bulbs that indicates that it is time to get to whatever emergency supplies have been put aside: bottled water, canned food, and in winter warm clothing. The unsolved problem, however, may be that the concept of “emergency” is usually regarded in terms of a short period of time. There is always the spoken or silent refrain of “until the authorities arrive.” But those authorities will be waiting for other authorities to arrive, and those at the top will have made their own separate plans long ago.
Nevertheless, it must be said that there is a great deal that can be done. Of all the resources one can accumulate, the most important are those that are stored inside one’s own head: knowledge, skills, wisdom. “Knowledge” is perhaps not the right word, though, because to have read or heard a particular fact does not automatically grant the ability to deal with particular issues.
Even more important than mere “knowledge” is practice. For example, I used to read a great many books on vegetable gardening, but when I owned and ran a market garden for several years I would occasionally mumble, “Why isn’t this information in the books?” And there were several answers to that question. In the first place, the books were badly written. Secondly, it is not the overall principles that count, but the minutiae. Thirdly, those particulars often cannot be put into writing or even into speech: “I can’t explain it, I can only show you” is an expression I sometimes heard. A good gardener knows a thousand tiny tricks that lead to success, and it is those particulars that matter, not the general statement that one does not sprinkle seed in a snowstorm (Actually the “simple life” takes a lifetime to learn, and one should really have the guidance of the previous generation.)
The skills needed for country living are rarely the same as those needed in the city, although anyone who has built up experience in what the books call “home repair and improvement” will be ahead of those whose knowledge consists of more ethereal matters. Hunting and fishing are not taught in academia.
When I say, “When the lights go out, so does everything else,” I mean “everything in the city.” What matters is not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Living in the city will most certainly be a case of the wrong place at the wrong time. There will be no food and no water, and no means of dealing with the victims of famine and disease. When there is an inkling that the electrical power everywhere is about to fail, the answer is to be well outside the city limits. One should either be living in the country or at least have some property in the country and a well-tested means of getting there.
Even a plan of that sort involves a few caveats. “Property” in the modern world is nothing more than a convenient legal fiction. If a gang of outlaws moves in next door, or even if there is a single oppressive neighbor to be dealt with, then the whole concept of “property” can vanish into thin air. I have known several cases in which people gave up house and land because they could not deal with troublemakers. What will it be like when the troublemakers are doing something more unpleasant than a little trespassing? So it is good to own property, but it is better to realize that ownership, in the modern sense of the word, might be nothing more than a scrap of paper.
Getting out of the city means knowing the roads — not the main highways, but the back roads. Cars will be less common in the future, but it is worth remembering that in a sudden emergency the main roads could become jammed, partly because of the volume of traffic but also because of accidents. Vehicles might even be abandoned, either because they are out of gas or because the passengers have discovered that it is quicker to walk. Knowing the back roads, and even knowing alternative routes among those back roads, means freedom of choice in one’s movements.
The last matter is that of community. As mentioned above, the concept of property can be illusive, but there is more to consider in the question of who lives in the general area. Neighbors who take pleasure in noisy dogs, loud radios, or heavy drinking can make proximity unpleasant nowadays, but such people may not prevail in the kind of “natural selection” that will take place, where common decency will be everyone’s concern. In any case, the greatest blessing of the post-petroleum age will be the demise of all-terrain vehicles, electronic amplifiers, and the other technological marvels with which people now ruin one another’s enjoyment of “cottage country.”
Even then, the trouble of having a neighbor may be less than the trouble of not having one. A family, a band, or a tribe makes it possible to distribute the various tasks than need to be done, whereas a loner might find it hard to cope. There are not many who have both the practical skills and the personality traits for complete independence; such people would have to be not only self-reliant but also living very far from any populated area if they are not to risk being outnumbered by evil-doers.
It is not reasonable to expect a perfect neighborhood. Within the happiest band of jungle-dwellers there is gossip, discontent, jealousy, manipulation. Troubles and troublemakers can be dealt with in such a way that the community itself does not fall apart. In a primitive community, ostracism, for example, can be an effective means of resolving a problem. A community leader who lacks what we now call “managerial skills” can be replaced by one who does a better job. In any setting, neighbors are merely human, with common desires and antipathies and fears; it is important, not so much to wish for angelic neighbors, as to have enough daily contact with them to be able to anticipate how they will respond in a difficult situation.