Apocalypse Now

Sandy as a glimpse into the future: Americans should prepare for a scarcity of resources and a fight for survival

November 8, 2012
November 8, 2012

It wasn’t that long ago that a “waste not, want not” mentality was the norm. My Depression-era grandparents saved everything: bits of string and cardboard, scraps of wood and fabric, worn-out tools that still might come in handy some day. They cleaned and ironed used pieces of aluminum foil, and used it again. They grew much of their own food in a large backyard garden and canned it for consumption in the winter—not just because it was cheaper, but as a hedge against scarcity.

Most Americans have never known a time when food and gasoline were scarce. But if you live in parts of New Jersey and New York, however, all that has changed.

Welcome to the future.

The coming decades will test human resourcefulness as never before. Contra to the oil industry’s narrative proclaiming US energy independence by the end of the decade, numerous independent analysts have been scrutinizing the implacable math of depletion and forecasting that global liquid fuel production will likely reach its ultimate peak within three years, followed by inexorable decline and an attendant deflationary vortex. Military think tanks are quietly gaming scenarios around global resource wars, and civil war breaking out in the US. Forward-looking and risk-averse fund managers have been accumulating commodities and farmland since 2005, forecasting a future of intense competition for the essentials of life.

Economic growth, powered by ever-increasing oil consumption, has always been something we could take for granted. It hit a speed bump in 1971, after U.S. oil production peaked and went into a long decline. “Limits to Growth,” a seminal study by three professors and systems analysts, was published in 1972, warning that the infinite growth on a finite planet would lead to environmental overshoot. Labor became more expensive. And then the Arabs cut off our oil imports in 1973.

But in the 1980s, globalization rode to the rescue. Labor became a global market. We would become a white-collar, service economy, and leave the dirty manufacturing to places like Mexico, China, and the Philippines. Four more decades of growth followed. Economists sneered at the suggestion that scarcity would ever rear its ugly head again. Thomas Malthus was wrong, and he always would be. Prosperity would increase forever.

Then we hit another speed bump, as global oil production hit a ceiling in 2004. Oil prices tripled, dragging the prices of everything else upward with it. The financial system, always underpinned by oil (however invisibly), shuddered and fell to its knees.

And so we turned to unconventional substitutes for oil: tar sands, biofuels, natural gas liquids, low-quality shales. We printed trillions of dollars out of thin air. We injected virus DNA into our corn and soybeans to make it impervious to blanket applications of herbicides and pesticides. We would beat the scarcity demon again.

It worked, sort of. Oil production had stopped growing, but the production of liquid fuels, including lower-quality substitutes, continued to increase. The tension between supply and demand eased a bit, primarily because of the recession. The economy began to recover a bit. Corporate profits improved after shedding a large portion of the workforce. We all still had food on our tables, and except for the occasional hurricane, we all had housing and lighting and heat.

But underneath these surface appearances our footing has been slowly and incrementally eroding away, like standing in a surf.

We now have to drill thousands of wells, each producing 100 barrels a day of oil, at great expense, to replace just one old well that produced yesterday’s cheap oil. Instead of tapping into geological reservoirs containing vast volumes of oil under natural pressure, we’re now drilling to the source rocks that birthed those reservoirs, and having to create the pressure ourselves. We used to get 100 barrels of oil back for every barrel of oil we invested in an oil well; now we get around 11. For much of our remaining tar sands and shale resources—however vast they may be—it’s even lower: under three, in most cases. Recent academic research suggests that with yields that low, they’re not even worth producing.

US corn reserves are at an historic low, equivalent to a three-week supply. Grain yields and water tables are falling, and soil erosion is continuing at a frightening rate. A changing climate is making it harder to maintain food output every year, while we convert one-third of our corn crop into ethanol. The future availability of essential nutrients like phosphates is increasingly in doubt. The era of food security seems to be coming to an end. Fresh water supplies are increasingly under pressure.

The media, ever anxious to tell a story that people want to hear, ignores the ominous rumblings in the depths of the national psyche and focuses its lens resolutely on the optimists. But popular culture knows better. Backyard gardening and basic skills like canning are enjoying a sudden revival. People are paying down debt and raising cash reserves for the first time in decades. Hollywood is churning out post-Apocalyptic films and reality shows about “preppers” building underground bunkers stocked with food, water, ammunition, and backup power.

In one of those films, 2010’s The Book of Eli, Denzel Washington’s character offered this little nugget:

People had more than they needed. We had no idea what was precious and what wasn’t. We threw away things people kill each other for now.

These are not just the overheated hallucinations of a millennial fever, nor mere panics aroused by the Mayan calendar and Nostradamus’ prophecies. They are part of a larger, unconscious recognition that, after a century of continuous growth, we’re about to revert to the mean of human experience that existed for millennia, before we learned to exploit fossil fuels and convert hard currencies into paper tokens.

Hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy are but knocks on the door, trying to wake a slumbering people. We don’t know how to respond to them quite yet. We’re still waiting for someone else to come help us: fidgeting in frustration, waiting for the Starbucks down the street to reopen, waiting for power to be restored to the local gas station, waiting for the Red Cross to arrive with supplies and hot food, fighting with each other for scarce essentials, waiting for the shelves to be restocked so we can get back to “normal.”

But in time we’ll relearn what previous generations of Americans knew about resilience and self-sufficiency. Keeping reserves of food and fuel on hand. Saving some cash and useful materials for a rainy day. Maintaining a box of tools that don’t have to be plugged in. Laying up some preserves, because winter is coming. Learning to cook a decent meal from scratch. Being prepared to take care of ourselves and our neighbors in a time of need, just in case the whole edifice of globalized, just-in-time delivery of everything fails.

Because one day, it will.

You can follow Chris on Twitter at @Nelderini. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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