Sunday, May 14, 2006

Triage for the Post-Peak Oil Age

When casualties overwhelm battlefield doctors, they are often forced to sort the wounded into three groups: those who will survive without treatment, those who will likely die even with treatment, and those who will probably live but only with treatment. In the post-peak oil age we will likely be faced with a similar situation in deciding which activities a lower-energy society can support.

Tentatively, I propose the following triage for various broad areas:

1) activities that are "Expected to Make a Full Recovery," ones that I think will spread and intensify out of necessity,

2) activities labeled "Code Blue"--the medical term for emergency treatment of heart attack patients--activities which I think may only survive with our active intervention or which may only be available at the level we want them to be through special efforts, and

3) activities labeled "Do Not Resuscitate" which are unlikely to survive post-peak no matter how much effort we put into them.

Only "Code Blue" items are meant to indicate my preferences for a post-peak oil world.

The other categories are predictions (a dangerous practice) about what I think will and won't thrive in a low-energy society. I will certainly miss some activities such as cheap air travel. Others such as motorized sports, I won't. But, my preferences don't matter since the availability and price of liquid fuels will, in my view, determine the fate of both activities.

The table below is not meant to be a complete list by any means. No doubt readers will disagree--perhaps vehemently in some cases--with my predictions and preferences. My aim is neither to irritate nor to prescribe, but rather to help begin a process that I believe will become absolutely necessary. I say absolutely necessary because our failure to recognize those activities which won't survive under any circumstances may cause us to waste valuable (and diminishing) energy resources on hopeless cases. That lost energy will be energy that we cannot spend on things that we will desperately need such as wind and solar power.

No one likes to choose, but choose we must if we are going to have the future that we want (given our constraints) rather than the one that is simply forced upon us.

Expected to Make A Full Recovery
Do Not Resuscitate
Organic farmingScientific research on organic practices; non-GMO seed preservation Industrial/Chemical Farming
Walking; bicycling; sail powerPassenger and freight train service; water transportationPrivate automobiles; transcontinental trucking; commercial air travel; vacation cruise lines
Face-to-face conversationThe InternetCable/Satellite Television
Oral history and storytellingLibraries; certain museums; unique nationally recognized performing groups (opera, theater, ballet, symphony)Theme parks; any sport involving motorized vehicles; large-scale professional sports teams
Neighborhood and home schoolingSmaller, decentralized secondary and higher educationLarge, energy-intensive colleges and universities
Widespread curiosity about and close observation of the natural worldScientific research and education on truly sustainable practicesMegaprojects such as particle accelerators and space exploration
Spiritual teachings that view the natural world as
Ecumenism and toleranceMegachurches; television ministries
Local governanceLocal democratic participationLarge, centralized administration
Local, small-scale craft and manufacturing; locally owned retail; personal serviceLocal economic networksBig box chain stores; just-in-time delivery; worldwide logistics
City/Land Use Planning
Planning which focuses on local resourcesVibrant urban centers; preservation of arable landSuburban and exurban sprawl; megacities
Physical labor; animal powerRenewable energy especially wind and solarCorn ethanol; any net energy negative biofuel


Anonymous said...

The idea you have is interesting, but your DNR list needs some reconsideration. e.g. vacation cruise lines existed long before the age of oil. They were sail powered and went slow, but with air travel gone, sea travel will necessarily become the most important means of long distance overseas passenger travel and tourism. Colleges and universities in major metropolitan areas have been around since the age of enlightenment, and will be again post peak. Also, I am growing corn for ethanol on my farm in Asia. It is very net positive in energy if done correctly. Grown organically, processing facilities on farm and harvested by hand. As a medic doing triage, you are condemning way too many people to death that can be saved. To follow the analogy you have made, in a real life and death situation you'd quickly be relieved of duty as you started sending people with minor infections to their death bed.

Walter said...

Hi. Thanks for your article. Mitigation of disaster is always a good intent so I appreciate the attempt.

Just my view, but with respect to telecommunications, since satellites are in orbit and run off solar power they will last still for many years until their lifecycle ends. Using solar or wind energy at the terminus receiver for signals to be retrieved would therefore still be possible. So although it won't be 24/7 anymore on the earthbound side, it could at least provide for worldwide connections as we try to help each other get over and into the new age. With experts scattered around the world this will be an important resource. News reporting will suffer, but the Internet and phone calls will bridge people away from fear. It is afterall when you are totally disconnected that you really feel alone. It may be dark but there will be enough stuff around to help us keep talking.

Walter said...

regarding education;, not looked at a lot is the Cuba experience with Peak Lite when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90's. (energybulletin link ;) They had to get over their oil usage overnight and with respect to education, ended up with more universites and colleges not less. This will also be the case with medical doctors and nurses. The need for local expertise will simply be too great, and therefore demand local high quality education.

We seem to be describing a previous history of living, the tailor, the blacksmith, the candle stick maker? I'm guessing a new word will enter english, 'recycler' def:person who puts oil-age equipment into local use. Likely some other interesting word.. techsmith?

David Emanuel said...

I will not miss "cheap" air travel since a) it ain't remotely cheap for folks like me (and billions of others); and b) air travel is detrimental for humans and the environment.

Here are 2 articles about the ecocidal nature of air travel:

We Regret to Announce that the Flight to Malaga is Destroying the Planet

We Are All Killers: Until We Stop Flying

Anonymous said...


Yet again, another wishful thinking post peak type. Look, just because you want a world fashioned out of some romantic view of a past arable landscape doesn't make it so.

We rarely go backwards in our society, we have learnt too much and changed to much to accept such a world. If you want to say something interesting or profound you need to take into account all that before trying to say which practices will survive and which will fall away.

To take a single example, do you seriously think organic farming will win out against genetically modified seed crops when there are mouths to feed? The aim will be to get the most out of every square of land, if for no other reason than to give room for biofuel crops. Its simple, low yield organic farming that gets killed off in a future world for a world where every seed is engineered for improved nitrogen fixation, disease resistance and faster growth in difficult climates.

Try again, and this time without the rose tinted specs.

Dom said...

"The aim will be to get the most out of every square of land, .."

Although I *don't* know enough about how farming works, I don't think we're about to switch into a "small is beautiful" world. On the contrary, with such things as communication (also religion etc...) "big is beautiful" will reign. - Sport clubs will become bigger, Stadiums smaller but more people will hang on their tvs or internet.

"Try again, and this time without the rose tinted specs."
I doubt it has to do with the specs, but I think there will be a lot of new elements that will flow into our old ways of doing things.

bcs said...

The big problem that I see with much of the post-peak material is that it considers people merely as very big and wasteful animals...rather than a possible vehicle for ensuring the continuation of biological diversity into the forseeable future and beyond. Space exploration - and especially COLONIZATION - is imperative if that goal is to be met.

I'm sure there are ways to achieve a self-sufficient population beyond Earth before all this reaches critical proportions. Off-planet (probably Mars) would be the best place to preserve - and improve - our technical heritage and possibly even find a suitably long-term solution to our planetary crisis.

Following that, we can get back on track as both a caretaker of other forms of life while allowing the continuation of our various cultural paths with (hopefully) less environmental disruption.

Anonymous said...

A meta-comment on the comments on this page: never argue with an optimist; if you win the argument, they might commit suicide.

So I won't argue with all you optimists, except to say this: I have no reason to believe your pretty, shiny version of the future, because it rests on nothing more than your misguided optimism. Except for an extra 3 words to the guy who wants to colonize Mars - get a life!

Kurt hasn't been drinking your cool-aid, and his analysis is similar to that of most people who've had a look at the numbers for energy resource depletion. His analysis is very valuable.

But what about medicine? If we are talking "triage," then what about all the sick people?

Anonymous said...

OK, what about medicine? Clearly, a lot of modern western medicine is dependent on cheap energy. But humans have demonstrated that they are willing to pay extremely large amounts of money to have their lives prolonged or enhanced.

So, it seems likely that barring a total societal collapse, modern medicine will continue, albeit at a somewhat lower level than the rather extreme forms seen currently.

At the same time, less expensive forms of medical care will increase in popularity and importance. There will be increased emphasis on "results-based" medicine and insurance will tighten up on what they will pay for pretty drastically.

Governments will probably have to step in more than they do currently in the U.S. to make sure that public health receives the resources it needs.

There will undoubtedly be less emphasis on medical research aimed at "curing cancer" and other long-term goals as funding is "triaged" to get the biggest bang for the buck.

Nonessential medical procedures and cosmetic surgery will decrease in availability.

Non-conventional forms of medicine (naturopathy, acupuncture, nutrition) will get more attention at least where it can be demonstrated that they are effective. Many of the "treatment" modalities popular in "alternative" medicine will largely disappear as peoples' resources will not permit wasting money on bogosity.

Dom said...

Anon. (Comment #8) makes a good (meta)point, but Mr. Cobb already pointed out that his table is not supposed to be seen as authoritative nor complete:
"The table below is not meant to be a complete list by any means. No doubt readers will disagree--perhaps vehemently in some cases--with my predictions and preferences. My aim is neither to irritate nor to prescribe, but rather to help begin a process"...
The problem with the table is that it's very general. We don't know *why*, exactly, each of these categories have been picked or not - and which instances behind them are supposed or not.

But I would like to offer one guideline for the general discussion.

The tenability of most of the categories have to do with economies of scale: Are automoblies tenable in a Post Peak world? NOT ON A MASS SCALE. The elite, however, will always drive cars in one way or another.

Are biofuels sustainable in a PP World? NOT ON A MASS SCALE (probably). Many think that wood-burning stoves will solve our heating problems in the future (to use the lowest form of "fuel"). For the FEW who are doing it now, it is a wonderful idea because it is presently using waste products and products of low demand - a wonderful niche-product. Once a good portion of the population begins using wood (pelets, etc), wood will become very, very scarce. Anon. (comment #1) sees his organic ethanol farm as being sustainable/energy positive. But is it sustainable ON AN "INDUSTRIAL" SCALE?

We could go through every point, one by one, but I think that's beside the point!

galacticsurfer said...

I like the table. It gives a better idea than all those books and long articles I constantly read on the subject. The deeper we all get into this subject the more such thumbnail sketches are necessary to summarize what we know as a peak oil community. It helps to sort out and organize the many thoughts then to reorganize and get to a bigger picture. Essentially at a certain stage of peak oil big think tanks, local, regional, state and federal governments will be using such tables and graphs from such peak oil groups to plan the future as governments will control the resources and have to make the big decisions unless they just cop out and let the market decide.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the effort. It is a helpful overview of the functions of civilization. _However_, I am confused by your purpose. Are you actually stating your prediction of what a world 80 years ahead will be like (as you said), or are you putting forth ideal goals to be worked toward (as it appears)?

If these are predictions, I don't buy it - there's no evidence of the power of pre-existing structures (such as Washington lobbyists). If these are goals, we'll also need to develop a path toward them.


JustZisGuy said...

And what of the military?

The United States military, in particular, is the world's single largest purchaser of petroleum, burning about 400,000 barrels per day currently. They will not go down without a fight.

Anonymous said...

I think the thing that will happen is:

-> every country will continue to do what they've been doing since the begining of civilisation: slowly slip into 3rd-world status as they deplete natural resources or those of others.

Space exploration is out of reach, how could we possibly terraform other planets, we can't even clean up the mess we made here!

Good luck everyone and I hope you like gardening and worm composting.

Anonymous said...

I dissagree with the 'eliminate space exploration and projects like particle accelerators.' Of all the things we could end up eliminating, these are two that should be kept. REAL progress in knowledge about our universe and how it functions should not be sacrificed (and in any case CERN and fermilab run at a fraction of our military budget...) Because progress in knowledge is the one thing that can enable industrialized civilization (changed and improved) to continue.

As for space exploration, until we start getting resources from off this planet, we are functioning in a closed system. There are NEO's (near earth objects) that have a great deal or resources we could use and could realistically expect to start using within our lifetime if there was a solid commitment to it. Space-based solar panels beaming energy back down to earth wouldn't be too bad either...

Mary said...

Nice idea if one takes energy triage to the personal level - it may even help soften the fall off the Olduvai Cliff. Some points and predictions - as stated before, universities and global trade have been around for hundreds of years (even thousands, in the case of universities). Anything that uses internal combustion will die, with the exception of those weapons of mass transport used by the military and emergency teams. Use of petrol in all forms (including ethanol) and the vehicles powered by it will be restricted to those classes. There will not be enough energy around to actually *build* cars for the masses, let alone power them. If ethanol does become a requirement, it will also be restricted as above.
Oil is in everything we buy/use/eat/own. With oil running out, so is easy/cheap food. With agricultural land being co-opted for the production of biofuels (rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic), food is becoming increasingly scarce in many places. There *will* be massive die-off of people. There will continue to be social, political, and military upheaval world-wide, although maybe not in all areas at once all the time. Police states will emerge in places one would least expect (North America) because of fuel restrictions. Rationing will occur, which needs policing to maintain order. We will go back to being allowed clotheslines, chickens, and goats in our backyards (most Western neighbourhoods currently have covenants against such things), so food production will return to being small-scale and very local. The kinds of things we *can't* grow large amounts of due to lack of back yard will be handled by larger farm operations, "larger" meaning bigger yard. Clothing will be very dear and we will go back to having two or three oft-mended pieces that we wear every day, and one good suit for weddings and funerals.
Solar and wind energy will not be able to keep up with the demands of the global population's current consumption rate. There isn't enough energy there to plug into the manufacturing sector, so nearly all factory-made items with which we are today familiar will be defunct and unusable in less than 25 years. Manual-energy items (grain grinders, washing machines, anything used by the Amish) will be increasingly big sellers (they're quite popular now with the homestead types).
Face it - we have too many people on the planet, the existence of which has been promoted by a military-industrial complex fed on the hugely erroneous economic paradigm of unlimited growth. The planet can reasonably sustain a population of less than two billion. We now have almost seven billion. It's going to get even messier than it now is (see the news reports of food riots in various countries), and it's going to happen while most of us (if you're younger than 70) are still alive. Good luck with your own personal energy triage.

Anonymous said...

Whether one likes it or not, the world will need energy in one form or another.

Unlocking energy from the atom is viable and particle accelerators can help us do this better.

Hiding under a rock will not help, so, we need to search for alternative energy and use fossil fuels for those areas where there is no alternative.

Just by changing our driving habits in the US, we have seen a 6% reduction in gasoline use, but we can do much better. Certainly 20-30% is quite possible and that is with using current technology. Hybrid cars are gaining ground, the elctric is viable and getting better, the hydrogen powered car, once only a dream and currently as expensive as a big computer in the 70's will become affordable.

Air travel is actually cost effective as a mode of tranportations, price per mile is not out of line with a car seating for.

The biggest issue I belive, at least over the next 50 plus years isn't lack of fossil fuels, but the way we utilize them, the problem is, the problem is, that we are wastful in how we use them and for what purpose. Certain things needs fossil fuel, but so many do not and have alternative sources available.

The Hummer or the Ecalade probably won't make it, but I don't see that as much of a loss, the Gulfstream jet probably has to go the way of the dodo.