Imagining life in the North Country in a post-oil age

I’ve just finished reading two compelling books that begin to paint a portrait of what life might be like in the North Country in the coming age when cheap oil is a fading memory.

I’ll acknowledge as a personal bias that I think this is inevitable.

After covering the Exxon Valdez and BP Gulf oil spills, I am left with the conviction that oil companies are already pushing into increasingly dangerous, volatile and unstable environments in search of our oil.

In a single century, we went from getting cheap oil from our backyards, where the stuff was literally bubbling out of the ground, to a pursuit that verges on science fiction in its technical challenges.

Whether it is a well drilled a mile under the surface of the hurricane-wept Gulf of Mexico or rigs that sit in war-torn regions of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, these are tough and costly places to get our energy.

Ten years from now, the pursuit will take us into even more troubled terrain — and ten years after that we’ll have to go farther and deeper.

It is worth noting that a single screw-up last year nearly destabilized BP, one of the world’s largest energy producers.  The likelihood of catastrophic failures going forward seems certain to grow.

So what will life be like in our neck of the woods when a gallon of gas costs $10?  Or when gasoline is all but impossible to find at all?

Jerry Jenkins with the Wildlife Conservation Society points out in his book “Climate Change in the Adirondacks” that “fossil fuels changed the Adirondacks, as they did the world.”

“Consider a small Adirondack town, perhaps North Elba, in 1840….A man and a [horse] team working steadily could do less work than a medium-sized riding lawn mower.  A week of eigh-hour days netted them less useful work than we get from 5 gallons of gasoline.  The town gristmill, or the massed person-power and horsepower of the town, had less mechanical power than a small motorcycle.”

Jenkins makes it clear that replacing the ease, simplicity and efficiency of fossil-fuel engines and products will be a very difficult task, and could result in sacrifices to “our material welfare…that none of us would willingly choose.”

In his novel, A World Made By Hand, Saratoga Springs author James Howard Kunstler imagines life in the Glens Falls area if we fail to make the transition.

His book posits a future where the oil crisis has been complicated by plagues, international crises, and terror attacks.

Kunstler suggests that our culture will relapse into an essentially agrarian post-urban model, comparable to the America of the early 1800s.

As the modern world came apart, and the local economy with it, Bullock took the opportunity to acquire at least eight other properties adjacent to the original family farm. They were not all in agriculture. One was an auction yard for second hand farm equipment and trucks.  Another was a marina for pleasure boats on the river, which now served as Bullock’s landing…”

Obviously none of these portrayals are definitive.  The United States had already developed into a largely urban and industrial nation before the advent of the oil economy.

It’s also possible that technology will soften the blow of dwindling oil supplies, as we develop better solar and nuclear power, and find cheaper ways to convert plant matter into energy.

But it seems worthwhile to begin pondering what it will mean to us — as a nation, as a region, and individuals — as the modern life blood of our economy dries up.

What do you think?  Have you read these accounts?  Do they worry you?  Think they’re overblown?  Your comments welcome below.

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22 Comments on “Imagining life in the North Country in a post-oil age”

  1. I haven’t read either but I am constantly struck by the amount of ‘stuff’, lot quality, unnecessary things that are produced to feed the consumer economy and which (IMO) represent a waste of our resources to produce. Hopefully one result of dwindling fuel resources will be fewer but more useful and higher quality things with what resources are available.

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  2. That should say “low quality” not “Lot quality”. I have proof read more carefully.

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  3. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I really enjoyed “A World Made By Hand” and apparently there is a sequel out, but I haven’t laid eyes on it.

    Haven’t read the Jenkins book but will try to get a copy. I do have to quibble with the section posted here though. A man with a horse team can do far more work and a greater variety of work than a medium size lawn mower. I have no particular skill with a scythe but I can mow a chunk of tall grass pretty quickly that would stall a lawn mower. And try skidding logs with your lawn mower. But I get the point that gasoline is a highly concentrated form of energy.

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  4. Myown says:

    The end of oil is only a matter of time. And it is getting closer. Unfortunately it is hard to be optimistic the transition will be smooth in the US. The oil industry is so profitable that large corporations, like BP, are able to unduly influence politicians and US energy policy to the detriment of any serious planning for the long-term. They appear to be only interested in short-term profits and want to maintain the status quo right up to the last drop. Then we will have a serious crisis on our hands. The long-term interests of the American people are being held hostage by the huge multi-national energy corporations. Ironically, socialist China is way ahead of the US in developing alternative energy. When the oil stops flowing we will be buying Chinese energy technology and equipment – if we will be able to afford it. Here’s an interesting article I just read yesterday on China and their ability to adapt more rapidly than the US. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2043235,00.html (Not trying to start a discussion about China – just frustrated we are not doing more to anticipate the inevitable.)

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  5. Pete Klein says:

    Not worried. I’m just glad oil came along before the DPW had to start cleaning the streets and roads of all the horse droppings left by two horses in every garage.
    And let’s not forget, if mom and dad and junior had their own horse, think how much grain would have been required to feed all those horses.
    Where would we be if everyone had to heat with wood?
    Now there is a true horror story for you to consider if you are into what if.

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  6. Jeff says:

    It is within the realm of likelihood. It is one reason I question tourism as a salvation for Adirondack towns. Mass transport could be converted to electricity and more streams supplied with micro generators. But still trains and bus routes don’t reach convenient places.

    Surviving on one’s own land is possible, if one can own land. Property taxes come into play because our lands are taxed and we can’t own if we can’t pay. The land has to generate enough for taxes. That is why the paper companies don’t own anymore.

    The forest products industry harvests and transports wood but moves on oil. Wood from the Adirondacks goes to Quebec, Ticonderoga, Vermont and Pennsylvania. Lumber and veneer logs go further. Train hauling is too expensive presently against truck hauling.

    How many would travel to a store by foot or animal when it is as cold as it will be this weekend? Why live in a region where survival would be such a struggle?

    Disbursed single family homes are not efficient compared with apartment complexes. How much natural gas or water piping needs to be run to one house, buried by an oil using machine- compared to an apartment complex ? Running fiber optic cables to every house, placing cell phone towers on every hill is inefficient.

    But hydrogen fuel, solar electricity, micro-hydro, compressed natural gas may provide some transitional energy. Mining is done with electricity but I haven’t seen energy alternatives for larger above-ground mobile earth moving and logging equipment.

    Our government is not designed for directed development as seen in China or Venezuela. We shouldn’t worry but seek opportunity. We’re pioneers not fellow travelers. That may be the greater problem.

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  7. dbw says:

    Brian, well it is about time! For months the Inbox has drifted back and forth between, debt, deficits, and politics without tackling the underlying causes. The recession underlying the current financial mess was triggered by high oil prices, and rising oil prices threaten to knock the recovery back down again. Our energy issues are the next crisis that no one is paying attention to right now. Those institutions, businesses and individuals which are taking sustainability serious now will be in the best shape to carry on. HOw might high oil prices affect the north country? People may gravitate towards our existing villages, and living 10miles out of town will be less appealing. Tourism may take a hit. Neighborhood schools will make sense again with electronic access to support a diverse curriculum. Could higher transportation costs make the Seaway and water transport more popular and in demand? More food will be grown locally. The folks in the local food effort in Hardwick found that with gas in the $4.00 plus range vegetables could be produced locally at competitive prices compared to bringing them in from California.
    We may see the return of more than one generation living under one roof. Some pundits have predicted that as much as 20% of the population would have to be involved in food production in a serious crunch. Wood, grass pellets, and coal, will all see increased use as energy sources. And Pete is absolutely right–not everyone can burn wood. One study said that nationally wood could only meet 5% of our energy needs on a sustainable harvest basis. I am not a doomer and don’t expect us to go off the cliff, but we have some real challenges in the not too distant future. I find I am asking myself more and more if something will make sense if gas is $6.00 a gallon; new roads? consolidation of schools? living so far out of town?

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  8. oa says:

    Everyone should read “The Long Emergency,” Kunstler’s nonfiction peak oil book from 2005. Here’s a Long Emergency excerpt from Rolling Stone that gives you a good idea of what “World Made by Hand” is about:
    http://www.energybulletin.net/node/4856

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  9. Pete Klein says:

    And let us not forget atomic power. And maybe fusion some day.
    As is said, necessity is the mother of invention.
    And also remember, doom sayers make money by being doom sayers but do nothing to confront the problems.

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  10. Mervel says:

    I don’t see it really happening.

    http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=1911

    This is just one untapped resource there will be others. Technology increases and people want energy; we are able to extract oil today where it was not possible even ten years ago. If other non-fossil fuel based energy resources do the job better and at lower cost they will end up being used.

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  11. Bret4207 says:

    Huh, I had a post earlier but for some reason the server wouldn’t take it. So I’ll give the short version.

    Jenkins comparison of a draft horse or even a draft pony to a medium sized lawn mower show’s he has no clue about horse power vs horsepower. Typical of todays urban commandos. As a draft horse owner and user I can assure Mr Jenkins that even one of my little Haflinger ponies would drag his lawn mower till the tires burnt off. But, he’s right about the end of oil.

    What’s of more concern than $10.00 gas will be $12-15.00 diesel. The nation runs on diesel folks, no diesel or more expensive diesel means everything is correspondingly more expensive. $10.00 milk, $8.00 loaf of bread, $12-15.00 a gallon HEATING OIL!!! Better join in trying to get DEC to can their latest outdoor wood boiler laws, it’s only a matter of time till they move to indoor stoves and squash us with more unworkable regulation. But hey, why worry? Just do as a college kid told me, “Stop living in the 1800’s and learn to turn up the thermostat!”. Bright people, those college kids.

    Kunstler, what can I say? As a regular reader of his blog I’ve learned to read his 8-12 paragraph paranoid ramblings and take from that the 3-4 sentences that are worthwhile. The guy is as close to an old time New England Blue Blood as I’ve come across since my great grandmother (A proud DAR member) passed on. Anyone or thing different is suspect. Read “The Long Emergency” and pay particular attention to his chapter on life after the end of oil. Only those in the northeast ( and close to his home at that) will survive. The rest of the country will perish. You really have to read his thoughts on “southeners” to believe it. It’s a hoot. This guy could have been the Grand Wizard of the Klavin if they had one set up for northeastern bigots who hate southerners, westerners, midwesterners, southwesterners….in fact anyone not EXACTLY like him. It’s maddening.

    “World” was good as doomer fiction goes. It’s a great example of what happens when you sit around smoking dope waiting for someone else to fix things. If you can get beyond Kunstlers alter ego, the main character of the book (a late 50’s/early 60’s kinda laid back dude), ending up with the hot young red head, it’s pretty good. What I found irritating is that his antagonists were the people actually doing something other than witting around, just getting by. One group is made up of religious weirdos and the other some sort of feudal Lord of the Manor type. I thought it was really odd that Kunstler let his main character be such a dud. I don’t know if it was intentional, with him you never know.

    I paid full retail for the hardcover of “world”. I’ll wait for the paperback of “The Witch of Hebron”, the sequel.

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  12. Bret4207 says:

    Hey, look at it like this- The Adirondacks were covered in small farms even into the 50’s. It was WW2 and the end of horse and human labor that finally put the small farms out. Even into the early 70’s we were still back home and there were still a few relatively large farms in well north of Warrensburg and on into the central Adks. It could be done again on a small scale. It may have to be.

    If you take a ride through northern St Lawrence county you might notice the only prosperous looking farms are a few very large dairies and Amish. The middle sized farmers are having a real tough time of it. The Amish are doing pretty good these days. They’re diversified, low overhead, they use lots of hand labor and while they hurt with high fuel prices too, it’s not as bad as when it’s the only choice you have. It’s worth considering that mixed power (engine and animal) is very efficient. That may be more of an answer someday.

    My next project? Wood gasification! I love steam, but I can’t afford it and it’s probably not so good for a non-safety conscious type like me. But wood gas…that is a real possibility.

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  13. JDM says:

    Brian says, “I am left with the conviction that oil companies are already pushing into increasingly dangerous, volatile and unstable environments in search of our oil.”

    No. It’s the environmentalist lobby efforts stopping us from getting the “easy” oil in the midwest, ANWR, and off the Gulf coast in shallow waters, where other countries have no trouble at all getting at it.

    There is no reason to wring our hands and cry over the lack of “easy” oil. It’s there. Let’s go get it.

    Drill, baby, drill, but not 200 miles off the Gulf coast. There are easier places to get oil, and we had better start soon.

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  14. Pete Klein says:

    You can’t go home again and you can’t go back in time.
    We seem stuck in time. NASA still thinks in terms of slow rockets that need good weather to take off and land. We need serious research on truly new energy, not joke stuff like wind and solar power.
    NASA should be working to hit speeds of + 100,000 mph and beyond.
    All we are doing now is treading water with band aid solutions to energy.

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  15. Mervel says:

    It will actually be very fascinating. We usually underestimate greed and advanced technology. The energy industry will find a way to provide energy to move the Chinese and the Indians into the 20th century middle class lifestyle; the profit potential of energy is just remarkable given the aspirations of just those two countries.

    There is so much potential for natural gas yet to be found and there is so much potential in other sources of oil as yet undiscovered. Who would have thought even 20 years ago that we would be taking oil out of sand in Canada on a very large scale just to name one area.

    Personally I don’t think this is all good much of this is horrible for the environment; but I am saying just from a factual basis the doomsday people have been proved wrong over and over and over again from Malthus on forward to the peak energy people.

    The fact that we could now find an oil field in the continental 48 that holds as much retrievable oil as any other yet discovered fields in the US to date tells me that we have no idea how much oil is in the US or the world.

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  16. Mervel says:

    I am essentially an optimist on this issue and on the future of the planet. We don’t know what the world is going to come up with I think it is a tad self centered to think that just because we are in a psychic funk in the US right now; that the Chinese or the Indians or the Vietnamese are caught up in this thinking. They are emerging now I don’t think they are sitting around worried about the end of the world, they are planning for their future. On the whole that is a good thing and it has great opportunities for the US maybe they will come up with the way around our energy problems?

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  17. newt says:

    I just finished “The Witch of Hebron”, and found it a good read. A bit heavy, for me, on mystical events and coincidences to push things along, and, I guess, leaven the post-collapse-of-civilization blues. Characters and plot were interesting, and kept me involved. Less a guide to post-oil collapse Hudson Valley than a novel set in it.

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  18. CJ says:

    Hmm… maybe nuclear power in Massena is not so far-fetched after all.

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  19. Bret4207 says:

    JDM has a good point. Environmental regulations and politically correctness dictate we don’t exploit our own energy in our own backyard. Does anyone really think China gives a hoot about a spill in the gulf or anywhere else?

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  20. Alan Gregory says:

    One thing is certain: The suburban sprawl universe of McMansions, trophy homes, three-car garages, and acres of lawn kept green by chemical fertilizers and gas-fed mowers is doomed. And none too soon for the future of wild nature.

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  21. DBW says:

    Was Malthus wrong, or did the oil age throw his projections off? Walter Prescott Webb wrote a wonderful book called THE GREAT FRONTIER back in the fifties about the discovery of the New World. Europe is 1400 had reached a subsistence balance between its land, resources and population, and as they say life was short, hard and brutish. The influx of gold, silver, lumber and beaver pelts transformed not only the New World, but the Western World. Webb implies that we may be reaching a new subsistence balance between population, land and resources on a global scale. In order, to continue on the way we would have to swing another whole earth into our orbit and start exploiting its resources. With so many wanting to imitate our lifestyle, its seem quite possible we may bump up against a scarcity of essential resources at some point.

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  22. Mervel says:

    DBW,

    Yeah maybe. I do think Webb is onto something though about the dynamics of change how unpredictable it all is. We can’t predict technological advances. Did people predict the demise of the horse as a means of transportation in 1880?

    These things can happen very fast. I don’t think totally running out of oil at some point is that big of deal. Oil is only one fossil fuel there are others in addition we don’t know what might take the place of oil it might be natural gas it might be nuclear it might be batteries of some sort etc, or it might be a whole new energy source we don’t even understand right now.

    But I think oil has at least 100 years left as an important source of energy. The best thing that could happen for the planet and for energy in general is that oil would indeed to $200-300 per barrel.

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