Plan B for Peak Oil


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Jan's Five Year Vision

By Jan Steinman



"Aw man, who's chopping wood at..." I glance at the wind-up clock beside the bed. It's nearly 10AM. I guess we stayed up too late last night, playing music in the Great Hall. When I used to watch TV, it seems I always got in bed when the news came on, but now...

I don't remember Carol tucking me into bed, but she isn't here now. I hear the "ding" of the mechanically-timed microwave oven (electronic ones have phantom loads that suck away at precious renewable energy), and know that, in seconds, she'll be bringing me green tea with home-grown stevia.

It's still chilly this early in the spring, and the heated tile floor feels great on my feet as I stumble down the hall to the shared washroom, where the composting toilet awaits.

"Hey Jan!" I hear a tiny voice, "my light won't work! Can you fix it?" The six year old trails behind, holding an efficient LED flashlight in front of her.

"Sure, Sienna! Head down to the lab, and I'll be there in a bit." She takes off at a run.

Boy, George Bernard Shaw really called it when he said, "Youth is wasted on the young!" But what he didn't realize is that contact with youth keeps the spring in the step of the old -- while imparting wisdom in the other direction that you can't get from a classroom! Recent studies also show that residents of mixed-age communities live longer and are healthier.

I head down the hill to the engineering complex. It's situated in a small coppice a bit away from the residence complex, to help control the noise of engines, saws, and welding. An alcove off the main building houses the electronics lab, where Sienna sits at a workbench, gazing at the knobs and dials of equipment while she waits.

"So, what makes a flashlight work?" I ask the child.

"BATTERIES!" she shouts in glee, happy to be consulted instead of having adults just do things for her.

"Okay, let's take them out and check them. Here's the battery tester," I say to get her started. She successfully removes the batteries, and matches the "+" on the battery with the "+" on the tester. The needle barely moves, so we pull a five watt solar panel and a charger off a shelf. "Okay, Sienna -- you know what to do now!"

She plugs the panel into the charger, plops the batteries in, and runs out to find a sunny spot.


I wander into the hall to see what's cookin'. Everyone is encouraged to get together on Thursday evenings, at least -- after all, a group that eats together, stays together -- but in reality, most people eat together at least a half-dozen or more times a week. For any given meal, there's generally at least a third of the villagers in the Hall. And this was no exception.

A nice soup is almost always on the stove, and people help themselves, cleaning up after themselves as well. Today, a rich lentil stew fills the air with the aroma of sage and rosemary. Most people eat little or no meat, and those who, for dietary or philosophical reasons, do eat meat, respect the wishes of the majority that it not be terribly blatant, or end up mixing inadvertently with vegetarian or vegan food.

"What's happening?" I say as I sit down at a table with a half-dozen people in earnest conversation in between mouthfuls of stew.

"We're working on a solar crucible," one person explained, "so we can do some forging without fossil fuels. We've got this fresnel lens and a tracker to put together, then it should work."

"Cool!" I remark, knowing better than to get involved in something already started, unless my advice was sought. I have enough to do!

Carol comes up and asks me, "Whacha got going today?"

"Well, I was going to get my weeding in before it got too hot, then go up to the swamp to see how the algae are doing." Although few of us are full-time agronomists, everyone takes part in common labor. I had enough farm work between 0 and 19 to last the rest of my life, but willingly put in an hour a day (plus or minus) of farm work to keep the place running.

Today was easy -- vegetable garden weeding. It's sort of a mindless activity that gives you time to think about other things -- a rare gift of time in today's too-fast world.

After the weeding, I go back to the Hall and log my time. When I left the factory, I swore I'd never punch a time clock again, but this is different. Our time bank is a way of keeping us honest with ourselves, just as written agreements make for good friends. Also, if you aren't measuring a thing, you can't manage that thing, so these records allow us to see how efficient we are -- and the data also is useful for applying for grants and other funding. People are more willing to give you money when you can document how you spend your time! Such data is also useful for the classes we teach and a growing body of articles and other publications we've been producing.

Once a fortnight, we "roast and toast" those who put in the most time. And these records have also been handy for tactfully suggesting that a friend may be approaching burn-out. "Back off and take a break!" is sometimes needed with this group!

The algae has taken over a sequestered area of the pond. We successfully replaced almost all our petroleum use with home-grown rapeseed oil and waste cooking oil over the past five years, but in the drive to become even more efficient, we've been experimenting with algea for food and fuel oil.

After five years of "hard fun", we are about 80% self-sufficient, in both food and energy production. (Which we wouldn't even know, without the careful records we keep.) We are able to feed ourselves and provide our own modest energy needs, but we still trade with "the world" for things like clothing, machinery, books, etc.

While a minority of us still have "day jobs" outside the village, most make their livelihood endogenously, using various skills to produce goods and services. We willingly give our time to each other in the village, without expectation of recompense, but most of us do have cash income of some sort from outside the village.


According to the calendar in the large communal kitchen, I'm on "KP" tonight. Outside of a couple specialties, cooking is not my thing, so I'm content to peel potatoes and chop salad, and continuously lobby for more spices. It's the camaraderie of kitchen work that is the pleasurable part for me, not the actual cooking!

"How's the orchard doing?" I ask one of my fellow kitchen workers, who has been stewarding a grove of mixed fruit trees in the northeast corner that we had started our first year.

"I think we're going to have peaches this year," she said, "Y'know, five years growing, five years bearing, and five years dying."

"Great!" I replied, "I guess it will be a few more years before we have cherries and apples." Thank goodness staples, like grain and vegetables, don't grow as slowly as fruit trees!

After dinner, I prepare for the class I'm teaching on alternative energy. This is an ongoing evening class, targeted to the greater island community, many of whom have started to "get it" since gasoline went over $2 a liter. The ferry schedules have been reduced, and not so many tourists have been arriving, and some islanders are starting to panic, and many are leaving for city jobs. But many who have been here a long time are starting to think about "toughing it out" in the future, and are making preparations. Property values have been softening, and there is talk of starting the island's second ecovillage.

We also have more intensive seminars and internships, with guests staying as long as several months. Most of these folk come from relatively far away, and the locals have day jobs, so we have evening classes so that our fellow islanders can learn sustainable practices.

As people begin to shuffle into the small space in an alcove off the main hall, I see other alcoves gathering evening activity -- a class on permaculture here, a jam session there, a small group playing some board game over there, a committee of some sort meeting in the far corner. The hall is our primary social space, with alcoves all around the perimeter, separated from the main hall with bookcases and dividers that can be moved around to accommodate groups of various sizes.

We had agreed early on to get away from traditional "box full of boxes" modern architecture, and to build something open and flexible. Sometimes, one group gets a bit too loud for others nearby, but generally, that results in cross-pollenization of ideas, and often the dividers get moved and two groups combine for the evening.

"So, that's the theory; you've got your notes; you've got your homework -- next week, we meet in the tech center and brew some biodiesel!" I say as the class breaks up for the evening. The technical center was the second common building we made, and serves as a combination garage, wood shop, metal shop, electronics lab, and general inventors' corner. We maintain nearly all our artifacts, bartering with outside experts for things that require specialized knowledge and equipment.


"What have you been up to?" I ask Carol as we walk back to our comfy, tiny quarters.

"I've been over in the arts center, making beads," she explains. The arts center and retail center were the most recent additions to our common buildings, and have given us a boost in outside income, while reducing the need to travel -- now, our customers can come to us! Although the continuing escalation of gasoline has cut the sheer number of tourists, the "quality factor" has gone up, and those who do venture to the island are more prepared to spend money.

We take a detour, and stroll down to the stream, hand in hand. There is a pagoda there, and it is nice to get away from the other villagers for a bit, to meditate or just to be alone for a while. The water rushes over a small waterfall into the gorge, not quite drowning out the "bzzzt!" of a Nightjar and the hoot of a Great Horned Owl.

We hug and gaze into each other's souls like teen-agers. "I'm so happy here with you and everyone else," Carol says. "Yes, me too!" I reply, and we stroll back to our quarters.

I was tired a while ago, but it seems my brain starts churning as soon as my head hits the psyllium husk pillow. I think back over the five years we've been here -- the joys and sorrows, the triumphs and the setbacks, the people who have been around the whole time and those who have come and gone, the stuff you enjoyed doing and the stuff you know just had to get done.

But underlying it all is one thread that makes it all worth while, one thing that means I couldn't think of doing anything else: we are building a new world, even as the old one crumbles around us. And as the old ways slowly self-destruct, more and more thoughtful people are seeing that this new way of life is necessary, attainable, and right. Ecovillages are beginning to pop up everywhere, like jonquils in the spring, providing hope for a new balance with nature.

To be continued, in real life!

Jan's Vision, Fifty Years Later


Tonight, I get to feed the animals. I'm hoping for a cougar!

The World

In the fifty years since we joined the land, we've seen much happiness, and much sadness.

Most of the rest of the world has crumbled into insurrection and resource wars. The recessions of 2006, 2011, and 2015 were interspersed by wildly optimistic growth, which only used up the fuel even faster. Then the big one hit in late 2019, when the stock market lost 2/3rds of its value, and fully half of employed people in the US and Canada lost their jobs.

Europe and Japan fared somewhat better, but they and China were dragged down by the huge loss of market in North America. Half the people were no longer able to buy cheap plastic crap from 20,000 kilometers away, and the other half were terrified to let go of their money, too-late saving for a future that had been uncertain for far longer than they had imagined.

Then came the Chinese invasion. Although it was not a "traditional" invasion, in the form of tanks and bombs, it was no less deadly, and did involve an army of sorts. China held countless trillions of dollars of US debt, and simply called in the notes in the form of real estate purchases after the land price collapse that came with the 2019 depression. The Chinese government filled empty cargo ships with their poor, underprivileged, and politically incorrect, and shipped them off to work the huge collective farms that they had purchased in the US, sending the food back to feed an increasingly unhappy and politically unstable middle class. Americans reacted with violence, killing hundreds of thousands of landed Chinese in random acts of violence, and by 2023, the Chinese immigrants had armed themselves, and began retribution.

But people were hungry in America, too. The television networks and news outlets had largely placated the US middle class, through losing an entire generation to resource wars, and losing their personal liberties to "protection from terrorism". But hunger was another matter, and it required a more powerful response from the moneyed classes.

No one can say for sure how it happened, or who was responsible -- all those who might have had a story to tell are either in prison, or have been executed. But the nuclear holocaust at the Super Bowl gave the neo-cons all that they needed to impose totalitarian martial law. The people are still hungry, but at least they're safe from terrorism from abroad -- if no longer safe from terrorism from within.

The historians and economists looked backwards, and noted that it took ten years before there was much recovery from the 1929 Depression, but the waited-for recovery never took place, and by 2039, over 1/3rd of the North American population had succumbed to insurrection, starvation, exposure, or disease. The Chinese Flu pandemic of 2036 was particularly gruesome, taking nearly 80% of those infected -- nearly a quarter billion perishing world-wide -- and making the flu pandemic of 1918 look like a bad case of sniffles in comparison.

The natural gas rationing that had begun a decade before now meant that only the very rich had winter heat in much of North America's urban areas. The cities emptied onto the land like a swarm of locusts, cutting down anything they could burn for heat. It was said that there was not a single tree standing within 50 miles of New York City.

But we'll never really know how many died, nor how many are dying, because during these dark times, the infrastructure of the world began to crumble. Rolling blackouts became a permanent fixture throughout most of the world lucky enough to still have electricity. What was left of the transportation industry crawled to a stop as long-distance highways became impassible. The last commercial airline flight landed in 2032. The telephone system, utterly dependent on reliable electricity, fractured into regional systems. And the Internet, once viewed as the hope for civilization, devolved into regional internets, with some intercontinental email traffic getting through on a sporadic basis.

Large countries, unwillingly led by the US, Russia, and China, began to split into rival regions. Internecine warfare broke out between Southern and Northern Calfornia, New England and the Midwest, and most of all, between the not-quite-poor and the newly poor. This last conflict became especially deadly, and the rich supplied both sides with plenty of handguns and small arms, stoking the fires of class warfare while retreating into increasingly isolated bunkers and fortresses.

By the early '40's, feudalism returned with a vengeance. Anyone who survived the property crash of 2019 could hire armies of starving laborers for a pittance. Anyone who had mortgages in 2019 lost their land in the next few years. The US Supreme Court gave its blessing to indentured servitude way back in 2022, Chief Justice Roberts wryly noting, "at least they're not slaves." (In a lone dissenting opinion, Justice Alieto argued that the court did not go far enough; many of the founding fathers owned slaves, and therefore, slavery actually was constitutional.)

Debtors' prisons, not seen since Dickensonian England, returned for a while, since all the for-profit prisons built between 1992 and 2008 were emptied by disease. The US began forced conscription from the prison population in 2023, and a docile public said, "it's either them, or us" and acquiesced. The best anyone in the habit of maxed-out credit card debt in the early century could hope for by mid-century was three meals and a place to sleep in exchange for work -- they could see those who were unable to work being loaded into trains on the way to the biofuel plants.

But also in the '40's, there was a pause, and the world appeared to try to catch its breath. The growing ecovillage movement meshed nicely with the collapse of large countries into regions. Communities of "freemen" used the laws that kept the rich in power to keep themselves out of bondage -- and supplied with healthy food and natural health care remedies. In 2042, the Free State of Cascadia declared independence from what was left of the US and Canadian governments, and held its first constitutional convention in Vancouver.


With the broad passage of "Single Transferrable Voting" systems in all provinces except Alberta, the Green party began to flourish, and Canadians actually implemented not only the Kyoto Protocol, but the 2016 Hague Protocol that finally did away with fossil fuel subsidies, replacing them with renewable energy credits.

Boosted by energy exports to the south and decreasing national debt, the Canadian and US Dollars reached parity way back in 2006, and never looked back. Canada re-instated the gold standard in 2019, and by 2039, you could buy a truckload of US $100,000 notes for a single Maple Leaf coin -- not that anyone in their right mind would want to.

So used to following the US lead on many fronts, Canadians revolted and began valuing their cultural heritage. You no longer had to "go south" to get respect at home, in fact, those who crossed over to try to make a quick buck were greeted with derision upon return.

Although the Liberals tried to gut the health care system in the first decade of the century, it had been restored by the time the pandemics hit North America, and Canada (second to Norway again, damn it!) had among the world's lowest death rate.

Quebec finally seceded during the 2020 Depression, and the Maritimes and the Prairies followed, forming a loose federation of independent states, still known as "Canada", but no longer sending much money to Ottawa.

The annexation of 2039 was more a joke that anything serious. The US immediately seized the Alberta energy resources, and were able to draft a few thousand young people from Toronto to send off to resource wars in the Middle East. But the reach of the once mighty empire had become limited, following the collapse of communication and transportation infrastructure; they could still wage war across the planet, but the US could no longer count draft-aged men in Moose Jaw -- nor those on Salt Spring Island.

The Village

Through all this, the village... survived. Fifty years ago, I would have been tempted to say "prospered", but life had become brutal and brief for 90% of the world, and it has impacted us, too.

For a while, our compassion nearly killed us -- it can be a fine line between an ecovillage and a refugee camp. But luckily, our situation makes it difficult for refugees to get to us. Locals who are in need are always welcome, but by 2020, 80% of the island's population had left, trying to find work in other places once the tourists stopped coming. Those few kilometers of water means one has to be relatively energy-wealthy to get here. Having an expensive doorway may cut us off from the world, but it also cuts the world off from us.

It was spring 2040 by the time we learned of the 2039 annexation. Some chuckled, others fretted, life went on as usual. 80% of Salt Spring was now one big ecovillage -- the Confederation of Salt Spring -- but the rich still had big houses on the waterfront, and would arrive from Victoria or Vancouver with boatloads of servants. We actually loved it -- they depended on us for food, and we on them for goods from the rest of the world.

Last month's ferry brought crates of pineapples. Most of the children have never seen a pineapple! I'm glad I get to taste one again -- shared with three others! The aroma and flavor bring back such sweet memories!


The soldiers came in 2041. Their uniforms were ill-fitting and mis-matched, and weren't nearly as nice as the homespun flax/wool I was wearing. "Who is your leader?" the one in front shouted.

"I don't know, let me think, who's supposed to be leader this week?" I asked James, working beside me with a hoe.

"Damn! Why am I such a wise ass? Keep the mouth shut!" I think to myself as the rifle but strikes my temple and I see stars through the blood streaming into my eyes. But it is just a surface wound. An Oregon Grape poultice will keep it from infecting, and I'll be good to go in a few days.

Which is more than can be said for our unexpected guests. All that is really needed is to wait. They are starving. And they probably only have a few rounds between them for their guns. Just wait. In a couple days, they'll be begging for help, and we'll feed them, and recycle the precious metal from their weapons, and politely send them back across the water. Through it all, we've managed to keep our non-violent principles.

As for me, I've had little desire for a "legacy," preferring to live in the moment as much as possible. But all of us harbor some such hopes:


My beloved Carol got to feed the animals last week. We wanted to do it together, but such things are not so easily controlled. She had a sudden opportunity; I was not prepared. I haven't eaten since then, and the fasting has sharpened my clarity of purpose.

I seem to be floating about four or five meters from the forest floor. What is that crumpled, naked form amid the detritus in the Glade of Passage? Cougars are not normally scavengers, and I pray I'm warm and lifelike enough. But humans have decimated the deer population, and the cougars have gotten less picky.

There... eyes glowing in the underbrush. It cautiously sniffs the air, winds up its haunches, and pounces. I watch from my ethereal perch as the teeth and claws painlessly rake my dead flesh.

And now, I'm spinning, spinning, rising, rising, going faster, faster, as I release myself into the void to join Carol. My work is done.

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Copyright © 2006 by the author