Here is an interesting question for you: how long do you think it would take us to rebuild our civilization if the world died tomorrow? Let’s say that the worst, most disturbing predictions of the Peak Oil scenario all turn out to be true. Tomorrow we find out that the oil production falls short of the estimates, and we have a global shortage. Gas prices skyrocket again and then continue growing to the point when it is no longer cost effective to burn gasoline to transport oil. The economy takes a dive, power goes out and most businesses, stores and services sell out and close shop. Chaos ensues.
This is pretty much the setup for Jean Hegland novel Into the Forest. It is a story about two sisters living though a very similar economic breakdown, and struggling to survive in a world without heat, electricity, gas and all the other modern conveniences and luxuries we take for granted. These two girls have one advantage over most of us. They live on the extreme outskirts of a sleepy suburban town, practically in the middle of some huge swat of forest. In other words, the proverbial East Bumblefuck located an hour away from the closest center of civilization. They are actually used to temporary power shortages, broken phone lines and etc. At first they hardly notice the changes. They chop firewood in the forest too cook and heat their house, they build a makeshift refrigerator by dunking a tightly sealed container in the nearby stream and etc..
Only when their pantry empties out, and they visit the town they see the impact the crisis had on mid western suburbia. What do you think they see in town? What kind of scene would you expect to see in a small town like that, after several long months without electricity and gas. Stores don’t get new supplies because no one has gas. Pharmacies run out of medicines. Doctors can’t proscribe drugs, don’t have anesthetics and can’t even use EKG or X-Ray machines because there is no power. After being cut off from the town for months, the girls sort of expect to it reorganize itself to cope with the new reality. They envision people going back to basics, growing their own food or finding jobs doing manual labor which now should be in high demand.
What they find there is almost reminiscent of the scenes from The Road. The civilization has collapsed! They enter a ghost town where all the stores and un-guarded houses have been looted. Most people died either due to harsh winter conditions, famine, or from various diseases that can no longer be kept in check using modern day medications. The remaining few survivors are dirty, malnourished, paranoid and what’s worse – in denial. They all hope it will get better soon. They are all waiting for the power to come back and for their lives to resume as normal. Those who leave the town, are not heading out into the country where they could establish self-sufficient settlements. Instead, they try to hit up major cities hoping that they still might have power, and regular jobs there. They are in a sort of of a fugue state, their lives temporarily suspended, or postponed until “things start up around here again”.
The sad thing is that it doesn’t get better. It can’t get better as long as people go into this looter/scavenger mode, trying to eke out an existence out of the vestiges of a dead civilization. The only way out of the crisis and past Peak Oil collapse is to move on, and start rebuilding. We would probably have to abandon major cities, revert back to agrarian style society in order to be able to support any kind of sizable population. Then, and only then we could start slowly building towards a new industrial revolution. And it would take us less time this time around, because we already did it once. And while some technologies would be lost would be lost, I believe that a vast amount of scientific knowledge could survive the crisis, and be used to rebuild our civilization anew.
How long do you think it would take us to get back to where we are right now? Would it be possible? How many generations until we could re-establish nation wide communication? How many years until large scale global trade would get going again? Would we ever be able to rebuild the internet? Or create something like that? Would we ever get back into space with no oil and burning fuels?
Hegland doesn’t answer directly tackle any of these questions in her novel. But it made me think about this stuff. And now I hope I passed it on, and made you consider this. I’m pretty sure human race could survive a crisis like that. It happened before in the past – prosperous and advanced Ancient civilizations collapsed, and vanished only to be superseded by new empires. Who do you think would inherit the Earth if western civilization would collapse upon itself due to oil and power shortages and economic strife? Would the new up and coming empires bloom in what we now call the third world countries, seeing how they never did rely on oil that much? Or would this new empire be created on the smoldering ruins of the old one?