Into the Forest: Rebuilding Civilization After a Meltdown

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?

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13 Responses to Into the Forest: Rebuilding Civilization After a Meltdown

  1. Daosus UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox SuSE Linux says:

    The human race would survive just fine. Heck, large swaths of South America and Africa may not even be impacted that severely, just because they’re already living without power. The destruction of the food production and distribution system would be most significant. Modern farms require electricity, not just to power their machinery, but to pump water, make artificial fertilizer and transport that fertilizer. The nice thing is, though, that all of that can be done manually — all you need is people. We won’t have just 3 % of the population producing food. In fact, without electricity that number is likely to move to its historic value around 85-95%. Whether this transition happens by migration of the population or reduction of the population is going to dictate whether the “end of the world” will be a new Dark Age or a much more reasonable setback.

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  2. Ivan Voras CROATIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Another thing is also probable – the rise of defeatist / fatalist hokey religions, possibly derived from existing religions, that actively prohibit progress. Something like Simpletons. I believe in any case (religion or not), the generations living through the fall would have high die-out rates primarily because of depression (psychological) related issues.

    After that, the problem is that we probably couldn’t ever progress to an industrial civilization again, since by definition, if such a terminal energy crisis happens, there will be no fuel to start it again (coal is also practically out). Maybe a late renaissance-like civilization, with wooden ships (you need energy to produce metals, especially aluminium) and practically no automation is the maximum that would be attainable.

    I think we should invest all our current resources, even to the effect of temporarily slightly reducing the overall quality of life, to search for another fuel source. It would have to be something really permanent like cold fusion or zero-point energy since plain fission is still dependent on limited fissile materials we can scavenge. OTOH, fission is available now to build to large scale without any lowering of standards. Who knows…

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  3. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux Terminalist says:

    At least here in Portugal, a large chunk of our electric consumption is based on hydroelectric, wind and “waves” power, and the investment in those technologies is growing.

    If we are talking about the oil ending “tomorrow” (or in a few years), the consequences would be terrible. I actually read “Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb” not long ago and it tells a story more-or-less like that, but with the radiation effects and all.
    I don’t think the technology would “end”. The Internet would disappear, of course, and so would all the gadgets and such, but I think some systems like the phone and radio would continue to work.

    The main problem would be the prices, not the capacity to produce: we could probably power some factories based on solar/hydroelectric power (it seems Google actually uses hydro as it’s main power source), but we wouldn’t be able to produce and sell the quantities required to maintain a low price.

    But this is fun as a fiction exercise, but it won’t happen: we already have the technologies to power almost everything from renewable sources and during the next decades, as oil goes up based on the lack of supply those technologies will get more investments and the prices will go down, until we achieve equilibrium.

    Capitalism will help us: when renewable power becomes more profitable than oil companies will switch, just to maximize gains.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Ivan Voras: Not to mention you need oil to produce plastics and etc.

    Still, I wonder if given enough time and no other alternatives we would be able to find other energy sources. Alternative energy sources such as wind turbines and solar power are not cost effective right now, because of they just don’t yield enough bang per buck to supply our power hungry infrastructure.

    But, with a dramatic reduction in population, and living standards these methods could become viable again. For example solar ponds or floating windmills could potentially yield enough electricity to power energy efficient manufacturing machines. Settlements near rivers would be able to tap the currents building water mills. Places with hot springs and a lot of thermal convection going on would also be energy bearing hot-spots.

    Again, we wouldn’t be able to rebuild our society the way it is right now. But these alternative power sources would give us a start. Then research would go into making very energy efficient machines, new energy sources and could potentially lead to a new industrial revolution.

    But you are right, nuclear fission is probably the only thing that has a better energy yield than fossil fuels right now. It may be our only alternative, at least until we figure out something better. Or until we run out of fissile materials. Then we are back to square one, having to work with renewable energy sources again.

    Cold fusion would be nice, but most scientists believe that the original experiment was just bad science: erroneous assumptions, measurement errors followed by jumping to conclusions. It was never replicated and everything suggests that it is not possible.

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @IceBrain: Good point. Hydroelectric stuff will probably be very big in post-fossil-fuel world. Also, geothermal energy where it is available. I was watching a show not so long ago about Iceland and their massive investment in that area. Supposedly a large percentage of their energy is produced that way.

    So hey, if shit hits the fan Portugal and Iceland may be the next major economic power players – you guys may only see power shortages and rolling blackouts for a while, while the rest of the world shuts down. ;)

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  6. Jakob DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    As mention, the key here is renewable energy. Sure, we wouldn’t have enough power to maintain current levels, but if we focus the power on essential macheniry and scientific research on improving energy supplies and machinery, a couple of decades should be enough to have plenty of power.

    I am not even sure that we would see a major internal struggle between humans. We might have to convince pharmaceutical and other hightech companies to freely release their knowledge to the world, but we could possible do that.

    Most people in the period will have to start working growing crops, but I am sure that rapid development in our new energy source would allow them to do this only temporaliy.

    Now, to avoid a total doomsday scenario, strong leaders would have to rise and provide the masses with direction so we won’t sit down and slowly die.

    In short, it would perhaps not be as grim as some think. There will be some conflict, but since most will be concerned with survival they will help each other out. Simple game theory will take effect.

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  7. There’s so much prosperity here people don’t even realize they’re in a “recession.” I think, thinking about these kinds of “possibilities” is childish…

    As if any of us are economists, oil experts, etc…

    Living in CAPITALISM is what causes societies like this to grow from the ground up…

    “strong leaders would have to rise and provide the masses with direction so we won’t sit down and slowly die.”

    No, we don’t need strong leaders, we do need the people to stop blaming everyone else. We need people to stop being so scared, and we need to turn off the tv.

    We need to downplay this whole GREEN(!!!) bullshit and fucking Grow Up…

    If you’re the owner of a company you will look out for your investments, not the god damned government, like usual.

    Government, Government, Government, that’s all I hear anymore. Talk about individual responsibility, and the ability to survive on your own.

    That’s why I like guns.

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Andrew J. Zimmerman: I didn’t really say anything about government. I was merely talking about a hypothetical apocalyptic scenario. I’m not saying it will happen or that it is inevitable. I’m merely theorizing what would happen if the scenario in the novel Into the Forest would actually take place. This is pretty much THE doomsday scenario of our generation.

    Previous generations worried about nuclear war. Now a global nuclear holocaust seems unlikely. Our current biggest fear is global oil shortage, and the collapse of fossil fuel based economy.

    I’m not really trying to analyze who would be responsible for such collapse, and I’m not really pushing “green” agenda here. I was merely theorizing on how would we rebuild our civilization if oil and most other fossil fuels would run out – something we know will happen sooner or later. The fact of the matter is that we would have to learn to use renewable energy in such scenario.

    The post was not intended to be political in nature.

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  9. @Luke Maciak

    Everything’s political nowadays, it’s saddening…

    I’m a walking loaded gun waiting to go off most times.
    Good read.

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  10. My take is that this is getting less and less a potential crisis. Although steps are being taken to reduce our need of non-renewable energy sources, you could argue that it isn’t moving fast enough. Facing an immediate shortage of petroleum in any form, we’d still have enough that there would be time to think up alternatives and change the tempo.

    We’d still have nuclear power, hydroelectric power, wind power. We’d be able to produce electric cars, and that technology is getting better every year. I agree there would be short term ramifications, but looting would probably be limited to groups that would be dissatisfied with how the governments and corporations handled the crisis.

    I guess it would take a generation, or less, before Europe were back on it’s feet again. I’m not qualified to guess anything about the rest of the world. Eastern Europe have already got a taste of this, with Russia shutting of its Gas export through Ukraine earlier.

    There is, after all, something powerful in human beings making us capable of acting when it is necessary.

    (aside: Norway consumes approx. 90% of its energy production. 98% of that energy comes from hydroelectric plants.)

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  11. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    I would say that in Europe, the main problem would be transports and maybe public heating, not electricity. Electricity in the EU is mainly coming from nuclear energy and increasingly from renewable sources. Sure, oil and gas disappearing in one day would be bad and a terrible economic blow, but hardly apocalyptic (as the current gas row with Russia and Ukraine has shown). In the USA, yes, I guess you guys would be in serious trouble.

    As for how people would get over it, I think it would be a lot faster than we think. Look at modern countries hit by a short but devastating war, for instance. It is a setback and the first months are usually bad. But it is the kind of times where natural leaders and human inventiveness show their efficiency. Also, we live in a globalized world, nowadays. A country like the USA would get help fairly quickly from less hard hit countries (like Canada).

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  12. treees! UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    why do we have to rebuild or find more energy sources, why can’t we just go back to a simpler time without electricity and cars and use the sun for our energy source? Let the weak die off while the strong adapt and succeed. It happens in nature over and over, succession is the way of the world.

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  13. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @treees!: We have to rebuild! I mean how are we going to colonize space without cars and electricity?

    Seriously though, going back to simpler times can only be temporary. It will just mean we lose few hundred years of scientific progress and have to start from scratch. But we will eventually figure out alternative energy sources and get our civilization back on track. That is part of human nature – that’s exactly what we have been doing for millions of years now. It is inevitable.

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