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Stuart Staniford: Personal Strategies around Peak Oil

Stuart Staniford: Personal Strategies around Peak Oil thumbnail

There is a whole genre of advice on peak oil sites for how to deal, at a personal level, with peak oil, most of which is so inane that I have tended to steer clear of the whole subject.  Things like gardens, solar panels, etc, can be overemphasized.  I also am wary because everyone’s situation is completely different and so there’s a limited amount of advice that really generalizes.

But this morning, I feel inspired to offer a few suggestions, mostly with a focus on the situation in the US, and focussed on people in the struggling middle.  They may only be worth what you are paying for them.

1) The challenges of coming decades do not consist only of peak oil, considerable as that is.  On the contrary, long standing trends like globalization, outsourcing, and technological displacement of more and more occupations will continue at the same time.

2) Industrial civilization is tough, much tougher than it looks to some people.  It will be around for quite a long time, and it will maintain control over most of the resources, ugly as that may be at times.  It’s a fact of life, you didn’t make it that way, but you better figure out how to work with it.

3) Keep a very clear focus on Maslow’s hierarchy:

The basic insight here is that if you don’t have the bottom layers securely under control, don’t put much if any of your energy into the top layers.  The top layers are the stuff you focus on more after the basic stuff is reasonably well taped.

In the mid twentieth century, unprecedentedly large numbers of people (especially the baby boomers) were able to focus relatively high up the pyramid.  Fewer people will have that luxury in the next couple of decades.  I don’t think Gen Y has realistic expectations yet.

4) In particular, for most people the absolute #1 focus should be on employment (or on the business, for the self employed).  This is the critical trend:

That’s the fraction of males employed, age 25-54, from 1950 to the present in blue.  The red line is roughly what I expect to happen next – it might continue to improve for a bit, until the next recession hits, and then it’s going to take another step down, and recover very slowly after that.  (Obviously, the exact timing and size of the step down I make no claim to be able to forecast – this is just a qualitative indication of what I expect).

For most working age men, the overwhelming priority is to stay in the 75%, and not in the 25%.  If you lose your job, or your business goes under, and you can’t find another option in a reasonable period of time, your life will fall apart and no other preparations you made will matter much.  It’s going to get harder and harder to find and keep a job.  What this means is highly variable from person to person, but some general notes:

a) Work your ass off.  There’s a reason the protestant work ethic was invented – it’s a proven way for members of a civilization to survive tough times.  A friend of mine was born in a village in the third world with no electricity or running water, had to walk ten miles to high school, and is now a senior engineering manager in a Silicon Valley company.  I asked him what he had learnt from his extraordinary life journey.  His reply: “Work. Work. Work.  Night and Day.  If things go well, work.  If things go badly, work.”  Great advice.

b) Make sure you are adding value.  Be extremely clear on why your boss (or your customers) need you.  Make sure there is some margin there.  What this means is different in every job.  For a technical professional, it means periodically delivering excellent work that makes a difference to the organization you work for.  For a waiter, it might mean hustling and smiling for every customer, so that the shift manager wants you again, and the tips flow.   Don’t make any enemies you don’t have to make, and make strong relationships wherever you can.

c) Have options.  If your boss fires you, know what your plan B is.  Make sure your resume, training, etc, etc, is such that there are going to be other people that need/want you.  Maybe this means nightschool, maybe a relocation, but something.  If you work for the only decent paying factory in town, don’t assume that it’s going to be there forever.  In general, it’s better to go through life assuming that no-one owes you a job or a living, but be prepared to hustle and strive for one.

d) Don’t screw up.  Easier said than done, believe me, I know.  But the consequences of mistakes are getting more serious.  Whether it’s goofing off at school, drugs, alcohol, unwise career moves, expensive liberal arts degrees in something you aren’t absolutely passionate about and talented at, non-functional romantic partners, the consequences of mistakes are rising and will continue to rise.

e) If you do screw up, don’t give up.  Learn from your errors, work harder, keep trying to make something happen.  Don’t let pride get in the way of doing what you need to do to survive.

For women, the advice is pretty much the same if you are pursuing a career, but the option of being supported by a partner is more open to you.  If you go down that road, be extremely certain your mate is hard working, functional, and loyal.  Keep him happy, and keep an eagle eye on him.

5) Live conservatively.  Spend less than you earn.  Buy much less house than the bank is willing to lend on, and, obviously, don’t assume it’s going to appreciate any time soon.  Live in a smaller apartment, or double up with roommates.  Do your own repairs/cleaning/etc.  Don’t go in for lavish furniture/vacations/remodels that you can’t really afford.  This goes for things like solar panels, Chevy Volts, and geothermal heating systems too.  If you can really comfortably afford them, great.  Otherwise, find a cheaper low rent alternative.  Losing your job and having to live on your savings is about 100X more likely than the grid failing.  Drive a fuel efficient car, or a scooter, or a bike.   Arrange your life so that if the government has to ration gasoline one of these years, you can still function.  Exercise and eat well to reduce the odds you’ll need medical care you can’t afford.  Pay off your debts as fast as you prudently can, and then save, save, save.

6) Don’t get arrogant.  If you’ve thoroughly solved all the above problems, don’t assume they will stay solved.  History is full of stories of wealthy folks who lost everything in some crisis or crash that they failed to anticipate or properly manage.  One formerly wealthy branch of my family lost everything in the panic of 1873.  Diversify your assets.  Focus on preserving what you have rather than risky schemes to get a lot more.  Read obsessively and understand what’s happening in society so you can position yourself best for it.

That’s about all I have to usefully say – everything else is too situation specific.

Early Warning

5 Comments on "Stuart Staniford: Personal Strategies around Peak Oil"

  1. MrEnergyCzar on Thu, 28th Apr 2011 10:18 am 

    I’ve been preparing for a few years now and I made a helpful video series to help people prepare for Peak Oil. I attached one of them here….

  2. John on Thu, 28th Apr 2011 10:43 am 

    “a) Work your ass off. There’s a reason the protestant work ethic was invented – it’s a proven way for members of a civilization to survive tough times. A friend of mine was born in a village in the third world with no electricity or running water, had to walk ten miles to high school, and is now a senior engineering manager in a Silicon Valley company. I asked him what he had learnt from his extraordinary life journey. His reply: “Work. Work. Work. Night and Day. If things go well, work. If things go badly, work.” Great advice.”

    Exactly what they want. Keep your mouth shut. Be a good little worker bee. Put your head down and power through just to keep a shirt on your back. Is that all there is?

  3. Jimmy on Thu, 28th Apr 2011 8:43 pm 

    Sorry, i disagree with some of the points in this article.

    I dont think industrial civilisation is tough. If it was, then peak oil wouldnt be wrecking it. A resilient civilisation, which mankind has yet to create, would mix energy sources and diversify to ensure system integrity. Until we conquer ego, this system wont appear. If we were 50% hemp oil/50% crude oil, then we would be tough.

    Working your ass off is the wrong thing to do in my opinion. we are in the area of diminishing returns. i look around the net and people are trying to maintain middle class living by two or three poor paid jobs. It aint gonna work. I am living with family for now to keep costs down, i may stay for sometime until a decisive event occurs. Its tough on families, but i can tell you that if i had kids, i would be out with my pitchfork right now.

    Ultimately, humans live in large groups, and dont kill each other. we are all the same species. This is a case of massive loss of control of our balance with nature, and we have got to accept the material things will go.

    COPPER sterilises water. just filter it, then drop a copper coin, wire or nugget into it – FREE WATER, No fossil fuels required.

    Water is the no.1 prerequisite.


    Buy a large sack of hemp seeds, you will have food to cover you for a growing season, plant a few thousand (if no government) and then you have more.

    Thats food and water, the basics.

  4. Fishman on Thu, 28th Apr 2011 9:01 pm 

    The best article I’ve seen on peak oil in a long time. I’m cutting and pasting to my kids. John, please follow your advise. My kids will need less competition, you will starve. Jimmy follow your advise. Copper does NOT sterilize water. Ypou will die of diarrhea.

  5. mos6507 on Thu, 28th Apr 2011 10:19 pm 

    “You will die of diarrhea.”

    He’s a darwin award winner in the making.

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