Before fossil fuels and industrial machinery transformed the
way goods and services were produced, all societies had an energy
problem. Some wind power and hydropower was used, but the main
energy sources were humans and animals. For the powers-that-were,
slavery and serfdom were convenient ways to ensure an adequate
supply of human-sourced energy. What will happen when fossil fuels
are no longer available; will the global elite be in a position to
reimpose serfdom and slavery?
The road to serfdom
For the Roman empire, the critical input was the farmland that
fed the slaves that built the infrastructure and fed the soldiers
that conquered the empire that Rome built. For the French and British
empires in the 18th century, it was pretty much the same thing; and
the Americas and Russia, and the Turks and Chinese, all kept their
empires together by tightly controlling the labor of the workers of
But by 1870, all of that was changing. The North had defeated the
South in the United States; the Russians had more or less freed the
serfs; and the Turkish and Chinese empires were on their long course
downward. World War I cleared out much of the pre-existing social
hierarchies — that is, king-centered political systems — and World
War II was a final attempt by the historically slave-and-serf-owning
classes to reassert themselves, dressed up in various forms of
The post-World War II period saw the triumphal spread of a new,
nonslave-based society, now fossil-fuel-based, with everyone a king
of their own castle. Suburban sprawl gripped the land, made possible
by the automobile which was made possible by petroleum. In the U.S.,
most people were (and are) so busy enjoying or pursuing this
American Dream, that they haven’t seemed to notice that a new
hierarchy is forming, that we are now on the second generation of
the House of Bush, which may be followed by a queen from the House
technology marches on, and the mundane transformation of ocean-going
cargo shipping along with the “sexy” high-tech of the internet has
paved the way for globalization. Like continents that collide and
allow some species to expand at the expense of others, the economic
elites of the richest countries have used their corporate
institutions to spread their power over the entire planet.
Agriculture has more and more become the province of a small set of
large corporations, even down to the genetic stock of the seeds; in
the U.S., more and more of the middle class has become weighed down
with indebtedness to global financial banks, and tied to a corporate
job so that they can try to receive adequate health care. Utilities
gobble up electricity-generating capacity, oil companies gobble up
each other. And for perhaps the first time in human history, one
society, the United States, expends the majority of the world’s
resources to create and maintain a war machine.
As long as the fossil fuels hold out, the global elite can
continue their reign and expansion without enslaving vast numbers of
people. The legitimacy of the system can be maintained, because even
a billion people in China and a billion in India can still hope that
they can join the post-slave automobile-centered society that the
United States pioneered. Meanwhile, the food, manufactured goods,
energy, credit, housing, transportation, and security will be
controlled by an ever more focused group of institutions.
fossil fuels begin to run out, the global empires will suffer the
same fate as other empires that ran low on energy, such as Rome;
they will begin to collapse, as economies become more localized for
lack of fuel. Whether huge cargo ships can keep plying the seas
without fossil fuels is doubtful, so no matter what they do, a truly
global economy may be difficult to uphold; but more locally, if
history is any guide, the national/regional elites will do
everything in their power to hold on. And with much less energy to
work with, they will try to drive down the standards of living and
choices of the vast majority of the population and try to keep their
local empires going with a new kind of serfdom.
The road to democracy
Unless, somehow, the civilization is restructured to be a more
democratic, sustainable type of economic system in which fuels are
not needed. There are three components that will lead us away from a
- Some form of democracy so that the public has some
- The economic capacity to transform the society while still
- A plan of action
For number one, assuming, in the US, that enough of the republic
still exists to allow the citizenry some decision-making power, the
most straightforward way to avoid enslavement is simply to make all
companies employee-owned and operated. Even without that step, the
populace will have to lose some of their antipathy to government
intervention in the economy.
For number two, if we start the transformation when we still have
fossil fuels, it will be easier to create the economic means for a
transformation. So, third, we still need a plan for the
With respect to energy, we must know how we are using energy now
and what would be the structure of a society that would survive
without fossil fuels and without tyranny. In the first article in
this series, I argued that only electricity
is a good long-term bet as an energy source, and explored how
electricity is currently used. This article will look into the uses
of petroleum and propose a simple model for a society that is
logical, if somewhat fantastic. The initial task is to show what
software engineers and others call “proof of concept”, “a short
synopsis of certain ideas to demonstrate its feasibility [and that
it] is probably capable of exploitation in a useful manner”, to
The oil genie
Just as critical to understanding electrical use in modeling a
new system is the task of understanding how petroleum is used.
Petroleum use in the United States is dominated by the private use
of automobiles and light trucks, and as we shall see, is almost all
used to power internal combustion engines in vehicles of some sort.
In order to obtain a very fine-grained view of petroleum use, it
is best to look at what are called the input-output tables of the US
economy, maintained by the Department of Commerce: the most recent
complete tables are from 1997 (the 2002 tables are overdue). Also,
the data is in terms of dollars, not volume of liquids, but no other
source gives us as much information. I will look at the output of
petroleum refineries to see how petroleum is used.
It cost the oil companies about $57 billion to produce the
petroleum refinery products — in other words, gasoline — used for
private use in 1997 — in other words, basically cars and light
trucks. This producer cost constituted only about 35% of the
dollar output of all petroleum refineries. But when you add in the
$52 billion for wholesale margins and the $32 billion for retail
margins (plus the piddling $713 million for pipeline expenses), the
resulting $144 billion that consumers wound up paying for gasoline
in 1997 constitutes about 51% of the final price of all
petroleum products. Air transport only pays about a 20% increase
from producer to final purchase, and uses 4.3% of the country’s
petroleum refinery output; but trucks pay more than half of the
final cost between the refinery and gas tank, paying for 5.1% of the
final petroleum product. Schools consume 2.5%, which I take to mean
school buses, and all other forms of government transportation,
3.6%. Perhaps surprisingly, defense only takes .8%. If we add
transportation used for retail and wholesale, transit, rail, the
mail, and other miscellaneous uses, we add an extra 7%.
So all transportation activities take up about 70% of the
petroleum use in the United States.
What about the rest --
construction, mining, agriculture, chemicals, electricity
generation? They are all relatively minor parts of oil consumption,
which brings up three points:
1) Just because a relatively small amount of petroleum is used
in an industry does not mean that the petroleum is not critical
for that industry. Petroleum serves a function, energy conversion,
that those industries cannot currently operate without.
2) Because the nontransportation industries don’t use the bulk
of petroleum, but these activities are so critical to the economy,
it seems irrational to waste a nonrenewable source of energy by
driving to Walmart or MacDonald’s, or commuting to and from work.
The industrial uses of oil could be extended for decades more if
transportation was not sucking most of it up.
3) When you see a written statement to the effect that
making a car uses more petroleum than using the car,
check to make sure they say “barrel of oil equivalents”,
that is, much of the energy they are talking actually refers to
coal or natural gas. As we will see, production uses
relatively little oil.
|If you want to do something about reducing oil, reduce
the use of oil in transportation.
The petroleum refinery sector itself uses up 5% of its own
output, and pipelines use another 1.4%; asphalt and electricity
generation, 1% each. For all kinds of petrochemicals, including
plastics and pesticides, 3.2% of petroleum is used for feedstocks.
What about lubricants so vital to the industrial process? .6%.
For all construction activities, by which is meant construction
equipment, 3.1% is used; for mining, 1%. All the tractors and
combines and other critical agricultural machinery uses only 2.1%.
While the machinery used for these activities looks impressive, and
they use prodigious amounts per vehicle, just look at a picture of a
freeway, and you will begin to understand that nothing on the planet
uses energy the way the automobile fleet does.
What about all the other kinds of manufacturing, from iron and
steel to cars and trucks and planes, from semiconductors to clothes?
A big fat 1.7%, thank you very much. Manufacturing uses electricity,
some natural gas, and a little bit of coal. In fact, the services
industry outside of those not mentioned above account for 3.8% of
petroleum use, presumably for car and truck use for business
Assuming that the petroleum used for manufacturing involves the
factory and not business use of cars and trucks, then manufacturing,
petrochemicals, lubricants, asphalt and electricity generation,
account for 6.6% of petroleum use; over 90% of oil is used to
power vehicle (assigning most of the petroleum refining oil use
to vehicles). Take away the goo used for petrochemical feedstocks,
and the conclusion is clear: without the internal combustion engine,
there is no need for oil.
So then the question arises: how do we survive without the
internal combustion engine? Without all of those “energy slaves”
running around inside the engine, what do we do? Even if we tried to
translate energy slaves into human slaves, what are we going to do,
have 1,000 people pull a truck? And in any case, they wouldn’t be
going very fast.
Where have all the suburbs gone?
Now it’s time for that proof of concept I promised; the concept
being, what would happen if 80% of the population in the U.S. lived
in a city the size of New York City? New York City has about 8.2
million people, as of 2006, and it is physically sited on about 300
square miles of land, or 786 square kilometers. The U.S. has about
300 million people, and 30 cities the population of the City of New
York, as it is officially known, would mean that 240 million people
would live inside a dense urban environment. The other sixty
million, as I will explain, I assume will live in a ring around the
cities, producing the food.
The United State’s lower 48 states, that is, all the states
besides Alaska and Hawaii, take up about 7,900,000 square
kilometers. If 30 cities were as large as NYC, then they would take
up only 3/10ths of one percent of the area of the lower 48 states!
A big advantage to using New York City as a template is that NYC
has the best mass transit system in the U.S. More than half of the
residents do not own cars, and that figure rises to 75% in
Manhattan. Let’s suppose that no one used a car in NYC. The subway
system, which carries about half of the mass transit load, uses 1.8
billion kilowatt hours a year. So let’s double that number to
account for the 50% of the mass transit system currently constituted
by diesel buses, double it again to expand it to the other
approximately 50% of residents that own cars, and double it again to
account for improved service. This is probably erring on the high
side, since a carless NYC would probably use more light rail instead
of more of the heavier subways. So a New York
City with eight times the electricity usage for transportation
would use 14.4 billion kilowatt hours per year for all private
If all of our other 29 NYCs were set up the same way, using
14.4 billion kilowatt hours per year for all of their private
transportation needs, we would have a total expenditure of 432
billion kilowatt hours – about 11 percent of current US usage of
approximately 4000 billion kilowatt hours per year. And we would
eliminate most of the 50% of the petroleum used for the private
consumption of oil! However, this still leaves longer distance
travel for visiting other cities, much of which is now done by
plane, and also freight rail service to replace trucks. And if you
want to know what happened to all of the suburbs – they
Where have all the yeoman farmers gone?
But what about food? We want a system in which
1) big corporations do not control the source of food,
2) there are no fossil fuel inputs, including transportation to
the consumer, and
3) we want a sustainable system that will not erode the
life-giving soils, which will be critical since we don’t want to
depend on fossil fuels to make fertilizer or
Fortunately, some farming movements have been developing that
promise all of these. The best known may be permaculture, but I was
able to obtain more usable numbers from a technology called
biointensive agriculture, founded by John Jeavons in California. The
question I wanted to know was, how much land would be needed to feed
a population of 300 million well?
According to Jeavons, the average American currently needs at
least 15,000 square feet for food production. He claims that a
vegetarian diet with vegetable sources of protein can be produced
for one person using biointensive techniques on 4000 square feet. Let’s assume, however, that we
will add an extra 2,000 square feet to allow for some fish and raise
some chickens, and that we will even make room for red meat lovers
by letting the prairie reassert itself and culling a certain
sustainable percentage from the millions of bison that again roam
“And which NYC do you live in?”
So we can envision each NYC-type city being surrounded by 8
million times 6000 square feet, or 48 billion square feet of
farmland, or 1,722 square miles, in other words, about 6 times the
area of the 300 square miles of the city. Let’s add another 1000
square feet per person for space for a manufacturing corridor around
the city, and we can picture each prototypical city ecosystem in
three concentric circles: the diameter of the circle is 3 times the
diameter of the city in the center, that is, the city takes up 1/8th
of the area of the entire city system; the manufacturing circle
around the city takes up another 1/8th, and the farmland takes up a
full 6/8ths. But since the area of all 30 cities only take up .3
percent of the area of the U.S., eight times that amount, will only
take up 2.4%. There’s still plenty of room for the bison, and quite
a bit else besides.
In order to cultivate all of this farmland, I am assuming that
for each 8 million person city, there will be 2 million people
living in the farm areas who will do the biointensive gardening.
Assuming about half of these will be working adults, we have one
million people working full-time to feed all 10 million people in
the city ecosystem. As Heinberg has pointed out, probably at
least 50 million people will be needed to grow crops if fossil fuels
are not available. If we go down the road to serfdom, this would
take place in a renewed plantation system. A
permaculture/biointensive farming system would need no centralized
institutional support, as our current industrial agricultural system
does. In addition, it has been shown that small farms are more
efficient than large farms,
although whether these methods would allow 1 person to provide the
food needed for 10 needs to be further investigated. However, it may
also be possible to grow a considerable amount of food within the
cities as well.
The social structure within the proposed city ecosystem could be
just as important as the farming techniques and mass transportation.
If the farms were set up as coops, and the manufacturing firms set
up as employee-owned-and-operated firms along the lines of the
Mondragon system (along with the service firms
within the city), then a new structure of power would begin to
emerge from within the current system of domination. Just as
capitalism grew from within the old slave/serf-based medieval
systems, so a democratic/sustainable system could grow from within
our hierarchical/fossil-fuel-based civilization.
Still left to do: How do we supply electricity with
solar/wind/geothermal energy? How do we provide high-speed and
intercity rail, including an all-rail freight system, and how much
electricity will that consume? How do we power construction, mining
and other equipment, and replace natural gas, hopefully while
reducing energy needs by making neighborhoods and buildings and
factories more energy and materials efficient? Citizens of the
world, read my next article, we have nothing to lose but our future
 For Rome, see
Thomas Homer-Dixon, “The Upside of Down,”2006, chapter 2; for oil as
an energy slave vs. humans as an energy slave, see Dale Allen
Pfeiffer, Eating Fossil Fuels, 2006.
 Singing the
nation electric, part
 The data for this
analysis was obtained from the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of
Economic Analysis, from their Benchmark Input Output web page
for 1997. I downloaded “1997 Standard Make and Use Tables at the
detailed level”, which unzipped (unpacked) to yield, as one of the
files, NAICUseDetail.txt. This has the raw data, but only shows
codes instead of sectors such as “petroleum refinery”, meaning
output of petroleum refinery. The descriptions that match the codes
are in another of the files that was unzipped, IO-CodeDetail.xls.
Using Microsoft Access, I imported both files and basically replaced
the codes with the descriptions, copied those records having to do
with energy, and particularly for this article, for the output of
petroleum refineries. I will attempt to make all spreadsheets
available when the next article is posted.
 For a somewhat
different methodology and distribution of oil uses, see Charles
the Oil Age”, page 8. Komanoff shows 60% of oil volume going to
cars, trucks, and planes, and 7.3% to freight, military, and
recreation; and 10.3% to feedstocks.
 These figures come
from the Wikipedia entries for the United States and New York
 1.8 kilowatt
hours comes from the journal IEEE Today’s Engineer, October 2004,
“Straphanger Centennial Part III”, by May Ann Hoffman, available on-line
. Figures for NYC mass transit use the following link.
 If you want to
follow this exercise further, you can look at the Statistical
Abstract of the United States, in the Population section, table 25,
“Large metropolitan statistical areas”, available as a spreadsheet.
I hope to pursue this story line in a future article.
 See “The man who
would feed the world”, by Amy Stewart, April 13, 2002, San
Francisco Chronicle, available online.
Also see “Cultivating
our garden”, from the journal In Context, Fall 1995, p.
 See “Fifty million
 See “Policy Brief No.4: The
Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm
Agriculture,”September 1999, The Institute for Food and
 See my articles, “Why
a democratic economy would be a more efficient economy”, and Why
a democratic economy would be a more efficient economy, Part