One of the motivations for this site is to encourage an awareness and appreciation of sustainable cottage industrialism. I believe that we will all become increasingly active in and dependent on cottage industry (see below), so it seems prudent to start thinking about a new economic paradigm now rather than later.
For over a century, Humanity – particularly in the West – has been living high on the hog. We’ve gorged ourselves on a huge repository of Gibbs energy stored underground in the form of petroleum. Well, the Earth is finite, and this banquet of concentrated, unthermalized energy must inevitably come to an end.
Few people realize – or even believe – that the energetically valuable petroleum is nearing exhaustion. Yes, there will always be petroleum on Earth. But, when we get to the point where it costs a barrel of oil to find, collect, transport, and refine a barrel of oil, the party is over. We are far closer to this 1-to-1 break-even point than most realize. The shale oil boom – with it’s relatively weak 5-to-1 return on investment – will quickly dissipate, and it’s hard to see where the next petroleum bonanza will be found. After shale oil, what’s next? Don’t know? Welcome to the club…
Still fewer people understand how profoundly our lives will change as the Petroleum Age comes to an end. Almost no one is thinking about what they should do to survive in the post-petroleum economy.
How will things change? First, retirement is a dead concept. And good riddance. Retirement as practiced in the West is a completely unnatural and unsustainable farce. Consider this: U.S. employees who worked during the 1950’s through the 1990’s got paid to go to work every day for 30 years. They then retired and got paid to not go to work each day, in many cases for another 30 years. Without petroleum – and the gobs of Gibbs energy it bequeaths to us – society could never pay workers to be unproductive for the same number of years that they were paid to produce.
Second, as transportation fuels become increasingly expensive, folks in Kentucky will not be able to afford lettuce grown in California or beef raised in Argentina. As the Petroleum Era winds down, the radius of viable commerce will shrink. Local industry and locally-manufactured goods will become normal again. No more $20 shoes from China. Shoes will be made within 200 miles of where we live, will cost $500, and we’ll be glad to get them.
In short, the post-petroleum economy, with its contracted radius of viable commerce, will look a lot like the economy of the 1700’s. Most trade and production will necessarily be localized, and cottage industry will enjoy its Renaissance. The coming economy will be solar-powered, and I don’t mean photovoltaics. I mean wind (think “sailboats”) and photosynthetically-produced carbohydrates (wood, among others).
If you want a glimpse of what human industry will be like in the future, simply look at paintings from the 1700’s or 1800’s featuring industrial activity. It will give you a very good idea.