The No-Plastics Challenge – If Oil Climbs to $550 a Barrel –

What will you do?

Stop driving. Live where you work. Maybe lose your present job and have to do something else. Watch everything you have earned and saved disappear in inflation.

How will we replace the things we need? So much of our stuff is petroleum based. What if we had to live without plastics? What if old plastic was sucked up by the government to make computers to run the infrastructure, or recycled into tank and jet fighter fuel? (I do not know if this is possible – if it will ferment, you can distill it, and everything carbon-based will ferment under the right conditions, so my guess is yes, but it will be expensive.)

I could replace my clothes with some ease, relatively speaking. I have a pile of wool to spin, I have a loom on which I could weave cloth, and really, a loom is a fairly simple thing to make, as is a spinning wheel. Fiber will be the scarce commodity. Northerners would start growing flax and going to the trouble of retting and braking it, which are long, smelly, hard labour processes. But they were commonly done into this century even on family farms. Wool is the easiest to raise and prepare; we would wear more wool clothing.

The hardest thing to replace would be modern underwear. We wear form-fitting things made with stretch (read: petroleum based) fibers. A pair of bloomers is an easy thing to sew, though. Women would have to contrive drawstring waists and men would go back to buttons on their briefs. Brassieres are an engineering marvel. It is possible to make your own, and I suppose for those worried about fit and support, we would contrive some sort of underwire or boning made from spring steel or real bone. I would probably just figure out how to sew in a supporting panel and skip the wire. Can you imagine a day when a bundle of bra underwires from old fitted garments would go at a pretty penny at auction? Likely, the au naturel look would be accepted again as it was in the 60s.

Fashion would disappear as we found we couldn’t get replacement parts or good machine oil for our sewing machines. Fashion originated with trade routes; as these become more localized, we might see the end of fashion and a reversion to simple, hard-wearing clothes. Certainly, old clothes would no longer be discarded in landfills or bundled as rags. We would use every scrap for as long as we could. Of course, I try to do that now. My underwear may get sewn out of old t-shirts. Isn’t that a luscious thought?

Shoes – now there’s a problem. My own boots tend to last for several years, although I am still searching for the hundred year boots. Local butchers may supply local tanners, who would supply local shoemakers, who would repair their own work for years. Customers used to keep their own lasts – wooden foot molds – on file with the local shoemaker and get a new pair as needed every five years or so. Fashion footwear, so dependent on oil-based fabric and soles and transportation, might never reappear. Shoe addicts would go into serious withdrawal as Manolo Blahnik takes monastic vows. (Is this a real person or just a brand name?)

Cotton requires lots of water and heat and hand maintenance to grow organically, and might be confined to the traditional cotton-growing areas such as Egypt and the southern part of North America. It would become very expensive elsewhere. Get used to linen.

Would you mind terribly if we all had to dress like sixteenth century peasants? How many people would just break down and refuse to leave the house when shopping malls close, the I-95 and the autobahn are useless, and they must learn how to make their own tallow-dip candles? Are we going to be concerned about our manicures when we all must garden in the back (and front) yard?

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17 thoughts on “The No-Plastics Challenge – If Oil Climbs to $550 a Barrel –

  1. We had a taste of this when gas went to $4.00 a gallon last year (was it only last year?). Americans stopped driving. People drove to work and that was it. The inability to pay for gas (and propane, and heating oil, etc) impact’s people’s ability to pay their other bills like their mortgages. We learned some lessons from this – people started looking at their local economy for things and services.

    In an Armageddon scenario with oil I live in a rural area with many skill sets right in my own neighborhood. We have water running in the springs and meat on the hoof, we garden, etc.

    This is not a scenario that I would wish on anybody.

    • Gas is pretty much $4/gallon here – $.91 to $.99 a litre, sometimes more. I drive once a week. A tank of gas lasts about a month. Gas can’t stay in your tank forever – like all hydrocarbons, it breaks down and you will get condensation, which can ruin your engine.

      I’m prety confident of my own ability to live off-grid, having done so before, but my concern is that the rest of the world is charging on as if the magic oil elves will keep supplying all their wants. Look, I know and you know people who talk green and then jump in the car to go get ice cream. People almost literally live at the mall. The emotional shock when all of that starts to fail, as it must, will be traumatic.

  2. Keep in mind the knock on effect of this kind of crisis. Energy prices get too high, people can’t pay their bills and default, employers cut jobs to try to cover new costs, people can’t afford to drive to work, etc. If you get ill you’re probably on your own, and heaven forfend you have a chronic disease that you need maintenance drugs – you won’t be alive for long. Municipalities won’t be able to afford to provide services such as water, gas, electricity, ambulance, police or fire services as their tax bases dwindle away as people lose jobs, default on mortgages, etc.

    Think about this too; when your garden fails you shop at the grocery store. If you have to actually survive on your garden it’s a different story all together. I have a wood stove and a few winters ago we had an ice storm that knocked out power for 4 days. Fortunately I had heat, but it’s one thing to use my wood stove to supplement my energy costs, but it is fully another to have to wake up in the middle of the night to feed the stove.

    It really isn’t simply a matter of living off the grid.

    • That`s one of the problems of using wood heat. I`ve had stoves that would burn all night, and some (especially cookstoves) that have to be recharged every two or three hours.

      I am so in agreement with your first point. That`s the scariest part of an unstable, oil-based economy. It is not me and thee – as I say, I know how – it`s all those who can`t manage because they have been taught to depend on that uncertainty. I`m no survivalist, stocking up beans and flour and ammo – I`m a priest – so I would be called to get down there and help, not head for the distant hills. I would expect a full-scale disaster of warlike proportions if the supply line fails in some way. But our knowing how to manage will help others if that day comes.

      We can certainly help now by calling those caught in consumerism out of it, and leading the way by our own efforts.

  3. Magdalena,

    Indeed! This has been done in the3 past, it will be done again. Trade, local and international has been conducted for milenia without oil or even coal… for one thing, the true value of a properly made item that would have to last the distance, so to speak, would be once again realized; no more planned obcellescence or deliberate manufacture of goods not to last because ‘another one’ needs to be sold… The upshot, I’d have shoes that fit!!!!!! (very small yet wide foot; need to pay $$$ for shoes so know how to get the most out of them). We’d get our manufacturing industry back again, if people remembered the skillsets; cotton, natural dyes, silk, leather, wool, flax in the cold-climate areas, distribution of goods via bullock drays or steam locamotive… (Australia was opened up on the back of the bullock dray teams right up until the railways came through in the 1850’s and onward; perhaps without multi modern mechanization, water-levels to our mighty Murray-Darling river system would rise, allowing for the paddle steamer or even sail powered river packet to ply inland trade… communities would become more self sufficient and after the pain of losing the easy, wants-satisfying way of life were to be put to bed, we could get back down to the things that matter – caring community relationships – true mindfulness of those around us and care of and for one another.

    We have good climate for tea, coffee, sugar cane, rubber and many tropical fruits up North, cool climate livestock and crops in the high country and southern states, as we speak, vaccines that do not require refrigeration are being developed for the ‘developing’ world; these would be essential in an environment where modern refrigeration may not be guaranteed. A trip to the dentist would rely on the old pedle powered drill (some old timers would remember this horror from their childhood) but hopefully good anesthetic knowledge would be maintained to cushion what would otherwise be a rather horrid ordeal). the wonders of transplant surgery, burns treatment, the genuine benefits of modern medicine to humankind would have to be rethought; we would be looking at needing systems that could function without petrolium based products.

    I would hope and pray things would not deteriorate to ‘mad max’ levels, but that a way of life that resembes that our great grandmothers would have been familliar with would be returned to. People would rediscover that a world without God is indeed a folly!!

    We would be communicating by ink and paper letter, perhasp with delivery times of 6-12 months from Australia to Canada… I’d be happily Brailling away on my 60 year old manual Braille typewriter, or slate and stylus, corresponding to you all with a ‘decoder card’ included… Or, the manual ty[ typewriter might have a resurgence; originaly developed in the 19th century to enable print communications between the blind and sighted – ever wondered about the origins of touch typing??????? yes, it is us you have to thank; the vision impaired!! for the typewriter, the potato peeler, the safety pin among other things 🙂

    There would be loss and tragedy, but there always is when a world cycle changes. This would coincide with the reduction of population; European nations cannot populate themselves sustainably any more; a prominant Australian historian and thinker has outright mentioned on public radio here in sydney today that a nation such as Italy (he used the example of italy) faces returning to a conglomeration of regional administrations as it was pre the 1860’s simply because, within the next four or five decades it simply will not have the population to sustain a jugganaut such as national government, and national government will no longer be relevant to a place where regional identity held sway for the better part of 1500 years. Even developing nations, though they have high birth rates and population growth, are experiencing population slowdown.

    Whatever the case may be, the world of my baby nice’s grandchildren or nieces/nephews will be very different from that in which she lives; post WWII ecconomy and materialism is simply unsustainable and another paradigm simply must be adopted. Books – real paper, hard copy books, will once again become appreciated. The copper-based phone system will no longer look so out of date, radio will come into its own… and my brother in law’s beautiful manual gramaphone, all carved from timber, a lovely piece of furniature, will not seem like such an archaeic idea…

    Some others simply think the Lord will return while we are still riding high on the oil hog, and wouldn’t dream of letting His children suffer no tech toys and motor-cars… I think this is sheer arrogance and huberous.

    We shall cleave to Him all the more when we are not so diverted by our ridiculous post modern way of life… Just a few thoughts…

    • Australians aren’t far from their colonial roots. Maybe my homesteading confidence comes from seeing my grandparents come out of situations where they were very much self-sustaining. I suppose I see that some of us will have to be a faithful remnant even if the world collapses around us – generous, capable, willing to go the extra mile.

  4. I would think that those who have food would be in the most danger – you would have to guard your garden, your livestock, your woodpile from the city folk, under normal circumstances law abiding citizens, who become desparate when they quickly run out of food and all of the stores are looted, or running very low on supplies and they think about where they could find food. We have all had friends say things like, boy if I ever run out food I know where to come, and we all chuckle, but in a catasrophic scenario they would be coming and you would have to make life or death decisions – how many can I feed, my children come first, and so on.
    We can a lot of food – but how long would I really want to live on a diet of canned tomatoes, green beans, peas, sauerkraut, pears, applesauce, pickles and preserves?? We grow enough potatoes for about 5 months of the year, we always have eggs because we keep chickens. But, if we could no longer get chicken feed, we wouldn’t have eggs for very long. If electricity was gone, our frozen supplies would not be much use. Bread making, if we can’t get flour we won’t be eating bread.
    Essentially if society completely breaks down we are all in a heap of mess – Martial Law would have to be enacted, people would panic, people would get killed, people will kill each other, the ill, and elderly dependant upon electricity, medication, tube feedings, oxygen tanks, dialysis, etc. would die off quickly. Those that cannot stand up and fend for themselves would die or be killed. We would live in world where only the strong survive, and most of us would end up seeing and doing things we would never have believed ourselves capable of doing.

    Let’s pray that nothing like this ever happens, and take time to thank God for oil and for all of the good things that make our lives better because of it.

    • That’s a rather Hobbesian outlook! ut what if another scenario takes place for some of us, of neighbours sharing what they have, of cooperating, of seeds being distributed? there is untility in cooperation! It is required of Christians, that we not defend our goods, but share freely, trusting the Lord to provide.

      Believe me, you will live a long time on canned food if that is all you have, and you will enjoy it if the choice is starvation! There are alternatives to chicken feed as we buy it now – free range, or wild-gathered feed. There are strains of wheat that will grow even in the short summers of the North. Education is more important than stockpiling. Generosity is more important than hoarding.

      My point is that if we will avoid the worst case scenarios of the cities breaking down, NOW is the time to make changes- – learning to live with less, husbanding oru resources, learning to cooperate and share.

    • Bean I agree. In the worst case we in rural areas would be the target of desperate people out of cities and less sustainable areas looking for food. This would really test my Quaker Peace testimony I’m afraid.

      As I said, this is not about being able to live off the grid. It would be bad, it would be very bad.

      • I’ve said before that now is the time to build communities to cope with the big change coming. I’m not trying to be apocalyptic. I also know, as a long-time rural person, that trying to defend yourself isn’t going to work anyway. But a prepared community will have enough to share and perhaps eough resources to head off a crisis in the surrounding area.

        Christians are always called to martyrdom, particularly since we are called to be pacifists.

  5. Bean and fellow readers/commenters,

    We need to remember that until around the 1920’s and 1930’s, medium and large scale dependancy on the petrolium ecconomy did not exist and we did not live in a howling lawlless anarchy.

    I have friends in their mid 60’s who remember life prior to electricity; away from the regional and city centres, electricity did not come to many parts of australia until the 50’s and 60’s. The lady in question remembered the installation of the first electric lights in their home in the late 1950’s-early 1960’s. yes, people with significant medical needs would be sorely put upon, and initially there would be significant loss of life; but it would not be out and out anarchy. As a society, over the past 50 years especially, we have painted ourselves as a culture into a corner of pettrolium dependancy.

    Remember, long-distance trade, both national and international existed for thousands of years prior to the petrolium age. Society functioned satisfactorily prior to the petrolium age. We now, today, did not just materialize out of nothing. We are intellegent enough to re-engineer systems to operate outside the petrolium paradigm; Additionally, community, relationships, family (both biological and filial, faith, the things that matter would come back into focus.

    I was listning to an interview with an old Thames estuary fisherman a couple of days ago; he was recounting that prior to WWII, the shrimping fleet at Leigh on Sea would set out by sail, and, if becalmed, they’d row out to their shrimping grounds; they’d bring in gallons of catch by the score within an hour. They went to diesel post WWII… Now, that was not long ago, people. Not long ago at all, and I dare say, far more sustainable.

    In Australia, Petrol is around 1.35-1.60 per litre depending whether one lives in the city or regional/country areas; Diesel is around $1.30 a litre. You up north have no idea about the true cost of fuel 😛

    • Perhaps because I came from a place where electrification was late, I have had the same kind of experience. I’m not expecting big guys on motorcycles to show up and shoot everyone to get what little fuel we have or steal our whole wheat flour. I expect that neighbours and particularly churches will work together to address needs as they become apparent. It isn’t going to happen overnight anyway; we have time to prepare ourselves and our communities.

  6. I would be curious to see who wouldn’t be the peasants. We wouldn’t all be dressing like peasants. The feudal system would come back as people would want protection, and rich people don’t want to work. We will still have the landed class and the merchant classes. And of course those of us in clergy and academia have our own unique niche.

    • I just assumed that we would prefer to be the peasants! Except for court dress, even the nobles dressed much as anyone else some 800 years ago. Although I’d forgotten that clerics and scholars dressed differently all along. I never wear clerics now,and probably won’t go back to them in parish life. Count me as a peasant!

      Yes, shrewd observation – some will assume because of “money” (control of assets) that they will have privilege. The otehr Golden Rule – he who has the gold makes the rules.

      • I’m pretty sure I would be in peasant’s clothing, I am NOT the landed gentry! Who wants to wear a corset?! Not me! Though, a black robe sounds awful comfy, too. Just harder to garden in!

  7. By the time oil reached that point, society would have collapsed, unless we have other forms of energy already in place so oil is just something for extremely critical uses. Pretty scary how central petroleum is to everything today and just how quickly we got there. Just lowering personal driving, electric and plastic use won’t be enough after a certain point. The whole world is tied to oil. We got a glimpse of this last year in the global economic crisis. Oil prices climbed. Economies fell. Granted there were other factors like poor banking regulation, but there is a corollary to high oil prices. Also look at what happened during the 1970’s oil embargo.

    • You are so right! That’s why I say prepare now, live with less, be ready. It’s still going to be tough when that day comes, but we simply can’t avoid it now. We are headed for Niagara Falls without a paddle! My “backup” plan for us is to head northeast, find some farming friends, and use the skills we have acquired to live a decent life and help others. It is a bit more detailed than that, but you can see what I mean. God is certainly preparing some of us to lead others. I do hear from some friends and family that “I wouldn’t be able to do that” and “that’s not for everyone, it’s impossible” but you do what you have to do when you have to do it, or die. I’m afraid we are looking at that possibility within a decade.

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