Special Report: Peak Oil

Labour-Saving Day

Resource scarcity isn't a problem for five, ten, or fifteen years down the road. For a lot of people in Ontario, It's here now.

By Jason Allen
Published September 07, 2010

So as the sun goes down on another Labour day, it seems fitting that I would write about labour. Lots and lots of labour.

This weekend, we canned seven pints of peaches, eight jars of hot sauce, a quart of lacto-fermenting pickles, and five pints of garden (i.e. non-cucumber) pickles.

My wife baked a dozen muffins, nearly six dozen cookies (two types), made home-made granola, and a loaf of bread. We also went into the woods today and gleaned six lbs of apples from an orchard that was abandoned about 60 years ago - all for the farmhouse cider I'm going to start next weekend.

This was on top of all of the normal chores that need to get done to keep a house of four people going.

Normally we're pretty tuckered out by the end of the weekend, but by Monday night we were bone-tired.

Two very frightening realizations came to me as we were discussing the implications of this for a post-industrial society.

  1. We are this exhausted despite the unlimited availability of devices such as a bread maker (used only for mixing the dough), a dishwasher, a washing machine, and a stand mixer.

  2. Despite having nearly a well-stocked pantry, and several dozen bags of home-grown veggies in the freezer on top of the canning we did in the last 72 hours, we have put up barely enough food to last us about a month - maybe six weeks, tops.

Did I mention we are exhausted?

Yes, we are lightweights, but it brings me to an uncomfortable conclusion: The post-industrial economy that many of us have been talking about for some time now is not only going to be inconvenient, it's going to be downright difficult.

At the farm down the road, Russ was apparently up until 3 am the other morning, canning enough tomatoes to get him through the year. Granted, he didn't have to get up at 5:45 the following morning and get ready to hop a GO train to Toronto to go to work, but 5-10-15 years down the road, how many of us will be doing both?

How many of us will be trying to grow and preserve (or even buy-super-cheap-in-season-at-the-farmer's-market and preserve) in times of plenty, along with working 9-5s to make sure there is enough cash coming into the household to cover expenses that just can't be bartered for?

I know I'm painting a pretty bleak picture here, and frankly reading Dimitri Orlov is not helping one little bit. But you only have to turn on the TV, or open a newspaper (remember those? It's kind of like the internet, only it's on paper, and all the information is a day old) to see that a quick return to the heady days of even three years ago is appearing increasingly unlikely.

The combination of an unyielding environment/resource base and a population unwilling to compromise can lead to some pretty predictable outcomes.

Peak Electricity

This leads me to the second major topic of conversation this weekend. Peak Electricity. I have blogged before about how Ontario is moving to voluntary power rationing (they are calling it time of use rates, but potato-potahto).

It occurred to me this weekend while we were using all of our very convenient labour saving devices, that two things will make the grid more secure: People using less power, and fewer people using any power in the first place.

Time of use rates do both.

For one, with the spike in power rates, as it stands now, the highest amount I pay is 7.5c/kwh, whereas under the new regime, if I use power any time during my normal day, I'm going to be paying at least 8c/kwh, if not higher.

My bill is, quite simply, going to go up, no matter how many 'power hungry' chores I try to put off until the weekend or after 9pm. Just running my fridge, stove, and furnace (FSF) are going to cost up to 40% more than they do now during peak times.

Now imagine if I was living on the margins of society, and could only barely afford the power I'm using now. I am conserving as much as I can, but even the FSF cost money to run, money I barely have.

Those costs go up considerably, and I now have two options: Have my power cut off, or start skipping meals. The first clears up lots of excess capacity on the grid. The second necessitates the kind of weekend I've just had.

Suddenly the idea of a backyard garden, and doing some home canning becomes way more appealing. Provided that I have the skills, support, and self-confidence to give it a go in the first place...not a given by any stretch.

So I guess what I'm saying is that for many people in Ontario, the whole "canning tomatoes until 3 am and going to work for 9 the next morning" may not be forced on them after some unforeseen spike in oil prices.

It may be forced on them next summer, provided they still have the power that will be required to do the canning in the first place - all because there isn't enough generating capacity in Ontario to meet the projected needs in the next ten years or so.

Resource scarcity isn't a problem for five, ten, or fifteen years down the road. For a lot of people in Ontario, It's here now.

This article was originally published on Jason's blog.

Jason Allen is a chronic hive whacker in the Kirkendall Neighbourhood.


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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 07, 2010 at 09:52:04

Amazing article. And good work with the pickles.

One of the missing factors here is staple goods. A number of us locally have been buying from the Ontario Natural Food Coop (ONFC) catalogue, which gives us bulk orders of high-grade organics without paying any more than we would for conventional foods in a supermarket (I can hook people up if they wish).

The real bonus here is the once-monthly bulk drop-offs of sacks of food. Beans, quinoa, brown rice syrup or unbleached diapers. It changes the way your pantry works. And if you weren't concerned about organics, there are plenty of other places to buy in bulk locally (rice from Asian grocery stores etc) that cut costs enormously.

Having a few buckets full or rice, flower and dried beans would stretch those preserves out by a few more months.

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted September 07, 2010 at 10:37:02

Undustrial - thanks for that. I would like to look into it, Ryan's experience notwithstanding. We currently buy big bags of rice, flour, etc either from the grocery store when they're on sale, or from as you said the Asian grocery stores. If we keep going through Flour at the rate we have been, those 10 kg bags are not going to last nearly as long as they have been, despite the realizaton that our youngest is Celiac - which adds an entirely new dimension to the whole discussion about staples.

Oh, and kudos for the repost on Energy Bulletin! Nice to see some more Canadian content up there!

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By FSF? (anonymous) | Posted September 07, 2010 at 14:19:48

What is an FSF furnace please? Do you have a smelter at home? Or is this a type of homemade solar panel? Thanks.

I am interested in what you are trying to do. I do worry however that attempts to regain our former lifestyles can lead to pockets of extremism, for instance the Finnish fellow who went a year without using any plastic (why?). Isn't this about living more within our means? Unless you are going to make your own GO train, this notion of environmental purism cannot be carried off.

I thought it was about reducing our footprint and eliminating as much waste as possible (or practical!). For me it is also about living a more meaningful life, where the things that sustain us are a bit less of a mystery.

Should I already know what FSF is? My trendiness alarms are sounding. And for me that could render the whole effort hollow.

Congratulations on making these efforts. I know it isn't possible to get it all right the first time. We have gotten pretty far away from these things, after all.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted September 07, 2010 at 14:47:40

Pretty sure FSF means "fridge, stove, furnace".

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted September 07, 2010 at 14:59:10

Z jones - you're right - I use it as a home-made abbreviation for the basic things that households use electricity for, that for most people are not optional. TV, you can do without. Radio - you can get a crank version. Gaming systems, again, not necessary by any stretch. If you need light, and you're using Compact Flourescents, the energy drain is quite minimal - but most people (in winter) can't go a day without drawing energy for their Fridge, Stove and Furnace, all of which depending on their age and efficiency, can draw quite a bit of power.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted September 07, 2010 at 15:30:29


The reason that people go to extremes (not using plastic as an obvious example) is to show the rest of us moderates that it is possible. Now that you can see what he accomplished and how he accomplished it, you can take those bits of it that you are amenable to and make them work for you.

You'll never again be able to say "We can't live without xyz" again thanks to this guy!

Now, in fairness, some people go to crazy extremes to prove a point, but if the point is proven...

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 07, 2010 at 17:21:22

Ahh, the "lifestylism" debate.

I'm a big fan of alternative lifestyles as a means of accomplishing something, but not the biggest fan of them as an end in themselves. DIY-ing everything as a matter of moral principle (or for fashion) is only going to end in misery.

Most people who are into this kind of thing, though, stay with it because it is rewarding. But those who are really into things like homebrewing or canning do it because once you have a little experience, you're turning out a product that's far cheaper and of much higher quality than anything you could buy in a store. It took me all of an hour to figure out how to take in pants on a sewing machine, and I don't even know how to measure the time and effort I save by using Linux instead of Windows.

Taking things a step further, though, technologies today are getting closer and closer to the point where cheap, clean household manufacturing can compete on a scale with big corporations. Thanks to the DIY/hacker crowd things like machine shops and 3D scanners are dropping into consumer price ranges, and the growth of things like producer's and buyer's co-ops, a vision of an entire DIY economy starts to take shape.

Oh, and I'm getting in touch with the Co-op folks, too - should have info soon.

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By mdruker (registered) - website | Posted September 07, 2010 at 23:28:43

I think that for all kinds of reasons more people (including myself) are rightfully rediscovering home preservation techniques. However, no post-peak-oil situation will eliminate the economies of scale -- in time and energy -- of doing canning and preserving in larger quantities.

Here in Waterloo, I'm a member of an excellent local food buying club that sells many local processed and preserved foods in addition to fresh produce. For the farmers it is a good way to increase their income, and the processing is done in larger batches than I can or would do at home. If the food has to get from the farm to you before you preserve it at home, it could just as well get preserved right there on the farm or nearby. When worst comes to worst, it can be delivered by bicycle (though horse-drawn wagons are more likely here).

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By d.knox (registered) | Posted September 08, 2010 at 09:26:16

I'm quite interested in the changes that will happen as the higher electricity prices hit us in Hamilton this year. I have also puzzled over the assertion that our costs will not rise. This is absolutely not true as the article clearly identifies. There are some ways to change, but FSF are hard to do without.

As I'm particularly interested in this topic, I could go on, but I'll spare everyone and summarize: Eat less - it's astonishing how many leftovers you can get from a meal if you just serve necessary quantities and save the remainder for another meal. Put on a sweater and some slippers - winter advice obviously. 20 degrees is too high; aim for 18 but if you're a typical household, this will take some getting used to. And really, if you are really struggling to pay your bills, really, get rid of cable. I don't take any money complaints seriously until I hear that the speaker doesn't have cable.

Comment edited by d.knox on 2010-09-08 08:27:53

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By BobInnes (registered) - website | Posted September 08, 2010 at 11:49:59

Jason, you wrote a terrific article, on which I'm taking notes and discussing with family, but your conclusion is a non-sequitur. Better that our Andrew McKillop analyzes utilization rates, impact of peak pricing, maintenance schedules, etc. in order to reach a conclusion for brownouts next summer.

However, I believe your overall prognosis is correct, just different reasoning. There are many solutions to brownouts before canning tomatoes becomes necessary. In my view,there are three causes of the outcome you predict:

  1. Banksters (mainly American) have taken over conservative banks that once created wealth and are now stealing wealth to feed their greed. This will spill into Canada.

  2. Politicians, through high incumbency rates and/or connections to money democracy, steal our freedom through regulation, they funnel our wealth to connected elites by subtle changes to arcane rules and they steal our (children's) future through debt based photo-op 'infrastructure', some of which, Jason, you are supporting (LRT). Be careful about public overspending at this time.

  3. International forces over which we think we have little control (until we get really angry). This does not (yet) include the broken global warming embroligo which could certainly worsen/hasten the disaster.

I don't know if next summer is the correct date but it won't be long. Your preparations are admiral (more advanced than my own) but protecting what is yours is even more important in the shorter term. This requires both personal and public/political action on the above. Hamiltonians in general might be apathetic but folks here are not and hopefully will lead the way to a more sensible/sustainable future.

In the meantime, I find myself leaning toward mayoralty candidate Victor Veri who seems to be the only one ready (more or less - waffles a little) to say NO to all the bloated/ unnecessary spending plans being discussed these days - the most important consideration in my view.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 08, 2010 at 12:19:36

It's not like post-oil means abandoning business processes from industrialization. Economies of scale still happen with or without cheap fuel.

A cannery can stew and jar local tomatoes and pickles at a far more efficient scale than you can. Cheap oil means it's not economic to do so when those same tomatoes and pickles can be trucked over long distances (and even oceans). In the future? Invest in a local cannery, they'll be selling jars that we're too lazy to make ourselves, and likely at a far better price once you figure in the cost of your own sweat.

@d.knox - anybody know good antenna-installation service? I know it's something I should DIY, but who has the time? But yeah, it seems like we're paying more and more for a hundred channels of CSI Idol.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 10, 2010 at 07:41:44

While I'm not against efficiency, or economies of scale, we have to be really careful with industrialism. The notion is about much more than "rational organization" or effective time management. Creating large powerful institutions dedicated to centralizing production for profit is dangerous in a democracy or free market. Beyond a certain size, they tend to distort markets and politics too much to be held accountable for their failings. To put it simply, using big machines to make things only works as long as the machines don't cost more than the time/work they're saving.

Costs like marketing, transportation and management today consume far more of our consumer dollars than actual production does. The answer to this isn't more "effective" industries - it's asking ourselves how and why the oil situation got so bad in the first place. The industrial revolution began long before we knew much about petroleum and it will likely outlive it.

Local, decentralized, versatile production is the answer. We need to stop trying to get the lowest unit-cost per knicknack and start asking what kind of system will yield the lowest costs overall.

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted September 10, 2010 at 15:21:27

I think what Undustrial may be getting at is the absence of "sunk costs" on most corporate balance sheets. If a litre of gasoline had the costs rolled in of things like the environmental destruction caused by the CO2 that would be released by burning that fuel, the health care costs of Asthma attacks on smog days, and many of the other 'off balance sheet' costs that are borne by society at large, and not the consumer/corporation as individuals, gas would cost a whole lot more. This is to say nothing of how much more it would cost if the oil industries handed back even a portion of their multi $billion subsidies.

Unfortunately, the Earth is a closed system, and sooner or later, those 'sunk costs' are going to have to be paid. In that light, smaller, more localized production using people/renewable power would be one answer to the overall problem of how little we really pay for what we use.

Imagine if in the cost of every cell phone, you had to chip in $100 to help fund the peacekeeping effort in the Congo where rebel soldiers carry out gang rapes and mass executions for control of the mines where most of the Coltran your phone can't function without come from.

If we learn to live simpler lives, and rely more on the strength of our community, and the power of sun and wind, and less on the almightly power of technology, our quality of life actually improves, as our standard of living goes 'down'. To say nothing of the quality of life of women who live near Congolese mining towns.

All that being said, in a few years, that choice is probably going to be made for us.

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By mdruker (registered) - website | Posted September 10, 2010 at 23:46:12

You probably mean "negative externalities" - costs to other entities that are not considered in the accounting.

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