Cheer Up, It’s Going to Get Worse

Three years ago, David Fridley purchased two and a half acres of land in rural Sonoma County. He planted drought-resistant blue Zuni corn, fruit trees and basic vegetables while leaving a full acre of extant forest for firewood collection. Today, Fridley and several friends and family subsist almost entirely off this small plot of land, with the surplus going to public charity.

But Fridley is hardly a homegrown hippie who spends his leisure time gardening. He spent 12 years consulting for the oil industry in Asia. He is now a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a fellow of the Post Carbon Institute in Sebastopol, where members discuss the problems inherent to fossil-fuel dependency.

Fridley has his doubts about renewable energies, and he has grave doubts about the future of crude oil. In fact, he believes to a certainty that society is literally running out of gas and that, perhaps within years, the trucks will stop rolling into Safeway and the only reliable food available will be that grown in our backyards.

Fridley, like a few other thinkers, activists and pessimists, could talk all night about “peak oil.” This catch phrase describes a scenario, perhaps already unfurling, in which the easy days of oil-based society are over, a scenario in which global oil production has peaked and in which every barrel of crude oil drawn from the earth from that point forth is more difficult to extract than the barrel before it. According to peak oil theory, the time is approaching when the effort and cost of extraction will no longer be worth the oil itself, leaving us without the fuel to power our transportation, factories, farms, society and the very essence of our oil-dependent lives. Fridley believes the change will be very unpleasant for many people.

“If you are a typical American and have expectations of increasing income, cheap food, nondiscretionary spending, leisure time and vacations in Hawaii, then the change we expect soon could be what you would consider ‘doom,'” he says soberly, “because your life is going to fall apart.”

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Fridley says too many Americans believe in solutions to all problems, but peak oil is a terrible anomaly among crises, he explains, because there is no solution. Fridley doesn’t even see any hope in solar, wind, water and other renewable energy sources. Even nuclear power creates only electricity, while crude oil is the basis for thousands of synthetic products.

“There is nothing that can replace oil and allow us to maintain life at the pace we’ve been living,” he says. “Crude oil is hundreds of millions of years of stored sunlight, and we’re using it all up in a few generations. It’s like living off of a savings account, whereas solar energy is like working and living off your daily wages.”

The sheer cost-efficiency of oil eclipses all supposed alternatives. Removed from the ground and burned, oil makes things move almost miraculously. A tank of gasoline in a sedan holds enough energy to equal approximately five years of one person’s rigorous manual labor.


  1. HH 7 years ago

    “A tank of gasoline in a sedan holds enough energy to equal approximately five years of one person’s rigorous manual labor”.

    The avr. sedan does 30mpg MAX. I can cycle that in 2 hours, not 5 years!!!! ;) I guess it could take the average American 5 years to cycle that far.

  2. Author
    ptsp 7 years ago

    hmm, I guess its more related to the amount of food farmed that a tank of gas can provide. Or perhaps because that TANK (not gallon) of gas could take 5 people and all their luggage about 450 MILES. How long would it take you to carry 5 people and all their luggage 450 miles on your bike? Or on your back? Could you even do it? Would you do it for 60 euro?

  3. HH 7 years ago

    I’d do a lot for 60 euro….but not that!

  4. Author
    ptsp 7 years ago

    This explains Human energy/fossil energy ratio. Pretty scary article. If you remove fossil fuels from the equation, the daily diet will require 111 hours of endosomatic labor per capita; that is, the current U.S. daily diet would require nearly three weeks of labor per capita to produce.
    Eating Fossil Fuels

  5. Steve in Hungary 7 years ago


    In one way, yes. In another way definitely no. People need to have a serious think about food miles – and obesity.

    The way your comment is formed it reads as if I would need to pick four and five eights apples from my tree to obtain the energy gained by eating one. Which is plainly nonsense.

    I have a plot of land here of just short of an acre, of which only about a tenth is under cultivation. I planted just four rows of potatoes last year. This year I have cut it down to two.
    How much energy is generated from four rows of potatoes? I don’t know, but they provided enough spuds to keep a family of three in spuds over the winter and into spring.

    The majority bit that is still derelict and being worked upon has many fruit and nut trees. I have a single huge walnut tree that must have produced about six bushels of walnuts. More walnuts than I could possibly eat in a year. Just ONE tree. I would think that eating maybe a hundred of those walnuts would provide me with the energy to have stooped to the ground and collected the six bushels-worth.

    My point is that everybody needs to think about the unsustainablity of food shipped into your local supermarket from thousands of miles away. It is a modern phenomenon. My grandparents undoubtedly subsisted mainly on what they grew in their own garden – fruit and vegetables in season, or able to be stored for the winter. A single pig, reared and butchered and the meat smoked, salted – whatever.

  6. admin 7 years ago

    Hey Steve, sorry your comment got trapped in the spam filter. Thanks for the lengthy reply. Growing a portion of your own food is way different from the current mass production petro agriculture. On a small scale it is quite manageable to grow your own food without oil, but scaling that up to feed the massive cities is another question entirely. Over half of the earths population now lives in cities so they wont even have the option to grow their own food.

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