Vocations after the Oil Age

As the economic collapse rapidly accelerates, I’ve been thinking entirely too much about post-carbon living. Specifically, I’ve been contemplating my future role in the community I’ll be inhabiting. How will I make a contribution, and therefore justify my continued presence? What will I call my vocation, in the years ahead?

As I mentally peruse the jobs I’ve held, and compare them to a world without fossil fuels, I find the challenge ahead a bit daunting.
I started employment as an agricultural grunt. My first jobs, as a teenager in an agricultural area in the heart of the Aryan nation, fell into the category of hard labor. After future hay fields were cleared of timber, and then repeatedly plowed, I tossed sticks and rocks onto a wagon pulled by a slow-moving tractor. At the end of the day, covered from head to toe with several layers of fine agricultural soil, I had to be sprayed with a hose before my mother would allow me into the house. As I grew stronger, I moved up to bucking hay bales from field to truck and then from truck to barn. An over-developed work ethic made me quite good at both these jobs. But I no longer possess a teenager’s body, and job prospects are not particularly bright for activities that require fossil fuels, including large-scale timber removal and large-scale agriculture.
My first “real” job was wildland firefighter for a state lands department. Specifically, I worked summers between my undergraduate semesters as member of a helitack crew, escorted by helicopter or truck to wildfires in a million-acre protection area. Again, my over-developed work ethic, matched with a competitive drive and an inability to sleep, made me damned good at this job. I could hike all day with a heavy pack, then pound the ground all day with a pulaski. After a thirty-hour shift, I could sleep a couple hours and start all over again. But today, although I have the same inability to sleep, I lack the work ethic, competitive drive, and work-hardened body requisite for this job. There are other issues, too: I doubt we’ll be seeing many functioning helicopters, trucks, or state lands departments in the years ahead.
During semesters on campus, I held several jobs, the most notable of which were night janitor in the student union and roofer on the university’s indoor football stadium. I was a decent janitor, though my wife claims I’ve lost that ability. But I was a terrible construction worker. I kept dropping circular saws, thereby nearly killing my compatriots working below me on the huge roof, and I nearly killed myself when, too lazy to tie myself off as I was operating a nail gun halfway between the peak of the domed stadium and the ground, I tumbled, crashed, and collected an impressive rope burn on the ungloved hand holding my lifeline. Given the impending demise of large organizations, I don’t have to worry about killing myself on large construction projects. But these experiences are sobering evidence that my future vocations are limited by lack of technical skill.
I’ve spent nearly my entire working life in the academy, which has made it clear that a career in the ivory tower is damned poor preparation for post-carbon living.
So, then. What to do?
I suspect we’ll be able to barter a little food, and maybe even some water from our hand-pumped well. We have an orchard, and presumably it’ll produce some fruit. I don’t have much confidence in our ability to grow vegetables, but I suspect I’ll be able to shoot the occasional deer or collared peccary (i.e., javelina), and therefore generate food and good will for my community. Perhaps we’ll buy some solar panels, and therefore be able to process the occasional morsel for the community.
Personally, I’d like to continue teaching, though I’m unconvinced my specialties will be much in demand. Conservation biology, anybody? How about philosophy? Or the history of pedagogy? Yeah, right. I can do long division, and I can put together the occasional coherent paragraph, so perhaps I’ll be able to teach these skills in exchange for our many needs. Otherwise, I would seem to be relatively worthless to my community. I’m inclined to believe people who do not make themselves worthwhile will not be tolerated, once the days of economic growth cease and we can no longer support the traditional American lifestyle of carefree indulgence, replete as it is with free riders.
Ideas, anybody? Do you have a post-carbon vocation lined up? And more importantly, at least to me, what’s a worthless academician to do, once the academy — already structurally weakened by inattention to society’s needs — is crushed beneath the weight of its own hubris?

Comments 12

  • Guy —
    Do you remember the Mel Brooks’ movie “History of the World”? I did not know this before seeing that movie, but apparently in the “Old Days” (like times of Aristotle, etc.) there was a profession called “Bullshit Artist”, sometimes known nowadays as “philosopher”. These were the retired academics who were kept on hand to render opinions on how, why and what for, and held an honorable place in the community. Adapted to a botany academic, why not apply for the job of “Sage”.
    Your memoirs could be
    “A Sage in Thyme”.
    And if you still are blogging, I will look forward to your sage advice.
    Stan Moore

  • By the way, why not call the period we are living in now: “The Great Oil Change”
    I wonder if J. H. Kunstler would like that :) He has really been ripping ’em up in his past few essays, and is right on in identifying how people are beginning to sense a problem, but not recognizing its full significance yet, as if they still hope the system can be repaired in place.
    But we aren’t ultimately changing from gasoline to ethanol, we are going from Ford Mustang to domestic donkey.
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • Guy
    Non specialisation is the key. Know a bit about everything ie growing food and sharing it with your neighbours, hunting, cooking, fixing things, wood working, improve your listening and social skills and most importantly
    develop good relationships with the people around you.
    As a fellow peak oiler, I think everybody in the community needs to calm down, particularly the die off crowd. (having acknowledged the fact that the population has grown from 1.5 to 6.5 billion in the last 100 years as oil has become the engine for the ‘economy’- I know oil is in everything).
    However, let me give you an example.
    I work for a consultant designing wetlands to treat storm water run off.
    I earn $40 per hour (aussie $ = .96 USD – nothing to brag about).
    This hour of labour can buy
    10kg of flour, 10kg of rice, 10kg of potatoes and 3kg of lentils. All this food for an hour of sitting in front of a computer. That is an absurd amount of food. Unless there is no food in the supermarche, it will be a long time before I am priced out of the market.
    Having said that the third world is starting to get priced out of the market
    for food and other commodities. The die off scenario that Guy talks about is very likely to happen some where else
    as it has always been.
    The point is we really dont know what will happen
    within the next decade.
    Personally I believe there will not be one scenario but many
    depending one where you live. This is already happening now and has always been the case, only the disparities will continue to become exaggaerated between the energy poor and the energy rich.
    If we all become aware of the energy restraints of the future then mitigations can take place now. This will prevent a worse case scenario.
    I hope this is not too optimistic for you and your readers Guy.
    having said that, keep
    on blogging
    kind regards
    Matt, Melbourne

  • Stan, I love both ideas. If ever I write a memoir, it’ll be called “A Sage in Thyme.” The Great Oil Change is very Kunstler-esque — I’m sure he’d love it, but I don’t think he’s going to run out of material any time soon. Did you see his piece in WaPost this weekend? Great stuff.
    Matt, I agree about generalization. I’m mildly concerned about your salary exceeding mine :) And I’m very concerned — not about the price of groceries, relative to my income (and yours) — but about the groceries failing to arrive at the grocery store when the trucks stop running. Disruptions in the supply of gasoline hit six U.S. states last summer, and I suspect they’ll spread to many states this summer and nearly all of them next year. So much for high fructose corn syrup in every aisle!
    Thanks to both of you for your frequent, cogent contributions.

  • A couple of thoughts come to mind from reading various comments here and elsewhere…
    I was born in 1956 and remember when our familiy got its first color television. I remember myself and my three brothers sharing one bedroom in a small house in Texas with no airconditioning. I remember when most housewives did not work outside the home, when grocery stores were all closed on Sunday and when few people owned new cars. In short, there have been dramatic changes in a half century, largely powered by cheap energy and consumerism.
    My grandparents are all deceased now, but I believe all of them would have little trouble adapting to life after the Great Oil Change. They were mostly rural folks. In the U.S. many farms did not receive electricity until after the start of the 20th century. Many persons of my grandparents’s generation (or their parents for sure) plowed their farms with livestock. I have read diaries written by my grandfather about his childhood, when he and his brothers worked the land before and after walking to school and only had a half day of recreation per week, when they would typically go hunting or fishing.
    My point is that what is ahead of humanity is exactly what was in our past, and really not that long ago. The last century has been an aberration; that’s all. We could remove one word from a famous statement by a statesman of the Greatest Generation and come up with a comforting thought:
    “The only thing we have to fear is … ourselves.”
    This planet is our home. It is nothing to fear. We are not so far removed from the land that we cannot recreate lifestyles that were common within the lifespans of a few still living among us.
    I do believe a die-off is inevitable because we have greatly exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet with cheap petroleum removed from the calculations. This can be viewed as natural selection and once we get past the emotional hurdles, I think we have the ability to not only survive, but ultimately to thrive.
    One last thing I would add, though, is that I would not have confidence that employment will be reliable in the years ahead. Peak Oil is not only a geological issue, but an economic one, and our whole international financial and economic and commercial and government enterprises are subject to failure. I would predict that paychecks will be replaced by individual barter at some point in the foreseeable future. But this is far from an insurmountable problem. Bigger issues might be obtaining needed medicines and medical treatment, eyeglasses, even clothes if the market-driven systems of today are no longer functioning. The fit will survive and pass along their genes; we know that. I am fifty-two years old and have no children, so society will not be burdened with my genes in the common pool.
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • Guy – During prohibition my grandfather used to make bathtub gin (whatever that is).
    I was thinking this might be a valuable skill to have.

  • Hi gang! Anti-capitalism activist Wingnut here, how ya’ll doon? I hope well. Regarding vocations in post-oil era, will we be past the killing of animal and plants too, and only eat fallen foods like the season’s name tells us to? If so, there won’t be any “cropping” and we will need “fall-net” weavers and wranglers. We’ll wait for the animals to fall (dead of old age) before we eat them, so elderly animal care will be important. But back on the subject of gasoline-free, what about peddle, sail, steam, and solar… cars and trucks? Maybe even aeroplanes! After all, the speed limit on USA interstate highways will go to 15 mph, and since capitalism might be dead too, we’d have no more deadlines. (YAY!) So its not important that any of us be at a certain place at a certain time. No more “ordering”… a phenomenon seen widespread in the church-o-competers (capitalism). Likely, you’ll see lots of hayrides and bandwagoning… where a single VERY POWERFUL steam/solar/peddle/wind -powered, combination calliope and tractor… pull 200+ haywagons (minivans on flatbeds) up and down the highways… constantly. Its a different kind of mass transit. One essentially lives on the hayride for a couple weeks until one gets to the place they are trying to go. No hurry at all. But if one needs independence, solitude, and freedom, one can use the steam-powered motorcycle as well. We CAN afford the carbon signature of burning cornstalks and assorted bio-stuff… to heat water in steam boilers. (Communes cause MUCH better use of limited carbon-emitting fuelings.) Also, we need REALLY GOOD pressure monitoring systems for the boilers and pressure cookers… as they have a tendency to blow up on occassion. Ask the circuses… they were professional steam users and gaslight users in the early days…. back when life was good. When the speeds on the interstates go to 15mph, transportation will change completely, along with our stress levels. One thing that’s going to be needed on these long cleantractor-pulled parties… is entertainers… done out of the love of fellow man, and not for greenstamps and entitles of ownership (of God-owned materials). In New America, we will finally quit lying to ourselves about being able to own God-owned Earth materials or the devices made therefrom. Just because someone scrapes beach sand into a mound that looks and works exactly like a jetboat, doesn’t mean the jetboat is owned by that builder. Its still God material and belongs to all plants, animals, humans, rocks, lakes, and bugs… on the planet. Good idea? You bet. Chistian socialism is FAR better than pyramid schemes like capitalism… any century of existence. Just ask the USA military survival/supply system, as well as the USA public library system. They might be two of the BEST-OPERATING systems in the world… and they are both socialism/commune. The hippies were right ALL-ALONG!!! Love each other and the planet, don’t fight, and eliminate “the establishment”.

  • “What will I call my vocation, in the years ahead?”
    Something other than a blogger.

  • Good question.
    Unfortunately, I changed majors to psychology from geology (yes,I’m kicking myself now). I’ve spent most of my time (in recent years) taking care of kids and ghostwriting.
    All that aside, right now, I’m looking into wilderness survival training, CPR/First Aid classes, language-learning, and learning things from the SCA.
    I’m not sure if any of it will do a damn bit of good, but I suppose it is good just to stay busy.
    Here are some links to survival skills, CPR, etc. in Arizona–if anyone is interested:
    Ancient Pathways
    SCA Arts and Sciences
    Red Cross (Grand Canyon Chapter)
    FEMA Community Emergency Response Team (training info)
    I don’t have money to throw at the problem so my strategy (if you can call it that) is based on stuffing my brain and trying to make social connections.
    Will it work? Probably not, but at least I kept busy. Heh. :) :\ :(

  • Could you imagine the ramifications if today’s market system crashed???
    Great blog post!!

  • great post!.. really enjoyed reading it and all the comments. thanks.

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