Friday, May 4, 2012

Cowboys and Kalashnikovs

A scenario exploring Peak Oil America and the post-industrial Wild West. This is not a prediction, just speculation.

We are the survivors of the prodigal age
Our forefathers wasted everything 
Soft men for soft times
Preoccupied with diversion 
All consuming trivialities
The riches of the greatest civilization ever known 
squandered, pissed away, forever lost 

We live in the squalid ruins of opulence
Men of a lean and hungry age
Too impoverished for any more self-delusion 
No expectation of a better future, only hope for survival 
No more soft men, only the hardened and the broken
Awoken from the American dream, screaming

I'm borrowing a few ideas that have come up on the Kunstlercast, namely the idea of what America might look like in an expensive energy future. The assumptions are that there will be no ready replacement for cheap fossil fuels and that the old economics and ways of life obsoleted in the 20th century will make a revival. However, there is a crisis of capital and political will. The existing infrastructure can't even be maintained, let alone rebuilding all that was dismantled. The full Kunstler scenario plays out in his World Made by Hand novels which puts everyone squarely back in the 19th century with hardly any advanced technology remaining relevant. That's a bit more radical than I'm imagining.

The setting is a hundred years from now. The American empire is dead and gone. It's been a steeper decline than even the British endured. America's political dysfunction didn't help matters. While there's still nominally a Union, the tax base has shrunken so much that federal authority is greatly diminished. Suburbia without cars is unsustainable and there has been a steep decline in population as well as a consolidation into teeming cities. There are computers and office buildings and electric vehicles in the urban areas but get thin on the ground in the boonies. Economies have become increasingly local with long-distance trade limited to the rails and waterways. The steam engine has made a comeback for trains and riverboats, coal remaining the only cheap fossil fuel left. Biodiesel is popular for some small engine applications and the feedstock is agricultural waste. Animal power in many places is cheaper and more reliable than machines. Bicycles crowd the streets. Personal electronic geegaws like satellite world phones are cheap enough that every family has one but a private car is an impossible extravagance. There's no single dominant alternative energy solution but cheap power is done for. Energy is expensive and as precious as water in the desert.

Out west the ranchers have large herds of cattle, just like back in the day. The ranching economy provides a basis for a modest standard of living. The only other growth industry is in the dismantling of the abandoned cities for valuable scrap. China has weathered the downturn magnificently. Chinese windjammers carry much of what remains of global trade and completely dominate the Pacific route between North America and Asia. In a reverse of the Century of Humiliation which marked foreign imperial dominance of China, now the Chinese are able to call the shots on the Pacific side of a diminished America. Washington might not like it but they have nothing left to bargain with. They can't even maintain the tritium initiators for the nuclear arsenal, not that the solid fuel motors of the ICBM's are in any condition to fire.

You have ranchers trying to make a living, homesteaders trying to do the same. You have the cattle drives and cattle towns, Chinese traders and their mercenary escorts, fortune-seekers, gamblers, bandits and common folk, all trying to earn a living. Overworked lawmen struggle to keep the peace. Bullets are plentiful and life is cheap.

The image the title of this post brings to mind should be plain enough: a western gunfighter with an automatic weapon. Seems a little incongruous? Perhaps.  But if you skip ahead to the three minute mark you can see the Chinese army making a cavalry charge in the shadow of a mushroom cloud.

To recap the assumptions going into this scenario:

Q: Why does everything revert back to mostly 19th century technology?
A: Cheap energy is gone.

Q: Why haven't alternative energy sources allowed us to maintain the standard of living to which we've become accustomed?
A: Because the fundamental assumption of this setting is that none of the alternate energy solutions can fully replace the cheap energy, fossil fuel economy.

Q: So what about the wind, solar, biogas and small-scale hydro you mention in the background?
A: The experts say it won't scale to the extent needed for things to continue as normal. Whether they're right or wrong, I don't know. This is the assumption. Solar power isn't going to air condition the 5,000 square-foot McMansion.

Q: I'm pretty sure that things could play out a bit better with those technologies if only...
A: And that's where failure of the political process comes in. How can people end up starving to death when there's produce rotting in the fields? Politics. At any point in this scenario you can say "It doesn't have to be this way, if only..." just remember it's all politics and a good deal of stupidity.

Q: I don't agree with your assumptions.
A: I'm not evangelizing. This is a scenario, it's not prophecy. That's why they're called assumptions, not certainties.

Q: What happened to coal?
A: It never went away. But I think that most coal use will be industrial. We won't see a national power grid energized to make sure people get their air conditioning, microwave burritos and television.

Q: So the whole world isn't de-industrialized?
A: No, but China will no longer be making all the plastic crap to fill Wal-Mart's shelves with. If America doesn't make anything, what do we have to trade with? Nobody has a use for money that can't buy anything. Petroleum is no longer the basis of a global economy, nobody wants our petro-dollars. Globalization is dead and gone.

Q: How are you measuring pre-industrial, industrial, and post-industrial?
A: Per-capita energy usage. It's a big parabola; in the West the peak in the 1970's.

Q: So you would call this a scaling back of dreams?
A: Exactly. At our height we were able to go to the moon. We could be confident that our children would have a higher standard of living than ourselves and we saw how ours was better than our parents. The march of progress is over. Just hanging on to what we've got would be nice. Cutting our losses is the reality. Running as fast as we can just to stay in place and seeing ourselves start to slide back, that's the nightmare.

Q: So where does the high-tech stuff that does exist come from?
A: From the remaining manufacturing centers. The product lifecycle will be a lot longer. The advantage to consumer electronics is that they have a high value to weight ratio, not unlike precious metals, gemstones and spices. They'll form the basis of the new spice trade as it were.

Q: But consumer stuff is so cheap, you just throw it away when it breaks and buy another one.
A: That age is over and anything made cheaply enough that it can't be fixed when it breaks will no longer be bought. Planned obsolescence is unacceptable at this point.

Q: Is there an Internet?
A: Good question. I'm not sure how long existing infrastructure will last with buried fiber. Power and phone lines require maintenance and would likely become expensive to maintain. I think that the Internet could go dark in the hinterlands with only the main cities connected. But there are some ideas like AMPRNet (AMateur Packet Radio Network). It's low-bandwidth so you could be back to the days of trickling in large transfers over a period of weeks with sneakernets used to move large caches of data. The Chinese could very well be operating a satellite-based network for their own purposes but it would not be public access for the masses. And if satellite launches prove too expensive, there's always the potential for solar-powered, unmanned aircraft operating as telecommunication relays.

This is the first pass at the concept. I'll elaborate more in subsequent posts.


  1. Well it's an interesting set up, despite the fact that it depends strongly upon certain scenarios to pull through. However, I can't help but wonder what the medical care is like in this dark frontier, since as far as I can remember alot of medicine depends upon petrochemicals.

    1. This is rather beyond my qualifications for speculation. We've been experimenting with ways to synthesize hydrocarbons. For the most part it's an economic non-starter given the current price of natural hydrocarbons. It's a different issue if oil goes up to $2000 a barrel.

      I'm running with a scenario here, not prophecy, as I've said. If Good and Bad are both reasonable outcomes, we'll go with bad. If Bad is not just unreasonable but unfeasible, then it makes for a poor scenario.

      My speculation here is that it will be an energy-poor future. There will be pockets of high energy usage -- near coal mines, along rail lines used to transport the coal to industrial areas, etc. But not a lot of that is going to make it out to the periphery. There's not going to be crazy money to support putting up cities in the middle of deserts, no spare energy for suburbia.

      And like I mentioned above, if there's a way that it technically might still possible for things to go well, human politics will make a hash of it and thus give us the new wild west out in cattle country. Remember, we've got the US of A and Haiti in the same hemisphere. Any number of commentators from a decade or three ago would say that the 21st century drug war in Mexico strains credulity. "Could any technological society really endure that level of violence?"

  2. Interesting indeed, it could be a setting for quite compelling stories.
    I wonder, apart from the US and China, what about the rest of the world?
    If they finally decide to develop breeding reactors, Europe may still have cheap enough energy despite reduced uranium stocks (I'm not sure if Japan would accept those now, though), but their own political problems could cause as much damage here than in the US. Also, widespread breeding reactors may cause widespread military-grade uranium.
    I heard that India is now trying to develop thorium nuclear power-plants to use their own stocks of thorium (which doesn't produce weapon-grade fission fuel, which is why we originally didn't develop those). Don't know how they would evolve anyway.
    Countries of South America could also become a major player in the future. Brazil, for example, may use locally produced ethanol in their cars if electric cars are not widespread enough.
    Russia probably also have the potential to become a major player as well, but organized crime may be a big problem; though I don't know how much it would affect the development of the country (and its neighbours).
    How would the rest of Asia evolve, particularly with a strong China clearly decided to build a world trade net? And what about Africa, or Oceania?

    This could change the stories in this setting, depending on the answers. If South America is well developed, you may see people trying to emigrate there, and be pushed back by local frontier police forces. If Russia is developed but completely rotten with organised crime, you may see dangerous Russian crime syndicates having the help of a powerful Russian state.

    Those are not predictions, of course, just examples about how it could affect stories, so I'm curious to see if you intend to develop those parts.

    1. Breeding reactors and the rest of the world: The only thing really required for this scenario is the US falling on post-industrial hard times.

      By way of comparison, Red Dawn never really made any sense. The USSR lacked the means of power projection for such distances. It's very difficult to extrapolate any kind of plausible "Invasion USA" scenario without venturing into alternative history territory.

      I still don't see a serious invasion of the continental US as being possible. I do want to have the extractive, exploitative Chinese empire chipping away on the West coast. But it's going to fall far short of a military invasion.

      The main reason I'd like to have the rest of the world facing the same difficulties is I want to avoid having big wars and political shaekups that add too many variables to the setting. I don't want the Chinese empire doing a conquest of the US and reenacting the Brits in India.

      I haven't really gamed out what would happen in the rest of the world. Not sure how Japan and China would tussle with each other, same with India. Would South America be able to get its act together without foreign imperial intervention mucking things up? Africa remains a basketcase to this day because it's difficult to escape the colonial legacy and western interests are still pumping bad money and weapons into unstable situations for exploitation.

      That would be one meta-example of a complication in the American west. Bandit gangs could rebrand themselves as revolutionaries armed with Chinese weapons trying to establish a Libertarian utopia. The stated goal is kicking out the evil remnants of the Washington government but the actual goal is to put a friendly government in place so the Chinese can strip-mine the decaying cities more efficiently.

      That's actually a world-building point. Is it conceivable that stripping the ruins of the cities and landfills would be cheaper than making fresh materials? All that would really be required is a) there's something here the Chinese want b) they can't get it or make it cheaper at home and c) they have the means of transporting it. Essentially it's some manner of mcguffin.

      If not strip-mining cities, maybe they screwed up their agriculture so bad they're importing beef from overseas. So the ranching lands all across the Americas might be up for grabs. The only thing required for the mcguffin is plausibility; sticking with the post-industrial theme is just a plus. Strip-mining the cities is tragically romantic. But the cows also work, too.

  3. Sadly, this sort of setting is being blown out of the water by the remarkable fact that America potentially has the greatest hydrocarbon reserves on the planet. The technological ability to extract that oil has been a long time coming, but now the lure of high prices and insatiable demand is bringing plays like "Shale oil" into the realm of economic production.

    The only way to get that scenario now would involve having America's enemies conspiring to stop the exploitation of these finds, first by funding and organizing environmental groups to block legal access, then moving to stronger measures (including nuking the fields to contaminate the area and the product as the end play).

    Mad Max was a great scenario (and at the time it did make some sort of sense), but the historical background has changed far too much...

    1. We have 200 years of coal, they say. Maybe we do. We certainly still have oil in the ground and are still pumping. However, market forces keep many wells idle. They only start pumping when the price goes above X. There's no way to compete with Saudi Arabia if you're losing money pumping at the price they're establishing.

      So, right now we consume more energy than we produce across the board -- hydro, wind, solar, fossil fuels like natural gas, petroleum, and coal.

      If we were cut off by our foreign suppliers tomorrow, what happens? We'll still have coal for the power plants, the dams will still generate hydro power, but we'd have a big gas crunch. You can't run cars on coal. (Well, you can, but it's expensive.)

      Let's set all environmental concerns aside here. Can we keep happy motoring going with substitute technologies? Sure, that would happen. If we could use tar sands to fuel our fossil burners, if we built nuker plants and had super-capacitors for our electric cars, we'd continue exactly as we have been. The CK scenario would be a non-starter.

      Now, what if those technologies don't pan out? Energy is expensive and just isn't portable. I can ship gasoline from the refinery to anywhere in the country. Power I can move across the grid but what if the price rises high enough that I'm no longer willing to accept the transmission loss? Fine, if you live in the city you get power. If you live in the boonies, I'm not shipping power out to you.

      Maybe you can use the new bio-reactors they're talking about for generating bio-diesel from plant mass. They're talking about breeding yeasts that can break down plant cellulose like in wood. Ok, that's cool but it would be expensive.

      Like I said, I think that this could be a schizo-tech future. There will be surviving pools of high technology civilization, possibly even advancing the state of the art to stuff that would make techno-geeks in the here and now drool. But that's not happening in the ruins of the United States.

  4. WRT the "real" world. I suspect the next US administration will be under huge pressure to "do something" about the 10%+ U3 unemployment rate, $15 trillion dollar debt and credit uncertainty, as well as jump start the sluggish (almost static) economy. If the Administration won't act, I would expect the Senate and the House (as well as the various State houses) to take action.

    Releasing the various regulatory barriers to exploration and exploitation will create lots of oil industry jobs, bring in lots of royalties and (by keeping prices relatively low) allow the remainder of the economy to benefit from cheap energy.

    To bring this back to your scenario, other nations like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela will be badly hurt by collapsing oil prices, while China will be rather peeved to see the United States suddenly standing tall again and overshadowing the establishment of the Middle Kingdom as the center of Global affairs. They will all have motives to use every means possible to prevent an age of cheap American oil, but will obviously be afraid to engage in a full scale war. A series of attacks and counter attacks based on cyber attacks, sabotage, SoF missions and so on will take place instead, partially in the shadows. The end result will be an essentially ruined oil infrastructure around the globe, with the United States and China being just barely solvent and functional, while most of the rest of the world is huddled around remaining sources of energy (sometimes nuclear, otherwise hydro, coal or even geothermal; Iceland is an economic giant in these times.

    Now your future has a sort of plausible background, and the rest of it makes lots of sense. Chinese merchant princes might find their reception more hostile than you hinted at, and Icelandic corporate raiders will be metaphorical Vikings (although they might not love the Chinese either). The standard of technology and living might resemble the 1920's, while the economy would be more like the 1930's. Maybe important people get around by airship, or coal fired "Comet" class transcontinental trains. Lots of possibilities.

  5. Concerning legislative gridlock: I don't see productive action coming from either established party. The Archdruid has been blogging about anacyclosis. The wiki nutshell 1. Monarchy, 2. Kingship, 3. Tyranny, 4. Aristocracy, 5. Oligarchy, 6. Democracy, and 7. Ochlocracy.

    I'm not really sure how we're going to pull ourselves out of this spiral but I don't see change coming from either established party.

    I honestly don't see the resurgent American oil power idea as realistic. But even as globalization is deleveraged, global awareness remains with the digital toys created in the industrial age. In the 19th century you may have heard about a great humanitarian disaster in China with millions dead but you might not even be entirely sure what a chinaman looks like or only know them from cartoon caricatures. In deindustrialized America, you could very well be watching battlefield video feeds from the nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan even though you can't afford the scratch to pay for a ticket to take the train from the east coast to the west.

    I love the idea of airships but don't know if they'll ever prove practical. If we do solve the technical difficulties, there might be a niche for them to serve as flying riverboats for servicing areas off the rail routes. Avgas is too expensive, airships can drift with the wind and use solar to power the electric motors, not much infrastructure required on the ground, can serve areas far away from the remaining rail lines that aren't on the rivers. Of course, why would anyone live in those areas if they can't ship goods? People are very high-value cargo but we're not shipping bulk cargo by air. Farmers need to get crops to market, same for cattlemen. Mining for anything doesn't do you any good if you can't sell it to someone. The only point to living in an area far away from everything else is because you want to live far away, aka the Mormon solution.

  6. Sorry to hijack your idea but it has so many possibilities (a sort of Steampunk/Dieselpunk universe, if you will).

    WRT American oil resurgence, it is happening even now without (and despite) legislative intervention; market forces trump everything. The only remaining roadblocks are legislative, Federal lands and offshore drilling are still off limits, and California could potentially pull out of its economic death spiral by exploiting the huge reserves discovered both on and off shore, but Sacremento sits on its hands...

    Anyway, this is a scenario (I hope) for fiction.

    WRT after the oil wars, America may still be a dominant power. The nation is uniquely blessed with lots of different natural resources, Chinese junks plying the Pacific may find competition with American Clippers shipping goods and materials, built from the abundant forests (The occasional American pirate or commerce raider is also lurking out at sea), and carryig.

    The USN isn't going to take the loss of global power projection lightly; imagine the USS Macon gliding serenely over the ocean, carrying a flock of biodiesel powered UAV's. Since this is a military mission, it doesn't matter the biofuel costs $16/liter. Coal (or coal oil) powers USN surface ships, although they have auxiliary sails for cruising (a kite or baloon sail towing the ship is best, the deck can stay clear for action).

    For most people, trains and shipping is the only way to go, and travel will indeed be limited to the very rich, government officials, military convoys and people like cowboys following the herds across the depopulated midwest. Most people stay at home, watching the world through VR, and listening to Grandpa telling tales of past glories.

    Of course, if we are going to tell a story (the metaphorical "we"), then we need something more than a slice of life in Smallville USA. Life is pretty tough, horizons are limited and things are usually rather boring, but people are living among the detritus of one of the great technological civilizations of all time, and still have access to libraries of information and global internet feed. All kinds of possibilities present themselves. I would lean towards some variation of "King David's Spaceship", where our heroes, using the limited materials available still manage to get into space (an ORION ship powered by chemical explosives would be quite the ride), but YMMV.

  7. Well, we'll see the way the "American oil resurgence" plays out, one way or the other. As I said above, if it really would be technologically feasible, then politics will torpedo it in the States to give us the C&K future even if China can make it work for their own domestic economy. But I still like the idea of keeping Chinese windjammers. Right now our container ships are steaming at half-speed to save fuel and aren't moving much faster than sailing ships did. Especially given the level of automation possible, I could see these ships sailing with very small crews and remaining economical.

    I'm not sure what sort of Navy the US could manage to put to sea. I'm thinking that the scale-down will be even harsher than what the Royal Navy has gone through to this point. I think collapse to regional centers of power along the Nine Nations of North America might not be unreasonable. Take note of where the Empty Quarter is situated.

    My thinking is that US interests will be turned inwards in a struggle to keep things held together. The interesting thing to see is what breakaway cultures form in the vacuum created by the withdrawal of federal government and the collapse of state and local authority. I'm imagining that the law will exist in cities and along major transportation corridors but everything along the urban infill will be lawless with the potential for stubborn holdouts creating a new way of doing things.

  8. US interests will be both turned inwards, to preserve and maintain the Union, but also outwards, since America has been a trading nation since its inception. Yankee Traders will still be roaming the oceans in the post oil age (possibly backed by Geothermal energy barons from Iceland)

    American windjammers will carry American trade around the world, and the precious oil or substitute fuel will power the remaining USN warships (although there will be a substantial fleet of nuclear powered warships as well). A resurgence of LTA craft to supplement or replace various high tech equipment does not seem unreasonable to me (and the USN did operate a huge fleet of blimps as ASW craft and radar piquets until the 1950's).

    The collapse of large bureaucracies and the devolution of much power back to States and local authorities will simply be a return to the state of affairs prior to the American Civil War. If States do not have the resources and manpower to maintain order, then large swaths of land may go fallow and see irregular patrols by US Marshals, much like the days prior to Statehood. One of the unique features of America is that culturally, people will start organizing themselves if the larger structures collapse. There may be lots of "company towns", and places run under the iron fist of the local sheriff or cattle baron, but there will also be lots of small towns and districts that are decent and sensible places to live.

    I'm not saying C&K a bad idea (in fact, the steam/dieselpunk future makes it fairly appealing), but as we sometimes have discovered in Rocketpunk, following ideas towards their logical conclusions often leads to unexpected outcomes.

  9. Nothing you suggest is completely incompatible with what I was planning.

    I don't know how badly our infrastructure and bureaucracy can collapse under mismanagement and dysfunction. The only model we have to go by is the USSR who collapsed before peak oil. They're still muddling along even with a population and standard of living collapse. However, they've still got large fossil reserves they're drawing on right now.

    Even in the historic Wild West area, just because there were cowboys, claim-jumpers and gunfighters in the west, that doesn't mean there were gunfights in the streets of Boston. Things back east remained civilized.

    So it wouldn't be completely incompatible to have cowboys and cattle barons out west with vigilante justice and little government presence and have the remnants of the US muddling along in the east.

    I really don't know how likely it would be to retain any nuclear power. I do know that it breaks the balls of the nations that currently have it: That's Russia, US, France, UK and China. I hear Brazil is trying to develop a nuke sub but nothing's come of it yet.

    It would actually take more engineering acumen than I've got to determine what a C&K USN would look like. Nothing's cheaper than wind so we have windjammers. Well, the ships can't be all that heavy and still have good sailing characteristics. In terms of deck guns the 5 inchers we put on destroyers are lethal enough. Slap one on the bow and there you go. Are guided missiles still affordable? That's an odd vision, a sailing ship ripple-firing missiles.

    Frankly, I think I have a handle on how the west would look in this future but the rest of the world would require more work.

  10. No problem, Jolly. My consulting fees are quite reasonable ;)

    In the short term, current ships can be towed behind large kite sails or tethered blimps. I have seen this proposed for large container ships, so USN Frigates and Destroyers could easily take advantage of this. As a bonus, the high platform of the towing kite provides a place for various antenna and sensors, giving the ship a wide view and preventing surprises like being boarded by a hostile Junk. Cannon ammunition and even missiles will still be available, for a price, but I look at history and see that virtually every polity in history was more than willing to pay up.

    Closer to home, coal and perhaps wood will be powering steam engined tugs doing the river trade. Large barges will have to be replaced by smaller barges, but otherwise river trade will continue on much as it has since the 1800's.

    Rail will come back into its own (also using coal and maybe wood), an interesting reversal will take place as abandoned and torn up rail beds are reclaimed. The US Army may attempt to maintain parts of the Interstate (which was the purpose of the project back when), but the scale and scope of the project will limit this to a very few arterial roads.

    The West will revert to a much harsher wilderness not due to lack of oil, but rather lack of water. Cheap energy isn't going to be around to move vast quantities of water across the West, or pump it out of the aquifers, so farmland will dry out and farmers will leave. Cattle herding and ranching will dominate the economy once again, and battles over water rights will be one of the defining features of life in the West. Salvaging or reviving old water projects will also be an obsession of mad dreamers, and may even be possible in some places. Las Vegas ("The Meadows") actually sits on top of an aquifer, but the vast expansion of the city has overdrawn that resource. A hundred years from now, if the city were abandoned, the aquifer would be recharged and available for small scale resettlement.

    Air travel and air power are far to valuable to give up entirely, so I would expect to see small fleets of blimps or Zeppelins to carry military, government and high priority traffic; towns might be visited by a weekly Blimp run rather than a stage coach (and you can draw the obvious inference of Blimp robbers and Pinkertons...)

  11. I'm aware of the kite research for tankers but I'm not sure how practical that would be for warships. That'd really be something to leave to the wargammers to figure out. The big question for me is what will the navy want and how will that compare to what the nation can afford? Britain used to have a navy bigger than the next two opponents combined and now they can't even afford to build a decent aircraft carrier. The only nation the world operating proper super-carriers is the US of A. Would the Brits want better? Of course. They'd love super-carriers. Can't afford it, though.

    I'm a fan of the romance of dirigibles. If the setting can support them, I'm all for it. But the question is whether they'd be cheaper than light aviation.

    We're playing around with the idea of solar-powered aircraft. For now they're best as unmanned platforms. Electric aircraft flying with batteries are theoretically viable but batteries remain too bulky and expensive. If we do have a breakthrough on size and power in the next hundred years, then it becomes possible to have a Cessna with an electric engine that can be recharged from renewables on the ground.

    My thinking is that access to this sort of tech will be a lot more restricted. While horses were everywhere in the 19th century, not everyone had one, not the way everyone has a car today. And of course in the Middle Ages horses were certainly present but only the important people were riding.

    Still, the thing with zeps is throwing them into an alternate history (or in this case, alternate future) is kind of a cliche, like having a three-breasted alien babe. Could the tech and dollars ever make economic sense?

    For example, ocean liners. If air travel becomes $20k a seat thanks to biofuels being expensive, the private jets will still be flying. Any poor schlub needing to cross the sea, they're going by a windjammer liner or zeppelin. This makes sense. These days, nobody wants to spend a week of their vacation just crossing the Atlantic when they could wake up in North America and go to sleep in Europe thanks to jets. As much as I despise flying and prefer taking the train, Amtrak costs just as much as a plane to get from where I live to, say, Boston and the travel time is 25 hours. Compare that to 5 or 6 hours tops from leaving for the airport to kicking off my shoes at my destination.

    What you're saying about the west and water tracks with my expectation and creates fertile storytelling environments. Civilization will retreat from areas that are simply too expensive to subsidize. There's plenty of room for new range wars and lawlessness.

    One case study from history, the Aztec Land & Cattle Company:

    "When we came to Arizona in 1876, the hills and plains were covered with high grass and the country was not cut up with ravines and gullies as it is now. This has been brought about through overstocking the ranges. On the Little Colorado we could cut hay for miles and miles in every direction. The Aztec Cattle Company brought tens of thousands of cattle into the country, claimed every other section, overstocked the range and fed out all the grass. Then the water, not being held back, followed the cattletrails and cut the country up. Later tens of thousands of cattle died because of drought and lack of feed and disease. The river banks were covered with dead carcasses."

    I mentioned above that China might be willing to pay top yen for beef cattle if they've got food production problems back home. They could raise the price above the domestic rate sufficiently to encourage outfits like Aztec to head west and go big. They'll try to muscle out the smaller players and not give a damn about wrecking the land because the intention of the owners is to get in, make a fortune, and get out. If they can make the fortune of a lifetime inside a decade then they don't care what happens by year eleven.

  12. The reason horses are not as common as cars has to do with the huge food and water demands of the beasts, which also explains why the ancient Greeks and Romans had very small cavalry forces and the social make up of Feudal Europe.

    Cars require a vast infrastructure to build and operate, but it can be dispersed in ways that horsefeed and water are not. Horses require a lot more care than pulling into the local self serve as well, so I suspect that horses will be as common in the New West as they were in the Old West.

    Modern day cowboys use pickup trucks and sometimes light aircraft, a possible sub-theme is cowboys stealing, bootlegging or possibly home brewing fuel/moonshine to keep vehicles running in preference to horses. You can carry more stuff in a F-250 than in a saddlebag, and are more comfortable as well.

  13. Yeah, I'd forgotten to mention expense up above but that's what I was gettng at for horse prevalence.

    It'd be interesting to compare agriculture needs for a horse vs biodiesel. My guess is that there will be a mix of animal and motor power with animals used where the supply chain is stretched thinnest. We know that 19th century tech works with horses even if the roads all go to hell.

  14. Seems to be zig zagging all over the place, but there will be lots of interesting things in an energy limited future. (Sadly for you, an even vaster oil bearing formation similar to the Bakken has been discovered in Siberia, and we all know how environmentally aware the Russians are...).

    So long as your focus is the New West, most of the tropes of classical Westerns will still apply. Louis L'Amour would feel quite comfortable and the Sacketts can ride again (in biofuelled pickup trucks, of course).

    The agricultural needs of horses and biodiesel need not be incompatable so long as the source of the biodiesel is not in competition with regular agriculture, the way corn ethanol has displaced a lot of the market for feed corn and sweet (human consumable) corn (or maize if you are European). Algae offers the promise of utilizing brackish or even grey/black water as feedstock, and ponds could be cultivated on otherwise unsuitable land. Bioreactors would fit inside barns or even "factory" buildings.

    Of course if the biodiesel or ethanol is produced in competition with conventional agriculture, then the classic battle between various factions over control of the land/water becomes the focus of the story (the Johnstone County range war is perhaps the most well known example, this time the UC Cavalry shows up with helicopter gunships!)

  15. Well, what happens in Russia won't really have much bearing on what happens in the States. Pretty much the formula I need is a) the US can't run a high energy culture in the continental west, either because the tech won't handle it or the politics are that screwed up AND b) no other nation in the world has the means and desire to credibly threaten us with power projection. So, for example, the Scandinavian countries could develop into clean energy utopias with robotic armies to secure their borders. If they have no interest in what happens in the western US, we're still cowboys and kalashnikovs there.

    I'd be curious about the capital investment required for biodiesel production. If I recall my Wild West economy properly, a house would be built with lumber locally-sourced, same with the furniture, but the metal hardware for the furniture, glass for the windows, various manufactured goods, that all came from back east. Horses were raised locally, leather tanned locally, but the metal to go with saddles and clothing again came from back east.

    I know in colonial times the same dynamics held for getting manufactured goods shipped all the way from Europe. It took a ridiculous amount of time to get domestic production for all the common goods required for civilized living.

    So, the point I'm poking around at is wondering what the farmer would be evaluating when choosing between horses and machinery. What are the trade-offs, how are the decisions different for someone right near the rail lines verses someone further out on the range? Would a big operator running a serious ranch mechanize while homesteaders aiming at sustenance and a few cash crops use animal power to save money? Could solar and battery tech become so efficient that a motorcycle is competitive with a horse? I know we could compute the theoretical maximum amount of solar energy captured in a day for a given size of panel and the energy requirements for moving a typical bike, then infer the required performance of the equipment to make it practical. How favorably would the cost and performance compare to a horse?

    It could well be that the people far out in the boonies are so cash-poor, they simply don't have anything to trade equal to the cost of machinery. Horses for transport, crossbows for hunting, guns and handloads for fighting. Salvaged metal is used to make the hardware for their leather gear.

  16. The Bazhenov Formation has potentially 126 trillion barrels of oil locked away inside, so if there is a way to get it out (using fracking and other modern techniques), then the world market will be flooded with cheap oil. Only politics stands in the way of a huge oil boom today in the United States, indeed the sticking points are:

    1, Inability to explore or drill on federal lands or the continental shelves
    2, Ditto for drilling in California
    3. inability to get pipeline projects approved to take oil to markets (Keystone XL would also bring Bakken formation crude from the Dakotas to market, along with Albertan heavy oil from the oil sands).
    4. Regulatory obstacles to building new refining capability.
    5. Political opposition to new drilling/exploration, especially in Blue states. NY has essentially banned fracking for natural gas from the same shale formations which are making nearby Pennsylvania rich...

    That aside, here are a few back of the envelope calculations for a solar/biodiesel future.

    1. It takes @ 1 acre to feed one human
    2. A horse eats 10X as much as a human, so needs 10 acres to feed. Without horse collars, a horse can do @ 10x the work of a single man, so slavery was competitive with animal power until horse collars became common (post Roman Empire).
    3. Solar flux in Earth orbit is @ 1300w/m^2. By the time you factor in diffusion in the atmosphere, clouds, day/night and provisions for storage you will need a panel @ 60m^2 to generate the same amount of energy at ground level
    4. Plants are actually very inefficient in converting solar energy into chemical energy; typically 1% of the energy is available for use (i.e sugars, starches or biodiesel esters). One acre/gal of fuel seems to be the current figure of merit (assuming a pond); bioreactors simply repackage the acre into a 3 dimensional shape. You can assume various work arounds, including genetically engineered algae or some other breakthrough to improve on this, but "Triffids" might have other dangers, especially if they can outcompete natural plants or algae in the environment.

    Like I said at the beginning, you will need to have some sort of "oil wars" scenario to take all this oil production out of the picture (even if oil drilling is banned in the US, they could still import lots of cheap Russian oil, simply because the Russians need to eat as well).

    1. Everything I've read about fracking indicates that it's environmentally devastating. I don't think we'll get a Feasters Below scenario in real life but it certainly poisons aquifers and can render the land unfit for human habitation.

      Oil wars do make sense as the weapons that are already built, operational and manned are deployed and put to use.

      At the end of those wars, the scenario I'm looking at is a partial collapse of civilization in many parts of the world. We forget how to make things, do things, or we lack the capital to make it happen. Maybe other people can but we can't.

      Britain used to be able to field the largest navy in the world and now is pretty much a second tier player. Yes, I understand some technology is difficult to research but I don't even think they could manage to build a decent WWII-vintage battleship at this point. Do they have coal? Yes. Do they have steel? Yes. Do they have the manpower, even if they might need training? Yes. Do they have the facilities, the tools and dies? They should. And whatever they don't have, they should be able to make.

      Finance is a big question. Military hardware is always expensive but it's gotten disproportionately so over the last decades. Yes, it's expensive to kit out an American GI but it was also expensive to do the same for a hoplite or legionnaire. Warships from galleys to 100 gun first rates to battleships and nuclear carriers have always been ruinously expensive. But we've had a string of botched weapons programs that beggar the imagination and the pocketbook. Are we trying to push too far with immature technology or are we simply feeding a corrupt military-industrial complex that's essentially a make-work program for heavy industries?

      It feels inexplicable looking in from the outside. It seems like we have the resources and manpower to do this and yet we fail. I can only suppose that the explanation lies within politics and organizational dynamics, a fancy way of saying "We shot ourselves in the foot for no good reason."

      How are the Chinese set for fracking deposits? The cattle scenario might really work well if they had good deposits, fracked the hell out of them for 50 years, ruined the farmland and have a high technology base but remain net importers of food. Pretty expensive to do that in a low-energy future. Or maybe they could have had a bio-reactor failure, genetically-engineered algae escaped into the wild, outcompeted the locals and began ruining the environment. They had to go to a scorched earth policy for containment which entailed sterilizing a large territory right down to the soil. Everything is dead and they're now slowly terraforming things back to normal.

  17. Adding a bit to the last:

    It actually took very little time for the United States to outstrip Europe as the industrial powerhouse of the world; the US was formed as a nation in the 1770's (and importing much of the goods and high end services from England at the time), by the 1870's the US led the world in production of coal, steel and agricultural produce (the then current ways of measuring industrial and economic power); Germany, France and England were all well advised to maintain good relations with Uncle Sam since he had the economic wherewithal to take on any one or even all three powers. (War being decided in the end by logistics; the US could then and can now use its economic might to field huge forces and keep them in the field to a greater extent than anyone else).

    1. That's one of the reasons why I'm including a lot internal dissension. Much of our military strength is directed at keeping things intact back on the home front.

  18. The current (since at least the 1960's) problem with weapons development and deployment is multifold.

    A lot has to do with internal politics, interservice rivalry over who gets what resources and higher scale political bickering over where the defense pie is going to be eaten. Think of the F-22 Raptor needing parts delivered from 44 States, and then multiply that by everything from spare bootlaces to spy satellites. the fact these items are mostly purchased in a closed market distorts price signals (that could alert the buyer of better opportunities) and also encourages cronyism (compare the number of defense contractors today with the number of contractors who could build and deliver equipment in WWII. The technology and modalities of warfare have also changed a lot, but it isn't actually clear what are the best means of prosecuting wars in the new age (even though the basics like the importance of logistics, economy of force and the selection and maintenance of the aim remain as constants).

    Fracking has not been shown to be any more or less disruptive than conventional drilling (the notorious pictures of burning tap water looked pretty spectacular until you discovered this was a stunt which was well known in that area since the 1930's or 40's. Natural gas unconstrained by tight shale had bubbled into the aquifer for centuries). It is more expensive and requires a much higher level of training to do well (you might end up fracking a formation without oil), so requires a certain level of demand and pricing to be competitive.

    The Chinese and Russians are very enthusiastic about fracking, the Chinese to avoid being dependent on outside suppliers and the Russians to generate hard currency sales. Even if everyone else banned fracking, they would continue to do so, for their own purposes.

    WRT the United States, having a large standing military force is actually an anomaly left over from the Cold War; historically the United States has disbanded large portions of their forces after wars (and may well do so now under budgetary pressures and in response to the very small scale of the current wars relative to the size and shape of American forces).