Grow Your Own — Part II: When Fossil Fuels Fail

I used to ask my students, “how would your life change if fossil fuels or even just oil ran out?” Most answers involve transportation, which makes sense because the only time many of us think about oil is when we fill up our cars. In fact, the biggest immediate disruptions would be to our clean water, sewage, and electrical systems, but over time, one of the biggest crises would be in our food system.

As we announced in yesterday’s post, as 2020 progresses, we will be running a simulation of the collapse of the fossil-fuel supply and how it affects our own food supply. Each month we will lose oil-dependent aspects of our household’s food. The most difficult part of planning this simulation is not determining what foods are dependent on fossil fuels — practically every purchased food is somehow grown, processed, or transported by oil-derived energy — but envisioning how a gradual collapse of the distribution infrastructure would take place. In other words, what parts of our industrial food system would fail first and what would persist?

Our simulation is based on an artificial timeline of events that might take place as the fossil-fuel-dependent infrastructure breaks down. We are not going to be specific about the cause of this disaster nor will we predict what governments will do. The basic facts are that a calamity has struck the worldwide fossil-fuel extraction industry and the economy must make do with whatever fuel we have on hand at that point. We will assume no governmental or other external organizations are able to change these basic facts and we must depend on ourselves for food.


Disaster has struck the fossil fuel industry. Early reports are of a systemic and complete shutdown of coal, natural gas, and oil extraction. These fuels account for 80 percent of US energy consumption (source). Fully 95 percent of our transportation energy comes from fossil fuels. At this point, it is not clear what the long-term effects will be.

  • For us, this means we begin planning to support ourselves by growing our own food.


The US has opened its strategic oil reserve, but it can only provide a quarter of the amount of petroleum we use in a typical day. Government gas is rationed and prices are fixed. Priority goes to vital infrastructure and emergency personnel. At this rate, the reserve will last 150 days (source).

  • This means that we must cut our gas use for food-related purposes down to one quarter of what we used before, be it trips to the grocery store or shipping of supplies. In a typical week, we stop at the grocery store twice (combined with other errands), and now we only have two trips available each month.


As fuel shortages proliferate, the economy and industrial agriculture are struck hard. Some farmers have gotten early crops in, but harvesting of fresh produce is suffering, as long-distance transportation for perishable foods has become too expensive.

  • We can no longer purchase fresh foods that rely on quick transportation (e.g., lettuce, tomatoes, asparagus, etc.)


Prices quadruple as private, unrationed petroleum becomes ever scarcer. Even moderately perishable foods are becoming difficult to find.

  • Our buying power for food is now cut in a quarter to simulate the rising prices as scarcity begins to become more palpable. We cannot buy food requiring refrigeration.


The supply chain has become so disrupted that only longer-term nonperishable foods are available: cans, dry staples, etc.

  • Gas is so expensive that we only have one food-related, gas-powered trip available to us this month. Only long-term nonperishables are available for our purchase.


Private gas prices are astronomical and the strategic oil reserve is empty by the end of this month.

  • Our car is essentially useless, and we must now use human-powered transport for food-related trips. Traditional sources of food (i.e., grocery stores) are largely empty. Locally available food might have to be sought out individually (i.e., we must ride to market gardens and other sources).


Grocery stores are largely empty and only 50 lb bags of staple, bulk foods are available.

  • If we are purchasing anything at this point, it must be the “bottom of the barrel,” meaning goods not usually sold as commercially available food. For example, 50-lb bags of wheat berries or food-grade unrolled oats instead of flour or quick oats.


By this time food is becoming difficult to purchase as people have begun to stockpile for the winter. Transportation infrastructure has essentially ground to a halt

  • We are now completely cut off from outside sources of food. We must rely on human-powered transport and production for all of our food stuffs.

At this point, this timeline is a draft and your comments and suggestions may be integrated to make it more realistic. It is not meant to be predictive or anything other than one of many different scenarios for the decline of fossil-fuel use.

Tomorrow we’ll outline the parameters (or “rules” if you like) of this experiment.

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