We are thrilled to welcome back Steven Konkoly, author of the runaway apocalyptic thriller The Jakarta Pandemic, to discuss the first book of his new project, The Perseid Collapse series. You may remember that we interviewed Steve last year about The Jakarta Pandemic and when we learned that there was a sequel in the works we were very excited and finally the wait is over.
The Fletchers are back in The Perseid Collapse and, I’ve got to say, we’ve missed them. Six years after the the Jakarta pandemic ravaged the life they had known Alex and Kate are pushing ahead into the new reality and are even sending their son Ryan off to college. How about you take it from there and tell us a little bit about the Fletchers and sort of set the stage for what’s going on in The Perseid Collapse?
The Fletchers are trying as much as they can to maintain a normal life. They live in the same home as they did in the first book. I struggled with whether they should stay in that house, whether there was too much bad juju in that neighborhood, a lot went down. They learned that bugging in like they did in The Jakarta Pandemic, although Maine is not as populated as some areas, in a relatively crowded neighborhood in a suburb was not a good idea then and it won’t be a good idea next time because the next time it’s going to be worse. Even if it’s the same or a lesser disaster, it’s going to end up being worse because the memories are fresh. The Fletchers made some money, or retained more money than everyone else, when everything was more or less wiped out after the Jakarta pandemic. So that’s kind of where the novel starts. Their son is on to college, they’re out on their sailboat, which is part of that normal life. They’re not afraid to go out, but they’re cautious. They have preparations. They have BOLT kits. They don’t live like most Americans, but they maintain the appearance that they do.
The Perseid Collapse opens up in China (something I certainly was not expecting) and once again it seems the Red Dragon is impacting the Fletchers world. Can you offer us a little insight into your motivation here?
I think it reflects more of my techno-thriller background that I’ve developed over the last four books in the Black Flagged series. I wanted to give readers a little more. Often times reading other books where you see an America that has been impacted by an EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse), there was never an explanation for what happened or even a hint of it….For me, I like to know a little more. So, I set up this international conspiracy based on the Chinese to get them back on the international scene and level things.
One of the things I noticed very early in the book is even though they’re the same people, no one that survived the Jakarta Pandemic escaped without being changed in some way. I noticed it in Kate first, but as the story moved along I saw the same thing in each of core characters and especially in Alex. Everyone seems to have a bit more edge to them and felt a bit grittier. Not in a bad way, but in a real way, and it seems like our group of survivors are more comfortable with themselves and with each other in their reality following the pandemic. Was this intentional and do you want to walk us through your thought process on how each member of the Durham Road group has come through their last six years?
In the first book of the Perseid, everyone has changed. They’ve retained a lot of their characteristics and their core values, but I think realism has really settled in. I thought it was most obvious in Alex, but I agree with you…and a number of other readers have said that they really liked seeing Kate and learning more about her and her mindset. Like you said, early on she establishes herself…not necessarily forcefully…but you know she’s a force to be reckoned with. She was always like that in the beginning. She was always the one that recommended doing the early shooting. She was kind of the more hard core proponent of violence in the first book. Now that’s kind of transferred over to Alex, but you can definitely see that shift.
This story gets downhill in a hurry and just picks up speed from there. A pandemic virus shook things up for the Fletchers last time around, so what is the disaster catalyst that kicks things off in The Perseid Collapse?
When I finally embraced the idea of bringing the Fletcher family (and friends) back for a follow-on series, I knew I had to GO BIG and construct a believable, yet overwhelmingly catastrophic event. The first part of the “event” is natural, something that would have wreaked havoc as a standalone event. Of course, that wasn’t good enough. An opportunistic foe seizes the opportunity to boost the effects of the disaster on the United States.
I’ve got to admit, I love Ed and Charlie. Several times throughout the story, I caught myself laughing out loud in my office in the wee hours of the morning and hoping I hadn’t woken my wife Alice up on the other side of the house. As the story gets started, what can you tell us about how the Walkers and Thorntons are doing?
Ed Walker and Charlie Thornton are like dueling banjos, providing a much needed comedy break at times. Of course, they also play a critical role in the story arch. Both families weathered the years following The Jakarta Pandemic, thanks to the confederation formed by the three families: Walkers, Thorntons and Fletchers. Charlie is his usual self, a little brash, full of conspiracy theories and bristling with gadget laden firearms. His loyalty to Ed and Alex has multiplied exponentially and really plays a major role in The Perseid Collapse. The Walkers remain the cautious and skeptical members of the group, but readers will see that Ed’s changed. With his daughter in the same predicament as Alex’s son…trapped in Boston…he starts to adopt Alex’s “come hell or high water” approach to solving problems.
Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the scenes immediately following the catalyst event were intensely powerful on every level. The stresses of survival just keep coming and we begin to see how once again the Fletcher’s world has changed in a matter of hours. This is also where we begin to see the layers of preparedness that Alex has made sure to build into every aspect of the Fletcher’s lives in the years following the pandemic. There’s so much to discuss here between the gear and their experiences, where would you like to begin?
Alex has definitely shaped their lives on nearly every level, while “trying” to maintain a mostly normal suburban life. Lake property serves the dual purpose of a Bug Out Location (BOL) and pleasant family getaway. BOLT bags (72 hours) taken on trips are modified for outings, in this case, sailing. He’s made some changes to their home situation, staging “grab and go” gear: 72-hour bags, equipment, ammo and food/water, in a room near their garage. This is a nod to some sage prepper advice and a frightening scenario. What if you had to leave your house in five minutes, for an indefinite period of time? Most of us would spend most of those five minutes trying to find a suitable bag to carry the gear you won’t have time to load up. Alex has some other surprises, but we’ll let readers discover these.
Unlike the scenario that played out in The Jakarta Pandemic, this time the Fletchers will not be able to ride out the crisis in the relative comfort and safety of their own home. They, along with their Durham Road cohorts, will be forced to move in The Perseid Collapse. Could you talk about your thought processes in this portion of the story?
The Jakarta Pandemic explored the concept of Bugging In, which if you’re prepared (like the Fletcher’s), can be a comfortable experience—minus all of the neighbors trying to break in to get your stuff and drifters from out of town breaking into houses. For Perseid, I wanted to put the Fletchers on the road. Granted, they have a “bug out location,” and a pretty nice one at that. Once they reach that compound, they’re back to a comfortable living. That wouldn’t be a lot of fun for either of us. There’s only so much trouble you can get into on a 35 mile trip. I knew it had to be harder, and reflect a realistic dilemma. With kids in college, the group would be forced to split up (due to circumstances explained in book) and multitask. Alex leads Ed and Charlie to Boston to recover the kids, while Kate takes the wives and teenage kids on a “bike trip” to their BOL. As a writer, this gives me two storylines to work with, and an opportunity to develop previously sidelined characters.
Obviously, the Fletchers have practiced a lifestyle of preparedness for years and they have been joined by most of the neighborhood in the years since the Jakarta Pandemic. However, the most often overlooked aspect to preparedness is the planning and training, or the “software”, of preparedness that must be in place ahead of the disaster. Without it all of those preparedness goodies that are locked away in the basement won’t do you any good. Ryan (Fletcher) and Chloe (Walker) were both in Boston, albeit different locations, when the disaster strikes. This fact is the reason behind the Durham Road Task Force’s plan to split the group. Without giving too much away too soon, what can you tell us about their situation? Did they have a plan to find each other? If so, did they develop the plans or did their parents figure it all out for them?
Book 2 starts out with a flashback scene that shows the reader Ryan’s experience at the very outset of the “event.” I don’t want to spoil it. You get a teaser in Book 1, but I don’t want to talk about that either, for fear of spoiling Book 1’s end. Sorry. I will say that Alex’s son, Ryan, has definitely paid attention to Alex’s “software” training over the past years.
The gear of preparedness and survival, or the “hardware”, plays a key role in this story. Part of that has to be a result of the lessons learned during the Jakarta Pandemic. Without getting too deep in the weeds, could you talk a little about how you crafted the Durham Clan’s load outs? How and why they chose the items they have chosen for their home stockpiles and for their personal “battle rattle”.
Like the load outs described in your Practical Tactical Handbook, you see a tiered development of their packs. For the Boston rescue strike team, you see two layers. First, they each bring a 72 hour pack, which stays in their vehicle. This is a last ditch, “the car isn’t an option anymore” preparation. They’re travelling over 150 miles away from the family BOL, so the 72 hour BOLT (see Practical Tactical Handbook) kit represents the supplies they need to make it back safely. For the trip into Boston, Alex takes a page from his Marine experience and has them all design an Assault Pack, which is modeled after the Practical Tactical Handbook’s Get Home Bag (GHB). A smaller, off the shelf commercial backpack, this pack is loaded with 24 hours of food and essential gear. For Alex’s group, ammunition and tactical gear replaces some of the items you would find in a civilian Get Home Bag. In Perseid 2, Alex modifies his layer one more time, stripping down to ammunition and communications gear, but you’ll have to dig into the story to learn what kind of a situation might dictate giving up everything but your personal defense and communications equipment.
I found Chapter 17 to be very powerful, a re-setting of the playing board, in a way. We see the Durham Clan as a hardened and determined group that’s forced to make tough decisions and is making them. We also learn that the Walkers and the Thorntons will be joining the Fletchers at the farmhouse, and that brings up an interesting topic. Retreat locations are just that, so how do you decide who you can trust to invite along when the SHTF? In this scenario these families have a history, but we have to imagine that would not be the norm. Do you have any thoughts on how a family that is preparedness minded might approach operational security with regards to a retreat location and who might be considered for invitation?
I’ll keep this one brief. The Fletcher’s have chosen to employ a simple Operational Security tenet to protect their retreat location. Limit knowledge to the few they implicitly trust. The Fletchers trust the Walkers and Thorntons based on previous experience. Their trust has been forged by the fires of conflict, but this can be easily substituted in the real world by common goals and a common commitment to working together…‘A loose federation of like minded families or friends that have demonstrated a willingness to be a part of an equal team.’
Now, we don’t have to spend too much time on it, but let’s get to one of the points I’m most excited about in this story. I know we will learn more about it in the second book in The Perseid Collapse series, but could you talk a little bit about the Fletcher family stronghold that Alex built in the aftermath of the Jakarta Pandemic?
Ah. I have nice map and a bunch of related schematics to help me visualize their compound. (I know Randy is chomping at the bit to learn more about the compound!) Twenty two acres (with about 2.4 acres cleared) on a sizeable pond with no neighbors to the left or right, but a full host of neighbors on the other side of the lake. The land was sold to them after the Jakarta Pandemic, by a family that had intended to preserve the land, but had been financially devastated in the wake of the pandemic. If you remember, the Fletchers invested heavily in gold prior to the pandemic and made out like bandits. They have a main house, barn, and ample garden space. The compound was designed for privacy, even in the winter months. The cleared space sits far enough back from the road to keep passers-by from spotting the house. Of course, they have an entrance road, but that’s constructed too with a minimalist approach. Alex has some surprises installed for security, but those won’t come into play until book 2. Two banks of solar panels (one on the barn, the other on the house) can power the house and barn if the electric is cut. One of the banks of panels is disconnected at all times, to prevent EMP damage, along with a second set of solar inverter/power generation equipment. Alex isn’t messing around.
The most important aspect of the compound, well beyond the gadgets (which are nice), is that the family has spent their time at the retreat divided between enjoyment and making it a livable, SHTF survival location. They all have significant work and effort invested in running the place during the “bearable months,” working in the vast garden and constantly improving the property. Alex’s parents live there year round, which is another significant advantage. The BOL stands ready to receive them 365 days a year.
Speaking of the retreat, the Fletchers built it for a couple of reasons. Clearly it’s called a retreat for a reason, but the location also serves as the new home for Alex parents and his brother’s children, who eventually moved to Maine. Alex parents now care for the children since their parents were both lost to the Jakarta Pandemic. So, someone is living at the location year round. If the Fletchers had to leave their home for some reason, the plan was to go to the Limerick location. That means there had to be a BOLT plan in place. My question regards this plan. There had to be a plan before the disaster, but I’m quite certain it was not for the family to split up or for them to be biking out to Limerick? What was going on in your head as you considered all the possibilities once the story tells us Plan A was out the window?
Even the Fletcher’s aren’t perfect. Like most of us, they’re just as guilty of the “we’ll get to it” mentality. They just dropped their son off at college, so a formal plan had not been developed…though you’ll catch snippets throughout the story that would lead you to believe that this has been rattling around Alex’s head for quite a while.
I mentioned before that we see an evolution to a grittier group of characters in Perseid. I found the interaction between the members of the two travel groups to be fascinating and real. Can you give us a little insight into how you put yourself inside the minds of our travelers and developed the back and forth between the group members during their journeys, including the emergence of some characters we might not expect?
In my experience, hardship forges the deepest bonds of friendship. The Marines (and I’m sure many other military units) had a saying, “the hotter the fire, the tougher the steel,” which captures the essence of this phenomenon. In The Perseid Collapse, Alex’s group has worked together before, well outside of the comfort zones, so they share a strong bond. They have vastly different personalities, which cause friction, but overall they know what to expect from each other…until now. The stakes are higher and the danger is more immediate in PC, so this dynamic is challenged right from the beginning. Alex and Ed have the exact same goals, reach Boston and rescue their children, but they approach the trek differently, based on their personalities and experiences. Alex is confident about his skills and cautious about the bigger picture. Meanwhile, Ed is impatient to reach Boston, but resistant to Alex’s more immediate solutions to their problems. I set out to show how these conflicts and differences can wear on the best of friends in a stressful situation. You’ll feel the tension between them as the challenges mount, almost to a painful level.
Kate’s group is a different story. The friendship between the women and teenagers is less defined in the beginning, but starts to solidify as their separate journey unfolds. Book One in the series spends more time following Alex, but the building blocks for the women’s tale are assembled, and the reader will see how their friendship grows tighter as the fires of the forge grow hotter. Book Two will showcase their newly forged bonds as they work together to defend their families from a sudden, unexpected threat.
Like much of the population that they will encounter along the way, the Durham Road families learned hard lessons during The Jakarta Pandemic. Gritty is a perfect description. You don’t want to get in their way…with bad intentions. In The Perseid Collapse’s post-apocalyptic world, any of the characters can fill the role of “Judge, jury and executioner” within the blink of an eye. Despite Alex’s more “Road Warrior” like tendencies in TPC, you’ll catch glimpses of the old Alex in the series. I just wrote a scene in book two that defines Alex. It’s a snap situation leaving him seconds to make a difficult choice. I had goose bumps writing it. It’s the ultimate, “What would you do?” situation.
With our groups being forced to relocate from Durham Road, it is clear they will be coming into contact with more people than the random refugees (even though they were a threat) encountered during the Jakarta Pandemic and that increases the opportunity for danger. These threats can come from individuals or from groups that band together like wolves after a disaster. If you can, give us your view of the civil unrest and the change in threat assessment that would certainly follow the catalyst event in Perseid?
I don’t believe it’s going to be the mutant, biker zombie gangs you see in some of the literature. Although, it’s not that crazy because you have the large groups out there and I’m not just talking about bikers. What’s to say that any kind of group that gathers and is close like an Eagles Organization, and some groups are closer than others, would not come together in a situation like this. I belong to Scarborough Fish and Game. It’s a shooting range where you shoot skeet and do all sorts things like archery. It’s a really nice place. I’ve always sort of envisioned that if something like this happened, I would imagine there’s a pretty tight group over there. Come something like this that clubhouse is going to start filling up with people with the same mindset and, for good or for bad, they would work together (probably for good because everyone over there is really awesome and really down to earth). But I’m thinking, where is the opposite group? Where are the people who are close that aren’t so good? Those people are the ones you’re going to have to watch out for because they’ll form gangs, they’ll form organized groups and it’s kind of like that ‘reign of terror’ thing.
There has been a lot of talk about militia groups in the preparedness world for years. We see both sides of the militia movement in this book, the good and the bad. What should we look out for as we discover how they fit into this story after the disaster?
My wife told me at the very beginning, “Whatever you do, don’t piss off the militia groups. There will be no bug out location we can hide because they’re already hiding in them.” In all fairness, the one militia group is kind of more of a gang. It doesn’t fit the standard definition. So, that’s what you’ll see. This guy that’s in charge of that, he’s clearly demonstrates himself to be psychotic and to have an agenda. He’s going to be a very charismatic character in book two and he already is kind of now, very good at manipulating a situation right on the spot. He’s got half of southern Maine believing that there is a special forces unit running amuck and he’s got a plan.
There are a number of militias here and I contacted one of the more, well established ones…and I tried to interview this guy and he clearly wasn’t biting. He’s an older gent, extremely suspicious. I tried explaining what I was doing and it was going nowhere. So I sent them an email and read a couple of articles describing their philosophies, and he described them as being kind of a back up to the National Guard. Informally, that’s how they view themselves. I liked that idea and I liked the concept and wanted to make it something a little more organized in the book. There’s a history. They used to fit the mold of what most American’s think of when you think of militia groups and I kind of wanted to show that that’s not the case, because it really isn’t. There are groups that are taking down abandoned buildings every weekend, they do that. That’s what there doing. They’re training themselves as a counter government force or whatever it is, but I think a lot of them, that’s not where their core and heart lies. So, I kind of want to mimic what I learned from him, but like I said they never got back in touch with me. They probably think I’m going to write a nasty, horrible book about them. Little do they know that I made the leader and the group a good group, they’re good guys and they’re out to help and diffuse the situation with that other group and that’s going to be coming into big play in book two and three.
Alex is going to learn a lot in book two from his interactions in Boston, his eyes are going to be opened to some wrongs and rights that are being done by the Marines, by these other groups. I allude to these criminal elements that are running amuck. Just to give you a hint, they’re not criminal elements. The criminal elements were there and they’re gone now and there’s a reason they’re gone. There’s a lot of misunderstanding, one group shooting at the other. The Marines are holding the bridges and no one knows how they got there within 24 hours. So, things that he sees in there will be shaped and that will help him in a major task and endeavor when he’s back in Maine. So, there’s a little foreshadowing while staying about as nebulous as I can get without giving anything away. I wanted to give the duality. Not to say that there are some horrible militia groups that are just murderous, that’s not the goal. I didn’t want that impression (that all militia are bad).
The finish to book one is thrilling to say the least and the final sentence is absolutely chilling. I know you’re currently working on book two in The Perseid Collapse series, so what can we look forward to in the next book? Do you have any teasers for us?
It will pick up with a flashback and then the story will pick right back up with Alex after he makes that statement and there’s more interaction with the students. He’s not just sliding out of the window on his way out of there. More occurs there. More stuff that kind of shapes how he’s thinking and shows his character. Kind of that character that he’s developed where he’s just not going to put up with the little guys being beat up. Like when he discovers the people being dragged off into the woods and all that. He’s kind of a little bit on a retribution…he’s a lot more about proactively doing the right thing as in taking it into his own hands and you’ll definitely see that in his interaction with the kids. I tell you, I’m having a blast writing it.
My goal is the story always. It’s kind of my worst case scenario, having a child away at college. It was hard to write that. When I’m writing I’m kind of in like a ‘just get the story down’ mind set. It’s when I stop and kind of really ruminate and think about the scenario that they’re in…I’m doing that, but…like that line, like you said, the ending line…it was just so natural to write that because it literally just hit me.
There’s no one coming.
I looked at the numbers and the incoming freshman class at Boston University is 20,000. You’ve got to figure maybe 5% of them, maybe, live within a reasonable walking, as in days, walking distance. You’ve got Maine, Massachusetts…New England is compact which is good…maybe give it 10% that could throw a couple water bottles together, grab a couple packs of Doritos and set out on their own and they may or may not make it back. They have that option, but there’s a lot that don’t. They don’t have an option even close to that. Like I said, I think the default would be to sit and wait. To think about parents, it’s powerful stuff. It really made me think. It kind of stopped me in my tracks reading it, you know writing it and reading it, I didn’t know it was coming.
I kind of in my mind, I had Alex going in there in a very business like manner. Shoot the door down, kick it in…son’s not here…I’m out of here. But I’m like, I can’t do that. These kids are all here. These are ALL HIS kids. He’s all amped up coming up, but when it all settles he looks at the picture (of Ryan) and it kind of all hits him. It just kind of came. That’s how writing works, stuff like that. I didn’t have a yellow sticky that said ‘Alex feels sorry for the students’ it just kind of happens. Stuff happens like that, I think, in writing. I would almost guarantee that 90% of the best parts I would consider being in the book are things that I did not write down or have planned ahead. They just kind of, they’re just part of the story.
Well Steve, you’ve certainly managed to pull us right to the edge of our seats with this book and have left us there as we wait for Book 2 in the series, The Perseid Collapse: Event Horizon. It sounds like we’re in for a wild ride the rest of the way and you’re right, I absolutely can’t wait to hear more about the Fletcher Compound!
On a personal note, I would like to thank you for giving us a chance to work with you and consult on this project. This past year has proven to be educational, exhilarating and a ton of fun and we look forward to an exciting ride as The Perseid Collapse series unfolds.
Remember everyone, you can reach Steve Konkoly via email at email@example.com and be sure to check out his blog, http://www.stevenkonkoly.com, where you can get a window into his world, find book reviews (apocalyptic, thriller, horror and some sci-fi) and keep up to date about his future projects. There’s something for everyone.
Finally, I want to encourage everyone to join in and keep the conversation going by asking your own questions of Steve (or me) in the comment section below and by sharing this talk on Facebook and Twitter (or your preferred social media platform) with everyone you know. Works like The Perseid Collapse force us to think and ask ourselves the pressing question, “Am I prepared for a major disaster or emergency situation?” The more people we can reach and hopefully help along their journey towards personal preparedness the better off we’ll all be in the long run.
Electromagnetic Pulse. EMP.
Do you know what it is? Do you know how it could impact you? Why should you care?
All of these questions and more are answered in this wonderful video that features a brilliant panel of experts on the subject that could bring about the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI). This 53 minute video could change your life. It is worth the time. Watch it. Your life, or the life of someone you love, could some day depend on what you will learn in it.
When folks ask us “Why should I prepare?” one of the every day, practical examples I offer is unexpected job loss, or injury / event that would prevent you from being able to work. Any event related to this or a similar situation would absolutely constitute a personal SHTF scenario.
Even if you believe you have no fear of losing your job, the events of this week in Washington D.C. reaffirm the fact that there are numerous ways your livelihood can be impacted by forces that are completely and totally beyond your control.
Thousands of workers across this vast country have been furloughed due to the government shut down and have absolutely no idea when they will be permitted to go back to work or when they will next receive a paycheck. I would be willing to bet you a dollar to a doughnut that most of those impacted are like many of their fellow Americans, living paycheck to paycheck with very little to no buffer between themselves and a financial crisis, and they are feeling the pinch.
With no indication the federal government will get it’s act together in the next couple of weeks, the next axe poised to fall is a default on our country’s debts. Just today the Treasury Department issued a dire warning stating that a government default could cause credit markets to freeze, the value of the Dollar to plummet and interest rates to skyrocket. This could have catastrophic ramifications for our nation and the world.
By taking basic steps to be more prepared such as having a few months food supply on hand and taking every step you can to get out of debt, you can create a buffer and buy yourself some time should you ever be impacted by events that are out of your control. If you were to lose your job or be furloughed for an unknown period of time, you would still have the ability to provide the basics for yourself and your family and allow yourself the flexibility to prioritize your now limited funds towards keeping the lights and water on and a roof over your family’s head.
This is a crazy world we live in and it is getting more and more unpredictable every day. Not only must we be prepared to deal with the known threats we face daily, we must also be ready to weather unforeseen storms when they darken our skies. These threats, known and unknown, are the reasons it is only prudent to take whatever steps we can to be ready should the need ever arise.
Neighbor. Friend. Threat?
So you’re into personal preparedness, you may even call yourself a prepper. You recognize that there are very real threats in this world in which we live and you have taken and are taking the steps that you deem necessary to help your family survive and make it through any disaster or emergency situation, short or long term. That’s fantastic. Keep up the good work.
What I want to discuss today is the potential threat that you may not have yet considered…your neighbors. The people you live next to every day for years, some of which you may know quite well, a few you may even count among your close friends.
You may think I’m totally off base for even bringing this up, but you might want to think again. Starting at the beginning, do you even know your neighbors? In today’s world, it seems that we don’t more often than not. If you do know them, do you consider them friends or are they more like acquaintances? If you do count them as friends, have you ever discussed your preparedness lifestyle with them? Do you know their level of preparedness? In a time of upheaval, this could prove to be a gaping hole in your security preparedness, a glaring weakness in your plan and it could quite possibly lead to failure of your primary mission: to keep you and your family safe.
Just because you’re squared away with your preps, that does not mean that all is well in your world, in your neighborhood or on your street. If your neighbors are not likewise squared away in their preparedness, you could very well end up becoming the target of the people that you have known for years and probably would never have suspected to act in a threatening way towards you or your family. Even if you have practiced air tight operational security (OPSEC) about your family’s preparedness plans, it won’t take more than a few days of your neighbors being in a stressful situation where they begin to run low on food and water for them to realize that you aren’t in the sinking boat with them and they will want to know why and expect you to help them out. Come on, I mean it is the neighborly thing to do, right?
There is a middle ground on this topic. You can pursue the level of preparedness that you feel is appropriate for your family and help your friends and neighbors become more educated about preparedness without compromising all your details and putting you and your family at risk (at least at any more risk than if you do nothing). Talk to your neighbors about local and national current events and figure out who is interested in learning more about how to prepare in case some threat comes closer to home. At the very least, this will you help you further detail your own preparedness plan because you will find out potential future threats should a disaster scenario unfold.
We like to think we know and understand our fellow man, but the truth is most of the general public do not. I would venture to say that most people do not even have a full understanding of how they will react should they find themselves in an emergency situation. The veneer of our polite society is very thin. We are polite because, as a nation, we are fat and happy. When we are not fat and happy anymore, we will not be so polite.
To drive the point home with a visual example I wanted to share this classic episode from the Twilight Zone, The Shelter. It is a cautionary tale that you may find a bit shocking, but it is in no way beyond the realm of possibility. Enjoy.
One of the offerings I have wanted to establish here on the blog that I am personally most excited about is the feature interview. It is my goal to bring you enlightening and enthralling interviews with some of the most interesting people out there from all corners of the preparedness world, providing in-depth conversations that I hope you will find to be both practical and personal.
For our first installment, we are very fortunate to be joined by the highly acclaimed Steven Konkoly, author of apocalyptic thrillers including the Black Flagged series and, the focus of this interview, The Jakarta Pandemic. Mr. Konkoly is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science in English Literature and a veteran, having served seven years with various Navy and Marine Corps units.
Welcome, Steve. First and foremost, thank you for your service.
Thank you, Randy. I really appreciate the opportunity to dig below the surface of my writing and expose some of the core ideas and concepts that help shape the stories. Regardless of what other authors may claim, writing is a personal endeavor, no matter how far fetched the plot or action may seem to the reader. There is always something deeply personal embedded in the writing, and the threads that wrap around these aspects often define the story’s core essence.
In your writings, there is no such thing as black and white. You deal in personal confliction and there are no easy answers. You have also said that your military experience figures heavily into your writings. With all that said, TJP brings all that together in a complex character and gives us Alex Fletcher.
Ten years out of the Marines, Alex has fully transitioned back into the private sector and seems to be doing quite well. Putting aside what I assume would be Alex’s tendency to be prepared due to his military experience, I would like to talk a little about what motivated Alex to focus on the threat of a pandemic and make preparations for his family. At the end of Chapter 5, we learn about a presentation that Alex did for his company Biosphere and the research that went into it. We learned that process “changed his life” in apparently more ways than just professionally. Can you talk about how this process impacted Alex and his decisions when it comes to his family’s preparedness?
When I started to conceptualize The Jakarta Pandemic, I wanted to highlight the difficulties of surviving a catastrophic level event in a suburban setting. The leading difficulty in my opinion would be dealing with everyone else’s varying degree of unpreparedness in the face of a complete lack of essential services. With that in mind, I wanted to start Alex in a position of self-sufficiency, and I chose this “presentation” as his catalyst to start preparing for a worst-case scenario. The conclusion Alex draws from his research reflects the culmination of my own examination of the scenario. In a nutshell, it’s not a matter of IF something like this will happen, it’s a matter of WHEN, and WHEN it happens, survival will depend on your basic level of preparedness and planning.
I’ve read that you raised your personal level of preparedness AFTER writing TJP. I was a bit shocked by that fact. One of my favorite parts of the book is when we get a first look at the Fletcher’s supplies as we join Alex for an inventory “the Frito supply” for the first time. You describe the Fletcher’s well rounded stockpile in some detail and even lay out a good plan for rotating food stores as if you had been doing it yourself for a long time. I particularly appreciated how you pointed out throughout the book that building a stockpile like the Fletcher’s is something that anyone can do if they make a plan and execute it in a practical way. Was family preparedness and establishing an emergency survival kit a chicken and egg type thing for you as you wrote the book? And, without divulging too much, how much did Alex teach you about being more prepared and what steps have you taken in your personal life to be better prepared for any future emergency?
Most people are shocked to learn that I never visited a prepper or survivalist website prior to finishing The Jakarta Pandemic. In many ways, I’m glad that I didn’t. I’m a details oriented writer, and despite the fact that the scene you described is exhaustively detailed, I would have driven myself insane trying to get the Fletcher’s “bunker” perfect. I put a considerable amount of thought into the contents of their survival stockpile, starting with the basics: Food, Water, and Medical Supplies…and expanding from there. And I certainly expanded far beyond the basics. Solar panels connected to battery storage, two oil tanks for storing fuel (this is a New England phenomena…most of you have natural gas or propane), wood burning stove (which I don’t think they ever used), generator, antibiotics (unethically obtained through Alex’s employer) and many other items that might come in handy if the shelves at your local Home Depot and grocery store emptied overnight. Imagine going cold turkey off Fritos…devastating. :0)
So to answer your question, I created this incredible stockpile or “bunker” in my novel, and didn’t have so much as three extra cans of vegetables in my own house to back up one of the main themes in my book. A few months after publishing the novel, I took Alex Fletcher’s advice and started to slowly build up a reserve of food and supplies, one shopping trip at a time. It’s truly amazing what you can amass in two years, when you take a systematic, consistent approach to stockpiling supplies. Does my basement now resemble Alex’s? Not even close, but I feel confident that my family could ride out a major disaster, without resorting to desperate measures. Of course, the same question always remains, regardless of how much you prepare…what is your neighbor doing to avoid resorting to desperate measures, and what is your plan to deal their desperation. This becomes a pinnacle issue for Alex, and his plan is woefully lacking in this author’s opinion…on purpose.
Most folks living a preparedness lifestyle understand that planning is paramount to the success of any emergency plan. This usually means having a plan to ride out an emergency situation at home, also known as sheltering in place or bugging in, and also having a plan to evacuate if the situation dictates, commonly referred to as bugging out. If the plan is to shelter in place, neighbors can become a real problem like we see in TJP. We don’t want to give the story away, but what are your thoughts on working with neighbors or building a survival team, given that the necessities of dealing with a pandemic primarily call for isolation? Makeshift alliances develop in TJP, but should Alex have developed relationships and built his team within the neighborhood well ahead of the pandemic since he viewed it as such a real threat?
This is hard to say. Unfortunately for Alex, his plan from the start was isolation, but he quickly learned that this wasn’t going to be a viable option. Without recognizing the need for a diplomacy based “crowd control” plan prior to the arrival of the pandemic virus, he really shortchanged himself and put his family in danger. With that said, none of us want to view our neighborhood as an episode of Survivor, where shifting alliances and secret plots undermine the ease of living and sense of relaxation we come to expect when we pull into the driveway. Alex had some core friends in the neighborhood, which came in handy as the conflict escalated, and he found a few surprise allies along the way. If anything, Alex could have been more open to dispelling a few stereotypes that hindered him in the beginning. I don’t write big moral lessons into my novels, but Alex’s character gave me the opportunity to point out a few negative behaviors that most of us can find in ourselves from time to time.
I believe I have read that your favorite scene in TJP is the neighborhood meeting. The part of this gathering that stood out to me was, with the exception of a small few, the neighbor’s almost outright denial that anything really bad or prolonged could ever actually happen. Their cognitive dissonance would not let them believe that the grid could go down or that there would be more than a short term disruption in food deliveries, even with a viable threat staring them in the face. What are your thoughts on this phenomena and just how prevalent it is within American society today?
Don’t get me started, Randy. Just take one look around and you can start to see the extent of the problem. We’ve become a society of instant information…everyone connected to smartphones, tablets, computers, blogs, websites…all downloading the latest opinions, news, and “facts” in real time. Few people put any discernable time into researching topics, simply accepting the latest New York Times or Wall Street Journal article as gospel, whichever suits their purpose. Conservative? Fox News will steer you in the right direction. Liberal? MSNBC never gets it wrong. We’ve polarized ourselves to think along the lines of convenience and convention, staying well within our comfort zones and dismissing information that doesn’t conform. This is not a new phenomena, but I think it’s compounded in our society today. I’m just as guilty as anyone (I use all of these newfangled technologies), but I’ve set some ground rules for myself, and the first rule is to dig deeper. I can find ten articles that say the next pandemic will be manageable, all of them one page summaries of the latest CDC or WHO assessment, but I’m far more interested in the twenty page, multi-source researched essay explaining the why the CDC and WHO pandemic models are based on unlikely scenarios and how they vastly underestimate the impact of the next deadly pandemic.
Complexity is a trademark of the characters in your works. To pay homage to that fact, I would like to look into what I call “the dichotomy of Kate”. Alex’s wife Kate doesn’t seem to like guns or Alex “playing commando”, but on the other hand she seems to constantly want him to shoot any threat to the family dead first and ask questions later. I know you have stated in the past that looking back on it, you can now see the need for characters like Kate’s to be rounded out a little more in TJP, so I would like to ask you to take all the space you need to help us understand where she’s coming from.
Like any woman, she’s complex and I can’t explain what she does or says with any regularity. Sound familiar? Just kidding, sort of. Kate’s gun dichotomy represents what I consider to be a prevalent attitude in society, which can be expanded far beyond guns. She’s not a big fan of firearms, but this isn’t a moral stand or some kind of a political statement. In my mind, it was more related to a general apathy toward firearms, which we see everywhere in society, even within firearms friendly families (I just made that term up by the way-FFF). It’s easier to lock them up and hide them, than it is to teach responsible firearms safety and respect. With young children in the house, Kate chose the easy path, instead of embracing the fact that firearms were intrinsically linked to her husband’s past and would always be a part of their life together. Of course, when her family was threatened, she was one of the first to encourage her husband to put them to use. Here is the dichotomy I was trying to expose in our society. In general, we don’t want to deal with the hassle and responsibility of guns (substitute “guns” for any number of other words), but when the SHTF, we have a sudden need for them. Rarely does this sudden need come with responsible or tempered use. I liked Kate’s character overall, and wished I could have explained her thought process more fully, but I had chosen to stick to a first person, single point of view for the story (Alex’s), and this made it extremely difficult round out any of the characters beyond Alex. The sequel to The Jakarta Pandemic will be written from multiple points of view, similar to my Black Flagged series, giving the reader a much deeper understanding of the key characters.
In Chapter 16, Alex and Kate have a discussion about what could happen if a sick friend or family member came to them looking for help. They also discussed the decisions they (the Fletchers) had made that would lead to such a dilemma. Those same decisions run counter to the original Fletcher survival plan and there is a real possibility that their real fears could become reality of their own making. This speaks directly to a couple of our main teaching points: 1) Craft a survival plan for your situation 2) OPSEC (operational security) cannot be overstated. In my mind, this powerful conversation could be a story by itself or at least a complete chapter. Although you make the point pretty well in the book, I was hoping you might expand your thoughts on never-ending web of problems that could arise in a scenario like the Fletchers explore in their conversation.
I chickened out writing TJP. I’ll admit this here for the first time. I had set the stage for a possible visit from any of several family members within striking distance, with the full intention of putting the Fletchers in the position of having to either refuse to take in a sick relative or subject them to quarantine procedures. This is a difficult topic for most of us to comprehend, and I decided to steer clear of it ultimately, leaving the discussion to stand on its own merits. I couldn’t imagine writing a scene turning “Grandpa” away because he was running a fever and coughing and the response I’d get from readers. The book is controversial enough, and I felt that I accomplished the goal of raising awareness by introducing the concept as an important part of a any survival plan, especially in the face of a contagious virus.
As for Operational Security? I’d say the Fletchers failed miserably, letting too many people know that they were stocked up and prepared. He may not have walked around with a banner announcing it, but the neighbors quickly put it together and he made matters worse by disclosing certain information and offering to share some very critical and hard to find supplies. In a limited disaster scenario like an earthquake, hurricane or tidal wave, this wouldn’t be such a problem, but Alex knew for a fact from his own research that a massive pandemic was different. The effects of deadly flu virus had the potential to crash the “system,” forcing the neighborhood to endure severe food shortages and limited access to essential services.
Given Alex’s military background and the fact that the Fletchers had been planning for a disaster like the Jakarta Pandemic for years, I was surprised that they had not ran a “practice weekend” disaster scenario to work out the kinks before actually having to implement their survival plan. Did I just miss that in the book because it was not specifically mentioned or is that something that was purposely omitted from the story line for impact?
You didn’t miss anything. Frankly, I didn’t think about it. If I had, I would likely have modeled my own family for the Fletcher’s “drill weekend,” and had it perpetually postponed. I have two emergency escape ladders on my second floor that have not been opened. I bought them with the full intention of running a drill out of one of the first floor windows, just so my kids could figure out how to attach them to the windowsill. We’ve been too busy. We’ve watched over two thousand hours of TV as a family since acquiring the ladders, but can’t find thirty minutes for a drill that could save lives. We always talk about a home invasion plan…how to react as a family, but we’ve never gone through the motions. You make a great point, Randy, and I think this could have been another opportunity to highlight an important aspect to any preparedness plan.
Let’s turn our focus to real world current events for a moment. The Jakarta Pandemic is set in 2013 and oddly enough, the world has already seen a couple of rather scary viral outbreaks this year with the novel coronavirus in the middle east that has shown an alarming death rate among those infected and the H7N9 avian flu that is currently spreading across, you guessed it, China. It seems you may have been onto something when you wrote TJP by setting it to take place in 2013! What are your thoughts on these ongoing situations and what should we be looking for as these stories develop?
I may be the only person on earth hoping that this avian flu thing takes off…book sales will be off the charts! Just kidding, sort of, until I get my basement squared away. As you can imagine, I like to track this kind of stuff, but I’d be lying if I told your readers that I predicted 2013 for the next deadly pandemic. Unfortunately, we don’t have the organization that I created for The Jakarta Pandemic to warn us when a pandemic is imminent. The International Scientific Pandemic Awareness Collaborative (ISPAC) was an entirely fictional entity, based on the needs identified by my research. Namely, an independent, nonpolitical agency focused on the early detection of potential pandemic threats and the relevant public education needed to prepare individuals and civil groups. Readers can set Google alerts or other news alerts to receive articles related to pandemic events or topics, using key phrases or words. You can also frequently review our own nation’s CDC website and navigate toward the bottom left corner to “OUTBREAKS.” I check this section every week or two to see what’s new in the world of infectious diseases. The WHO website (home page) contains a link at the top right, “Disease Outbreak News,” which accomplishes the same goal, but leads to a wide variety of articles and disease topics which can expand your knowledge of pandemic viruses. If you find a link to an emerging disease on one of these sites, you can add the name of the disease to your list of news alert subscriptions. By keeping a loose eye on these sites and your alerts, you’ll be in a strong position to detect an emerging threat before it “hits the news.” I don’t go crazy with this stuff, but if something catches my eye, I like to get the news first.
Like our name suggests, we believe in those things that provide the practical, tactical solutions for the everyday emergencies that can impact any of us like a bolt from the blue. TJP provides us with a practical outline for how to tackle the threat of a flu pandemic, but I was wondering if you had any other advice or information that you would like to leave our readers with before we go?
Practical is the key. Alex Fletcher’s set up in TJP was not a practical solution for most families. I did the math at one point and calculated that the cost of their home modifications and supplies ran well into the six-figure range. The supplies can be accrued slowly over time, but the big-ticket items will not be practical or reasonable for 99% of people. You can drive by my house and you won’t see solar panels on my roof. I spent that money on a sailboat so I can enjoy the Maine summers on Casco Bay. Priorities. My key advice is to develop and execute a basic plan for building a modest stockpile of food, medical supplies and water. Get your security situation in order and start expanding your preparedness knowledge. The rest will follow. There is no “one size” fits all solution to preparedness, because our needs vary, however, the themes are the same, and Randy’s blog is a great place to start. His focus on combining PRACTICAL advice with a TACTICAL outlook defines the survival mindset.
So, you’ve mentioned a sequel to TJP a couple of times during this interview and that is certainly welcome and exciting news for fans of the work like us. Is there anything you can tell us about what lies ahead for the Fletchers?
I’m looking at a sequel, but not in the traditional sense. The story will take place several years after the first and present the Fletchers with a unique set of challenges. TJP focused on the human challenges (even if you are uber-stockpiled) of hunkering down “in place.” For the sequel, I have created a unique set of circumstances that will force the Fletchers and likely send them in two different directions. Alex Fletcher has learned a lot during the five or six years since The Jakarta Pandemic, but what I have in store for the Fletchers will force him to improvise nearly every skill he has developed, and once again band together with friends. This will not be your typical “bug out” story, though some of the key aspects of “bugging out” will be explored and expanded…really expanded. In order to avoid treading well-worn ground in this genre, I plan to leverage the techno-thriller writing style/skills of my Black Flagged series with an apocalyptic event. The scenario I have in mind will leave the story open to a series. The initiating disaster scenario will be what I like to call a “realistic stretch,” but it sets the stage for a wild ride.
At Practical Tactical we’ve adopted the slogan, Semper Paratus. We are proponents of firearm ownership and believe in having the ability to exercise the “force option” if necessary. We are absolutely of the opinion that a well thought out and rigorously trained defense strategy be a part of any emergency plan. With that said, we also believe that you must be willing to take on the necessary level of responsibility that accompanies which ever method of self-defense you choose to employ. While we offer Barney-basic firearms training through Practical Tactical, we understand that may not be the choice for everyone and we absolutely respect that position. Each person or family must come to terms with what level of self-defense is appropriate for themselves and their situation. We only suggest that whatever method of defense is chosen, it must include the appropriate exposure and training to be effectively deployed when/if the time comes to use it. Do you have any thoughts on this topic, Steve?
This is sage advice, especially talking about what each person or family finds “appropriate for themselves and their situation,” followed by a commitment to effectively deploying the method. In terms of home defense, a good house alarm or dog would better serve some families than a firearm, especially if they are unwilling to regularly practice with the firearm. “One size fits all” does not apply to self-defense or preparedness.
I’m just as comfortable walking up to a firearms counter and handling weapons as I am picking out a loaf of bread for dinner. Actually, the bread gives me more stress, because everyone in my house likes different types of bread and I can never win. :0) Have you ever handed a “safed” firearm (slide back, chamber examined by both parties) to someone unfamiliar with firearms? They hold it like you just handed them your soiled underwear. You (Randy) have shared Practical Tactical’s approach to beginners, and it is all about demystifying and developing comfort with a method (in this case firearms). This applies across the board to every aspect of a solid, executable preparedness/survival plan.
One of the biggest criticisms (in reviews and emails) of TJP and Alex Fletcher’s character, is that he didn’t simply shoot first and ask questions in a pivotal scene. This decision clearly leads to a cascade of problems that not only affect Alex’s family, but the entire neighborhood. I’m being as vague as possible so I don’t spoil the story for potential readers. Everyone will know when this scene takes place, and most of you will be screaming at Alex…especially in light of what you know is coming later. Some reviewers have decried Alex’s behavior as “non-Marine,” and others claiming that his hesitancy to kill was out of character with his background. While his decision only delayed the inevitable lethal confrontation with these clearly “bad intentioned” people, it served a greater purpose, which I didn’t make immediately clear in the book…for a reason.
In my view, the most critical aspect of a preparedness/self-defense plan is never losing sight of the big picture and the ultimate goal. I love the controversy surrounding this scene, because it really drives this point home. Emotionally, even I wanted Alex to open fire on the crazies that had descended on his neighborhood. He knew they were bad news across the board. Was shooting them in the middle of the street really an option, like his wife and neighbor suggested? Sure. It would have immediately neutralized a likely threat to their safety, but what next? The police were still responding to calls (barely) and Alex had been questioned by the police for another incident involving firearms. Three men dead in the middle of the street. They hadn’t overtly threatened him or tried to break into his house. Clearly, they were up to no good, but how would the police react? Maybe the police would turn a blind eye, but what if they didn’t? Alex incarcerated during a deadly pandemic, leaving Kate to fend off the next group of lunatics that decide to prey on the neighborhood OR angry neighbors that know they are well stocked with food and supplies? House searched and all firearms confiscated, leaving Kate with nothing but kitchen knives for self-defense. This was one of the toughest decisions Alex had to make, but it wasn’t due to a lack of conviction or guts. His character served as a company commander in Iraq, where rules of engagement defined the big picture. I felt that his reaction to the situation was the best survival decision for his family, even if it did put off the inevitable.
Well at the end of the day, I believe that making “the best survival decision” for our families is all any of us can hope to do, Steve. Friends, I highly recommend The Jakarta Pandemic for anyone in the preparedness community looking for an exciting read that also provides some common sense steps anyone can take to be better prepared for an emergency. So pick a copy up soon, download the audio book from your favorite provider to listen to during a long commute or follow my lead and do both! I’m confident you will find it a fun, interesting and useful read. Steve, where else can our readers find you and your other works?
I’m pretty accessible, and unlike Stephen King, I still answer reader emails. Of course, I’m about 400 million readers away from matching Mr. King’s level of “busy,” so I can still take the time to respond and enjoy the best part of writing…interacting with readers. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and if I’m not in the throes of writing my latest work in progress, you’ll probably hear back from me the same day. I’d love to invite everyone to visit my blog, www.stevenkonkoly.com, where you can go behind the scenes of my writing, catch some book reviews (apocalyptic, thriller, horror and some sci-fi), enjoy some humor and get updates about my work in progress or future projects. There’s something for everyone.
Sounds great, Steve. I would like to thank you for taking the time to discuss The Jakarta Pandemic in depth with us! It has certainly been a pleasure.
Finally, I want to encourage everyone to join in and keep the conversation going by asking your own questions of Steve (or me) in the comment section below and by sharing this talk on Facebook and Twitter (or your preferred social media platform) with everyone you know. The more people we can reach and hopefully help along their journey towards personal preparedness the better off we’ll all be in the long run.
What are some of the things you might need in a long (or short) term disaster / emergency situation? To start, here’s a list of things you might want to get while the getting is good (in no particular order). This is by no means a fully comprehensive list and I have not tried to make it one. This is merely a list I’ve thrown together quickly that hits most of the high points that I hope will serve as a nice jumping off point for the preparedness novice. Feel free add your suggestions to this list in the comments or better yet, tweet me so we can talk about your ideas. Please share and help circulate this list with the hope that we might help someone along their preparedness journey!
Five gallon plastic buckets
Seasoned Firewood (6 – 12 months to become dried)
Lamp Oil, Wicks, Lamps (CLEAR)
Guns & Ammunition
Cleaning kits (for weapons)
Knives (fighting, hunting, utility)
Slingshots & ammunition
Hand egg beaters
White, brown sugar
Wheat (hard red)
Vegetable Oil (for cooking)
Charcoal & Lighter Fluid
Water Containers (food grade if for drinking)
Mini Heater head (Propane) (Without this item, propane won’t heat a room.)
Grain Grinder (Non-electric)
Large Propane Cylinders (grill cooking, other)
Hard copy resources: Build a Survival Library for reference (woodcraft, gardening techniques, first aid instruction, food procurement)
Hard copy resources: Build an entertainment library (to read for enjoyment)
Mantles: Aladdin, Coleman, etc.
Baby Supplies: Diapers/formula/ointments/aspirin, etc.
Camping stoves (Propane, Coleman & Kerosene)
Bar Soap (body/washing)
Propane Cylinder Handle-Holder
Feminine Hygiene/Haircare/Skin products
Thermal underwear (Tops & Bottoms)
Bow saws, axes and hatchets, Wedges (honing oil)
Basic construction tools….hammers, screw drivers
Aluminum Foil Reg. & Heavy Duty (Great Cooking and Barter Item)
Gasoline Containers (Plastic)
Garbage Bags – various sizes (Impossible To Have Too Many)
Toilet Paper (you can never have enough)
Medicated body powder
Milk – Powdered & Condensed
Heirloom Garden Seeds (Non-Hybrid)
Coleman’s Pump Repair Kit
Tuna Fish (in water)
Fire Extinguishers (alt: large box of Baking Soda in every room)
First aid kits
Batteries (Stadardize gear whenever possible, but obtain all sizes…buy furthest-out for Expiration Dates)
Baking supplies (pans)
Insulated ice chests
Durable pants and shirts
Fishing gear: poles, reels, line, hooks, floats, nets, etc.
Journals, Diaries & Scrapbooks (jot down ideas, feelings, experience; Historic Times)
Garbage cans – Plastic
Men’s Hygiene: Shampoo, Toothbrush/paste, Mouthwash/floss, nail clippers, etc.
Cast iron cookware (sturdy, efficient)
Mosquito coils/repellent, sprays/creams
Laundry Detergent (liquid)
Backpacks, Duffel Bags
Garden tools & supplies
Scissors, fabrics & sewing supplies
Canned Soups, stews, etc.
Bleach (plain, NOT scented)
Canning supplies (Jars/lids/wax)
Knives & Sharpening tools: files, stones, steel
Bicycles: Tires/tubes/pumps/chains, etc
Sleeping Bags & blankets/pillows/mats
Carbon Monoxide Alarm (battery powered)
Board Games, Cards, Dice
Rat poisons and Roach Killer
Mousetraps, Ant traps & cockroach magnets
Paper plates/cups/utensils (stock up, folks)
Baby wipes, oils, waterless & Antibacterial soap (saves a lot of water)
Rain gear, rubberized boots, etc.
Shaving supplies (razors & creams, talc, after shave)
Hand pumps & siphons (for water and for fuels)
Chocolate/Cocoa/Tang/Punch (water enhancers)
Woolen clothing, scarves/ear-muffs/mittens
Boy Scout Handbook
Roll-on Window Insulation Kit
Graham crackers, saltines, pretzels
Popcorn, Peanut Butter, Nuts
Underwear, T-shirts, etc.
Lumber (all types and sizes)
Wagons & carts
Cots & Inflatable mattress’s
Gloves: Work/warming/gardening, etc.
Nuts & bolts
Wine/Liquors (barter, medicinal, etc.)
Atomizers (for cooling/bathing)
Large zip ties
All purpose grease
Those facts, they are stubborn things. I wanted to republish this powerfully enlightening information that Professor Emeritus of Physics Al Bartlett has shared over 1600 times since 1969. I wanted to share this information because even though it has been “out there” for longer than I’ve been alive, I had never heard of Professor Bartlett or his talk on sustainability. The frightening part of that fact is that I never would have seen this application of the information if I had not been purposefully doing research and searching for it. This information was eye opening for me to say the least and that is saying something since I would like to think that my eyes have been wide open to such information for several years now. Professor Bartlett’s words have had a tremendous impact on my points of view over the last few months and I believe they will thunder through the coming years and generations as the inevitable reality he speaks of becomes our future history.
The work reproduced below is the copyright of Al Bartlett and we only share it in an effort to help spread the vital information contained within it.
Arithmetic, Population and Energy – a talk by Al Bartlett
It’s a great pleasure to be here, and to have a chance just to share with you some very simple ideas about the problems we’re facing. Some of these problems are local, some are national, some are global.
They’re all tied together. They’re tied together by arithmetic, and the arithmetic isn’t very difficult. What I hope to do is, I hope to be able to convince you that the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.
Well, you say, what’s the exponential function?
This is a mathematical function that you’d write down if you’re going to describe the size of anything that was growing steadily. If you had something growing 5% per year, you’d write the exponential function to show how large that growing quantity was, year after year. And so we’re talking about a situation where the time that’s required for the growing quantity to increase by a fixed fraction is a constant: 5% per year, the 5% is a fixed fraction, the “per year” is a fixed length of time. So that’s what we want to talk about: its just ordinary steady growth.
Well, if it takes a fixed length of time to grow 5%, it follows it takes a longer fixed length of time to grow 100%. That longer time’s called the doubling time and we need to know how you calculate the doubling time. It’s easy.
You just take the number 70, divide it by the percent growth per unit time and that gives you the doubling time. So our example of 5% per year, you divide the 5 into 70, you find that growing quantity will double in size every 14 years.
Well, you might ask, where did the 70 come from? The answer is that it’s approximately 100 multiplied by the natural logarithm of two. If you wanted the time to triple, you’d use the natural logarithm of three. So it’s all very logical. But you don’t have to remember where it came from, just remember 70.
I wish we could get every person to make this mental calculation every time we see a percent growth rate of anything in a news story. For example, if you saw a story that said things had been growing 7% per year for several recent years, you wouldn’t bat an eyelash. But when you see a headline that says crime has doubled in a decade, you say “My heavens, what’s happening?”
OK, what is happening? 7% growth per year: divide the seven into 70, the doubling time is ten years. But notice, if you want to write a headline to get people’s attention, you’d never write “Crime Growing 7% Per Year,” nobody would know what it means. Now, do you know what 7% means?
Let’s take an example, another example from Colorado. The cost of an all-day lift ticket to ski at Vail has been growing about 7% per year ever since Vail first opened in 1963. At that time you paid $5 for an all-day lift ticket. What’s the doubling time for 7% growth? Ten years. So what was the cost ten years later in 1973? (showing slides of rapidly increasing prices) Ten years later in 1983? Ten years later in 1993? What was it last year in 2003, and what do we have to look forward to? (shows “2003: $80; 2013: $160; 2023: $320; audience laughter)
This is what 7% means. Most people don’t have a clue. And how is Vail doing? They’re pretty much on schedule.
So let’s look at a generic graph of something that’s growing steadily. After one doubling time, the growing quantity is up to twice its initial size. Two doubling times, it’s up to four times its initial size. Then it goes to 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, in ten doubling times it’s a thousand times larger than when it started. You can see if you try to make a graph of that on ordinary graph paper, the graph’s gonna go right through the ceiling.
Now let me give you an example to show the enormous numbers you can get with just a modest number of doublings.
Legend has it that the game of chess was invented by a mathematician who worked for a king. The king was very pleased. He said, “I want to reward you.” The mathematician said “My needs are modest. Please take my new chess board and on the first square, place one grain of wheat. On the next square, double the one to make two. On the next square, double the two to make four. Just keep doubling till you’ve doubled for every square, that will be an adequate payment.” We can guess the king thought, “This foolish man. I was ready to give him a real reward; all he asked for was just a few grains of wheat.”
But let’s see what is involved in this. We know there are eight grains on the fourth square. I can get this number, eight, by multiplying three twos together. It’s 2x2x2, it’s one 2 less than the number of the square. Now that continues in each case. So on the last square, I’d find the number of grains by multiplying 63 twos together.
Now let’s look at the way the totals build up. When we add one grain on the first square, the total on the board is one. We add two grains, that makes a total of three. We put on four grains, now the total is seven. Seven is a grain less than eight, it’s a grain less than three twos multiplied together. Fifteen is a grain less than four twos multiplied together. That continues in each case, so when we’re done, the total number of grains will be one grain less than the number I get multiplying 64 twos together. My question is, how much wheat is that?
You know, would that be a nice pile here in the room? Would it fill the building? Would it cover the county to a depth of two meters? How much wheat are we talking about?
The answer is, it’s roughly 400 times the 1990 worldwide harvest of wheat. That could be more wheat than humans have harvested in the entire history of the earth. You say, “How did you get such a big number?” and the answer is, it was simple. We just started with one grain, but we let the number grow steadily till it had doubled a mere 63 times.
Now there’s something else that’s very important: the growth in any doubling time is greater than the total of all the preceding growth. For example, when I put eight grains on the 4th square, the eight is larger than the total of seven that were already there. I put 32 grains on the 6th square. The 32 is larger than the total of 31 that were already there. Every time the growing quantity doubles, it takes more than all you’d used in all the proceeding growth.
Well, let’s translate that into the energy crisis. Here’s an ad from the year 1975. It asks the question “Could America run out of electricity?” America depends on electricity. Our need for electricity actually doubles every 10 or 12 years. That’s an accurate reflection of a very long history of steady growth of the electric industry in this country, growth at a rate of around 7% per year, which gives you doubling every 10 years.
Now, with all that history of growth, they just expected the growth would go on, forever. Fortunately it stopped, not because anyone understood arithmetic, it stopped for other reasons. Well, let’s ask “What if?” Suppose the growth had continued? Then we would see here the thing we just saw with the chess board. In the ten years following the appearance of this ad, in that decade, the amount of electrical energy we would have consumed in this country would have been greater than the total of all of the electrical energy we had ever consumed in the entire proceeding history of the steady growth of that industry in this country.
Now, did you realise that anything as completely acceptable as 7% growth per year could give such an incredible consequence? That in just ten years you’d use more than the total of all that had been used in all the proceeding growth?
Well, that’s exactly what President Carter was referring to in his speech on energy. One of his statements was this: he said, “In each of those decades (1950s and 1960s) more oil was consumed than in all of mankind’s previous history.” By itself that’s a stunning statement.
Now you can understand it. The president was telling us the simple consequence of the arithmetic of 7% growth each year in world oil consumption, and that was the historic figure up until the 1970s.
There’s another beautiful consequence of this arithmetic. If you take 70 years as a period of time—and note that that’s roughly one human lifetime—then any percent growth continued steadily for 70 years gives you an overall increase by a factor that’s very easy to calculate. For example, 4% per year for 70 years, you find the factor by multiplying four twos together, it’s a factor of 16.
A few years ago, one of the newspapers of my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, quizzed the nine members of the Boulder City Council and asked them, “What rate of growth of Boulder’s population do you think it would be good to have in the coming years?” Well, the nine members of the Boulder City council gave answers ranging from a low of 1% per year. Now, that happens to match the present rate of growth of the population of the United States. We are not at zero population growth. Right now, the number of Americans increases every year by over three million people. No member of the council said Boulder should grow less rapidly than the United States is growing.
Now, the highest answer any council member gave was 5% per year. You know, I felt compelled, I had to write him a letter and say, “Did you know that 5% per year for just 70 … ” I can remember when 70 years used to seem like an awful long time, it just doesn’t seem so long now. (audience laughter). Well, that means Boulder’s population would increase by a factor of 32. That is, where today we have one overloaded sewer treatment plant, in 70 years, we’d need 32 overloaded sewer treatment plants.
Now did you realise that anything as completely all-American as 5% growth per year could give such an incredible consequence in such a modest period of time? Our city council people have zero understanding of this very simple arithmetic.
Well, a few years ago, I had a class of non-science students. We were interested in problems of science and society. We spent a lot of time learning to use semi-logarithmic graph paper. It’s printed in such a way that these equal intervals on the vertical scale each represent an increase by a factor of 10. So you go from one thousand to ten thousand to a hundred thousand, and the reason you use this special paper is that on this paper, a straight line represents steady growth.
Now, we worked a lot of examples. I said to the students, “Let’s talk about inflation, let’s talk about 7% per year.” It wasn’t this high when we did this, it’s been higher since then, fortunately it’s lower now. And I said to the students, as I can say to you, you have roughly sixty years life expectancy ahead of you. Let’s see what some common things will cost if we have 60 years of 7% annual inflation.
The students found that a 55-cent gallon of gasoline will cost $35.20; $2.50 for a movie will be $160; the $15 sack of groceries my mother used to buy for a dollar and a quarter, that will be $960; a $100 suit of clothes, $6,400; a $4000 automobile will cost a quarter of a million dollars; and a $45,000 home will cost nearly 3 million dollars.
Well, I gave the students these data (shows overhead). These came from a Blue Cross, Blue Shield ad. The ad appeared in Newsweek magazine and the ad gave these figures to show the cost escalation of gall bladder surgery in the years since 1950, when that surgery cost $361. I said, “Make a semi logarithmic plot, let’s see what’s happening.” The students found that the first four points lined up on a straight line whose slope indicated inflation of about 6% per year, but the fourth, fifth, and sixth were on a steeper line, almost 10% inflation per year. Well, then I said to the students, “Run that steeper line on out to the year 2000, let’s get an idea of what gall bladder surgery might cost,” and this was, 2000 was four years ago—the answer is $25,000. The lesson there is awfully clear: if you’re thinking about gall bladder surgery, do it now. (audience laughter)
In the summer of 1986, the news reports indicated that the world population had reached the number of five billion people growing at the rate of 1.7% per year. Well, your reaction to 1.7% might be to say “Well, that’s so small, nothing bad could ever happen at 1.7% per year.” So you calculate the doubling time, you find it’s only 41 years. Now, that was back in 1986; more recently in 1999, we read that the world population had grown from five billion to six billion . The good news is that the growth rate had dropped from 1.7% to 1.3% per year. The bad news is that in spite of the drop in the growth rate, the world population today is increasing by about 75 million additional people every year.
Now, if this current modest 1.3% per year could continue, the world population would grow to a density of one person per square meter on the dry land surface of the earth in just 780 years, and the mass of people would equal the mass of the earth in just 2400 years. Well, we can smile at those, we know they couldn’t happen. This one make for a cute cartoon; the caption says, “Excuse me sir, but I am prepared to make you a rather attractive offer for your square.”
There’s a very profound lesson in that cartoon. The lesson is that zero population growth is going to happen. Now, we can debate whether we like zero population growth or don’t like it, it’s going to happen. Whether we debate it or not, whether we like it or not, it’s absolutely certain. People could never live at that density on the dry land surface of the earth. Therefore, today’s high birth rates will drop; today’s low death rates will rise till they have exactly the same numerical value. That will certainly be in a time short compared to 780 years. So maybe you’re wondering then, what options are available if we wanted to address the problem.
In the left hand column, I’ve listed some of those things that we should encourage if we want to raise the rate of growth of population and in so doing, make the problem worse. Just look at the list. Everything in the list is as sacred as motherhood. There’s immigration, medicine, public health, sanitation. These are all devoted to the humane goals of lowering the death rate and that’s very important to me, if it’s my death they’re lowering. But then I’ve got to realise that anything that just lowers the death rate makes the population problem worse.
There’s peace, law and order; scientific agriculture has lowered the death rate due to famine—that just makes the population problem worse. It’s widely reported that the 55 mph speed limit saved thousands of lives—that just makes the population problem worse. Clean air makes it worse.
Now, in this column are some of the things we should encourage if we want to lower the rate of growth of population and in so doing, help solve the population problem. Well, there’s abstention, contraception, abortion, small families, stop immigration, disease, war, murder, famine, accidents. Now, smoking clearly raises the death rate; well, that helps solve the problem.
Remember our conclusion from the cartoon of one person per square meter; we concluded that zero population growth is going to happen. Let’s state that conclusion in other terms and say it’s obvious nature is going to choose from the right hand list and we don’t have to do anything—except be prepared to live with whatever nature chooses from that right hand list. Or we can exercise the one option that’s open to us, and that option is to choose first from the right hand list. We gotta find something here we can go out and campaign for. Anyone here for promoting disease? (audience laughter)
We now have the capability of incredible war; would you like more murder, more famine, more accidents? Well, here we can see the human dilemma—everything we regard as good makes the population problem worse, everything we regard as bad helps solve the problem. There is a dilemma if ever there was one.
The one remaining question is education: does it go in the left hand column or the right hand column? I’d have to say thus far in this country it’s been in the left hand column—it’s done very little to reduce ignorance of the problem.
So where do we start? Well, let’s start in Boulder, Colorado. Here’s my home town. There’s the 1950 census figure, 1960, 1970—in that period of twenty years, the average growth rate of Boulder’s population was 6% per year. With big efforts, we’ve been able to slow the growth somewhat. There’s the 2000 census figure. I’d like to ask people: let’s start with that 2000 figure, go another 70 years—one human life time—and ask: what rate of growth would we need in Boulder’s population in the next 70 years so that at the end of 70 years, the population of Boulder would equal today’s population of your choice of major American cities?
Boulder in 70 years could be as big as Boston is today if we just grew 2.58% per year. Now, if we thought Detroit was a better model, we’ll have to shoot for 31?4% per year. Remember the historic figure on the preceding slide, 6% per year? If that could continue for one lifetime, the population of Boulder would be larger than the population of Los Angeles. Well, I’ll just tell you, you couldn’t put the population of Los Angles in the Boulder valley. Therefore it’s obvious, Boulder’s population growth is going to stop and the only question is, will we be able to stop it while there is still some open space, or will we wait until it’s wall-to-wall people and we’re all choking to death?
Now, every once in a while somebody says to me, “But you know, a bigger city might be a better city,” and I have to say, “Wait a minute, we’ve done that experiment!” We don’t need to wonder what will be the effect of growth on Boulder because Boulder tomorrow can be seen in Los Angeles today. And for the price of an airplane ticket, we can step 70 years into the future and see exactly what it’s like. What is it like? There’s an interesting headline from Los Angeles. (“…carcinogens in air…”) Maybe that has something to do with this headline from Los Angeles. (“Smog kills 1,600 annually…”)
So how are we doing in Colorado? Well, we’re the growth capital of the USA and proud of it. The Rocky Mountain News tells us to expect another million people in the Front Range in the next 20 years, and what are the consequences of all this? (“Denver’s traffic…3rd worst in US…”) These are totally predictable, there are no surprises here, we know exactly what happens when you crowd more people into an area.
Well, as you can imagine, growth control is very controversial, and I treasure the letter from which these quotations are taken. Now, this letter was written to me by a leading citizen of our community. He’s a leading proponent of “controlled growth.” “Controlled growth” just means “growth.” This man writes, “I take no exception to your arguments regarding exponential growth.” “I don’t believe the exponential argument is valid at the local level.”
So you see, arithmetic doesn’t hold in Boulder. (audience laughs) I have to admit, that man has a degree from the University of Colorado. It’s not a degree in mathematics, in science, or in engineering. All right, let’s look now at what happens when we have this kind of steady growth in a finite environment.
Bacteria grow by doubling. One bacterium divides to become two, the two divide to become 4, the 4 become 8, 16 and so on. Suppose we had bacteria that doubled in number this way every minute. Suppose we put one of these bacteria into an empty bottle at 11:00 in the morning, and then observe that the bottle is full at 12:00 noon. There’s our case of just ordinary steady growth: it has a doubling time of one minute, it’s in the finite environment of one bottle.
I want to ask you three questions. Number one: at what time was the bottle half full? Well, would you believe 11:59, one minute before 12:00? Because they double in number every minute.
And the second question: if you were an average bacterium in that bottle, at what time would you first realise you were running of space? Well, let’s just look at the last minutes in the bottle. At 12:00 noon, it’s full; one minute before, it’s half full; 2 minutes before, it’s a quarter full; then an 1?8th; then a 1?16th. Let me ask you, at 5 minutes before 12:00, when the bottle is only 3% full and is 97% open space just yearning for development, how many of you would realise there’s a problem?
Now, in the ongoing controversy over growth in Boulder, someone wrote to the newspaper some years ago and said “Look, there’s no problem with population growth in Boulder, because,” the writer said, “we have fifteen times as much open space as we’ve already used.” So let me ask you, what time was it in Boulder when the open space was fifteen times the amount of space we’d already used? The answer is, it was four minutes before 12:00 in Boulder Valley. Well, suppose that at 2 minutes before 12:00, some of the bacteria realise they’re running out of space, so they launch a great search for new bottles. They search offshore on the outer continental shelf and in the overthrust belt and in the Arctic, and they find three new bottles. Now that’s an incredible discovery, that’s three times the total amount of resource they ever knew about before. They now have four bottles, before their discovery, there was only one. Now surely this will give them a sustainable society, won’t it?
You know what the third question is: how long can the growth continue as a result of this magnificent discovery? Well, look at the score: at 12:00 noon, one bottle is filled, there are three to go; 12:01, two bottles are filled, there are two to go; and at 12:02, all four are filled and that’s the end of the line.
Now, you don’t need any more arithmetic than this to evaluate the absolutely contradictory statements that we’ve all heard and read from experts who tell us in one breath we can go on increasing our rates of consumption of fossil fuels, in the next breath they say “Don’t worry, we will always be able to make the discoveries of new resources that we need to meet the requirements of that growth.”
Well, a few years ago in Washington, our energy secretary observed that in the energy crisis, “we have a classic case of exponential growth against a finite source.” So let’s look now at some of these finite sources. We turn to the work of the late Dr. M. King Hubbert. He’s plotted here a semi-logarithmic graph of world oil production. You can see the lines have been approximately straight for about 100 years, clear up here to 1970, average growth rate very close to 7% per year. So it’s logical to ask, well, how much longer could that 7% growth continue? That’s answered by the numbers in this table (shows slide). The numbers in the top line tell us that in the year 1973, world oil production was 20 billion barrels; the total production in all of history, 300 billion; the remaining reserves, 1700 billion.
Now, those are data. The rest of this table is just calculated out assuming the historic 7% growth continued in the years following 1973 exactly as it had been for the proceeding 100 years.
Now, in fact the growth stopped; it stopped because OPEC raised their oil prices. So we’re asking here, what if? Suppose we just decided to stay on that 7% growth curve? Let’s go back to 1981. By 1981 on the 7% curve, the total usage in all of history would add up to 500 billion barrels; the remaining reserves, 1500 billion. At that point, the remaining reserves are three times the total of everything we’d used in all of history. That’s an enormous reserve, but what time is it when the remaining reserve is three times the total of all you’ve used in all of history? The answer is, it’s two minutes before 12:00.
We know for 7% growth, the doubling time is 10 years. We go from 1981 to 1991. By 1991 on the 7% curve, the total usage in all of history would add up to 1000 billion barrels; there would be 1000 billion left. At that point, the remaining oil would be equal in quantity to the total of everything we’d used in the entire history of the oil industry on this earth, 130 years of oil consumption. You’d say, “That’s an enormous reserve.” But what time is it when the remaining reserve is equal to all you’ve used in all of history? And the answer is, it’s one minute before 12:00. So we go one more decade to the turn of the century—that’s like right now—that’s when 7% would finish using up the oil reserves of the earth.
So let’s look at this in a very nice graphical way. Suppose the area of this tiny rectangle represents all the oil we used on this earth before 1940; then in the decade of the 40s, we used this much (uncovering part of chart): that’s equal to all that had been used in all of history. In the decade of the 50s, we used this much (uncovering more of chart) : that’s equal to all that had been used in all of history. In the decade of the 60s, we used this much (uncovering more of chart): again that’s equal to the total of all the proceeding usage. Here we see graphically what President Carter told us. Now, if that 7% growth had continued through the 70s. 80s, and 90s, there’s what we’d need (uncovering rest of chart) . But that’s all the oil there is.
Now, there’s a widely held belief that if you throw enough money at holes in the ground, oil is sure to come up. Well, there will be discoveries in new oil; there may be major discoveries. But look: we would have to discover this much new oil if we would have that 7% growth continue ten more years. Ask yourself: what do you think is the chance that oil discovered after the close of our meeting today will be in an amount equal to the total of all we’ve known about in all of history? And then realise if all that new oil could be found, that would be sufficient to let the historic 7% growth continue ten more years.
Well, it’s interesting to see what the experts say. Here’s from an interview in Time magazine, an interview with one of the most widely quoted oil experts in all of Texas. They asked him, “But haven’t many of our bigger fields been drilled nearly dry?” And he responds, saying “There’s still as much oil to be found in the US as has ever been produced.” Now, lets assume he’s right. What time is it? And the answer: one minute before 12:00. I’ve read several things this guy’s written; I don’t think he has any understanding of this very simple arithmetic.
Well, in the energy crisis about thirty years ago, we saw ads such as this (shows slide). This is from the American Electric Power Company. It’s a bit reassuring, sort of saying, now, don’t worry too much, because “we’re sitting on half of the world’s known supply of coal, enough for over 500 years.” Well, where did that “500 year” figure come from? It may have had its origin in this report to the committee on Interior and Insular Affairs of the United States Senate, because in that report we find this sentence: “At current levels of output and recovery, these American coal reserves can be expected to last more than 500 years.”
There is one of the most dangerous statements in the literature. It’s dangerous because it’s true. It isn’t the truth that makes it dangerous, the danger lies in the fact that people take the sentence apart: they just say coal will last 500 years. They forget the caveat with which the sentence started. Now, what were those opening words? “At current levels.” What does that mean? That means if—and only if—we maintain zero growth of coal production.
So let’s look at a few numbers. We go to the Annual Energy Review, published by the Department of Energy. They give this (pointing) as the coal demonstrated reserve base in the United States. It has a footnote that says “about half the demonstrated reserve base… is estimated to be recoverable.” You cannot recover —get out of the ground and use—100% of the coal that’s there. So this number then, is ½of this number (pointing). We’ll come back to those in just a moment. The report also tells us that in 1971, we were mining coal at this rate, twenty years later at this rate (pointing). Put those numbers together, the average growth rate of coal production in that twenty years: 2.86% per year. And so we have to ask, well, how long would a resource last if you have steady growth in the rate of consumption until the last bit of it is used?
I’ll show you the equation here for the expiration time. I’ll tell you it takes first year college calculus to derive that equation, so it can’t be very difficult. You know, I have a feeling there must be dozens of people in this country who’ve had first year college calculus, but let me suggest, I think that equation is probably the best-kept scientific secret of the century!
Now, let me show you why. If you use that equation to calculate the life expectancy of the reserve base, or of the 1?2 they think is recoverable, for different steady rates of growth, you find if the growth rate is zero, the small estimate would go about 240 years and the large one would go close to 500 years. So that report to the Congress was correct. But look what we get if we plug in steady growth. Back in the 1960s, it was our national goal to achieve growth of coal production up around 8% per year. If you could achieve that and continue it, coal would last between 37 and 46 years. President Carter cut that goal roughly in half, hoping to reach 4% per year. If that could continue, coal would last between 59 and 75 years. Here’s that 2.86%, the average for the recent period of twenty years. If that could continue, coal would last between 72 and 94 years. That’s within the life expectancy of children born today.
The only way you are going to get anywhere near this widely quoted 500 year figure, is to be able to do simultaneously two highly improbable things: number one, you’ve got to figure out how to use 100% of the coal that is in the ground; number two, you’ve got to figure out how to have 500 years of zero growth of coal production. Look at those figures: those are facts.
Back in the 1970s, there was great national concern about energy. But these concerns disappeared in the 80s. Now, the concerns about energy in the 70s prompted experts, journalists, and scientists to assure the American people that there was no reason to be concerned. So let’s go back now and look at some of those assurances from the 70s so we can see what to expect now that the energy crisis is returning.
Here is the director of the energy division of the Oakridge National Laboratories telling us how expensive it is to import oil, telling us we must have big increases (and) rapid growth in our use of coal. Under these conditions, he estimates, America’s coal reserves are so huge they can last “a minimum of 300 years, probably a maximum of 1000 years.” You’ve just seen the facts, now you see what an expert tells us, and what can you conclude?
There was a three-hour television special on CBS on energy. The reporter said, “By the lowest estimate, we have enough (coal) for 200 years, by the highest, enough for more than 1000 years.” You’ve just seen the facts, now you can see what a journalist tells us after careful study, and what can you conclude?
In the Journal of Chemical Education, on the page for high school chemistry teachers in an article by the scientific staff of the journal, they tell us our proven coal reserves are “enormous” and they give a figure: “these could satisfy present US energy needs for nearly 1000 years.” Well, let’s do long division. You take the coal they say is there, divide by what was then the current rate of consumption, you get 180 years. Now they didn’t say “current rate of consumption,” they said “present US energy needs.” Coal today supplies about 1?5, about 20% of the energy we use in this country, so if you’d like to calculate how long this quantity of coal could satisfy present US energy needs, you have to multiply this denominator by five. When you do that you get 36 years. They said nearly 1000 years.
Newsweek magazine, in a cover story on energy, said that at present rates of consumption, we have enough coal for 666.5 years—the point 5 means they think it’ll run out in July instead of January. (audience laughter) If you round that off, and say roughly 600 years, that’s close enough to 500 to lie within the uncertainty of our knowledge of the size of the resource. So with that observation, that’s a reasonable statement; but what this lead into was a story about how we have to have major rapid growth in coal consumption. Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? If you have the growth that they’re writing about, it won’t last as long as they said it would last with zero growth. They never mentioned this. I wrote them a long letter, told them I thought it was a serious misrepresentation to give the readers the feeling we can have all this growth that they were writing about and still have coal around for 600 years. I got back a nice form letter; it had nothing to do with what I’d tried to explain to them.
I gave this talk at a high school in Omaha, and after the talk, the high school physics teacher came to me, and he had a booklet. He said, “Have you seen this?” and I hadn’t seen it; he said, “Look at this: ‘We’ve got coal coming out of our ears.’” As reported by Forbes magazine (that’s a prominent business magazine), the United States has 437 billion tons of coal reserves. That’s a good number; this is equivalent to a lot of BTUs or it’s “enough energy to keep 100 million large generating plants going for the next 800 years or so…” And the teacher said to me, “How can that be true? That’s one large electric generating plant for every two people in the United States!” I said, “Of course it can’t be true, it’s absolute nonsense. Let’s do long division to see how crazy it is.” So you take the coal they say is there, divide by what was then the current rate of consumption, you find you couldn’t keep that up for 800 years and we hardly at that time had 500 large electric plants—they said it would be good for a 100 million such plants.
Time magazine tells us that “beneath the pit heads of Appalachia and the Ohio Valley, and under the sprawling strip mines of the west, lie coal seams rich enough to meet the country’s power needs for centuries, no matter how much energy consumption may grow.” So I give you a very fundamental observation: don’t believe any prediction of the life expectancy of a non-renewable resource until you have confirmed the prediction by repeating the calculation. As a corollary, we have to note that the more optimistic the prediction, the greater is the probability that it’s based on faulty arithmetic or on no arithmetic at all.
Again from Time magazine: “Energy industries agree that to achieve some form of energy self- sufficiency, the US must mine all the coal that it can.” Now think about that for just a moment. Let me paraphrase it: the more rapidly we consume our resources, the more self-sufficient we’ll be. Isn’t that what it says?
David Brower called this the policy of “strength through exhaustion.” Here’s an example of strength through exhaustion: here is William Simon, energy advisor to the president of the United States. Simon says, “We should be trying to get as many holes drilled as possible to get the proven oil reserves.” The more rapidly we can get the last of that oil up out of the ground and finish using it, the better off we’ll be.
So let’s look at Dr Hubbert’s graph for the lower 48 states in oil production, again it’s semi-logarithmic. Here we have a straight line section of steady growth, but for quite a while now, production has fallen below the growth curve, while our demand continued on up this growth curve until the 1970s. It’s obvious the difference between the two curves has to be made up with imports. And it was in early 1995 that we read that the year 1994 was the first year in our nation’s history in which we had to import more oil than we were able to get out of our own ground.
Well, maybe you’re wondering, does it make any sense to imagine that we can have steady growth in the rate of consumption of a resource till the last bit of it was used, then the rate of consumption would plunge abruptly to zero? I say no, that doesn’t make sense. Okay, you say, why bother us with the calculation of this expiration time? My answer is this: every segment of our society, our business leaders, government leaders, political leaders, at the local level, state level, national level—every one aspires to maintain a society in which all measures of material consumption continue to grow steadily, year after year after year, world without end.
Since that’s so central to every thing we do, we ought to know where it would lead. On the other hand, we should recognise there’s a better model and again we turn to the work of the late Dr Hubbert. He’s plotted the rate of consumption of resources that have already expired; he finds yes, there is an early period of steady growth in the rate of consumption. But then the rate goes through a maximum and comes back down in a nice symmetric bell-shaped curve. Now, when he did this, some years ago, and fitted it to the oil production in the US, he found at that time we were right there (pointing). We were at the peak; we were halfway through the resource. That’s exactly what that Texas expert said that I quoted a minute ago.
Now, let’s see what it means. It means that from now on, domestic oil production can only go downhill, and it’s downhill all the rest of the way, and it doesn’t matter what they say inside the beltway in Washington DC.
Now, it means we can work hard and put some bumps on the downhill side of the curve; you’ll see there are bumps on the uphill side. The debate is heating up over drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. I’ve seen the estimate that they might find 3.2 billion barrels of oil up there. 3.2 billion is the area of that little tiny square (pointing); that’s less than one year’s consumption in the United States. So let’s look at the curve in this way: the area under the total curve, that represents the total resource in the United States. It’s been divided into three parts: here is the oil we’ve taken from the ground (pointing): we’ve used it, it’s gone. This vertical shaded band, that’s the oil we’ve drilled into: we’ve found it, we’re pumping it today. Shaded in green on the right is the undiscovered oil. We have very good ways now of estimating how much oil remains undiscovered. This is the oil we’ve got to find if we’re going to make it down the curve on schedule.
Now every once in a while somebody says to me, “But you know, a hundred years ago, somebody did a calculation and predicted the US would be out of oil in 25 years.” The calculation must’ve been wrong; therefore, of course, all calculations are wrong. Let’s understand what they did. One hundred years ago, this band of discovered oil was over in here somewhere (points to beginning of curve). All they did was to take the discovered oil, divide it by how rapidly it was being used, and came up with 25 years. They had no idea then how much oil was undiscovered. Well, it’s obvious; you’ve got to make a new calculation every time you make a new discovery. We’re not asking today how long will the discovered oil last, we’re asking about the discovered and the undiscovered—we’re now talking about the rest of the oil. And what does the US Geological Survey tell us?
Back in 1984, they said the estimated US supply from undiscovered resources and demonstrated reserves was 36 years at present rates of production, or 19 years in the absence of imports. Five years later in 1989, that 36 years is down to 32 years, the 19 years is down to 16 years. So the numbers are holding together as we march down the right-hand side of the Hubbert curve.
Well, every once in awhile we run into somebody who says we shouldn’t worry about the problem, we can solve it. In this case, we can solve it by growing corn, distilling it into ethanol, and run all the vehicles in the US on ethanol. Lets just look what he says, he says today ethanol production displaces over 43 ½million barrels of imported oil annually. That sounds pretty good doesn’t it, until you think. First question you’ve got to ask: 43 ½million barrels, what fraction is that of US vehicle consumption in a year? The answer is, it’s 1%.
You would have to multiply corn production devoted to ethanol by a factor of 100 just to make the numbers look right. There isn’t that much total agricultural land in the United States. There’s a bigger problem. It takes diesel fuel to plough the ground to plant the corn, to make the fertiliser to make the corn grow, to tend the corn, to harvest the corn. It takes more energy to distill it. You finally get a gallon of ethanol, you will be lucky if there’s as much energy in the gallon as it took to produce it. In general, it’s a loser. But this guy (Paul Harvey) says not to worry, we can solve it that way.
Well, back in 1956, Dr Hubbert addressed a convention of petroleum geologists and engineers. He told them that his calculations led him to believe that “the peak of US oil and gas production could be expected to occur between 1966 and 1971.” No one took him seriously. So let’s see what’s happened. The data here is from the Department of Energy. Here is steady growth (pointing). Here is 1956, when Dr Hubbert did his analysis. He said at that time that peak would occur between 1966-1971. There’s the peak, 1970. It was followed by a very rapid decline. Then the Alaskan pipeline started delivering oil, and it was a partial recovery. That production has now peaked and everything’s going downhill in unison in the right hand side of the curve. And when I go to my home computer to figure out the parameters of the curve that’s the best fit to the data, from that fit it looks to me as though we have consumed ¾of the recoverable oil that was ever in our ground in the United States and we are now coasting downhill on the last 25% of that once enormous resource. So we have to ask about world oil.
Dr Hubbert in 1974 predicted that the peak of world oil would occur around 1995, so lets see what’s happened. Here we have the data from the Department of Energy. A long period of steady growth, there’s quite a big drop there (pointing), and then there was a speedy recovery; then an enormous drop and a very slow recovery. Those drops are each due to a price hike from OPEC. Well, it’s clear we’re not yet over the peak, so when I now go to fit the curve, I need one more bit of information before I can do the fit. I have to go to the geology literature and ask the literature, “What do you think is the total amount of oil we will ever find on this earth?” The consensus figure in the literature is 2000 billion barrels. Now, that’s quite uncertain, plus or minus maybe 40 or 50%. If I plug that in and do the fit, the peak is this year (2004). If I assume there is 50% more than the consensus figure, the peak moves back to 2019. If I assume there’s twice as much as the consensus figure, the peak moves back to 2030.
So no matter how you cut it, in your life expectancy, you are going to see the peak of world oil production. And you’ve got to ask yourself, what is life going to be like when we have a declining world production of petroleum, and we have a growing world population, and we have a growing world per capita demand for oil. Think about it.
In the March 1998 issue of Scientific American, there was a major article by two real petroleum geologists. They said this peak would occur before 2010, so we’re all in the same ball park. Now, that article in Scientific American triggered a lot of discussion. Here is an article in Fortune magazine, November 1999, talking about “Oil Forever,” and in that article, we see a criticism of the geologists’ analysis, and this is from an emeritus professor of economics at MIT. And he said, “This analysis (by the geologists) is a piece of foolishness, the world will never run out of oil, not in 10,000 years.” So let’s look at what’s been happening.
Here we have two graphs, on one scale, we have here in the graphs, that’s the annual discoveries of oil each year (pointing); here is the annual production of oil each year. Notice since the 1980s, we’ve been producing about twice as much as we’ve been finding. Yet you’ve seen and read and heard statements from PhD non-scientists saying that we have greater resources of petroleum now than ever before in history. What in the world are they smoking? (audience laughter)
Now, here is another look at world oil production, but this is per capita. This is litres per person each day. There is two litres (pointing). A litre is about a quart, and so two litres is about ½gallon. The upper curve assumes there was no growth in the world population since 1920, that it stayed fixed at 1.8 billion. This then is just a copy of that earlier curve. The lower curve uses the actual population of the world, and what you find is that with a growing world population, this curve is pulled down more and more as you go farther to the right. And notice it peaked at about 2.2 litres per person a day in the 1970s. It is now down to about 1.7 litres a person a day, so we can say that on any day any one of us uses more than 1.7 litres of petroleum directly or indirectly, we’re using more than our share. Now, just think about what that means.
Well, we do have to ask about new discoveries. Here is a discussion from about eleven years ago about the largest discovery of oil in the Gulf of Mexico in the past twenty years, an estimated 700 million barrels of oil. That’s a lot of oil, but a lot compared to what? At that time, we were consuming 16.6 million barrels every day in the United States. Divide the 16.6 into 700 and you find that discovery would meet US needs for 42 days.
On the front page of the Wall Street Journal, we read about the new Hibernia oil field off the south coast of Newfoundland. Please read this one line in the headline: “Now it will last fifty years.” That gives you some kind of a feeling for what amount of oil may be up there. So let’s follow up and read from that story in the Wall Street Journal: “The Hibernia field, one of the largest oil discoveries in North America in decades, should deliver its first oil by the end of the year. At least 20 more fields may follow, offering well over one billion barrels of high-quality crude, promising a steady flow of oil just a quick tanker-run away from the energy-thirsty East Coast”.
So let’s do some arithmetic. We take the amount of oil that we think is up there, a billion barrels. Now the US consumption has grown to about 18 million barrels a day; divide the 18 million into the billion and you find that would meet US needs for 56 days.
Now, what was the impression you had from that line in the headline in the Wall Street Journal? And as you think about this, think about the definition of modern agriculture: it’s “the use of land to convert petroleum into food.” And we can see the end of the petroleum.
Dr Hubbert testified before a committee of the Congress. He told them that “the exponential phase of the industrial growth which has dominated human activities during the last couple of centuries is now drawing to a close. Yet during the last two centuries of unbroken industrial growth, we have evolved what amounts to an exponential-growth culture.” I would say, it’s more than a culture: it’s our national religion, because we worship growth. Pick up any newspaper; you’ll see headlines such as this: “State forecasts ‘robust’ growth.”
Have you ever heard of a physician diagnosing a cancer in a patient and telling the patient, “You have a robust cancer?” And it isn’t just in the United States that we have this terrible addiction (quoting Wall Street Journal): “The Japanese are so accustomed to growth that economists in Tokyo usually speak of a recession as any time the growth rate dips below 3% per year.”
So, what do we do?
In the words of Winston Churchill, “Sometimes we have to do what is required.” First of all, as a nation we’ve got to get serious about renewable energy. As a a start, we ought to have a big increase in the funding for research in the development and dispersion of renewable energy. We have to educate all of our people to an understanding of the arithmetic and the consequences of growth, especially in terms of populations and in terms of the earth’s finite resources. We must educate people to recognise the fact that growth of populations and growth of rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained. What’s the first law of sustainability? You’ve heard thousands of people talking endlessly about sustainability; did they ever tell you the first law? Here it is: population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained. That’s simple arithmetic. Yet nobody that I’m encountering will tell you about that when they’re talking about sustainability. So I think it’s intellectually dishonest to talk about saving the environment, which is sustainability, without stressing the obvious fact that stopping population growth is a necessary condition for saving the environment and for sustainability.
We must educate people to see the need to examine carefully the allegations of the technological optimists who assure us that science and technology will always be able to solve all of our problems of population growth, food, energy, and resources.
Chief amongst these optimists was the late Dr Julian Simon, formerly professor of economics and business administration at the University of Illinois, and later at the University of Maryland. With regard to copper, Simon has written that we will never run out of copper because “copper can be made from other metals.” The letters to the editor jumped all over him, told him about chemistry. He just brushed it off: “Don’t worry,” he said, “if it’s ever important, we can make copper out of other metals.”
Now, Simon had a book that was published by the Princeton University Press. In that book, he’s writing about oil from many sources, including biomass, and he says, “Clearly there is no meaningful limit to this source except for the sun’s energy.” He goes on to note, “But even if our sun was not so vast as it is, there may well be other suns elsewhere.” Well, Simon’s right; there are other suns elsewhere, but the question is, would you base public policy on the belief that if we need another sun, we will figure out how to go get it and haul it back into our solar system? (audience laughter)
Now, you cannot laugh: for decades before his death, this man was a trusted policy advisor at the very highest levels in Washington DC.
Bill Moyers interviewed Isaac Asimov. He asked Asimov, “What happens to the idea of the dignity of the human species if this population growth continues?” and Asimov says, “It’ll be completely destroyed. I like to use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and there are two bathrooms, then they both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want, stay as long as you want, for whatever you need. And everyone believes in freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the constitution. But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, then no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there’s no such thing. You have to set up times for each person, you have to bang on the door, ‘Aren’t you through yet?’ and so on.” And Asimov concluded with one of the most profound observations I’ve seen in years. He said, “In the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive overpopulation. Convenience and decency cannot survive overpopulation. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one individual matters.”
And so, central to the things that we must do, is to recognise that population growth is the immediate cause of all our resource and environmental crises.
And in the last one hour, the world population has increased by about 10,000 people and the population of the United States has increased by about 280 people. So to be successful with this experiment of human life on earth, we have to understand the laws of nature as we encounter them in the study of science and mathematics. We should remember the words of Aldous Huxley, that “facts do not cease to exist because they’re ignored”. We should remember the words of Eric Sevareid; he observed that “the chief source of problems is solutions.” This is what we encounter every day: solutions to problems just make the problems worse. We should remember the message of this cartoon: “Thinking is very upsetting, it tells us things we’d rather not know.” We should remember the words of Galileo; he said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same god who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” If there is one message, it is this: we cannot let other people do our thinking for us.
Now, except for those petroleum graphs, the things I’ve told you are not predictions of the future, I’m only reporting facts, and the results of some very simple arithmetic. But I do so with confidence that these facts, this arithmetic and more importantly, our level of understanding of them, will play a major role in shaping our future. Now, don’t take what I’ve said blindly or uncritically, because of the rhetoric, or for any other reason. Please, you check the facts. Please check my arithmetic. If you find errors, please let me know. If you don’t find errors, then I hope you’ll take this very, very seriously.
Now, you are important people because you can think. If there’s anything that is in short supply in the world today, it’s people who are willing to think. So here’s a challenge. Can you think of any problem, on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long term solution is in any demonstratable way, aided, assisted, or advanced by having larger populations in our local levels, state levels, national level, or global level? Can you think of anything that can get better if we crowd more people into our cities, our towns, into our state, our nation, or on this earth?
And I’ll close with these words from the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He said, “Unlike the plagues of the dark ages, or contemporary diseases which we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is solvable with means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution, but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and the education of the billions who are its victims.”
So I hope I’ve made a reasonable case for my opening statement, that I think the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand this very simple arithmetic.
Thank you very, very much.
Transcript courtesy Global Public Media.
Edited by Denis Morel
Copyright Albert A. Bartlett
Here is the full length video presentation of Professor Bartlett’s talk:
Here is another wonderfully brilliant video conversation with Professor Bartlett: