Artifices of the Post-Carbon Dark Age : Transportation

A Survey of Technologies for Use in the ‘Long Emergency’


‘Mad Max meets Antiques Roadshow’

Fossil fuels permeate our lives. They heat and light our homes, and they power our tools and appliances. They allow us to transport ourselves and our goods from place to place, and they fuel the factories and farms that allow us to live as comfortably as possible. Because they are directly involved in nearly every facet of our modern way of life, without fossil fuels our reliance on such advanced technology would be difficult, if not impossible.

However difficult it is to imagine a world without fossil fuels, we must start to contemplate it. The problem of peak oil – a fact ignored and downplayed by the mainstream ‘powers that be’ – is a reality whose effects will be increasingly felt over the next few decades. No matter what the item is, unless it was made by hand from local materials, its creation and transport was made possible by the use of petroleum. Because its supply is decreasing, the demand for it is rising, and the cost of its extraction in unconventional forms is expensive in both energy and financing, the price of oil will continue to rise over the coming years, sending shock-waves throughout our economy and way of life.

Because the reality of this problem is ignored by the mainstream (and at least openly by the elites) of American society, it is almost a fact that it is really too late to do anything major in regards to a massive overhaul in our technology or infrastructure. Bio-fuels, nuclear energy, and massive renewable energy projects are only techno-fixes whose usefulness is still tied into the price of oil. This will mean peoples lives will become slower, their worlds smaller, and they will have to learn to live without energy-intensive technologies. Food production will again be the center of life for most people. Those in the developed world will come to live as how the third world does today, and as how their ancestors lived only a few generations ago. What will take root is a ‘World Made by Hand’.

With a shrinking globe, we will see the localization of agriculture and industry once again. We may witness the decline of prodigious governments and the rise of localized ones. We may have to bear the tyranny of increasingly despotic states, or the rise of new factions and identities in regards to religion, ethnicity, or locality. What we may experience is the end of the Pax-Americana and a dawn of a new Dark Age – but this Age mustn’t be too Dark if we can help it.

Lying within previous eras are various technologies that don’t require the use of fossil fuels. Instead of ancient sunlight, they harness the powers of gravity as well as contemporary solar energy in the form of glucose and the movement of winds. These technologies will involve the use and repurposing of various technologies that have existed into modern times, as well as the construction of all new technologies based on pre-Industrial methods. These technologies will be absolutely necessary for higher than subsistence level living and the continuation of anything we could call civilization.

Human Energy

 Human energy is the simplest form of energy that we can harness. It converts chemical energy in the form of food into the physical energy we need to perform work. This physical energy can be transformed through the use of machines to perform tasks too complex or difficult for human hands. Because of its simplicity as well as its unlimited potential, human powered technology will most likely comprise the bulk of technological innovation in the coming decades of economic and political decentralization.

Transportation – The simplest means of transportation involve human energy use, and several technologies could be used in a post-carbon world. These would likely be widely used before the commonplace ownership of draft animals, though they would be used throughout the ages to follow.

  • Bicycles and their derivatives (such as unicycles, penny-farthings, etc) – Short and long distance transportation of either persons or light freight could be transported on the bicycles themselves, as well as on carts pulled by these machines. They would best be used on the asphalt roads and streets that will eventually be rendered unrepairable by current methods. An industry of bike mechanics and repairers will probably be widespread within the coming years.
  • Rickshaws- These two-wheeled passenger carrying carts known specifically as being popular in East Asia may make an appearance in a post-carbon future. The basic form of it is pulled by a walking human, though bicycle pulled rickshaws exist in some countries. This may replace the taxi or provide for local transportation within towns and communities for those who can’t afford draft livestock.
  • Wheel-barrows – This basic garden and construction implement will perhaps make a more widespread use as a transportation device for short distances, though other technologies such as the grocery cart may have a more wider use for such purposes in the post-carbon future.

Chinese Wheel-barrow – A form of wheel-barrow that existed in China used a single wheel in the bottom and a sail jutting out on top that assists the user, allowing the user to carry three to six times more weight. The design came about in China when the governments road-building infrastructure broke down, and with our society facing similar predicaments, this design could possibly be re-used in the post-carbon upper Susquehanna bio-region.

  • Travois – A travois is a simple wheel-less frame structure used by Native American cultures in previous eras to drag loads over land. Its construction consists of two poles lashed together in the shape of an isosceles triangle, with some sort of netting or platform strung between the two poles. This allows for more weight to be carried than a person could carry on their back. Travois are either dragged by humans, dogs, or horses, and would best be used in roadless areas such as forests or grassland where obstructions such as brush may cause problems for wheels.
  • Canoes, Boats, and other Paddle powered Watercraft – The variety of watercraft powered by hand is truly astounding, and would definitely provide efficient transportation on rivers such as the Chenango or Susquehanna to move people and freight. The commercial adaptation of currently used recreation watercraft – such as fishing boats and canoes – may provide initial means of transportation in the early years of the post-carbon Dark Age. Construction of new versions based on indigenous or pre-Industrial designs would perhaps become the main form of watercraft as society adapts to the new limitations placed on it. With the end of the Fossil Fuel era, transportation along waterways would return to being the main means of long distance trade in the post-carbon future.
  •  Grocery Carts – Because of their prolific abundance, their widespread availability and their basic design, grocery carts may become a staple of human transportation in the near post-carbon future. They would perhaps be of low cost – either being sold by those who have acquired access or stolen by looters and scavengers in the suburban wastelands. Their current manner of use by the poor in inner cities may serve as a model for future use by the general population.