Posted by: Rob | March 18, 2009

Taken for granted

If you were following annie’s facebook or twitter updates over the past weekend, then you’ll already know that we had a minor issue with the water delivery system in our small hamlet. It was a water main break, an almost annual occurrence this time of year when the frost starts to come out of the ground. The fact that our water mains are made from cast iron and are ancient are likely contributors as well.

As I opened the kitchen tap at one point on Saturday afternoon – and nothing came out – I was reminded of James Kunstler’s recent work of fiction titled “World Made by Hand“* which paints a picture of one possible version of a post oil world. From there I went on to wonder what we would do if ready tap water was no longer reliable, if the electricity became intermittent or completely absent, if there was no gas to heat the house and provide hot water.

We are, I fear, ill prepared presently for such an eventuality. There are those who will scoff and say it couldn’t happen. Not here.

But why couldn’t it?

It could happen gradually. As supplies of natural gas dwindle, the price per gigajoule will be wholly dependent on market forces, that is, demand. And that price would be nothing but high. During the great de-regulation kick** the Alberta government went on at the end of the twentieth century, the price of natural gas sky rocketed. We had been paying a fairly stable rate of about $2.50 per gigajoule but, after de-regulation, we were exposed to “market prices” and the cost more than quadrupled to $10 or $11 per gigajoule.***

So, let’s say my house requires about 50 gigajoules per month during the winter heating season. In the good old days, 50 x $2.50 would put my heating bill at about $125 per month. Nowadays, the price fluctuates around $7**** once you add in all the extra charges for gas “delivery”, so for that 50 gigajoules in the winter I now pay about $350 per month. As gas gets into short supply, the price will go up. How much? Don’t know. Will the government rebates still be in effect? Hard to say. If not, and the price were to hit $20 per gigajoule, then my winter time heating bill would be $1,000 per month.

Let’s say my income is $5,000 per month. At $125 per month, that’s 2.5% of my income; at $350 per month, that’s 7% and at $1,000 per month, that’s 20% of my income! And with all other necessities going up in cost (like food), it’s not hard to imagine that some difficult choices would have to be made as to where that $5,000 per month of income gets allotted.

Sure, there are other ways to heat a house, like wood, but as of yet, I haven’t made the investment to install the equipment necessary to do so. Perhaps I should budget for something like that.

And if the infrastructure fell apart quickly, what would we do? It’s not a fun thing to do to sit an imagine futures along these lines. But it never hurts to be prepared.

What would you do if one day you woke up and the lights didn’t turn on, there was no hot water and the toilet wouldn’t flush?

P.S.: Our water main was repaired by contractors hired by the county late Sunday afternoon.  All is well on that front again.  For now.

* I have read the book and do have plans to write a review of sorts. Sometime.
** More “competition” was supposed to benefit the users of natural gas. Yeah, right.
*** The Alliance pipeline and the arrival of Enron on our shores didn’t help this situation much either.
**** After the great debacle in the early 2000’s, the Alberta government implemented a rate driven rebate plan that brings high market priced natural gas down to something “reasonable” for residents and industries in the province of Alberta.


  1. I, too, often worry that a time will come when we won’t have fuel, or electricity, that we may need to do things like make our own clothes and bake our own bread, and nobody will remember how.

  2. i think it’s inevitable at this point. agree that it’s likely to be gradual… perhaps 100’s of years, rather than decades, but we’ll get back to basics. and either adapt or die. darwin’s law wasn’t survival of the strongest, but survival of those that most easily adapted to change. i’ll be dirt at that point…

  3. No electricity means no internet- I’d need more mental health meds or admission at that point. The other stuff sounds more manageable, but I suspect I’m kidding myself by thinking like that.

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