Spoonfuls of Oil

I’m still reflecting on the spoonfuls of oil analogy from this Chris Martenson podcast on Living with Integrity. Maybe you tire of me mentioning the podcast, but it really struck a nerve. Is it true every bite most Americans eat requires more calories to produce than the food actually provides in nourishment? Especially those of us following “fad” diets like keto, paleo or primal.

There. I said it. I am as guilty as everyone else. The majority of what I eat on any given day just wouldn’t be available without abundant fossil fuels to produce and ship it all. And given that we appear to be on the other side of Peak Oil. (I’m not here to debate Peak Oil with anyone, if you want to learn more I recommend The Crash Course, particularly Chapter 20.) Anyone who doesn’t eat locally grown food might want to contemplate what they are going to eat in a post-industrial world. Myself included.

As a thought experiment, here is a day in the life of my fossil-fueled diet.

Like most Americans, I kick off the morning with coffee, a desperately needed boost to get me through my morning. I make my own variation on the famous “bulletproof coffee”: a K-cup (imported coffee beans, individually wrapped in plastic) with a tablespoon each of grass fed butter (imported from Ireland), collagen (animal protein processed to a powder), cocoa powder (also imported, also processed into a powder), and MCT oil (which redefines both “imported” and “processed”, but at least this brand is palm-free!). I know it sounds weird, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it! So yummy. So doomed.

The Altar Upon Which Sleep Is Sacrificed
The Altar Upon Which Sleep Is Sacrificed

At least I have cut back to just one cup of coffee a day (although the second one was always black), so I am less caffeine-dependent than I used to be. On really bad days, I might still have a cup of caffeinated tea to help keep me going, but those are getting fewer. In a resource-constrained future, I’m one step closer to being able to wean off it altogether. I don’t know of any local sources of caffeine, although I could make a coffee-ish hot beverage from dandelion and chicory roots.

For breakfast, I enjoy hard boiled eggs from my backyard hens. That’s nice and local, only requiring the energy to pump water from the well, and then boil it. Oh and the store bought feed for the hens because I don’t have enough yard for them to be mostly pastured. Oops! I put a commercial hot sauce on the eggs. It’s named for a state that isn’t where it was made … and definitely not where it was purchased. Oh well. I can probably grow hot peppers and make sauce myself if need be. So, breakfast is (mostly) safe from a post-peak-oil future. I have been flirting with intermittent fasting – another one of those brain hacks I keep trying – but I almost never make it past 10 a.m. or so.

Hey, it’s time for lunch already! Today (and almost everyday) I am enjoying leftovers. Which are packed in plasticware reused from deli meat purchased at the local grocery store. At least I am not eating out each day, hopping in my car and dashing off to the local fast food dives like most people seem to do. But without petroleum-based plastic (whatever the source) and refrigeration (most electric comes from coal in this region, mined by destroying mountain tops and their ecosystems), I certainly wouldn’t have my leftover taco salad for lunch. Depending on which “expert” you listen to, coal may still be around for a while so the refrigerators might continue to operate even as it gets harder to procure food to keep in them… but wait, how will they fuel the machines which strip the mountain soil to expose the coal?

Anyway, the leftover taco salad isn’t all “bad”. It’s late summer so most of my salad veggies came from my own little garden.

Leftover Beef Taco Salad
Leftover Beef Taco Salad

I don’t buy grass fed beef because it costs so much more. Conventionally produced beef is currently cheap thanks to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which presumably would screech to a halt without the cheap energy needed to confine that many animals in such a small space. (Bringing in food and water and medicines for the unhealthy living conditions; removing manure and diseased animals.) Then all beef would become a lot more expensive. We do have beef grown locally so it would still be available. But perhaps too costly as a regular protein source. And if, heaven forbid, I ever have to butcher anything myself, eggs will become my major or only source of protein. I am a big ol’ wimp when it comes to that kind of thing.

The individually-packed guacamole is my favorite part of the leftover taco salad. I mean, taco salad was invented so I could eat guac, right? And I can still get avocados from California, I think. Refrigerated train cars date back to the end of the 19th century, so shipping produce across the country might still be feasible, once ice houses and the ice industry are reestablished. As long as there is fuel for the trains, I mean.

It's all about that guac
It’s all about that guac

Whether California can still produce my avocados without cheap oil is a different matter. And they certainly wouldn’t be packed in these cute (plastic) individual portion sizes. That’s OK, I have my own recipes for guacamole, as long as they can ship the avocados. …How long does it take a freight train to get across the continent? How early does that poor avocado have to be picked to reach Maryland when it is ripe(ish) and how bruised will it become in that time? Without the safety of premade guacamole (no brown spots!) I’d probably skip it altogether. (Sobs)

Finally, it’s snack time. Sometimes I think I eat too much in a day, but the “experts” advise multiple small meals every few hours to maintain a constant blood sugar level. Plus, my mid-afternoon snack is my reward for surviving the work day. I pass on the high carb bananas (unprocessed, which is good; but imported which is bad) in favor of a certain brand of (very processed) high-protein / low carb snack bar that does have corn in it (alas) but hasn’t seemed to wreck my GI tract like most corn derivatives do.

I won’t go into the nutritional supplements… I still take them, knowing they are as processed and artificial and plastic-wrapped as it gets.

So Many Supplements
So Many Supplements

But I know we aren’t eating enough of certain nutrients. Vitaminy K2 because the family won’t eat organ meat so why bother trying? Magnesium because our soil is depleted and Ester-C (a highly bio-available form of Vitamin C) because we simply don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. And … wait, I said I wasn’t going to get into it, sorry!

And then … pizza for dinner! The cheap fuel binge continues. We have three different pizzas, for three different dietary habits. For the grown-ups, a low carb crust made primarily of cheese, almond flour, eggs and seasonings. Since I don’t force the kids eat like us (grain-free), they each have their own preferred brands of (processed and shipped and) frozen pizza as well. Our pizza is topped with chopped deli ham (hey, a new plastic container for leftovers!) and pineapple. Luckily for me, ham, mozzarella and tomato sauce can be produced locally, and canned pineapple actually dates back to the early 1900s. My pizza toppings should be safe in from a post-peak-oil future. (As long as canning factories can still operate, I mean.)

My crust? Not so much. Maybe I will still be able to buy almonds (imported from California) – probably in the shell, for maximum shelf life – but I’m not going to shell enough almonds to make my own almond flour! That would be a crazy amount of work. Then there is the whole issue of how almonds are farmed; maybe they won’t even be able to grow them without the energy to bring enough water to the almond orchards. I’m not sure what I will do, honestly. Since most grains cause me severe GI tract distress, just making a crust from regular wheat flour isn’t an option. (For me, anyway – the kids should be fine.) Maybe I could try “meatza”, where the pizza toppings are just spread on ground beef. Ohhhhh, ground beef again… oops? Maybe I will just have another salad.

How about you? What do you eat in any given day… and where does it come from, and how is it packaged? Are we all just eating spoonfuls of oil after all?


  1. I must be an oil-eater… I suppose most of my eggs, meat, and vegetables are local-ish, given the incredible fecundity of this area. But my butter is also Irish, and as for my Clif bars, Boost Optima protein shakes, and canned soup, who can say? At least I’m not a fad dieter… my daughter, son-in-law, sister, brother-in-law, and niece are all on keto though.

    Paying more for different kinds of food will be among the best possible outcomes for a future without fossil fuels, or with much less of them; wouldn’t the entire shape of life change? We’re talking about something like the transition from Rome (rule of law; running water; international trade; the Pax Romana) to chaos; only much more so.

    • If (when) we face a life without fossil fuels, it may indeed be similar to what happened to Rome, “only much more so” as you say. There’s a lot of things we won’t be able to control if that happens! But we can all be better prepared by having realistic expectations of what will and won’t be available to or drink eat in that scenario. I’ll miss my coffee, that’s for sure!

      • Chicory and coffee have a long history apparently: https://www.communitycoffee.com/blog/detail/the-history-of-coffee-chicory. Although, without peak oil, most of the survivors would be back on farmer time (wake up at sunrise, fall asleep at sunset) hence not so much need for caffeine.

        Speaking of survivors, I keep expecting you guys to transition to full-scale survivalist mode.. to be honest, the idea is not without its romantic attractions. For me it’s only a pipe dream though, being so thoroughly a technologist, with a complete lack of the required practical skills.

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