John Howe

Summer 2005
2005 Common Ground Country Fair Keynote Speaker

John Howe has a plan to get us through “the most important problem ever to face civilization,” i.e., the period following “peak oil.” Peak oil refers to the halfway point, the point at which we’ve used half the oil, the major component of all fossil energy originally made on earth, and after which less and less oil becomes available, extraction becomes more difficult, and prices climb rapidly.

You can read about his “Five Percent Plan” to achieve sustainability in his book, The End of Fossil Energy: The Last Chance for Sustainability, or you can read an abbreviated version at the Web site of Doctors for a Sustainable Population (, or you can hear Howe’s keynote speech on Saturday, September 24, at 11 a.m. at the Common Ground Country Fair [2005].

Solar power meets horse power at John and Debbie Howe’s farm in Waterford, Maine. John, a retired engineer, will speak at the Common Ground Fair at 11 a.m. on Saturday about the end of the oil era and the urgent need to act immediately to ensure a livable future. Photo courtesy of John and Debbie Howe.

Howe first published his book two years ago, and since then “we’ve lost two more years,” which, as this retired engineer puts it, translates into 60 billion barrels of oil. “We use 1 billion barrels of oil every 11 days in the world. One-fourth of that goes to the United States, with one-twentieth of the population. Half of the oil used in the United States goes for gasoline alone. In fact, the U.S. uses half of the world’s gasoline, about 400 million gallons per day in the U.S.” That comes out to a little under 1.5 gallons per U.S. person per day, in case you want to compare your family’s use.

Howe comes by his expertise from having grown up on a farm, been vice president of engineering in a Fortune 500 company division, then moving with his wife, Debbie, to a 175-acre farm in Maine in 1980, when he was 45 years old, “to investigate self-sufficiency during the peak of the Cold War.” Since then his Howe Engineering Company has made, among other products, bicycle-powered generators for commercial sale. More recently he’s built a 13 hp solar-powered Farmall Cub tractor that works … plows and harrows, doesn’t need gasoline, doesn’t need 2000 pounds of hay and grain each year like a team of horses or oxen, doesn’t pollute the air, loves sunshine, and goes up to 12 miles per hour.

Howe says that Common Ground Fair attendees generally understand that “the party based on prehistoric fossil energy is peaking now” and that conservation and simpler lifestyles are necessary, so he’ll spend just part of his keynote speech “updating the dire situation.” Then he’ll talk about all the misguided panaceas, such as biofuels and hydrogen. These alternatives will not save us, yet they delude the public into believing all will be okay.

The last part of his talk will address personal action, doing “all the things many of you already know about, such as living off the grid, driving a hybrid or smaller fuel efficient vehicles, planting a garden … but these won’t have much effect even if all fairgoers participated. Our best and only hope is for the masses to understand fossil energy depletion as a worldwide crisis and spread the word. We need many voices to reach our politicians. Our government (right and left) has been avoiding the subject of fossil fuel depletion for the last 50 years, except for a brief period during the Carter administration. Now we desperately need leadership. We’re all in this lifeboat together, and we’re about to sink.”

Howe says that Maine will have to feed Mainers plus a substantial part of all New England as oil runs out. Right now, we use at least 10 kilocalories of energy to produce 1 kilocalorie of food energy, and our food travels thousands of miles to reach our supermarkets. “We’re eating fossil energy.” He does not hold much hope for raising “bioenergy processed from corn or soybeans to fuel our cars.” All of our agricultural production will be needed to feed ourselves, especially with decreasing fossil energy and fertilizer input.

To bridge the time between the end of peak oil and the adoption of simpler lifestyles, Howe believes that the remaining fossil energy should be rationed for as long as possible, possibly another 150 years, in order to have enough energy to adjust to renewable sources of power.

“With the lower level energy available from these non-fossil fuel sources, it is paramount for survival that we design a new, low-energy lifestyle.” We must plan now to get to this new state with the fossil energy remaining “in the bank” before it is used frivolously.

Howe’s visions include:

1. Plan to systematically reduce all energy consumption about five percent a year, starting immediately.

2. Continue using centralized generating systems (power stations) and electricity grids that we have now. This will allow blending of remaining fossil fuels with expanding renewable sources.

3. Build decentralized (distributed) solar energy systems (both electrical and heating) into all new and existing homes, so that each home becomes an independent power plant. These individual sources will have to supply electricity for residential use, transportation, and microfarming.

4. Drastically downscale all travel and movement of goods, with the ultimate goal of electric personal and mass transportation. Small electric vehicles (or bicycles, walking or staying at home) will provide for individual needs. Now, 95% of our transportation energy comes from oil.

5. Save precious fossil fuel for agricultural, national defense, municipal fuel, important mass transportation, plastics, paint and a myriad of other remaining uses in order to buy enough time to develop new energy sources while we still have the infrastructure of a functioning society. We should save enough fossil energy (the equivalent of 200 billion barrels of oil) in the next 50 years to ration over the following 100 years. This would give us time to adjust our lifestyles and reduce population on a planned and orderly basis.

6. Our remaining finite supply of fossil fuels is needed to make the transition to sustainability. Fossil fuels make possible the infrastructure we need to make solar cells, windmill blades, and continued research and development of new energy sources.

The second printing of John Howe’s The End of Fossil Energy (McIntire Publishing, 2005) will be available this summer. He asks for a $10 donation (shipping included) for the 125-page book. Write to Howe at 298 McIntire Rd., Waterford ME 04088; phone (207) 583-4800. To view the solar powered tractor, see

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