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Preparing for a Crash: Nuts and Bolts

This essay is intended to address the serious “peaknik,” that is to say a person who accepts as axiomatic that Peak Oil will occur and that the consequences will be devastating for most of the world’s Homo sapiens sapiens. As one of these people, I am often frustrated by the lack of practical suggestions for what to do to survive the Peak and the Crash. Recently I read a list of things that the people who participate in the forum of a noted Peak Oil site were doing “to prepare for a future that can no longer depend on cheap oil.” These included having a rain barrel, a one-month supply of canned goods and a one-week supply of bottled water, “adjusting my stock portfolio with more energy and other commodity stocks,” setting the thermostat at 62, and replacing the light bulbs in the house with compact fluorescents. While all of these are good things to do now, they fail to even minimally prepare for a world with no food distribution, no electricity, and lots of hungry people, things that I think are an acceptable picture for a post-Peak future. Therefore I would like to set out my suggestions, assuming that the worst-case scenario is the one we may have to deal with.

Before action one needs theory. My first suggestion in this regard is, if you’ve read three or more books on oil depletion, stop. You have reached a point where more statistics will not convince you any more. Use your time to read other books. First you need a basic understanding of how we got here, of why our subspecies of Homo sapiens sapiens is in this pickle. Essentially, our hunter-gatherer ancestors reached the limit of the carrying capacity for hunting and gathering and so needed to intensify food production. The solution was called agriculture, and while it requires more calories in for fewer calories out, it allows more people to live in the same area. In other words, twenty square kilometres could support many more agriculturists than it had supported hunter gatherers, but the agriculturalists needed to work a lot harder for their calories. This last part may come as a surprise: to “earn” the daily minimum of 2000 calories, an agriculturalist “spends” 1000, the hunter gatherer 400. For more information on the “agricultural solution,” read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael or Beyond Civilization, and Overshoot (William Catton).

Now you need some theory about where we are going. While there has never been a world-wide collapse, history offers us numerous other examples of societal collapse. They are best presented in Jared Diamond’s aptly-titled Collapse and Joseph Tainter's classic The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter’s book is especially important because he searches for a comprehensive theory for collapse, and concludes that it is essentially diminishing marginal returns – the same theory that explains why oil that is further away (underwater, in Siberia) is less attractive. He also presents us with a picture of what happens when collapses occur (e.g. decline in constabulary duties by the state, hunger, occupation of public buildings for shelter, etc.). Another much-maligned source of information on how the future could be are books of the so-called “survivalist” genre. These novels give us an idea of how people could react to a collapse. The best of these is perhaps Parable of the Sower, which deals with an America of the future where energy is at a minimum and a pseudo-fascist government takes over. Finally, if we do indeed return to a stone-age level culture, we need to know how to live in it. Luckily there are well-documented examples in anthropological literature of just how hunter-gatherers do it, how they eat and how they self-govern. Limited Wants, Unlimited Means is a collection of essays on the economics of hunter-gatherers and includes an essay from the groundbreaking book Stone-Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins, the first to understand that hunter-gatherers do not live on the edge of starvation, but rather are “the original affluent society.”

That done, you need a place to retreat to, if necessary. I hope that the collapse will be gradual enough that we can shift to an organic agriculture slightly less harmful to the environment, and that this gradual collapse will allow us to develop local currencies and smaller, more understanding communities. I am not, however, planning for this future. I am planning for one with lots and lots of hungry people that are desperate. In that case a small, energy-efficient condo in the suburbs with fluorescent lights (that don’t work), a tiny garden, and a one-week supply of food just doesn’t cut it, rain barrel or not. You need a place where you can be safe, far from the vast majority of people and out-of-sight, i.e. not a target for marauders (“marauders,” by the way, means hungry, desperate people, not bad people). This means a smallish house in the country with some outbuildings (for storage, food preserving operations, etc.). Yes, it’s hard to see an investment on that level, but see it as insurance. If Peak Oil and Collapse arrive, you’ve insured yourself. If not, you have a vacation house that is off-the grid and therefore has a higher resale value.

I can’t go through the intricacies of finding and buying rural property, but look for something relatively isolated, out of view from the road, with a large woods (and swamp if possible) and some areas for gardening as well as an existing structure. Having acted, you now need to return to theory. Begin your lists: lists of priorities to make your property a lifeboat, lists of books you need to buy, lists of supplies you need on-hand. For the first list you need to consider what I call “systems”: heating, cooking, hygiene, water-supply, and energy. Does the house have a super-efficient “Swedish stove”? Can you use passive solar energy? Can you cook for ten people, day in and day out, and with what energy (solar ovens, wood, etc.)? To avoid sickness and maintain good hygiene, are their suitable bathrooms and shower or sauna facilities? Is there a source of drinking water – if it’s a well, is the pump solar? Are there solar panels or a windmill? DC lights?

Obviously you may know little about all these things, hence the book lists. I find amazon.com fantastic for this part, as for each search you do you turn up other topics you may need to look into. You search for raising barnyard animals and they offer you a book on common diseases, or slaughtering and preserving their meat. Spend a thousand dollars and buy a lot of books on a lot of topics: passive solar construction, active solar energy, windmills and microhydro, using greywater, composting toilets, gardening, orchards, preserving food, etc. These books will then help you develop the lists of tools and other supplies you need to survive. Chelsea Green (www.chelseagreen.com) and Storey Publishing (www.storey.com) are great places to start. These lists will give you many practical things to do, other than reading about greywater systems, the advantages of saunas, and windmill-solar cell combinations. You’ll soon be scouring yardsales for old tools and canning jars.

That brings me to the most important part of your refuge, and that which is least-discussed in other “Peak Oil planners”: food. You can go without a shower, melt snow in the winter, burn wood in a stove for heat, but eating is something that is hard to improvise. Assuming the average person needs 2000 calories to live, you have around ten people to feed, and that you’ll need a year to “figure out” how be self-sufficient (an extremely optimistic estimate), you’ll need about 7,300,000 calories stored. That’s seven million, three hundred thousand calories. Let’s imagine for a moment it weren’t a problem to get all of these calories from wheat (it is): you would need about thirty-five 55-gallon drums of wheat. Do the calculation yourself – there’s an extremely helpful Excel spreadsheet available from Walton Feed (waltonfeed.com/grain/calc.html) which gives you the values for sixty-five nutrients as well as calories for over one hundred and sixty foods. Already we have some major problems, the first of which is that even the Bible recognized that “man cannot live on bread alone.” You need a variety of foods to stay healthy, and monotonous diets in stressful situations causes bad health and “food refusal,” especially with the old and the young. You need other foods, and “comfort foods”, i.e. low-calorie and high taste. Then there’s the problem of storage: you can’t just throw all that wheat in fifty-five gallon drums and seal them with silicone. You need to put in desiccants (to absorb bacteria-breeding moisture), oxygen absorbers, and diatomaceous earth (to kill little bugs already in the grain). Foods are difficult to keep fresh, and buying that much canned food will put a hole in your budget.

“I’ll just garden!” you say! Remove this illusion from your Refuge plan. Ask friends who are gardeners and have large gardens what percentage of their yearly food intake comes from the garden and I’ll be astounded if any say more than two percent. Gardening, like agriculture, takes an enormous input of energy for the return you get, and that’s assuming your good at it. Ask yourself what you know about gardening, and whether that’s enough to risk your life on the tomatoes coming in and rows of corn ripening. Horticulture alone is not a valid answer unless you’re already an expert, and even then it’s tough. In addition to your stored food and the [initially meagre] returns from your garden, you will need another source of calories, and these (I have come to think) must come from wild plants. Pick up a book about wild foods (a classic is the entertaining book by Euell Gibbons, Stalking The Wild Asparagus) and you’ll be surprised at how much food (read: calories) is available all around you, with no planting, fertilizing, or other care. But you must know what you can eat and when it’s collected. While you may not get all your food from the wild (also because it takes a lot of rural area to support a small number of people), you can supplement your diet of stored and home-grown food. Wild foods, in my opinion, will be the difference between life and death, and becoming an expert in them is a lot easier than becoming an expert in gardening.

But whether or not lots of calories are available at a certain time of the year (Summer, early Fall) doesn’t mean that they will be in the winter or early Spring. You need to be able to store the harvest from your gardens and from the woods; this is both food preservation and food storage. You must, I repeat, must become an expert in this. You need to know about drying, canning, and fermenting foods in order to store them for the winter. Once again there are lots of available books (start with Keeping Foods Fresh from Chelsea Green and Janet Greene’s Putting Food By). You should start now with store-bought and garden-grown food try making pickles, drying zucchini and tomatoes, and making sauerkraut. You can speed up the process of educating yourself with good books but need to hone these skills with practice. Remember that botulism is not a big threat in First World conditions when canning twenty jars of pickles but imagine three hundred jars in Third World conditions. Learn about pressure canners and check out Lehman’s website (www.lehmans.com) for special tools. I personally am counting on making pickles and chutneys and fermented dishes from a mix of wild food roughage (to provide the bulk of the calories) and normal vegetables (to provide taste). Your research will be greatly helped by the freely-downloadable FAQ at rec.food.preserving compiled by Leslie Base (www.faqs.org/faqs/food/preserving/part1), as well as the files on Prudent Food Storage by Alan Hagan (www.waltonfeed.com/grain/faqs). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), because they believe in the “End Times,” also instructs its members to have a large store of food on-hand. Mormons often run so-called “Mormon Canneries” and these can be a wealth of information. Call your local Mormon church.

This is a tall order – find isolated rural property, add solar panels and other “systems,” buy hundreds of books, begin experimenting with canning and fermenting, become a food-storage expert, learn to identify and eat wild foods – but if you really believe that Peak Oil and collapse are coming, then turning down your thermostat and investing in energy-sector stocks are doing nothing to save you. Realize that things may potentially get much uglier than you can imagine, and plan for that reality. You may be pleasantly surprised, and if not, you’ll save your ass.

Editorial Notes: Contributor Zachary Nowak writes:
I hope this helps those of us who anticipate a less-than-peachy crash get ready. I hope to have an annotated "summer reading list" ready soon.
There is also a 'third way', one which combines self-sufficiency/survivalist type tactics with community building and some relatively positive visions. Eco-villages, Richard Heinberg's lifeboats strategy, and the town-scale efforts in places such as Kinsale in Ireland and Willits in California might be considered part of this approach. Isolationist survivalism, constantly on the guard from marauding hordes, doesn't sound like an existence most of us would consider worth living. And promoting it, where it takes our energies away from more collective energy descent tactics might actually increase the likelyhood of such uncontrolled collapse and desperate marauders. So the ethics of promoting such an approach are complex. We publish Zachary's article because it is full of excellent advice and resources of value to anyone with an interest in taking more than a superficial approach to sustainability (a term which ultimately does mean the same thing as survival.) Community solidarity and trust are great wildcards in this picture. An interesting example I heard recently compared the culture of Australian and Americans in WW2 concentration camps, where the Australians, taking a more communal and less competitive approach, fared better. There are ways to build valuable community connections while at the same time learning new skills for energy descent through workshops and self-education processes, some of these type of approaches I'm involved in personally. At a local level we can in many cases actually affect that culture quite significantly with some creative approaches. In many circumstances, collective efforts may offer a better and richer survival strategy than an isolationist approach. -AF

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