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Communities, Refuges, and Refuge-Communities

Communities, Refuges, and Refuge-Communities by Zachary Nowak.

A few weeks ago I wrote an article called Preparing For A Crash: Nuts and Bolts. In addition to a lengthier-than-normal comment from the editors of Energy Bulletin (one that seemed more like a disclaimer for having published it than a comment), the piece provoked a thoughtful-if-scathing critique from the creator of the website Transition Culture, Rob Hopkins. His blog in turn attracted a number of comments from readers and based on that and a few emails exchanged with some of the readers and with Rob himself, I decided to write another essay to make my position a little clearer.

The theme of my original essay was essentially preparation for the worst-case Peak Oil scenario. I think I can say quite safely that this is a topic that most peakniks prefer to avoid. It’s much easier psychologically, I suppose, to muse about proven reserves and drilling rig counts than to look at the second part of the following equation: “Given x, then …”, i.e. to talk about what may happen as a result of Peak Oil.

Most Peak Oil sites (exceptions being dieoff.org and lifeaftertheoilcrash.com) tend to studiously avoid discussion of the worst-case scenario, preferring to look ahead to some sort of Jeffersonian agrarian republic where small, organic-based farming communities live in harmony in a lower-energy world. While I deeply hope that this is what happens (otherwise my biodiesel still will be worthless), sound crisis planning often involves imagining the most severe possibility. I fear that the discussion of a post-Peak future is being lead by what we all want, not by what could be, or by what some think is actually more probable.

Those of us who don’t necessarily believe that all will turn out so peachy are dismissively referred to as “doomers” or “survivalists,” both words that have considerably negative connotations. Survivalist is a word that conjures up an image of a hick hiding out in rural Wyoming, someone who hates and fears the government and sits on a huge stack of cans of baked beans and weenies, along with his assault rifle and a pile of ammunition. I’ve actually taken the time to read some “survivalist literature” (in the hopes of finding some good ideas for preparations), but was rather disappointed, as the advice revolved around guns and canned goods.

This type of survivalist has never heard of permaculture or powerdown and seems to hope to hold out for a new [still fossil fuel-based?] Protestant Republic of America. Peak Oil does not seem to be on the radar screen, and I think I can safely disassociate myself from this kind of survivalist. Survivalist in the strictest sense, however, perhaps does apply to me, in that I would like to survive any possible Peak Oil crisis. The Energy Bulletin editor who commented on my essay noted that survival and sustainability are, in the long run, the same thing.

Fear has threatened to create a new dichotomy of doomers/survivalists vs. powerdowners, much like that of depletionists vs. cornucopians. Remember how frustrating your last conversation with a cornucopian was? “There’s plenty of oil and in any event, humans are creative in a crisis, we’ll figure something out, it’ll be fine.” People who accept Peak Oil as a theory but then reject, a priori, the possibility of the worst-case scenario transpiring risk being more like the cornucopian Flat Earthers, as well as excluding from rational debate a valid possibility of Peak Oil.

Either you’re a respectable peaknik who reads your ASPO bulletins and tends your square-foot permaculture kitchen garden, or you’re a nutty survivalist, alone with beans and your gun. I think it is more useful for the Peak Oil “movement” to see the more extreme viewpoint as a point on the spectrum, not as a polar opposite. This essay will explore the thinking behind the more extreme position and why, even if it doesn’t happen, preparations with a more severe crisis in mind may be more helpful than preparing for a return to the biodiesel-powered Jeffersonian republic that never was.

Metaphors & Examples of Past Crises

Throughout Peak Oil literature (and frequently in the comments on Rob’s blog), writers invoke certain metaphors and examples of past crises or collapses. These invocations are used to paint a picture of the post-Peak world and range from cautionary tales to moving elegies to human ingenuity and resourcefulness. Paraphrasing the philosopher Wittgenstein, one could say that metaphors are not the vehicles of thought, they are the driver. It may seem like an odd place to begin, but I think this discussion needs to start with a review of the commonest Peak Oil allegories and where they lead our thinking and planning for a future crisis.

To start off with metaphors, let’s look closely for a moment at the Bell Curve, familiar to us all from many examples, not the least of which that hand-checkered one by M.King Hubbert. The bell curve is the perfect representation of exponential growth and the economic concept of diminishing marginal returns, the “law” that states that in certain complex systems, a point will be reached where exponentially larger inputs will not result in exponentially larger outputs. The Bell Curve Metaphor for Peak Oil (both for the supply of oil and the general “state” of society) is attractive because it is so often found in nature. Yet beware the siren call of its seductive curves. From reading cornucopian economists we know how easy it is to be taken in by the simplicity of that line that wraps so gracefully and mathematically around the X and Y axes.

“Doomers” like me often feel even more gloomy after having seen a bell curve because the decline on the far side of that curve just seems so damn inevitable. Another metaphor that I as an amateur vintner am enamored of is the action of yeast. Yeast introduced into a sugar-rich liquid eat the sugar and begin raising lots of little yeast rug rats, while literally farting carbon dioxide and pissing ethyl alcohol. The population of yeast rises rapidly with the readily available energy source, yet so does environmental pollution (the toxic waste-product of yeast family values, C2H6O, ethyl alcohol).

The increase in alcohol and decrease in available food (i.e. energy) quickly impinge on the yeast population, leading to a population crash (and a nice, dry wine). It’s a cautionary tale about declining energy stocks and upwards-spiraling pollution and subsequent die-off, but the metaphor excludes any possibility of thought or planning to avoid the collapse. Homo sapiens sapiens, for better or for worse, are a lot more clever than Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This metaphor is also a radical oversimplification – there are few actors and relatively few variables (mostly small organic compounds), whereas Peak Oil involves a huge number of variables and extremely complex feedback loops between them.

Yet another metaphor is that of a lifeboat (though this borders on historical example because the Titanic is often invoked). Peak Oil leads to a “sinking ship” and responses to this can be both positive (people who didn’t believe the boat unsinkable and got in lifeboats survived) or negative (doomers are portrayed as those who launched the lifeboats half-full, a metaphor for diverting valuable resources away from crisis prevention to crisis preparation).

I like the Lifeboat Metaphor though because it underlines the danger of planning for the less-than-worst case scenario, and the hubris of unbounded faith in human technological ingenuity. It is a bit “overbearing,” though, because of the strong emotional response we have to the Titanic tragedy, and even dangerous as a metaphor because even in the Titanic example, eventually help does arrive from the “outside world,” while Peak Oil would be a global crisis by definition.

One last metaphor, one near and dear to my heart: The Car-With-No-Brakes Metaphor. If I’m in a car that’s barreling down a hill and the driver tells me that the brakes don’t work, I’m going to start looking for a grassy patch on the side of the road to jump out onto. I often use this metaphor when someone challenges the morality of planning a “refuge” as opposed to trying to convince my neighbors / my neighborhood / the whole world that Peak Oil is a big problem. Time is of the essence in this metaphor, and it brings into stark relief how some discussions (“Let’s jump!”) have priority over others (“Should we veer right or left at the next intersection?”). One weakness, however, is the inevitability of the crash.

Moving from metaphor to example, let’s discuss some past crises that are often cited in Peak Oil discussions. Civilizational collapses of various stripes are often used to understand what we may be facing, and most are reviewed in Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Civilizations to a degree of detail beyond the scope of this essay. The crises he reviews, though, are, by definition, crashes, complete or near-complete collapses, not successful responses to collapse (i.e. return to a lower level of societal complexity). His examples, which run the gamut from the Romans and Chinese dynasties to the Maya and the Anasazi, are fascinating precisely because there are indeed some common themes, and they illustrate how the difference between a collapse and a crisis may just be their duration.

The obvious weakness of comparing their crises to the one which may be upon us is that they were relatively “local” in context, in addition to the fact that they occurred in a pre-industrial world. Another favorite pair of examples that are trundled out in peaknik debates, usually in the context of human nature and what role it plays in a crisis, is New Orleans and New York City, in the context of the recent hurricane and blackout crises.

New Orleans is used to illustrate the dark side of each of us, as well as a warning about the lack of, or at least insufficient level of, emergency planning, despite expert warning about the possible consequences. New York City, on the other hand, is an example about how people can be calm in a stressful event and even work together, often in small groups, to survive by pooling information and resources.

These two events obviously differ in their severity, which may also help us understand the difference in the responses of those involved. Both, however, suffer from a crucial weakness when used as models for how humans may respond to any Peak Oil-induced crisis: both crises were “resolved” by massive external inputs, and those involved knew those inputs (i.e. emergency aid) would be forthcoming, sooner or later. Are they, then, useful models for a global crisis in which there will be no “external inputs,” barring extra-terrestrial intervention (I’ll go on record to say I doubt this so I’m not a branded a UFO-survivalist).

Finally, we come to North Korea and Cuba, which are the whipping boy and poster child, respectively, for the sustainability crowd. North Korea didn’t shift its agricultural model towards a more sustainable, organic model, and thus is starving; Cuba, on the other hand, did, and made enormous progress towards self-sufficiency and reduction of fossil fuel inputs, as the excellent survey, Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance, shows. The authors of the studies reviewed are careful to say, however, that Cuba is still dependent on outside inputs, be it hard currency from sugar sales or the fossil fuels it still receives from ideologically-similar neighbors.

What was my point in this review? Essentially, it’s that we tend to select our metaphors and examples to match our conceptions of what the future will be like, not imagine the future based on metaphors and examples. This is dangerous insofar as the examples above differ considerably on three essential indices.

Three Axes

Nope, this isn’t a section about three woodsmen and the tools with which they earn their living, it’s about a model where there are x, y, and z axes. These are speed, severity, and duration. Assuming one believes that the Peak Oil event would provoke some sort of crisis on some level, preparations made for such a crisis are perforce based on at least an intuitive conception of where it would fall on these three variables. Better said, your preparations for a Peak Oil crisis depend upon your ideas about the speed with which that crisis will manifest itself, the severity of the effects, and the duration of the negative effects. This section will look at each of these variables in turn.

Speed is an important factor; it can be broken down into two distinct variables, onset speed and speed of progression. Onset speed is the time between when all is calm and when the winds are piling up water so high it goes over the levees. Measuring the onset speed is all about when you measure and from what standpoint. The onset speed of World War I was rapid if we say that is was the period between July 28th (the day of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo) and August 4th (the day the crisis became a shooting war).

For historians looking backward later, though, the war “began” perhaps with the unification of the German Empire in 1871, but most people in Europe at the time experienced this as a gentle breeze, not warning winds whistling through the rigging. Some theorists see the coming crisis as part of long-term economic waves (cf. Immanuel Wallerstein) in capitalism’s five hundred year history, or even longer-period waves (cf. an article about Elliot waves by Daan Joubert et al.).

So too today: most Americans have been aware of a coming crisis since May of 2004, when the gasoline prices began to rise, while most people who read this article may have been aware since four or five years ago. Onset speed could then be defined as the speed with which the crisis becomes obvious to each individual observer, and so defines how much time they have before the crisis is upon them. From that point on we can speak of the speed of progression. How fast did the Titanic sink after it began to list, how long does the yeast last after the population maxes out, how quickly did the Anasazi abandon Chaco Canyon and the arroyos when their food crisis began?

This variable has a huge effect on one’s preparation, and the Peak Oil literature runs the gamut. Richard Duncan, whose Olduvai theory and subsequent updates envision a rapid sequence from the recognition of the coming crisis (slope event) to the slide event and the ensuing collapse. It’s worthwhile, by the way, to note the bell curve in his theory.

Further towards the other end of the spectrum is James Howard Kunstler, whose book’s title, The Long Emergency, brilliantly captures the idea of a long, grinding crisis, a slow decline of our “standard of living” as measured in GDP, average income, and available energy per capita. Speed of progression is critical because it tells us how long we will have to adjust and how quickly events will change. Decisions about speed of progression affect how long we think we have to make these arguments to our neighbors (or better, how long we have until we can convince all of them).

The second variable, severity, is intrinsically related to speed because even if the speed of progression is high, with a slow enough onset speed we can take measures to reduce the severity of the crisis (i.e. preparations), if not identify solutions to avoid it completely. In some cases, however, solutions are not possible – we can’t “solve” a hurricane, just try to avoid its worst effects.

So too we may not be able to solve our ecological overshoot except by being part of a die-off, nature’s solution to overshoot. Back to severity: the difference in severity of a rowboat sinking in Central Park’s pond and the sinking of the Titanic in the North Atlantic are both obvious and important. We should make preparations based not on the likelihood of an event, but rather on the severity of the situation in the event it occurs.

This is precisely the concept behind insurance: most Americans do not believe their house will ever burn down, however the severity of that situation, were it to occur, necessitates an extreme response (i.e. paying thousands of dollars in premiums for which you get absolutely nothing except a promise of help if the unlikely event occurs). I would bet a good deal of money that a majority of Americans, even if they could, would not drop their homeowner’s insurance. Are they doomers? No, they just know that given the severity, despite the unlikelihood of a fire, it ain’t worth risking it. Do the commentators who said I was exaggerating the likelihood of a big crisis have such insurance – dollars-to-doughnuts says they do.

Preparations for a severe situation often exaggerate what would be needed for the not-so-severe situation, because we know we are by nature optimists. Put your levees five feet higher than you think the water could ever come and you’re probably safe. In thinking about severity, though, we can’t just think about the ultimate cause of hardship. In New Orleans the ultimate cause, Hurricane Katrina, started a domino effect whose outcomes reverberated through the area.

In a Peak Oil crisis, the ultimate cause of the situation would be the lower per-capita available energy, while proximate causes of hardship might include hyperinflation, transportation-network breakdown, or even government repression. Severity is a rather hard thing to make guesses about because complex systems are, well, complex, and may have feedback loops that we can’t even begin to predict. Our third variable is duration, though I admit that being a “doomer” I was tempted to call it “permanence.” I doubt that this concept needs much explanation though I suppose it could be defined as “time until the situation stabilizes or returns to normal.”

Severe situations that are of relatively short duration are not as dangerous as those that are longer, or permanent. Often the length of crises determines whether there will be a “return to normal.” A crisis in a highly-interlinked society often means time without outside assistance, whereas the crisis we could be facing might mean a permanent severe situation with no outside inputs arriving, ever. Duration could also be the time of stabilization, between “old normal” and “new normal.”

For me the most obvious example would be the time of crisis between the demise of our current way of life and the coming of the Jeffersonian organic society, the new normal. Most people who share this vision of the future see a near-seamless transition riding on the crest of Permaculture teach-ins and community supported agriculture, but what if the duration is longer? What if a Peak event creates chaos which takes some years to transition from an urban society to sustainable communities. Look at your neighbors and imagine them hoeing weeds and making biodiesel before you answer this question (or imagine them hungry, and scared of the no-more-streetlights dark).

Dangerous Axioms.

In geometry, where one arrives and what one can prove depend on one’s axioms, that is to say the things one believes to be true without need of proof. Given the axiom x, we can infer the effects y and z of situation PO. Far too often we make arguments without stating the axioms that underlie our thinking, either because we believe them to be without need of proof, or (more often) because we aren’t even aware of them. In reading Peak Oil essays, I’ve identified some of these ideas which I would call “dangerous axioms,” dangerous in that we don’t reflect on them before using them.

The first is “human nature,” or the nature of human nature, or the nature of human nature in nature (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Both explanations of human actions in past crises and guesses about responses to future crises are often based on what the author imagines human nature to be. Are we inherently evil and self-centered, willing to steal from our neighbors just to stay alive, or are we good, or at least smart enough to solve the Prisoner’s Dilemma without many iterations, working together to our common benefit? I personally stand with Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael, on this question: we have a nature capable of both selfishness and altruism, and what we manifest is based on what the environmental context encourages. In any event, assuming human nature is one way or the other determines how we imagine the future.

Another dangerous idea is the unquestioned belief in progress, together with her children “rational debate,” “technological solutions,” and “human ingenuity.” Some sort of idea of the incremental but cumulative betterment of our standard of living if not also our standards of morality seems to be part of most of the world’s major religions and philosophies. In Christianity it was first articulated by Saint Augustine but really took hold during the Enlightenment with August Comte’s positivism.

Progress is an attractive idea, and on that seems to have a lot of evidence to support it, but it is, nonetheless, an idea. It’s interesting to me that Americans believe in it so strongly, despite the fact that most of us who are 40 years old or younger accept the fact that we will never “have it so good” as our parents. We work longer hours and make less than they did thirty years ago and we have fewer social programs to help us, but we cling to the idea of progress, perhaps because the alternative frightens us.

A belief in technological solutions to all problems is another dangerous axiom. It seems to be no great coincidence that Comte’s positivism and the Industrial Revolution were practically contemporaneous. Perhaps the latter was the parent of the former, not a mere relative? Americans, more than just plain progress, believe in technological progress. For every big problem, we seem to have invented a technological solution. Need to harvest more wheat? Call Mr. McCormick (or Monsanto).

Don’t want to die of tuberculosis? Don’t worry, Dr. Saulk’s got the cure! Fat? Get liposuction! In our love for these techie solutions, we ignore the fact that they often create other problems. In addition, some of them are only partial solutions – tar sands provide energy but at an EROEI far lower than conventional crude. I would put the almost-messianic and totally misplaced faith in the so-called “hydrogen economy” firmly in this category.

A more refined version of that idea is the faith in human ingenuity to solve problems (social, moral, etc.) that we can’t fix with technology. Note that I am not arguing that we as a species cannot solve some of our problems or some of those common to all of the biosphere’s species (most of which we created), but rather against the idea that human ingenuity can and will solve all problems. I think it is safe to say that this belief is common if not prevalent in our otherwise-gloomy philosophy (i.e. of Peak Oil) – for example, Energy Bulletin has a “Solutions and Sustainability” category, as well as the new category “Imagine.”

Human ingenuity will create amazing responses to Peak Oil and in fact, it already has (I would list permaculture, biofuel cooperatives, and CSAs as examples), but I personally believe that these are excellent responses, not solutions per se. They may make the coming storm easier to weather, but the ferocious winds and rains will come, in my opinion, just the same. Heck, who knows, we may develop new social forms for an easy transition to sustainability, but we should not take for granted (i.e. assume as axiomatic) that speedy development and replacement.

Another vestige of the Enlightenment that is an article of faith for even the most rational of us (in fact, especially the most rational of us) is a belief in rational debate to change people’s minds. I suppose I am the first to admit sin as I sit here writing in the hopes of changing minds, but I do not believe that overwhelming evidence, carefully and logically presented, will always or eventually convince anyone, not to mention everyone or even a majority.

I’ve had far too many conversations (debates? arguments?) about Peak Oil and collapse, not to mention other topics for which I had better evidence and reasoning (e.g. how Led Zeppelin is clearly the greatest rock band in history). I don’t think I am alone in this experience. It’s not that I have lost all hope of ever presenting a good argument, but I’m not going to be pissing into the wind trying to convince everyone or even most people.

People often ignore incontrovertible evidence and airtight arguments because the result conflicts with their belief systems. To those who commented “We should try to use this time to convince people…”, I say, give it a try and write in to tell us the results. I’m guessing most of the “we-shoulds” live on a street where the majority of people pray to the hydrogen God every night before they go to sleep, hoping it will save their butts. Try convincing your street before you give a lecture on how all of us should use our time and energy to change everybody’s else’s minds, because I can tell you from experience, it tends to be an energy-intensive, time-consuming, and frustrating-if-not-futile exercise.

All of the above – progress, the technological quick-fix, human ingenuity, and rational debate – also fall flat on their faces when confronted with a relatively simple equation: fossil fuels + land = lots of people. We have millions of “ghost acres” of land that are supplying solar energy stored eons ago in large inland seas-became-oil reserves, and the loss of this input (or rather its reduction) plus the ever-increasing loss of arable land, means that while there may be “lots of people” still in the future, there will be far fewer “lots of people.” I can’t help but think of the quote from one of the reader’s of Rob’s blog, who commented, “I find it interesting that a significant component of the peak oil crowd actually envisions an almost utopian powerdown scenario in which we all end up living like those cheery castaways on Gilligan’s Island.”

This leads me to a final dangerous axiom, which could be called “anthrocentricity.” It’s the idea that the problem to be solved is how to allow humans to exist at their current population levels, or something like it. From our anthro-centric point of view, a large population correction or die-off is a negative event. Seen from the point of the rest of the world’s species, it might not be such a bad thing. We are able to exist in such huge numbers so far up on the food chain only because we appropriate so much of the incident solar energy.

We cut down trees and wildflowers and chase away foxes to make fields and gardens. Even permaculture is a decision, made by humans, about which flora and fauna can benefit from the sun’s energy, usually because we want to use them for food. Whether or not it’s our “right” to appropriate this energy, to the tune of six billion (or one billion, or a half billion) humans is another question, but it’s a question we have to ask ourselves.

Any curbing of our numbers, whether minimal or extensive, would likely be heartily applauded by the rest of the earth’s species (could they applaud), aside from the several hundred that we have made dependent on us. If there were an Energy Bulletin site for cod, under the “Solutions and Sustainability” section I can imagine an articles called “Massive Human Die-Off Seen As Likely” or “Imagine A World Without Fishing.”

Preparation Decisions: Refuge vs. Community.

After a painfully long philosophical digression, I now return to a more concrete discussion of Peak Oil preparations. I’ve tried to show how the metaphors we use, the examples we cite, our guesses about a Peak Oil crisis’ speed, severity, and duration, and the axioms we unconsciously bring to our debates will determine how we approach preparations. I personally tend to think in terms of the die-off metaphor from nature (yeast, reindeer), and cite examples from the past like Easter Island and the Anasazi.

I expect a medium-to-fast speed of a crisis, a very severe situation (at least initially), and a more or less permanent new reality, not a return to where we are now. I do not believe in eternal progress or the ability of humans to “solve,” technologically or socially, a crisis of this magnitude to the extent that we can maintain our current population or something like it, and I emphatically doubt the likelihood of convincing friends and neighbors (or heads of state), in significant numbers, of the crisis before it’s upon us.

Therefore, my personal preparations are based on some sort of (temporary?) retreat with ten to twenty other people in a rural location where life will be more like it was in the early 1900s. By definition this requires learning a lot of skills that have been largely forgotten, as well as the acquisition of the tools that are fundamental to these skills (from meat grinders and grub hoes to beehive smokers and pruning sheers). I imagine the possibility of a world in which the electrical grid won’t be reliable, food supply will be spotty, and lots of people may be hungry.

I accept the possibility that I could be completely wrong, not because I’m humble but because it’s happened quite a number of times, so I’m used to it. Please believe that I fervently hope that I’m wrong. It’s possible that enormous new reserves of light, sweet crude will be discovered because of demand (Jake in the Gulf of Mexico?), that some of the just-around-the-corner energy sources will become viable and replace fossil fuels, or that long-secret products will be brought to the market.

It’s also possible that the current crisis will bring about, in the course of the next few decades, a return to a moral rural lifestyle, but with models already in small-scale use: organic agriculture, permaculture, alternative building systems, and tightly inter- and intra-dependent communities.

But I’m not counting on it.

And to boot, even if I did think that possibility was more likely than a more severe crisis, I still wouldn’t plan for it. Proper emergency planning means planning for the worst-case scenario, even if you don’t think it is the likely scenario. I hate to sound like the proverbial broken record on this point, but I am not about to trade in my homeowner’s insurance for fire extinguishers – are you? It’s better to be over-prepared for a crisis than under-prepared, and that’s something every Tenderfoot Boy Scout knows. An even better argument for this type of preparations is that they will be absolutely functional in the not-worse-case scenario.

In the neo-Jeffersonian Republic that we all (myself included, honest!) yearn for, my beehive smoker and knowledge of sauerkraut-making will be just as useful. Heck, they’re even useful today, even if they’re considered quaint hobbies rather than skills. The “survivalist” library will be just as helpful: my erstwhile critic Rob Hopkins told me that he had many of the books that I listed in my previous essay. Preparations for different situations are not, however, symmetrical.

In other words, skills you learn and tools you acquire for the worst-case scenario may be useful for the not-worst-case scenario, but the opposite is not always true. An intimate knowledge of how to organize a CSA or good Peak Oil talking points may or may not in a collapse situation. Ask yourself, “What if I’m completely wrong about the speed/severity/duration of a crisis?” As I said in my other essay, if I’m wrong I’ve got a cool, off-the-grid vacation house and some neat new hobbies. If the Jeffersonians are wrong, they might end up dead.

All decisions about preparations are about cost-benefit analyses and opportunity costs. The former is based on saying to yourself “Is what I get out of this investment of money/time/energy worth what I’m getting out,” while the latter is saying “Given my limited resources, I’ll do/buy this instead of this.” I personally have limited time and money so I have to choose between Perry’s Home Sausage Making and Campbell’s The Coming Oil Crisis (I’d choose the latter). I’m convinced of the arguments that the latter makes, so the latter book has more utility.

Sheesh, I’m starting to sound like an economist. In any event, it’s all about deciding how to spend your time and your money. Rob pointed out in his blog that spending time on learning survival skills takes time away from building communities and making people more aware of the Peak Oil crisis – and he’s absolutely right. Yet given my personal set of axioms (severe crisis, difficult to convince people), a summer spent planting fruit trees and experimenting with lactic fermentation is much more valuable.

It’s important to remember that the two are not mutually-exclusive: in between trips to local nurseries, I spent time with people in the area who seemed to be of like mind, just talking or helping with their sustainable projects. My emphasis, however, was on my own project, not “community building.” So is it morally wrong to be more concerned about my own skin? Sorry, I hung up the Superman cloak a while ago and only take it out for the last day of October.

An excellent point made by a number of readers was that survival in a group is much more likely, so planning should be at this level, but that assumes a somewhat-tidy transition to our Brave New Organic World, a transition I don’t believe in. We can always lash the lifeboats together after the ship sinks and pool our resources then. I am pretty confident, in any event, that in a time of crisis a neighbor who has very functional skills and some extra food will be able to make friends and influence people without resorting to Hubbert inflection points or abstract moral arguments.

Creating a sort of “refuge,” something I freely acknowledge is not an option for everyone, is a functional option for some. Building the physical plant and learning skills like building with cob, permaculture design, and beekeeping are fun and useful. It’s an investment, and something you can do to help yourself and maybe your community be more sustainable now, but without decision by committee. The community option is problematic for several reasons.

First, who is the community? Neighbors? Do you know them? The people in your neighborhood? Your suburb? What if your neighbors are like mine – too busy to listen, unconvinced even if they do, and have no money to dedicate to the cause anyway? You end up being the President, VP, and Secretary of your Sustainable Community Association.

But maybe you’re lucky and your neighbors are more open-minded and less harried than mine. Any decisions about what to do are still by committee – what if your community believes that the coming crisis won’t be as extreme as you do, or that it will be more extreme? What if they vote to spend dues money on fluorescent light bulbs instead of on a book about pruning, or on fluorescent light bulbs instead of on your favorite Peak Oil speaker? These are problems that arise even before a crisis comes calling in the form of the electricity going off and hungry kids looking in the window.

I applaud efforts like the powerdown projects for Willits and Kinsale (the latter edited by none other than Rob Hopkins), and think for a not-so-severe crisis, these towns will be flying high. But what if the crisis is more severe? Have the people in these communities worked out sharing plans with their neighbors in times of crisis? Will they respect these plans made in a time of plenty? Will people in Dunderrow, Belgooly, Ballinspittle, and Ballinclashet, as well as Fair Oaks, Crowley, Burbeck, and Shake City (the towns near to Kinsale and Willits, respectively) respect them? Perhaps our “community” should be a web of like-minded people in a larger geographic area, and not necessarily include everyone around us.

Self-Criticism

The kind of refuge I have in mind is not the easy option. Comments on Rob’s blog helped me to realize that, but it was also fairly evident to me this summer as I worked twelve-hour days building and digging and reading. One of the most poignant criticisms of the refuge idea is that there are those who would do it but don’t have the money. I am 29 years old but was able to start because my father sold his old house and bought a small cabin in the woods. I was able to dedicate three months this summer to it because I have no mortgage and make enough to take off that amount of time, a luxury few people have.

Another very accurate criticism was from the UK, where given the population density, there aren’t that many areas where one could find isolated property, except in inhospitable areas that aren’t the top of the list for raising crops or gardens. With the proper techniques, one can raise food anywhere, but areas that are heavily wooded or not near settlements tend to be so because of their unsuitability to agriculture. One again I forced to admit that this option is not open to everyone.

Another criticism was that a refuge-type place is just where desperate people would go. As one reader pointed out, people in rural areas know everyone’s business and it would be hard to keep lots of stored food secret. I have no response to this other than to say that I hope that it doesn’t get that bad that quickly, or that it gets really bad really quickly, so desperate marauders diminish in numbers. Yep, that’s a horrible thing to say but I won’t hide that I’ve pondered it. And, as I said earlier, I have been making connections with locals, particularly the like-minded ones. It’s in my best interest for my neighbors to have survival skills too.

Another commentator noticed that I had avoided the “G word.” I don’t currently own any guns, and I’m not a hunter (though Zog—my best friend, pictured in Rob’s blog—and I have good luck with clubs), and I’m scared as hell of a situation in which desperate people have guns. While I envy my European cousins and their lack of personal firepower, the reality is that Americans have guns, and that desperate people do desperate things to feed their children.

It’s something I’ve tried to avoid thinking about but which I’ll have to consider. As a commenter on Rob’s blog said, it’s best to avoid a firefight, but on the other hand it’s preferable to take one’s chances defending oneself, one’s family, and one’s community than to be trampled over by hungry marauders if it comes to that.

A criticism of my essay straight from Rob was that even with John Seymour’s book open to the page about slaughtering a pig, he still wouldn’t be able to do it properly. The first time maybe not, but I bet on the third try you wouldn’t be bad. Lots of these skills are still around if you look for them – Uncle Mark cans tomatoes and the woman down the street knows how to prune. If you can’t find a teacher, get a few good books and just try it. Don’t worry about learning everything: obviously it’s more functional for you to hone your gardening skills than your candle-making skills. There was a complaint about how long it would take to learn all these things – yep, you’re right.

I’ve been learning about pruning for the last three years and still don’t feel like an expert, and my cheese is still less than stellar despite a First World kitchen…but I’m ahead of the game. This summer during a break from planting Black Walnut seedlings, I read about a French nobleman who called in his head gardener in the morning and instructed him to go to the market to buy a rare species of tree and to plant it in the garden the next day. “But master, that species takes seventy years to mature!” “Quite right,” responded the nobleman, “Plant it this afternoon.”

Of course, the best-laid plans of mice and men are often for naught. Reading about the Spanish flu of 1919, which killed more people than the First World War, I realized that a pandemic would render the refuge worthless. Global warming, which I accept as factual and irreversible, could make upstate New York a desert or a tundra.

War could make the U.S. radioactive or toxic. But these are possibilities that are beyond any preparations I can make. I made the analogy of insurance earlier, where we prepare not for the likelihood but for the severity; obviously this has limits. The situation I have outlined, I think, is both severe and quite possible; likewise, solid preparations for this outcome are also possible. Even if you can’t become a somewhat hard-core doomer like me and Zog, you can still make some practical steps towards preparing for the future. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

I’ve had a field day poking fun at everything from permaculture to biodiesel, and even made several swipes at good ol’ Energy Bulletin, but I want to make it explicit that I do not think any of these things foolish. To the contrary! I recently bought a $125 copy of Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designer’s Manua, I have a working biodiesel still, and I read Energy Bulletin religiously (read: twice daily), even the “Imagine…” section.

I have books like Gaviotas on my shelf, I brew my own beer, I have solar panels and a windmill, and I try to introduce things like companion planting to my neighbors, and I’ve started reading Transition Culture more frequently. I don’t own a gun, I don’t want to live alone in the woods, and I don’t live in fear. I made fun of the things above not because I don’t respect them as excellent responses, but because I don’t respect them as solutions, or as a way to completely avoid a possible period of chaos. Chaos is not pretty.

Depending on feedback from this essay (make comments on Rob’s blog, please), I hope to write another one that gets down to the nitty gritty or What Skills, What Books, and What Tools. I’d like to thank all the readers who commented on Rob’s blog and Rob himself, as well as Daan Jobert, “Trawood,” and my faithful Editor of Long Paragraphs and Untidy Arguments, John Sherck.

Contributor Zachary Nowak writes: Please leave comments at Rob's blog, the site of the original post. Thanks.

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