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Homeowner’s Insurance and Fire Extinguishers

Everybody is a shrink at heart, and we have seen it on the pages of Energy Bulletin lately. The powerdowners are working like sixty to figure out why we “doomers” are so damn stubborn and won’t sign up for their permaculture classes. I refer to the recent articles by Rob Hopkins from Transition Culture and Toby Hemenway , both of whom dig deep into the soul of our doomer gloom. In this essay I would like to change the debate a bit, shift it from reasons for believing, in a collapse, to reasons for preparing for a collapse.

A quick review of the reasons for believing in Peak Oil is in order, though. The first reason given is that all of us doomers are, well, gloomy – we sit in our rooms and brood, counting backwards from our secret Last Judgement day. This does not fit the peakniks I know who believe in a crash (two do sketch comedy!), but perhaps there is another explanation. Rob Hopkins says it is because we feel useless – we are a generation of men who have no practical skills, ergo we believe in doomsday. I do not understand the gender difference, nor do I understand the segue. It is just as reasonable to say that men in the last fifty years have become largely urban dwellers, or have multiple jobs during their work careers, and therefore they believe in doomsday. It is a correlation, not causation, and a fairly questionable correlation at that.

Toby Hemenway on the other hand would have us believe that we are doomers because we are steeped in a Judeo-Christian-medieval-scientific apocalyptic tradition. What about those who are from Western Europe and do not believe in doomsday like (I suppose), Toby himself? Are they immune, smarter, or just more rational? And what of the people in India and Japan who believe in a collapse? Do they too have apocalyptic traditions? Interestingly, Hemenway seems to want to use his extensive (and, ultimately, rather tedious) list of collapses-not-come-to-pass to convince us that it never will, an argument I think we are all familiar with: surprise, it is that same old faulty logic of economists who ridicule past predictions of an oil peak. Read your mutual fund prospectuses: past trends do not guarantee similar future results, as those of us who have General Motors stock may know.

We could debate why doomers believe in a collapse and powerdowners do not, but while it is obviously an interesting debate (Rob’s blog has eighty-eight comments), it does not seem terribly useful. A better debate, and incidentally one I think is more rational anyway, revolves around reasons for preparing for a crash, whether you believe one will occur or not. Here I will trundle out a tired metaphor, but one which I think best represents the case. Without trying to offend anyone, I would bet that both Rob and Toby have homeowner’s insurance on their houses (if they do not rent – in that case the bet is that their landlords have it), and I would bet further that neither Rob nor Toby would exchange that insurance for a fire extinguisher or two.

Were I to begin plumbing the depths of these two men’s souls, trying to divine the font of this apocalyptic belief in houses burning, I would be considered, as they say on that side of the pond, daft. Did Toby once get a rather nasty burn? Rob may make great cob and wonderful marmalade, but perhaps in the Scouts he never was able to earn the Fire Lighting merit badge. Or is it the Prometheus complex we all carry around with us – or better yet, a psychological reaction to global warming? Heat, fire, fire insurance – it’s all in their heads.

No, assuming Rob and Toby have insurance, it is not because they believe in the likelihood of a fire, but rather that they recognize the severity if it were ever to occur. None really believe Home Sweet Home will be reduced to ashes by a freak December lightning bolt, but we know that if it were ever to happen, it would be ruinous. And having a fire extinguisher is simply not an adequate enough protection against that.

What I am trying to get at is a basic rule of emergency preparedness, whether it is for a flat tire or a hurricane: prepare for the worst-case scenario, not for what you believe likely. I have never had a flat, but I certainly have a jack in my car, as well as flares and a small medical kit. As we all saw last year, the US government ignored this rule with its levee-building. They built for what they expected to happen, not what could only happen once in two hundred years and which was extremely unlikely. Yet it happened nonetheless. One cannot go to extremes – I cannot carry in my car a new engine, all the tools necessary to change it, as well as an emergency ham radio and an EKG machine. One has to balance out the diversion of energy, time, and other resources, and there is no clear formula.

So how are peakniks and doomers the same, and more importantly, how are they different? I think I would like first to respond to the annoying and vaguely patronizing subtext of many commentators, the unwritten suggestion that we doomers are crazy, psychologically off, antisocial, gloomy, unhappy, unloved, irrational, computer nerds, all generally desirous of the destruction of a world that has treated us badly. We’re not. We are your neighbors and friends and colleagues. We are just as sane as you, and likely we do not want to see a collapse. We just want to live out our everyday lives with the wife/husband, dog named Fido, a car (biodiesel if possible), and two kids. Perhaps you do not like to accept that reasonable, rational people with the same aims as you think differently. We are also remarkably similar in our reaction to Peak Oil. Our libraries overlap to a great degree, we have learned many of the same skills, and we try to do the “little things” (e.g. fluorescent lightbulbs, walk instead of ride, etc.), too. I made fun of permaculture before but I own three books on it and hope to take a more in-depth course soon. But therein is the main difference.

Toby Hemenway, if he is interested in wild edibles, is interested perhaps insofar as he can use some wild onions to spruce up a stew, or nasturtium buds for a salad. I am interested in wild edibles because there may come a day where they provide fifty percent of my calories. I need to know not just how to pick and wash them, but also how to store them. Can you store daylily tubers in a clamp like those used for potatoes? How long does acorn flour keep? What is the time-calorie return for collecting cattail roots in Spring? This is a qualitative difference. Perhaps Toby too has tried making sausage – does he have a large supply of saltpetre? Or two extra parts for each of those that make up his hand-turned grain grinder? These are the questions that separate us, not our psychologies or cultural mileu.

I personally do not believe in a “hard crash.” James Howard Kunstler’s theory of a long-term, ever-deepening depression, outlined in his book, The Long Emergency , seems like the most likely scenario to me. I am not, however, preparing for the scenario I believe most likely (nor the one that I want, to happen, which is a suspicion I have of many powerdowners). I am preparing for the what I do not expect will happen, the worst-case scenario, because that is logically what makes the most sense. It makes sense because all my preparations would be just as helpful in the Brave New Organic World we are all (me included) hoping for as in the Long Emergency. But there is an asymmetry of emergency preparations – less rigorous preparations will not be so helpful if there is a collapse.

We have been distracted by the debate about why some of us believe in a possible crash, and why some do not. This debate cannot be resolved and even if it could be, is only marginally useful. Much more important is the quite rational and eminently resolvable debate on the logic of various preparations, or their value in different situations. I would argue that it is better to be over-prepared instead of under-prepared, and I challenge those who think differently to turn in their isurance policies for a bright red fire extinguisher.

Editorial Notes: This editor tries to practice simultaneously considering the possibility of several different types of dynamic future scenarios, some of them unfortunately quite gloomy, others more optimistic. In terms of preparations I look out for strategies which produce multiple benefits, and which retain some relevance across a number of scenarios, and ones which foster more co-operation. Bryn Davidson and David Holmgren's respective work on peak oil and climate change scenario planning offer good initial frameworks for formalising this approach. They acknowledge and explore the possiblity and characteristics of a range of extreme scenarios, while developing understandings, principles and strategies which have offer benefits to all of these. It's also necessary to address which planning scale we considering. Focusing exclusively on worst case preparations might be valid at personal and family levels (for some people), while at a broader societal level preparing only for these worst case scenarios would be disasterous. The insurance metaphor is valuable, but to flip it around, the author too presumably pays his utility bills, assuming that there will be enough of a coherent economy in operation next month to make his ongoing good relationship with those companies a good investment. Like many of us he is in fact entertaining and preparing for more than one type of scenario – and pursuing behaviours of relevance to several scenarios. Norman Church's recent article Enlightened Survivalism explained how household or individualist emergency preparedness might be considered a form of social responsibility. (He argues that it won't be those who have learnt self sufficiency skills and stored food who go looting or put pressure on police or medical services in a crisis.) On the otherhand, many useful preparations at the community level for the worst case scenarios may only come out of pursuing more optimistic tactics – ie. increased community cohesion and solidarity of value in emergency situations, arising out of pursuing the happy relocalisation goals of Rob Hopkins' Energy Descent Action Planning framework. So there are already many ways these approaches have relevance to each other and the various scenarios. -AF

Author name removed August 2014 at author's request.

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