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Intentional community pioneer Albert Bates on surviving peak oil

Albert Bates doesn’t think that either peak oil or global warming will usher in the apocalypse. Nor does he advise citizens to start stockpiling firearms and Krugerrands.

“There’s a contingent of peak oilers who are survivalists at heart,” Bates told me. But he isn’t one of them. “We don’t need to think of defending ourselves from packs of feral animals, we need to think of getting together quilting bees and sowing bees to make things.

“Honestly, what I think is coming is a good change. We’ll find that we have more time. What we’ve really lost in the last century of development is that we’ve become slaves to the clock. We waste a lot of time we spend commuting over highways and stuck in traffic snarls in cities. As we begin to shift back to a more nature-based life rhythm, following the seasons and the flow of the day, we’re going to find we have more time. We’ll have time to do skills like painting, knitting and art that we have lost. It’s going to create a happier population.”

Albert Bates. Last year, Bates, a civil rights and environmental attorney who has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court who reinvented himself as a pioneer in the intentional communities movement, published The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times (New Society, paperback, 237 pp., $19.95).

This is not a book for survivalists.

Though Bates does briefly write about “Defending from Warlords,” he does not give advice on how to recruit your golf buddies for a neighborhood militia or turn your basement into a secure bunker.

Instead, he writes, communities should have well trained law enforcement. “This might even be a good use for some of your gun nuts, as long as they owe their first allegiance to the community and don’t come to think that they are in charge.” As for families: “Learn and practice nonviolence and instill it as a value in your children.”

Ideas for Urbanites from the Farm

What Bates’s book does deliver is a concise summary of the problems of peak oil and climate change followed by chapter after chapter of ideas to prepare yourself and your family to live more self-sufficiently. Some ideas are practical ones that you might want to try now, like collecting rainwater or getting a kit to convert your car to run on biofuels. Other ideas you may want to save for later, such as quitting your job.

But two things make The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide stand out from the legion of recent tomes on simpler living, energy-efficiency or peak-oil preparation.

First, Bates peppers his text with dozens of actual recipes for cooking food. When Bates’ s mother died in 2003, she left him twenty cookbooks, from which he drew for his own book.

I cooked his recipe for split-pea soup, and found it more fool-proof than others I’ve tried. I have not yet tried his recipe for grasshopper quesadillas and probably need to work up more courage before I will. But many of his other recipes follow the same principle, if less aggressively – they substitute things you can make or find yourself (or cheaply buy) for meat or other ingredients that rely on today’s industrial food network and might become more expensive when peak oil hits. For example, take Bates’s Country Soysage [sic] Gravy, made with textured vegetable protein, his Tempeh Gravlax or even his Creamy Balsamic Milkweed.

Of course, there are plenty of hippie cookbooks out there too, but the other thing that makes Bates’ book unique is his thirty years experience working in appropriate technology, including his current stint helping to run one of the best-known intentional communities in the U.S., the Farm, near Nashville, where he has lived since 1972.

“I could easily take this as a collection of loose-leaf binders from our courses,” Bates told me. About 5,000 visitors per year from 50 countries take courses on such subjects as sustainable design, natural building, permaculture and restoration ecology at the Farm’s Ecovillage Training Center, which Bates directs.

The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide is more than a how-to reference for Bates. It’s also “a narrative of where we stand at this time. If we do it wrong, we will waste a lot of resources. The accumulation of our inheritance from the fossil-fuel era is precious. We should draw on it for the centuries ahead. This is one guy’s opinion of where we’re going; so let’s do this right.”

New York is Where I’d Rather Stay

City traffic. Though Bates lives in a rural community founded by like-minded folk, he doesn’t suggest that America follow him there en masse any more than he suggests stocking up on 12-gauge shotgun shells.

“It would be disastrous for the planet if we suddenly had a Kampuchean revolution where we spread everybody over the countryside; they would devour it like locusts. We need to stack people vertically in cities and supply them from the countryside as we did in the nineteenth century. Then, we need urban green design for water catchment on roofs and we need home gardens that don’t violate zoning codes.”

Bates says that a relatively low-density city like Nashville is perfectly suited to turn lawns into gardens and grow much of its own food, unlike more tightly-packed cities such as Washington or New York. Manhattan in particular only has a three-day supply of food on the island itself, leaving residents particularly vulnerable to any disruption in transportation or in the national food supply.

So, should New Yorkers just move to Nashville?

“No, but New Yorkers should think about where their food comes from. They should start thinking about community-supported agriculture (CSAs) in the Hudson River Valley and in New Jersey, which used to be the Garden State for a good reason. Of course, now New Jersey as well as Staten Island have been industrialized and paved over with suburbs. But New York has a really good rail network, unlike other areas in the country. To have train service in and out of the city means you can bring in food from further away.”

From his time in Russia in the early 1990s, Bates remembers how Muscovites dealt with the economic collapse and empty grocery store shelves by cultivating gardens in the countryside. They would grow food on the weekends in the summer and then preserve and dry it to carry them through the winter in the city.

“We could do that on a neighborhood or apartment building basis. In Boston, there are the Fenway Victory Gardens where anybody can have a little plot of land and grow food for themselves.”

Pick One: Global Warming or Peak Oil

In 1990 Bates published one of the first books on global warming, Climate in Crisis, complete with a preface from fellow Tennessean Al Gore. But today he thinks that peak oil is the more immediate problem.

“Climate change occurs over centuries or millennia. But now we’re coming close to the half-way point in our oil reserves and we will reach it in the next ten years.”

Bates worries about the political tension that could arise as oil prices rise high enough to destroy demand in poorer countries and set the U.S. at odds with China and India. With China in particular holding so much U.S. debt, a standoff with Beijing over dwindling oil supplies could have dangerous consequences for the American economy.

And while Bates is more optimistic about alternative energy sources than many peak oil activists – for example, he likes ethanol if done on a small-scale as David Blume does – Bates does not believe that our society can replace all of the fossil energy we use today and will demand in the future with clean energy sources.

“The problem is you really can’t match the BTU punch of fossil fuels with the current solar income of biofuels. You’re talking about millions of years of stored up solar energy in oil or coal and then trying to make that up with solar energy you get every day from solar panels or fuel crops. It’s interesting to see that civilizations have always progressed from less to more concentrated forms of energy, from burning wood to coal to oil. We’ve never gone in the opposite direction. This may be the first time in history we have to do that unless we go totally nuclear. Otherwise, we will find ourselves going back to solar power after having been in fossil fuels.”

Don’t Forget Population

But more than either global warming or peak oil, Bates worries about population.

“It’s the hardest problem we have to tackle. Compared to peak oil and global warming, it’s the least tractable. We can figure out solutions to reduce carbon and partially replace fossil fuels, but we’re going to have a hard time to deal with the religious and cultural momentum that’s making the world’s population double every thirty years and which, in turn, is placing huge demands on the world’s systems, not just fossil fuels. All our problems will get much worse and much worse if we don’t deal with it.”

Bates does think that population can be stabilized, but he looks to culture and not public policy for solutions.

“Don’t wait for governments. It’ll be a lifestyle change of individuals making conscious decisions. We may see a sense of honor among youth who choose not to have children or have fewer children. It’s a sense of pride, which drives vegetarianism or other movements.

“Look at the rich and see what’s fashionable. The future is pretty much determined by teenagers in Japan. If you can get them to start adopting a sustainable lifestyle, you’re on the way.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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