Cheery news on the climate change and peak oil front this week.

If you aren’t actually witnessing climate change in all its glory, say in Britain (massive flooding, officially confirmed to be connected to global warming) China (massive flooding some places, drought and desertification elsewhere), the Amazon (drought), the Southwest and Southeast US (drought) or somewhere else, there’s increasing evidence that the Arctic Ice will be gone within the next decade or so.

This is not good news.

Add to that the new study that suggests that the Amazon Rainforest may essentially be destroyed within the next few years, and we’re facing two climate tipping points – not at the end of the century, but in the next few years.

Virtually all research suggests that most climate change isn’t very gradual at all – the IPCC report imagines linear, slow, moderate climate change, which is scary enough. But there’s ample science suggesting that in fact, what happens is radical, quick change, in non-linear ways – ice melt, for example, simply doesn’t proceed the way the IPCC report has presumed. It is not at all out of the question to imagine that we could experience massive climate change over the course of decade – arriving suddenly in a world we don’t recognize. Oh, and just plain old pollution is getting nasty – 75,000 Chinese people a year, 30,000 in the US (Financial Times).

On the peak oil front, The Oil Drum suggests a more significant decline in Russian production (up until now the only major oil producer not showing significant declines in supply) than otherwise expected. If Russia starts declining as Mexico and Saudi Arabia have, we can expect to see radically higher energy prices very soon. Goldman Sachs reiterated that we could see $100 barrel by 2009, and Pat Robertson apparently told his 700 Club listeners to get bicycles, that peak oil was here. And a newly translated book argues that the collapse of the Soviet Union was caused largely by too many farmers leaving the land. Sound like anything anyone has heard of?

If you’ve been to the grocery store lately, you know that the price of food is way, way, way up. Last week the price of powdered milk rose by *300%* – and almost everything else has risen by 25% or more over the last year. I’m starting to see working people ask how they are supposed to get by. And that’s a real question.

Tens of thousands of Americans and Australians are now experiencing “transportation poverty” – that is, they spend so much on gas getting to work that they can no longer buy basic essentials.

And if you are struggling to make ends meet, well, you can feel you are in good company – the UN last week announced that because of the ethanol boom and its effects on food prices, it will no longer be able to provide food aid to millions of hungry people. That is, we’re going to let millions of people starve to death so we can have more gas in our cars – and realistically, ethanol is a very short term boom – as fossil fuel prices rise and the environmental consequences become clear, ethanol, which provides a very, very minimal energy return, if that, is going to disappear.

One of our last big build outs was wasted making booze for our cars. I’m sure we’ll be glad we did that. Since food production is expected to halve in developing nations over the next 20 years, due to environmental constraints, the UN will certainly have more people not to feed. We’re warned that unless we lower our rate of consumption of just about everything, millions of people will starve. How much *do* we want that spongebob basketball set? That steak? That beer? Those shoes?

And does anyone still eat industrially produced food? There’s botulism in your chili, plastic in your dog food, salmonella in your peanut butter, and ecoli on your bagged spinach. Leaving your food production to corporate America can’t just kill you by giving you cancer, heart disease and diabetes – it can do it instantly! Whee!

We’re more indebted and our economy is shakier than at any time since right before the Great Depression. China and Japan are showing signs that they don’t want to prop up our economy forever. A new film suggests that without credit cards, many middle class people would be genuinely poor. Up to 60% of the British economy and 70% of the American is directly or indirectly tied up in our housing And there are few people who think we’re anywhere near the bottom of the housing market, or the foreclosure crisis.

Now it is perfectly possible that a few or some or even the aggregate of all this information is wrong. It is possible that magic bullets will be found, comfortable forms of adaptation will occur, and that everything will be less severe than the most acute forecasts. And realistically, I think that’s even likely – for some of us. The thing is, these circumstances won’t hit everyone the same way. Some of us will still be mulling over whether to install the sustainably harvested cork floors in their new “eco kitchen” while most of us are wondering whether the kids will have shoes.

Now some of you are on board, of course, but I’m sure there are plenty of readers here who think I’m overreacting – after all, the world is always going to hell in a handbasket, isn’t it? Why not just watch “24” reruns, and not worry about it?

So we come to the question of when and how to act. And I’m going to suggest that everyone who reads this take 10 basic actions to provide for their security right now – this year, whenever possible. I could be absolutely off base, but it seems like the combination of peak oil, financial instability and climate change is going to strike us hard, and soon. Now maybe you disagree – you expect technological solutions, or things to be gentler. But even if you do, there’s good reason to hedge your bets, invest a few resources and a little energy into preparation, so that just in case the crazy lady on the blog was right, your family, your community will be a little bit better off.

All of these things are ideas you can implement with very little money, very little time and without people thinking you are a weird-assed loon. They don’t even have to notice. So if you aren’t yet willing to come out and admit to anyone that you’ve been reading my site ;-), just do me this favor – make a few quiet plans, spend a little bit of money, and then laugh your ass off at me if I’m wrong. It will make me feel better, and I think you, too. Because, after all, the consequences of my being wrong are pretty small – a couple less dinners out, one less magazine subscription and you wait on the new car lease for an extra six months. The consequences of me being right on your family, however, could be pretty big. Life and death. So why not indulge your own family’s security just a little.

  1. Wherever you are, begin to adapt to lower energy living. I’ve written before about my basic assumption, which is that regardless of any apocalyptic visions of grid crash (which I have no strong opinion on), poor people get their utilities shut off a lot. In fact, shutoffs are rising dramatically all over the US right now, and tens of thousands of people are now in debt to their utility companies. A lot of us may have to choose between food and electricity, and it would be insane to prioritize electricity, which is merely a convenience. Here’s my take on the issue, if you are interested.

    At a minimum, you should get prepared to be able to get water from the sky or your well without power, keep yourselves tolerably warm or cool without central heating or a/c, etc… For those who aren’t convinced, this can be a fairly low input project – a pvc pipe turned into a well bucket costs about $5. Cap it with a plastic cap, make sure it is smaller than the diameter of your well, and ta da! Or try this

    Alternately, get some rainbarrels and a gravity fed filter – camping stores have them. The filter may set you back a bit ($75-100 for camping style, $200+ for a good table top whose filters will last a year (British Berkefeld), but clean water is a good thing.

    Make a homemade composting toilet using leaves and a bucket.

    For heat, go to yard sales and thrift shops and buy blankets, long underwear, and warm clothing. If you can, you might put in a woodstove, but you *can* live in a house with no heat without freezing to death. People have done it for centuries. Dress warmly, move around during the day, and at night, rig a four poster bed, with cloth covers over your bed and hung for curtains will create a small, tight space that is well insulated and heated by your body. Try not to let anyone sleep entirely alone – kids can sleep together or with parents. Or encourage the cat or dog to join you.

    For heat, you’ll have to stay outside most of the time, open windows at night and keep them closed during the day. Do your cooking in the early morning and at night, and eat cold things during the day. Don’t do heavy exercise during the day, if you can avoid it, and keep a close eye on small children and elders, who are much more vulnerable to heat than most adults. Use cool water to cool people down.

  2. Start a garden. It isn’t too late to start one today in most cases. Build some raised beds, or sheet mulch (cover with newspaper and a lot of organic material – manure, grass clippings, non-weed seed yard waste, compost), and let it all decompose. Or plant some herbs and vegetables in pots. But whatever you do, start thinking ahead to your long term food security. Every meal and nutritious bit of produce you grow is something you don’t have to buy. Many seed companies have fall sales – stock up on extra seeds for yourself and your neighborhood, just in case next year your food budget is stretched.
  3. Store food. With rising food prices, it would be nuts not to. Buy local and organic when you can, but store bulk local grains, local honey, dried beans, and put up some other items. Food storage doesn’t have to be costly – each week, alot $10 to food storage. The first week, you might buy 10lbs of organic, whole wheat pasta, or 20lbs of organic rice. The next, a 5lb box of salt and two bags of dried pinto beans. The following week a bottle of vitamins. As it gets cooler, and fall produce starts to come in, a cooler on your back porch will store bulk potatoes and onions that often can be purchased at very little. Buy a little extra of everything you eat, and practice cooking it. Remember, one of the consequences of hard times is family lose their homes and security. You may want this food not because there’s none in stores, but because you have no money, and the food pantry is stretched to the limit, or you may want it because your sister in law and her two kids are sleeping in your living room after their house was foreclosed upon, or perhaps you’ll want to be able to continue to give to charity, even when your resources are stretched by rising gas and food prices. Don’t forget to put some water in old soda bottles and other heavy duty beverage containers, and store it in your freezer or add a little bleach and put it in a cool, dark place.
  4. Get out of debt! I can’t emphasize this too strongly – make some cut backs and start paying down your credit cards. Get rid of the cable, the dinners out, the Sunday drive, the hobby expenditures. Pay down consumer debt first, car loans next, then your mortgage. The more equity you have in your home, the less likely you are to lose it if you stop being able to pay the mortgage.
  5. Get to know your neighbors. Talk to them. Make friends with them. Find out about them. Have an open house, a barbecue, a neighborhood party. Start a local community group, a home church, a local minyan. Get the kids together to play. Start thinking in terms of neighborhood solidarity – can I pick up some stuff for you at the farmer’s market? Why don’t you borrow my vacuum cleaner, instead of replacing yours? Can I feed your cats/help you out, etc… You need them and they need you. Start carpooling. Start a community garden. Get together to knit, or can or just talk. But start something.
  6. Have a plan. That is, think about what you would do if your income was halved or prices doubled? What if someone lost their job? What about health insurance? What if the power was out for an extended period, or like millions of Britons today, you had no safe water supply? What if something happened when the kids were at school and parents at work – how would you get in touch with one another? Cell phones may not be working – do you have a meeting place? If you had to evacuate, do you have the basics – copies of id, enough gas to get somewhere safe, food and water for a few days, changes of clothes, basic medical care? Think about what is most possible in your area, and be prepared for it.
  7. Get on your bike and start riding, on your feet and start walking. Most of us aren’t used to getting around by human power anymore, and we need to be. Suburbia is often pretty feasible if you have a bike. A 5-10 mile bike ride is quite doable for most healthy people, and even many unhealthy ones can cover a few miles on an adult trike or recumbent – my father, overweight, with lung disease and severe arthritis and nearly 60 rides his every day. A five mile round trip walk should be doable for most of us. And most of us do have some resources within walking distance. It just takes practice and energy. Cheap bikes are widely available, although investing more money will often get you a more comfortable one.
  8. Gradually start to replace powered items with human powered ones. Get a manual grain grinder for grinding flour for bread – fresh ground tastes better anyway. A push mower for the lawn. Some hand tools. A crank flashlight or two and a crank cell phone charger. You don’t have to go crazy, but as things need replacing, used items come up or opportunity arises, make sure you can be comfortable.
  9. Protect the vulnerable. Breastfeed your baby if at all possible, and don’t wean early – disease proliferates where hunger or flooding or other problems come. If you run out of food, you’ll make milk for a little while in a crisis. Keep the lives of babies and young children as stable and secure as possible, and watch their nutrition carefully. Prepare for older children in an unstable situation – buy clothes and shoes in larger sizes at yard sales, and help them understand what is happening. Be prepared to teach your kids at home for a while if necessary. Also be ready to take elderly people into your home, to check on neighbors. Stock extra medications, and have backup plans for caring for seniors and the disabled.
  10. Support your local poverty support programs, and build new ones. Local food pantries and fuel assitance programs are stretched to the max. Show up at yours and help them find new sources of food – grow food for them, volunteer, raise funds. You may need them someday.

Now the neat thing about all of this is that if you do these things, you’ll save some money in the long run, get more exercise, eat better, have better tasting food, a happier neighborhood, and a greater degree of personal security. Most of these preparations can be undertaken for very little money – and some are free. So get too it, folks – mock away, but protect yourselves.