President Obama aroused the GOP’s ire for reminding business owners of the obvious point that their success relies in part on roads and bridges built at public expense. But the rest of us would do well not to place too much faith in big government in the uncertain times coming with peak oil, climate change and economic collapse.
Whether you think we’re facing another financial meltdown this fall that could lead to global chaos or just another fifty years of on-and-off recessions and partial recoveries, if you’re concerned about how to prepare you and yours for a future that will probably be much different than the past, then you want to do what you can now, while there’s still time to plan.
Preparing is difficult because nobody knows exactly what will happen in the future. In the absence of a crystal ball, the best we can do is become more resilient. Consider John Robb’s excellent definition of the term:
Resilience is the ability to bounce back quickly from damage, failure, and disruption. If you are into comics, resilience is similar to the way Spider Man recovers his footing and bounces back after being slugged by a super villain. Mental, economic, personal, familial, and community resilience will be the most important indicator of future success in an increasingly turbulent 21st Century.
Unless you’ve retreated to an isolated razor-wire Patriot compound where you’ve stockpiled an arsenal of small arms and ammo and have recruited a small militia to use them, personal or household resilience means little without community resilience. If your neighbors are hungry, your stash of cans in the basement won’t last too long. For most of us, living close to others in cities, suburbs and rural towns, Noah’s Ark is no kind of escape plan.
With that in mind, any first steps towards resilience need to happen at three levels: the personal, the household and the community.
1. Cut your consumption
Even mainstream experts who don’t know anything about peak oil and don’t think that economic growth is fundamentally unsustainable will tell you to save money, and that’s the obvious place to start. But saving money becomes more urgent if you’re looking towards a future that will be very different from the past, where the new normal may be the permanent end of economic growth or even a period of contraction as during the Depression — but this time, much longer.
For the growing number of unemployed workers, that future is now. I know what that’s like. A couple years ago, my wife Lindsay and I lost our full-time jobs within a few months of each other and had to make immediate cuts.
Our biggest expense was the mortgage. So we worked with the bank to reduce our monthly payment. Our second biggest expense was food so we cut that by eating out less and cutting down on luxuries at the grocery store and buying more food at the farmers market and from local farm stands, which, if you’re smart and buy what’s at the height of the season in quantity when it’s cheapest and then freeze it, can actually be cheaper than the grocery store.
The next big thing was transportation. We sold one of our two cars, saving us not only on car payments but also on gas, upkeep and auto taxes. We also saved on energy. We changed out all our lights to CFLs, had R-30 insulation blown into the attic and put up blackout curtains to keep the house warmer in winter and cooler in summer. As for clothes and incidentals, we cut back and then, for what we still needed, we started shopping antique and vintage (aka, our Main Street antique mall and Goodwill). Both lead us to surprising bargains of high quality, gently-used, name brand garments.
Now, running our own businesses, we make about half of what we did when we worked for someone else. But we have much more budgetary breathing room each month, allowing us to contribute to our savings again.
Collateral Benefits: Since saving money is a proxy for saving natural resources and reducing pollution, cutting our power bill, for example, also lowered our household’s demand for electricity from dirty coal. And shopping at thrift stores and yard sales has expanded beyond supplying our family’s needs into an Etsy business for my wife. In a scary scenario for the future where brownouts and blackouts could become common, the Etsy shop and our other Internet businesses might fail but Lindsay could still sell her inventory of high quality salvage locally.
2. Do more for yourself
Saving money can also spur you to get into re-skilling, learning old-timey crafts and homemaking skills that our great grandparents all knew: foodie stuff of course, from gardening to canning to baking an apple pie. But also mending and making your own clothes or furniture.
At our house, my wife has started making our own yogurt and cheese from our weekly raw milk delivery while I’ve started brewing beer, both of which have saved on our grocery bill. Over at our community garden, to keep the grass tidy, I bought a reel mower, which is easy to use right out of the box. Then, feeling more empowered to experiment, I bought a scythe, which takes some skill and practice not to slice through your boot or crack the fancy Austrian blade on a rock. And then you have to sharpen the damn thing with blacksmith tools, if you can believe that. It’s a far cry from running macros on a spreadsheet.
Can you provide some of your own energy, by heating with a wood stove or putting up a solar panel, for example? You may not be able to generate much, but as Chris Martenson points out, providing even 10% of the electricity you use now could make the difference between modern civilization and none at all in a powered-down future.
Collateral Benefits: Training yourself as a letterpress printer or ham radio operator, as John Michael Greer suggests, could be a nice hobby today while setting you up for a career in what will probably be the lower-tech world of tomorrow. Not only will this allow you to make a living if your current career disappears but it will also make you a more valuable member of your community. And intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, gaining honest skills where you create something useful and beautiful with your own hands is satisfying and empowering.
3. Build relationships
As I said, unless you are prepared to defend your home-castle from mutant zombie bikers by force, the only real hope of future security comes in being a valued member of a community.
You can sell your house, buy a camper and drive around the country looking for the ideal small town in which to ride out peak oil and climate change — far from the coastline, from population centers and from nuclear plants but close to farmland and natural water supplies — but unless your area is suffering from unusual problems, the best place to be is probably where you already are.
Urban farmers have shown that even a depressed and crime-ridden city like Detroit can host resilient communities.
Why should you stay put?
Because if you’ve lived somewhere for a while, that’s where you know people and where people know you. If family is nearby, all the better. The last couple generations of rootless careerists may have held parents and cousins in low esteem. But such snobbery was only made possible by the exceptional prosperity brought to industrial countries by the Age of Oil. In the post-oil world, family will return to the place of honor it has held throughout most of human history and blood will again be thicker than water.
That said, Lindsay and I don’t have much family nearby. We try to make up for it by forging stronger ties with our neighbors. Aside from starting a local Transition group, we’ve worked with the owner to turn a vacant lot into a community garden. We can still count our crew of fellow gardeners on one hand, but it’s only the first season. And as any greenthumb knows, gardening is a gateway drug for plant swaps, canning workshops and harvest fests, which are all great ways to get to know people.
I’ve also served on a variety of volunteer boards for arts and economic development non-profits. This spring, I ran as a candidate for city council and was fortunate enough to win. I certainly encourage anyone with an interest in public service to run for local office. But if you’re not ready to take the plunge, you can still get involved with your local government, whether on a city or a neighborhood level.
Yes, there’s corruption and gridlock in Washington and probably in your state capital too. But unless your town is totally dysfunctional, there’s probably a chance to make a real difference at City Hall and help make your whole community more resilient by promoting economic relocalization.
Collateral Benefits: For me, there’s also the danger of getting sucked into the digital world where I can filter out people who don’t know or care about peak oil or may disagree with me about climate change. It’s tempting to interact with “my peeps” on Facebook and forget about the live human beings who happen to live next door. But this is not good for me — it makes me intellectually and emotionally lazy. Surface-level relationships online are also not as satisfying as the kind of deep, lasting relationships you can build with people in person.
– Erik Curren, Transition Voice