Monday, 18 March 2019

Responding to Collapse, Part 7: A Team Sport

Late Winter (Early Spring?) on Lake Huron

At the end of my first "Preparing for/Responding to Collapse" post , I said that we'd be considering the following subjects in this series:

  • where you want to be—where bad things are less likely to happen
  • who you want to be with—people you know, trust and can work with
  • what you are doing—something that can support you, and allow you to develop the skills and accumulate the resources you will need

I think I've given the first one adequate treatment in the last 5 posts (2 to 6 in this series) so now I'm moving on to the second item—who you want to be with.

So, who do you want to be with? The main thing, I think, is that you want to be with people, rather than being alone—to borrow a phrase from Douglas Rushkoff, being human is a team sport. (Here's a podcast with Rushkoff and Naomi Klein that I found interesting. Of course Rushkoff isn't talking about exactly the same thing as me, but it's still good stuff.)

What I am talking about is this: it is in the nature of human beings, and very much to our benefit, to work together in groups. Such groups act as a force multiplier, achieving more than what you would expect from simply adding up the number of people involved. And that's more both in the sense of 1) achieving the group's common goals and 2) enhancing the individual well being of its members. For most of the time that people have existed, we've lived together in small groups (less than Dunbar's number), made decisions largely by consensus, and allocated resources in a sort of "primitive communism"—from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs, if I can be forgiven for quoting Karl Marx.

During the difficult times that lie ahead of us, I think we will need to fall back on this way of living, in order to successfully meet the challenges we face.

But over the last few centuries this sort of thing has gotten a bad name. People have gone from living in small, close knit communities made up of large, extended families to living in isolated nuclear families or as lone individuals, and relating to other people mainly via the formal, money based economy. During the time when this change was happening, the level of affluence in our society continually increased, allowing us to get by just fine more or less on our own. It seems that many people have come to believe that individualism is at least partly responsible for the progress we have experienced, and that our former way of living probably had to be abandoned in order to reap the benefits of that progress.

I would say that such ideas are a long way from reality. So much so that I think we'd better stop here for a closer look at the advantages of living and working together in groups, and follow that up by considering why we have given up on this way of life. Best to be clear on this before going on to the practicalities and pitfalls of forming and working together in groups within your new community.

It's interesting that while today's corporations are intensely capitalistic and competetive, within them people are often organized in teams or crews whose members relate to each other in a very "communistic" way. I'd say that this is a tacit acknowledgement of what actually works best. For much of my career with Hydro One (Ontario's electric transmission and distribution utility) I worked as part of a crew of maintenance electricians. While it is true that there are some jobs that can be done by one person, most of the work we did went much better when done by a small group of people. Once such a crew gets to know each other and the work they are doing, they can organize themselves to do that work more productively and enjoyably than the same number of individuals could do working separately.

Within a crew there is usually a diversity of skills that complement each other, and allow people to focus their efforts on the parts of the job best suited to them. And of course the nature of most work (be it physical or mental) is such that it can be done quicker and more easily if the people doing it help each other.

Teams like this are an excellent learning environment, where you can pick up a great deal from people with more experience or different experience than you. Not just job related learning, but also contributing to your growth as a human being.

Beyond productivity and training, there are many benefits to the members of the crew which are not an intentional part of the situation or necessarily supported by management, but which certainly make for a better work environment— camaraderie, companionship, support (both in times of difficulty, and in growth and accomplishment), and the ability to make the boring parts of the job go quicker with humour, story telling, singing, etc.

As it happened we were also members of a labour union, which did its best to shield us from the worst predations of management. Unions are a pretty clear case of the use of group solidarity in dealing with a situation where the power dynamics would otherwise be completely one sided.

Co-operative efforts of groups of people in organizations like food co-ops and housing co-ops enjoy the benefits of enhanced bargaining power and economies of scale that are not available to nuclear families or single individuals. A group can also provide a safety net for its members in a way that conventional insurance, provided by a company whose main responsibility is to its share holders, can never do.

People working and living together also get to know each other quite well. Because of this the group can effectively discourage its members from shirking their responsibilities and provide them with a strong incentive to contribute to the full extent of their abilities.

And lastly I'll just note that compared to an isolated existence, living in groups with people that care about you and will help when you need it, has considerable psychological benefits.

So, given all these advantages, why have we largely abandoned our extended families and close knit communities?

Certainly, there is some overhead involved in living and working in close knit groups, and you can see why people who have attained a sufficient level of affluence might choose to exercise their independence and strike out on their own.

But the idea that group life is not worth the effort is somewhat of a self fulfilling prophecy. Living as we do these days, with a big emphasis on individualism and little opportunity to practice working in groups or learn it from experience people, we have forgotten many of the interpersonal the skills that make primitive communism work so well. And as long as things are going well there is little incentive to really try to make co-operative efforts succeed. We can do just fine on our own, without the trouble of getting along with others. Those whose lives are the most precarious, for whom individualism really isn't working, have come to simply not trust other people, and would never think of working together for their mutual advantage.

But even allowing for all that, I think we also need to keep in mind that isolated people are a lot easier to control and exploit, and this is very much to the advantage of the people who are running things in our society.

Whenever I see people making choices that clearly run counter to their own best interests, I've found that I only have to look a little further to uncover a great deal of effort that is being expended to make them do so. Effort that is being made by those who do stand to benefit from those poor choices. This is certainly the case practically everywhere in the world today, with most countries ruled by oligarchies who at best give only lip service to democracy, and are not of the people, by the people or for the people.

So, I would like to suggest that what going on here is rather different from the way we are encouraged to perceive it. Maybe, for most people, the growth of individualism was anything but progress. And while it is true that this happened while a lot of progress was happening, you don't want to confuse cause and effect. If you look closely, you can see that much of that progress was basically economic growth, or very closely tied to economic growth, which was largely driven by our switch over to using fossil fuels as our primary source of energy. So I'd say economic growth and the rise of modern capitalism drove the growth of individualism, rather than the other way around.

A excerpt from David Graeber's Debt: the first 5000 years may help clarify:

By the end of World War II, the specter of an imminent working-class uprising that had so haunted the ruling classes of Europe and North America had largely disappeared. This was because class war was suspended by a tacit settlement. To put it crudely: the white working class of North Atlantic countries, from the United States to West Germany were offered a deal. If they agreed to set aside fantasies of fundamentally changing the nature of the system, then they would be allowed to keep their unions, enjoy a wide variety of social benefits (pensions, vacations, health care...), and, perhaps most important through generously funded and ever-expanding public educational institutions, know that their children had a reasonable chance of leaving the working class entirely. One key element in all this was a tacit guarantee that increases in workers' productivity would be met by increases in wages: a guarantee that held good until the late 1970s. Largely as a result, the period saw both rapidly rising productivity and rapidly increasing incomes, laying the basis for the consumer economy of today.

This was the world into which I was born and grew up. Essentially, "setting aside fantasies of fundamentally changing the nature of the system" amounted to abandoning our communities and extended families, in exchange for individual affluence and economic security. Unfortunately, because of 1) a financial system based on interest bearing debt and 2) a growing population, this world required endless economic growth in order to continue fulfilling its promise. In another reality, where planets have infinite resources, this might have been possible, but not here.

After a few paragraphs about how this relates to Keynsian economics, Graeber goes on to say:

When the Keynsian settlement was finally put into effect, after World War II, it was offered to only a relatively small slice of the world's population. As time went on, more and more people wanted in on the deal. Almost all of the popular movements of the period from 1945 to 1975, even perhaps revolutionary movements, could be seen as demands for political equality that assumed equality was meaningless without some level of economic security. This was true not only of movements by minority groups in North Atlantic countries who had first been left out of the deal... but what were then called "national liberation" movements from Algeria to Chile, which represented certain class fragments in what we now call the Global South, or, finally, and perhaps most dramatically, in the late 1960s and 1970s, feminism. At some point in the '70s, things reached a breaking point. It would appear that capitalism, as a system, simply cannot extend such a deal to everyone. Quite possibly it wouldn't even remain viable if all its workers were free wage laborers; certainly it was never be able to provide everyone in the world the sort of life lived by, say, a 1960s auto worker in Michigan or Turin, with his own house, garage, and children in college—and this was true even before so many of those children began demanding less stultifying lives. The result might be termed a crisis of inclusion. But the late 1970s, the existing order was clearly in a state of collapse, plagued simultaneously by financial chaos, food riots, oil shocks, wide spread doomsday prophecies of the end of growth and ecological crisis—all of which, it turned out, proved to be ways of putting the populace on notice that all deals were off.

I would say that the underlying problem causing this failure of capitalism is economic contraction caused by the reduction in the surplus energy available as we've been forced to tap into ever poorer quality and/or less easily accessible fossil fuels. And sadly this is a problem for all economic and political systems. Indeed, it is a problem without a solution, which is bringing about changes that we will just have to adapt to.

I am not certain if Graber agrees with me that the crises we've faced since the 1970s are quite real, but I do agree with him that those in power have certainly used those crises to "put the populace on notice that all deals are off." He is also quite right that this is a "crisis of inclusion"—as the economy contracts the rich and powerful are not about to be excluded, so a great many other people have had to be, in order for the rich to keep a relatively larger slice of a shrinking pie.

But how, you may ask, does this relate to the problem of diminishing community in our modern society? Well, it seems that all the fixes that are available to the excluded majority involve us being separated from our former support systems (family and community in an informal economy) and striving to perform better as competing individuals in the formal economy.

We are told that to secure a good job we need an education, at least a bachelor's degree. This means (in many countries) taking on a significant amount of debt, so that after you graduate, you'll be desperate to get a job and pay off your student loans. This leaves you very little choice in the job you take and little choice about leaving it if it doesn't suit you.

To get that job it is very likely that you'll have to move a long way from where your family currently lives and set up as a lone individual, in a place where you, at least initially, have no support network.

If you meet the love of your life and decide to live together or actually marry, you will both have to go on working to pay off those student loans and make a start on building a family together.

This is a stressful situation, especially since you don't have any sort of support network and I suspect it contributes to marriage breakup. If you do break up you'll be left as a single mother or a lone individual.

Or perhaps instead of seeking higher education, you could go for a job in the trades. As I said earlier, crews of tradesmen are among the best examples of communistic relationships found in today's world. But in most companies there is a strong push to have people working by themselves whenever possible and to have as little contact with their co-workers as possible, lest they organize a union. Unions are in a desperate situation today, with no effort being spared to break them and leave working people completely at the mercy of management.

All this is very convenient for those who are in power. It is easier to exploit people who are not organized, who see each other as competitors rather than comrades. And in the process you can monetize much work that used to be part of the informal economy and make some additional profit out of it, while keeping people conveniently isolated from each other. I'm not saying this is a conspiracy of any sort, just rich people supporting the kind of politicians who will benefit them the most in the short term, and rest of us taking the path of least resistance through our lives.

Even if you are fortunate enough to have a good, secure job, it is pretty easy to look around and see than many other people find themselves with no support from family or community and working for minimum wage with no benefits in a job where their schedule can be adjusted and their hours reduced arbitrarily and they can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. And if they end up jobless and homeless, there is a definite tendency to put the blame for this onto them, rather than a system which sees workers as liabilities rather than assets.

No wonder many people are starting to express doubts about the current world order. As BAU continues to collapse it will become more and more clear that there must be a better way to live. Many would tell you that things are more likely to break down into chaos and violence but a closer study human behaviour in disasters shows that when there is trouble, people feel a strong urge to work together to help each other pull through.

Well, that was a lot of words expended in support of a proposition that I originally thought was obvious. I do think it was worth it, but now this post is just about as long as it should be. So I'll wrap things up here and continue next time with a look at the pitfalls and practicalities of forming and working together in groups within your new community.

The Disaster Mythology is a subject that keeps coming up on this blog, and to save explaining it again and again in various posts, I've finally created a page about the subject: The Disaster Mythology. Check it out.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

Monday, 4 March 2019

What I've Been Reading, February 2019

Links

Collapse

  • Why We’re Underestimating the Risks to Human Civilization, by Umair Haque, Medium-- Eudaimonia
    " We’re Not Taking The Challenges of the 21st Century Seriously Yet. We’d Better Begin, Now."
    "I’m suggesting that a world splintered into nations that resemble a collapsed, fascist America — or maybe worse — each one bitterly contesting its share of dwindling resources, ready to do violence and commit atrocities, is going to be an age in which peace, progress, plenitude, and the survival of a whole lot of people grind to a screeching, lethal halt."
    Mr. Haque seems to think that if we just try hard enough and soon enough we can go on progressing and prospering. I disagree--he's missing the "declining surplus energy" problem, for which there is no solution. But I do think that quite a few of us might manage to survive what's coming, if we actually got to work at it.

Responding to Collapse,

A Paradise built in Hell, The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster
I'm borrowing the title of Rebecca Solnit's book for this section of links. Human beings feel, in times of crises, a deep need to come together to take care of each other. Contrary to the horrific picture of typical reactions to disaster painted by the "disaster mythology", in fact communities often come together to help themselves in the most extraordinarily positive ways.

Peak Oil

Climate Change

Economic Contraction

Food

Politics

Dancing on Graves

The Scientific Consensus

  • How to make mountains, by Marcia Bjornerud, Aeon
    "In living memory, geologists believed that the Earth was slowly shrivelling, little guessing how vibrantly alive it truly is."

Science Based Medicine

Lacking an Owner's Manual

  • 5 Things Every Woman Needs From Her Husband, by Michelle Wuesthoff, from her blog"Live Life Beautifully"
    We've been married for 41 (and a half) years and what Michelle is saying in this article and the one below certainly rings true to me. I had a close look around her website and yes, she is a Christian. But, in these two articles at least, she isn't letting that handicap her too much.
  • 5 Things Every Man Needs From His Wife, by Michelle Wuesthoff, from her blog"Live Life Beautifully"

There is No God, and Thou Shall Have No Other Gods

I don't think I've made any secret of the fact that I am an atheist, but I may not have made it clear that I think any sort of worship is a bad thing and that believing in things is to be avoided whenever possible. Indeed, I do not believe in believe itself. That's what the "Thou shall have no other gods" is about--it's not enough to quit believing in whatever God or Gods you were raised to believe in, but also we must avoid other gods, including material wealth, power and fame.

  • The Science of Miracles, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Medium--Science
    Prayer studies are a "wild goose chase that violate everything we know about the universe," Richard Sloan, professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and author of Blind Faith, told me: "There are no plausible mechanisms that account for how somebody’s thoughts or prayers can influence the health of another person. None."
    "Consciousness is a product of brain function. Period." my comments: wishful thinking
  • Why I Won’t Teach My Child to Believe in God, by Mateo Askaripour, Medium--Religion
    "My journey from undoubting faith to disbelief, in four acts."
  • Reasonable Dubt-- How I Lost God, by Kiley Bense, Medium--Religion
  • Atheism Is Not Faith, It’s Reason, by Thor Benson, Medium
    "Let’s not pretend there’s no reason to question if there’s a God"
  • Atheism is not a belief, by Joe Nuxoll, Medium
  • Unbeliever, by Joao Nascimento, Medium--Religion
    " The never-ending war between believers and Atheists — the evildoers — must stop. I am nothing more than an unbeliever, but I am an Atheist. You are no more righteous than me. Believe in that."

Poverty, Homeless People, Minimum Wage, UBI, Health Care, Housing

  • We Don’t Need Private Health Insurance, by Adam Gaffney, The Nation " New single-payer plans don’t need to worry about carving out roles for health-care profiteers."
    Sound like at least some people in the U.S. are catching on.
  • Finding Home in a Parking Lot, by Sarah Holder, City Lab
    "The number of unsheltered homeless living in their cars is growing. Safe Parking programs from San Diego to King County are here to help them."

Books

Fiction

Non-Fiction

Thursday, 7 February 2019

What I've Been Reading, January 2019

Links

Miscellaneous

Collapse

Note the various ways the authors look at overshoot and dieoff, ranging from choosing not to mention it at all, to focusing too much on it.

  • 2018: the tipping point—My year in review— looking back, looking ahead, by Nafeez Ahmed, Medium—InsurgeIntelligence
    Largely a list of what Mr. Ahmed has been and will continue to work on, with many link to articles that will likely show up here in the months to come. And most of it is to do with collapse, so I've included it in this section.
  • Your World Is Going to Shatter—A letter from the future, by Eric Hinton, Medium—Future
  • Collapse? It’s already here, by Surly, Doomstead Diner
  • Does Rebar Rust? By Practical Engineering, YouTube
    In this case "collapse" has a much more literal meaning, referring to the failure of the steel reinforced concrete that so many structures are built of today. Many existing structures were built without using the advanced techniques discussed in the video to prevent rusting of rebar, and they are and will continue to fail earlier than they might otherwise need to. With funds for replacing infrastructure in short supply, this will lead to the very literal collapse of much of industrial civilization.
  • Climbing Everest in high heels, by Tim Watkins, The Consciousness of Sheep
    "Politics matter, of course. In a future of economic contraction it is far better to be governed consensually by people who understand the predicament and who plan a route to deindustrialization that has as few casualties as possible on the way down… one reason not to keep voting for parties that dole out corporate welfare at the top while driving those at the bottom to destitution. That road tends to end with guillotines and firing squads. "For all of its passion and drama, however, the role of politics in our current predicament is somewhat akin to the choice of footwear when setting out to climb a mountain. Ideally you want to choose a pair of stout climbing boots; but nobody is offering those. For now the choice is between high heels and flip-flops to climb the highest mountain we have ever faced. If we are lucky, the political equivalent a half decent pair of training shoes might turn up, but while the world is focussed on economic growth; that is the best we can hope for… and we still have to climb the mountain whatever shoes we wear."
  • How collective intelligence can change your world, right now—An open source toolkit for self and social transformation, by Nafeez Ahmed, Medium—InsurgeIntelligence
    Some good stuff in this one, but a little too much mysticism for me. Getting everyone to agree is way harder than that. So much so that it shouldn't even be our goal.
  • Why American Collapse is Only Just Beginning (Not Ending), by Umair Haque, Medium—Eudaimonia
    "Six Megatrends That Will Shape the Future"

Responding to Collapse,

Peak Oil

  • The Shale Oil Revolution Actually Reflects a Nation in Decline, by Christ Martenson, Peak Prosperity
    "Faster consumption + no strategy = diminished prospects."
  • Is An Oil Supply Crunch Looming? By Nick Cunningham, The Fuse
    "The global oil industry needs to come up with 35 million barrels per day (Mbd) of fresh supply between 2017 and 2025 in order to compensate for rising demand and natural decline from existing oil fields, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2018 World Energy Outlook. Projects that are already under development could add roughly 11 Mbd over that timeframe, the IEA said in November. Additionally, the IEA said U.S. shale liquids could add another 7 Mbd of new supply, although it would require a heroic effort to achieve – the rate of production growth over the ten-year period of 2015 to 2025 would slightly exceed the ramp up in Saudi Arabia between 1967 and 1977, making it the 'fastest rate of growth ever seen,' the IEA said."
  • The Next Big Threat For Oil Comes From China, by Philip Verleger, OilPrice.com

Climate Change

Food & Agriculture

Genetic Engineering

Before jumping to the erroneous conclusion that this section was paid for by Monsanto, stop for a moment and understand that organic agriculture/food is a multi-billion dollar per year industry that relies on fear to get people to buy its expensive products instead of the more reasonably priced ones of conventional agriculture. Millions of dollars are spent to convince you that non-organic food is dangerous. In fact both conventionally grown and organic foods are about equally safe. Sadly neither method of agriculture is even remotely substainable.

  • Scientists engineer shortcut for photosynthetic glitch, boost crop growth by 40 percent, by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • The 7 Craziest Ways CRISPR Is Being Used Right Now, by Emily Mullin, Medium—Health
    I'll say two things, one con, one pro:
    Many traits we'd like to see bred into plants and animal are polygenetic—they are determined by large numbers of genes in ways that aren't well understood. These sorts of things are out of reach of current genetic engineering techniques, which are still just picking the low hanging fruit.
    Even so, there are lots of very useful things that genetic engineering can do and because these advances can be inherited, they will be a valuable legacy for a future when this sort of high tech may not be available.

Politics

Secession

The Scientific Consensus

Science Based Medicine

Lacking an Owner's Manual

There is No God, and Thou Shall Have No Other Gods

I don't think I've made any secret of the fact that I am an atheist, but I may not have made it clear that I think any sort of worship is a bad thing and that believing in things is to be avoided whenever possible. Indeed, I do not believe in believe itself. That's what the "Thou shall have no other gods" is about—it's not enough to quit believing in whatever God or Gods you were raised to believe in, but also we must avoid other gods, including material wealth, power and fame.

  • Atheists Are Sometimes More Religious Than Christians, by Sigal Smauel, The Atlantic
    "A new study shows how poorly we understand the beliefs of people who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular."
    But then, religion always has been a matter of making it up as you go along.

Intelligence

Refugees and Migration

Poverty, Homeless People, Minimum Wage, UBI

Autonomous Vehicles and Artificial Intelligence

Books

Fiction

Non-Fiction

  • How to Feed the World, by Jessica Eise and Ken Foster
    "By 2050, we will have ten billion mouths to feed in a world profoundly altered by environmental change. How can we meet this challenge? In How to Feed the World, a diverse group of experts from Purdue University break down this crucial question by tackling big issues one-by-one."
    But... "The book is light on practical and sustainable solutions."

Monday, 28 January 2019

Responding to Collapse, Part 6: finding a small town, continued

The end of January and finally it is looking like winter on Lake Huron

In this series we've been talking about how to adapt to collapse and I've put forward the idea that small, remote towns may be much better places to do that adapting that the cities where most people currently live. In my last post I said, "pick a town where you can live while BAU (business as usual) is still working and that will also be livable after BAU is no longer capable of supporting us."

In that post I proceeded to talk about how you might do the first part of that. But that is the simple part, since you can see how a town is doing currently, especially if you live there for a year or two. It's harder to predict how it will get along as BAU continues to break down. But there are a few important things that we can check on fairly easily, and I'll talk about that today.

First though, there is a detail that I should have covered last time—I did mention "Deliberate Descent", living more frugally as if the economy had already collapsed, as an important strategy for getting by if your move from the city leaves you with less income. But I didn't direct you to a series of posts about Deliberate Descent that I wrote a few years ago. I hope the information there will be of assistance.

And now on to picking a town that will be a good place to live as collapse progresses.

There is a strong tendency, even for me, to think about before and after collapse in very black and white terms. No doubt this comes from years of extensive reading in the "collapse sphere", which is saturated with the idea of apocalypse—a hard, fast collapse. But of course that's not what I'm expecting. I don't even think it is useful to identify stages or steps along the way from full BAU to full collapse. Rather, I like to think in terms of movement along a spectrum, admittedly sometimes in fits and starts, and at different rates in different areas.

Over the years to come, even towns that are now economically strong and have recently updated infrastructure, will suffer from economic contraction and the gradual wearing out of that infrastructure. Infrastructure that won't get repaired or replaced due to lack of money. Because small remote towns are more expensive to service and have fewer voters, governments will be forced to abandon them first. In some cases this is already happening, with the cost of various programs being downloaded onto municipalities to make provincial/state budgets look healthier.

You might wonder why you'd want to move to a small town if that is the case. Or if you're already in a small town under such conditions, you might be tempted to give up and move to a city. But the cities are on the same curve, just some years behind. And as I've been saying, they won't be able to do as good job of coping with the situation. Cities rely on essentially everything they need being brought in from outside. Many small towns could, with a little adaptation, get by on locally available resources.

Once you are firmly set up in a remote small town, reduced outside support may not be such a bad thing. It will allow you to work on the beginnings of a post BAU economy without having to compete so much with BAU. Currently, where BAU is doing well, it is very difficult to even discuss, much less establish, any sort of alternative.

When you move to this hypothetical town we're talking about, you'll likely start out relying almost entirely on BAU for the necessities of life and experience infrastructure breakdowns so rarely and briefly that you can largely ignore them. But as time passes, breakdowns of infrastructure and supply chains will become more frequent and more lengthy, necessitating that you be prepared for outages of the power grid, the municipal water supply, or shipments by truck from out of town. Traditionally, government recommendations were to keep enough emergency supplies to get by for 3 days without outside help. Many areas are increasing this to two weeks. As time passes the interval will no doubt get longer.

Eventually, the outage situation will become normal and availability of services and supplies the exception. At that point communities that have become largely self sufficient will be the successful ones, and many others will already have been abandoned.

A few years ago I read Short Circuit, a book by Richard Douthwaite, which is about "Strengthening Local Economics for Security in an Unstable World". The title comes from his idea of short circuiting BAU economics and setting up to provide the most urgent necessities locally. This is in a European Union setting (Ireland) and very much against globalism, which suits me just fine. Douthwaite says the first things to worry about are money, energy and food. (I have to comment at this point that most of Europe is too densely populated to have much hope of becoming locally self sufficient, but nonetheless the book is full of good ideas.)

Money in this case refers to the financial services needed to facilitate a functioning community, and I'll be discussing that at length in a future post. To energy and food I would add water.

In a future post I'll talk about the actually concrete steps you'll need to take to make you, your family and your community more self-sufficient, but certain local resources are needed to make that possible and that's what you'll be looking for initially.

Water

When I started thinking seriously about water, I soon realized there are more aspects to the subject than initially meets the eye.

Ideally you'll want to move to a town with modern, recently updated, water supply and waste treatment systems. But such systems rely on the power grid, and consumable supplies and repair parts that are not sourced locally. Fortunately, there are low tech alternatives that can be set up using local resources, providing the actual supplies of water are safe and secure. So that is the main thing you'll be looking for—a water supply that can be relied on in the long term.

Existing waste (sewage) disposal systems are also something to look at in the short run, but in the long run you'll be switching to a composting toilet to cut down on water usage and supply fertilizer and organic matter for your garden. The degree of resource waste in our current "waste" treatment/disposal systems is appalling.

On farms and in very small villages, you'll usually find each house has its own well, and a septic tank and weeping bed for waste disposal. In the short run this means you'll be responsible for more in the way of maintenance, but in the long run having your own well already set up will prove handy. Most likely the pump won't be collapse proof, but that can be remedied, providing the well is less than about 300 feet deep.

It would also be a good idea to check into the health of the local ground water—does it get depleted during long dry summers, for instance. Especially since you would need more water for your garden under such circumstances. And of course, if things are so dry that local agriculture has to rely on irrigation for field crops, you won't even be interested in the area in the first place.

Contamination of your well is a major concern, especially in an area where a lot of livestock are being raised. Make sure that well isn't downhill from nearby barnyards and feedlots, and check into what's being done in the way of "nutrient management", i.e. where the manure from livestock ends up. This is a serious concern for confined animal feeding operations which generate large amounts of manure and don't have sufficient land associated with them to absorb the waste. Small farms don't have as much of a problem this way, although in our area farmers are being encouraged to fence off river bottoms to reduce contamination of streams and the lakes they flow into. There is also a volunteer group working at planting trees in those river bottoms, which I think is a brilliant idea.

In larger villages there may be one or more wells maintained by the municipality. Convenient in the short run and provided you are within easy walking distance, maybe workable in the long run.

The town where I live draws its water from Lake Huron and has a new water treatment plant. This is nice, but I also live within easy walking distance of the lake and I have a home built water filter ready for when it becomes necessary to use lake water directly.

The municipality here has run pipelines to some of the outlying villages to supply potable water, rather than try to ensure the safety of previously existing, and occasionally contaminated, wells. The next town to the east of us is Walkerton , which had major problems with its water supply a few year ago. This has left people in this part of Ontario pretty concerned about water quality. Fortunately, government money has been made available for upgrading municipal water systems. In many areas (think Flint, Michigan) this hasn't been the case and water infrastructure has not been brought up to modern standards, or properly maintained if it was.

As well as water from wells, surface water from rivers, lakes and reservoirs that don't run dry in the dry season, and are not seriously contaminated, is used by many towns and cities. Often long pipelines are needed to get that water from the source to where it will be used. It's not hard to see that as collapse progresses these systems will be faced with many serious difficulties.

In addition to biological contamination from livestock operations, you'll want to look into lead contamination from outdated water systems, heavy metal contamination (lead, arsenic, etc.) which is a natural characteristic of the ground water in some areas, and industrial contamination. This sort of information may be available on the internet or from the local municipality, but I wouldn't actually buy a property without taking a water sample and having it tested for both bacterial and heavy metal contamination.

Looking back on what I've just written, I can see that there are some things I don't really know about our local water supply and I'm going to be looking deeper into that. I'll fill you in on what I find out in a post at some point down the road.

Another use for water is transportation. A town located on a canal, navigable river or lake has some major advantages, especially when shipping by truck and rail becomes unfeasible.

Too much water can be as much of a problem as too little, especially if you are situated on a flood plain. Keep in mind that locations that seem bone dry in the summer may be flooded with snow melt in the spring. There are several small towns in this area whose main street occasionally floods in the spring. I grew up in a house that needed two sump pumps to keep the basement dry for a week or two almost every spring. I wouldn't buy real estate that I hadn't seen during flood season.

Food

The next thing to look at is food and the prospects for producing it locally. For this you'll need arable land and adequate rainfall. You'll want to drive through the area surrounding the town you are looking at and see what sort of farming is being done.

In the area where I live, quite a variety of crops are grown: corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, oats, rye, sorghum, flax, canola and, most recently, marijuana. There are also a few orchards (mainly apples, but also cherry, peach and pear) and berry farms (mainly raspberries and strawberries). And many livestock operations: dairy, beef, pork, lamb, chicken and turkey. There are only a very few market gardens, but there could be more if there was a greater local demand. Currently it is hard to compete with the supermarkets.

Some areas will specialize more, but I think a wide range of agricultural products is a sign of a healthy farm economy. That variety will also be a big plus when the day comes that you have to rely primarily on local foodstuffs.

But it occurs to me that most of you, who did not grow up on a farm like I did, would have a tough time identifying most of these plants and animals standing in a field as you are driving by. So, talking to farmers in the area is going to be a necessity. Definitely stop by the local farmers market, and get to know the farmers selling there. Some of them will be able to point you to the local community garden if there is one. If you are renting for the first while, a plot at the community garden will allow you to get started on learning how to garden.

The odds are that most of the agriculture in any area will be conventional***, as opposed to organic. I am not as negative about conventional agriculture as many kollapsniks, especially when it comes to the safety of the food it produces. Before jumping to the erroneous conclusion that I'm paid by Monsanto, stop for a moment and understand that organic agriculture/food is a multi-billion dollar per year industry that relies on fear to get people to buy its pricey products instead of their less expensive conventional competitors. Millions of dollars are being spent to convince you that non-organic food is dangerous. In fact both conventionally grown and organic foods are about equally safe. Sadly, neither method of agriculture is even remotely sustainable, mainly due to their reliance on fossil fuels, and a once through approach to many of their inputs.

But there are a few questions you should be asking:

One, can the GMO corn and soybeans being grown on local farms be eaten safely in the event of a supply chain breakdown? The scientific consensus is yes, and I agree.

Two, can those conventional farms be converted to a more sustainable form of agriculture when the time comes to do so? Again, the answer is yes. In particular, modern herbicides are much less persistent than the older ones they have replaced and do not "poison" the soil for long periods of time after application. At worst, crops that aren't "Round Up Ready" can usually be grown with no trouble in soil that was treated with Round Up (glyphosate) the previous year. Of greater concern is soil health—conventional farming methods do often lead to both organic matter depletion and erosion. But sustainable farming methods can address those issues.

And from a more reality based viewpoint:

Three, is the land being farmed at the moment, regardless of the method? You certainly don't want to have to turn currently forested land into farmland.

And, four, is it being farmed without irrigation for field crops such as grains and hay? This will indicate the local rainfall is sufficient to support agriculture.

You'll want to look at a map and see if the area of farmland surrounding the town you're looking at is large enough to support the local population. In the short run, just to provide food, think an acre per person. In the long run more like 5 acres per person would be required to allow room for crop rotation and provide fiber, lumber and firewood. Sure, this will vary somewhat from one area to another, but those are good rules of thumb to start with.

Of course, you should be thinking about the long run. For a town of 10 thousand people that would mean 50 thousand acres or 78.125 sq. mi. of farmland, a circle approximately 5 miles in radius with the town at the center. For the same town situated on a lake, it would require a semicircle approximately 7.07 miles radius. And don't forget to take into account the area taken up by lakes, river bottoms, swamps, forests, roads and settlements.

One last item to look for in the area is a butcher shop. In a lot of areas they have almost been regulated out of existence. A thriving butcher shop, or shops, is an indicator of a strong local food industry.

Thinking about all this, I see that I have some work to do myself—some further questions to ask of the farmers I do know and maybe even getting to know a few more farmers.

Energy

Climate change considerations will mean that most of the areas worth looking at have a season when heating is necessary. Eventually supplies of fuel oil, natural gas, propane and electric power used for heating will become over priced, unreliable or non-existent. Provided there is sufficient standing timber in the area, a wood stove is a viable alternative. Possibly a cost saving measure right now and later, a life saving one.

You'll be looking for the presence of wood lots on most farms and some larger forested areas as well. Also look for local businesses which sell firewood and others that sell and install woodstoves. All this would indicate that the area already has a thriving wood heat industry.

Wind, water and solar are other forms of renewable energy that I think will eventually have a role to play in a sustainable society. But all the big wind turbines and solar panels that have sprung up in this area over the last few years won't work unless they are connected to the grid, and don't, as far as I can see, have much of a future.

One thing to keep an eye out for, if the town you're looking at is on a river, is the remains of a water powered mill. The dam may still be more or less intact and perhaps even the mill itself, though it is very unlikely to still be in use. The day will come when such installations can be refurbished and put back into use, very much to the benefit of the local community.

Muscle power is also going to become a more important form of energy as BAU declines, not just human muscles, but also those of draft animals. Look for people keeping horses, especially work horses. Even if this a only a hobby now, the existence of breeding stock will be a big help in the future.

Beyond looking for these basics (water, food, energy) you'll want to select a community that is well endowed with other useful resources, is resilient enough to withstand the shocks that lie ahead and has already made a start on local self sufficiency. Exactly how to tell if that is the case is beyond me, but it's something to think about.

Well, that pretty much wraps things up for this post. Next time I'll start looking at what you'll need to work on once you're actually living in a small town.


***I don't think that 7 billion people can be fed sustainable on this planet, regardless of the agricultural techniques used. But a lot of the criticisms leveled at conventional agriculture simply aren't based in fact, and are pretty insulting to the farmers. Only 18% of the food produced in the U.S. comes from corporate farms. The rest comes from family owned farms, some of them admittedly quite large. But those folks take pride in the food they produce. For a look at the subject from their viewpoint, check out Michelle Miller, The Farm Babe. Like me, she isn't being paid by Monsanto, or any of the other big agritech companies.



Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

What I've Been Reading, November and December 2018

Links

Miscellaneous

Collapse

Responding to Collapse,

A Paradise built in Hell, The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster
I'm borrowing the title of Rebecca Solnit's book for this section of links. Human beings feel, in times of crises, a deep need to come together to take care of each other. Contrary to the horrific picture of typical reactions to disaster painted by the "disaster mythology", in fact communities often come together to help themselves in the most extraordinarily positive ways.

Peak Oil

Climate Change

Economic Contraction

Energy

  • Why Batteries Die, by Alasdair Wilkins, Medium—Science
    "How Batteries Work & Why They’re So Frustrating"

Agriculture

Before jumping to the erroneous conclusion that this section was paid for by Monsanto, stop for a moment and understand that organic agriculture/food is a multi-billion dollar per year industry that relies on fear to get people to buy its products. Millions of dollars are spent to convince you that non-organic food is dangerous. In fact both conventionally grown and organic foods are about equally safe. Sadly, neither method of agriculture is even remotely sustainable.

Gardening

Food

Genetic Engineering

Before jumping to the erroneous conclusion that this section was paid for by Monsanto, stop for a moment and understand that organic agriculture/food is a multi-billion dollar per year industry that relies on fear to get people to buy its product. Millions of dollars are spent to convince you that non-organic food is dangerous. In fact both conventionally grown and organic foods are equally safe. Sadly neither method of agriculture is even remotely substainable.

Practical Skills

Politics

Dancing on Graves

It really irritates me when an evil politician dies and even his enemies speak well of him. I think it is important to be honest at this time of visibility. Metaphorically, I danced nthe graves of Margaret Thatcher and Rob Ford. I'll take a moment hereto do the same for George H. W. Bush.

Secession

  • What the Effects of Brexit Will (Really) Be, by Umair Haque, Medium—Eudaimonia & Co.
    "Is Brexit the Most Bafflingly Self-Destructive Act in Modern History?"
    I had some doubt as to whether this one should go under Collapse or Secession.

The Scientific Consensus

Science Based Medicine

Lacking an Owner's Manual

The human body/mind/spirit doesn't come with an owner's manual, and we continually struggle to figure out how best to operate them.

Gender

There is No God, and Thou Shall Have No Other Gods

I don't think I've made any secret of the fact that I am an atheist, but I may not have made it clear that I think any sort of worship is a bad thing and that believing in things is to be avoided whenever possible. Indeed, I do not believe in believe itself. That's what the "Thou shall have no other gods" is about—it's not enough to quit believing in whatever God or Gods you were raised to believe in, but also we must avoid other gods, including material wealth, power and fame.

Intelligence

  • Material intelligence, by,
    "The chasm between producers and consumers leaves many of us estranged from beauty and a vital part of an ethical life"
    The term "material intelligence" is new to me, but at spending most of my life as a tradesman, the concept is not.

Refugees and Migration

Poverty, Homeless People, Minimum Wage, UBI

Autonomous Vehicles and Artificial Intelligence

Books

Fiction

Non-Fiction

  • Resilient, by Rick Hanson with Forrest Hanson
    How to grow an unshakable core of calm, strength and happiness.
  • Food Politics—What Everyone Needs to Know, by Robert Paarlberg
    This book does a good job on presenting the facts and the current scientific consensus on many subjects related to food. As such, many people will be unhappy with some of what it has to say. The only thing I found questionable was the author's skepticism about Malthus and this idea that someday there will be too many people to feed. Seems obvious to me—just because we've scraped by so far doesn't mean we'll always be able to.