|Kincardine Community Garden|
In the process of writing these autobiographical notes (1, 2, 3, 4), I realized how much living through the downsizing and breakup of Ontario Hydro prepared me to accept the ideas of Peak Oil and the Limits to Growth. I had learned a lot about the limitations of both human organizations and technology as solutions for our problems.
Then I watched my kids and their spouses spend their time as members of the "precariat", working underpaid, part time and totally insecure jobs. They never joined the ranks of the homeless, but on several occasions that was only because I was there to help. Many others are not so fortunate. This convinced me that our society is already failing miserably, not even capable of providing the basic needs of many of its members. This despite the fact that others, sheltered from reality by their wealth and privilege, see this as the best of times, with nothing but further progress in sight for the future.
In 2005 I retired from Hydro One at age 51. Typically people in that position start accumulating toys and having fun with them (hopefully—the fun seems to be the hard part). This is often financed by going back to work on contract for Hydro One, OPG or Bruce Power, collecting an excellent wage and a pension as well. But if I had wanted to go on working I would have stayed in the job I already had.
C&I Graphics, my design, printing and sign making company kept me busy about half of the available working hours, which was enough. For the first time in years I managed to get enough sleep. But I also knew about Peak Oil and the likelihood of it leading to some sort of crash/collapse. Such a crash would mean that neither my pension or my business could be relied on to support my family and I. My mind inevitably turned to preparing for what was coming.
You might ask, why not get involved in some sort of activism? Well, it seems to me that the efforts of most activists are focused on bandaid fixes to minor aspects of the problems facing us, and that they are unlikely to have any great amount of success because doing so would rock the "business as usual" (BAU) boat too much. Further, the activist themselves are highly invested in the continuation of BAU, even though it lies at the heart of the problems they claim to want fixed.
The only exception that comes to mind would by activism in the service of identity politics, where there has been some success in addressing racial and LGBTQ issues. Probably because the changes these people are seeking don't much threaten BAU. I congratulate these folks on their successes, but identity politics has little to do with the issues that concern me most.
In any case, it was clear to me that what we faced was a predicament, not a problem. In other words, something that couldn't be solved but to which we would just have to adapt. My main concern was, and is, to determine what those adaptations need to be and get started making them. BAU is doomed and there is no chance that we'll fix what's wrong with it before it is too late. But I do believe that being well prepared will greatly increase one's chances of making it through collapse relatively undamaged.
If you weren't there, I would guess that it is difficult to imagine the degree of panic in the peak oil community in the years leading up to 2008. It really seemed like we were facing a hard, fast crash and it was going to happen soon.
Almost everyone these days is dependent on the global infrastructure network for the very necessities of life. An economic crash, an energy crisis, the many consequences of climate change, either jointly or severally, all promised to damage that network and leave us in a very tough spot. As a former employee of an infrastructure company, the failure of infrastructure seems quite plausible to me. Indeed I was personally involved in the efforts to patch the power grid back together following the widespread outage in north eastern North America in August of 2003. This sort of thing was not some hypothetical possibility to me, but rather a very immediate reality.
And I had always had a keen interest in doing things for myself, making things and understanding how things work, which lead easily enough to a collapse preparation mindset. The only question was how exactly to start preparing. Even in 2006 I didn't think collapse would be sudden and permanent. I've written at length about this, but the upshot is that, initially at least, being prepared for relatively short infrastructure outages would be a big help.
I'm somewhat concerned that the following will be taken as virtue signaling or boasting. It has happened before—I prepare a list of things I've done to prepare for collapse, and somebody sees it as a challenge. Nothing could be further from my intention, which is more to show you how I have put a lot of effort into not actually accomplishing very much.
We built our house in 1982 with energy efficiency in mind. We have R40 in the walls, R60 in the attic, double pane windows (lots of them facing south), well insulated and sealed doors and an air exchanger to maintain air quality.
We have electric heat, with a long range plan to add a wood stove, which we never seem to get around to. The expense of having a chimney built is probably the biggest obstacle, even though the foundation for the chimney was part of the initial build. But hopefully later this year we'll get started on that project.
As it turned out, overheating in the summer was a bigger problem than being cold in the winter. In mid 1980s we put in an attic fan, which was a big help since it almost always cools off in the evening here and we can cool the house by drawing in cooler air from outside.
In 2007 we built a set of awnings to go over the south and west windows on the main floor. This stops the house from heating up during the day in the summer. We take the awnings down in the fall to let the sun in for the winter and put them up again in the spring. A bit of extra work, but worth the trouble. And the awnings have worked well enough that we didn't have to replace our window air conditioning unit when it failed.
Kincardine is often very cloudy in the winter, so solar heating is less effective here than you might think. Our large south facing windows are sometimes more of a liability than a asset in the winter. Over the last few years I built insulating panels to slip into the windows to reduce heat loss. But there are a couple of problems with this.
You have to get a good air seal on the warm side of the panels, or warm moisture laden air gets to the cold side and condenses, which isn't good for the wooden window frames. I haven't found a solution that allows the panels to be taken in and out easily, on a daily basis, but "tuck tape", normally used for sealing joints in vapour barrier, works well for those panels that can be left in all winter.
The other thing is that when the sun does shine on a window with an insulating panel in it, it really heats up the sunny side of the panels, enough to crack the window glass. We've only had this happen once so far. But this past winter I pulled back to just putting the panels in windows that are shaded most of the winter. I'm looking for a seal that would allow the panels to be inserted and removed easily.
At any rate, our house is well enough insulated and sealed that it takes a fairly long power outage before the temperature inside drops much. So far, most power outages hereabouts are less than 8 hours long, during which time the temperature in the house only drops a few degrees.
It was pretty clear to me by 2006 that food would be a major problem during a collapse and I had always had an interest in gardening and cooking. That spring, I set up a garden in raised beds in our front yard. We have continued with this since then, gradually expanding and improving the garden.
But our front yard is not large and limits the amount of food we can grow. In 2010 a community garden started up in Kincardine and I became involved, taking one plot in 2010 and 2 plots ever since then. Since 2015 I have been the co-ordinator for the garden, keeping things running fairly smoothly and interfacing with the municipality, which is actually quite supportive.
Even so, we still don't have a lot of garden space, certainly not enough to be anywhere near self-sufficient, even in the vegetables that grow well around here. For a couple of years, 2012 and 2013, we had some space in the large garden of friends who have a farm north of Kincardine. The gardens worked out well, as did sharing the space, but it was too far from home, too much time spent driving and I was still running C&I Graphics, so time was at a premium.
I have more time now that C&I is gone, but I'm co-ordinating the Community Garden, writing this blog and spending time with our grand kids, so we haven't tried to expand the gardens any further.
The space we have is enough to let us learn what works around here and how to cope with the problems that inevitably come up. That first year we used the techniques in the book Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholemew, but we learned the limits of that method pretty quickly. The plants are quite close together and in raised beds. You have to use really rich soil to support that sort of density, and even with good soil, there is a limit to how close together plants can be and prosper, since they are competing for sunlight. The raised beds are good in that they warm up and dry out earlier in the spring so you can get a head start on the season. But they dry out quicker in the summer and must be watered religiously.
The good news is that we live in the middle of a productive farming area and no one hereabouts need fear starvation in the event of a collapse, provided someone can organize a switchover to production for local consumption and the use of farming techniques that don't require a global scale network of suppliers.
In the short run, I am more concerned about occasional interruptions in deliveries. So we started, as far back as 2006, to stock more food in the house, using the "store what you eat, eat what you store" method. Turns out that it's convenient to mostly have everything we need in the house and it saves money to stock up during sales and to buy in bulk.
Carolynn and I have always enjoyed cooking from scratch, having learned a lot from our mothers and grandmothers. I've been baking bread for more than 40 years now. We have a couple of hand cranked flour mills, some grain in stock and more is available locally. During the last few years I've taken up cheese making.
We've made an effort to reduce the waste we produce, composting everything that is compostable, switching to cloth shopping bags, and cloth rags instead of paper towels, using less, repairing what can be fixed, reusing where possible, and recycling.
In addition to the gardening, bread and cheese making, I've been developing a number of useful skills, including wood working and blade sharpening, and weaving willow baskets from willow I've harvested locally.
But no man is an island and it soon became clear to me that all my efforts would be easier as part of a like minded community. So I set out to find a group of people to prepare with and rely on. This turned out to be even harder than I had expected.
I started mentioning what I was finding out about collapse to friends and family. Most rejected the idea as absurd, only a very few even really listened to what I had to say and fewer still ended up agreeing with me.
Around 2010 I started hearing about the Transition Town Movement, got myself a copy of the Transition Handbook and began wondering how to get a Transition Town started here in Kincardine. I am not any sort of extrovert and had no idea of how to get a group of people together.
One day in the spring of 2011 some people from the local anti wind turbine group dropped by my print shop to pick up some posters I had printed for them at the same time as one of the members of the Meaford Transition Town group came to pick up some Farmers Market flyers. We got talking about Transition and decided to try to set up a group in Kincardine. Something that would be more positive than the negative activism the anti wind people were involved in (as they themselves said).
In 2011 and 2012 Transition was a big thing in Southern Ontario, but since then it has petered out and you hardly hear about it at all. I've since talked to a number of people and heard that there is a tendency for the transition groups to be co-opted by activists (various sorts of "antis") and used as platform to further their goals, with transition (preparation for collapse) soon fading into the background.
Anyway, we had several meetings and set up the Penetagore Transition Town in the summer/fall of 2011. I met some new people, some of whom became good friends. But there was a lot of "woo" (beliefs not supported by evidence) that rubbed me the wrong way. Still, I had read that Transition Towns were often made up of a mix of such folks and rationalists, and if you didn't make a big deal of it, it was possible for them to work together effectively. So I hung in there.
It wasn't long, though, before it became clear that many of the people in the group were activists and looking for something to fight against rather than something positive to do, despite what they had originally said. The issue of bringing natural gas to Kincardine came up and they were eager to oppose it. When it became clear that this was the direction the Transition Town really wanted to go, I dropped out of the group and then it pretty much fell apart. Nothing more has been done since then, but I am happy to say that I am back on speaking terms with everyone who was involved. That's an important thing in a town this small and who knows what may develop in the future.
In the fall of 2011 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and in the winter of 2012, while recovering from the surgery, I started this blog. I was writing to take out some of the frustration I felt.
Since the enlightenment, the scientific method has enabled us to build up a good bit of reliable knowledge about the world we live in, always subject to revision as that same method refines and expands what we know. This "scientific consensus" is really the best understanding we have and you'd be a fool to ignore it, even though it is far from a final and absolute truth. But many ideologies today would have us believe whatever suits them, regardless of what the scientific consensus says. Two of those ideologies are of primary interest here.
On one side we have what I've been calling BAU (Business as Usual), made up people who believe that business can just continue along as usual, that we live in the best of times and that progress will continue and keep making things even better. Unfortunately this implies that humanity and the economy will keep growing. Most people don't see any woo in that, but such exponential growth has inevitable consequences, especially on a finite planet like ours. I talked about this at greater length in a post entitled the Biggest Lie.
Industrial civilization has turned out to be a wonderful device for turning natural resources into pollution, while producing a small amount of comfort and convenience for a few of the more fortunate of its members. Unfortunately there are finite quantities of both natural resources and sinks for pollution on this planet and BAU refuses to recognize this. We are currently running into some of these limits: depletion of fossil fuels, climate change, ocean acidification, shrinking habitat space and so on. Even if we find a way around one limit, we'll soon run into another. This was explained very clearly in The Limits to Growth, a book which I reviewed in great detail in a series of posts back in 2016.
One of the greatest "achievements" of BAU is the way it has convinced almost everyone that it is "scientific"—science and progress are firmly linked together in our minds, even though the scientific consensus clearly points out what's wrong with BAU.
To make the situation even worse, it seems that there is very little chance that BAU will change. The short term interests of a great many powerful people and institutions count on BAU continuing on its present course.
On the other side we have the counter culture, what I call the "Crunchies", who see what's wrong with BAU and would like to fix it. But they are fooled by BAU's claims about science and thus refuse to accept much of the scientific consensus. In the process they end up believing in a lot of things that aren't supported by the evidence—woo, in other words.
Sadly this means that many of the efforts made by Crunchies to change the world for the better are misdirected and a lot of effort is spent fighting things that aren't doing any harm while ignoring things that are.
My position is that of being a Crunchy (opposed to BAU), but without the woo. Indeed if I had it to do again, I'd probably call this blog "Crunchy Without the Woo". Starting in May of 2016 I discussed this idea in a series of post entitled "BAU, Crunchies and Woo".
Surprisingly, I've found there are a few other people in the world who think like this, and a number of them are regular readers of this blog. We don't agree 100% on everything, but then no one does. And that is something we all need to keep in mind while we are searching for people we can work with. We also need to keep in mind that people (including me) aren't all of a piece—we hold a variety of beliefs, some of which reflect reality and some which do not. And of course this is not a black and white thing, but a range of grays. It is quite possible to work together with people who are just reasonably close to being "of the same mind", and to reach decisions by consensus where everyone is just fairly happy with the results. Especially in the life and death situations we will face as collapse progresses, when it will be more important to survive that be proven absolutely right on every issue.
I find myself especially drawn to "working together in groups for mutual support". This idea has immense potential to insulate the members of such groups from the chaos in the world around them and to meet their human needs in ways that BAU does not do well even now and will do even less so as time passes. Indeed I would say that the formation and operation of such groups is at the heart of the response we need to make to the collapse of BAU.
I think many different variations on this theme need to be tried in order to see what works and what doesn't. And we need to be open to adopting what works for other people and discarding that parts of our own approach that aren't working. I am a big fan of "dissensus", which is the opposite of consensus, and consists of agreeing to disagree and wishing the other guy well while he goes his own way. In the coming decades, as energy become less available and the economy contracts and can no longer support the current level of centralization and complexity, we will be forced to decentralize, relocalize and simplify our society. Under these conditions, dissensus will become somewhat easier—we simply won't have the wherewithal to force our ideas on other groups, nor they on us.
Within these groups, we will find ourselves not worrying so much about a rigid ideology, and more about friendship and helping each other when the going gets tough. So the thing to do now is find some friends and practice getting along with them. This is by no means easy, but it is the direction we need to be heading. It is encouraging to find, that even though I am an introvert and quite shy, I have a fairly large network of acquaintances to draw upon—the people I knew while working at Ontario Hydro/Hydro One, the customers and suppliers I got to know while running C&I Graphics, the people at the Community Garden, my wife's large family (including our own kids and grandkids) and her far ranging networks, the group of guys organized by my friend Dave Leigh, who get together with regularly for coffee, and the people his wife Sylvia gets together to play trivia once a month at the Royal Canadian Legion.
Well, I think that just about finishes up my series of autobiographical notes. Next time I'm planning to start a new series of posts, looking in more detail at strategies for living through collapse.