Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Preparing for Collapse, A Few Rants

Beans and Squash in My Front Yard Garden

For a while now I been promising that when I got some other things out of the way, I'd actually talk about preparing for collapse. And that is just what I'm going to be doing in this and the next few posts.

Unfortunately, my crystal ball isn't any better than anybody else's, probably worse than some. What I'll be recommending will reflect my own biases and weaknesses. But even so, I think I do have some insights that will be of value to many people.

Among these insights are a few things that I feel the need to rant about. Let's get that out of the way first.

Rant 1: A Fast and Hard Collapse, NOT

I should admit that by using the phrase "preparing for collapse" I am really being somewhat misleading. As I see it, collapse is not a single event that will occur at some point in the future, but a process that has already been going on for several decades, since the oil shocks of the 70s. Progress has been coasting slowly to a stop while collapse gains momentum. This will continue.

I certainly don't buy into the whole idea of a hard, fast, apocalyptic collapse. That is a fantasy that allows us to imagine getting rid of many of the less pleasant aspects of modern life all at once. Get it over with and start fresh, so to speak. In particular, I think many people see the complete and final collapse of the financial system as freeing them from oppressive debts and jobs they hate. A pretty drastic way to solve those problems....

And of course many of us have been influenced by apocalyptic fiction. A sudden and cataclysmic event certainly sets the stage for a dramatic story. But let's try to keep reality and fiction clearly separated in our thinking.

At any rate, what I want to talk about is how to survive the slow and unsteady collapse that I believe we are experiencing, so that is what I'm going to do. There is much less to be said about surviving hard, fast, widespread collapse because it is much harder to do and there are fewer strategies that are likely to succeed. Still, much of what I have to say would apply to some extent, should I turn out to be wrong and things all fall apart all at once.

As I have said before this that collapse has been and will continue to be uneven geographical, unsteady chronologically, and unequal socially. Certainly there will occasionally be sudden downward bumps, but in some locations more than others and effecting various social strata differently. And then there will be a partial recovery and things will carry on for a while, somewhat worse than they were before.

This will continue on for quite a few more decades before we finally reach the bottom and the dust begins to settle. At that point, in a few lucky locations, there will still be people arguing that nothing much has really changed. For most of us, though, it will be clear that a great deal has changed and not for the better. Already the world is significantly different than it was when I was young and the strategies that served well in those days are not something I would recommend now.

Perhaps most importantly, we'll need to recognize that collapse is happening and act appropriately rather than carrying on doing the same old thing, trying to fine tune a system that is fundamentally broken and wondering why things don't improve.

Rant 2: Lifeboats and Eco-Villages, NOT

For quite a while yet it will not be feasible for most of us to completely sever our ties with BAU (Business as Usual). We'll find ourselves going in two directions at once, trying to prepare for collapse while still being dependent for many of the necessities of life on the very system that is collapsing. Of course, part of our preparation will consist of reducing key dependencies. But it is challenging to reduce those dependencies when BAU can supply our needs for less than they can be produced locally. This makes it hard to earn much of a living as a local, sustainable producer—the prices you have to charge mean that only those who are well off can afford to indulge themselves with your products.

Many have suggested setting up a lifeboat community or an eco-village in a remote location and waving BAU goodbye. Some days it is tempting, but there's a long list of problems with that approach. It's hard to find a group of people who are both interested, willing to sever their ties with BAU and competent. It costs a lot of money to set up such a project. There are getting to be fewer and fewer remote areas that BAU has not claimed and/or spoiled, and where the locals would welcome you. Those that are left are less than ideal (to cold, too hot, too dry, too wet, poor soil, etc.). In any area where farming is feasible, there are likely to be property taxes and building codes. So you can't completely withdraw from the money based economy if you are going to pay your taxes, and it may be difficult to build the way you'd like to without running afoul of the building code.

Better to reconcile ourselves to having a foot in both worlds for now, and whole heartedly become a part of the communities in which we find ourselves living. We can quietly prepare for the day when BAU is more obviously faltering and local production can compete successfully. Of course some communities are more suitable for this than others.

Rant 3: Renewable Energy and Eco-Modernism, NOT

There are some people who recognize problems like peak oil and climate change but think they can be solved by switching over to high tech, low-carbon renewables (mainly wind and solar) and re-organizing things to be more efficient, allowing us to go right on with a green washed version of BAU, and keep the economy growing. These folks don't understand the economic problems with the low EROEI of renewable energy sources, or the degree to which those energy sources are dependent on fossil fuels for their manufacture, installation, operation and maintenance.

Eco-modernism is a particularly egregious example of a plan to fix our problems using technology. It relies on the idea of absolute decoupling. That is, being able to reduce our impact on the resource base and environment while still improving our standard of living and allowing the economy and our population to grow. So far, our best efforts have only achieved a small amount of relative decoupling. That is, at best, increases in population and standard of living have led to slightly less than proportional increases in impact, but nothing approaching decreases in impact that are needed.

Looking realistically at what technology can do, I find it hard to see how it could be otherwise and expect that collapse will force us to reduce both our population and level of consumption. At such lower levels of consumption, energy use and technology, renewable energy sources such as biomass, wind, moving water and passive solar will no doubt supply essentially all of the energy we use. But nowhere near enough to support the sort of high tech industrial civilization we have today.

Rant 4: Violence, NOT

Violence is another area where ideas based on apocalyptic fiction are likely to lead you astray. Conflict is necessary to make a story move along, and a long tradition of collapse porn saturated with interpersonal and inter-group violence has lead many people to see that as the only way things can unfold. Food becomes short, the "have-nots" go after the "haves" and mayhem ensures. This may make good reading, but it's not so much fun in reality, and certainly not something I'm interested in.

So, I am not a survivalist, and you won't find me talking much here about security and defense. There are lots of other sources of that sort of information, if it interests you. I'm more interested in not being where the fighting is likely to break out and setting things up in the community where I am so that co-operation is a more likely outcome than serious conflict. Like giving people better alternatives than violence, meeting them with food rather than guns. The trick is being able to do so.

Rant 5: Back to the Good Old Days, NOT

A number of well known voices in the "collapse sphere" have claimed that recent advances in social justice such as feminism and equal rights for LGBTQ people are likely to be rolled back during collapse. The argument is that these freedoms are possible only in a society with lots of surplus resources. These guys are men who are obviously uncomfortable with what they see as disadvantageous changes to the power structure of our society. They have a socially conservative fantasy of collapse putting them back in charge. But really, that is not the way it works.

First of all, while we will be returning to levels of energy use and material consumption that were common one or two or even more centuries in the past, it isn't really possible to go back to the way things were then. We are starting from a different place, we know a lot of things now that we didn't back then, and formerly oppressed people who have been given a chance at equality aren't going to give it up so easily.

Second, if you look across the world and throughout history, the patriarchy is far from universal and many societies working at very much lower levels of consumption than ours have functioned quite well as matriarchies or anarchies. A patriarchy is neither the most natural way to organize human societies nor the most efficient.

I am an old white guy too—if I can accept social changes, so can you.

Rant 6: Saving the World, NOT

Some have accused me of being out to save the world. It's pretty clear that by the world, they mean "Business As Usual" and in my opinion that world needs not to be saved, but to be shut down as quickly as possible. Sadly, this isn't going to happen voluntarily. Too many powerful people and institutions have a vested interest in keeping things going as they are. Heading straight toward collapse, in other words. A collapse that will see a drastic reduction in human population and consumption of resources per capita. This isn't going to be much fun to live through and many of us won't. The only good thing about it is that it will be the undoing of the very system that caused it. And when it is over it may be possible to continue on in a more modest, less destructive way.

Rant 7: Crunchies and Woo

I've noticed lately that posts on this blog often draw positive comments from people who go on to make it clear that they are "Crunchies" who believe in one sort or another of idea that isn't supported by the evidence, that isn't reality based—what I call "woo". After they've said such nice things to me, I always feel bad having to break it to them that I don't agree. Most of these folks are organic farmers or gardeners, who have bought into the "naturalistic fallacy" and think that everything that's natural must be good for you. In fact the products of organic farming and conventional farming about equal in terms of safety these days. That's good news for the many people who can't afford pricey organic food and don't have a garden to grow their own. The bad news is that both conventional and organic farming are also about equally unsustainable, mainly due to their reliance on energy from fossil fuels. We need to develop a "sustainable farming" that's based on science, not woo.

The tagline for this blog is "A reality based approach to life in the age of scarcity." When I use the terms "evidence based" or "reality based", I mean ideas that are supported by the scientific consensus. Many people today unfortunately believe that the scientific consensus supports BAU, and that's no wonder since BAU does its best to encourage that view. Fortunately, it's not true. The scientific consensus supports some things on the Crunchy side and some things on the BAU side, because those things happen to be true. The scientific method is an excellent tool for filtering out biases, political or otherwise. There really isn't any good reason for ignoring its results.

But to be clear, comments from Crunchies of every sort are welcome here, just be aware of what the project of this blog really is and, that if you are peddling woo, you'll get a gentle but firmly negative response.

Enough ranting for now. Time to talk about what we can do to prepare for the continuing process of collapse. We need to anticipate where current trends are taking us, and harder still, when things as likely to reach a tipping point and changing more drastically.

First off, I'd say that if you are new to this, give it a year or so to sink in before making any big decisions, and don't do anything rash in the meantime. Then you may want to consider some changes in the way you are living. What those changes might be will be the subject of my next few posts.

We'll be considering the following subjects, and probably a few more:

  • 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

While waiting for my next post (these things often take a while), here are a few links to articles which may be of help:

On this blog:

Sharon Astyk hasn't been very active as a writer lately, but her earlier writings are a great source of practical advice on "Adapting in Place", which is exactly the sort of preparation I'd advise you to do.

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


Bev said...

Excellent Irv, as usual. Will link to this on my own blog.

Anonymous said...

Very minor correction, but it would be 'peddling woo,' not 'pedaling' :)

Bill H said...

Definition of "woo."
Rant 5 The subject of Feminism and Patriarchy are of interest to me. I theorize that the power down will reinstate Patriarchy.

I too think the collapse will be spread out over time, just like you described.

MTC said...

Seems like society in which survival required a lot more work and maintaining a population wouldn't necessarily happen of its own accord would probably be a more conservative society in some ways. Any place that I have actually experienced where life was tough tended to be conservative in sort of Burkean sense. One example is children, now people have children and they are a choice or an accident but not generally considered a necessity. If they become a necessity and therefor valuable gender roles and social norms around child rearing, pregnancy and birth will shift. That might include matriarchies but probably not without social norms we'd consider conservative right now. Great post.

Irv Mills said...

@ Bev
As always, thanks for the kind words. And I find that links on other's websites are a big help in drawing in traffic. Much appreciated.

Irv Mills said...

@ Anonymus
Thanks for the spelling correction. I thought that didn't look right, but couldn't figure out what was wrong with it.

Irv Mills said...

@ William Hornstein
As I use the word the definition of woo is beliefs that are not support by evidence. Another word would be pseudoscience.
As too my Rant #5 being woo, I think not. I've read enough history and anthropology to know the a patriarchy is far from the only way to organize a society. Other approqaches, including matriarchies, have been tested in societies with low surplus energy and found worthy.
I'll probably regret giving you a soapbox, but perhaps you could say a few words about why you think what you do, and clarify what that is in the process. Looking forward to it.

Irv Mills said...

Thanks for your kind words. The meaning of the word "conservative" has suffered a lot of violence in the last few decades, but I don't think I disagree with much of what you are saying.
What I do think is that as the amount of available surplus energy continues to decrease, we won't be able to support large centralized governments and our current countries will break up into smaller local units who don't have the wherewithall to dictate ideology to each other. Eventually this will devolve into small groups--walking distance communities,so to speak.
In the process, many groups of people will find themselves abandoned and forced to set up their own organizations. Some will see this as an opportunity to try things very different from the patriarchies we currently have, which will have left a very bad impression on many people. Many groups will crystallize around a single strong leader (male, female or whatever) whose ideas will have a huge influence on how things unfold in that area, leading to some fairly strange results by current standards. Some of those leaders may be people like me who see the advantages of decision making by consensus in all, but the most urgent situations.
If I manage to live long enough, it will be interesting to watch all this happen. Scary and dangerous, as well.

Aaron said...

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Nostalgie in Deep River said...

New to your blog and I will certainly be reading more, much more but I going to add that there is a "non-woo" reason to practice "organic" gardening/farming to prepare for collapse. BAU supports high volume inputs in modern agriculture (the so-called green revolution) to get it done quickly and at high volume and mechanized everything. That model will fail. As we adjust to slow rolling systemic collapse those inputs will not be available, available in volume or geographically available nor will there be fossil fueled mechanized assistance, either as much or eventually at all in many places.

Might as well have composting systems, helper animals in place and have learned how to control insect/weeds without things bought from a store both on a micro and larger scale level. IOW, pre-industrial revolution scale farming. Not because of "crunchy" but because of necessity. Those are hard earned lessons and best not to have to ramp up a learning curve in the midst of shortages.

Otherwise I wholly agree with the rolling collapse model (barring someone doing something stupid like launching nuclear weapons) and civilization as we know it ending in a whimper, not a bang.

Irv Mills said...

@ Nostalgie in Deep River
Nostalgie, is that the Deep River here in Ontario, Canada? It's always nice to hear from relatively local people.

Sorry that it has taken me so long to respond to your comment. I first wrote a much longer reply which went into some detail about my problems with both the lies being spread by the large scale industrial organic industry and the "woo" that is rampant among practitioners of small scale organic farming. But I realized that what I had written was not really a reply to your comment. So I'll save it for another day and a more appropriate place.

You're quite right, of course, that as collapse continues things like diesel fuel, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides and so forth will first get more expensive, then be only erratically available and finally won't to be available at all. Those of us who want to go on eating will have to find a style of farming that works without those inputs, and can cope with the changing conditions brought on by climate change. As long as you keep those quotes around "organic", and understand what its limitations are, I'm fine with it.

I've been gardening with this in mind for about 10 years now, attempting to acquire the knowledge and develop the skills required. I'm enthusiastic about composting and I'm getting pretty good at controlling weeds without herbicides (except for elbow grease). I haven't seen much success controlling insects or fungi without pesticides. Colorado beetles on potatoes and late blight on tomatoes are frustrating examples of this.

I don't have enough land to support horses, and don't expect I ever will, but I would certainly encourage anyone who does to get started with them. My dad farmed with horses when I was young and I wish I had paid more attention.

I was talking in the comments section of another post to a fellow in Tasmania who has an orchard of about 100 fruit trees of various types. He is currently using the "organically approved" pesticides and speaks of many types of fruit pests that he simply won't be able to control when those pesticides are no longer available.

I think that for many types of crops it is realistic to expect lower yields and more pest damage using "post collapse" techniques. But this is no reason to despair. I firmly expect we'll be feeding a much smaller population and at the same time that many of those who remain will be eager to take part in agricultural labour.

Just as a teaser, I'll say that I think genetic engineering has the potential to leave a considerable positive legacy for post collapse agriculture. But more on that another time.

Nostalgie in Deep River said...

Deep River. CT. Close enough but not local.

I've been using organic methodology since my days in AK, composting for 30 some years. Gardened in the midwest now New England. Grew over 100 butternut squash from volunteers on the edge of my compost pile a few years ago. Just left them there to grow. We nurtured them after harvest in our cool dry basement on wire racks, eating the most vulnerable first and they kept for 9 months after which we did the "big cook" and froze the rest. We are eating the last of it now.

Grew three years of tomatoes the next year and bottled those, even gave carte blanche to neighbors to help themselves. Seems a cyclic thing. This year my peppers and cucumbers are pouting (two years ago I had ever so many) but my summer squash, pole beans and fresh herbs are super abundant, tomatoes are about average.

We are bug, larvae, egg picking/drowning/squishing. It's disgusting gruesome work but it has to be done. We check plants every or every other day and in bad seasons hope that the plants outrun the critters or diseases which normally works, sometimes not. I already cut around blemishes to outright gaping holes and accept imperfection in my produce. We even grew fruit organically but we were geographically isolated from other fruit trees and it seems we were small enough of an operation to remain undiscovered by bugs and on that basis we have planted a disease resistant heirloom Asian pear and 19th century strain of apricot tree here in CT.

I was thinking chickens and goats as helper animals, prefer mules over horses if one needs them as they are less tender health wise. I'm very interested in permaculture and folk medicine. Since we have 100s of oak trees (plus hickory) I'm researching how to eat them properly. Involves lots of leaching of tannins. I'm just at the beginning of this line of inquiry.

Thanks for responding. I'll be keeping your blog address after I'm finished with the series and also following the links as I can but I'm pretty busy with many things.

Good stuff.

Irv Mills said...

@ Nostalgie

Various sorts of squash seem to like growing in our compost bins as well. And far be it from me to discourage them.

I too have noticed that some things grow better in some years and not others. We had a very cold and wet spring here this year and I couldn't get corn or cucumbers to come up, even what we planted in June. But the cucumber plants I bought and planted in late June are prospering and we already made two batches of pickles. Cabbages and broccoli are doing very well too.

Hand to hand combat does seem to be the only way to get rid of some bugs once they show up. Growing things in essentially the same place every year is certainly asking for trouble. If I had a hundred acre farm like the one I grew up on, I'd have several isolated garden plots and rotate things among them. Hopefully staying a few steps ahead of the pests.

Overcoming tomato blight may be a matter of breeding resistant strains, but the ones I've tried so far have not been so great. I hope to see something better soon.

My dad kept cattle, pigs, chickens, and work horses (percherons) when I was little. too late for me to get back into larger scale farming. I have several raised garden beds in my front yard (back yard is too small and shaded) and I am the co-ordinator for the local community garden, with three plots there for my own use.

Anyway, it's good talking to you and I hope to hear from you in the comments section of future post. One of which should be out in the next week or two.

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Irv Mills said...

@ chouaih mohammed
Thanks--nice of you to say!