After a woefully inept introduction, this essay forces me to stare into the abyss of planet-destroying myth. If you believe we’re headed for a muddle-through future in which we correct massive ecological overshoot with the tranquility of Buddhist monks, this is the essay you’ve been waiting to read. Come on along, if you dare, keeping these barely modified lyrics in mind:
“Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the muddle with you.”
It is easy for me to write about philosophy, conservation biology, education, global climate change, ecological collapse, economic collapse, and how to deal with all of them on a personal basis. These phenomena are pieces of ongoing reality. Facing up to them is difficult at times (as demonstrated clearly by my angst here) but, as Thomas Hardy pointed out, “If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.” Indeed, better days lie ahead when we stop destroying every aspect of the living planet and start living as if we are a part of nature (cf. apart from nature).
Unlike the ease of my usual essays, this essay has been quite challenging to write. It responds to my email in-box, and the half-measures people can take to mitigate their misery during the completion of the ongoing economic collapse (while ignoring the moral imperative of living close to our neighbors and close to the land that supports us).
I don’t believe in half-measures. Yet, as I visited San Diego and Tucson and their wide array of cultural exhibits and restaurants — where a large amount of amazingly good food can be had in exchange for the equivalent of an hour or two at minimum wage — I was forced to face my greatest fear about the future: the industrial era will persist long enough to allow industrial humans to destroy the very elements of the living planet that allow our continued existence as a species. According to this view, fossil fuels will become less and less available, but the reduction will be so gradual we will barely notice our increasing poverty (cf. this essay).
So, for the good people of Tucson, and for Angela-from-my-inbox and others like her in San Diego, I ask you to join me as I stare into the abyss. I’ll tackle the issues we face in my usual order: water, food, body temperature, and community.
Water is fundamental to human survival, so the greatest challenge we face is retaining potable water supplies. In the absence of municipal water coming through the taps, you will need to find another source of water and you will need to make it potable. Harvesting rainwater in barrels is easy enough, but you’ll have to reduce your consumption considerably (of water and nearly everything else). Fortunately, the issue of potability is resolved with relative ease. Water can be pasteurized with the power of the sun and, with a little more energy, can be boiled. Search the web using the phrase “pasteurize water” for a few quick tricks. You’ll want to invest in simple, inexpensive infrastructure while you still can.
For those of us who eat, food is another important consideration. Even if you believe we’re headed for third-world status, instead of the inability to buy food with fiat currency at the grocery store, you have to recognize what this means: limited selection and massive shortages. You’ll want to stock up on essentials while food is still inexpensive. And I strongly suggest figuring out how to grow, trap, shoot, prepare, and preserve a significant portion of your own food. You’ll want a rifle, and perhaps some traps, and the ability to use them. If all else fails, perhaps you can start making human jerky.
WordPress really needs a sarcasm tag.
Maintaining body temperature will be far more challenging in Fairbanks than Belize, which is why I recommend the latter as a place to live. But if you’re profoundly committed to your current residence, please invest in various elements of durability while they’re financially inexpensive: a metal roof and abundant insulation will go a long way toward keeping the rain at bay and also keeping your body at 98.6 F. Buy some blankets for you and the unprepared people with whom you’ll be bartering. Ditto for large garbage bags, which passably serve as raingear. The opportunities in this category are essentially limitless, and I’ve described a few of them here. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below.
A decent human community is probably less important in a world characterized by “muddling through” than in the future I foresee. After all, cheap fossil fuels have allowed us to develop comprehensive online communities instead of real ones. Still, I value communities for reason beyond survival, as I try to make clear here: “At some point, we simply lost track of the importance of communities, human and otherwise. Along the way to becoming a nation of multitasking, Twittering, Facebook ‘friends’ we abandoned the ability to connect meaningfully, viscerally, individually. If we are to thrive during the post-carbon era, we’ll need to create groups of straight-talking, look-’em-in-the-eye, mean-what-you-say, say-what-you-mean, self-reliant, individuals who are not afraid to ask for help from the neighbors and who, when asked, readily offer assistance.”
If you’re committed to your human community, you’ll want to stock up on items certain to be less commonly available in the near future than today. In addition to water (and the ability to purify it), food (and the seeds to grow more), and the previously mentioned blankets, medicine comes to mind. Two recent essays focus on simple antibiotics, which likely will not seem so simple in the coming years: they are linked here and here.
It’s not just antibiotics, of course. The possibilities are endless. If you wear glasses, buy several pair. To prevent your prescription from changing, invest in gas-permeable (i.e., “hard”) contact lenses and adapt to wearing them. Visit the dentist and get your teeth fixed. Store toothpaste and floss. Take a relevant class or two. And so on, ad nauseum, until you feel comfortable entering a world in which availability of goods and services is limited. And, if that’s too challenging, get rid of your taboos about marriage and hook up with a medical doctor, a dentist, and a pharmacist. While you’re at it, you might want to add a marksman, a permaculturist, and a really good shaman.
Above all, you’ll need the comfort of knowing politicians are acting in the best interests of the people they represent. You’ll need to convince yourself that the ongoing attempts by Obama and Bernanke (and Bush and Greenspan before them) are working. You’ll need to convince yourself that plugging every leak in the dam actually takes pressure off the dam, that the dam will not break because of temporary patches. Ultimately, you’ll have to convince yourself that American empire will last forever, and is not an empire.
Good luck with that.