Preparing for Uncertain Futures

SUBHEAD: If you finally get your move on, when the proverbial shit hits the fan, it will probably be too late. By Mike & Cindy Winkelman on 5 July 2011 for Nature Bats Last - ( Image above: A gathering of permaculture enthusiasts in Portugal. From (

One doesn’t have to be a doomsayer or mystic to be able to see that there are a variety of possible — even likely — changes coming to the planet in the near future and that the status quo — socially, economically, politically and ecologically — is likely to change dramatically. This seemed obvious to me more than a decade ago. My own response to this realization began to crystallize with an ayahuasca vision that the planet was to undergo certain destruction in the not too distant future. This was 10 years ago. At the time, my wife could not imagine giving up her career for some “vision” I’d had, and she could not guarantee me that she’d be ready to accompany me. But she also did not want to impinge on me pursuing my intuitions. She began reading and researching the state of things and in time (fortunately) began to see the inevitable changes coming our way.

As a result, we have been on a path to prepare for these uncertainties while looking to improve our quality of life no matter what. The path was not linear, but from its inception it led us to the highlands of central Brazil. The path and method you use for your own adaptations will depend on many factors, including your resources and where you consider a good place. While I believe I was spiritually led to Brazil, we accepted it as a good place for our future based on a critical analysis of geological, ecological, social, political, economic, ethnic, and other factors. But wherever you may go, there are a variety of issues we addressed that will apply in most places and we’d like to share these with you here.

So what can you do to prepare for uncertainties?

There are certainly a lot of resources available such as books and the internet to help you determine how to do this, preparing for everything from the collapse of the U.S. dollar to the collapse of civilization [if it already hasn’t] or to various apocalyptic scenarios of ecological disaster ranging from the return of the 12th planet (Elenin?) and nuclear winter to global warming and rising ocean levels. Can you prepare for everything? No, but you can do a lot! For starters, educate yourself, consider leaving the US/northern hemisphere (or at least populated areas), obtain sustainable living conditions, secure food and water, develop food production, build secure structures, and so on.

Location, Location, Location

If you finally get your move on when the proverbial shit hits the fan, it will probably be too late. Remember the miles of stalled cars fleeing Katrina? You have to be where you want to be when it happens. If you can’t get to a sustainable trajectory now, it will be virtually impossible to achieve it when the collapse happens. You’ll need to be in a safe environment that can provide a lot of the basics of life — particularly water, food and security — if the larger macroeconomic systems fail.

Our initial orientation to survival adaptations suggested that we find a small town to live in with about 5,000 friendly natives located in an agricultural area at least two tanks of gas away from the closest major city. That is tough. Where we’ve ended up in Brazil we are less than a tank of gas from Brasilia and Goiania, cities with more than a million people each. The town we live near (just a few kilometers away) contains 20,000 people. But because of a variety of factors (including ecological, agricultural self-sufficiency, fuel sufficiency, enormous resources, good security apparatus) we do not expect that this area of Brazil will collapse in the same way as the “advanced” economies of the northern hemisphere. We selected this area in part because of local sustainable agriculture and plentiful fresh water. We invested in several tracts of land that have these characteristics, one about 15 miles away from where we live near a town of 4,000 where we immediately planted an orchard and established friendships with some of the locals as a kind of backup plan.

Retirement with Time and Money

Having the time and money to prepare is key. I got mine with an early retirement from a state retirement system. Key issues were: doing as much of my job as possible online; purchasing 10 years of service based on previous employment; paying for service purchase with payroll deductions and rolling over IRAs; working overtime (100%) with part-time jobs at other state institutions for 3 years to double my retirement; and taking a substantial lump sum payment at retirement. My wife’s employment helped us maintain our lifestyle while most of my earnings went into saving for the future. We were able to secure some startup capital, my time is now my own, and I have a continuing source of income as long as the US economic system lasts. If you don’t have resources it is tough, but with time and a good piece of land (with clean water preferably) you can still do a lot (e.g., see Earthbag Building).

Protecting Resources

Protecting the value of my monetary resources began some years ago when it was less apparent that this would be necessary. The inevitable collapse of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency meant putting my savings in something besides dollars. Standard advice includes bank accounts in foreign currency, and land, particularly in foreign country and/or agricultural lands where you want to live. I refinanced my home right before the real estate market crash; I now have an “underwater” house I am renting out in the US and with the funds from the refinance, a home I own free and clear here in Brazil. It may be a little late for you to do this now but the basic principle still applies. Get your home equity into something useful to provide some self-sufficiency.

Preparing for Self-Sufficiency

Self-sufficiency is nearly impossible but it is possible to plan for greater self-reliance. Permaculture is the basic concept — establishing a way to provide for your own subsistence. Three years ago I first planted a fruit orchard on our small 20-acre tract. Last year when we purchased our home here in Brazil I also immediately planted 50 fruit-bearing trees, vines, and bushes. We installed gutters and water-capture tanks this year. We just finished a 12×12 foot fenced garden area with a “pig wire” (much stronger than chicken wire) base on top of a brick foundation, followed with a chicken wire enclosure higher up and a roof with nylon shade cloth, providing protection from pigs, cows, birds, and voracious capybara which consumed an entire garden overnight last September. We have a larger 15×45 foot bean garden with a chicken wire enclosure 1.5 meters high. Likely won’t stop hungry pigs and cows, but it can keep out rabbits.

Storage of Food and Essentials

First, water. Did I mention water? Get a water filter, the small ceramic hand pump variety, as well as a larger passive system. A small hand pump will work for water from your pool, pond, etc. Then think of storing larger quantities in tanks, cisterns, ponds, underground, etc. or make a system to get it to you (hose, canals, etc). We capture rainwater into three tanks totaling 20,000 liters — it isn’t much. We are contemplating a pond to capture run off from the road. Investigate water purification systems — there are a variety of passive systems.

Food. In addition to planting, think about storage. Japanese people were without food for crucial periods after the earthquake. And the infrastructure was still mostly in place. Ditto in the US during the big freeze in early 2011. No fruits, vegetables, meat or milk after 3 days of freeze. What do you need to store? Well after water … First if you are vegetarian/vegan like us, it is easier. I made a plan based on info in the book When Technology Fails. The criteria there offered an idea of a 1 person/year; I modified for vegetarian for 1 month. My wife thinks it is way too much, but I eat 3 times as much as her.

The basic food categories and quantities for 1 month are:

Grains 30 lbs Legumes 15 lbs Nuts 5 lbs Dried/canned fruits 5-10 lbs. Sprouting seeds (wheat, alfalfa, rice, etc) Canned vegetables—basically none besides tomato paste, peas and corn but you may have more choices, Spices, leavening agents, salt, sugar, dried milks Oils (2 liters+), vinegars, sauces Drinks (tea, coffee, milk, powdered, etc.) Seeds for garden Miscellaneous personal (i.e. toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoos) and cleaning supplies.

You are probably best off with low-cook items — thin pastas, pre-cooked cereals, couscous, canned corn and peas. You also need to consider how you will cook your food, especially if the power grid is down. Select foods with a longer shelf life. Freeze twice for 72 hours, two weeks apart, to kill bugs, and then their hatched eggs, then vacuum seal the food in plastic bags for an extended life. In general do not freeze jars or canned items. We store our sealed food in recycled plastic bins with screw lids, generally separating dry and wet items. The size and configuration of bins determined by local availability, dimensions of your storage area, and your strength. We are finishing our 6th, 1-month storage period. It is a surprising amount of work. We will probably continue until we have a year’s worth of food. We hear that “pre-Fukishima food” may have a premium value in the near future. You might also consider storing “trade items” — for use in barter. Among the things we have seen recommended are: coffee, sugar, salt, soap, toilet paper, perfumes!, canned foods, basic medicines, tools, candles, and books.

Tools and Skills

As we have engaged in various construction projects here I have generally bought whatever tools were needed by workers and kept them. You should consider what your future agricultural and construction activities might require and acquire them. Also acquire the skills to build with local materials. Since, like Guy, I was an academic, I accompanied the workers on all of our projects here in order to acquire knowledge about how to do these things myself. (You can save a lot of time and money and expedite your learning curve by hiring Guy to personally guide you and help you get set up. He’s become an expert through trial and error.)

Another basic suggestion for survival preparation is acquiring skills that can be bartered from wood and metal work to gardening and local foraging. Basic first aid training or good manuals are good ideas. A good first aid kit with simple surgical supplies is also an important item.

Building Shelter

We bought a house because we did not want to rent while we built, nor did I want to live far from my construction site. Purchasing a small home with a large lot in the area we wanted to live also stored our monetary resources in something less susceptible to the dollar’s decline. We first did a number of functional upgrades (guest house, garage, storage building, water storage, etc.) and are now on to constructing our major “catastrophe proof building” basically a super-adobe structure reinforced with steel and concrete foundation and structure.

We are calling this planned structure our “mushroom cultivation area” — underground for cool varieties, above ground super-adobe without windows for “night mushrooms” and a second floor brick structure for drying. Earth is the most plentiful building material, and super-adobe techniques have great thermal properties, as well as an ability to resist hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, and even solar flares and radiation. It is a relatively cheap structure. You could probably still refinance your house and build a super-adobe structure with the equity. Okay, maybe 1/3 of you have enough financial equity. If you are healthy, you have a lot of “sweat equity” to invest. Good luck.

Community and Security

People you can count on are probably the most important issue for long-term success. These are also people you may have to help. This is a tough issue if you move away, unless you take your highly self-sufficient friends. Good luck. A church network might be particularly advisable. We bought a home in a so-called “ecological community,” a gated community outside of our small town. The few neighbors we have are really just weekend visitors from the big cities who come to enjoy their country home for a few days, but they are all very friendly and nice. This is just our first step.

We also have an 80-acre tract a few miles away that I own with a few associates with a long term plan of building a sustainable community. Right now I am just trying to get to a sustainable home place — my natal chart said to secure personal life before committing to community development. It certainly keeps my marital life together. In the small, charming colonial town we live near, we are also building relationships with locals. This is imperative for us since we came to a foreign country with no network. As we more diligently address the issue of community, we realize the networks we are building are primarily with local people who work for us in construction and gardening. We are contemplating church involvement for purely social reasons. We also shop locally as much as possible, as opposed to going to the nearby cities in order to build social capital and perhaps future credit. We invite acquaintances, local and foreigners, to visit us with an eye to building the relationships that may help build a supportive network and community.

What to do Next?

Well, more of the above. Stay focused and relaxed. Expand food and water storage, maybe build a pond. Build irrigation systems for food plants. Build secure super adobe buildings. Learn medicinal plants. Acquire water pumps (mechanical?) and an electrical power source and storage areas. Develop friendships locally and stay connected. Good luck.


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