Sunday, December 28, 2008

Short-term vs. permanent: or, uh, dude? Why are you storing water?

It sure seems like if one is prepared for the long emergency, then wouldn't one also, by default, be prepared for a short-term emergency, too? I think the answer is no. I think there's a difference, at least in my current life, between being prepared for short-term emergencies and the long emergency. While there's an awful lot of overlap between the two, there are still some different constraints that each operates under.

The overlaps are so many and varied that I'd have trouble listing them all. Some that come to mind are basic food storage--having enough to eat without having to go to the grocery store; being used to low or high indoor temperatures; having more ways to get around than just via car (which might not be viable in an emergency); having built trusting relationships between oneself and one's neighbors, and so on. Yes, you want to do all of these things regardless of whether you're preparing for a short-term emergency or for the long emergency.

But even here, I can already see differences. One of my background assumptions about the Long Emergency is that we will be living in a very low, but not no, energy world. This is actually one that I think Kunstler gets wrong in some of his fiction, although it could just be for effect. The major problem with having electricity, for example, isn't really going to be the availability of coal to fire the plants, but rather the cost of extraction & processing, and so the increased cost of purchasing the energy on the consumer side. In other words, electicity will probably be available, I just won't be able to afford very much of it. There may also be issues with the dilapidation of the grid system (which hasn't been upgraded in lo these many decades), so energy availability might be subject to some hiccups, too, although again, there probably still will be electricity available. And there probably really will be progress made on renewable sources of energy--at least enough to power true emergency things like hospitals, but possibly even enough to provide at least sporadic power to the masses. So generally speaking, I think we will probably have power, in some limited capacity. That is, power enough to maybe run the stove (maybe once or twice a week, or more often), maybe even enough to run a space heater or two, that sort of thing (enough to keep my computer running?!?!).

Ah. Now we start to see the differences between short-term and long-term emergencies. You see, the stuff in the previous paragraph--that's all about the long emergency. But how am I planning to cook things during a short-term emergency where there is no power? Not just low-power, or "plan to do all your cooking on Tuesday" power, but no power. And probably with little to no warning. Yeah, that's a different ball of wax. Or what about eating when you've been evacuated? We had major flooding here this year, and while I don't think our house is in serious danger of evacuation, we are in serious danger of power outages and water contamination. We also, realistically, might need to take refugees from other parts of the city into our house in the coming years.

So already we see some different constraints between these two. It really doesn't make sense to store water for the Long Emergency--I doubt our house has enough space to hold all the water we'd need for a year. But we do need to store water for short-term emergencies, when the power is out for running the water supply system, or the water has become contaminated. We need ways to prepare meals without power--sterno cooking rigs, barbeque grills, etc. Or we need a good backlog of meals that can be prepared without power. We need ways to stay warm with no heat and no power--preferably, ways that are safe. We need all kinds of things like that. Hm. Maybe I should make a list?

Some of these things will slowly be covered by Long Emergency preparations. Sooner or later, if we're able to stay in our house, we'll have to find some non-electric, non-gas form of house heating, and that will take care of heat (and possibly cooking) during short-term emergencies. Sooner or later we're going to purchase a gravity water filter, which will go a long way towards water security for short-term emergencies; installing a water pump of our own would finish that project. The more complete our long emergency preparations are, the less we need to prepare for short term emergencies. Unfortunately, we're not exactly "nearly done" with our long emergency preparations. And in either case, having preparations for fast evacuations will become increasingly important as things generally fall apart.

And so I'm storing water for short-term emergencies, while working on plans for "water security" for the long emergency. My 10-gallon water bottles downstairs will get us through a 2-week emergency; or at least, they will once I've gotten enough of them, I currently only have two! And I'm looking into water cachement systems, cisterns, etc. for long term solutions. (Argh! My neighbor has a cistern on her property! It's so unfair.... Hm, maybe she'll share?). I'll probably be concentrating on our short-term emergency preparations for a bit, since that's what I'll be working on around here, until gardening season kicks in. My upcoming projects are things like: getting more water bottles; getting a water filtration system; constructing "bug out buckets"; putting together lists of no-energy meal prep foods; getting materials (e.g., sterno) for emergency cooking, etc. And boy will I be more than happy to take suggestions, advice, experiences, etc. Always remember, the hallmark of this blog: I have no idea what I'm doing!

Monday, December 22, 2008

My Current Approach

First, did you know that the flat-out worst time to start a new blog is right before a major holiday season? Yup, no kidding. My new blog is not only competing with my regular life, but with no school, and cookies, and presents, and family gatherings, and and and.... I hope to post somewhat regularly in the future, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's rather sporadic at first. Ah well, it'll give me time to come up with reasonable things to write about, eh?

Before getting into the nitty-gritty, I should say first that I am a devotee of Sharon Astyk and her blog, Casaubon's Book, and find almost everything she has to say of huge value. Much of my thinking on adapting in place (how to do it, why to do it, etc.) has been shaped by her writing, although I've not had the good grace to be able to take her actual class on adapting in place yet (but I sure hope to!). My financial thinking has been heavily shaped by Chris Martenson and the folks over at The Automatic Earth. I think I do have some original material to contribute to these discussions, but again, most of my emphasis will fall into the "how the *@#$&$ am I going to do all this?!" arena.

My overall approach to adaptation, these days anyway, falls into two broad categories: (1) preparing for short-term emergencies (e.g., 3-day to 2-week outages, evacuations, etc.); and (2) preparing for lifestyle-changes brought about by our Brave New World. The first one I'll call "short-term preparedness," and the second one I'll probably refer to as "the long emergency preparedness" after Monsieur Kunstler's work. I think that, technically, there probably is a third category that goes somewhere in between these two--the months to a-year-or-so long emergencies. Am I preparing for this sort of emergency? No. For one thing, if you're prepared for the long emergency, then you're pretty much by default prepared for any medium-range problems we'll have (short-term emergencies have a somewhat different set of constraints). But more than this, the middle-ground preparedness implicitly assumes that there will be a time when we come back out of this situation, and I think that's false. Preparing for the new world, to me, does not involve just managing to get through the next year, and then everything will return to normal. I think that normal is pretty much over. We're still clinging to it, no doubt. But I think it's a illusion to labor under the idea that this is only temporary. So when I store food, it's not just "to get us through this year" because the logical corrollary of this mindset is that I won't restock, or not much anyway. But preparing for the long emergency means that I am changing my family's whole lifestyle. Food storage and energy adaptation will be permanent changes in the way we do things, not just temporary inconveniences (well, at least the ones that work will be).

And in fact, this leads nicely to a discussion about why do these things now? Why not just enjoy the cheap energy while we've got it, and then deal with the fallout later? Certainly that's been the modus operandi for the past century, why stop now? I think there are lots of responses to this, some obvious and some less so. Many of the obvious responses revolve around the idea that it's probably a good idea to sort out how to live in a low-energy world before you're likely to die of starvation from it cause you never learned how to garden, or how to cook from scratch, or how to find local farmers, and so on. Right now we've got a sort of cushion period available--not a very big cushion, mind you, but we can float between the worlds, as it were. We can prepare for the future while still having the current "just in time" economy as backup. This is a huge luxury. Disaster will not currently strike us if I find that I've failed to store enough wheat berries for the upcoming year--I'll make a note of how much more we'll need, and then I'll go to the store for some flour. We can flip the power main in our house and see how it goes for three days of no power, to see how good our emergency preparations are. And then, bliss of bliss, we can turn it back on and fix what we did wrong. Heck, if we're really underprepared, we can even cut off the experiment early! Incredible! During a real emergency I can flip the power main all day long and all that will happen is my arm will get tired.

Another in the "obvious" category is the economic benefit of living this lifestyle right now. Of course, there is a fair amount of money outlay for some of the things I want to do, but in general, we will save money by changing our lifestyle now. Buying food in bulk is cheaper than buying it piecemeal from the store, and as a side benefit it's reassuring to know we have plenty to eat and cuts down on last-minute treks to the grocery store. Gardening helps cut our grocery store costs, improves our lives & health, and helps keep me sane. Buying from local farmers can be cheaper, and certainly fresher, than buying from grocery stores, and it has the side-benefit that it helps make our area more self-reliant and it builds our local economy by keeping our money & tax dollars in town. That helps maintain our job pool and infrastructure--good things indeed. And using less energy just costs less than otherwise--we're not sucking down as much oil, coal, & natural gas, so less of it shows up on our monthly bills or out of our monthly budget. The less electricity we use, the more we can afford to offset what we do use with wind & solar packages offered through our utility company. And the side benefits here are environmental--less emissions, helping to slow down global warming, which is really something we cannot afford to wait on, no matter how cheap energy might be right now.

But then there are the less obvious reasons for why I want to do these things now. I don't want this lifestyle to feel like torture and deprivation, since I'm pretty sure it's how we'll be living for the foreseeable future. If I'm in a head-space where I simply. cannot. survive. without. my. iPod I've got a serious problem, because my future may well be one without an iPod. And this is the prevailing attitude right now--the notion that we should ever have to live without cell phones, or satellite TV, iPods, cars, and the like, is intolerable to many in my society. When these people are finally forced, either via energy or the economy, to give up their toys, I'm betting they will suffer mightily. I don't want to suffer. I want this lifestyle to seem normal. I want the food that I serve now to be like the food I will serve in two years, since that will provide comfort and continuity, rather than just one more reminder about how our lives have changed.

Think about it this way: imagine a woman talking with her grandma. Like most people of her generation, the grandmother grew up with a root cellar and food storage, with fairly plain foods, very few luxuries, maybe not even indoor running water or electricity, and other similar lifestyle differences. Now imagine this person telling her grandmother, to her face, that her childhood is beyond-the-pale unbearable, and it is worth it to destroy the environment and the future of our children just so that she can avoid living like her grandma did when growing up. Was grandma's life really that depraved? There were many people during the depression who genuinely suffered, and I'm not advocating joy in suffering. But most people just lived differently, and far more lightly, than we do. They had a different set of values; they evaluated their lives on different terms. They expected different things out of their lives, and had different goals. Their mores and institutions aren't necessarily better or worse than our social mores and institutions--just different. But they're a set of mores and institutions far better suited for the coming world than the ones we currently have, and that is where the rubber meets the road.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Okay, so what *do* I think is going to happen?

Or, to put it another way--to what, exactly, do I think I will be adapting? Excellent question, glad you asked.

In broad strokes, I think we will be adapting to a world with vastly lower energy availability, and a world with vastly lower economic resources available. Probably, because I just don't see the world running towards the 350ppm goal for emissions, we will also see some serious climate destabilization. This will precipitate huge refugee populations, and also throw monster wrenches into any form of agriculture, including the more localized versions to which I cleave. So, in short, we will have less money and similar resources to use, less energy to do things with, and a significantly harsher food climate than now. Hm. Not good.

Let me fill this out a bit. For starters, I believe that we are heading for a financial catastrophe that will at least be on a par with the Great Depression, and may well dwarf it. We are currently operating under many of the same genesis conditions of the last depression, but this time we are doing it all on much higher orders of magnitude. In the 30's, there were losses in the millions. Today, we're already clocking losses into the 10's of trillions, with vast unregulated shadow markets valued (nominally) at over 500 trillion, all highly susceptible to a credit bubble which just went *poof*. I don't think anyone can truly foresee how bad this will get, and there are so many confounding variables it tends to make my head spin. But at the very least, we are going to see waves of layoffs/job losses (yes, many more than we've had); bankruptcies, both individually and business, will continue to climb. Credit will become almost inaccessible. People with no backup cushion--who had always thought of their home equity and credit cards as their backup--are going to be in deep deep dodo (and I may well be in that group myself). Deflation will batter us for the upcoming future. Prices will fall, but not as fast as wages & income do. We will still have plenty of energy resources--oil, coal, solar, wind, etc.--but we will increasingly not have enough money to actually purchase any of it. As deflation continues, debt burdens will become entirely unmanageable, precipitating more defaults & bankruptcies, and the cycle will continue. Sooner or later we'll hit inflation, and I can only pray that it doesn't turn to hyperinflation and we need a wheelbarrow of $100 bills to buy a loaf of bread, but who can say?

Then there's the energy crisis we're about to tip into. As I just said, oil & coal will still be plentiful, but we won't be able to afford it due to the economic issues. This will mask a new underlying problem that, in fact, our oil supplies will begin to dwindle. No, they will not vanish. There's little reason to think that we'll run out of oil for decades to come. But it will be more and more expensive to get out of the ground and process, and there will be less and less of it. Same goes for coal. So at just the moment when we'll have less budget for energy, prices will likely start to rise again. Market forces will hold prices in check somewhat, since there's no point in producing a commodity that literally no one can afford to buy, but sooner or later it will no longer be cost effective, and then who knows what will happen? One thing that history does teach us is that it was largely cheap-oil driven industry which pulled us out of the last depression; it is doubtful that we'll have another fairy godmother like that for the upcoming one. And no, I don't think that science will save us. I'm a big fan of renewable resources, but they're just not up to the task of taking over for our fossil fuel friends and allow us to keep toodling on our merry way. Their energy returns are too low, their distribution too clumsy, and we don't have the resources left (fossil fuel or economic) to refit our infrastructure anyway. One way or another, we're going to have far less access to energy than we've become accustomed to. Given that most Americans believe that access to oil is a Birthright, this will be a very hard pill to swallow indeed.

And climate change? Well, now that we don't have the money to do all the wonderful green tech retrofitting in the first place, thanks to the economic crisis, we'll start scaling back on those plans (this is already happening). Concern over global warming, which had just finally started to build a head, will dwindle in the face of truly harsh economic conditions. We can only cope with so many crises, and a scientific paper telling us that the global temperature will rise by 2*C just doesn't stand up to seeing your children starving in front of your eyes. Economics will win--just ask Bill Clinton. And destabilized climate will lead to a very difficult agricultural landscape. It's hard to farm when you don't know when spring starts, or if it will start, or when deluge-level floods become the norm, or.... As I recall from my college Anthropology class, one of the major contributors to the rise of civilization and agriculture at all was the eventual settling down of our climate, thanks to the Oceanic Conveyor Belt (which global warming will probably destroy, but no matter).

So there's that.

Bad, eh? Yes, I really do think that some version of everything I just said will happen. But notice that even if I'm completely wrong about one or two of them, if just one of them is more or less correct, we're still in for some major adaptation. I did tell you in my first post that I'm a doomer. I'm not trying to convince anyone that I'm right; I've given no arguments for my positions above (well, not many, anyway). I hope everyone will look into these things for themselves. I've done so, and these are my current conclusions.

Eesh, how can I even get through the day believing things like this? Sometimes I really don't know. But most of the time I do it by remembering that humans do not require, nor do we really seem to thrive, on the modern world to which we've become accustomed. The food is bad for us, the air is bad for us, the consumables are bad for us, and our communities are nonexistent. And so it is to these topics I turn my attention. It is easy to see our situation as the gravest of all possible worlds (short of when the zombies come, I guess); we are talking about the end of our way of life, after all. But I find that I no longer value our way of life, or at least, not what our business & political leaders mean by "our way of life". That way of life involves debt treadmills, and toxic foods, and disaffected youths, and fear. I don't want that life. I want to find the way of life that I think most of us still hold in our hearts, somewhere under the Macy's catalogues and new credit card offers. The life where my neighbor watches my back, and I hers. Where I know who grew my food, and trust that person. Where my spiritual satisfaction does not come from retail therapy. I'll bet you know the world I'm talking about. In fairness, it's a world that never really existed--not even in Norman Rockwell paintings. It's easy to romanticize the past, and I try to guard against it. But it is equally easy--probably even easier--to believe that we cannot live without our current way of life. And that's BS. We can, and we can probably thrive at it, and frankly I don't think we'll have much choice regardless, so I'd better start doing what I can to make the best of things now.

This is just one of the reasons that I do not want to move to a homestead (well, okay, sometimes I do). Homestead living will provide a comparatively smooth transition, and that's great. But nowadays most folks don't live on a homestead--heck, they don't even live on a rural non-homestead patch. Most of us live in cities, towns, villages, and the like. And unless homesteaders are content with angry, hungry, desperate hordes of city dwellers ravaging their fields for food to feed their children (see--zombies!), then we'd better all hope that some of us can figure out how to live with the infrastructure we have now, and who can teach others.

And so, at long last, that's where I am. That's why I'm doing this. And because I'm selfish. I love my house, and I like my community. As a matter of full disclosure, we also have a family "farm" to which we have an open invitation to bug out to any time we need. It's not terribly close by, but it is near enough that, if things were desperate, we could probably bike there with our kids and some essentials in a few days. So we have a luxury that most people really don't--a fallback homestead. But I don't want to end up there, at least not yet. I want to stay here and help my community make it through this mess.

One day I told my mom about my latest canning project and thinking about buying a grain grinder. She sighed and said, "I hope that in a few years you'll be willing to teach the rest of us all these things, because I think we'll need to know them." Well, I'm working on it, mom!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Introductory Post

Well, I just opened this blog, and I'm not sure if it's gonna go or not. But I thought it might be at least helpful to me (if no one else).

I should start with introductions--that's polite, right? Okay. My name is Robyn, and I am a doomer. Not a "zombies are coming to eat my brains tomorrow, get the guns!" doomer (guns won't do much good against zombies anyway--see here.) But rather, a "Gee, here's about a hundred reasons why things will start to/currently are going downhill" kind of doomer. It has taken me a long time to come to grips with being a doomer, to be able to accept that my life in the future is not going to be like my life in the past. I've spent the past few years, and my husband perhaps a few years more, trying to wrap my brain around the mess we're in now. But I've made good progress on it, and I think that I'm finally seeing versions of how our world will be changing. Honestly, though, that's not what this blog is for, although I can't imagine it won't come up occasionally--in my fits & starts of accepting some new, harsh reality (or hey, maybe even a few moments of "wow, that worked out better than I'd hoped!").

No, this blog is intended for other purposes. This blog is for finding the path through the forest. I've started it to help me work though the process of adapting to our new world, and maybe to take a few people along with me, if'n ya wanna come. "We're in a pickle" as Bill Moyers recently said during the open to an interview with Andrew Bacevich. Yes, we certainly are. The recent years of our nation has been almost like a race to see which global catastrophe will destroy us first--global warming, peak oil, or the economy. Right now, it's actually looking like the economy is going to win, at least in proximate cause sense (in fact, twistedly, it's looking like economic collapse will happen first, but it will exacerbate the other issues--joy--but more on that later, eh?). How can we deal with this situation? How can I deal with this situation? Can I do anything now? What? No, really, what?!?! I can't stop the juggernauts barreling down at me. Sure, I can "do my part" and that's all well and good--I've got many things to say about why you should--but no, really, it's not going to stop global warming, or save the economy. It just won't; let it go. So what should I do?

You see, I am not currently living on an off-grid homestead like a good doomer should be. I do not have 4 acres to support my family in a totally self-sufficient manner. I don't have a stash of shotguns, rifles, and MREs in a waterproof/fireproof box buried 10 clicks from my back door. No cows, no chickens, no other livestock to speak of (except our cat Calvin and five tetra fish). No wheat in the field. No cottage industry selling eggs and local produce. No heat but central heat. And while my situation might change radically in the future, I currently have no plans to do any of these things. Given my current situation, how can I expect to navigate the low/no income, low/no energy future before us?

And so I've started this blog, to work through how I'm gonna do it, because you'd better believe that godsdamnit I am gonna do it. Somehow. Here is where I will figure out the how. Or at least, that's the plan. I will not spend much time in posts trying to convince anyone that peak oil is real, or that we're entering the Greater Depression, or that global warming is anthropogenic in cause. There are lots of other people out there who do a better job of that than I will, and I'll get some of those links up soon enough. I'll respond to questions about it to the best of my ability, but I'm just not going to be in the business of convincing anyone of anything. You think that peak oil is a paranoid oil-man's delusion? Good for you--have some bean dip. But on the whole, I'll assume that if you're reading this at all, you're more or less on the same page as me on the broad issues. Or if not, you're at least willing to entertain these notions, and you find value in what I'm blathering about here for some other reason.

Given what I said earlier--no homestead & whatnot--it probably looks like I'm in a hopeless situation, but I don't think so. Sure I lack many things that would make the transition more workable. But I am not without resources, and I intend to bring those to bear in any way I can come up with. I have a husband who loves me and mine. With him, I have two young boys who are a joy, if also a trial. I have an old, solid, 1902 house with high ceilings and great insulation, that was designed back when "central heating" meant that your living room was on fire. I live in the interior of a smallish (~80,000 population) midwestern town to which we have grown rather attached. I have a nice side-yard to garden in, and could probably eke about 3500 sq. ft. of garden out of it (I'm currently gardening about 625 sq. ft.). I have wonderful neighbors whom I feel I can rely upon, and who can band together if times get tough. I have a "to die for" pantry. I have a cold-room passageway for food storage. I have an extensive basement including the makings for a root cellar. I have great friends, many of whom are working with me to start a local foods co-op. I can walk or bike to nearly anything in town.

I don't want to leave my home. I don't want to leave my community. I want to stay. I want to adapt in place. I just need to figure out how. This won't be fast, and it certainly won't be without pain, or at least severe embarrassment. But it will be worth it, even if none of it works out. So here I go....