Last week a reader wrote to me:
"So just finished your population story and I know it's long view stuff -- 2050, 2080, but I kept thinking, what can I/should I be doing now, 'I' being a regular shmoe type, to best protect myself and kiddo from the increasing instability that will come with rising oil prices in the next decade?"
It's a good question. The answer will be different for everyone, depending on their needs, means, capabilities, and willingness, but I'll offer a few guideposts.
The main objective is self-sufficiency. Whatever you can do to reduce your dependence on outside systems, and provide for your own food and energy, is the best course of action.
I'm not suggesting that anyone become the doomer variety of "prepper." Forget about guns and ammo; unless you live in a very rural area, they won't get you very far (a few days or weeks, at most), and in the hands of most people, a gun is a greater risk to themselves and their communities than a help. (As I noted in January, Adam Lanza should be proof enough of that.) And let's face it, not too many of us are actually going to build a bunker and fully outfit it for months of self-contained living. Even if you did, what would be your plan when you finally had to emerge? Drive off to Walmart and restock?
No. The best model I can suggest is simple, and hardly new. It's mainly what your grandparents (or great-grandparents) called everyday life. It isn't easy. If you're lazy, you might find it pretty challenging. But it's within the reach of the average person, if that person is willing to learn new skills and make some lifestyle changes. The good news is that it can also be very rewarding, and improve your health and state of mind.
Here’s a short list.
#1: Try to reduce your fuel usage however you can.
I offered suggestions on how to do this last month starting with this one: Get a more efficient vehicle. If you can, make it an electric vehicle (EV) and charge it up with power from your own rooftop solar array. Ride a bike, take public transportation, or walk. The more you can get along without oil and natural gas, the better. Your goal should be to imagine how your children or grandchildren could live without it entirely by the end of this century, and try to make that possible.
#2: Reduce your overall energy consumption.
That might mean moving to a smaller house, finding co-housing or simply upgrading the efficiency of your existing home. For most older homes, the largest energy losses are thermal, and the first solutions are usually insulation, and double- or triple-paned windows. You might want to hire a company to evaluate your building envelope, find the leaks, and recommend corrective measures.
Once your home has a good tight envelope, focus on the efficiency of your appliances, starting with the furnace, air conditioner and refrigerator.
#3: Make your own energy.
If you have a roof (or yard space) with a fairly unobstructed view to the south or west, research getting a solar system. In many areas, third-party financing companies will install a solar photovoltaic PV system to generate electricity on your house for zero money down, and will slightly reduce your monthly utility bill at the same time. It's a no-brainer! (Of course, if you can pay cash for the system or provide your own financing, your return on investment will be better.)
Solar thermal (hot water) and heat pump systems (ground-loop 'geothermal' or air-exchanging systems for space heating) can also be good investments, and will reduce your fuel consumption. They typically take longer to pay for themselves than solar PV, but the financial returns depend heavily on your local climate and use patterns.
For both efficiency upgrades and solar systems, there may be rebates and other incentives available to help with the cost. In the United States, search the Database of State Incentive for Renewable Energy (DSIRE) to find available opportunities in your area.
If you live on a farm, you might consider a wind turbine, or go big and try growing oilseed crops to make your own fuel for your diesel vehicles -- after all, that's what Rudolph Diesel had in mind when he invented his engine. Or you might follow John Howe's example, and experiment with a solar tractor (see my last column for more information on that).
#4: Grow some of your own food.
It's generally accepted that every kilocalorie of food that makes it to our tables requires 10 kilocalories of oil and natural gas to grow, process and transport. The whole food distribution chain in the United States is on average 1,500 miles long, and three days wide at most. It’s highly vulnerable to fuel shortages and cost spikes, and breaks quickly without a continued supply of fuel. As oil becomes increasingly dear (and eventually, harder to get) in the coming decades, food supply will be at risk.
But you don't want to wait until that happens before you start gaining some competency in food production and preservation. Any farmer or gardener will tell you that there's a lot of failure on the road to success. So the sooner you start building your agricultural skills, the better.
Learn about permaculture techniques, so you don't need fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, which are made from oil and natural gas. Figure out a low-fuel way to get some compost and manure, and start building your soil. Learn how to harvest and save seeds for next year's crop.
Start a worm bin. I've kept one for many years. They're easy to maintain, they cut down on your garbage, and they produce nature's best fertilizer for your garden.
Don't try to do it all alone. Connect with local gardeners. There are probably "tilth" experts in your area who are more than willing to share tips and help you along in your learning process. Use them. You'll probably make some important new friends to boot.
And remember: In addition to being healthier and more delicious, food that you grow yourself comes with a great deal of joy hidden inside of it. As the song goes, there's only two things that money can't buy, and that's true love and homegrown tomatoes.
#5: Learn some basic skills.
If you're growing some food, then the next obvious skills you need are in food preservation: pickling, canning, drying, fermenting, curing and smoking. Again, it's work, but it's also fun, especially as a family activity. And there's nothing quite like opening a jar of deliciousness you canned yourself, months or years after you did it, and having a little taste of summer.
The deeper you go into self-sufficiency, the more you realize how many skills one really needs, and how many you'd like to learn.
Cooking from scratch -- especially vegetarian dishes, since we all know that the commercial meat industry is massively reliant on petroleum and natural gas. (Of course, raising animals for meat is another matter, and if you're going to go there, you probably better reconcile yourself to learning butchering as well.) Learning how to cut and season wood, and build a proper fire that keeps you warm and doesn't smoke. Making things out of wood. Repairing things with whatever you've got handy. Sewing, knitting, and crocheting. If you've got a solar PV system with battery backup, you'll need skills to maintain and troubleshoot it.
The learning is basically endless. But I have found that acquiring each skill, though progress can seem painfully slow sometimes, also gives one a certain feeling of pride and self-confidence. You begin to realize that whatever it is you don't know how to do today, you could learn to do if you put yourself to it. That's a good feeling.
One resource I like for basic skills is the 12-volume collection of Foxfire books. Developed over 40 years, they contain the assembled wisdom of Appalachian old-timers who made everything by hand, using the most basic of tools. Even if you don't intend to build a log cabin or butcher a hog, they offer fun casual reading, and perhaps you will discover a few projects you do want to try.
#6: Build up tools and a library
You will need a lot of new tools to become more self-sufficient. Kitchen gear. Hand tools. Gardening tools. Specialized tools. Lots and lots of tools. Don't buy cheap ones; they don't last. Get sturdy stainless steel implements for the kitchen, and hardened steel hand and yard tools. Avoid plastic, and go out of your way to find good ones -- you might need to do some research -- and pay the extra money for them. You'll be glad you did. There's nothing worse than trying to do an urgent job with a useless piece of junk when getting a replacement is out of the question.
You'll also need a library of reference books. Yes, dead tree books. You may see a day when the power is out and the Web is unavailable and your iPad is nothing but a paperweight. Books on gardening, home repairs, cooking, and every other imaginable sort of how-to books.
Good tools and books are hard to find, and they can be expensive. So start accumulating them now, bit by bit.
Eventually you might want to acquire some hand-powered equivalents for things you use now that run on electricity, like hand-cranked kitchen tools and screwdrivers. Or consider other interesting inventions, like this pedal-powered universal appliance for the home. If you're handy, you might want to consider building your own.
#7: Join your community.
This is where the doomer bunker crowd gets it wrong, I think. You can't really go it alone. Not for long. And there's very little point in doing so even if you tried. True sustainability is about having a functional community. It always has been, for as long as there have been humans. Nobody can know everything and make everything and grow everything and do everything. We need each other.
So do what you can to integrate yourself with your local community. Find common ground, and resist the forces that seek to divide you for their own -- usually political -- purposes. I'm an unabashed liberal (at least on social issues) but some of my most essential gardening friends are social conservatives. Fine. So I steer away from those subjects (except where a very rational and unemotional exchange of ideas is possible and fruitful) and just discuss tomatoes and worms with them. We don't have to agree on everything to have a mutually beneficial relationship. That's what true community is all about.
There are several organizations that can help you find like-minded people who are interested in self-sufficiency, and online communities that can provide useful information and contacts. Try the Transition Network, The Post Carbon Institute, and Peak Prosperity.
#8: If necessary, reconcile with your family.
Friends and neighbors and gardening buddies are great, but it's generally true that nobody has your back like family when push comes to shove. If you're not lucky enough to have a friendly and functional family who can get along and work together, it might be worth your while to try to work on those relationships. It's not out of the question, some years or decades from now, that you might need to pull together, even live and work together, and count on each other to get through some rough times.
#9: Build cash and eliminate debt.
Most farmers don't go bust just because they had a bad harvest. They lose their farms because a bad harvest (or several in a row) made them unable to pay their bank loans. The same sort of risk applies to homeowners with mortgages. It's the debt that really puts you at risk of losing the roof over your head and the land that grows your food.
It's not easy, and it may take a long time, but it's critical. Cheap and abundant oil in the past was a big part of the reason why credit was cheap and abundant, and why economic growth seemed assured over the long term. That's all changing now, as the plateau of oil production signals the beginning of a new era of expensive and difficult oil. Economic growth is no longer assured; in fact, as I have explained previously, I believe we're heading into an era of economic contraction, which will be dominated by the politics of less. If you want to keep your nose above water in the future, you'll want to be debt-free and participate in a cash and barter economy.
If you don't have any debt, you can weather some bad harvests, lean years, periods of unemployment, and other disasters. I'm not saying it will be easy, but at least you'll be able to keep going.
#10: Get into shape.
If you're not able to do a full day of hard physical work, then start getting ready for it. You're going to need to be able to sustain a good deal of physical activity. Fortunately, working in the garden is great exercise.
Just do it
Admittedly, this list just scratches the surface of the subject. But I hope it has at least inspired you, and given you some ideas on how to face down the looming challenges that await all of us.
Becoming more self-sufficient, and preparing yourself -- mentally, physically, and spiritually -- is truly a lifelong endeavor. It takes time, work and discipline. But it's not rocket science. You can do it. Many of us had forebearers who did it just a generation or two back. It is possible to live well, and happily, without oil or gas, without food from the supermarket ... even without grid power. We did it for millennia!
The important thing is to start now. Don't let yourself be overwhelmed by all that you need to do and learn and acquire, and give up before you start. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Indeed, the entire journey is made one step at a time. So start steppin'!