Extras to Chapter 7: Personal Advice on Adjusting to the End of Growth
As someone who has for several years been speaking and writing about the consequences of impending energy scarcity, I’m often asked for personal advice. “Where should I live in order to avoid the worst impacts from Peak Oil?” “What career should I prepare myself for?” “What should I invest in?” I’m generally uncomfortable answering such questions. I’m no prophet, merely a trend spotter. The trends I see are broad and deep, but the details of their unfolding could be surprising to everyone, myself certainly included. Why should I give advice that might turn out to be unhelpful?
Nevertheless, in this book some advice is called for. If world economic growth is ending, then there are some fairly obvious adaptive responses that could help us all get through this difficult period more successfully, and it would be a failure on my part to omit discussion of those responses. In this chapter I will be speaking directly to you, the reader. What follows are general guidelines that have occurred to me over the course of the past few years. You are of course free to follow or ignore them according to your own best judgment, but I will voice them in the imperative mood in any case.
The first thing you must do is re-align your thinking. Most people’s perspectives and priorities are shaped by the economic system in which we are embedded, as well as by political messages and by voices in the mainstream media. All too often we allow our thinking to be done for us. But, as we have seen, the “normal” reality in which we find ourselves is actually based on profoundly flawed assumptions; in this situation, you cannot afford to sit back and let professionals who take this “normal” reality for granted operate your mind for you.
It’s essential that you start thinking for yourself. If you haven’t already done so, learn the principles of critical thinking. A good way to begin getting hold of your thought processes is to spend some time away from mass media, observing nature. Make both critical thinking and nature observation daily practices. I’m not suggesting cutting yourself off from news and opinion: it’s important to know what is going on in the world; rather, I’m advising that you deliberately and systematically hone your own self-correcting, critical point of view. That doesn’t mean looking for new information to buttress your existing opinions; it means challenging those opinions and learning to evaluate and prioritize new information.
When we become aware of threats to our current way of life it is natural to react first by trying to defend and maintain this pattern of existence—perhaps by denying uncomfortable information or attacking the messenger. I certainly anticipate receiving some of these attacks myself. However understandable this reflex may be, it is not helpful—especially in the current instance. Our present way of life cannot be maintained under the circumstances that are now unfolding. Rather than maintenance of the status quo, our goal instead must be a successful adaptation to emerging conditions along with preservation of what’s genuinely worthwhile and sustainable from the present and past. Figuring out how to adapt and assessing what is genuinely worthwhile will probably take you the rest of your life. Get used to mulling over these meta-problems, and learn to enjoy doing so.
The simplest shorthand way to think about our collective future is to focus on a series of relevant words that aren’t especially cheery: less, slower, smaller, and (this is the hardest one) poorer. Author John Michael Greer boils the matter down to its logical essentials:
White’s Law defines energy per capita as the basic measurement of economic development; as energy per capita declines, the economy contracts, and its capacity to support individuals at any level above the starvation line contracts as well. All the social, political, and military fireworks that punctuate the curve of decline unfold from that inescapable equation. . . .
Now, being poor isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a person. The vast, overwhelming majority of humans throughout history lived on a budget of energy and resources that today would seem unimaginably penurious by middle-class American standards, yet our ancestors were not uniformly and continually miserable. Happiness studies cited in the last chapter show that people can be quite satisfied with their lives while using a fraction of the consumables that North Americans manage to burn through.
The hard part is adjusting from a higher rate of consumption to a lower one, and much of that difficulty is psychological. Those of us who have grown up in modern industrial societies dominated by advertising and mass media have developed dopamine reward systems that are connected to the act of buying stuff and using energy. For us to give up consumption is about as pleasant as for a smoker or heroin addict to go cold turkey. If we want to make the adjustment as pleasant as possible, we should undertake to reduce consumption proactively, and that means taking hold of our internal reward systems. What gives you a dopamine fix? Is there an alternative system of rewards to which you can adjust that makes sense in a post-growth economy? If you learn to get your kicks from gardening, tinkering with worn and broken machines, making music with friends, mending old clothes, caring for family and friends, and competing with yourself to shave a few kilowatt hours from your monthly electricity usage, then you can look forward to endless future opportunities for enjoyment.
One of the keys to success in life involves management of one’s own internal brain chemistry. This is potentially a full-time occupation: whole philosophies—arguably, entire world religions, e.g. Buddhism—have been established in pursuit of neurotransmitter bliss, though usually the project is swathed in obtuse terminology. This frequent resort to confusing jargon is understandable: after all, it is only in the past couple of decades that the human brain’s dopamine reward system and the functions of other neurotransmitters (seratonin, noradrenaline, and GABA) have begun to be clarified. Feel free to frame your efforts at brain chemistry management in whatever terms suit you; your goal must nevertheless be to reduce the addictive qualities of your relationship with dopamine (learn to feel fine without the need for ever-more-intense “highs”), and to attach your internal reward system to life-enhancing mental and physical activities.
Here are some other guiding principles:
Learn from people who already live with less (fewer possessions, lower energy expenditure). We have few cultural heroes who are poor; our media role models are rich or at least moderately well-off. It’s understandable that most viewers of TV programs and movies would want to idolize stars: after all, these well-groomed actors appear to have mastered our society’s reward systems (don’t be fooled, though: many of these folks are dopamine addicts constantly searching for the next high, whether it comes in the form of a new spouse, mansion, or Oscar). In any case, we have little to learn from such individuals. We can learn much more from poor people who are good at being poor—that is, people who solve the problems of existence by applying intelligence and ingenuity rather than merely by throwing money at them. With rare exceptions, you won’t find such people on-screen; you’ll have to search them out—either in person or through their writings.
The most useful role models are people who have lived through a depression or a financial crash. Survivors of the 1930s Depression are elderly and frail now, so unless you have a parent, grandparent, or great grandparent you can talk with who was born around 1920, stories about the Depression are best accessed through literature (such as Studs Terkel’s Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression) and a few good films (e.g., “The Grapes of Wrath” ). But a lot has changed since the Depression; therefore some of what you will learn is not directly relevant now. You can fill in some of the gaps by consulting people who have lived through more recent economic convulsions in other countries.
Dmitri Orlov experienced first-hand the fall of the Soviet Union; his book Reinventing Collapse is a must-read, and so are his blog posts at http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/. Dmitri is a very good writer, and his work is as entertaining as it is enlightening .
Fernando “Ferfal” Aguirre, author of The Modern Survival Manual: Surviving the Economic Collapse, together with his wife and two children, lived through the implosion of the Argentine economy in 2001 . His advice for how to make your way through the coming global economic crisis is hard-edged, unsentimental, and specific: what kind of dog you should have, how much water you need, what kind of car you can rely on, what sort of gear to have ready, and what kinds of self-defense skills to acquire.
Which brings up an important question: Should you assume, and prepare for, a violent future? Ferfal, after recounting how crime has become rampant in his country since the currency crisis (to the point that virtually everyone has been victimized at one time or another), spends over 20 pages of his book advising what kinds of guns are best to acquire; he also discusses knives and other weapons, and how best to employ them. He even advises what to do in the aftermath of a gun battle (assuming you’re not injured, call the cops, but also call your lawyer, get the names of two or three witnesses, and take photos). This is tough reading for a vegetarian pacifist like me, though it’s hard to argue with someone who has been through what Ferfal has. Nevertheless, in the final analysis it’s really up to you to decide what kind of future is likely, what kind of future you want, and how to negotiate the discrepancies between the two. For me, guns are not part of the equation—I would prefer to spend my time building community. By preparing for a future in which everyone is armed and at each other’s throats, I would be helping to create such a future. No thanks. Draw your own conclusion, though.
Learn from local indigenous peoples, but not by slavishly copying their rituals and terminology. These are folks who survived in your ecosystem for countless generations without fossil fuels, electricity, Starbucks, or even wifi. They learned a thing or two along the way about respect for nature, which plants are good to eat, and how to kill and dress a rabbit or deer. These people are not museum exhibits. They have their own interests and problems, so if you approach them do so with respect; if you hope to gain something from the interaction, expect to offer something in return (not necessarily money).
Develop a self-sufficient frame of mind. If you haven’t done so already, take a class in each of the following: Permaculture, primitive technology, nature observation, and wilderness skills. These studies will help you learn how to prioritize your overall adaptive efforts, how to broaden your peripheral vision, how to feel at home in the natural world, and how generally to become a more competent mammal.
Get in shape. I feel a bit silly discussing this point, because I’m far from being a model physical specimen. But maybe it’s because I’ve had to work at paying attention to health and fitness issues that it occurs to me that this is something that should not be taken for granted. You don’t have to join a gym to buff up; you can accomplish all that’s needed by working out a few minutes a day with free weights, and then by getting out and walking for a half hour. Eat moderately and avoid packaged foods with long lists of chemical additives. Learn to cook from scratch, using simple ingredients.
Think local. Whether you’re shopping, banking, or going out on the town for entertainment, you have a certain amount of choice with regard to where your money is going to end up. Shopping at a big-box store, maintaining an account at a mega-bank, and going to see blockbuster movies ensures that most of your money will leave your community almost immediately. If you want your money to benefit your community, choose accordingly. You will be depending increasingly on your community for your well-being, so it is up to you to nurture it.
Finally, you can cut through a lot of confusion with regard to daily choices just by keeping the following four questions in mind: Will it work without oil and electricity?Is it sustainable?, Does it build resilience?, and Does it build community?
More on Individual and Family Strategies
Everyone should prepare for disaster: even if you think The End of Growth has exaggerated the threats of economic, energy, and environmental crises, you should be prepared for the sorts of natural disasters that your region is vulnerable to—whether hurricanes, tornadoes, winter storms, or earthquakes. Every household should have stored food, water, a first-aid kit, and a bug-out bag.
Books on survival are all the rage these days, and there are lots available; perhaps I can save you a few minutes in winnowing out the best ones.
Thepopular Worst-Case Scenario series is useful but can get entertainingly silly (the Travel volume contains a chapter on “How to Cross a Pirhana-Infested River”—information the average reader is unlikely to find particularly useful in dealing with a banking or energy crisis).  The books by Tom Brown, an expert on tracking and nature skills, are all worth reading; however, while Tom Brown’s Field Guide to City and Urban Survival is a particularly relevant entry in the series it is somewhat dated and you might do well to read instead Cody Lundin’s When All Hell Breaks Loose, whichoffers lots of commonsensical advice about food storage, water filtration, self defense, and medical supplies. Both books cover some of the same territory as Ferfal’s, discussed above, though they’re less informed by recent first-hand experience of an economic crisis. Additionally, Arthur Bradley’s Handbook to Practical Disaster Preparedness for the Family is comprehensive and well organized, and offers suggestions for children and the elderly as well as healthy young adults.
Some books focus not so much on surviving short-term disasters as on adapting to a temporary or permanent collapse of the global industrial system. If you take that prospect seriously, these books are especially relevant to your preparations: When Technology Fails, by Matt Stein is an encyclopedia for post-crash survival; Albert Bates’s gentle and entertaining Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook draws on his decades of experience with appropriate technology and organic farming; and John Seymour’s The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It is a classic compendium of traditional knowledge about how to provide for yourself and your family.
Most discussions about survivalism and disaster prep tend to be male-centered. While Arthur Bradley’s Handbook to Practical Disaster Preparedness for the Family (mentioned above) makes the effort to break that mold, there are issues surrounding this topic that are best explored by women authors—of whom the most thoughtful and informed may be Sharon Astyk, whose Depletion and Abundance contains chapters on “The Permaculture of Family,” “Raising Kids in a New World,” and “Little House in the Suburbs.”
Now, on to the questions everyone asks:
Where should I live? I advise most people to stay where they are. Your greatest asset is your social capital—friends, family, and neighbors. If you have social capital where you currently live, then it may not be a good idea to move to Guatemala, Oregon, or British Columbia just because one of these places might promise some advantages later on. If you have little social capital where you reside now, then moving makes more sense. If you are currently in a place that is likely to be especially challenged in a fuel-constrained future (Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas come to mind) and don’t have strong roots there, then the argument for moving is especially persuasive. In considering alternative sites, consider access to public transportation and your ability to walk to stores, work and school. Your prospects may not be better in a rural environment than a town or small city: this depends on your skills and inclinations (Ferfal argues strongly for the advantages of an urban environment during times of economic chaos). If you have farming skills, the country may be the place for you; if you don’t, you’re probably better off where you can more easily barter for essentials and forge alliances with larger numbers of people.
What should I be doing for money? If you have a job, be thankful and make the most of it. If you can, diversify your income sources. In any case, become less dependent on income by reducing your cash outflows every way you possibly can. If you do not currently have a job, develop skills that are genuinely and perennially useful. Ask yourself the question: What would I still pay someone else to do, even if I had very little money to spare?—and learn to do at least one of the things that come to mind. For college students wondering what to study, I would offer similar advice, with the added note that farming, while unlikely to be a path to riches, could be a viable career in the future, given that most current farmers are dying off (their average age is about 60) and the decades-old trend of replacing farm labor with fuel-fed machines has begun to reverse itself.
What should I do with my money? I will keep financial advice to a minimum. I’m not a professional financial counselor and have very little experience as an investor. There are books devoted to the subject of how to invest in a post-crash economic environment, but I can’t recommend any of them because I have not tested their strategies. A cautionary bit of advice: stay out of the stock market to the degree you can (I realize that folks with pension funds often have little choice in the matter). I say this not so much because I think a crash on Wall Street is imminent, but because the market appears to me to be a rigged game. As my friend Chris Martenson puts it, “stocks are little more than a way for well-connected Wall Street and corporate insiders to enrich themselves at everybody else’s expense.” Martenson believes that stock values are being inflated by the Fed, and that when quantitative easing ceases the markets will indeed crash. I have no firm evidence to support that view, but the fact that big-bank stocks have done so well in the past three years—with most of those banks showing profits in every single quarter even though the economy is in tatters and bank balance sheets are still crammed with toxic assets—should raise suspicions.
Should you buy gold and silver? This would have been a good move eight years ago when an ounce of gold could be had for much less than $500; it’s less so today with precious metals trading at record prices. It’s probably a good idea to have some old silver coins available for trade in a pinch, and, if you can afford it, a little gold as a hedge against hyperinflation. If Nicole Foss of www.theauthomaticearth.com is right and we are headed not toward inflation but instead toward deflation, then metals make little sense; you are better off with cash. Ferfal advises having both cash and metals, a position that sounds reasonable to me.
If you are able to do so, invest in your local community. In the years ahead, it’s your community that will be supporting you, not General Motors, Microsoft, or Facebook. Buy farmland and make it available to young farmers on condition that they supply you with food and a modest rent. The Capital Institute (www.capitalinstitute.org) is pioneering an investment strategy based on holistic resource management.
Should you go to great lengths to get out of debt? If we are headed for a bout of deflation then that seems cogent, as debt will become harder to repay. However, if you think a hyperinflationary currency collapse is in store, then it actually makes more sense to do other things with your money than paying off debt (like buying useful tangible goods), as both your debts and your savings will soon be inflated away. Given the fact that we cannot know at this point exactly how the more-or-less inevitable monetary crisis will unfold, moderation and common sense seem to be the watchwords. However you look at it, though, it seems crazy to take on substantially more debt at this point—unless you can somehow be absolutely confident that hyperinflation is in store, and soon.
Here are a few vital areas regarding which you may have a range of questions that have probably already been answered in one or more books that you can easily acquire (be sure to consult the end notes).
Food. As mentioned, it is imperative that you keep some food in storage, and that you learn to produce and process your own food. Get to know neighbors who are gardeners and begin to share seeds, produce, preserves, and growing space with them. Excellent books to add to your library: Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway; and How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons.
Space heating and cooling. How can you heat your home once fuel oil and natural gas become too expensive? That’s a good question to address soon, as elderly people in Britain are already dying by the thousands during winter due to unaffordable fuel. The answer to the problem lies only partly with alternative fuels; the main thrust of your effort to ensure survivable indoor temperatures must be to insulate your home much more effectively and to maximize solar heating. There is much to be learned from the Passivhaus movement in Germany, which has produced over 20,000 buildings that require almost no net energy input. If you can’t afford to double-stud and super-insulate your entire home, then identify one or two rooms you want to live in during the winter and give them the full treatment. After you’ve finished, consider how you can heat that smaller space with solar electric power or a ground-source heat pump (both are expensive), or with a masonry heater fueled with wood.
If you live in a place that gets extremely hot during the summer, explore alternatives to air conditioning; the first strategy to consider is, once again, doubling up on insulation—as well as shade trees and a white roof.
Solar hot water heaters are effective in most climates and are becoming more affordable all the time.
Cooking. On sunny days you can do nearly all your cooking with a solar cooker (I have two of them, and they work great). Whether you cook with natural gas or electricity, invest in and learn to use insulated pots and pans (“thermal cookware”)—or you can accomplish the same thing the traditional way with a “hay box”; in either case you’ll end up saving a substantial amount of energy.
Health. Our current industrial health system has gotten very good at dealing with certain kinds of acute problems; however, that system is highly vulnerable to the energy and economic crises we face. Therefore one of the most important things you can do now is to begin to take more responsibility for your own health with exercise and good nutrition. Also, take a first-aid class. And learn the essentials of herbalism and begin to grow your own medicinal herbs. Add to your library the essential book Where There Is No Doctor, by Jane Maxwell, Carol Thuman, and David Werner, as well as two or three good reference manuals on medicinal herbs, such as James Green’s The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook, Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal: A Guide to Living Life with Energy, Health and Vitality, or David Hoffman’s Medical Herbalism.
Transportation. Get used to traveling less. Make sure you have a good bicycle or electric scooter, along with spare tires and a repair kit, and advocate for safer bike routes in your town. Join or start a car-share or ride-share network. Combine trips so that you are making fewer of them. And walk more. Unless you live in a crowded city where the traffic moves quite slowly, all of this will require more time and effort than just getting in a car and driving to destinations, but you’ll save money. This will be a common trade-off in the future, and as a result the pace of life will inevitably change. It could be a good thing, if you’re prepared.
Electricity. Find ways to use less electricity by buying only the most energy-efficient appliances, by unplugging them when they’re not in use, and by using human power wherever feasible (for grinding, sharpening, can-opening, and so on). Install solar photovoltaic panels on your home if you can afford to do so (a state or federal rebate or tax break will probably apply if you choose a grid-tied system and you do it before such programs expire; however, adding battery backup will give your system greater resilience in case of widespread power outages). Explore the possibility of simply doing without electricity, at least part of the time.. Also, consider doing an energy fast (choosing to do without power for day at a time) a few times a year.
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As I hope to have successfully argued so far, it is important to prepare yourself and your family for changed conditions ahead. Think of any serious recent disaster—Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Queensland, Australia floods of early 2011, the Haiti earthquake of 2010: if somehow everyone could have been prepared with stored food and water, with a bug-out bag, and a disaster preparedness plan, there would have been less mortality and suffering.
Make simple, obvious preparations now, while it’s easy to do so.
At the same time, you should recognize that there is only so much you can do on your own. Some of the disruptions we may be facing will not be of short duration. A few weeks’ worth of stored food and water, though essential, will be of only temporary help. Over longer time frames, your most valuable asset will be a functioning local community composed of people who, despite their differences, are willing and able to work together to solve problems and maximize opportunities.
The maintenance of social cohesion is our single highest priority in a future of mounting economic and environmental challenges. This is why I advise spending at least as much of your effort on community building as on the kinds of individual and family preparation strategies discussed so far.
The task of building or maintaining community solidarity will be greater in some places than others. Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell cites examples showing that in crisis people often re-discover community and what is intrinsically important in life. However, Lewis Aptekar’s Environmental Disasters in Global Perspective adds layers of complexity: people’s responses to crisis seem to depend on the duration of the crisis, whether it can be blamed on other people, and on pre-crisis social and economic conditions.
During the past few decades North Americans created a way of life in which people moved frequently, saw their homes as investments rather than just as places to live, and learned to ferry children around by van and SUV to soccer games and ballet lessons rather than encouraging them to spontaneously organize their own outdoor pastimes. The result: throughout the vast, sprawling suburbs of the U.S. and Canada, most people simply don’t know their neighbors. Any of them. At all. This is a bizarre situation, and it will probably be a dangerous one in the case of crisis.
It’s hard to emphasize this point sufficiently: You need to get to know your neighbors. These may be people with whom you share very little in terms of politics, religion, or cultural interests; that fact is beside the point. When push comes to shove, these are the people you may need to depend on. Find ways—perhaps innocuous ones at first, such as a discussion about pruning a common shade tree or the sharing of surplus summer garden veggies—to make contact and to begin to build trust.
As you think through the issues discussed above and make personal preparations, go back to Chapter 7 of The End of Growth and read about what you can do to help your community become more resilient and better able to weather the approaching storms. Join or start a Transition Initiative or a Common Security Club.