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Surviving Collapse

By Peter Goodchild

26 March, 2011

There aint no law in Mexico. It's just a pack of rogues.

― Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

While I was attending American grammar school in the early 1960s, I was told to prepare for nuclear war by crawling under my desk and putting my head between my knees. I'm sure the benefits were mainly psychological. Nevertheless, the existence of some sort of national game-plan was laudable, whereas authorized nation-wide emergency preparation for fossil-fuel decline is now nonexistent.

There is no big plan for adapting to the global decline in the world's resources, and there never will be, but there can be a "small plan," at least in terms of the next decade or so, and my own situation may serve as an example. Like everyone else, I need to make some sense out of the scattered notes of "things to do." The following are my assumptions:

1. Modern industrial civilization is based on fossil fuels. Production will drop to half of the peak amount around 2030, if not sooner.

2. Fossil fuels, metals, and electricity are a tightly-knit group: as one of the three parts of the triad fails, so do the other two.

3. Alternative sources of energy will never be very useful, mainly because of the problem of "energy returned on energy invested."

4. Peak oil basically means peak food. The survivors, relatively few in number, will be those who have mastered the art of subsistence farming, although as soil quality deteriorates even agriculture will cease to be an option.

Perhaps part of the reason for the lack of a big plan is that nuclear missiles are clearer images than petroleum decline-curves. The human eye cannot perceive global collapse on a broad scale, only in vignettes.

I think in such visual terms myself. The guard at the college gate wore the same brown uniform that one could see on other indeterminate gunslingers, from cops to commandos. When I reached the college in the morning at what was supposed to be opening time, there was always a fair chance that I would not be able to get in, perhaps because the guard was late opening the gate, or he had wandered off to get a cup of coffee. One morning he presented me with his sidearm, complete with holster and belt. I was pleased with the gift. Then I decided he wanted me to shoot him. Finally I realized that he merely wanted to point out that he had not completed his attire.

In its own obviously trivial way, that daily encounter summarized my view of a country where nothing works properly. The event was a minute icon of the "failed state." Not failed in any dramatic way, but failed in the sense of being grotty, seedy, squalid. A land where plumbing problems alternate with electrical ones. A land where "corporate structure" means one gang of petty thugs conspiring against another. I learned, at least to some extent, to become inured to the type of day that in Canada would be regarded as one of non-stop disasters. Things my fellow Canadians would have denounced as "totally acceptable" were regarded there as nothing remarkable.

That was my "Mexico," my Albania. That was part of what Richard Maybury calls Chaostan. It was my own preparation for saying goodbye to the world I had known most of my life. I was adjusting to an environment of perpetual noise, overcrowding, and hostility. I was learning to live with the paradox that in a society in which everyone is mentally ill, the term is nearly meaningless. I also had to consider the reality of crime: in most of the world's cities the police are already outnumbered, so what will the ratio be like in the future?

I suppose I've generally been lucky, since I've had little in the way of family or home for most of my life, although I suspect my case is far from rare. My luck, such as it is, consists in the fact that being married and having children can be stunningly expensive, and there often seems little hope that an enlightened person can explain to other members of the family that a B.A. in fine arts may not be an adequate preparation for the future that is coming down like mortar shells.

Nevertheless, I live with a vast self-contradiction, because I know that human society has always been based on the fundamental unit of husband, wife, and children, that larger units derive from the basic one, and that as we start giving up our silly fantasies it will be families that will coalesce as centers of survival. The dissolution of the western extended family, which might be largely dated to the 1960s, was not so much a new phase in cultural evolution as it was a simple mistake, one that will eventually be amended. Families are scattered, not because westerners are freeing themselves from the past, but because capitalism and its attendant mayhem are crushing them: the work-week is longer and the wages are less, and merely to survive one must wander the globe, pretending that each jolt in one's chronic unemployment can be given the grandiose title of a career change.

Phase One of the decline, already in progress, is marked by inflation, unemployment, and a falling stock market. Phase Two, which in a sense can be said to have infinite length, will be characterized by the disappearance of law and order and capable government, and money will no longer be used as a medium of exchange. No one will then be worrying about tax shelters or pension schemes, and that world will eventually become one of bows and arrows. Trouble often comes more quickly than we predict, however, and it may be unwise to think of the second phase of our future as utterly distant.

The world now has an average of about 45 people for every square kilometer of land surface. In foraging (hunting-and-gathering) societies, on the other hand, there is generally less than one person per square kilometer. Since the survivors will be living closer to a foraging way of life than to an industrial one, the first point is to ensure that we are living somewhere with a low population density. Crowded countries, on the other hand, will be experiencing severe famine.

The superficialities will be forgotten, and we will have to think about such "mundane" issues as what to eat. It will be necessary for individuals or families to grow their own food, or at least to rely on locally grown produce. The catch, however, is that only 10 percent of the world's land is suitable for crops, and nearly all of that is already being used. Also, the "10 percent" refers to the land when it was virgin soil, and since then it has become depleted. Nevertheless, people have drifted into urban areas to such an extent over the years that many rural areas now have a fair amount of abandoned but usable land.

Without motorized irrigation, "intensive" gardening will not be possible, and crop yields are also greatly reduced in the absence of artificial fertilizers. For a largely vegetarian diet, at least a thousand square meters of farmland per person are therefore required if basic carbohydrate foods such as grains, legumes, and root crops are included. If we also account for fallow land and the production of green manure (crops turned back into the soil for humus), the amount of required land is closer to two thousand square meters.

No matter how many books we may have read on the subject, it takes years of large-scale gardening to become sufficiently skilled that we can safely grow enough food to keep ourselves alive through a winter. Learning to raise animals takes even longer. With the lack of access to feed, medication, building supplies, and equipment, raising animals might be difficult. (There may even be situations where people have better luck with hunting and fishing.) We will have to adapt ourselves to a diet based largely on plant foods.

Good soil has sufficient humus, and it also has adequate amounts of about 16 elements, especially nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, naturally occurring or otherwise. In the unlikely event that a sufficient quantity could be obtained, compost or animal manure might provide humus, but it would do little to make up for missing elements. We should be leery of much that is labeled "organic gardening," because often it is little more than folklore, primarily for the reasons mentioned in the previous two sentences.

The only heating fuel will be wood. In a cold climate, from 2 to 10 full cords are needed for a house in winter, depending on many factors. One full cord (128 cubic feet, or 3.6 cubic meters) is 4 trees of 30-cm diameter at breast height. One hectare of trees will provide one cord on a sustainable basis. With a non-motorized saw, such as a bow saw or a modern timber saw, it is possible to conserve one's strength by cutting trees or branches less than 15 cm wide; such narrower pieces will also not require splitting. The need for fuel can be reduced by living in a smaller house, by installing good insulation, by closing off unused rooms, and by covering windows.

We should not try imitating our favorite heroes of the Hollywood movies; on the contrary, a little modesty might keep us alive one day. Much of what is written on the topic of survival skills lacks credibility because it is written by adolescents with overactive imaginations. We should not presume to know exactly what is coming. As members of modern industrial society, we are all just incubator babies, and it is unlikely that we can entirely comprehend the tensions of even present-day life in poorer countries, let alone the world of the future.

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is odonatus {at} live.com.




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