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Investing In Durability

By Guy R. McPherson

30 June, 2009

Industrial society is fully committed to tossing the planet in the waste bin. The throw-away products of the Industrial Age became particular obvious after World War II, when the quaint idea of durable goods gave way to all the trappings of planned obsolescence. We invested heavily in items fabricated from non-renewable materials and specifically designed for one-time use, including now-ubiquitous diapers and grocery bags. And we made annual cosmetic alterations to every conceivable consumer product, from pens and kitchen knives to refrigerators and automobiles. Even consumer goods fabricated from renewable materials, such as wood, are routinely packaged in non-renewable materials designed for ease of discarding. The mass of transparent plastic wrap sold every day surely exceeds the combined biomass of all endangered species in the world.

At this point, there is no stopping the arc of history or the icons of industry. We're all hanging onto the roller-coaster ride of economic collapse, which is fueled by the flawed notion of never-ending economic growth. Unless you're planning to withdraw to an anarcho-primitivist society beyond the reach of the industrial world, there's little you can do, as an individual, to mitigate the damage to Earth or your wallet.

If you are planning to withdraw, please tell me where you're going, and send directions. If not, it's time to start thinking about how you and your family or tribe will muddle through the years ahead. One word comes to mind: durability.

If that wasn't the first word that came to your mind, I'm not surprised. Industrial culture has steered us, for the sake of economic growth, in the diametrically opposed direction for so long we usually fail to consider the obvious benefits of durability when making decisions about our own lives. It's time to change that pattern of thinking, time to start thinking about our own individual futures instead of the future of the empire.

First, let's consider what we actually need. Not want we want, which is the type of thinking that got us into this greed-induced mess. But what we actually need to survive as human animals. A group of students with whom I was fortunate to work last year laid the groundwork with a student- and southwestern-centric report. In this post, I focus on acquisition of a durable set of living arrangements for the post-carbon era.

Most accounts list at least three items requisite to human survival. We die within a few minutes without oxygen, within a few days without water, and within a few weeks without food. Each of these three varieties of death is allegedly painful and also uninteresting enough to merit much mention in the news (if you're going under, you might as well make a splash). In addition to these three items, many people add a fourth: some means of keeping body temperature at a relatively stable 37 degrees Celsius. The usual approaches involve a mixture of shelter and clothing, although we've been using fire to warm ourselves for millennia and fossil fuels to cool ourselves for a few generations.

In addition to these four items, I believe a fifth is imperative: community. In the history of the planet, very few people have managed to live alone. Even fewer managed to maintain some semblance of sanity and happiness while doing so.

In this post, I will assume Earth's air will remain sufficiently toxin-free to support human life for the next several generations. This assumption likely is unmerited in light of global economic collapse and the consequent release of toxic material into the atmosphere as nuclear-power plants melt down without proper planning. But, in the spirit of my usual unwarranted optimism and our individual inability to mitigate for such a dire outcome, I will restrict my discussion of durable living arrangements to water, food, body temperature, and community. I'll provide a few examples of the investments I've made, and I welcome contributions from all readers.

The first and most important of my investments was, and is, not on my list of five items: information. After all, the more you know, the less [stuff] you need, so knowledge about surviving economic collapse is hugely advantageous. Considerable information is available at little or no cost via the local library and also Internet search engines. The usual caveats apply: much of this information is worth exactly what you pay for it, and you'll need to provide the brainpower. I bought quite a few books, and borrowed many more from the library. Aric McBay provides an excellent primer with his brief book, Peak Oil Survival.

In the absence of fossil fuels, acquiring and delivering potable water is no minor task. Although age-old technology can be used to build aqueducts, I have a feeling we'll not return to that technology in time to save modern cities. As a result, I think contemporary cities are the worst possible places to be when the grid fails. Without access to water, it will be difficult to rally the increasingly irritated troops into constructing an aqueduct. And then there are the pressing issues of pressuring the water-supply system, and getting rid of human waste in a safe manner. For the last few generations, we've avoided frequent, large-scale incidents of disease even while using potable water to distribute humanure throughout the entire civilized world. I doubt we can retain this indulgence much longer.

If cities are unviable, at least for large numbers of people, humans will be living in towns and rural areas, as we did for thousands of generations. For nearly all those thousands of generations, surface water was abundant and potable. Because of our historical and ongoing abuses to the planet, surface water has become scarce and undrinkable. As a result, we're left with rainwater, subsurface water, or a system of purification that does not rely on fossil fuels. Rainwater is relatively easy to harvest and use. I will not discuss the many types of filtration that can be used, but even a cursory investigation yields several alternatives, with a wide variety of costs and benefits. Subsurface water can be brought to the surface with wells dug by hand, particularly in regions with abundant rainfall where the water is relatively shallow. Alternatively, individuals can harness fossil fuels to dig wells before the ongoing collapse is complete. Once the hole in the ground reaches the water level, a rope and bucket, hand-pump, windmill, or solar pump can be installed in the well to draw water to the surface. Life-giving water can be stored in cisterns, preferably far enough above the delivery point(s) to use gravity for pressure. Obviously, scaling up the acquisition and delivery of water to a few thousand people on the planet poses a serious problem. Scaling up to nearly seven billion human beings is almost certainly hopeless.

Water conservation is certain to come back into vogue. When we realize how precious water is, we will start using it more wisely. I suspect we'll become far more accustomed to the smell of the human body again, and I doubt we'll be using potable water as a vector for transmitting feces throughout the local area. A decent composting toilet is a great personal investment, especially if everybody in your neighborhood follows suit. At the mud hut, we have invested in rainwater-harvesting gutters and cisterns, a 3,000-gallon cistern for drinking water enclosed in a cinder-block wall, solar pump (with some backup parts), cast iron hand pump, and composting toilets. The entire set of materials and labor, including the cost of drilling a new well, cost less than a new car. Given the primacy of water to, well, every living thing, this investment is our most important one.

Food is similarly problematic for large numbers of people in the absence of fossil fuels for production and delivery. The industrial agricultural model relies heavily on inexpensive fossil fuels for manufacturing and applying fertilizer, pesticides, and water, and then again for harvesting, processing, and delivering food. In the United States, each calorie of food requires ten calories of fossil fuels, and the typical piece of produce travels 1,500 miles before reaching the grocery store. Obviously, this model of food production and delivery will not persist long into the future. And that's a good thing, since industrial agriculture is simultaneously killing us and the planet.

Assuming cities manage to secure water for their citizens, they will have profound difficulties acquiring and distributing food. Again, small towns and tribal collectives present significant advantages relative to modern cities. Intensive organic agriculture, which can be practiced locally with no fossil-fuel inputs, can produce food for four to six people on each cultivated acre, which is approximately 10 to 20 times the productivity of contemporary industrial agriculture. The resulting food is well-matched to the local environment and it need not undergo significant processing or travel great distances prior to consumption. As with water, however, scaling up the production and delivery of food to billions of human beings seems highly unlikely. As with water, I doubt the near future will see us wasting a large fraction of our food, as we do today.

Our investments include ample time with shovels at the mud hut. We also invested in seeds and seedlings, hardware cloth to protect trees and planting beds from pocket gophers, and compost and horse manure to mix with the native soil. We picked up free, hand-me-down composting bins for our organic material, and we installed a water-delivery system throughout the orchard and garden areas. Gutters collect water, and inexpensive cisterns store the water harvested from the roofs of the straw-bale house and the old mobile home; the stored water is applied to the garden beds. We built a fowl coop from straw bales and leftover corrugated roofing tin, and filled it with day-old chicks and ducklings that now provide several eggs each day. I've constructed a goat pen, and soon will build a predator-proof goat run. The goats will provide milk, hence butter, yogurt, and cheese.

Food will be stored in a root cellar, as well as in a deep-chest freezer powered by the off-grid solar system and a multitude of surprisingly expensive canning jars. Fruits and vegetables will be canned in the old-fashioned, wood-fired cook stove in the outdoor kitchen. Finally, I have rifles and a shotgun from my youthful days of hunting, and ample ammunition to harvest the occasional deer or javelina meandering onto the property.

Echoing the way we treat water from the taps and food at the grocery store, we take for granted clothing and structures that maintain the temperature of our bodies. Nearly all modern clothes contain petroleum, and the systems of producing fabrics, stitching them into clothing, and delivering the clothes to users all depend heavily on fossil fuels. As with clothes, we rarely question the fossil-fuel-intensive heating and cooling systems that maintain buildings at a comfortable temperature. Given the near-term demise of broad-scale access to fossil fuels, we will have to make other arrangements to maintain the temperature of our bodies.

As with water and food, cities are poorly suited for temperature regulation. Once the stores are picked clean of clothing, living in areas dense with human beings likely will pose significant dangers, including maintenance of body temperature at a constant 37 C. Individuals and small groups of individuals will rely on simple, archaic techniques such as wearing layers of clothing and hats for personal warmth. (You thought your civilized ancestors wore hats as a fashion statement?) Hand-me-downs will come back in fashion, and we will pay close attention to maintenance of our bedraggled pants and shirts. (I'm sure you remember this one, although you probably haven't applied it directly for a while: A stitch in time saves nine.)

There is much information to consider in the arena of body temperature, and specific topics range from insulating buildings to layering socks. A healthy dose of common sense, a bit of thinking outside the proverbial box, and a couple books by Cody Lundin are particularly valuable in this regard.

In a grand stroke of extravagance, we built a straw-bale house with superb insulation, passive solar heating (supplemented rarely with a small wood stove), and geothermal cooling. We pulled off this trick only by living frugally during a multi-decade, decently compensated career and then by cashing in our suburban home and everything else we owned, including life-insurance policies and retirement accounts. I bought a few pair of study work books, several pair of Carhartt pants (renowned for their durability), and plenty of sewing needles and strong thread.

I suspect community is the least regarded, yet most important, characteristic for the post-carbon era. All other preparations become moot if your neighbors take your water and food because they don't like you, or don't know you. Ready access to cheap fossil fuels has allowed us to ignore or disrespect people in close proximity while creating electronic "networks" of "friends." That problem's about to take care of itself.

A durable set of living arrangements necessarily includes substantive bonds between neighbors. If we are to thrive in the years ahead, we will need to share water, food, shelter, clothing, knowledge, stories, humor, and entertainment with the people in our community. I doubt we'll readily tolerate the kinds of behaviors exhibited daily by the typically hyper-indulgent twenty-something in contemporary America. People who do not make a positive contribution to durable communities face a never-ending struggle with thirst and hunger in the perennially too-hot or too-cold years ahead.

My investment in community is ongoing, as I have described many times on this blog. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to develop a tenancy-in-common agreement with friends who have been valued members of their (and now my) rural community for several years. During the last two years, I have applied considerable elbow grease, my limited knowledge, and as much tact as I'm capable of mustering. I know these investments are necessary, and I hope they are sufficient, to get us through the challenging years ahead.

Durability has always been a wise investment. Now is the perfect time to make a personal investment in durability, for myriad reasons. For one thing, most sellers still think fiat currency is valuable.

Guy R. McPherson, Professor Emeritus
University of Arizona
School of Natural Resources and
Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Biological Sciences East 325
Tucson, Arizona 85721

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