Sunday, May 31, 2009

Future in a Maelstrom

When last we met, I was extolling the virtues of life-to-come, the happy ending I've wrenched from an uncertain future, but it's likely to be a long, rough road from here to there. The whole point of this exercise in crystal ball gazing was to facilitate decision making in the here and now -- if I see a hurricane coming, I can prepare. So how does one prepare for a future in a maelstrom?

First of all, there are the basics to consider. Apart from some highly-skilled followers of Tom Brown, Jr., most of us will need a form of exchange to help provide for our basic needs. Currently, that form of exchange is the dollar bill or some electronic version thereof. But there is a possibility that we will see the end of money as we know it – due to hyperinflation, widespread unemployment, and/or the bankruptcy of the federal government. It could happen that dollar bills will be worth little more than toilet paper (or not as much . . . I do value my toilet paper!) So what's a body to do? Hang onto your gold jewelry and Granny's silver service for starters. And put your change in a jar. Paper money may eventually be more valuable as mulch than legal tender, but metal currencies should retain some value. There may come a day when a penny is worth more than a hundred dollar bill. (Sounds crazy, I know, but crazy seems to be where we are headed!)

You can also start setting yourself up to provide goods or services that will be needed in the future. Plan on having something you can barter or trade. Make yourself more useful alive than dead. The following are what I foresee as useful occupations. You might have your own list:

Food production without the aid of fossil fuel-powered equipment, artificial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, refrigerated storage or transport. This includes not only the obvious – growing edible plants, raising chickens and other egg producers, bee-keeping, raising sheep, goats and cows, fishing and hunting - but also things like baking bread or making cheese.

Mushroom growing – for food, medicine, and as a means of detoxifying and/or enriching soil.

Alcohol production – even in hard times, people want their booze!

Health services that rely upon folk medicines, herbal tonics and remedies, acupuncture, reiki, etc.


Clothing production - sewing new clothes, but also the ability to take existing clothes and get more use out of them. Eventually, we will need those who can take raw materials to a finished piece – i.e. from carding wool to spinning, dyeing, weaving or knitting – or tanning leather.

Production of any useful item, especially those things which are consumable – soap, paper, pen and ink – or those things that will be needed for daily life – such as cob ovens, pottery, furniture, shoes ...

Reconstruction – turning shopping malls into co-housing units, ripping out parking lots to create permaculture gardens.

Mr Fix-It services – everything from rehanging a door that has come off its hinges to replacing glass in a broken window to repairing mechanical devices, especially those that do not rely upon power to operate.

Inventing new uses for old things

Salvage and reclamation (mining dumps and abandoned buildings for reuseables)

Black-smithing, barrel making, milling, broom and basket making – the crafts that are still preserved in places like Williamsburg, VA, Silver Dollar City, MO, Sturbridge, MA, Cherokee, NC and other historical villages and amusement parks.

Power generation (windmills, water wheels, direct solar, geo-thermal, harnessing kinetic energy, oil extraction from plant material)

Power-free alternatives (candle-making, passive solar, horse-breeding, food preservation – drying, pickling, fermenting, root cellaring)

Creation and maintenance of water supply systems

Transportation services (think rick-shaws, horses and buggies, bicycle deliveries, sail and rowboats)

Communication services (ham radio, private mail and delivery services)

In addition to what-to-do, there is where-to-do-it to consider. Do you live in a place where life could go on if things start to fall apart? In deciding whether you should stay where you are or try to move, you might want to consider the following:

Do you know your neighbors? If not, you might want to make a concerted effort to get to know them.
If you do know your neighbors, are they people you could rely upon if things get tough?
Do you have a support system of family and/or friends?
If you didn't have access to motorized transportation, could you get to the places you need to go?
Are there local food markets within walking/biking distance?
Is there enough arable land to feed the locality if the supply chain were to break down?
Could you survive without power for an extended period of time?
What is your water source and how reliable is it?
What is your power source and how reliable is it?
How vulnerable are you to civil unrest or extreme weather events?
How much is crime, particularly turf wars over drug territories, already a problem in your area?
Do you own your home free and clear? If you have a mortgage, is it an adjustable or fixed rate? Do you rent?
What is your source of income and how reliable is it? (Pension funds and retirement checks could disappear. . .)
Could you, where you now live, set up a business that would allow you to offer essential goods or services?

Some of the negatives where you now live could be addressed – for example, installing more insulation, double pane windows, a metal roof, a wood-burning stove (especially if you have access to a renewable source of firewood), or a composting toilet. You could put in water cisterns to collect rainwater and/or create graywater systems for irrigation. You could replace carpeting with a flooring that doesn't need vaccuming (i.e. wood, bamboo, tile, or cork), or throw a block party and get to know your neighbors.

Also keep in mind that some of the negatives may change with changing times – your mortgage indebtedness may disappear if the banking system fails, local ordinances against chickens may go unenforced, land that is now parking lots or golf courses may be converted to food production, zoning laws that prohibit at-home-businesses may come to be ignored. On the other hand, some negatives may only get worse. No place is perfect and no place is guaranteed to be ground zero.

You can also begin the process of building self-sufficiency. Put up a clothesline and hang your clothes to dry. Buy or make a solar oven. Start growing and preserving more of your own food. Build a library of how-to books. Practice frugality -- find ways of reusing more and wasting less (which can be rather fun, actually -- like doing crossword puzzles only better!) Put your money into durable goods that could be useful in a powered-down future: a flint for starting fires, a sturdy bicycle with cart for hauling, inclement weather gear, crank-powered radios and flashlights, non-electric food grinders, a shovel and pruning shears, good knives and a sharpening stone . . . Take advantage of the internet while we still have it to learn all you can. Consider getting chickens or bees. Learn to darn socks and sew patches. Save your vegetable cooking water and use it to water your plants. Take up dancing or a musical instrument. Collect things that matter to you. Experiment. Play with stuff. Cultivate a sense of humor. Drink a little wine with your friends.

Am I following my own advice? Well, some of it. . . As I've said before, none of us really knows what the future holds, but being prepared for the worst seems the better part of wisdom, and could even be fun. When all is said and done, these are interesting times!