Monday, January 14, 2013

Dual Purpose Living

On my last post, a reader commented about what kind of lifestyle changes he and his wife should be making in order to prepare for where our civilization is headed. I think this is a sentiment which is shared by a large number of readers. Many of us are locked into the debt-and-consumption society, for quite a large number of reasons. We may have tried to go down the path of "success," only to be saddled with large student loans and an increasingly bleak employment outlook. We might have family members we are caring for, or be tied to a job which we cannot find elsewhere. It breaks my heart to hear people who feel this way, because there is the grinding pressure one on hand of knowing something is substantially wrong with the "big picture," yet they feel helpless to do anything about it on the other hand. However, in spite of what we are thinking and feeling at the moment, there is some reason not to despair.

The first thing that we have to keep in mind is that collapse does not generally happen overnight. Barring extraordinary circumstances, we're not going to go from eating dinner from the fridge one day to roasting rats over a 55-gallon drum the next. In many respects, we have been in decline since 1970, both the last time that the real wages of workers rose and America hit peak oil production. Everything since then has basically been a Federal Reserve-backed Ponzi scheme, real estate fraud, or finding newer and stupider ways to piss away the accumulated wealth of civilization. For many people, life since 2008 has been living in a state of individual collapse. Look around, take a drive through most small towns, or formerly busy shopping areas. What's left? Maybe a couple of knick-knack stores or something. Mostly, you'll see real estate signs up all over the place. On a macro-scale, population growth rates are getting ready to tank. People can't afford to feed a large family, or a family at all, in most cases.

My point here is that we are not looking at a situation where we're thrown into icy water and expected to swim. Even if the currency crashed overnight, there would still be enough largesse thrown at the cities to make them last for a while. For that matter, the argument that the only place to make it through collapse will be in the country probably needs to be called into question, but that's a story for a different day. Instead, just as people adapt to "having less is the new normal," we need to adapt to "thinking different about how to do things," and this adaption is where we really need to be with ourselves. Consider that the "American dream" even as recently as a decade ago consisted of a 3 bed, 2 bath house on a 1/4 ace of ground, couple of cars, steady office job, and a trip to Disney every few years. How many people still really have that expectation in mind? Some, but we're also seeing this generation increasingly become one that stays with their immediate family, something that was a relatively normal state of affairs for most of human history.

More specifically, we can begin to adapt in a number of sensible ways, not all of which involve an immediate and drastic lifestyle change. The first step is mental, like with anything else -- do we understand where we are at in life and society? Do we know how we relate to others? Are there friendships and relationships we can build or repair? This is not to suggest that we seek out people to "use" -- on the contrary, we have to encourage and expect a "give and take" between people. Thinking outside the box here is helpful, too. I remember an extreme example of a discussion I had with a person who suggested that if the dollar collapsed, all economic activity would grind to a halt. Maybe on a continental, macro-based level, but people on a local level would find ways to adapt and either barter or develop a new means of exchange.

The second thing is to begin actually try learning and practicing skills. In many cases, things are a matter of scale -- if you can raise a small herb garden, then you're already learning the basics of food production. If you make some beer in a bucket, you're learning a lot about brewing. Ditto for almost everything. I've dabbled in quite a few things, and there are some things I do well, others not so well, but it still gives me a context to work with. This will be the most important thing, the ability to adapt to different needs. If we can't find someone to do it, or afford it, we have to do it ourselves. In terms of skill building, and crafting, there are plenty of people who are willing to pass along their experience and knowledge, too. Take a notebook, and listen. Or you may be able to find people who will let you do some hands-on help if you seem particularly interested and sincere. I once got a lesson in the basics of playing a hammered dulcimer after expressing some genuine interest and appreciate of the musician's work (I've like hammered dulcimer music for a long time).

Third, we need to look at dual-purposing our lives and interests. Are golf or video games going to be a big activity down the road? Probably not. Ditto for "antiquing" or scrapbooking or collecting worthless figurines or something. If we have a choice between getting a job in the city, or someplace where can get a little land, which should we pick? If we're buying a car, do we pick one that is "luxury" or one that is more easily maintained and can be used to travel on our increasingly poor road network? Are our leisure activities something we could eventually use to begin to make a living in a post-collapse economy? I've explored brewing and winemaking for this reason, along with teaching unarmed self-defense, blacksmithing, and some other odds-and-ends, all to have something to fall back on if need be. Don't overlook music and entertainment, and other arts, too. Acoustic music will probably come back into demand at some point, as the means to listen to digital music becomes increasingly rare (we all have an MP3/4 player these days, but the batteries in those don't last forever, even assuming we will still be able to get regular electricity to charge them). Become a "nerd," too -- because we are going to be able to do less and less of macro-scale science and engineering, it doesn't mean that we will be doing less of it on a micro-scale. Knowing some science, like chemistry and physics, as well as some math, will go a long way toward validating certain approaches. After all, physical survival and life itself is just a numbers game with energy input vs. energy output.

The temptation to feel overwhelmed, and to feel a great deal of pressure, when it comes to changing our lifestyles, is understandable. We know that the current model is unworkable and is going to hit a brick wall sooner or later. We don't want to be on the bus when that happens. On the other hand, the sooner we begin to decouple, even in small ways, from the "mainstream" lifestyle, we will begin to feel a greater sense of reward for our efforts, as well as being able to increasingly get a sense of what we need to do and where we need to go.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Same Old New Year

Well, the "fiscal cliff" has come and gone, and the can has ceremoniously been kicked down the road once more. I've heard varying figures bandied about for what this will mean for the debt, but I believe that without the deal, the debt would've increased by $7.8 trillion, and will only increase by $7.6 trillion now that we've passed this heroic deficit reduction package. Or something like that. I forget the actual quoted figures, but I suspect it really doesn't matter a whole lot. Fantasyland is fantasyland, doesn't matter if the rides are painted blue or red. The coming year looks to be a doozie for all kinds of polarizing issues, too, with gun control and immigration reform poking their nose into the tent of unconsensus.

I don't think the significance of all this really hits people most of the time. After all, we still hear echoes of the "Greatest Generation" surviving the Great Depression, and so on. Everyone got through it while growing veggies in grandma's backyard and eating sugar sandwiches while working for the WPA until FDR came along and gave everyone a job in a defense plant (or whatever version of mythology is kicking around in your family tree). Things might be tough, but we'll get through it on the other side.

Well, kiddies, here's a problem -- only three percent of the population is involved in food production. Of those, only a tiny fraction does anything like the way it was done Back When. Most everyone else plants GMO hybrid seeds, has tractors the size of aircraft carriers, and raises cows more pumped full of antibiotics that the shut-in hypochondriac living next door to you. On top of that, most of the fertilizer and machinery involves oil at some point. As for everything else, America in 1937 still had not hit peak oil production, or was getting closed to tapping out other natural resources. The "emerging markets" of the world had not yet been discovered, and there was still a great deal of real wealth still waiting in the wings to be used.

Now...what? America is also an empire these days. We control a lot of real estate around the world, as well as cramming a couple of dozen mutually antagonistic ideologies into one nation through the miracle of "identity politics." Want to get elected? Just claim to represent some group, be it left-handed Elvis impersonators, or alien abductees, or something, and go to Washington to "fight for their rights." The only problem is that it makes everyone pissed off at each other and means that everyone's hand is in the cookie jar. Well, what happens when we get down to the last cookie and five or six people are reaching for it all at once? No one is going to want to work together, because "us vs. them" has been bred into the American mind for three generations now, along with the "gimme gimme gimme" mindset.

Things are only worth what people agree that they are. When China refuses to stop buying bonds and tells Washington to get stuffed, then what? Of course, all the pundits say that China will never, ever do such a thing because their economy is too tied to the dollar and too tied to American interests. These same pundits have not picked up a history book and look at Chinese history. Japan slaughtered Chinese right and left during the limelight of the "Greatest Generation." Look at pictures sometime of Chinese prisoners being lined up in front of a ditch, their heads being taken off by Japanese soldiers in some sort of contest. Then look at their Civil War, followed by the Cultural Revolution, and where they are now compared to where they were once in the past. This is a culture that deals with hostage takers by sending a cop out a window with a rope and a pistol. If they decide that they need to part ways with us, they will suck it up, whatever the cost, and move on.

And back to us -- we will be stuck in the middle of a political crisis where everyone is holding money that they have no idea what it's worth. The economy nearly collapsed because no one could agree what houses were worth. What's going to happen when the money itself is essentially valueless because no one can agree what it's worth? Unlike houses, we have to use money, we can't ignore the crisis and live in it, or not buy it. Are we going to get on the phone and call up someone at the corporate office halfway across the country and figure out how many bushels of potatoes our paycheck works out to? Yes, there will be attempts to pick up the slack through bitcoins or other currency alternatives, but I predict that these will be too little, too late, before real chaos -- the first we have experienced in most of our lifetimes -- hits.

Of course, if things weren't bad enough, go check out the headlines. Hugo Chavez is either dead or is the next closest thing to it. Venezuela is one of the world's major oil producers, as some might remember. What would happen if civil war breaks out (which is starting to look incresingly likely)? Couple that with the possibility of civil war in Iraq (as was predicted years ago), a wider conflict over Syria, possible conflict with Iran, and where are oil prices going to go? Back to $150 or maybe even $200 a barrel?

My prediction for the New Year: Nothing drastic is going to happen. We are not going to be chasing each other up and down the interstate while blasting away with home-made crossbows and wearing spiky leather codpieces. Zombies will not lust after your brains. Sanity will not come to our current addiction to over-consumption. Instead, we are going to keep meandering down the path of a little more wealth destruction, a little more overconsumption, a little more termite rot in the economic house. We will find ourselves looking for something and finding it is gone, another reminder that things aren't what they used to be. We'll hear of another person who lost their job and has been out of work for a while, and will be asked if we of anything to let them know. This is what real collapse looks like, when we are sinking and we know it, but it happens so slowly that we come to accept the condition as "how things are now."