Sharon August 14th, 2008
We’ve talked a lot about various particular problems, but of course, in your life, dealing with water and toilets, laundry, food storage, clothing and heating and cooling is really all just one problem – how do you adapt your life from high fossil energy use – either because you want to or because you have to – to low. Most of my posts list a range of options, but it can be hard to prioritize and deal with all that information.
So where do you start? You need to triage your situation and start from there.
The first thing we all need to do is get ready to deal with the kind of short term crisis that affects almost everyone sooner or later – and that is increasingly likely, given the fragility of our systems. That is, a medium range systems problem – something that can be caused by a host of things – ice storms, blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, geopolitical crisis, blackout… you name it. That is, we need to be ready to get along for a few weeks to a month in a very messed up short term situation. This is useful even if what we face is a very messed up long term situation.
So the first step is to get your basic needs met – a reserve of food built up. Lots of warm clothing and blankets if cold is a potential problem. Stored water and ideally a backup source of water, even if only rainbarrels or hauling by hand from a creek a ways away. A way to cook food, even if temporary. Some basic lighting. A way to manage toileting and hygiene issues, clean bodies and clothes – again, these don’t necessarily have to be long term solutions, although it would be nicest if they were. But at a minimum get them.
Other than the food, medications and water, the emergency measures could be quite cheap, because they don’t have to be comfortable and pleasant – for a few weeks, you can winter camp in your house, for a few weeks you can crap in a bucket, for a few weeks you can do laundry infrequently in another plastic bucket, light your evening with your headlamp and rechargeable batteries . That is, you can be uncomfortable and inconvenienced for the short term, in most cases. If you can’t be – because of health problems, age, etc… then you will need to move up a little in the list. But for most of us, these inconvenient but survivable solutions get us part of the way there, and many of them could be used longer than the short term.
But we all know that short term isn’t everything. What happens if we can’t afford electricity or gas anymore? What happens if we’re in the long emergency, not the short one. Well, the preparations you’ve made for a short term crisis will get old really fast – but most of them will still serve you. That is, you will not like lighting your house with only a headlamp and two flashlights, and you will not like going to bed when it gets dark in December (4pm), but you can do it if you have no choice. The next level of preparations are partly about survival, but more about creating a life you can live with. If you have money, these are easy changes to make – and some older people with more money than tolerance for inconvenience and physical stress might want to go here first. If you don’t have money, it will take time, and saving and scavenging to manage these systems – and you may be stuck with the backups, even if they are unpleasant.
This is where you begin going, step by step, through the systems you depend on, figuring out what you can do to allow you to live decently and comfortably without the other stuff, and step by step replacing, adding or converting to sustainable systems. For those without much money, it is much easier to convert to the alternatives in many cases – that is, it is hard, if you are poor, to afford solar lanterns – unless, of course, you use them as a lighting source and save money on your electric bill (and it might still be hard, I realize). Sometimes if things seem to costly, the problem may be that you are imagining them as a backup, not a conversion to a new way of life. You may prefer the old way, but if you are serious enough about your concern for the future, converting early isn’t the end of the world – that’s one of the things we’re finding.
And some of the choices are easy and cheap – turning your lawn into a landscape of edibles can be quite inexpensive, if you can get slips and starts and divisions from people and buy cheap plants from your cooperative extension. Converting to a composting toilet is inexpensive and can save you a lot of money on your water bill. Switching to eating out of your food storage can save a lot on your food budget.
There are two good ways to prioritize, and honestly it makes sense to do both simultaneously. Prioritize by urgency, and by availability. That is, you should concentrate on the things that will matter to your happiness and comfort the most – for one person, this might be not having to do laundry in a bucket, for another who is always cold, a good heat source. But don’t also forget to the extent you can (and this is a great chore to delegate to elderly relatives, friends who want to barter or teenagers) to keep an eye on craigslist, freecycle, garage sales, etc… Try and have a list of all the stuff you’d like to do, so that when that old handwasher or treadle sewing machine shows up, you can cross that off your priority list.
And while you are finding comfortable ways to keep cool, refrigerate food, keep safe, go to the bathroom and etc…, we can also begin thinking about the long term sustainability and availability to our community of these projects – it sounds as though this is the third step – really it is the second, though, but you do have to know what systems you’ll be using first.
That is, if you are going to burn wood, you need to be planting trees, and looking for ways to get your neighbors to plant them. If you want your kids to be cool in your house without a/c, now is the time to plant those live oaks. Remember, what you do now may be what your children inherit – so think in those terms.
Stored food runs out – you will need to grow your own. It isn’t enough for you to have a source of water – if no one else in town has any, your source will rapidly be exhausted. So we need community systems for essentials like food and water, with an emphasis on the long term sustainability of those systems – transport, food, energy, water, heating, cooling, etc…
And many basic needs will have to be met by local business people - and you are going to need to earn a living. So thinking in terms of sustainable economies as well -your own home economy is one part of that, but there will probably always be a money economy of some sort and you and others will want to meet real, local needs with your work. So think in those terms as well – how will you sustain yourself, not just in terms of direct, biological needs, but in terms of economic ones.
Finally, you should practice. That doesn’t just mean trying the solar battery charger once, or making sure you know how to cook on your woodstove – try living with these systems routinely, and turning off the ones you’ve depended on up until now. Consider a test run, when you turn everything off in the winter, or where you live only on your stored and garden food for a month – these tests will tell you really basic things you need to know, and show you the holes in your system while you still have a chance to plug them.