Archive for August 5th, 2008

What Do You Plan to Be When You Grow Up…Post Peak?

Sharon August 5th, 2008

Ok, everyone who thinks that your job will still be there in five years raise your hands.  For those of you with your hands up, how sure are you?   How secure are you in a deep, systemic crisis?  70% of the economy survives on consumer spending - what happens if 50% or 80% of that dries up - if really all we’re buying is food and oil, and not that much of that? 

The truth is that the one thing that all of us should be planning for is a job loss - and by this I don’t mean a short term job change, but a job loss in a deep Depression with extended, widespread unemployment - where there is no unemployment insurance anymore and most of your neighbors can’t get work either.  Is this inevitable?  No, merely probable, I think.  But probable enough that we should be prepared for it to happen.

Now I realize this scares the hell out of most of us - and not much less me than you.  My family buys groceries too.  But that’s what happened in the Great Depression, and where more than a few people think we’re headed.  We can all be happy if we don’t go there, but we should be ready for the formal economy to stop feeding and housing us. 

So the question becomes - what are you going to do to keep body and soul together?  What are you going to be when you grow up - how are you going to feed yourself and keep a roof over your head?  As the formal economy begins to tank, we have to look to the informal economy - that is, the economy made up of subsistence work, criminal acts, barter, under-the-table work, domestic economics, and self employment in cottage industry.  That doesn’t mean none of us will work in the formal sector, but all of us need to be able to shift as much as we can to the informal economy - to save our precious cash for the house payment and thus provide food and heat by barter or subsistence work. 

If we do have formal sector work, it may be in businesses we set up for ourselves, as more and more employers begin making layoffs.  In many cases, we may want to (even though it is a Pain in the Ass when you are doing too many other things too) start the businesses now - begin doing a bit of extra work on the side in your potential cottage area so that you’ll have a customer base and experience when the time comes.

How do you decide what to do?  Well, it is possible you already have an obvious and marketable skill - either that the work you do now could be done for yourself, or that you have a useful skill set you aren’t using.  Maybe you used to buck trees and can set up a firewood business quickly, or your current skills as a nurse could be applied to a community clinic you set up.  In these cases, the solution may be obvious.

In other cases, it may seem hard to figure out - what will the job market for marketing professionals look like?  What will construction workers do in a housing bust?  Now might be the time to reorient yourself, gently or broadly - instead of building new houses, get in on some retrofits and start learning home reinsulation, instead of corporate marketing consider setting up a business providing something useful - bulk food, water filters, fishing worms and equipment, warm clothes, farm-direct products - or perhaps local marketing help for those products  - to your community.

The one thing I warn against is allowing your enthusiasm for some project to warp your perspective about its future.  I’ve met a number of people who blithely expect to make money marketing high-value organic produce or their exquisite hand knit objects or something like it.  And while there certainly will be markets for some knitted goods and food in the future, the truth is that what we are seeing is rapid economic deflation - money is disappearing.  That means people aren’t buying stuff - and those who have, up to now, been paying extra for quality may not have the spare cash to do so - so while it might make sense early on to rely on high value, high effort products, the idea that enough people will be going out to expensive restaurants to allow them to pay $25 lb for your basil or $40 to give you a fair living wage for knitted socks is unlikely.  The same is true if you do crafty cute stuff with no real use - funky beer mugs and wall hangings are lovely, but they are salable in an affluent society, not a poor one.  

Nor should you be duplicating immediately things we have a lot of - adult clothing, for example, may simply not be bought in many cases, since people have enough in their closets for a lifetime. Eventually making clothes may well be an important project again, but short term and long term may well be different, and we all need to be flexible.   Think *practical* and be adaptable - be able to produce not just a high value product, but an immediately useful one that people might need.

What might people need in the short term?  Food.  Warm blankets. Firewood for heating.  Insulation.  Childcare when both partners are working multiple jobs.  Elder care.  Medicine.  Distractions - theater, gambling, alcohol, sex, dance,  drugs, music, things to make them laugh, newspapers or the electronic equivalent,  cartoons (and yes, even struggling people will find some money for these things).  Shelter. Shoe repair.  Security help.  Toiletries - obvious ones like soap and toothpaste, and things to make them feel attractive - even under the Taliban, women used perfume.  Education - people will still want better for their kids, and training to get new jobs.  Tools. Anything that breaks and wears out easily.  Handymen, plumbers, midwives, doctors, nurses, ministers of every faith, anyone who can fix, mend and repair.  Livestock handlers and dog trainers.  Gardeners and people who can teach how to adapt to low energy life. 

You may need to do more than one of these things - in the short term, the money may be in helping those who can afford it retrofit their homes, for example, while in the long term it might be in growing food.  Or you may find yourself doing several seasonal things - cutting firewood, growing plant starts, building furniture or sewing in the winter, milking spring to fall.  The informal economy is going to require multiple skill sets, rather than the single job we’ve been used to - and our ability to get out of the mindset that says “I have this one job, and that is the only thing I can or should do” may be the thing that defines most how well we do in the coming difficult times.

It is worth thinking what you will do in this new economy - maybe only watch and thank G-d you got to keep your job.  But just in case, it is worth making plans, and perhaps putting a foot into the informal economy, testing its waters and building the beginnings of a new personal economy along with the old.


Figuring Out What You Have

Sharon August 5th, 2008

Ok, the bad news is that we blew our chance for the build out of the perfect world.  I know that we’d all like as much renewable electricity as we want and the new green economy.  Too late - time to get over it.  Some of the elements of this may be available to some of us, but as a whole, odds are we’re going to be stuck with making refinements upon what we did blow an enormous wad of wealth and cheap energy on. 

 The good news, however, is that we’re not totally screwed ;-) .  That is, all that cheap energy and wealth bought us some stuff - not the things we’d have chosen if we were planning for this, of course, but still.  There’s a tendency in the PO movement to look at the bad stuff as though we just wasted everything - and we did waste a lot.  But we got stuff - roofs over our head that are crazy too big, but just the right size to house a big tribelet of people you can work with (btw, Bob Waldrop coined “tribelet” and I love it so I’m trying to get it into wider circulation).  Those suburban houses have no retail, but garages big enough to establish it.  Those useless cars make great dehydrators, calf hutches, metal sources, etc…

 The thing about peak oil and climate change is that when you see how much change you need, it is easy to feel *POOR* - and some of us are poor, and a lot of us don’t have enough time or energy or money to make a complete perfect retrofit.    But I don’t think we should forget that most of us, in world terms, in historic terms, are RICH - richer than the kings of old, richer than most of the people in the world who are going to have to make do with far fewer resources and options.

I think adaptation begins with taking a look at what you do have.  It means walking through your place and your life and trying not to see what you don’t have, but what you do - all the stuff you’ve accomplished, the resources you might turn into something else, the people who could help you and will love and support you in crappy times.

This is hard to do if you are in fear mode - or even just rushing around getting stuff done, certain we don’t have enough time - it is so easy to walk around with a list in our heads of everything we haven’t got or done, every limitation, every skill we need and tool we don’t have.  But for this moment, it is time to stop.  To take a look at your world as though you were rich - not in the greedy, selfish sense that we tend to think of it, but in the sense of having sufficiency and more, an abundance that overflows your life. 

Spend a little time in this way of looking - because the truth is that we’ll never be secure enough, never have everything done, never have every skill or every resource.  Our houses could always be better, the people in them more wonderful and useful, the location better.  But scarcity, particularly now, where things haven’t fallen apart yet - is a matter of perception.  There may truly be things you really need.  But just for now, look at what you have.  Make a list.  Write it down - you may need it again someday, if only to remind yourself of where you start from.


Why Adapt In Place? And How?

Sharon August 5th, 2008

Welcome to the first day of my Adapting-In-Place class.  The course will focus on what I think may be the biggest question of all - how do we go on where we are with what we have in this new world?  I’m very excited about doing this class - because while I think there will be many relocations and radical changes, most people are going to make the best of the infrastructure we’ve created over the last years, simply because we have no choice. 

I personally think that there is insufficient time to remake our world dramatically.  Now there are people who would argue with me about this - and they may even have a case.  But I think there are compelling reasons to believe that we may not have enough time to take a world created for cheap energy and transform it into one that can handle expensive energy and replace much of that with renewable power.  The idea that we will be able to make a massive societal retrofit occur rapidly depends in large part on, I think, the idea that the current economic crisis is just an unpleasant coincidence that happens to be occurring just as peak oil and climate change are really hitting us.  This, I think is a radical error in reasoning - in fact, as nearly every serious analyst who really grasps peak oil gets, the economic limitations are part and parcel of our present crisis.  That is, our ability to do new things is going to be more and more constrained over time.

Which means that most of us aren’t going to be living in new urbanist walkable communities or in perfect ecovillages - we’re going to be living where we are.  Some projects will be done - but the idea that we’re going to do a full-scale overhaul of our society seems deeply wrong.  Which means that most of us are going to be limited to what we can accomplish ourselves, using our personal resources, what resources are available through family, friends, community and governments of various levels.  Much of our way of life may have been, as Kunstler refers to suburbia, the greatest-misallocation of resources in history, but is how we allocated the resources - we’ve done this build out, and we’re going to be living with the results.

While the current situation has created mobility for some people - those who have already lost jobs and homes, those who know they are in a situation that can’t possibly improve -on the other hand, for many people, the current situation works to keep them in place.  Nothing is selling in their area - so they can’t sell their house and move to another.  Or they are afraid to change jobs, because the loss of seniority would lead to making them easy targets for layoffs in this economy.  It may not be possible any longer to get back what they owe on their house - but it may still make sense to keep paying the mortgage, because they expect extended family to move in, or because they can grow food on the land.  They may be tied down by elderly or disabled family members who can’t be easily moved, by a shared custody agreement, or by need to access to certain kinds of medical care.  Family - biological or chosen - may tie them to an area, as may familiarity with the climate and region.  We may decide that strong community ties make an imperfect area (and all areas are imperfect) enough to keep us there.  Or we may lack the resources to move.

And staying in place isn’t always the best of a bad lot of options - sometimes it is simply the best option.  There’s been a tendency to rhetorically abandon areas we don’t know what to do with - inner cities, exurbs, suburbia - all of these are dismissed sometimes, as though this will magically vacate them.  The fact is that 300 million people in the US or 60 million in Britain cannot simply all go out to the countryside to their own bunkers, unless we wish to create a new suburbia, with barbed-wire, each bunker lined up in the countryside next to its neighbors ;-) .  Nor can we move everyone into cities - there aren’t jobs enough, nor room enough to grow food.  Food alone will mean that the countryside and suburbs (near the city markets, often built on good farmland) will have to be populated - and the cities were usually cities for reasons long before oil - those reasons won’t go away.

More and more, I am advising people to stay put, or at most move to a place fairly near and like the one they live in now.  I don’t think there’s enough time to adapt to new climates and environmental conditions, to retrofit new homes and build communities - now that doesn’t mean some people won’t have to move.  But if you can stay put, I think there are some real advantages for most people - it takes *time* to build community, to build soil, to learn the bus lines, to get into the carpools, to find the cheap produce, to learn about pests and diseases and how to keep cool or warm.  Right now, I think time is in short supply.

That last, I think is the biggest reason I wanted to do this class - because even those who hadn’t planned to face hard times where they are may find themselves stuck there.  And there are a huge number of ways we can adapt and mitigate our situation - but it will be much easier to begin now.