Friday, May 23, 2008

Preparations: Cougars vs. root cellars

Have I mentioned I'm a bit of a peak oil-est? The root of my desire to be free of fossil fuels stems from my belief that we are approaching peak oil. I'm not going to waste my time in this blog trying to convince you of my point of view. I can't PROVE peak oil. No one can. Peak oil is like the declaration of a recession, you have to be 6 months into it before you can say without a doubt that's what you're in. I've been watching and researching for close to 3 years now. I don't think oil shale out West is going to save us and I don't think drilling in Alaska is going to save us. I also don't think the Earth is making new fossil fuels fast enough or close enough to the surface to save us. Don't get me wrong, peak oil is not the argument that we've run out of fuel, it's the argument that we're half out, and the half that's remaining isn't going to be cheap, and everyone's going to want a piece of it.
Now, there are different camps in the peak oil debate. There are the End-of-all-life-as-we-know-it camps. These people are stocking up on guns and literal mountains of dried food, freeze dried food, MRE's and making impenetrable fortresses equipped with turret guns and cougars (I kid you not, cougars) to keep the mobs of starving half-crazed villagers at bay.
There are the Sunshine-and-flowers camps. These people think that we'll have a seamless transition into alternative fuels like solar/hydro/bio fuels. They think cities will plan ahead for the collapse of global transportation and plant permaculture beds in city parks. They think cities will transform into meccas of alternate transportation and no one will even miss fossil fuels.
There are the Abandon-all-cities-start-farming-now camps. They think that most of modern civilization/infrastructure is unsupportable and nobody has the time/money/fuel to make them supportable so the best thing to do is abandon them and send everyone into the country to start farming.
As you might guess if you know me, I'm somewhere in the middle . :-D My problem with the first camp is I don't see Armageddon happening. Not unless peak oil is accompanied by nuclear war and a pandemic all at the same time. Could it happen that way... yea sure, I'll give you the possibility, statistically speaking it could happen. I just don't think it's likely. It's possible we'll see some mobs, especially in the larger cities, but I don't see them much beyond that. Certainly not mobs of starving people rampaging through the countryside looking for food. What will they be looking for? Soybeans? If you don't know how to operate/store/repair a gun, don't bother, you can't eat it anyway and it probably isn't going to help much. I also don't see our government/military just laying down and succumbing to anarchy. In fact, they'll probably be the only ones who can afford gas to drive. What, do you think the strategic oil reserve is for you?? No my friend, the strategic oil reserve, which is close to full capacity I might add, is for the government and military, very precious little of it will be released to plebeians like you and me so we can commute or drive soccer carpool.
My problem with the second camp is I don't see the transition being seamless. Most of the alternative fuel sources require fossil fuels to make the components for harnessing them. (Look into how much petroleum it takes to make and install one of those giant wind turbines.) I don' t see most cities waking up in time to plant enough permaculture to sustain themselves. Some cities are the exception of course, ( but such a solution couldn't even begin to work in a place like NYC, even if they had started 5 years ago. As for cities becoming meccas of alternate transportation, well again, I think we would have needed to start 5 years ago. Look at what happened after Katrina. People on the streets died. Highways, bridges, expressways, they are just not made for people without the protection of a car. People trying to bike or walk on such surfaces succumbed to dehydration and exposure. Small towns with tree lined Main streets will have much less trouble adapting, but anything over 50,000 people is going to have some problems. You couldn't pay me enough money to move to a large city right now. (Much to the dismay of my poor Dave who would love for us to move to Seattle and live off the cushy Computer Engineering job I could get there. :-D)
As for the last, well to be honest, we are going to see some of this I think. I don't think it will happen en mass, there's no place for all those suburbanites to live in the country. Plus, most city dwellers can barely keep a window box full of zinnias alive, the office worker with a philodendron is the "plant lady." These people don't have the necessary skills to run to the country and start farming. It would be disastrous.

So, here's what I see happening, and the steps I'm taking to ensure my comfort and well being. I think in the next 5 years or less demand for fossil fuels is going to swamp production and prices are going to be staggering. I don't think we're going to come out on top of the pile in the scramble for what remains. I think we're too far in debt with countries like China, made one too many enemies in the Mid-East and we've just stretched ourselves too thin in general. Don't get me wrong, I think we'll be close to the top, just not king of the hill. I think that will mean a smaller piece of Mid-East oil. What we will be able to get will be expensive and quite possibly sporadic. I think this will alter business as usual in America. I expect to see rationing, both of gasoline and natural gas. Sometimes we'll have gas/electricity/natural gas and sometimes we won't. I plan to bike to work at least twice a week, more if my budget demands it. I'll save my gas money for trips to see loved ones who don't live in the same town as me. For those of you who don't own a good bike, I'd suggest you invest in one while they are still available and you still have the disposable income to do it. Don't get talked into a fancy road bike either. I have a mountain bike. Yes it's heavier, yes it slows me down. But, I can handle gravel, potholes, curbs, sand, twigs etc that a lighter road bike with tiny wheels can't. (think about your town's roads right now, it requires lots of fossil fuels to keep them maintained even up to today's slightly shabby standards, how well do you think they'll be maintained when oil is 200$ a barrel? 300$ a barrel?) The mountain bike puts me upright as opposed to bent over. Easier to keep tabs on the traffic around me when I'm not staring at a spot 3 feet ahead of my front tire. I digress, start looking into alternate forms of transportation to get to work/grocery store/school etc.
I expect to see some food rationing. Modern day processed food depends heavily on fossil fuels to grow it, process it and transport it. I expect the middle of the grocery stores to empty quickly once gas rationing kicks in. I'm learning to grow my own food. I'm learning to store and preserve my own food. I'm learning to cook those whole foods. All of these things take practice. They are skills your grandparents probably still remember, your parents might not. I see them coming in handy. If the government ration for the week is whole grain flour, some butter or milk and a few eggs, can you live for a week on that? If the cheapest food you can find is 10 lbs of potatoes at the farmers market, how many ways do you know to fix them? Do you know how to store them? I'm turning our basement into a root cellar. Root veggies have fallen out of favor in recent generations, but they can be stored for months if stored properly, and can provide valuable nutrients during lean times. If you know how to cook them, they are actually really tasty. I've recently discovered a love of parsnips. Look up some of the things that disappeared during WWII, that's about what I expect for a few years after our industrial agriculture collapses with the disappearance of cheap oil. Most people went for months without seeing butter, coffee or sugar. ( Dave and I have been weaning ourselves off of High Fructose Corn Syrup and other sugars. That'll be one thing I'll actually be glad to see disappear. Anything imported will be very hard to find and/or expensive. I plan to supplement our food with lots of home grown veggies out of the garden, when I find good deals on in season crops at the farmer's market I'll stock up and preserve it so I don't have to buy it when it's three times that cost in the middle of winter. I suggest to everyone I know to plant a garden. Something as simple as planting green beans along your chain link fence can provide you with a steady if boring source of free vitamins all summer and most of the fall. To stave off the boredom of nothing but green beans, maybe try your hand at a couple of tomato vines, even if it's just in pots on your patio.
I plan to insulate our little house to the best of my abilities. If the attic needs some more insulation, it's getting it, the windows will get the plastic wrap treatment and drafts will fall victim to a seek out and destroy mission. Quilts and good wool blankets will never be far from the bed. In India the demand has always outpaced the supply of natural gas. In many places in that country people get gas during certain hours of the day. While I lived there I saw first hand what it takes to organize your food/bathing/heating around those precious hours. It's not hard, you just have to adjust and make do. I'm looking into solar ovens as an alternative to our natural gas one. Rolling brown outs/natural gas shortages, I really think we'll see these things wide spread in our country in the next 5 years. I think a lot of middle class America is going to have a rude awakening when it does happen. When they can't heat their 2 storied stick and drywall house, or find fresh veggies in winter, or get to work... I think there will be some heart ache. I think there will be some upheaval, some uncomfortable adjustments, but eventually I think we'll get through it. And those that had a basic level of preparedness, some basic practice and planning will get through it better. But, maybe I'm wrong, maybe the Sunshine-and-flowers people have the right idea and there's nothing to worry about. Or maybe drilling in Alaska will magically solve all our problems. I'm just not betting on it.

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