Where the Rubber Meets the Road
I received this excellent and timely inquiry from astute reader Paul B.:
I’m interested in # 1, while you seem to take into account 300 million people in your writings—would you comment on rubber-meets-the-road impacts and proactive actions we can take to help shield ourselves (and our local communities) from the economic problems we’re facing?
I’ve recently discovered your website by a link from one of the survivalist blogs (sorry—I don’t remember which one). During this time I’ve enjoyed reading your commentary with your economic emphasis. Would you consider including concrete actions "average" people could take to protect themselves in one of your future columns? I’d certainly appreciate it and I bet many others would, too. (emphasis added, CHS)
That's big challenge but I'll give it a shot. None of this is startlingly new--it's just common sense, and I will undoubtedly leave a few things off--but as a start:
1. Build/strengthen a small community based on sharing, generosity and reciprocity around yourself and family. My critique of much survivalist thinking--and my alternative view--can be found here: The Art of Survival, Taoism and the Warring States (June 27, 2008)
The strongest "survivor" is not the most heavily armed individual but the individual surrounded by a community which values his/her contributions and support, and who cares whether he/she lives or dies. Nobody gives a damn if the individual holed up in a bunker somewhere lives or dies, and that's the fatal weakness in all too many survivalist scenarios.
A community can be a small as three neighbors, or a block, or a church, or an extended family. The way to build a commmunity, or join a community if you don't have one at the moment is to extend yourself via generosity. Provide something of value without worrying about whether you'll get back an "equal value." Believe me, if you surprise decent people with something useful/good, their delight will exceed all known monetary value of whatever time or product or service you offered.
Just cleaning up the trash on your street or baking some cookies and giving them away can have huge consequences. We as a society have become selfish, greedy and isolated behind an insane wall of "entertainment," TV and other electronic mind-control crap (videogames, etc.) The way forward is to be selfless occasionally, and then those who have benefitted from your generosity will start caring about you.
That's always the way humans have survived extremely trying/difficult times. For instance, the 13th century: Food Shortages, Rising Prices, Stagnant Wages: Welcome to the 13th Century (June 23, 2008).
Here are two related entries:
The Remnant, the Pareto Principle and You (June 26, 2008)
A Critique of Reinventing Collapse (June 25, 2008)
2. Cancel your cable or satellite TV. Wean yourself from the souring insanity of "cable news", "sports" and other soul-deadening wastes of time. Sure, see an occasional movie/DVD, but by cutting off the 200 channels then you will find something better to do than watch TV for 6 hours a day (the U.S. average). Your kids will scream and cry and whine, so tell them you're not raising zombies any more. They can go plant a garden or contribute to the community doing something they enjoy. Watching TV, adding mindless crappy songs to their iPod and going shopping are out, over, done, gone, history. You want music? Then learn to play an instrument. Yes, it's hard and time-consuming, but the result is rewarding in a way no idiotic "guitar hero" game can ever be.
Set the example by stop watching TV yourself. NOVA, Nature, American Experience and a few other PBS shows are worth watching--the rest, including the food and history channels, are fluff. You want history? Then read a book; there are literally a hundred great history books listed in my "books/films" link at the top of this page. Go actually cook something instead of watching some sappy/lame "entertainer" whip together something which has all been prepped for them.
3. Get lean and prepare to heal yourself. One of the first things to go will be the bloated, unaffordable, and largely ineffective "healthcare" a.k.a. "sickcare" system. Hundreds of thousands of people blindly trust the medical system and enter the hospital like sheep to slaughter, where they contract incurable infections, get the wrong meds, or endure an operation of some sort that only makes them worse.
Yes, if you have operable cancer, then by all means go get it cut out, radiated, etc. But get on the Web and learn everything you can about the condition and treament options first.
Example: I have high blood pressure, even though my BMI is 22 or 23. My doctor prescribed some blood-pressure lowering drug, and when it didn't seem to have much effect I went online and discovered that it generally lowers pressure by something like 3%.
Our blood pressure varies by 10% or more every day just naturally, so 3% was practically statistical noise. Then I read about how too much salt is the known cause of high blood pressure (along with too much weight), and I started noticing how all the packaged/canned/prepared/restaurant/fast-food in the U.S. has extremely large amounts of salt. So I stopped eating all that and use a salt substitute (potassium) or a little 50/50 potassium/salt.
From what I have read on the Web, it seems all blood-pressure meds either don't work well, or don't work for long, or they have side-effects. Better to cut salt out of your diet and shed some pounds--that works a lot better than all the drugs being shoved on us. But you can't count on your doctor to tell you that, unfortunately. We all have to take responsibility for our own health except in emergencies such as trauma/accident and operable cancer--and even then, you better hope the trauma center hasn't been shuttered due to budget cuts.
4. Become politically aware and active in your local community. As I outlined in Welcome to Sadr City, U.S.A. (June 20, 2008), local municipalities and agencies will be going broke, and it will be up to the local citizenry to take back control of their city/town/county funds from the public unions and "professional" managers. What we face is simple: the benefits and pensions government employee unions won during the "flush times" are simply unaffordable/unsustainable. In all too many cases, firefighters, police officers, library workers and others "game the system" to retire with overtime-boosted retirements and gold-plated benefits the rest of us can only dream about as things deteriorate.
You can be assured that the public employees will be screaming bloody murder about "what we were promised," but the money's no longer there. So it will come down to some difficult choices that we the public cannot leave to the unions or "professional" city managers: do you want to pay people $80,000 a year retirement plus another $20K in medical benefits, or do you want a library that's open more than 4 hours a week?
Look, circumstances change, and we have to change with them. Just because some agency/city caved into absurd demands back in the tech boom doesn't mean we have to be enslaved to those no-longer-affordable retirement/benefits packages. Make the agency/city go bankrupt when the money runs out and start with a clean slate. Demand that municipal workers work 40 years before they earn a retirement, like the rest of us, rather than a mere 20 years.
Get online and educate yourself about the incredible waste and fraud in your own local government, and then let your elected officials know you want some accountability and services and a sustainable level of salaries, pensions and benefits. Tell them you want the public-employee retirees who are sitting at home on their duffs retired after 20 years to get back on the street for another 10 years, and ditto for every other early-retiree. Tell them 50 is the new 30, and nobody should retire until they're 65 or 70--public employees included.
Yes, I know not every city and agency is filled with cronyism and people who call in sick so their buddy can get double-time, but if you work for a sterling municipality, please don't assume your well-managed burg/agency is the norm. I know for a fact that around here in bloated California, library employees have retired with a small pension after a mere 7 years of part-time service. (Once you hit 55, you can retire after just such minimal service.)
Around here, public employees retire with pensions larger than their salaries, pensions boosted in the final year with legerdemain and bogus tricks to boost the pay on which their pension is based.
Around here, cops and firefighters routinely draw paychecks with overtime in the range of $150,000+ (please search Mish's site for City of Vallejo-bankruptcy for the chart listing the hundreds of city employees drawing well over $100K each).
Around here, a retired university police chief draws a $150,000/year pension and then goes back to work under a contract which pays her an additional $250,000/year. This is just business as usual when it comes to taxpayer funds, public unions and public-sector fraud/cronyism/waste.
Maybe your city/town/county/state is blessed with hardworking public employees who draw modest benefits and retirements and who work 30 years before they draw a dime, managed by people who don't run things according to cronyism and gaming the system--if so, you are fortunate indeed. The rest of us aren't so lucky. We pay high taxes and make a fraction of what the public employees make and have nowhere near their healthcare benefits, working or retired, but then we get to hear about how poorly paid they are compared to private-sector jobs. Get real, people; the pay in the real-world private-sector is crappy and going down. If you're so underpaid, go onto monster.com and get yourself one of those plentiful high-paying private-sector jobs. You will find them less plentiful than you might have imagined.
If you don't get involved, well then a relative handful of protected folks will collect most of the taxes and public services will be sacrificed left and right: no road repair, no libraries, falling-apart schools, etc. It's our choice. Get involved or get happy with whatever crumbs the public unions and graft/waste "experts" leave you.
5. Eat lower on the food chain. Let's start with the fact that it takes about 10 pounds of meat to grow a pound of salmon or tuna, and 10+ pounds of grain to grow a pound of chicken, pork or beef. There will be plenty of food for humans if we stop feeding 90% of the grain to animals and then eating the animals.
Those of you who have hiked or wilderness-camped or equivalent know that a human can get by on remarkably little food. The idea that we're all going to starve to death is unlikely. Corn bread and beans is a damned fine meal and it uses about 10% of the energy/soil/feedstock etc. of an equivalent weight of meat.
Eat what's grown locally, and if you can, eat meat which fed on algae and grass or leftovers and not a whole lot of processed grain: catfish, range-fed cattle, your neighbor's chickens you traded something for, etc.
6. Start growing some of your own food, however little that might be. The value here isn't just the cost of the food you raise--it's reconnecting you and your family with where food comes from in the first place.
If you have a real spread, consider going no-till. No-Till: How Farmers Are Saving the Soil by Parking Their Plows The age-old practice of turning the soil before planting a new crop is a leading cause of farmland degradation. Many farmers are thus looking to make plowing a thing of the past. (Scientific American)
7. Look into permaculture. Comsider this astonishing "on the ground" permaculture report:
I would like to inject some real world experience into this otherwise abstract discussion of food and permaculture.
In addition to being an ecological biologist, a permaculture production food farmer for 9 years, and an expert on biomass fuels, I have also been teaching permaculture since 1997 and have worked in many countries on food/energy production design issues. I have certified more than 400 people in permaculture design since 1997. For more info on this see my site at permaculture.com.
So in light of my experience I have a couple of things to say...
I produced enough food to feed more than 300 people (with a peak of 450 people at one point), 49 weeks a year in my fully organic CSA on the edge of Silicon Valley. If I could do it there you can do it anywhere.
...My yields were often 8 times what the USDA claims are possible per square foot. My soil fertility increased dramatically each year so I was not achieving my yields by mining my soil. On the contrary I built my soil from cement-hard adobe clay to its impressive state from scratch. By the end I was at over 22% organic matter with a cation exchange capacity (CEC) of over 25.
...At most times I had no more than half of my land under production with the rest in various stages of cover cropping. And I was only producing at a fraction of what would have been possible if I had owned the land and could have justified the investment into an overstory of integrated tree, berry, flower and nut crops along with the various vegetable and fruit crops.
...I grew over 45 different kinds of crops...
The math is easy. With a polyculture, yields of 3-10 pounds of food per square foot are easy to come up with in most climates. For comparison, commercial agriculture in California , which is way inefficient, routinely runs about 1.5-2.5 pounds per square foot per year across a wide variety of crops...
...There are two main reasons known for the dramatically increased productivity of a polyculture?\the benefit of mycorhyzzal symbiosis (which is destroyed in chemical agriculture) and less solar saturation. Solar saturation is the point at which a plants' photosynthetic machinery is overwhelmed by excess sunlight and shut down.
In practice, this means that most of our crop plants stop growing at about 10am and don't start again until about 4 in the afternoon. Various members of a polyculture shade each other, preventing solar saturation, so plants metabolize all day. Polyculture as we pursue in permaculture uses close to 100% of the sunlight falling on its mixed crops. Monoculture rarely can use more than 30% of the total sunlight received before saturation.
Here's a fascinating, extremely provocative story about folks who created an oasis in Arizona with rain catchment alone: harvesting rainwater in Arizona.
8. Blow off your high-interest debt. If you can pay it off out of earnings, great, if not, go bankrupt once the laws change (probably next year). Don't feel bad, just get it over with. Scrape up the cash and hire a real bankruptcy attorney. Get debt-free except for your low-interest fixed-rate mortgage.
9. Stop shopping. Nuff said. If you don't need it to literally survive and be healthy, don't buy it.
10. Stop "consuming" brainwashing "entertainment" and get involved in real life. You like sports? Then turn off the TV and go play some yourself. Throw out that idiotic "martial arts" videogame and go learn a martial art yourself. It's not just about kicking, it's about the principles of Wushu and self-cultivation, responsibility, self-defense and self-control. Stop watching and start doing.
Go canoeing, snowshoeing, toss the football around, put some air in the tires of that old bike, but build up to it (I'm 54, so I know about injuries and warming up.) Don't be a weekend warrior and hurt yourself. Remember: we're responsible for our own health now; don't count on somebody else "saving" you.
11. Try to get a job closer to home. Nuff said, Shorter commute=less oil burned, less time wasted fuming in traffic.
12. Stop moving around the country. No wonder we're so messed up as a culture; so many people have no roots in the community and no family within a thousand miles. Most of the crazy homeless people in my city have been abandoned by their family. They don't just have a psychiatric problem--they have a family problem, which means we as a nation have a family problem, too.
13. Get your hands on an old, cheap, low-weight/small engine vehicle. I mean a Chevy Geo, or a little Ford, or a Nissan, whatever. Not all of us can afford a new Prius or Ford hybrid or whatever "high-tech solution" is presented (ask yourself what's the profit margin on all those "solutions"), so what we have to do is simple: make do and improve what we have.
In the Japanese cars, the older the better, in some ways; the engines and cars were smaller and got great mileage without hybrid technologies. I am pretty sure my 1998 Civic gets about the same mileage as a new hybrid.
If you keep the engine tuned, the oil and filter changed often, tire pressure up and drive a sane speed, even a mid-sized vehicle can turn 35 MPG. The same vehicle, poorly maintained and driven with a heavy lead foot will get 20 MPG or less. The difference isn't the technology, it's behavioral. Meaning: it's up to you.
14. If at all possible, try to figure out how to walk or bicycle somewhere useful. By that I mean, is there any possible route which enables you to walk or bike to a store or do some errand, at least in seasonable weather? If not, then maybe you should go to a city council meeting and ask why your town/city doesn't have any safe bikeways.
On reasonably flat ground/modest grade, 8-10 miles on a decent bike is no big deal, meaning any destination 5 miles away or less is bikeable if there's a safe route (i.e. not sharing a highway with cars going 55 MPH.)
15. Be positive and fact-based. Nurture the Inner Light regardless of which religion/faith you believe/follow. We're in this together, and we need to support reality-based solutions and those around us who are ready to deal with reality. Our mental health is as important a survival advantage as our physical shape.
16. Acquaint yourself with the idea of hedging. Don't trust the dollar to retain it's value? Maybe it will, maybe it won't. A little gold or silver is a hedge. If precious metals plummet and the dollar goes gangbusters, great, most of what you own is dollar-denominated. But if the dollar tanks, you've got a little hedge.
Here in earthquake country, I keep dozens of gallons of potable water on hand (i.e. enough to share). It's a hedge against an earthquake that breaks the water mains. If an earthquake never hits, great, I'm not out a dime. But the hedge is there just in case. If you're game, you can even learn how to buy commodity hedges, or find a fund which does the hedging for you. (I don't follow funds, so I can't give you any tips at the moment.) The main point is to start doing the research and thinking for yourself.
Along these lines, I recommend this little essay by frequent contributor Harun I.:
The Principles of Trading Also Apply to Life (June 19, 2008).
This isn't an exhaustive list but it's a start. Much of it will not be popular because it isn't a "high tech solution" and it all requires work, learning, responsibility and paying attention--all the traits which our "entertainment" obsession erodes, discounts and destroys.
New Reader commentaries and essays:
Readers Journal commentaries week of July 14, 2008 Democracy led by citizenry, China oil and inflation, blaming oil speculators, mortgage madness and more.
What's For Dinner at Your House has been updated! Two new recipes: Papillotes de Poisson and Craisin Bread/Cream Cheese/Walnut Sandwich
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
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