Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The "Small Stones" Of Adaptation

The focus of this blog, The Well Run Dry, is Peak Oil and the related issues that accompany it – climate change, other resource peaks and economic collapse. My blog is partly a diary of the day-to-day experience of this multifaceted predicament. Yet I also try to provide some in-depth analysis of these issues, as well as helpful strategies of adaptation. One disclaimer: I do not consider myself to be an expert by any means. I woke up to these issues – truly woke up – at the start of 2007, long after more well-known writers and thinkers had begun studying these issues. Consider me to be just another man on the street, yet a man who likes to tinker.

One thing many readers may have noticed over the last few months is that I have been talking about very small-scale, low-tech strategies of adapting to economic collapse – things like bicycle transportation, small-scale manufacturing, backyard gardening, and building resilient neighborhoods. My particular focus on resilient neighborhoods has dealt with present, obvious threats to neighborhood stability, threats that would negatively impact quality of life even without Peak Oil and the other emergent crises we face. Some may question what these things have to do with adapting to crises such as Peak Oil and climate change. Others may question the effectiveness of such low-level strategies in dealing with these issues. Some may say, “Why don't you formulate some grand policy proposals that society could implement? Why don't you come up with a technological solution?” I will now explain why I have chosen to focus on low-level strategies and local responses to these issues, and will try to make some sense of my recent posts.

First, let me tell you what I believe. I believe that global oil production peaked in 2005, and that the oil price spike of 2008 is the evidence that oil production has been falling since then. My belief is based mainly on the Oil Report of the Energy Watch Group of Germany which was published in October 2007. I also believe that the official global economy is experiencing a number of other resource peaks right about now, including peaks in such raw materials as copper and molybdenum. In this I can speak from personal experience because I work for a company that has a number of industrial clients.

Because the supplies of many raw materials have peaked and are now declining, the global economy has begun to collapse. There are fewer and fewer new sources of supply for these raw materials, and existing stores are being depleted. Therefore I don't think there is anything we can do to avert the continued shrinkage of the global economy. We must adapt to a lifestyle of living on less. Living in a way that is truly “sustainable” over the long haul means living much more simply than Americans and citizens of the First World are accustomed to.

This fact is something that we must accept if we are to begin successfully adapting to the world in which we now find ourselves. This is true both of individuals and of larger social units – families, circles of friends, neighborhoods, communities and nations. To the extent that anyone or any group fails to accept this new reality, to that extent that individual or group will fail to adapt successfully.

Yet our modern society has become addicted to the constant getting of more “stuff” – thus the insistence on growing the “consumer” economy. Moreover, the growth of that economy is for the primary benefit of the masters of that economy – the rich owners, officers and executives of corporations and the heads of governments who serve those corporations. They especially are addicted to the constant getting of “more.” (It is rumored that when John D. Rockefeller was asked how much money is enough, he replied, “Just a little bit more.”) These rich masters are the drivers and preservers of our present economy, and they are doing all they can to preserve the present economic arrangements even as these arrangements begin to fall apart.

We are a society of addicts run by an elite consisting of mega-addicts. Our present way of life is unsustainable, not only because we are running out of resources, but because our way of life is destroying the earth. Successful adaptation to our situation requires that we admit this to ourselves, just as substance abuse addicts are often told, “Get honest or die!” Yet when faced with the ultimatum to get honest, our society in general and our leaders and rich men in particular have resisted at all costs.

Consider the presidency of George W. Bush, who in concert with oil companies and automakers chose to start a stupid and illegal war rather than promote mass transit and other conservation measures in the U.S. Consider how he and the Republican-dominated Congress enacted laws designed to make it easier for the rich to prey on the poor. Consider how he turned Federal scientific agencies into climate change deniers. Consider who started our present round of Wall Street bailouts. But if one wants to believe that the Democrats are any better, one must ask how much has actually changed since Bush left office. The bailouts of the rich keep coming, as well as attempts to enact laws that would force average Americans to continue to rely on a breaking system.

A top-down, strategic, societal strategy of adaptation to Peak Oil, climate change and economic collapse would require that the leaders and those with power and wealth use it selflessly for the common good. Yet the evidence clearly shows that this is not happening – even though our collective window of opportunity for large-scale societal adaptation is shrinking. This is why I haven't written some essay for President Obama, why I no longer believe in writing my congressman, and why I am not really interested in formulating some large-scale policy that will never be implemented.

Nor am I very enthused about supposed “high-tech” solutions to our predicament. First, I don't believe that many of these solutions have much chance of working. Secondly, I am somewhat fearful of the unintended consequences that would arise if some of them did work. Now this is a personal opinion of mine, and intellectual honesty requires that it be tested in order to be considered valid – something I intend to explore in future posts. But I must say that I tend to agree with bloggers like Jeff Vail in his description of the unintended consequences and problems caused by the pursuit of ever-more complex technological fixes for the problems caused by technological advancement. I also tend to agree with those who mention the extreme technical challenges involved in implementing some of the proposed solutions to our present energy crisis. (For a good example of a description of these challenges, see Kiashu's humorous essay, “Solar power... in SPAAAACE!” at his blog, Green With A Gun.)

My focus is therefore on personal strategies of adaptation, because I believe that while the evidence is clear that many of our leaders would rather die than get honest, there are yet individuals out in the world who would rather live instead. And while we peasants have very little chance of directly influencing our leaders, there are things we can do as individuals and as neighborhoods to adapt to our new reality.

Those things include building alternatives to the failing systems of the official economy, as well as strengthening the communities in which we live. I can't fix the industrial food system, but I can grow potatoes (mine are coming up quite well now). I can't persuade the nation to fix its passenger rail system, but I can buy a Surly Long-Haul Trucker and use it for basic transportation. I can't repair the culture of my country, but I can repair the culture of my neighborhood. I can't force the mainstream media to tell the truth, but I can blog about the things I see, hear and know. Therefore I will continue to cover the small-scale adaptations that are within the reach of individuals without a lot of money or power, because I think these things will play an unexpectedly important role in our society's adaptation to our present times.

Two other things: first, I want to thank some long-time commenters for their readership and encouragement. In particular, I want to mention Kiashu, whom I mentioned earlier, as well as SoapBoxTech, author of the blog of the same name (http://litetechca.blogspot.com/), gaiasdaugter, author of the blog Homesteading on a Sandbar (http://homesteadingonasandbar.blogspot.com/) and of course, Stormchild, author of Gale Warnings which is listed on my blog under “Other Wells.”

Secondly, I see that the New York Times has published an article talking about the dangers to urban food gardeners from lead soil contamination. This is an interesting development, which I almost half expected. As more people start to decouple from relying on the failing system of industrial food production, it is to be expected that the rich owners of agribusiness will influence media outlets to write stories telling people that backyard gardens are potentially dangerous. This sort of story is what I tried to refute in my post titled, “The Chicken That Laid Leaden Eggs, And Other Horror Stories.” There is one other thing I expect, and that is that there will be many other bloggers writing pieces about remediation strategies for gardeners with lead-contaminated soil. I imagine that many of these bloggers will make the same points I made in my original piece. That piece was rather long, and I intend to write a more summary post later this week describing strategies for gardening in contaminated soil. (Who knows, someone might beat me to it... ;) )


Kiashu said...

Thanks for the thanks.

You note that you think it unlikely that a Grand Solution will be put in place by our elites, so it's better for us to go ahead and put in Many Small Solutions instead.

I would add that Many Small Solutions are helpful even if the Grand Solutions do happen. Consuming and wasting less, working with the community to put in small facilities and co-operate in sharing skills and resources, these are all good things to do even if someone does build a thousand Solar Space Satellites.

In my faith we say, "pray as though everything dependend on God, act as though everything depended on you." The reasoning is that if God helps us, what we did to help ourselves made us no worse off, and if he doesn't, then we definitely need to help ourselves.

The purely secular citizen of a democracy might say, "write letters, rally and vote as though everything depended on government, act as though everything depended on you."

I think it's an important thing to say, because if you say, "government is doing nothing, so we have to do it", then anyone who thinks government might do something in the future will say, "so I can just do nothing." Whereas I encourage people to do things whatever government's up to.

Stormchild said...

:-) Thanks for the shout out, TH.

I can't think of anything you have said on this blog - or your others - that I've disagreed with, ever; not because I'm lazy, not because I'm overawed, but because you think things through - like a true engineer, looking at what works and why and what is likely to fail.

And you show your chain of reasoning so that your readers can follow along. Like a true teacher.

And you make sense. Always. And you see what's there, and you're honest about it.

Thank you.

Funny, isn't it, that we have a slogan, "Think Globally, Act Locally"; yet when someone like you demonstrates what that actually looks like in real life, people don't realize what you're doing.

I hope more will realize, and very soon.

A thought re technology: I've not read the critics you name, partly because I see a basic fallacy in all of the Technology-Will-Save-Us wishful thinking. It's all predicated on the continued availability of cheap energy. The wishful thinkers have substituted cheap energy from multiple sources for cheap energy from fossil fuels, but the underlying assumption has not changed.

As someone who knows first hand just how labor-intensive it is to run even a radio and a few lanterns off your own muscle power, I think that horse left the barn a while ago.

We won't have a future that looks like the recent past. Our best chance of a future is one that looks like the more distant past - people living where they work, local farming, local goods production, more people actively producing and fewer merely consuming, local crafts and artisans, a much more varied tableau of possible occupations but much more direct labor involved in them, etc.

I was reading a bit of fiction set in the early Middle Ages last night, and the author was describing one of the great medieval fairs. Reading her description, it suddenly struck me that folks in the middle ages basically "went to the mall" once a year, and it was An Occasion.

We are a lot richer in material things, in knowledge, technology, and skills, but in so many ways we have impoverished ourselves. The idea of local craftsmen actually producing the bulk of an area's subsistence goods? Seems like a dream. Yet once it was reality. Life was harder, definitely, yet in many ways far more varied, richer in texture.

Please keep thinking, solving, and sharing.

gaiasdaughter said...

Thanks for the mention, TH -- I'm another 'no expert, just trying to muddle through' who has come to many of the same conclusions.

In the beginning, I was advocating for government intervention and new technology to save us from global warming. But the more I researched, the more evident it became that global warming was just one symptom of our skewed relationship with 'other' -- 'other' being our finite earth and all its inhabitants. That's when I realized that neither government nor science could save us.

The only way to create a more sane, more sustainable, more connected way of living is to do as Ghandi suggested and 'be the change you want in the world.' And so I have started. I haven't gotten very far, but at least I'm headed in the right direction. And I am looking forward to a future in which people do real things that really matter as opposed to filling their lives with virtual pastimes to medicate against terminal boredom.

It seems as if there are two Americas emerging -- the America that rises to a challenge, digs in, and finds innovative ways to do what needs to be done, and the America that digs in its heels and refuses to budge. Thankfully, the first camp seems to be growing. Americans have a lot of strength, courage, and ingenuity just waiting to be tapped. I think we will surprise ourselves!