Monday, February 28, 2011

The Development of Post-Peak Best Practices

In the First World, there is a body of knowledge, practices, and wisdom for living in modern society as it has existed for the last several decades, and as many optimistic thinkers believe society might continue to exist for the foreseeable future. This body of received wisdom is predicated on the assumption that modern society and its inhabitants will always have access to ever-increasing quantities of energy, resources and wealth.

Yet there have been those who are willing to look beneath surface appearances in order to question the foundations on which modern First World society rests. Many of these thinkers have come to conclusions that differ drastically from the future which is envisioned by the optimists. From the darker and less cheerful thoughts and writings of these people a different body of knowledge, practices and wisdom is arising. Whereas the wisdom of the optimists is based on a future of ever-increasing abundance, the darker wisdom of the realists is based on the likelihood that most of us will have to live on much less, in a world that is a lot less comfortable and predictable than the world we have been used to until very recently.

There is one thing that can be said for the wisdom of the optimists. That wisdom and its body of techniques has been extensively documented, codified and taught until it has taken on the air of unquestionable truth. Thus most people believe that whether you're building a house, treating an infection, or dealing with waste management in a city, there's only one right way to do it – and even though that right way is based on techniques that require a lot of resources and energy, this is not an issue, “because we live in America, and we are a rich country!” In other words, most of us in the First World believe that our society has created the best possible practices for living together as a society and meeting the needs of society.

The wisdom of the dark realists has not been nearly so well documented, codified or taught. This is the reason for the angst many of us feel at the realization that the foundations of First World society are starting to crumble, its resource base is depleting, its wealth is dwindling, its wells are running dry. The realization of these things naturally provokes the questions, “So what do we do? How do we adapt?” It's unnerving to realize not only that the world is changing in ways we hadn't counted on, but that we have to create an adaptive strategy seemingly from scratch.

To be sure, some great work has already been done in formulating adaptive strategies. I am thinking of a guy named John Michael Greer whose blog has lately been describing a number of low-tech adaptive strategies for post-Peak living. (By the way, I don't necessarily agree with everything Mr. Greer says on his blog – but then again, I don't always agree with everything I say either. ;)) Mr. Greer's work is in turn based on the writings of many people who were part of the back-to-the-land movements in the 1960's and 1970's, and who did extensive, rigorous research on low-tech, low-impact living. I also think of Joseph Jenkins and his Humanure Handbook, a book that describes a safe, low-tech method of recycling human waste into fertilizer. The interesting thing about Mr. Jenkins' book is that although it is written in a humorous, colloquial style, it actually began as his masters' thesis. Therefore he treats his subject with rigor and technical accuracy.

What is needed now is more work of that kind, extended across many different disciplines, from health care to education, from small-scale manufacturing to building design and construction, and more. The trouble with many suggested post-Peak practices is that they are not very well documented, and seem to be sold more on the basis of emotion or symbolism than on the basis of whether or not they actually work.

I am thinking of one example in particular, that of earth construction. I have a copy of the Barefoot Architect by Johan van Lengen. It's a fascinating book based on a fascinating premise – namely, that one can create a useful guide for home construction for Third World residents based on the use of vernacular methods and materials. It's obvious that such a book would be useful for many depressed and declining parts of the First World as well. The only problem I have with the book is that it seems to be lacking in describing mathematical techniques for validating key elements of building design. Where math is mentioned, it is sometimes treated in a cavalier manner – almost as if it was optional. (An example: on page 400, Mr. van Lengen describes the construction of earthquake-resistant walls, then says, “For those who like equations...” before writing a very simple formula. It's as if he's implying that you don't need to know the math behind constructing an earthquake-resistant wall in order to actually build one.)

The same criticism can be leveled against some people in the Portland metro area who offer classes in “cob building.” None of these teachers has a degree in civil engineering, nor are any of them registered structural engineers. Almost all of them look like people who should be wearing tie-dyed T-shirts and Birkenstocks, people who will tell you that you should build with earth because it's “natural” and “wholistic.”

Now just for the record, I believe that earth construction has great potential as a building technique of the near future, due to the wide availability of earth, the simplicity of construction methods, and the extremely low environmental impact of earth construction. But if someone's going to build an earth house for me, I want it done right – and I want to know that it's been done right. (We live in Seismic Zone 3 around here.) Otherwise, I might never be able to get to sleep in my brand new earth house, or alternatively, I might be terrorized by nightmares about my house falling down on me.

Earth construction is just one example of the sort of post-Peak techniques and practices that need to be developed much more rigorously and with much greater technical accuracy. There are others, such as post-Peak (plant-based) pharmacology and post-Peak general medicine. A robust, reliable post-Peak medical practice should be well-researched, evidence-based, with proven results. (I am not a fan of modern First World medicine, but whenever I hear someone say “I reject Western Medicine. Instead, I take bee propolys and colloidal silver and I meditate for three hours under the full moon at least three times a month,” my ears shut off instantly. Some of you know what sort of person I'm talking about.)

I could go on listing examples of disciplines that need more rigorous treatment, but I'm sure you all can think of a few. I'd like to close with a few things I think are needed in creating a body of post-Peak knowledge, skills and practices.

First and foremost, such a body of knowledge must be open. That is, it must not be subject to copyright restrictions, not made into the “intellectual property” handmaiden of a bunch of rent-seekers. (This, by the way, is quite contrary to the foolish and greedy choice recently made by Jules Dervaes and his family to attempt to claim ownership of the English language phrase “urban homestead.”) Secondly, such a body of knowledge must be peer-reviewed by its users and practitioners. That peer-review must be done with rigor, according to established rules of inquiry. (Scientific method, anyone?) Thirdly, such a body of knowledge must be taught by those who have demonstrated mastery of its disciplines. Such an approach would make people more willing to accept this knowledge readily, as proven knowledge.

Mind you, this post is not a “policy paper,” but rather a suggestion – for those who are willing to do the hard work of developing a knowledge base of post-Peak practices.

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