"There is no 'try'...there is only do, or do not." ~ Yoda

"There is no 'try'...there is only do, or do not." ~ Yoda

Preparing myself, my family and my friends for the Fourth Turning.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Legacy of Useful Things

The one real legacy available to us as our empire winds down and energy scarcity begins to become very real for many people is that of Useful Things.  We have these in such abundance now it is difficult to imagine a time, past or present, when it was not so.

I've all but given up trying to convince people that renewables such as solar and wind aren't really going to solve any problems.  Certainly we'll find ways to breathe life back into useful technologies like windmills and waterwheels - but it won't be to magically manufacture either fuels or endless high-pressure streams of electrons, both intended to drive machines that spare us much physical labor in today's world.

We will have energy, and we will have fuels, and we will be able to use that energy and those machines to do work.  We just won't have the energy to do so much of it as we do now.  We will have to begin making choices regarding the cost of energy use versus its benefits.  This is nothing new: as fuel prices have risen many of us have made choices in response to the rising cost such as purchasing smaller cars or driving fewer miles.

What most don't seem to grasp, however, is that this is but the tip of the trend.  Imagine what it would mean to have say, even 20% less energy available for your immediate use than you now consume.  Just 20%.  Now think about which 20 miles out of every hundred you won't drive.  Which 20 hours of every 100 of lighted darkness you won't illuminate.  Which 20 loads of every 100 loads of clothing you won't wash, and you begin to get the idea.

As we're eventually going to return to levels of energy availability roughly equivalent to those available prior to the discovery of oil, 20% of course is but a step down on the Long Descent.

But my goal today is not to belabor the energy discussion, but rather to discuss what should be done with the time we have remaining when energy is rather abundant.  To what uses should we put it it?  And by 'we' I don't mean us as a species, a people, or even a community, large or small.  I mean 'we' as in each of us - what choices can and should we make as the last of the easy oil is consumed.

I'll confess that I am not a purist: I don't intend to limit my energy use simply to prevent harming Mother Earth.  I admire such sentiments, and I admire those who practice austere lifestyles for that reason.  But I am at heart a pragmatist.  Such efforts, while valiant, are hopelessly in vain against the scale of the problem.  The world is unmoved.  Energy will continue to be consumed until it is gone.

One of the consequences of energy scarcity that I don't hear much discussed is that of the impact on manufacturing and construction.  One hears a great deal about the impact on food production and transportation, and people are moved to re-create walkable communities and increase local food production, but one never hears discussed where we shall get the replacement parts for our Subarus, or plastic sheeting and trowels and towels and matches and metal forks and all sorts of useful things.

These are all made in some factory somewhere.  And one of the second-order effects of energy scarcity is going to be a scarcity of things.  Things that will take us by surprise, like staples and paper clips.  Can you make a paper clip?  Can you make a water glass?  And I don't mean fashion one from some other object - I mean take some raw material and make a glass.  And if a tool is necessary, then you first must make the tool. Ad infinitum.

Think about that for a bit.  Let it settle in and gel.

The same holds for construction of new infrastructure: we don't really know how to do it without large machines any more. When the engines of the cranes fall silent for lack of fuel, how will we lift large objects? Who among us knows how to use a block and tackle, much less make one, or make the rope it requires to operate?  What plants that grow locally can we use for fibers?  How should we harvest and prepare the fibers?  What tools are necessary for turning fiber into rope?  Who knows how to make those tools?

Now eventually, we will learn to do without or to make Useful Things things ourselves.  Kunstler addresses this admirably in World Made by Hand.  And if the decent is slow, as opposed to rapid, then the making do without or the making by hand will develop naturally, until one day we look around and realize our standard of living has changed in real ways, but life isn't, after all, so bad.

So the guy down the street makes barrels, and John makes shoes, and I grow tomatoes for sauce I sell and all that's really changed is that our lights are lit by the electricity produced by the generator on Smith Street, behind Courtney's house, in the gorge, and we don't travel so much, nor nearly so far.

The village has only a couple of cars, and (biodiesel) fuel is laboriously produced by at one of the local farms, so that when emergencies arise and horse-drawn wagon is too slow, we can still send our emissary as rapidly as possible over the rutted roads to Syracuse, or Ithaca, or if we need to power up one of the old, big machines we can, at least for a few hours.

There are times when I think and hope we yet accomplish this, even if only by default.

But the stirrings of the #OccupyWallStreet movement, which I view as a continuation of the Tea Party Protests, albeit taking its energy from a different range of the political spectrum, have about them the whiff of revolution in the making.  As America is now an empire in decline, which has recently demonstrated a willingness to inhere its chief executive with the right to conduct extra-judicial killings of American Citizens, the whole affair is likely to get very messy.

This of course is against the backdrop of Peak Oil, climate change, and population overshoot.

So if the whole affair does get messy, then Useful Things are likely to prove themselves in very short supply, and the manufacturing of Useful Things is likely to be curtailed for some time, perhaps a very long time.

So what things to store up then?  I'm no subscriber of the Eschaton - I fully expect human societies to survive whatever collapse is coming, without falling into some sort of Mad Max dystopian existence.   This is not to say that it won't feel like in places and at times.  Certainly, the Bosnian and Rwandan experiences have taught us what is possible, even today.

But if one is caught in that sort of situation, then no amount of preparation is really sufficient.  If some local boy decides to become a warlord, and succeeds in so doing, and I and my family were to become a target, the likely outcome is our death.  Such is the lesson of history.

So guns and gold, while useful, are really needed only in very limited quantities.  Unless one plans to outfit a militia, or open a bank, then mere arms and cash are silly things to hoard. 

There are other things one might hoard, in plain sight, and without even realizing one is doing so.  This is because wealth is a funny thing - and it's not at all what we perceive it to be.  We perceive wealth to be either money, or one of it's manifestations:  the possession of objects of no utility; the possession of useful objects that cost far in excess of the utility they provide (such as million dollar automobiles); power; and freedom of mobility.

All of these things are 'purchased' with what we think of as wealth today.

Yet true wealth is something else entire, and it begins with the possession of land (and not, I beg you, 'real estate').

To that land you can add infrastructure - and this should be carefully thought out.  The infrastructure should be purpose-driven: does it help me access the resources of the land, from which I hope to make my living.  (And I concede that at some point we're going to have to solve the issue of the state requiring us to rent our own land from it, in perpetuity, in the form of property tax.   I don't mind paying taxes, but some basic parcel of land should be immune from taking by the State.)

But once one has a place to live what then?  Then, Useful Things.  The things that will be difficult to come by later: books and tools and equipment and containers.  Not warehouses full, but equivalent to one's needs and in sufficient quantity to provide a spare or two over the next generation.  It takes a long time to wear down a shovel.

More pointedly, now is the time to store up, in reasonable quantities, those things now produced by the use of easy energy.  We can take our personal share of easy energy in several ways - we can squander it, as our species has done and continues to do (just imagine what would have been possible if we had devoted our species' legacy of fossil fuels to the exploitation of space instead of shopping malls and McMansions).

We can disinherit ourselves, and forgo its use. 

I believe both of these choices are foolish.  My task is to survive, and to drag along with me as much of my family and as much of my community as I am able.  This is the essence of the Jupiter Project.  To survive the coming winter.  I want a safe and sheltered place; I am willing to do my part to ensure its continuation, and if that includes using great quantities of energy now to establish the conditions for future success when portable energy will be unavailable in quantity, then I will make that choice.

It is the only logical choice.  If energy is going to be unavailable to me tomorrow, then I had better make good use of it today, either by building things that sustainably generate energy (to include generating sufficient energy to permit the maintenance of themselves as well as an an energy surplus turned to useful purposes); by building things that improve access to my resources; or by acquiring things that will permit or assist in the accessing and sustainable exploitation of those resources, in all cases for myself, my descendants, and by extension my community.

This philosophy extends to beliefs about what my community should do: here in the Finger Lakes we are endowed with substantial water resources and a topography that permits energy self-sufficiency.  We don't need to be on-grid, here in Moravia.  Our efforts and taxes could go to the deliberate consideration of what life might be like if gasoline cost, say, 30 dollars a gallon, or was entirely unavailable.  How might we be forced to live differently?

This is the reality our children, alive and peopling the Earth right now, will face.   To deny this is illogical.  The math insists it must be so.

Should we not now use the energy that is available to us and begin transforming ourselves and our communities, in anticipation of that eventuality?  Use our machines and our wits to build power generation along our creeks and streams, and determine where to place electric trains that will carry workers to and from the fields and produce to the villages?  Before our machines become scrap for want of fuel?

While we still have the time and energy to build the trains and the rails?

To rebuild the mills driven by water, designed using technology that uses parts that can be made locally, and including in our reconstruction efforts support for the development of local industries that manufacture replacement parts?

Should we continue to squander our wealth, or at last make real use of it, before it is gone?

Anyone older than 46 - which includes me - is responsible for the legacy our children are about to inherit.  Corrupt (or at best useless) government, crushing national and personal debt, unemployment, shrinking resources.

But we still have the opportunity to mitigate that legacy, if we begin now to acquire and build Useful Things.  Five acres and a quality set of hand tools would be a tremendous legacy during most of human history; and yet we have the opportunity to leave our children so much more.

The choice to stockpile Useful Things - the things that will continue to hold value and do work and produce other things with limited or no energy inputs - is the only sensible choice.   We must do it ourselves, and we must encourage others to do it.  We must make our homes and our communities snug.

We must learn to grow and preserve our own food in meaningful quantities.  We must learn to thrive in circumstances with far fewer inputs.  But not yet.

When we must, we will make do without energy.  But now, while we have it, we should turn its use to that of preparation, and that means building and making and collecting Useful Things, that later generations might have them still when their making is difficult.  So that future generations will have a fighting chance to build a lifestyle that, while perhaps not as luxurious as ours, is yet comfortable and safe and provides some measure of amenity.