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Author Message

Heather Nicholas

TEOTWAWKI (or The End of the World as We Know It)may be just around the corner, or it may never come. Whether you believe in it or not, how could it possibly hurt to be as prepared as possible? Have you made plans for emergency situations? (If you live in an earthquake zone, you may have gotten a head start!)

Monday 04 April 2011 03:27:58 pm

Wendy Brown

I'm reading Ronald Wright's "A Short History of Progress" right now. The book, basically, follows civilization from its inception, roughly, 10,000 years ago (the first 'recorded' civilization was Sumer, which is in the Middle East), and explores why civilizations fail.

It is incredibly interesting, and a little scary, actually, because there seems to be a common thread that runs through each of the major civilizations that have peopled our planet, from the beginning to the end. What's a little frightening, and incredibly sad, is that we seem to have learned nothing from history and have been running headlong down the same path that was blazed by those failed societies.

Modern scientist and thinker, Albert Einstein, had little positive to say about civilization, in general, but his greatest observation about our path was to point out that the "definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." As a culture, thinking that we can overshoot our population, over specialize our diets, and degrade our environment without suffering the same consequences that killed all of the great civilizations before us can be described as nothing, but insanity.

Wright suggests that in ancient societies, as the collapse was eminent, the people would either react violently, or would simply walk away. Unfortunately, with our global society, it seems our choices at the dawn of collapse are more limited than the Romans, the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Sumerians, the Chinese and the Egyptians. We have no where to run off to.

Our only hope is to reverse the trend, voluntarily, but cutting back - on everything. According to Wright, the Greeks tried (and failed due to politics) to scale back, and the Mayans might have been successful in their scaling back had they not been, all but, wiped out with European diseases.

We're lucky to have their example. The question is, we will squander it.

Monday 30 May 2011 02:39:43 pm

EJ Hurst

I have been re-reading the "Ecotechnic Future" by John Michael Greer and really enjoying it. The one comment he made that really stayed with me was "Culture is memory." When we ignore our history, people can trot out old hackneyed ideas as something new and wonderful and we fail to realize that these ideas have already been tried and found wanting. Greer says, "The constant reappearance of the same new ideas has a troubling side. Many of those ideas have been tried repeatedly in the past and worked very poorly indeed."

Monday 30 May 2011 03:03:11 pm

Wendy Brown

Yes, it would seem that our memories are very short - too short.

In fact, I see it in stuff that's been happening in just the past few years - like when I hear people grumbling about the price of gasoline, for instance. Three years ago, the price per barrel for oil was $140 at it's peak. Today, it's hovering around $100. It may go up, still yet, and it may not, but to act as if this is something new is just ridiculous.

"The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after." Ecclesiastes 1:9-11, King James Bible

To me, this is absolutely the saddest testament to human nature - that we are destined to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again without any remembrance of our ancestral stupidity and error.

I hope we get smarter than that.

Monday 30 May 2011 05:52:17 pm

Keith Hermann

As the prevailing order continues its disintegration, I have this vision of tens of millions of Americans pouring out of the cities and suburbs and returning to a rural farm life. "A Nation of Farmers" develops this theme a bit. This massive migration will likely occur over the span of a generation or so, and will be one of the major demographic changes shaping the near future. If we only have a million or so farmers today, and 99% of them don't know how to grow anything without oil inputs, it seems that one of our greatest challenges will be to systematically train and absorb these new human resources into a sustainable agrarian culture that barely exists today. Meeting this challenge is an essential prerequisite to the ecotechnic future described by JMG.

Wednesday 01 June 2011 11:35:07 am

Wendy Brown

@ Keith – I guess I kind of hope that tens of millions won’t mass exodus from the cities and suburbs in search of rural land. There's only so much rural land available, much of it forested, and if we start cutting down trees to make room for crops ... well, think Easter Island. Or the flip-side is that those people will end up as migrant workers (think “Okies”) or some other sort of fiefdom relationship – neither of which has been very positive for non-landowners in the past.

In one of his presentations, Richard Heinberg talks about horticulturist communities, which have been, overall, the most successful of our human settlements. It's the "virtuous middle" between a purely hunter-gatherer society and an agrarian society. The horticulturists usually have a small piece of land with a little garden and supplement their diets with wild foraging and hunting. Think native indigenous tribes.

With some planning and cooperation, I think our suburbs could become these same sorts of horticultural communities. An amazing amount of food can be grown on a quarter of an acre. I love that you mentioned John Michael Greer, as I have been following his Green Wizard project, and I think it’s a great place to start for turning our suburban homes into self-sufficient homesteading communities.

What do you think about encouraging people to stay in the suburbs rather than running off into the country?

Wednesday 01 June 2011 02:26:38 pm

EJ Hurst

Yes, learning to feed ourselves is definitely the challenge of the future.

BTW - TEOTWASKI is short for "The End of the World As we Know it" in case anyone was wondering.

Wednesday 01 June 2011 02:29:34 pm

Keith Hermann

The massive project of building the suburbs has ended. We won't be building more, ever. But because this "misallocation of resources" (JHK) was so huge, it is natural and desirable to get as much possible benefit out of what was built as possible. Living in the existing suburbs as they currently exist, however, will really only be possible as long we have adequate oil inputs to maintain them and the economy that made them possible. Houses are foreclosed and vacated when mortgages aren't paid. And they mold and rot when they aren't heated and maintained. I'd expect to see government programs within the next few years requiring foreclosed properties to be demolished, in an effort to prevent squatters and artificially prop up the market values of the remaining properties.
The overall build quality of almost everything built in the last 20 years is low. It's not uncommon to see a house built in 1960 that still has 50 years life left in it, because it was built to a higher standard. But those built in 2000 will not last until 2100 - they were built cheaply and will deteriorate very rapidly without steady maintenance. The mass migration I envision will occur gradually from the perspective of our daily lives, but when we look back on it 30 years from now, the end result will be huge and historically rapid. So yes, we should stay in place and make do with what we have for as long as that is an option. And there are many things we can do to extend the duration and quality of that period. But its end is inevitable, and within my expected lifetime. So lets all garden in our back yards, develop ride sharing plans so we can still get to work when gas is $20/gallon, and build closer relationships with our neighbors so we can sustain each other through hard times. And then when none of that is possible any longer, we will migrate away from our suburban homes in search of greener pastures. We will likely become share-croppers, migrant farm laborers, or serfs for the next few generations until a higher standard of justice can be more widely promulgated.
I'm looking forward to reading your book and seeing your vision for how we can best stay in place for now.

Wednesday 01 June 2011 03:57:12 pm

Wendy Brown

Keith - I agree. There will not be (and really, shouldn't be) any more mass build-out of our suburbs. The development needs to stop.

Just for the record, I need to qualify that I'm not enamored of our suburbs. I don't think they're these wonderful places to be. What I know, though, is that between one-third and one-half of the US population (between 100 million and 150 million people) lives in what could be considered a suburb, and there is no where for us to go. There simply isn't enough land for all of us to own a piece, and frankly, being a tenant farmer doesn't sound very appealing.

Additionally, we've spent years and billions of dollars and destroyed countless habitats to build these "communities." I'm a long-time follower of James Kunstler, and I agree that our suburbs are a huge "misallocation of resources", but I also think that abadoning them to molder and decay would be just as egregious, and that those of us who find ourselves in these places need to work very hard to stay.

I think our suburbs can become the sustainable, interdependent communities that Kunstler and others are envisioning, and why not? We have the buildings, and we have enough land for food production.

I mean, what if, instead of trashing the foreclosed houses, some entrepreneurial-minded person set the house up as a business? For instance, the one thing we need right now in the suburbs is someone to teach us how to lower our impact, how to be more self-sufficient. What if someone turned one of those foreclosed homes into an educational center, and taught things like canning, small-space gardening, suburban animal husbandry, basket weaving, repurposing old clothes into wearable items, etc? The kitchen and bedrooms could be the classrooms and the living room could be a lending library. They could even, perhaps, set-up a forge in the garage and teach some real "old" skills.

Other houses could become other kinds of businesses. What about a second-hand clothing boutique and a hair salon in one house?

Yes, they are residential buildings now, but how many former "residential" buildings have been converted into offices and other businesses? My former doctor's office was in an old Victorian house in the middle of downtown. How about having your suburban neighbor-doctor move his practice to one of those foreclosed homes? My family goes to a health clinic that includes several different non-traditional and traditional health care providers (everything from an acupuncturist to a pediatrician). What makes them different (other than the fact that they have Shamans on staff) is that they don't accept insurance, but their rates are wicked low. What if some of the health care providers who are already living in that suburb set-up a health clinic in one of those foreclosed houses? Then, there would be no need for that doctor to drive 20 miles to his office, and if he cut his overhead, he could also offer his services at a much more reasonable price.

The only objection I've heard for why this "vision" won't work has to do with zoning, but zoning ordinances change all of the time. The problem is that *we* need to first believe that our suburbs don't have to be abandoned and then start imagining what they could be instead of being stuck on what they are.

I guess, for me, the bottom line is if we could offer people the option of staying in the suburbs in a home and on land they could "own" (as no one really "owns" the land, right?), instead believing that the only way we're going to survive is to run off to the country to become tenant farmers or migrant workers might make our potential future seem a bit brighter.

Here in New England, it was not uncommon (way back when) for people to have a small farm and a "cottage industry." They grew their own food, and they had some kind of side business that they did for money. I think our suburbs could be like that - small, walkable, interdependent communities with really big houses - where everyone hase a garden and everyone works from home blunk.

Wednesday 01 June 2011 04:54:20 pm

Keith Hermann

Wendy, I think our suburban visions are compatible, we're just talking about different time scales. You're writing about what WE will necessarily have to do in the immediate future, and I'm just saying we won't be able to do that indefinitely, and future generations will need to do something else.
As for there not being enough land or no other place to go, I think you're wrong. This year the US will harvest about 270 million acres of unirrigated cropland (not woodlots, not pasture). Without oil this land will need to be worked with much more manual labor. Tens of millions of us will need to become that labor, and as suburbia gradually fails, those people will be glad for the opportunity provided by such work. It might not sound appealing at present because we currently have better options. For now.

Wednesday 01 June 2011 08:39:07 pm

Wendy Brown

Keith - Yes, I see your point, and after I posted my pretty long comment, I realized that you were talking in decades/centuries, and I guess I'm focusing on near future/my lifetime (which is only a few more decades, at best blunk.

Thursday 02 June 2011 09:10:31 pm

Wendy Brown

Keith - Did you see the headlining Newsweek piece "Weather Panic? One of my blog readers posted a link to the article (http://www.newsweek.com/2011/05/29/are-you-ready-for-more.html) on my blog, and in it they say what you are intimating. They say "tens of thousands" of people will be needed for farming in our changing climate, because people can do what machines can not do - like plant corn in fields that are drenched from too much rain. Trying to use a tractor in that sort of environment would destroy the field.

It's an interesting article. I'd love to hear your thoughts - and anyone else, too. In particular, what's it mean when a magazine, like Newsweek, focuses on this kind of story? Talk about TEOTWAWKI!

Friday 03 June 2011 05:10:55 pm