Way back in college, I read a short story by Robert Heinlein that I've never been able to find again. In it, a bartender is standing at his bar, when two nuclear scientists come in. They are talking about the immanent danger of nuclear attack on the US, and the bartender gets scared. He asks them whether they really believe what they are saying, and then says something along the lines of "If you really believed that, you wouldn't be sitting here drinking, you'd get out of the target area right now." The scientists assure the bartender that everything is really that serious, and then list a host of reasons why they can't leave right now. The bartender, convinced, picks up his hat and walks out of the bar and city right then, leaving all his connections behind. And this being fiction, just as he gets outside the city limits, he starts to question his own instincts, and he tries to make a phone call (or something), only to see the mushroom cloud go up behind him.
Now life very rarely justifies our assumptions so rapidly, but I find this story interesting because it illustrates just how hard it is to live your life as though you believe bad things are going to happen to you. Even when we know they are likely, even when we see things forthcoming, it is awfully hard to pick up our hats and set aside one set of options to pursue another. Particularly when there's little cultural support for it - when the assumption that even basic preparedness makes you a wacko is so prevalent. The story struck me, long before I discovered peak oil or climate change, because I wondered how it is one knows that *now* is the time to pick up one's hat. I was struck, for example, by the dilemma of the Jews who left Germany - how do you know that the worst is really here? My husband's grandmother was on the kindertransport, that took German-Jewish children to England. She wasn't even 13, and her parents put her on a train with one suitcase and sent her off to a far away country to be raised by someone else. It saved her life. A cousin of hers, living in the same neighborhood in the ghetto stayed with her parents - they thought the risk of harm coming to her in England was greater than the risk of harm in Germany. That cousin died in the concentration camps, and Inge, Eric's grandmother, survived. How do you know it is time to risk so much?
Now if any of you read Matt Savinar over at http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/Index.html, you could argue that on nearly every measure, Matt's much more apocalyptic in his thinking than I am. He writes under the name "Juris Doctor of Doom" and he makes the argument that we should just follow the money trail - he says, "we're spending billions to fix problems we spend trillions creating." Matt forsees a real apocalyptic disaster, whereas I tend to talk a lot about what we can do to mitigate disaster, and I tend to think mostly in terms of poverty, rather than anything I'd call "apocalypse." In that sense, it would seem that Matt's a "doomer" and I'm not.
But it isn't that simple. If you read Matt's writings, you'll see he's currently on a hunt for the perfect place to live in the post peak world, at the very same time that he posts "we may only have 18 months left (this was a few months ago)." Right now, he's living in a place that he admits probably won't do very well. And Matt knows as well as I do that building community, and food systems, getting accepted in an area, and getting trees to fruiting and getting practiced in meeting many of your needs really takes time. I've been doing it for going on 7 years now, and I'm still hoping for more time. If you look at our words, Matt's got a far darker vision than I have. If you look at our actions, Matt's risking a whole lot more than I'm prepared to. I picked up my hat a long time ago. Matt's just now ready to pick up his.
I'm not picking on Matt Savinar, or anyone else. Heck, I don't know the future, and Matt may well be wiser than I am. Also, given that he doesn't have kids, is more mobile and has more money than I do, he's probably making the right choice for him. I mention this not because I think Matt doesn't believe what he says - I'm sure he does - but because all of us are hedging our bets to one degree or another, and also because even when you believe it, it can be damned hard to keep the link between hypothetical futures and reality alive in your head and your thinking.
Like everyone, I make my risk analyses based on my reality, and other people have to make theirs on their own. I judge based on my own assessments - do I believe the IPCC or Hansen? Do I believe CERA or Simmons and Assoc. on peak oil? Who do I choose to track? And what are my priorities. For me, protecting my kids is #1, and everything else is a distant second. But even that leads me to one set of solutions, not another. I could, for example, believe that what was needed was a ton of guns and total isolation, or that I would be best protecting my kids by converting to Christianity and fitting in in middle America, or by making a lot of money and protecting them by living in a gated community. And honestly, it is conceivable that any of those strategies might be right - and my "build community, grow food" theory might be entirely wrong, or I just might be unlucky. Like everyone, I'm playing the odds.
The post I wrote yesterday, arguing that people should start living now like they may have to in the long term for selfish reasons got some people quite concerned. They felt that I was either panicking or driving other people to panic. To a large degree that wasn't my intention, but I did intend to create a sense of urgency. I
do want people who read this to think seriously about whether they have a viable back up plan for a crisis that begins in the near future. Why? Not because I think the whole world is likely to collapse, but because I think any collapse will come in stages and segments. For a Katrina victim, it may already have happened. For me it might be tomorrow. For you, it might wait a decade. We don't know - we're playing the odds.
I do want people who read this to thrive in the future, and if you think I'm a wacko, so be it. I tend to think that after Katrina, in an inflationary economy, someone who says "store food, plan ahead, get ready now" might not look like the Unibomber, but I might not be much of a judge ;-).
I think I'd rather have you believe that I'm a nutcasethan believe that I always and only think "we can do it" and thus, don't encourage you to hedge your bets. And I genuinely do believe that we are fairly close to a situation in which many of us will be most concerned with just getting by, and the things that a lot of us might want or need to do to live comfortably with much less are going to be less and less available to us. I think we *can* change many things, and fairly quickly at that - but I'm not at all certain that we will - and I don't want to bet my life on what Brian called, in comments "the political will fairy." I sure as heck don't want you to bet your future on *my* vision of the political will fairy ;-).
Why do I think that we need to start picking up our hats right now, and making the changes that we're going to have to make anyway right now? Well, at this point it still looks like world oil production may have peaked over two years ago - OPEC simply doesn't seem to be able to increase production. Mexico is experiencing double digit declines, and will stop exporting oil altogether shortly. While some new production capacity is coming online, I think we're at the bumpy plateau. That means over the long term, oil prices keep going up forever - they may trend down again a few times, but when they level off, they'll be higher...and higher...and higher.
Natural gas prices have been rising slowly, but mostly because we've had a series of mild winters. One cold one, and we can expect much higher heating costs. Natural gas is set to peak in the next decade, the US has already had its peak and Canada is next. Coal is not far behind. Peaking means rising costs, increasing difficulty getting at it, and a lower return on investment - more and more energy gets eaten up just getting the oil or coal out of the ground. And we're seeing nations that are energy producers reserving more and more of what they do have for themselves - eventually, they stop exporting, and other nations have to make do with what they have. The US's oil reserves peaked more than 30 years ago, our gas almost a decade ago, and most likely our coal has peaked as well/
Energy isn't the only thing getting pricier. Food is too. First of all, the good food we're all supposed to be eating *does* cost more than industrial crap. But even the crap is going way up in price, mostly because of energy costs, but also because of drought (climate change induced in many cases), desertification and soil destruction, and falling yields in many places in the world. I don't think that trend is gong to change for quite a while - food prices will continue to rise because we're putting our food in our gas tanks, and because our food costs are dependent on cheap energy - which is over. That means that food you buy now and store is a good bet to be cheaper. And food you grow yourself is an even better one. Stores won't save you - but they can help a little.
Meanwhile, we're on the verge of some deep economic trouble, and a large number of people believe we're headed for a recession. A lot of them are fairly reputable people who ought to know - Greenspan, for example, has been manipulating the US economy for a long time, and he thinks it is likely we'll experience recession by year's end. Now recessions come and recessions go - but if no big boom of growth comes along to fix them, they don't go. And with less and less available cheap energy, and more and more time spent just fixing problems like climate change created environmental disasters, resource wars and energy shortages, we have less capital to adapt with. The Bank for International Settlements, the world's most significant financial body has warned we're in danger of another Great Depression - this is not their ordinary message, nor is it Greenspan's. That's bad news for us - and a long lasting recession during the period in which we're adapting to climate change and peak oil could mean that we really do mostly have what we've already got, that all our dreams of an orderly transition are over.
Add climate change to that. Yesterday, we learned that the drought in the Southwest is expected to last another century. Think about that. There are 60 *million* Americans there, plus another 60 million Mexicans in the affected area. How long can they stay there? Where will they go? Add to that the people on the Gulf coast and in South Florida - all of whom are vulnerable to the next big disaster we can't afford to stop or fix, and there are going to be a lot of migrants just in this nation alone in the next decade or so. That's going to change the economy, your local job market, and a whole host of things. BILLIONS of people are going to be refugees within their countries or from outside them by 2050 - and it won't all happen in 2049 - that means real people, real us, are going to start being affected today.
James Hansen and the other NASA scientists who argue that we don't have much time say that we only have a decade to fix this - a decade to make the "draconian" changes that would stop the worst sea rises. Let's say we do make good on all those measures - what will that be like? What will it be like when 300 million people have to slash their personal emissions to the bone? I'd tend to bet on some competition for resources, and lots of price rises - at the time that most of us can least afford them.
The thing is, things seem ok on many levels. We may believe that these are crises, but life is still going on. the kids are still in college, the money is still piling up in the 401K, the stock market is still hanging, and we all have a life going on. We're still caught between the life now and the life to come, and it can be damned hard to navigate that distinction. All of us have to figure out what we believe, and hedge our bets as best we can. But it is damned hard to know what to do. Do we pick up our hats, put our kids on the train, give up the present for the hypothetical future? How do we know that something won't pull off a miracle?
One of my commentors pointed out that my prior post created an urge to hoard, to preserve one's own, rather than think communally. Now I grasp that urge. My first reaction to peak oil, many, many years ago, was precisely the same. I had it again when I had my first child, and I have it again every time I worry about my kids. And I did pick up my hat. I blew off my Ph.d in order to start a small farm - I thought for a long time I could have it both ways, but it became increasingly clear that I couldn't, and so I gave up Shakespeare, which was sad in some ways. I closed some options off. We made some bets on what our kids will need - our money is more in land than in the stock market, so who knows what we'll have to do if nothing bad happens when the boys want to go to college. We can't have everything, and we've made our choices, and we have to live with them.
But we also can't choose all the way every time - so we hedge. We put money away for college, and we also put money back into the land. If I had to pick one, I'll tell the truth - I don't think the college dollars will be there in a decade. But I'm not willing to risk my kids entirely on my predictions. I quit my Ph.d, but in part because I love farming and writing, and I wanted to do those too - I didn't just dump it. I invest in community support, but I also have a stockpile of clothes for bigger kids, and educational books for children so that my kids can learn at home through the college level and so they have shoes to wear and don't have to dress in the ugly things I can sew if the worst happens. I don't believe I can stockpile my way out of anything really bad - but I also store food as a hedge, a way of dealing with extended family that might need extras, crop failures, my own mistakes.
We all know people who were prepared for Y2K, had nuclear bunkers, went back to the land because the end was at hand in the 1970s, have been expecting the last coming for decades. And it is tempting, because of those factors, to think that the system is strong enough to endure any crisis. And who knows, it may be. I'm not a prophet - I don't know the future. But look back a little. In the course of a lifetime, ask yourself if your grandparents, and great-grandparents ever endured a time of crisis during the course of their lifetimes. Again, we're not talking about Mad Max here - we're talking about poverty, war, economic disruption, having to leave a beloved place for a new one, epidemic, hunger, want. Now maybe none of your family has ever had those things, but looking back at my grandparents and great-grandparents, I see 2 world wars and a host of smaller ones. Hunger. Want. Poverty. Desperation. Dislocation. Refugeeism. Violence. Disease. Death. And thoes were the lucky ones, who survived to have kids and grandkids. The generations after World War II are among the first in human history to live their whole lives in peace, wealth and good fortune. Should we bet that we too will be so fortunate? And what's the price if we're wrong?
That last question is the real bugger, isn't it? And that's the one that I rest on, my own private version of the precautionary principle. That is, in trying to decide whether James Hansen or the IPCC is right, ultimately, I find that the price of believing in Hansen and being wrong is a lot lower than the price of believing the IPCC and being wrong in my choice. I think the evidence for Hansen's reading is probably better, but the cost in lives and the future of *not* making changes quickly is almost certainly greater than the admittedly high price of making them sooner. The same is true about personal preparedness. What if I don't do it? Sometimes the price is low and light. Sometimes it isn't.
Ultimately, what has to happen is that we find ways to be prepared, and to hedge our bets, without compromising many of our basic principles. This means that we prepare for a future that doesn't work out very well, while also trying to build a future in which it does. That's harder than choosing just one, but I think it is also necessary. That means we buy local, organic, sustainably grown bulk foods for our storage, and fill out those clothing bins with used goods, not new ones. It means we make the new purchases we do need judiciously - yes, perhaps, to the grain grinder, no to the fancy butter churn when a shaken jar will do as well.
I want everyone who reads this to make their own choices based on their own experience, their own reading of the data available to them, their own needs and personal circumstances and their own ability to change. My bet is that change will come soon to some of us, later to others, but that the changes I'm worried about are now essentially already in motion - that whatever happens, we're probably never going to be quite as comfortable or priveleged or lucky or ready as we are today. That sucks for all of us - others even more than me. I want time. But I don't think that I can live my life based on my own want for it - that's wish fulfillment fantasies. Ultimately, my life needs to find a balance between preparing for hard times and attempting to avoid them, between living now and being ready to live in the future. Everyone will choose a different balance. Everyone will make different bets. Everyone will read the future a little differently. And some of us will be wrong - quite possibly me. It is impossible to be prepared for everything, but it is not only possible but wise to prioritize and prepare for many outcomes.
In the end, my own analysis comes down to this. If I'm wrong about what's coming down the pike, what price did I pay? I never got to be a professor of English Literature. My kids may have to earn college scholarships, or we may have to mortgage our land. We may have missed out on some opportunities. But generally speaking, I have a life I love now, work I love now, a family that I wouldn't be able to enjoy as much if I were doing the full time academic life. I have an imperfect degree of security, but a vastly greater one than I could have had otherwise. In the net, the limitations of my choices are endurable. If I'd chosen otherwise, would I be able to say the same? I might love my work, but the risks to my kids future are unacceptable to me. Others would make a different choice, and I don't know if they are wrong - only time will tell.
If it were me, I'd at a minimum make a serious backup plan for what to do if your five or ten year plan fails. That is, I'd be ready now to live where you are, with what you have. And if you don't think staying where you are is possible, I think I'd risk relocating. But I'm not you, and I don't want you to do it because I say so - make your own decisions.
What I can say is this. If you see the evidence much the same way I do, if you really believe it, then it really is time to pick up your hat, or at least memorize the train schedule heading wherever you want to be.