Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Resolutions for a Post-Peak New Year

To my mind, the traditional habit of New Year’s resolutions has much to recommend it. Though it’s proverbial that most such resolutions are already on the endangered species list a week after the new year begins, and end up in the fossil record somewhere between the brontosaurs and last election’s campaign promises by the time February comes within sight, the idea of entering a new year with new aspirations is a good one. As 2007 approaches, worldwide conventional oil production remains noticeably below its 2005 peak, and the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and elsewhere promises at least its share of oil crises and economic shocks in the months and years to come.

Thus a set of New Year’s resolutions for a world on the brink of the deindustrial age seems timely just now. There’s plenty of material on the web right now about the mechanics of peak oil, and a fair amount on what we can expect once industrial civilization starts tobogganing down the far side of Hubbert’s Peak, but too many of the suggestions for what can be done about it either remain fixated on survivalist fantasies of apocalypse or go chasing after equally unlikely dreams of large-scale political reform. Mick Winter’s excellent new book Peak Oil Prep (and the accompanying website takes a large step in the right direction. Still, I have my own list of suggested resolutions.

For some people the following ideas will be impractical, and for almost everyone they will be at least a little inconvenient. All of them, however, will be an inescapable part of the reality most Americans will have to live with in the future – and quite possibly the very near future, at that. The sooner people concerned with peak oil and the rest of the predicament of industrial society make changes like these in their own lives, the better able they will be to surf the waves of industrial decline and help other people make the transition toward sustainability.

1. Replace your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents

If you haven’t done this already you may not be paying enough attention. Compact fluorescent bulbs last around eight times as long as ordinary light bulbs, and produce the same amount of light for a quarter the electricity. The less wattage you use, the less of a burden you put on the electrical grid and the biosphere. Go shopping for compact fluorescent bulbs before the new year, and notice the impact on your electric bill.

2. Retrofit your home for energy conservation

Most of the lessons of the 70s energy crises were forgotten long before the recent housing bubble took off, and nearly all recent residential construction leaks heat the way a sieve leaks water – not a good thing in a world of rising energy costs. Fortunately this can be fixed easily with a very modest investment. Weatherstripping doors and windows, putting foam gaskets behind light switch and electrical outlet plates, and the like can be done even by apartment dwellers, and more extensive projects such as putting an extra layer of roll insulation in the attic to prevent heat loss is within the range of most homeowners and house renters. As energy prices rise, heat will once again be too precious to waste. Over the coming year, learn what you can do to conserve energy at home, and do it; your bank balance will thank you, and so will the planet.

3. Cut back on your gasoline consumption

American dependence on cars is as much emotional and psychological as it is practical, and few are willing to take the step we’re all going to have to take sooner or later, and actually get rid of their cars. Everyone can cut down on the amount of gas they use, however. Whether you do it by trading in a gas-guzzler for a more modest and more efficient car, cutting back on casual driving, walking or bicycling more, or switching to carpooling or public transit for your commute, each gallon of gas you don’t use helps stretch out the downside of the Hubbert curve and buys time for a transition to sustainability. Keep track of how much gas you use each month, and try to make the total go down each month for the next year.

4. Plant an organic vegetable garden

Today’s agricultural practices depend on fossil fuels to power equipment, transport produce, and provide fertilizers and pesticides. This makes organic food gardening one of the skills that will be needed most desperately as fossil fuels run short in the decades to come. Pick up a good book on organic gardening – John Jeavons’ How To Grow More Vegetables is among the best – and find a patch of soil for your garden, and you’re ready to go. Apartment dwellers can often use window boxes or half-barrels full of dirt on a patio or balcony as a micro-garden, arrange to borrow a corner of a houseowning friend’s yard, or get a patch in a community garden. It doesn’t matter if you can only grow a few pounds of vegetables over the course of the season – the important thing is getting past the steepest part of the learning curve long before you need to rely on your own produce. Plan your garden in the winter months, get the tools and seed you’ll need, and be ready to plant by the time spring comes.

5. Compost your food waste

Vegetable waste from your kitchen should go back to the soil, not into a landfill. Composting is a simple technology that does this quickly, cleanly and efficiently. Read a good book on composting – Stu Campbell’s Let It Rot! is one of the classics – and go to work. If you have a yard, get a compost bin set up in one corner and use it for your kitchen and yard waste. If you don’t, talk to a friend who gardens – if she composts, she’ll likely be grateful for your compostable waste. If you own your home and your local code permits (most do), consider replacing your flush toilet with a composting toilet. In the deindustrial age, survival will depend on understanding nutrient cycles and working with them, not against them. You might as well get started now. Get your compost bin started as soon as the weather is warm enough.

6. Take up a handicraft

The end of the age of cheap energy means, among other things, that economies based on centralized mass production are on their way out. In the future, just as in the past, most goods and services will have to be produced by local craftspeople or the end users themselves. The coming of peak oil requires the recovery of the old handicrafts people once used to preserve food, make clothes, fashion tools, and produce a hundred other things now shipped worldwide from Third World sweatshops. All these crafts require practice to master, so the sooner you learn them, the better off you’ll be. Choose one and begin practicing it during the coming year.

7. Adopt an “obsolete” technology

In recent decades, the social changes we are pleased to call “progress” have replaced many older, sustainable technologies with newer ones that use energy more extravagantly, wear out or break down more frequently, and depend on an ever widening network of other machines. These changes will come undone in a big way as the end of cheap energy makes most of the 20th century’s technological changes unsustainable. As energy supplies peak and begin to decline, a window of opportunity exists for some of the older technologies to be brought back into use before they are forgotten and have to be laboriously reinvented decades or centuries in the future. Many of them work just as well as their more modern replacements—a slide rule can crunch numbers as effectively as a pocket calculator, for example, and a hand-cranked beater will beat eggs as well as an electric one. Choose a technology from your grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ time and make it part of your daily life during the coming year.

8. Take charge of your own health care

Health care in the industrial nations has become a massive industry even more dependent on extravagant energy consumption and international supply chains than most. In America, at least, it has already become so costly that close to a majority of Americans can no longer afford even routine care, and it will likely be among the first to break down as energy supplies contract and the global economy fractures. Older, less energy-dependent healing methods, most of them part of today’s alternative healing movement, offer one of the few ways of responding to this. Many of them can be learned and practiced, at least in a basic form, without a great deal of training. Over the coming year, choose a method of providing your own health care, learn its strengths and limitations, and use it to maintain your health and treat your minor illnesses.

9. Help build your local community

The Petroleum Age saw the twilight of community across the industrial world, and the birth of a mass society of isolated individuals tied to the larger society only by economic interactions. The results have not been good, and will likely get much worse as the Petroleum Age ends and the economic glue of mass society comes apart. Many of the old institutions of community still exist, and new networks have begun to take shape in many communities. More than anything else, they need people willing to invest a modest amount of time in them. Choose one of them, get involved, and stay active in it through the coming year.

10. Explore your spirituality

At the core of the consumer society, and the fossil fuel-powered industrial system that spawned it, lies the conviction that the highest goals of human existence can be found in sheer material consumption. This notion took shape in opposition to an equally dysfunctional belief that despised the material world and grounded all human hopes in another world on the far side of death. The bitter sibling rivalry between these twin ideologies has hidden from many people the fact that many other options exist. In the twilight of the industrial age, the faith in progress that buoyed the consumer economy faces extinction, and the hopes once confided to it deserve better homes. In spirituality as well as ecology, diversity is a positive good, and the Druid tradition I practice and represent as an archdruid rejects the claim that every human being can, much less should, approach the great mysteries of existence in the same way. Whatever your own vision of spirituality may be, then, explore it more deeply over the coming year, and study its teachings in the context of the coming deindustrial age. You may find that, seen in that light, those teachings make an uncommon amount of sense.

With that, I wish all the readers of this blog a safe and sustainable new year!


Adrynian said...
On the topic of #4, let me also suggest "The Square Foot Garden" by Mel Bartholomew. I just read it, so I haven't had a chance to try it out myself, but it is a very simple gardening primer for novices, and it also has excellent suggestions for reducing much of the unpleasant, back-breaking/heavy labour in row-gardening that many use as an excuse not to garden.

Good luck everybody on your New Year's resolutions for 2007!

12/27/06, 3:31 PM

mlanier said...
To tie three of your resolutions together, start a community garden at a local church. Many churches have space for a garden, kitchens where it can be preserved for later use, and members from a generation that grew up gardening and canning food. These skills can be passed on to a younger generation that could use them. Structure the community garden effort in a way to maximize interaction and community building. Involvement with the church will also lead to spiritual growth. Finally, remember that 40% of the vegetables produced at a point during WWII were produced in Victory Gardens. Great results can happen from what might seem to be modest efforts.

12/27/06, 5:20 PM

norlight0 said...
Great list! On number one, places like Dollar General and Family Dollar have compact bulbs at discount prices. On adopting an old technology, bring back the clothesline if you haven't already done so. In winter use a clothes rack to dry at least some of your clothes. If you have a well, consider installing a hand pump on top of the well casing as a back up to your electric pump as some of our friends did. Cutting back on gas consumption is a biggie. Home delivery of the newspaper can save miles and keep you out of the stores. Significant energy savings are possible, but even if we cut our energy use to match the decline in production (Heinberg's oil depletion protocol) we can buy valuable time to ease the transition. If you already garden, think about prepping another garden site. Get it tilled, limed, and plant green manure crops to build the soil as an insurance policy. Invest in a deer fence if your area has a large deer population. We still had some fresh veggies on December 1 this year thanks to a mild fall and being able to keep the deer out. If you have two cars, experiment with using one car. In the fall 2005 we used one car for three full months, and there were very few situations where we were "stuck" beause of it.
Our work situations make it impractical in the the near term, but one vehicle is on our radar for the future. It would be interesting to hear what others are doing.

12/28/06, 5:29 AM

Akira said...
I detect a note of subtle apprehension that the tobaggan ride down the downside of peak is imminent (next 3-4 years). I agree. My instincts at this stage of the end of the industrial age is to head for the hills. The problem is I don't know where the hills are. But I do know where they are not. They are not in the city, the suburbs, or the surrounding regions. Nor are they there even in the samll towns or villages near urban agglomerations. In looking for the hills I follow the real estate maxim of location, location, location. But in the context of the impending crisis, I would add: distance, distance distance. Distance from demographic density and infrastructures based on cheap enrgy sources. I am looking into the far northern remote communities of Northern Canada as possible sites of relocation.

12/28/06, 11:46 AM

Adrynian said...
akira, I suspect that may be a mistake, unless you know how to hunt caribou with a dog sled. The people in the northern remote regions of Canada are probably some of the *most* intensive users of energy per capita anywhere (except when they're simply too poor) because *everything* has to be shipped up there, and very little other than boreal forest will grow there without assistance. In terms of getting away from people, it's great, but in terms of addressing peak oil, it's a non-starter. And as civilization declines, it will quickly become one of the hardest, least forgiving places in the world, with probably one of the lowest capacities to support any kind of labour-assisting technologies (except the kind you can design, make, and use yourself). You'll be back to living like a pioneer, if not back to the stone age.

12/28/06, 1:55 PM

FreeAcre said...
Well, we moved to Central Oregon and bought the cheapest acre of land we could find, with a mobile home, for $61,500. We put in a new well and septic. Started composting and a small garden. The next year, we extended the garden and added a greenhouse. This summer, we added chickens. We also cancelled our TV satellite service in protest of the commercialism and programming to be mindless consumers. We use an old-fashioned antenna now just to watch what passes for news - and football. We also insulated our garage and bought a futon sofa so we can house an extra person or two when the shit hits the fan.
Next year my resolution is to not buy any clothing made in a sweatshop and shipped thousands of miles. May have to go "commando" or learn to sew my own underpants... I'm hoping to create an on-line community newspaper or blog that will help to organize my area to relying more and more on localized food and services, and maybe set up a barter system eventually.
Can't do it all at once, and there is no right way for everyone. Just do the best you can with what you've got and wherever you are. mlanier, I like your idea of the church garden. I'd like to see our soup kitchen recipients growing their own garden...humm.
Got a feeling 2007 will be a watershed year. All the Best.

12/28/06, 11:32 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Many thanks to all for the useful comments! Adrynian, I'm also a fan of Bartholomew's book, and several others -- Jeavons is IMO the best if somebody's going to buy just one book, is all. Several members of my Druid order are putting together a sustainability forum where book recommendations can be posted; when it's up and running, I'll put up the URL here.

Mlanier -- an excellent idea. If you attend a church, I hope you've already proposed this.

Norlight and Freeacre, excellent points.

Akira...hmm. You'll notice that "flee for the hills" was not one of my ten proposed resolutions, and there are good reasons for that. The end of industrial civilization -- as I've pointed out in a number of previous posts -- will unfold over a couple of centuries; it's not an overnight process, and by some measures it's been under way now since the late 1970s. Those of us alive today will likely see our share of hard times, but our grandchildren's grandchildren may not live to see the last lights flicker out. Rome didn't fall in a day, and neither will we.

A lot of people these days are enraptured with the fantasy of heading out for the wilderness while the cities burn behind them -- it's a cliche with deep roots in the American psyche. It just doesn't happen to be a useful strategy, is all. You'll do a lot better by staying in a community where you have friends and support networks, plant a garden, build community institutions, and tackle the unromantic but effective project of learning to live with less.

12/29/06, 12:58 PM

Tully Reill said...
JMG, I think in htat last comment here of yours you actually hit on the one BEST Post-Peak New Years Resolution that could be said altogether;

"Learn to live with less"

We buy too much of everything, as a society in general. Re-train ourselves to buy what we need, not what we "think" we need, and we'll reduce consumption significantly.

12/29/06, 5:10 PM

taran said...
One item I would add to your list, is to eliminate ALL debt as soon as possible, including mortgage debt. Dedicate whatever financial resources you have towards becoming completely debt-free. Once we start on the downside of the peak oil curve, our economy will rapidly move from being credit-based to one of ownership.

12/29/06, 5:12 PM

Jenna Redfox said...
JMG, I am going to throw out a little publicity and link my blog to these new year resolutions. Do you might if I repost them, as long as I give due credit?

12/29/06, 9:06 PM

bryant said...
As to # 5; composting organic waste from the kitchen is excellent, but beware of guides that reject meat, dairy and fats. These work well in the compost bin and really help the pile reach thermophilic temperatures; just bury them in the middle of the pile and cover. In the summer we put out the wet compost in a plastic bag, which we leave open for a day...the blue bottle and meat flies lay their eggs and in a week we have a bag of writhing maggots. Free high-protein feed for the chickens; this cuts down on the ambient fly population as well.

Also, I find composting toilets to be balky and demanding. Sawdust toilets as described in the Humanure Handbook work way better. The second edition is better than the third. We've been composting humanure this way for the past three years and it really pile runs at 100-150 degrees F. and makes luscious compost.

12/29/06, 10:23 PM

Loveandlight said...
IIRC, peak is said to have happened in December 2005. So a year later, production is already noticably below that peak? Wow.

12/29/06, 11:26 PM

Frank Black said...
Nice list. I've been ticking some of them off and it has been great. I've got to get better at composting, though, since I'm hoping to expand my little garden to a bigger garden and I'll need all the help I can get.

Happy New Year

12/31/06, 8:46 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Tully and Taran, both good points.

Jenna, you may certainly repost any of my stuff anywhere as long as credit's given and it includes a link back to this blog.

Bryant, you've mentioned another of my favorite books! I certainly don't mean to exclude the sawdust toilet -- they're not legal in all jurisdictions, and I've also seen a Clivus Multrum-style toilet work well.

Loveandlight, yep -- production isn't down much, but it's down. The next few years should see the first real production declines as the North Sea and some of the Persian Gulf fields really start slumping.

Frank, good luck with your garden expansion!

12/31/06, 3:18 PM

locke said...
I've heard that many of Iraq's fields are undeveloped, do you think that will have much of an effect if the area is ever stabilized?

12/31/06, 5:59 PM

Kev said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1/2/07, 1:17 PM

Kev said...
I would suggest starting to look at LED based 110 volt bulbs for your small lighting needs. They last even longer than compact florescents, and use even less energy.

Also I once made a FAQ of books for voluntary simplicity. Let me see if the "internet history suction engine" still has it somewhere.

1/2/07, 1:20 PM

jlpicard2 said...
LED bulbs may be a good future option, but not currently. LED replacement light bulbs are currently far more expensive, produce far fewer lumens, and current models are not as efficient as florescent bulbs.

In the future, using what are now prototype LEDs, more efficient bulbs can be manufactured. The price will remain high unless the LED bulbs are mass produced. LED bulbs are useful in niche applications, and I have one myself, but they would not work very well throughout the house.

As for the resolutions, all good ideas. I do the first five of them already.

1/2/07, 4:43 PM