Prophet of Doom is a tough sell, as it always has been. Nobody appreciates a prophet in his own time, I suppose. On the other hand, there’s no need for a prophet in these times: the newspapers are filled with far more economic doom than I can keep up with, much less write about. So this post will focus on my personal approach to an economy rigged to fail.
Some people are convinced the current turn of events is temporary. The industrial economy has always recovered before, after all. Surely it’s just a matter of a few months or years before the market “corrects” and the ship of empire rights itself, to sail forever with the wind at our back on flat seas. The ship will stop for the occasional respite, when the sailing becomes too much for our tender psyches, at islands filled with exquisite cuisine and fair maidens. We’ll whet our appetites and move along, never ending our search for contentment, certain it will be found at the next port of call.
In the other corner we have people rooted in reality. They recognize reality for what she is, and adore her beauty. These people, by the way, live longer and happier lives than people who don’t appreciate nature’s beauty.
Those of us who love nature, along with those who recognize that nature bats last and she bats 1.000, are making other arrangements as the industrial economy takes its final bow. As I’ve indicated previously, I think a life on the move is a wise strategy, particular for the young and the young at heart. If you’re committed to a sedentary existence, this post offers an overview of the arrangements I’ve made, albeit with a lot of help from friends. These arrangements focus on three of the “big five” attributes I’ve described many times: water, shelter, and food. I’ll not comment here on community, because I’ve done that before and because it seems rather obvious to me that getting along with your neighbors is fundamental to survival when the economy collapses. And I’ll not comment on health care, other than noting that we’re trying to stock up, to the extent possible, on medicines of various kinds. Well, and I’m trying — thus far, unsuccessfully — to recruit anybody who knows anything about health care to the area.
Obviously, the approach we’ve taken is not for everybody. During two decades of living simply as an overpaid, under-worked college professor, I’ve managed to save a bit of money. Most of it was in retirement funds, which I’ve subsequently drained, or insurance policies, which I cashed in. Nonetheless, arrangements at the mud hut are considerably less luxurious than many people would tolerate. Depending on your personal situation, you might be well served by studying the information here and here. But I digress.
We started in the autumn of 2007, when my wife and I formed a legal partnership with a young couple and their four-year-old son. Our goal: To live close to the land and to our neighbors, sans fossil fuels (which will be in short supply after the economy completes its collapse). Although we hope to live free from fossil fuels in the near future, development of infrastructure required abundant use of fossil fuels, notably crude oil and its distillates.
We had a well drilled, into which we installed a solar pump and a hand pump. The pumps feed a cistern, which feeds a pressure pump, which feeds a pressure tank, which is operated by the off-grid solar system atop the new house. As with any approach inspired by permaculture, each function is covered by multiple structures. We have two pumps in the well, and we are harvesting rainwater off two roofs. Ideally, we will not need to haul water from the nearby river.
We designed a straw-bale house and hired an artist who learned how to build houses during summers between his school years as a college student. The house, like everything else on the property, is designed and built with durability in mind. It is a duplex of sorts, with two small living areas separated by an open breezeway. During the late spring and summer, the breezeway is home to several dozen cliff swallows. The house has an acid-stained concrete floor, a metal roof, and durable fixtures. It’s heated with passive solar technology and a small wood-burning stove in each of the living quarters. It’s passively cooled with geothermal technology we thought we’d invented, only to discover the Egyptians beat us to the idea by a couple thousand years. The house has recycled denim insulation in the ceilings and all the walls not constructed from straw bales, and passive water heaters to preheat the water before it enters the six-gallon water heaters. The concepts of permaculture and durability extend to the composting toilets (no waste-water), gray-water systems for shower and sink drains, excellent plumbing fixtures (i.e., not made in America), and composite materials for counters.
We’ve constructed planting beds, which is a relatively easy task in most locations. But our property is home to several quadrillion pocket gophers. So we excavate the soil from the bed, down about a foot, line the bed with straw bales, install a “basket” of hardware cloth inside the bales, then put the soil, liberally mixed with compost, back into the bed. We tested this design on a couple beds last summer, and we’re geared up with several hundred square feet of planting beds for this summer. It’ll be a few years before we see the literal fruits of our labor from the orchard, which contains a couple dozen fruit and nut trees (each with a hardware-cloth basket around the roots). If we’re lucky and good, we’ll live to fill the root cellar with fruits and vegetables. The gardens will be watered primarily by cisterns full of rainwater harvested from the straw-bale house and the old mobile home on the property (the latter will be used for storage of books and clothes, as well as for processing food and torturing marauders).
An outdoor kitchen, complete with wood-fired cook stove, should also help preserve the harvest. We have few dozen canning jars, and will be investing in many more, with the goal of preserving the truckloads of fruits and vegetables certain to result from our new-found gardening skills. (We’re hoping some trucks die near the property, to remind us what a “truckload” is when the trucks stop running.) The kitchen includes a human-powered grinding mill, which we use for grinding mesquite pods and acorns into flour, after they are dried in the small greenhouse we constructed near the orchard.
We built a straw-bale coop for the fowl, and a dozen two-week-old ducklings are currently under our care. We’ll add a dozen chickens to hedge our bets against egg-poaching predators, and perhaps a goat for milk and cheese.
We have a one-box apiary, primarily as a home for pollinators — yet another bet-hedging strategy, in this case against massive die-off of bees throughout the world. And we’re learning wildcrafting from a neighbor who has been living off the land for several years. Some parts are easy, intellectually and physically. We are already harvesting and milling the abundant mesquite pods on the property, which are high in protein and very sweet. But it’s bound to take a while before we’re comfortable walking all summer across a wilderness area wearing a few clothes and carrying only a knife and small fire bow, as our neighbor did a few years ago.
Until our post-carbon skills match those of our expert neighbor, we’ll stick close to the mud hut, working to ensure durable supplies of water and food. And also hosting the occasional dance party in the breezeway.