What works: Caveats for a series of essays

My next few essays will concentrate on the cardinal elements of survival: water, food, body temperature, and community. Unless and until we secure these four entities, we will not survive.

At the mud hut, our goal is not merely survival. We intend to thrive during the post-carbon era. We relish the opportunity to see the living planet make a comeback from the oppression of industry. With thriving in mind, this initial essay lays out the assumptions and caveats associated with the post-carbon living arrangements I will describe in future posts.

In a dose of wishful thinking symptomatic of American society, I will treat clean air as an entitlement that will last forever. Reality suggests otherwise: Nuclear winter, a likely outcome at the endpoint of the ongoing economic collapse, threatens every species on Earth, including the wise humans, Homo sapiens sapiens.

I’ll not be writing about the myth of sustainability, as I’ve done before, choosing instead to focus on durability. Sustainability implies we can sustain, essentially forever. Reality indicates we slip out of the void, take a few blinks, and disappear back into the void. This reality applies at all levels, from individual beings through societies and species. If we’re special, we’re only as special as yeast and cockroaches. Maybe less so. The extremely short existence of the genus Homo should serve as sufficient evidence: Humans have been hanging around about two million years, or about 0.04% of the existence of Earth, a young planet in one of an infinite number of universes.

If that’s not enough evidence for you, briefly consider the Laws of Thermodynamics. They’re laws, not suggestions. The much-detested Second Law really pokes a hole in the notion of sustainability.

Given the transient nature of our existence and the pesky Second Law, I believe we should invest in a durable set of living arrangements, as I’ve indicated previously. It’s clearly too late to secure the elements of survival for 310 million Americans, much less 6.8 billion people on Earth. We are too far into ecological overshoot and too far along the industrial treadmill to keep the current game going or to invest in a more sane set of arrangements. As a result, it seems we’ll keep trundling along the patently unsustainable path of economic growth until we can’t. At that point, the industrial age will end rather abruptly, much to the surprise of industrialist humans, most of whom are selectively deaf to the roar of the runaway train as it screams over the cliff of empire.

Developing a durable set of living arrangements is a site-specific enterprise. In many tropical regions, a person would have a difficult time starving to death because food grows on trees. Securing water is similarly easy, at least in the humid tropics. On the other hand, boreal regions are characterized by short growing seasons, cold weather, and frozen ground (hence frozen water pipes). But there’s plenty of wood for heat.

Between the extremes of the tropics and the tundra, the mud hut still faces environmental challenges at 1,400 m elevation. Water is scarce throughout the deserts of southwestern North America, food is difficult to secure, and maintaining body temperature at 37 C is difficult because the climate is hot, dry, and trending hotter and drier, potentially lethally so. And just when I thought cold weather wouldn’t pose a problem, a water pipe froze eighteen inches belowground. In my next essay, I’ll provide details about that incident, which suggests the importance of getting an early start on creating a new life. It takes a while to figure out the seasons, and the neighbors.

If we can make it work here, I’m fairly certain you can make it work in just about any rural area. I don’t think cities have much of a chance in our near-term future — inhabitants of the apex of empire will suffer mightily when the empire completes its fall — but small communities might serve as lifeboats through economic collapse and global climate change.

Here at the mud hut, we have developed a comprehensive set of living arrangements focused on the cardinal four elements of survival within a warm-temperate region of the southwestern United States. Summer high temperatures exceed 40 C every year, and winter brings low temperatures below -10 C for several weeks. Diurnal temperature swings routinely exceed 25 C. Soils are cobbly, well-drained, unsorted alluvium in serious need of organic matter. Water is shallow — less than 10 meters below the soil surface — because we live with one-half mile of a perennial river. The human community is eclectic, but generally tolerant and perhaps even accepting of alternative lifestyles.


This essay is permalinked at Island Breath.

Comments 29

  • I would think that elevation is a key factor in your planning ProfEmGuy.
    What is your altitude at The Mud Hut?

    Would you comment on that ? Flat landers don’t understand it’s importance.

    Frank Mezek

  • Guy,

    I cannot tell you how great it is to be working in the sun, in a tee shirt, spreading compost on the garden. Just like every year there is this great time when everything is perfect. The wild turkeys have been in full mating mode. The tundra swans have arrived on their annual brief stopover. The trees are budding out.

    But what the heck is this? Last year we had two feet of snow still on the ground on this date. Last year the turkeys weren’t strutting around until the first week of May. Last year we got seven feet of snow during the winter but less than a foot this year.

    For the first twenty-five years we were here we could tick off on a calendar the spring events assured they would be within a week of the average. All bets are off now. Maybe it’s warmer; no we had below zero in October. Maybe it’s colder; no this January was ten degrees warmer than average.

    Of course, I’m just pretending to be surprised. This is exactly what the scientists have predicted. Wild swings in the climate resulting from a warming of the ocean. But maybe it’s only happening in my backyard. But no, there is weird weather everywhere; like the cyclone churning in the South Atlantic as we speak, the second one on record. Like the changes in monsoonal patterns in India that Vandana Shiva noted today. Like the weather on the east coast this winter or the drought in Oz.

    Gosh, changes in the climate could make the transition to a post-carbon world even harder.

    I’m looking forward to this series.

    Michael Irving

  • Thanks, Frank, for seeking clarification. I’ve added a line in the text indicating the elevation here is 1,400 m (4,600 ft).

  • The elevation of the Mud Hut is ideal,mild spring-like temperatures most
    of the year.Indeed,other places with an elevation of 4,000-6,000 ft. are often referred to as lands of “eternal spring”,i.e.Guadalajara,Mexico;elevation 1566 m (5,138 ft.)

    Frank Mezek

  • With water at ten meters deep, how do you draw it (I guess you’ll be answering these questions over time…so no need to answer yet)? And what’s your avg. rainfall; is it enough to capture runoff to irrigate? I’ll assume you intend to practice native methods, using native seeds, to some degree; many of those as you well know are adapted to seasonal rains, and minimal irrigation (I’ve read that some of the Mexican ‘Three Sister’ plots have been in continual use for centuries now). What I remember from living in Tucson: how very sweet the wild water tasted, and how precious it was. And they have the monsoons, at least for now…do you need a gallon a day in NM, too?

    We just had three days of steady rain; my river went from ten feet to sixty feet across. Not the highest in 15 years, but our fourth 50-year flood (according to the flood maps). In 15 years.
    What climate changes?

    I’m also curious about the native vegetation…scrub, sure, how about trees? Pinyon? Are yours dying off too, like so many in the west? If they do, will you control burn them?

  • Your mud hut sounds nice, but have you considered the possibility that the only viable long-term adaptation to climate chaos, peak everything, etc. is nomadic hunter-gathering/herding/pillaging? In the long term we’re all dead, but the Mongolians did OK with yurts on the backs of pack animals roaming across the vast Eurasian steppes. Maybe it’s time to start assembling the North American equivalent of a Mongol horde? Any fixed dwelling with the four things you mention will immediately become a target for the less prepared hordes that are sure to start multiplying exponentially. It seems to me that human history is a long horror story of prepared, proactive, self-sufficient villagers such as yourself being pillaged my marauding bands of barbarians. That’s why I’m not convinced there’s much security in doomsteading, unless you’re so far from population centers that no one can even find you. Mobile, lethal, highly adaptable bands will own the post-Collapse world, imho. So maybe joining Xe, rather than an eco-village, is the best option for the ambitious young doomer at this point.

  • Of course you are right about the 2nd law poking holes in sustainablity.
    It is a conundrum, as landscape architect that I have given much thought to.

    However, photosynthesis can undo this somewhat along with your excreta.
    (Humanure Handbook)
    For example, a Santa Rosa plum tree after 3-4 seasons has recently produced 2 washing baskets full of fruit. (with minimal fertiliser)

    Vegetable gardening is hard work;energy input intensive;
    heavy water requirements; vulnerable to pests; energy output poor etc.

    I have turned on my female neighbour to veg gardening, fruit trees
    and water storage, much to her husbands annoyance (he ends up doing
    a bit of the heavy lifting).
    We joked it would be surely easier to just go out and shoot something!
    That is let nature provide the bounty without any of the hard graft from us.

    I guess at this late stage – food storage, fruit trees and hunting
    are some easy wins. Now that you are almost an old bloke, you dont
    want to do your back in digging in the veg garden.

  • I’m rather partial to Sean Taylor’s vision of the postindustrial age, not because I want to join one of the many hordes but because I’m relatively sure they will arise. Whether traveling by car, motorcycle, bicycle, horse, or on foot, they’ll quickly extend their reach (desperate hunger from the butt end of a gun) to everyone else, even competing violently with each other for whatever is left. So yeah, doomsteading may have a short history until the great die off is over, at which point it’s difficult to anticipate what will happen.

  • Regarding accesss to water, I see no reason why one does use modern technology when and if available e.g borehole operated solar pump. To ignore technology based on principle is a bit like ‘cutting your nose off to spite your face’.

  • craig moodie,

    An aside, given your interest in wildlife. Its spring here and we’ve had a cow moose and her new calf hanging out about 30m from our house. They’re not rhino but they are big (mean too if you push them).

    Michael Irving

  • Charles Hugh Smith’s answer to murderous and hungry bands of ambitious young doomers is his Feb. 22, 2010 posting, “If this site offends your sense of ideological purity, please stop reading it.” It’s worth a read in its entirety whether it offends you or not.

    Briefly put, though, young doomers and young bonus-expecting MBAs alike will have to reckon with the larger community’s ability to conscript, deputize, or press-gang them into the forces of law and order. Unsupervised adolescent hordes don’t do well when the police and military believe in a state but not in a constitution.

    The military also has long experience in training people to kill, which doesn’t come naturally to human beings, no matter how many games of Grand Theft Auto they’ve played.

    Some of my writing students have come back from Iraq deeply damaged, not by roadside bombs but by the experience of killing people. In particular, the killing of a child wrecks the person who either does it or sees it done. The experience of learning to write is a kind of personal archaeology, and these experiences get uncovered as part of the writing process. All you can do is hope they 1] integrate their actions into who they are, and that 2] they survive the experience.

    To paraphrase R.D. Laing: Before we can even think of killing another human being, we have had to lay waste to ourselves. A speculation: if you’re an unconscripted person, it’s probably easier to eat a human corpse than to make one just because it had some stuff you wanted.

    All that said, not enough credit has been given to defense. Absent air cover, one well-positioned and dug-in person with a scoped bolt-action deer rifle can hold off a bunch of people with automatic weapons for a long time, and maybe make them go away. A tight-knit community determined to defend itself demands too high a price from even a well-organized military, much less a mob of hungry looters.

    The trick is not having a huge hoard of food, not having an arsenal in your basement, and not having a hundred pounds of silver under your bed. It also helps if you’re an old fart good only for telling stories and tending the sheep. You’ll live longer.

    By using the techniques that Great Britain developed in 1940-41, this country can probably avoid sudden collapse. But there are a few jokers in the deck: feedback loops, mostly having to do with climate and toxic waste, exponential curves in technology and population, and the bombs, germs, and chemical agents that were manufactured during the Cold War. If collapse comes from any of these, it will simply be the quick punctuation mark at the end of a sentence already written.

  • michael, Awesome. Have you given the baby a name yet?. By the way, the only place you will encounter rhino black or white in Africa, are in national parks or well fenced, heavily patrolled private game reserves. Populations, particularly of the black are still precariously low. Poaching has been on the increase recently with Kruger National Park having a reported loss of 2 black and 27 white in the last 12 months.
    On a more pleasant note I have just got back from Tuli where our new farm is and had a suprise on foot encounter, 500metres from our house, with a small herd of about 20 elephant. We did not expect them to be so close to the homestead. Needless to say it was quite a hair raising experience. It was pretty irresponsible on my part going walkabout without taking necessary precautions.

  • I know the marauding hordes narrative plays into our cultural fantasies, but I think it’s an unlikely outcome. Marauding hordes require organization, as I’ve written before, and the likely marauders — in my opinion — can’t organize a sack lunch.

    In addition, I think the whole notion of zombies wandering out trying to kill better-prepared people is yet another excuse to forgo action. If you think all the prepared people are future human jerky for the less-prepared, more violent people, then you’ll kick back and wait, hoping the industrial age never ends. Yes, you’ll hope the system that is making us crazy and killing us just keeps right on going.

    That doesn’t make sense to me, for many reasons.

  • I am in a major city, would like to leave but my financial situation will not allow it at the moment so I do not currently have the option to stay where I am in a long-term SHTF scenario. I would like to leave before collapse but my girlfriend has a job in the city and leaving her is not possible, nor is her quitting her job without at least one of us having a job where we are moving. So I know I will have to move to the country at some point but do not know if it will be in a hurry or not.

    I too have thought about the hungry roving bands, which would most likely pop up in the event of a collapse of this magnitude. For short-term defense from everything from marauders to grizzlies it would be hard to beat a Mossberg 500 12 Ga. shotgun while you can still trade and scrounge modern ammo. I believe percussion black powder revolvers offer the most viable defense option for the long term defense and mobility (as in after the ammo runs out). A Ruger Old Army or .44 1858 Remington Reproduction would be best with extra cylinders for reloading. These guns need some polishing on the carrier arm, trigger, and hammer to be viable as well as aftermarket Ampco Bronze nipples. Black powder can be made from charcoal, saltpeter (from urine, gutpile, manurepile, ect.), and sulfur from processed gypsum board (see the Do-It-Yourself Gunpowder Cookbook for details and keep it wet while processing!!!!). Lead can be scrounged from telephone couplings, boat keels, tire weights, ect. and cast with no more than a cast iron ladle and a mold. 2500 percussion caps will fit into a sandwich baggie, or even made with aluminum cans punched with Fosters Tap-O-Cap and filled with strike anywhere match-head compound or a couple roll caps from toy cap guns. If you have something against your fingers and face you could attempt to make small batches of percussion compound but I would probably switch to poisoned arrows and blades for defense before I would go there myself.

    In the event of widespread marauding bands and gangs I personally think the best lifestyle for short-term survival would be like that of the Apache scout. Mobile, light, stealthy, quiet, and camouflaged (though not in Camo clothing). This does not mean going it alone, having more people would aid in defense and help to share the load, but at least one person in the group should have some of the following skills: tracking, camouflage with natural materials, medical aid, herbology, wild foods, permaculture, irrigation, hunting, fishing, finding water, flintmapping, toolmaking, hide tanning, blacksmithing, how to make clothing from natural materials, gun repair, and basic survival skills. As the crisis unfolds all in the group should try to learn from one another and share as much survival knowledge as possible. Camouflaged handmade wooden traps from locally-sourced woods and natural fibers are extremely difficult to pick out and will provide for short-term food needs while a bow and arrow (with practice) would be useful for deer and such without giving away position. Wild foods can provide a great deal of food and can be supplemented with Guerrilla gardens of a few plants together spread over a large area. Rusty chicken wire will look like just so much human detritus but can protect the sprouts of your gardens and flat rocks or boards can aid irrigation by funneling water to the plants roots. Be sure to get organic seeds from a seed-house in a similar climate to ensure viability, and store them in ammo cans to keep them fresh. I see those who are able to find and camouflage a secluded cave entrance, build small hidden underground homes in the wilderness, or know how to make camouflaged debris huts as having a distinct advantage in avoiding marauders. The closer to roads you are the more likely someone will find you. Never use the same path back as the one you went by to avoid ambush.

    In the Long-term after the initial die-off I think that marauders will be less of an issue, although one that would still persist. Long-term survival would depend on being able to find others to band up with in a larger groups most likely resembling tribes. Using camouflage skills to observe any group for a few days from afar will help to determine their group culture and determine whether it might be compatible with yours or not. If you suspect it may not be keep them observed until they leave your territory. If you think they might be compatible announce yourself from a direction that would not lead them to your camp and approach openly and bearing small gifts but make them earn your trust before including in the community. In this way a small group could become a community. Once a community of sufficient size could be established more of peoples previous knowledge could come to bear and a more outwardly visible community could take hold with some scavenged industrial material.

  • Guy, I hear what you are saying about the cultural bias towards Mad Max scenarios. But there are also many real world examples of warlords, gangs, pirates, and individuals killings and theft in the aftermath of a large-scale disaster or economic collapse. I think that in the event of a loss of police enforcement there would be looting, theft, ect. and one would have to depend on themselves for defense. They would not need to be prepared to wage war but having a gun and knowing how to use it defend yourself could save your life. Don’t take my word for it, ask Ferfal about the Argentinian collapse.

    I don’t by any means expect that it is inevitable that things get that bad, but the bigger they are the harder they fall. Currently the US has more debt than the rest of the world combined and uses 25% of the world’s oil, that’s potential for a pretty big fall if you ask me. Better to be prepared for the possibility. Being out in the country already you still have quite and advantage over me in my opinion. If you develop an escape route, some caches in the area and someplace to hole up in case someone (it only takes one person) tried to raid you would be in great shape. If you keep everything in the house it would only take one burglary to be cleaned out and you would have to start making your own tools and gather new food and water. That is if they left after cleaning you out. They may just like your setup as much as you do.

  • On prediction.
    The economy is a system that we have created and yet seemingly we
    have no control over it. Pretty ironic huh?
    Its akin to a mahout training an elephant from birth only
    to see it run amok and destroy the local village 3-5 years later.

    In terms of predicting the future with regards to climate change, habitat loss, industrial pollution, river health and peak oil etc – Civilisation and ‘progress’ as far as the biosphere is concerned is one massive clusterfuck.

    Some days I feel ashamed to member of the human race.
    Perhaps only an atheist can feel this way.

    And ‘Teat’ with regards to atheism – Describing atheism as a religion or ‘fundamentalism’ is like saying NOT collecting stamps is a hobby.

    Word to follow bloggers keep your input concise and pithy,
    I cant be shagged reading all the stuff.

  • Bunny trail: I have met atheists who are just as obsessive and militant about their beliefs as any fundie. The neutral ones in my experience are the agnostics. You can shape your true believerism in the dogmatic affirmation or the dogmatic negation. It’s the true believerism that bothers me, and that’s where I draw my line.

  • Right on matt,

    Read the last paragraph in matt’s comment above.

    You people love to hear yourself talk.So can all the narcissistic,egomaniacal BS–we don’t need to know how smart and clever you are.

    Just get to the point.


    Frank Mezek

  • Dogma allergies keep me somewhat miserable, but satire seems to help. Sniff.

    Afa roving hordes of the hungry…I’m pretty much with Guy on that one. Slow grinding collapse might be more dangerous; in sudden collapse, the hunger will take a good many quickly (clean water another immediate problem) and separate the rest into those who are willing to kill to eat and those who hesitate. Organized bands I expect, drawn from the ranks of Xe and so forth, rather like between the Crusades, roaming and raiding, but unpaid, and with not much to eat easily that ought not work so well.
    Lotta shoe-leather soup.
    If you have potable water, some food stored, and are able to grow some or hunt some or both, your better health ought to carry you into the next phase, whatever that is. I don’t expect there to be much to hunt, you who aim to live off the larder of the much-depleted land; climate change ought to keep animal numbers in check (exception: whatever eats corpses) and competition will be fierce. It’ll depend then on the extent of climate change…acidic oceans mean fewer shellfish, and fish in general; forest die-off means no food for mammals and birds, no nuts, roots, fungi, etc…though I hold out hope (there’s that word, only maybe in acceptable use here) the sphere’s vastness can absorb enough of our damage and keep ticking.
    And if the airlines fail en masse in a year, say, due to another oil price spike, the economy-wide shock may turn out to be very good news indeed.
    Let’s hope the airlines fail…but keep planting the fruit and nut trees.

  • Craig Moodie,

    Wow! Elephants! Holy socks. That is so far away from my world that it would hardly be stranger than if you said you’d been out walking with dinosaurs. What a rare and wonderful experience. Lucky you.

    As for the rhino part, I knew about that problem, or course, and it makes me sick. We’ve done our best to wipe all the big animals off the North American continent too. Up in my part of the country wolves had finally reestablished some packs sufficient for them to be taken off our endangered species list. Immediately the governors of the states they had recovered in opened up a hunting season on them. So it goes. The continuing war between people and predators continues apace. In this case it is war between a few ranchers who are using the commons for personal gain (grazing on National Forest lands) and thousands of supporters, usually with guns in hand. It’s weird, all these big burly red face guys who seem to be so afraid of everything, terrorists, wolves, bears, and cougars included.

    Poachers, I hate the bastards. We have them here too. Grizzly bears and black bears for the oriental body part trade, deer for dinner, coyotes because they threaten sheep (all 200 of them in this county), cougars because the big cats have been know to threaten children, also moose, bobcats, hawks and anything else that walks or flies just because they can.

    What will you do to deal with the poaching problem on your place? Also, how is the elephant population holding up there?

    Michael Irving

  • Botswana is one of a few countries left on the planet where conservation is taken very seriously, i.e. animals are protected for themselves and not what benefit they may have for humans. They call it preservation and not conservation. The president of Botswana is highly passionate about the wildlife. Unlike other countries in Africa the role of anti-poaching in Botswana is taken up by the Botswana Defence Force. They have a shoot on sight policy against any potential poachers.
    The BDF have an awesome reputation, which has resulted in keeping poaching at much lower levels compared to the rest of Africa.
    Elephant populations in Botswana are thriving, in fact the biggest problem is, due to habitat loss by agriculture in neighbouring countries the range of the Botswanan elephants has been radically reduced. Elephants under natural conditions have ranges of up to 500km’s this prevents habitat destruction and allow’s for natural replenishment. Elephants are highly intelligent creatures and will not migrate to areas where they perceive a threat from poaching. This has also has kept them to a much narrower range which has resulted serious destuction of their habitat due to their feeding habits. This is the dilemma the Government of Botswana faces. In other parts Africa governments would consider culling as an option, however, thankfully the Botswanan authorities recognise the social structure within prides and the trauma that would result from this type of action. Thus the status quo remains.

  • Michael, I forgot to comment on the hunting issue. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think it is the sign of a twisted mind of anyone who gains pleasure from pulling a trigger.

  • ProfEmGuy;

    I have to give the same admonition occasionally.

    How often to we have to tell all that the key is


    Above all CONCISION !!!

    Frank Mezek

  • Frank,
    U read NOT!

    M I

  • Frank,

    Upon reflection, I see that if you are correct then I don’t understand the purpose of Guy’s blog.

    I thought of it as a (virtual) place where people could think out loud. We agree when we enter that Guy is the leader. He throws out ideas. Many of the ideas raise complex questions about how we as individuals should approach the future. Many of the ideas seem to have internal contradictions. Many of the ideas conflict with what we are doing and how we view the world. Often the ideas open up new pathways for thought. It is our choice to read them, or not. We can agree with them, or not. If we agree, we can respond. Perhaps we could all just be very concise and respond with, “Ditto.” But what if we disagree, or partially agree, or have a new idea? What if someone else has an idea and makes a comment? Should we limit ourselves to a couple of sentences?

    I’ll give you an example. How would you respond if Guy had just thought up, written, and posted the Declaration of Independence? What if he then said, “What do you think?”

    Michael Irving

  • “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

  • “How would you respond if Guy had just thought up, written, and posted the Declaration of Independence?”
    I might think he was a couple hundred years late, depending on what he was declaring his independence from. But then I think such a declaration is a big part of what he’s been doing.
    On the other hand, Michael, I agree with the central premise. It’s easy enough for people to skip over what they don’t care to read (something that can generally be determined within a sentence or two), and not every important idea can be expressed in 1,337 words.

  • James McPerson,

    Thanks for chiming in.

    Michael Irving

  • Michael Irving:

    In reply to yours of March 19,2010, Double D says,”touche”.That was a splendid,recalcitrant reposte !!

    Over the years I have said that commentators here are narcissistic,
    egomaniacs.We like to hear ourselves talk.So as the Official Disciplinarian on this site it is incumbent upon me to be ever vigilant
    against the temptation for verbosity.

    Double D