Muddling along

After a woefully inept introduction, this essay forces me to stare into the abyss of planet-destroying myth. If you believe we’re headed for a muddle-through future in which we correct massive ecological overshoot with the tranquility of Buddhist monks, this is the essay you’ve been waiting to read. Come on along, if you dare, keeping these barely modified lyrics in mind: “Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the muddle with you.”

It is easy for me to write about philosophy, conservation biology, education, global climate change, ecological collapse, economic collapse, and how to deal with all of them on a personal basis. These phenomena are pieces of ongoing reality. Facing up to them is difficult at times (as demonstrated clearly by my angst here) but, as Thomas Hardy pointed out, “If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.” Indeed, better days lie ahead when we stop destroying every aspect of the living planet and start living as if we are a part of nature (cf. apart from nature).

Unlike the ease of my usual essays, this essay has been quite challenging to write. It responds to my email in-box, and the half-measures people can take to mitigate their misery during the completion of the ongoing economic collapse (while ignoring the moral imperative of living close to our neighbors and close to the land that supports us). I don’t believe in half-measures. Yet, as I visited San Diego and Tucson and their wide array of cultural exhibits and restaurants — where a large amount of amazingly good food can be had in exchange for the equivalent of an hour or two at minimum wage — I was forced to face my greatest fear about the future: the industrial era will persist long enough to allow industrial humans to destroy the very elements of the living planet that allow our continued existence as a species. According to this view, fossil fuels will become less and less available, but the reduction will be so gradual we will barely notice our increasing poverty (cf. this essay).

So, for the good people of Tucson, and for Angela-from-my-inbox and others like her in San Diego, I ask you to join me as I stare into the abyss. I’ll tackle the issues we face in my usual order: water, food, body temperature, and community.

Water is fundamental to human survival, so the greatest challenge we face is retaining potable water supplies. In the absence of municipal water coming through the taps, you will need to find another source of water and you will need to make it potable. Harvesting rainwater is barrels is easy enough, but you’ll have to reduce your consumption considerably (of water and nearly everything else). Fortunately, the issue of potability is resolved with relative ease. Water can be pasteurized with the power of the sun and, with a little more energy, can be boiled. Search the web using the phrase “pasteurize water” for a few quick tricks. You’ll want to invest in simple, inexpensive infrastructure while you still can.

For those of us who eat, food is another important consideration. Even if you believe we’re headed for third-world status, instead of the inability to buy food with fiat currency at the grocery store, you have to recognize what this means: limited selection and massive shortages. You’ll want to stock up on essentials while food is still inexpensive. And I strongly suggest figuring out how to grow, trap, shoot, prepare, and preserve a significant portion of your own food. You’ll want a rifle, and perhaps some traps, and the ability to use them. If all else fails, perhaps you can start making human jerky.

WordPress really needs a sarcasm tag.

Maintaining body temperature will be far more challenging in Fairbanks than Belize, which is why I recommend the latter as a place to live. But if you’re profoundly committed to your current residence, please invest in various elements of durability while they’re financially inexpensive: a metal roof and abundant insulation will go a long way toward keeping the rain at bay and also keeping your body at 98.6 F. Buy some blankets for you and the unprepared people with whom you’ll be bartering. Ditto for large garbage bags, which passably serve as raingear. The opportunities in this category are essentially limitless, and I’ve described a few of them here. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below.

A decent human community is probably less important in a world characterized by “muddling through” than in the future I foresee. After all, cheap fossil fuels have allowed us to develop comprehensive online communities instead of real ones. Still, I value communities for reason beyond survival, as I try to make clear here: “At some point, we simply lost track of the importance of communities, human and otherwise. Along the way to becoming a nation of multitasking, Twittering, Facebook ‘friends’ we abandoned the ability to connect meaningfully, viscerally, individually. If we are to thrive during the post-carbon era, we’ll need to create groups of straight-talking, look-’em-in-the-eye, mean-what-you-say, say-what-you-mean, self-reliant, individuals who are not afraid to ask for help from the neighbors and who, when asked, readily offer assistance.”

If you’re committed to your human community, you’ll want to stock up on items certain to be less commonly available in the near future than today. In addition to water (and the ability to purify it), food (and the seeds to grow more), and the previously mentioned blankets, medicine comes to mind. Two recent essays focus on simple antibiotics, which likely will not seem so simple in the coming years: they are linked here and here.

It’s not just antibiotics, of course. The possibilities are endless. If you wear glasses, buy several pair. To prevent your prescription from changing, invest in gas-permeable (i.e., “hard”) contact lenses and adapt to wearing them. Visit the dentist and get your teeth fixed. Store toothpaste and floss. Take a relevant class or two. And so on, ad nauseum, until you feel comfortable entering a world in which availability of goods and services is limited. And, if that’s too challenging, get rid of your taboos about marriage and hook up with a medical doctor, a dentist, and a pharmacist. While you’re at it, you might want to add a marksman, a permaculturist, and a really good shaman.

Above all, you’ll need the comfort of knowing politicians are acting in the best interests of the people they represent. You’ll need to convince yourself that the ongoing attempts by Obama and Bernanke (and Bush and Greenspan before them) are working. You’ll need to convince yourself that plugging every leak in the dam actually takes pressure off the dam, that the dam will not break because of temporary patches. Ultimately, you’ll have to convince yourself that American empire will last forever, and is not an empire.

Good luck with that.


This essay is permalinked at Island Breath.

As I move toward conventional essays in this space and away from link-filled commentary, I have been posting many links about global climate change, energy decline, and economic collapse on Facebook, and I often accompany these links with pithy commentary. If you’d like to follow along and comment, click here.

Comments 28

  • Nope. I’m not ready to look into that abyss, yet. I’m still gathering my resources. I will, however, not avoid your eye as you, straight-talking, mean-what-you-say, say what you mean, continue to tell me that I’m a timorous fool. I will read your links and prepare myself to survive some scenarios a few notches above worst case. I might even get myself disentangled from our juggernaut of destruction. Still, so far I think we’d have to call this a matter of half-measures. But things change.

  • My girlfriend had a minor emergency when she couldn’t get an appointment for a Urinary Tract Infection because her doctor sucks a lot of ass and wouldn’t even return her call. Luckily Fish-flex came to the rescue so she didn’t have to go to the emergency room. Another product I would recommend is Dentek Temparin Filling Repair for when dentistry starts to become more primitive or unavailable. Out on the West Coast we are blessed with quite a few antibacterial plants which will be a boon for those in the know:

    Olive Leaves:
    Most potent herbal antibiotic and antiviral plant known to modern man. Extract can be made from leaves in water kept at 175F-185F for 12 hours. Dosage is 1/2 cup twice daily.

    A tincture can also be made with grain alcohol in a jar stuffed full of leaves.
    The most popular amount for a maintenance dose is 2 droppers full twice daily on an empty stomach before meals. For conditions such as the common cold, flu, sinus infections, and basic respiratory tract infections, the dose is 2 droppers full every 2 hours. For acute infections such as sore throat, swollen glands, fever, etc., the recommendation is 3 droppers full every 2 hours.

    Tea is antibacterial & antiviral for wound washing, drunk for cough (only a few days to a week at a time – it’s toxic in the long term), and used as a mouthwash. The leaves also make an effective bug repellent.

    Peruvian Pepper Tree:
    Throughout South and Central America, Brazilian peppertree is reported to be an astringent, antibacterial, diuretic, digestive stimulant, tonic, antiviral, and wound healer. In Peru, the sap is used as a mild laxative and a diuretic, and the entire plant is used externally for fractures and as a topical antiseptic. The oleoresin is used externally as a wound healer, to stop bleeding, and for toothaches, and it is taken internally for rheumatism and as a purgative. In South Africa, a leaf tea is used to treat colds, and a leaf decoction is inhaled for colds, hypertension, depression, and irregular heart beat. In the Brazilian Amazon, a bark tea is used as a laxative, and a bark-and-leaf tea is used as a stimulant and antidepressant. In Argentina, a decoction is made with the dried leaves and is taken for menstrual disorders and is also used for respiratory and urinary tract infections and disorders.

  • Thanks for your insights, Chris. I also recommend an online report completed by several of my students at The section on medicine is particularly thorough.

  • Thanks for the website Guy, I am planning on printing out a lot from the medical section, especially about herbal contraceptives. I have the Where There is No Doctor/Dentist and Where Women Have No Doctor books recommended on that site. Personally, if I could only have one book on medical care it would be Wilderness Medicine by Paul S. Auerbach. At 2300 pages, 10+ lbs, and close to $200, it is practically a primitive medical degree in a book. Any books by Michael Moore (the herbalist) are good too.

  • Guy, your blog is rapidly becoming my indispensible guide to the future – a guide I didn’t even realise I was missing. Thank you for doing this.


  • A reduction so gradual we’ll scarcely notice increasing poverty, be damned! Especially after a weekend of stuffing 90-lb bales into a hot barn and lugging water to empty fruit trees and having the local authorities sicced upon me because irrigation spray drenched an open convertible—-freshly primped for some $150-a-plate wine function up the road—-passed my place at the same time a combine, working the adjacent field, kicked up a load of dirt and chaff.

    My lifetime quota of patience in stupidity is about used up.

    Enough of this piddling, fiddling, muddling jabber. You stick to a hard stop: December 21st, 2012. Don’t go shifting dates on me!

  • This muddling is maddening. As is the heat.

    Right there with you, Keith. Just wish more folks would wake up and pay attention… the signs of collapse are all around, yet the majority is willfully blind as a bat.

  • Sorry all, for the maddening muddling. Sometimes when somebody asks me to act kindly and respond to a reasonable request, I cannot help myself.

    In my defense, this essay is not for most of us here, as indicated in my opening paragraph: “If you believe we’re headed for a muddle-through future in which we correct massive ecological overshoot with the tranquility of Buddhist monks, this is the essay you’ve been waiting to read.”

    You should’ve stopped reading there. Or maybe I should’ve stopped writing there.

  • As long as the Internet exists and electricity is available and disks keep spinning, I’ve assembled a useful collection of information here:

    Send me your indispensable information, and I’ll put it in the InfoArk.

    Maybe this winter I’ll work on making it properly indexed and searchable.

  • thanks Guy for the continued inspiration,

    Just added another 8 fruit trees to the ‘orchard’,
    just purchased 100kg of NPK, 100kg of gypsum
    and a shit load of hay.

    ‘I was forced to face my greatest fear about the future: the industrial era will persist long enough to allow industrial humans to destroy the very elements of the living planet that allow our continued existence as a species.’ I remember saying something similar to you
    3 years ago. There will be no sudden ‘collapse’, we/the growth economy will slowly grind the biosphere into oblivion.

    My therapy/entertainment these days is planting fruit trees,
    somebody will receive the benefit even if I am not around.

    Keith, love your work.
    I sent a link to Dave Pollards recent essay of woe to my wife,
    with a message ‘yep, thats me’ – she said she was too busy to read it! 🙂
    Oh, well…I will plant 5 currant bushes tomorrow.
    Nothing better than getting ones hand into the soil and wielding
    a mattock.

  • I definitely fear the world going Soylent much more than the system collapsing.

  • Thanks Guy for recapitulating. It’s easy to grow frustrated with having to go over elemental ground, and over and over. However, most of us don’t suffer from not knowing enough; we don’t really need any more information. We need to integrate what we know. We need motivation to act on what we know. So don’t be embarassed about circling around your themes again, and again. No matter how many times you say it, it really does come down to water, food, 98.6, and somebody to hold onto.

  • oil went above 80 again…

  • More sovereign-debt crises on the way bubbleboy … this time, will Wall Street or main street notice the U.S. is insolvent?

  • Chris:

    Alka-Seltzer works well at killing Urinary Tract Infections or at least
    relieves the symptoms until you can get Cipro,which I find gives quick
    relief and kills the infection.Just take two Extra-Strength tablets in
    a little water.

    There should be a clearing house system for us to submit home remedies
    like this.

    Fish-flex is for killing fish aquarium bacteria—does it work for humans also?

    Double D

  • Guy,

    Following up on John L. Stanley’s comment. During the “owl wars” the mantra was “endless pressure, endlessly applied.”

    Some of us may have photographic recall after our first exposure to a concept. Others, like me, have recall that resembles the scribbling of a two-year-old chimpanzee. It’s folks like me that benefit from the pain you experience at having to go over this stuff again and again. I thank you for that.

    Michael Irving

  • I muddle through each day watching the naked apes in their human zoo (rest in peace desmond morris). Like an anthropoligist that has been accepted by and lives among some other species, I study them in their (un?)natural habitat. I see how they feed off of the fruits imported from outside the borders of their zoo, and know they will stop at nothing to get the fruits needed to sustain their zoo.

    I too wish this zoo would close and soon. But I think it more likely (and most unfortunately) that the zoo will ‘muddle through’ for another decade or longer.

    But, thank mother nature, I do not have to stay and continue to study the habitat or inhabitants.

  • The big question for me is: How do I communicate with people who are scientifically illiterate and hence are environmentally illiterate (and are also largely financially illiterate)? Or is it even worth trying?

    We have local elections coming up, and you can bet your bottom dollar the bulk of the candidates will have ‘loot the planet and poison the populace’ as their platforms for election. After all ‘debts and deficits don’t matter’, ‘there’s plenty of oil … the oil companies have just sealed off wells and are waiting for the price to rise before opening them’ and of course, ‘global warming is a myth because it was warmer in the medieval period’.

    If we who know the truth stand up and speak the truth we are ‘too gloomy’ or are ‘nutters’ or ‘extremists’. If we don’t speak the truth we are spineless.

    History rather suggets that when the oil economy does finally start to significantly implode people will cut down fruit trees for firewood becasue they won’t know the difference between a fruit tree and a pine tree.

  • This will not end well. When hoomens and endings meet, the result is seldom (never?) good. This is a very tightly wound CF. The release will really be something to see. So enjoy it and be glad you lived in that thin, once in a planet, time slice to see the hooman finale.

  • GUY-O,

    You’ve really tapped a nice vein with this one.

    Way to go – EVERYONE ! !

    I’m still leading a charmed life, up here in Spookaloo Town, Guy.

    Spouse, Jan, says she’s getting a bit tired of hearing my “Not more’n 4 weeks left!” prognosis, month-after-month, for the last 4 months.

    Yeah, but this time – I’m really sure of it!

    Keep bangin’ on it, Doc!


  • As for what Kevin Moore (above) says….

    OUCH ! !

    Right on, I’m afeered.


  • And what if you have type 1 diabetes and are dependent on daily does of insulin and glucose monitoring equipment?

  • Frank Mezek – Fish Flex and other fish antibiotics are the same compounds given to people, the equipment and processes of those particular manufacturers have not gone through the FDA approval process and are therefore not recommended for human consumption due to regulatory requirements. That does not mean they do not work as I have spoken to many others who have had the necessity to use them and are still around. In a pinch and they are an excellent emergency preparedness tool.

    Typeone – I am not aware of a treatment that can eliminate a person’s dependency on insulin for Type One Diabetes. This does not mean there isn’t one, just that I haven’t found one I can recommend. I have heard of people being diagnosed as Type One being able to manage their disease to the point of no longer needing insulin, such as Halle Berry so it may be possible if you find the appropriate lifestyle and nutritional changes. I would recommend researching the possibility and letting others know if you find anything of value. Aside from that I would recommend having an extended supply of insulin and old-school testing materials.

    There is evidence that European and African Mistletoe extracts taken in high doses can stimulate insulin secretion in the pancreas, and it might be possible to incorporate this into whatever alternative treatment you may find.

    Type Two Diabetes can often be treated herbally, and through proper nutrition and exercise. In a post-peak world I believe most Type Two Diabetics would have little trouble getting enough exercise, eating less, and eating raw or minimally processed food.

  • Typeone,

    What you are asking could act as a stand-in for any drug/procedure dependant condition. If we are headed for collapse, and I can’t find any credible reason to expect otherwise, things will get very bad, very quickly for anyone with a serious medical condition. I expect that in the near future, as peak oil begins to restrict our ability to techno-fix every problem, medical care will increasingly go into triage mode, limiting the resources expended for improving or extending the end of life and directing them instead to health maintenance and treating trauma in younger people.

    If the population bottleneck is as extreme as Guy and others indicate, we could be headed for a mass die-off, reducing the population to below sustainable level, or ~.5 billion. Five hundred million people sounds like a lot but it means 13 out of every 14 people will die. In rich countries like mine (US) we are pretty sure that it will be all those poor people in the undeveloped countries that will make up the bulk of the dead. While that will be true in the sense that there are more of them, a quick “US vs Global South” comparison of subsistence farmers per capita should make us question those assumptions. Even if we turned that die-off projection on its head and were able to provide for people (that miracle people are praying for) and only lost 1 out of 14 (instead of 13 out of 14), that would be a loss of 22 million people in the US. Who would that be? I’m guessing it would be the poor, young, old, and people with medical conditions.

    So your question is a good one. Guy is giving people a path forward. Unfortunately, digging a well, growing a garden, building a house, and finding some friends does not answer your question. I cannot give you an answer, but I can rephrase the question. “What would someone in 1850, or 1320, do if they had Type 1 diabetes?” That’s your answer, that’s your path.

    Michael Irving

  • I once got a UTI (the 2nd in my life) about 30 days after my health insurance ran out. I drank some cranberry juice every now and again, but the thing that really worked for me was . . . nothing. It ran its course after about two weeks, and then I was fine.

    Not the solution for everyone, of course, but that was my experience.

  • Been saying this for a few years now … as futile as it all is

    Fill up your attic with brand new shoes
    a pair a week until the oil-crash news
    pick sizes and styles that will sell and last
    because when there’s no cars shoes wear out fast

    Don’t tell a soul (I intend no pun)
    you can’t defend against a grim mans gun
    pack some for you – you’ll need some too
    and maybe some tacks and maybe some glue

    and all the things that strugglers need
    some axes and shovels and long-life seeds
    and fishing tackle and guns and bows
    and books on things that nobody knows

    and needles and thread and lots of wool
    and keep it up ’til your attic is full
    tell no-one at all not even your kin
    just store it and wait for the fun to begin

    and maybe those shoes will be worth more than gold
    and worth more than diamonds whenever they’re sold
    and with care and with skill your attic will be
    a bank for your future, just try it and see


    I can still remember the time before the crash
    when we all drove around in cars and I had lots of cash
    and anything I wanted, I’d just go out and buy
    I’d even drive a mile or two – just to buy a pie

    but then the oil wars started and everything collapsed
    the supermarket shelves were stripped before a month elapsed
    and people all turned really grim and gained a hungry look
    we’d steal from anyone at all we’d kill for things to cook

    and everywhere disease and grief and bodies left to rot
    while gangs of grim and brutal men would kill and steal and plot
    and people fled the cities and countless numbers died
    and everything was so so bad not even mothers cried

    our house was one of many then, a normal family home
    but it was stripped and burnt for fuel when we had left to roam
    and I remember mum and dad, my little sister too
    but they were killed and eaten back sometime in ‘22

    and now I know I’m dying, I’ve left no living heirs
    nobody is alive to know there’s not a soul who cares
    there’s only me so damned hungry I’m gnawing at the trees
    there’s no-one left to kill and eat oh God please help me please

    and as I stagger on and on through burnt and plundered homes
    I see the the signs of rage and ruin and countless human bones
    I hear the starving pack of dogs that follow close behind
    and I am now so close to death I hardly even mind

    I fall and screaming dogs begin to rip and shred my life
    my mind drifts back to days of oil and to my kids and wife
    oh life was so so simple then and life was so so good
    but all we had we wasted, we never understood

  • Very interesting, Guy. Probably you were an excellent professor.

    The use of water is the point I’m interested at right now. May I suggest the installation of a small well connected to a deposit of water by an electric pump fed with solar panels? (Just for domestic use, shower, etc.).

    I still have to learn more about electricity and have a couple conversations with the calculator, but I think that it would be possible feeding a water circulation system to keep the crops fed (in small scale, of course) using solar panels and small electric water pumps. These are simple materials, more or less cheap and easy to fix when broken.

  • Jean, we’re thinking about the same things. I wrote about the durable living arrangements at the mud hut with respect to water, food, body temperature, and community. The series is preceded by an introductory essay and followed by an essay about individual options.