by Jeff Sties
When our son Ben was born in 1999, my wife Stacy and I decided that one child was enough. For starters, there was her obvious discomfort during the pregnancy. Financially, we knew that we could not afford to put multiple children through college. Our chosen careers brought in a comfortable income as long as we kept our ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ clearly in balance. In addition, my wife wanted to stay home with the baby for at least a year and then return to professional employment. All of this required us to quickly re-think our careers, retirement plans, and even where we lived. As any decent parent will tell you, children have a way of doing this.
At a conference in 2008, I attended a panel discussion on the future of ‘sustainability.’ A researcher from the emerging science of bio-mimicry explained how rising levels of carbon dioxide emissions would destroy much of the world’s ecosystems. With obvious difficulty, she managed to suppress her emotions long enough to describe the future she thought awaited her children. In order to prepare them for the challenges ahead, she was teaching them to be ‘resilient.’
Following the conference, I began my own research into the effects of climate change. It was then that I came across the complex economic theory of ‘peak oil’ as explained by Richard Heinberg, Colin Campbell, and many others. Quite suddenly it was clear to me that the ‘endless growth’ model of western civilization was coming to an end and that this process would only be exacerbated by the effects of climate change. This time, it wasn’t just my own future that needed re-thinking, it was my son’s as well.
How could I prepare us for an uncertain future without scaring my family? Moving to Canada or joining a ‘life boat’ community was not an option unless I wanted a swift divorce. We did not have the money to go ‘off the grid’ even if it made sense in an urban neighborhood. My wife was supportive but unwilling to confront the issue head on; she left that duty to me. As I thought through the ramifications of the ‘long emergency’ I desperately needed to channel that energy into something productive.
At the time, my wife had a co-worker who brought fresh eggs into the office: We were hooked. With my wife and son’s enthusiastic support, I set about designing a chicken coop for ourselves. My goal was to make this a neighbor-friendly project and use it as a teaching opportunity. The small city where we live permitted chickens, but had an unwritten policy banning roosters.
The first step was to teach my son the fine art of dumpster diving for construction materials. We kept our eyes on local construction bins, obtained the necessary permissions, put on our gloves and went safely to work. We salvaged scraps of construction lumber, half sheets of exterior grade plywood, and even a few concrete blocks. During construction, I let my son and the neighbor’s kids pour concrete, nail framing, and put on a coat of paint. When it was ready, my wife drove down to the Farmer’s Co-op and brought home four hens in dog kennels.
We’ve had the girls (Hermione, Ginny, Luna, and Molly) for 18 months. The three of us take turns distributing free eggs to neighbors who greatly appreciate them. In return we receive empty egg cartons and kitchen scraps for the chickens. Occasionally we are rewarded with homemade cookies or a jar of local preserves as barter. A neighbor down the street was so impressed with our effort, he built his own coop. Without a doubt, this experiment has been a huge success with one exception; our care for the chickens exceeds the current cost of eggs at the grocery store. As far as I am concerned, the benefits far outweigh the difference.
This initial effort at food production encouraged me to expand the little garden I have had for many years. Last spring, my son and I planted a wide variety of seeds including lettuce, collards, beans, tomatoes, and much more. The idea, I explained to him, was to see what we could grow in our shady yard that would feed us as well as the chickens. He helped with planting the seeds, transferring the young seedlings, watering during the summer heat and harvesting. It was his idea to protect the plants from local deer by cutting and bending a section of metal rabbit fencing over the rows. We took turns with the single pair of wire cutters and discussed ways to cover them with plastic when winter set in.
Although the summer drought reduced our yield, we had good success with the lettuce and collards. We all enjoy eating the fresh lettuce; our second crop is still producing. The collards are strictly for the chickens! As summer blended into fall, Ben helped me plant onion and garlic bulbs, which have come up beautifully. Again, this ongoing project serves two purposes. It’s about learning what I can grow in our yard as well as teaching Ben where his food comes from.
My next project was to teach him how to preserve food. I purchased a large canning pot and the required accessories before we headed off last May to pick strawberries. In August, he and I went to pick peaches at the local orchard where we pick apples in the fall. For those of you who have never tried this, canning preserves is hot, sticky work with potential health effects so I limited his initial involvement in the actual processing. This has not diminished his appreciation of his own efforts, which he is reminded of every time he pops the lid on a fresh jar of jam. To add to this new family tradition, we plan on opening the peaches with the first winter snow, or Christmas morning, whichever comes first.
Our next project together was to excavate a basic root cellar by hand. Although I did most of the hard digging with a pick, my son managed to extract a few buckets of Virginia red clay on his own. As the pit got deeper, I handed buckets up to him, he dumped them in the wheelbarrow and sent the empty buckets back down to me. At some point, the ‘fun’ of hauling dirt wore off and buckets started costing me 25 cents apiece. Needless to say, the economic lesson of working and saving money is an ongoing one at our house. Although it cost me a few dollars, it was important to me to teach Ben about the earth’s constant temperature below the frost line.
When Ben was just a year old, Stacy and I started reading to him each night at bedtime. Even though he is eleven now and an avid reader himself, he still enjoys this time together at the end of the day. Some of our favorite books written specifically for young readers happen to have post-apocalyptic settings. The main characters are always children struggling to make sense of their world with little parental guidance. These stories are filled with personal suffering, loss, and efforts at survival. I have used this opportunity to make correlations with our efforts here at home, such as bartering and gathering food. Although I never suggest to him that his future will bear any resemblance, I hope these themes find their way through the daily bombardment of advertising promising a lifestyle that will not come to pass.
These are a few examples of my efforts thus far to prepare us for an uncertain future. I’ve also made a habit of taking Ben to the local used bookstores whenever we need to add to our growing library of appropriate technologies. We frequently watch the ‘survival’ programs on television together and discuss the commonalities. He probably knows more about our debt-based fiat currency system than the average adult. Occasionally he asks for an update on the spot price of silver. However, not all of my ideas have been well received. When I first contemplated ways to prepare my son, I thought of lessons from my own childhood in the late 1970s and 80s.
Camping from Lake Kissimmee in Florida to Moosehead Lake in Maine is how I learned to be resilient. As kids we endured hours crammed in the back of an un-air-conditioned Toyota Corolla with nothing but books to read. For meals we stopped and ate food out of the cooler in the trunk. Our first night in a tent, we learned to trim the excess drop cloth so that it doesn’t collect rainwater. Waiting for the Coleman stove to boil water, dealing with sand, bugs, and things we left on the counter at home were all part of our training. Although I had taken Ben camping as a toddler, he and my wife were less than enthusiastic about this idea. I did however, have their full support to go on my own.
It is important to remember that this is an ongoing process. I will continue to monitor what I believe is the unwinding of western civilization and take what balanced measures are appropriate for my family. What works for us may not work for others. I know that I cannot adequately prepare my son for the magnitude of the changes I expect to occur. My hope is that these experiences will allow him to adapt more readily. In all honesty, it is difficult for me to remain positive all the time but I try not to let it affect Ben’s vision of his own future. We obviously want him to work hard at school and pursue his own interests. He has our full support. In a way, I find comfort in knowing that preparing our children for an uncertain future is a dilemma that all parents face.
Jeff Sties lives with his wife Stacy and their son Benjamin in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is an architect and the principal of Sunbiosis PLC which specializes in energy efficient single family homes. Jeff and Stacy met while attending Virginia Tech where he graduated in 1991 with a Bachelor of Architecture degree.
This essay is permalinked at Energy Bulletin.