When my journey of urban homesteading began in earnest, predicated on the (now proven) theory of Peak Oil and a feeling that Western civilization may crumble rapidly as a result – I was scared. My first child was still in-utero, we had barely started gardening, had no fruit trees planted, and had virtually no DIY skill sets to work with. Not only was I scared, but I was depressed and also angry! How was I going to take care of my new, little baby and my family in a Mad Max, apocalyptic world that was sure to show up on my doorstep any day?
What I did was this – I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I read everything I could find about energy descent, gardening, orchard care, permaculture, chickens and bees, and house repair and maintenance. I got my hands dirty and built up my confidence in my ability to tackle problems and come up with solutions.
8 years on we are now growing enough food to not only supplement our families’ diet 4 seasons out of the year, but we are also growing enough fruits and vegetables to help feed 3 other families through our micro – CSA! Each season we add more fruiting shrubs and trees to our landscape – apples, cherries, plums, sorbus, cornus mas, raspberries, blue berries, haskaps, gooseberries, and currants all make up and contribute to the first food forest and orchard planted in WSP, Minnesota in at least 50 years!
We have continued adding “tools”, both literally and figuratively to our DIY tool box of skills. We have re-roofed our house, updated the plumbing, re-modeled our bathroom, built a deck out back, and many other projects that have not only improved the quality of our lives, but have also helped us grow as people who can make and fix things!
When Peak Oil became such a motivating factor in my life, I thought I was going to have to survive this crisis on my own. In those early years when the learning curve was still pretty high, I found myself turning into a prepper. Every time we went grocery shopping I would insist on buying tins of meat and canned beans. The idea of arming myself weighed heavily upon my conscience, and my thoughts were constantly tuned to “what if’s” – What if the gas really does run out over night? – What if there are roving and rioting bands of starving people in every major city? And what if, what if – you get the idea!
Luckily though, as the years moved on and our gardens grew fertile, fruit trees got planted, and our skills starting to blossom, my philosophy concerning Peak Oil and its implications on the world and society started to evolve. In no small part to great thinkers like John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg, and Jared Diamond and groups like the Post Carbon Institute – rationality was reinstated, and I was able to put my anxiety and nervousness about the future in check. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse and John Michael Greer’s The Long Descent, together weave a narrative of the rise and fall of human civilizations throughout history. So while the narratives are separated by time, space, and culture, they all share one common theme that facilitated their failure and ultimate collapse – the overshoot of their carrying capacity and resource base.
Whether the limiting resource is timber, water, or carbon dense fossil fuels, all civilizations answer to these constraints and limits. Ours is no different. Just because modern, western civilization has dominated the globe for the last 300 years or so, does not make us immune to natures reality check. 100 years ago when industrial civilization received its first injection of energy dense petroleum, it gained the ability to exponentially expand over the planet’s landscape. We hit that drug and have been hooked ever since.
While stuck in this petrol fueled binge, we have managed to clear cut, mine, and pollute our planet all in the name of continual economic growth and technological progress without thinking about what the long term consequences may be. With a population of 7 billion people (and growing) who all rely on agriculture, transportation, and infrastructure systems that are dependent on abundant supplies of cheap fossil fuel energy, you can start to see the problem we face as a global population.
When these abundant supplies of fossil fuel energy start to be less abundant and of lower quality (think tar sands), prices rise to the point of causing global economic disruptions, the first of which we saw back in 2008. What Diamond and Greer talk about in their respective books is what is happening right now. Our civilization and the systems that support it have overshot their carrying capacity and resource base and are now in the first stages of collapse. What history shows us though, is that these collapse scenarios, whether it was the Greenland Vikings, or the great Mayan civilizations, do not happen over night. They are long, drawn out, and even interspersed with periods of relative calm and prosperity, but eventually they fail.
Because societal collapse happens so slowly, the people living through it may not even realize what is happening. Only through historical hind sight, do we ever see the whole picture. This is the one difference we have with past societal collapse scenarios. We have the option to not only acknowledge our current predicament, but also act to change it, and that is what I will spend the rest of the article discussing.
If we look at the facts, and acknowledge the predicament that we find ourselves in – depleting resources, habitat loss, and climate change, where does that leave us? Do we head for the hills loaded up with guns, ammo, and cans of beans and hunker down in our doomsteads until the crisis has passed us by? If we adopt the mentalities of extreme preppers and lone survivalists does that truly insure our survival? My simple response to these questions are no. There is no amount of guns, ammo, and beans that will insure the long term survival of you or your family.
I recently came across the story about the Lykov family. While this story is old and a bit extreme, it illustrates rather well what TEOTWAWKI survival situations can do to people and their families. The Lykovs were a Russian family who were persecuted for their religious beliefs during the Bolshevik revolution. To escape almost certain death, they fled deep into the Russian wilderness known as the taiga, and remained there alone for nearly forty years. Upon being “rediscovered”, they were near starvation, barely clothed, and severely under socialized. Being that humans are social animals and thrive in groups (clans, communities, neighborhoods, etc…), it can be said that yes, the Lykovs were surviving (barely), but not thriving. I feel this is one of the biggest misconceptions concerning the idea of self sufficiency on an individual or small group level.
Throughout all of human history, it has been the group or the community that has allowed us to succeed as a species and efficiently exploit ideas and resources to the further evolution of the project we call human civilization. For good or evil, the group is the reason why we find ourselves in the situation we are in, and it is the group that will see the survival of our species into the future.
The pressing issue at hand is what kinds of groups and communities we decide to make, reinvent, and heal as the globalized, industrial system faces its own collapse. Are we going to form groups and communities that are resilient and can come together in times of need and crisis; or are we going to keep going about business as usual and go it alone? I for one, not only want to survive these challenging times we face, but also thrive!
When I was describing at the beginning of the article on how far we have come as Urban Homesteaders, all that progress is not just for our family. It is for our friends, neighbors, and extended community as well. It is true that we are not “farmers” in the traditional sense of the word, but it is no longer a traditional world we live in either. One of the biggest steps we can take to build community and resilience is by transforming our homesteads into places that don’t just consume resources, but also produce them for sale, barter, or even gifts. When we can start to take back the autonomy we so easily gave up for a little bit of fossil fueled convenience, we start the healing process that makes up a thriving community.
In the article Roots Run Deep Here, I sketched out many ideas and possibilities on how we can move forward and deal with the converging crisis of energy descent and climate change. I will not repeat myself here except for this – if we want to survive and thrive in these challenging times, we need to start taking responsibility for some of these problems ourselves. I am done looking to governments and talking heads for answers. People are creative, and when we work together we can change the world, we just have to want too! Plant a garden if you have the space, talk with your neighbors even if you don’t share common interests, catch and save rainwater, go for a hike and enjoy nature, and plant some trees that will provide your grand children with food! Peace & Cheers!