Surviving the Age of Transition
Yesterday’s top news stories:
In Eastern British Columbia, a toxic mining tailings pond threatens to spill its waste in a small community, potentially contaminating everything in its path including rivers and drinking water. The cause? Record rains straining the dam.
Extreme heat..well, you know..everywhere (except the PNW), and still almost 100,000 without power almost a week after an extreme weather event on the East coast. And, of course, forest fires burning up Colorado and neighbouring states.
In BC and Washington, the shellfish industry is scrambling. Ocean acidification means that shellfish hatcheries’ seed stock cannot form shells. They are now rearing the seed stock in places like Hawaii, where, for the moment, the acid levels are still tolerable. The companies then ship the young shellfish back to grow in local waters when they are older and can tolerate the conditions. The commercial industry is adapting. Unfortunately, wild stocks don’t have that option. Mussel beds are not reproducing.
Ocean acidification happens because the oceans absorb 30% of our atmospheric carbon. Unfortunately, the acidification that we’re experiencing now is from C02 absorbed 30-40 years ago. So even if there was no atmospheric carbon left to absorb, we still have 30-40 years worth of absorbed carbon on its way. Goodbye marine food.
The global economy is still flailing 4 years after the major collapse in 2008. No sign of recovery in sight. Canada was one of the least affected nations in the world, and we are an energy exporter. But in this global economic climate, the best we’re seeing is flat “growth.” Guess what one of the major causes of the meltdown was? According to the Wall Street Journal, the 2008 spike in oil prices may have been the tipping point.
…To recap: massive species die-off, extreme weather events straining our infrastructure, rising cost of living and flat wages, long economic recessions (when does this qualify as a Depression?)…
Umm, folks? All those scary scif-fi-like predictions of a world affected by peak oil and climate change? We’re already living it. And there’s a concensus building that the tipping points that scientists have spent the last decades warning us about are now visible in the rear-view mirror.
I know I haven’t been posting much over the last few months, and this is one of the reasons why. I’ve been immersed in the latest research into Peak Oil and climate change in preparation for a course I’ll be teaching in the fall, and the conclusions I’m coming to are leaving me in a thinly veiled panic. In a nutshell? We’re screwed, and it’s time to start thinking about how we’re going to survive.
Now, I am not a survivalist. I am a skeptical academic who is suspicious of fear mongering and who has a sunny, optimistic personality. And part of what is troubling me right now is just how difficult it is to predict the future. There are experts out there warning us about the apocalyptic collapse of civilization, and there are others who take the long view of history and suggest a slow, grinding, decline is more likely. After all, as John Michael Greer points out, after suffering two devastating world wars and a great depression, Europe still did not collapse entirely.
We are looking ahead to a very different future. Every country in the world is holding massive debt, which in theory falls on its taxpayers to repay. Money that used to be in government trust has been funneled into and centralized in corporations, and is therefore unavailable. Each extreme weather event that requires massive emergency funding sucks money out of the public coffers, and thus out of the rest of the economy. With oil prices staying high (even allowing for modest fluctuation), rebuilding and maintaining our infrastructure gets harder and harder. Food production is threatened by the double whammy of extreme and unpredictable weather coupled with high fuel costs that impact the cost of fertilizers, pesticides, running farm equipment, and distribution. The cost of every consumer good continues to rise with the rising costs of production.
In the meantime, at the community level, my provincial government has started to sue its local municipalities to try to recoup healthcare costs. Umm, fighting over scraps anyone? I used to look to the natural landscape and systems to help supplement my attempts at self-sufficiency–hunting and fishing–to provide the protein that my small homestead cannot produce. But those natural support systems–if the ocean acidification example is any indication–can not be counted on for much longer.
The burning question for me at the moment is: how long do we have? And of course, that’s an impossible question to answer. Way too many variables. And this makes planning and preparing and adapting tough.
Right now, in this moment, everything is great. Skipper and I have good jobs, we can afford our mortgage even if costs increase or wages go down in moderation. The garden is in full swing, and happy, adorable chicks are racing around exclaiming over every new leaf they find. We and our families are healthy, and our network of wonderful friends continues to grow. I count our blessings every day.
But I’m looking around our homestead and lifestyle with fresh eyes. If the economy (globally and locally) continues to shrink and prioritize, we will need to become increasingly self-reliant. Right now, all of our water and septic needs require electricity. Rain catchment is moving up the list of priorities, as is the “pizza” oven, which I initially considered a luxury. But wood-fired ovens need small, hot fires from small brush, of which we have lots from our prunings.
I’m going to be experimenting with dehydrating in the greenhouse, which is otherwise too hot and dry to use in the height of summer. Dehydrating is less power intensive than freezing or even canning, although I’ll still do that too. I’ll be working at building my capacity to keep us in food year-round, but I won’t be investing in grow-lights. As one friend put it: you can replace heat cables. You can’t create light without power. A small solar panel won’t power even a cfl grow-light at this point (and covering the greenhouse roof with solar panels defeats the purpose! ). But YMMV–depends what happens to our sunshine over the years to come.
Oh and permaculture? I’ve been reading and admiring for a few years, integrating a technique here and there. But I’ve been stuck in the idea that there’s little that’s “natural” about permaculture–you’re basically trying to imitate a natural system with imported plants in order to create something productive for humans. But now I get it–permaculture is essential, and I will be picking up the new Garden Farming for Town and Country asap. Because although working WITH natural systems is the only way to be productive without oil, climate change means that the ecosystems that we’re used to integrating into will be changing dramaticallly. So we need to work with more resilient perennials, maximizing diversity, and creating food systems (even basic ones with annuals to supplement) that require few if any inputs in the future, when it counts. In the long term, we will need to go back to living off the surplus of the land, but the land as it is is too degraded to support us. Permaculture is the way to rebuild that support system.
I’m also reflecting on our chickens. Our flock is very productive and useful; they will stay. But the backyard chickens movement has really focused on dual-purpose birds, and I’m starting to question that. Dual-purpose birds are calm, don’t fly much, and produce both eggs and meat. Awesome! But they were really bred for the integrated farm, to live off the farm wastes and surpluses, like grains. They could also often forage over the whole farm property, which could provide lots of food. Neither of these scenarios describes our situation.
The vegan argument around livestock has long revolved around the feed conversion ratio: even the most hybridized birds eat 2 lbs of grain to produce 1 lb of meat, which is a waste of grain that could be feeding people directly. Now there are lots of reasons why this is not a useful argument, but the core principle remains: if grain prices continue to rise and my forage space is limited, are dual-purpose chickens the right livestock for us? I will be investigating the Mediterranean breeds and the Euskal Oiloa to see if the more traditional third-world backyard bird–the scrawny egg producer that needs much less feed–is a more viable option.
Over the coming months, I’ll be considering every aspect of our lifestyles for their resiliency, and I’m prepared to make some radical changes if necessary. After all, our family has a window in which to get better prepared, and I want to make the most of it.