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.




14 thoughts on “Surviving the Age of Transition

  1. Hi Tony,

    I struggle with seeing the truth before us and not falling down the rabbit hole of despair. Right now, I see it as important to learn as much as I can, in part for my family, but also because I believe it will be important to share my knowledge with the community. I, too, do not see myself as a survivalist. Survivalism conjures images of bunkers and guns and extreme means to survive as a small isolated enclave. I suppose this is why I find the “transition” groups intriguing. It’s a coming together of the community to prepare for the transition ahead in a collaborative, cooperative manner. I’ve thought about the place where I live, not just in terms of our single acre, but instead as a much bigger space of connected plots of land that could come together as a group effort. Our neighbors work together as a group in small ways today and I’m optimistic that if times do indeed become more difficult that our existing relationships will help us pull together. And then the knowledge that I’m developing today could be put to much more significant use.

    And BTW, I’m heading down the permaculture path as well. I look forward to hearing about what you learn about that as well as hardier chicken breeds.


  2. One more thing. I thought you might be interested in this film. The religious aspect is not my thing (I’m in no way preaching here because I’m a devout agnostic), but the gardening methodology was interesting. Since you are going to be learning more about permaculture methods, I thought you might find this interesting as well.


  3. Thanks for those comments, Sandy. It does help to know that there are many of us who are already building some resiliency, and I think you are exactly right about the importance of community. I do wonder sometimes if this particular property is the best place for us given the long term picture, but it’s the community and neighbours that feel more valuable than anything else. That and being able to walk to our sailboat!

    Thanks for posting the Back to Eden link; I’ve seen it and found it extremely inspiring. I’ve been evaluating our set up to see where we might be able to put some of the techniques to work! I’m sure there are others who will be interested to follow the link.

  4. The issue of peak oil, rapid climate change, and environmental degradation – have all been high on my radar screen for quite some time now. The economic issues are just a side affect of those and the issue of overpopulation. We have been 100% self sufficient on vegetables for some time now, but lean on others for everything else. One way we can improve that is to actually reduce the amount of dairy/meat/and grains to a lower level and use more of our vegetables (including potatoes and squash) instead. Another change we have made is to increasingly use fertilizer sources from within our own homestead and/or from local supplies. Having our flock of hens helps alot with that since the pure (not mixed with shavings) chicken poo when composted is a very good fertilizer. I continue to slowly increase our fruit production as well. The real question for me though, is will I be able to adapt growing fast enough to adjust to our region’s climate change affect?

    1. Laura, your wisdom from so many years of gardening has been invaluable to me and I’m sure everyone else who reads your blog. I also really appreciate your experiments with homestead fertilizers; I’m also thinking through wood ash, seaweed, green manures, and compost/manures as substitutes for the usual suspects. And I agree with you about the fear of how fast we can adapt–it’s just so unpredictable at the micro-climate level, and as all gardeners know, micro-climate is everything!

      I like John Michael Greer’s advice to diversify the tool box as much as possible, and again, gardeners know that this is sound. Every year, regardless of our best attempts, some crops do well and others fail miserably. But if we have a very diverse garden, there is always something good and sustaining to eat. I think this goes for our techniques too. I LOVE row covers, for instance; they make a HUGE difference to how things grow here and make up for a lot of variability in the weather. So what can I use if one day I can’t use row covers? Grow lights? Fertilizers? Irrigation? Purchased seeds? Heat cables/mats? Time to experiment now, I guess.

  5. I have just come across your blog today, and was straight away attracted to this article. These are thought processes that my husband and I have had a few years ago now (after watching Collapse with Michael Ruppert, amongst other research) and came up with the term ‘Survironmentalists’ to describe our balance between ‘survivalism’ and ‘environmentalism’.

    “A term we came up with to describe how we live our lives. It is for people who base their beliefs and actions on a balance between Survivalism and Environmentalism. Those who want to be prepared for an uncertain future, to be able to provide for and protect their loved ones, but still support the Earth & it’s inhabitants now. Healing the planet we call home, hoping for solutions and changes to restore balance, but being ready for hard times, if we cannot.”

    We are creating an ‘urban homestead’, learning skills like bowhunting, and beekeeping, building community bonds (I started a group called The Urban Homesteaders Club) and working on our own resilience. It is challenging, trying to prepare and yet still live a normal, everyday life at the same time. The thing for us is, we love this lifestyle anyway… it is not like we are doing things we hate or making our kids suffer for it… we enjoy what we are learning, and try to see every skill or project we take on as one better than we were before. One step futher to being prepared is better than not having started at all. We are in no way experts but one thing I have learnt, panicking or worrying can be overwhelming and paralyse you into doing nothing… at the same time, doing too much can lead to burn out, and that isn’t good either.

    (Sorry for going on, this is a topic close to my heart, and as big a topic as it is, it is nice to see others who have similiar thoughts to ours!)

  6. Hi Dixiebelle, and welcome! Glad to hear that you are preparing in the way that works for you and your family. I love your idea of the support group/club–that’s something I am contemplating starting too. And no, I haven’t read the Gilding book–thanks for the suggestion!

  7. I’m late to the party, but just wanted to say that I’m concerned about these issues, too, and have been reading a lot of materials that have left me in a state of panic similar to what you’ve mentioned. (Interestingly, I actually proposed a course on these issues too, but my faculty wasn’t so interested – we’ll see if that changes over time).

    I’ve been trying to think of and practice new and modified ways of living as a way of hopefully reducing the impact of an uncertain future. This was my first year with a container and a community garden, and I’ve been storing extra food, since prices are rising and will likely continue to do so drastically. As much as possible I’ve been building up my health, both to reduce my need for healthcare and so that it’s easier to get around on my own.

    Next on the agenda, I’m evaluating and pricing out tools and other things that we might need – I’d like to spend some of my savings on things like a pressure canner, dehydrator, water filter, grain mill, garden tools, and lots of seeds before the savings devalue too much or the things I want become harder to get.

    Is there anything in particular that you’ve read that you’ve found to be especially eye-opening or helpful? I’m always looking for more information, especially around these issues.

  8. Hi Toni,

    I bought the permaculture book and am working my way through it. Many of the concepts I have been doing already based on pure common sense, but there are a number of principles that are new to me and definitely intriguing. I’d love to hear your review of the book and practices as you work your way through it as well.


    1. Wayfinder, welcome! I will share resources as/if I find them, but it looks from your own blog that you are well on your way.

      Sandy, I will do my best to review The Permaculture Handbook. As you know, it is a massive textbook, really, and more likely I will write about how reading sections is impacting my decisions/assessments/intentions. Love to hear more about your experiences, too.

  9. I have been thinking and thinking about this post since the day you published it. Here’s what I have been thinking. (1) What a thoughtful, articulate, ethical person you are. (2) Where can I sign up for the course you are preparing to teach?! (3) Worry, worry, worry. I am dabbling when I should be preparing. (4) Wondering what you think of Sharon Astyk’s writings. (6) More worry, especially about our water supply, which is plentiful but which requires electricity. (7) Wishing we could talk more about this over tea. (8) Wondering if you have read Carol Deppe’s “The Resilient Gardener.” (9) More worry. Nobody in my life is thinking seriously about these things, so I have been pushing it all to the back burner of my brain. But if you – an academic, not a survivalist, and someone I listen to carefully (see #1 above) – are drawing these conclusions, it’s time for me to get much more serious.

    I have nothing useful to add to the discussion right now, but I wanted you to know your words are resonating!

    (And on a completely unrelated topic, I think getting your chickens to do the spring tilling of cover crops is a great idea! I don’t think it would work with my raised beds, though – I know from experience much of my carefully tended soil would end up outside the bed instead of inside!)

  10. Miriam, thank you for sharing those thoughts. Some responses: I hear you on the worry! I’ll write about that shortly. I love Sharon Astyk’s work, especially as a fellow (former) English academic! I’m anxious to read her new book, Making Home, which I think speaks to my genetic restlessness and the sensible move to stay put. I still worry about the debt-load, though. I hear you about the water supply; I think most in this area who aren’t on municipal water rely on deep, electrically pumped wells. Rainwater collection is high on my list and is really well addressed in The Permaculture Handbook. More on this to come I’m sure. Yes, let’s talk over tea! I think a reading group/support group is in order, if you’d like to join in…

    Lastly, you really got me thinking when you asked about my course. Right now, I’m preparing what is ostensibly a Intro to University Reading and Writing course at VIU, which I can send you the details for, if you are serious. But the idea that I’m now considering is a community-based course designed around the same issues: looking at the latest research and realities confronting us, moving through the psychological shift required to adapt, and then considering the practicalities of our unique situations…I’ll keep you posted!

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