[permaculture] Time to pick up our hats?

SArjuna at aol.com SArjuna at aol.com
Thu Jul 12 14:38:47 EDT 2007

Dear all,

     When I read the article pasted on below, I was moved to also share the 

     When we share about our plans to move to SW Wisconsin and create a 
permaculture farm where we and others can live as sustainably as possible, some 
people comment that they believe one should never move out of fear, but only if 
one would enjoy living elsewhere more than they enjoy where they are now.

     This brings up some interesting questions.    The main one in my own 
mind is what is it that makes the above belief appear rational to those who hold 
it?    If you live where an incoming hurricane or a rumbling volcano threatens 
your home, is it sensible not to be afraid?

     We live out in the country fairly near a railroad crossing.   One day I 
heard a train approaching, then a sound I had never heard before, a very loud 
metallic screeching sound that lasted for quite a few seconds.   "I bet that's 
the train braking for somebody in the crossing," I thought, and beat it down 
to the crossing, which is not in a populated area, in case I could be of 
assistance.   It turned out that the young man driving the car hit by the train had 
indeed seen it coming, but somehow didn't think it would hit him.   Across 
the top of his smashed windshield was a large decal that said "No Fear!"

     It happens that the farm we are creating will allow us to live the 
lifestyle that has been my ideal for decades, and that it's in an absolutely 
beautiful place.   However, in all honesty I don't     know whether we'd have taken 
on the huge project of pulling up roots and moving across the state if we had 
not had a good bit of apprehension about how un"enjoyable" our lives might 
become shortly if we didn't take some positive action now.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~      

Monday, July 09, 2007

 Pick Up Your Hat
Sharon Astyk, Casaubon's Book

 Way back in college, I read a short story by Robert Heinlein that I've never 
been able to find again. In it, a bartender is standing at his bar, when two 
nuclear scientists come in. They are talking about the immanent danger of 
nuclear attack on the US, and the bartender gets scared. He asks them whether they 
really believe what they are saying, and then says something along the lines 
of "If you really believed that, you wouldn't be sitting here drinking, you'd 
get out of the target area right now." The scientists assure the bartender 
that everything is really that serious, and then list a host of reasons why they 
can't leave right now. The bartender, convinced, picks up his hat and walks 
out of the bar and city right then, leaving all his connections behind. And this 
being fiction, just as he gets outside the city limits, he starts to question 
his own instincts, and he tries to make a phone call (or something), only to 
see the mushroom cloud go up behind him.

Now life very rarely justifies our assumptions so rapidly, but I find this 
story interesting because it illustrates just how hard it is to live your life 
as though you believe bad things are going to happen to you. Even when we know 
they are likely, even when we see things forthcoming, it is awfully hard to 
pick up our hats and set aside one set of options to pursue another. 
Particularly when there's little cultural support for it - when the assumption that even 
basic preparedness makes you a wacko is so prevalent. The story struck me, 
long before I discovered peak oil or climate change, because I wondered how it is 
one knows that *now* is the time to pick up one's hat. I was struck, for 
example, by the dilemma of the Jews who left Germany - how do you know that the 
worst is really here? My husband's grandmother was on the kindertransport, that 
took German-Jewish children to England. She wasn't even 13, and her parents 
put her on a train with one suitcase and sent her off to a far away country to 
be raised by someone else. It saved her life. A cousin of hers, living in the 
same neighborhood in the ghetto stayed with her parents - they thought the risk 
of harm coming to her in England was greater than the risk of harm in 
Germany. That cousin died in the concentration camps, and Inge, Eric's grandmother, 
survived. How do you know it is time to risk so much?

Now if any of you read Matt Savinar over at 
http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/Index.html, you could argue that on nearly every measure, Matt's much more 
apocalyptic in his thinking than I am. He writes under the name "Juris Doctor 
of Doom" and he makes the argument that we should just follow the money trail 
- he says, "we're spending billions to fix problems we spend trillions 
creating." Matt forsees a real apocalyptic disaster, whereas I tend to talk a lot 
about what we can do to mitigate disaster, and I tend to think mostly in terms of 
poverty, rather than anything I'd call "apocalypse." In that sense, it would 
seem that Matt's a "doomer" and I'm not.

But it isn't that simple. If you read Matt's writings, you'll see he's 
currently on a hunt for the perfect place to live in the post peak world, at the 
very same time that he posts "we may only have 18 months left (this was a few 
months ago)." Right now, he's living in a place that he admits probably won't do 
very well. And Matt knows as well as I do that building community, and food 
systems, getting accepted in an area, and getting trees to fruiting and getting 
practiced in meeting many of your needs really takes time. I've been doing it 
for going on 7 years now, and I'm still hoping for more time. If you look at 
our words, Matt's got a far darker vision than I have. If you look at our 
actions, Matt's risking a whole lot more than I'm prepared to. I picked up my hat a 
long time ago. Matt's just now ready to pick up his.

I'm not picking on Matt Savinar, or anyone else. Heck, I don't know the 
future, and Matt may well be wiser than I am. Also, given that he doesn't have 
kids, is more mobile and has more money than I do, he's probably making the right 
choice for him. I mention this not because I think Matt doesn't believe what 
he says - I'm sure he does - but because all of us are hedging our bets to one 
degree or another, and also because even when you believe it, it can be damned 
hard to keep the link between hypothetical futures and reality alive in your 
head and your thinking.

Like everyone, I make my risk analyses based on my reality, and other people 
have to make theirs on their own. I judge based on my own assessments - do I 
believe the IPCC or Hansen? Do I believe CERA or Simmons and Assoc. on peak 
oil? Whom do I choose to track? And what are my priorities? For me, protecting my 
kids is #1, and everything else is a distant second. But even that leads me 
to one set of solutions, not another. I could, for example, believe that what 
was needed was a ton of guns and total isolation, or that I would be best 
protecting my kids by converting to Christianity and fitting in in middle America, 
or by making a lot of money and protecting them by living in a gated 
community. And honestly, it is conceivable that any of those strategies might be right 
- and my "build community, grow food" theory might be entirely wrong, or I 
just might be unlucky. Like everyone else, I'm playing the odds.

The post I wrote yesterday, arguing that people should start living now like 
they may have to in the long term for selfish reasons got some people quite 
concerned. They felt that I was either panicking or driving other people to 
panic. To a large degree that wasn't my intention, but I did intend to create a 
sense of urgency.

 I do want people who read this to think seriously about whether they have a 
viable back up plan for a crisis that begins in the near future. Why? Not 
because I think the whole world is likely to collapse, but because I think any 
collapse will come in stages and segments. For a Katrina victim, it may already 
have happened. For me it might be tomorrow. For you, it might wait a decade. We 
don't know - we're playing the odds.

I do want people who read this to thrive in the future, and if you think I'm 
a wacko, so be it. I tend to think that after Katrina, in an inflationary 
economy, someone who says "store food, plan ahead, get ready now" might not look 
like the Unibomber, but I might not be much of a judge ;-).

I think I'd rather have you believe that I'm a nutcase than believe that I 
always and only think "we can do it" and thus, don't encourage you to hedge your 
bets. And I genuinely do believe that we are fairly close to a situation in 
which many of us will be most concerned with just getting by, and the things 
that a lot of us might want or need to do to live comfortably with much less are 
going to be less and less available to us. I think we can change many things, 
and fairly quickly at that - but I'm not at all certain that we will - and I 
don't want to bet my life on what Brian called, in comments "the political 
will fairy." I sure as heck don't want you to bet your future on "my" vision of 
the political will fairy ;-).

Why do I think that we need to start picking up our hats right now, and 
making the changes that we're going to have to make anyway right now? Well, at this 
point it still looks like world oil production may have peaked over two years 
ago - OPEC simply doesn't seem to be able to increase production. Mexico is 
experiencing double digit declines, and will stop exporting oil altogether 
shortly. While some new production capacity is coming online, I think we're at the 
bumpy plateau. That means over the long term, oil prices keep going up 
forever - they may trend down again a few times, but when they level off, they'll be 
higher...and higher...and higher.

Natural gas prices have been rising slowly, but mostly because we've had a 
series of mild winters. One cold one, and we can expect much higher heating 
costs. Natural gas is set to peak in the next decade, the US has already had its 
peak and Canada is next. Coal is not far behind. Peaking means rising costs, 
increasing difficulty getting at it, and a lower return on investment - more and 
more energy gets eaten up just getting the oil or coal out of the ground. And 
we're seeing nations that are energy producers reserving more and more of 
what they do have for themselves - eventually, they stop exporting, and other 
nations have to make do with what they have. The US's oil reserves peaked more 
than 30 years ago, our gas almost a decade ago, and most likely our coal has 
peaked as well.

Energy isn't the only thing getting pricier. Food is too. First of all, the 
good food we're all supposed to be eating does cost more than industrial crap. 
But even the crap is going way up in price, mostly because of energy costs, 
but also because of drought (climate-change induced in many cases), 
desertification and soil destruction, and falling yields in many places in the world. I 
don't think that trend is gong to change for quite a while - food prices will 
continue to rise because we're putting our food in our gas tanks, and because 
our food costs are dependent on cheap energy - which is over. That means that 
food you buy now and store is a good bet to be cheaper. And food you grow 
yourself is an even better one. Stores won't save you - but they can help a little.

Meanwhile, we're on the verge of some deep economic trouble, and a large 
number of people believe we're headed for a recession. A lot of them are fairly 
reputable people who ought to know - Greenspan, for example, has been 
manipulating the US economy for a long time, and he thinks it is likely we'll experience 
recession by year's end. Now recessions come and recessions go - but if no 
big boom of growth comes along to fix them, they don't go. And with less and 
less available cheap energy, and more and more time spent just fixing problems 
like climate change created environmental disasters, resource wars and energy 
shortages, we have less capital to adapt with. The Bank for International 
Settlements, the world's most significant financial body has warned we're in danger 
of another Great Depression - this is not their ordinary message, nor is it 
Greenspan's. That's bad news for us - and a long-lasting recession during the 
period in which we're adapting to climate change and peak oil could mean that we 
really do mostly have what we've already got, that all our dreams of an 
orderly transition are over.

Add climate change to that. Yesterday, we learned that the drought in the 
Southwest is expected to last another century. Think about that. There are 60 
million Americans there, plus another 60 million Mexicans in the affected area. 
How long can they stay there? Where will they go? Add to that the people on the 
Gulf coast and in South Florida - all of whom are vulnerable to the next big 
disaster we can't afford to stop or fix, and there are going to be a lot of 
migrants just in this nation alone in the next decade or so. That's going to 
change the economy, your local job market, and a whole host of things. BILLIONS 
of people are going to be refugees within their countries or from outside them 
by 2050 - and it won't all happen in 2049 - that means real people, real us, 
are going to start being affected today.

James Hansen and the other NASA scientists who argue that we don't have much 
time say that we only have a decade to fix this - a decade to make the 
"draconian" changes that would stop the worst sea rises. Let's say we do make good on 
all those measures - what will that be like? What will it be like when 300 
million people have to slash their personal emissions to the bone? I'd tend to 
bet on some competition for resources, and lots of price rises - at the time 
that most of us can least afford them.

The thing is, things seem ok on many levels. We may believe that these are 
crises, but life is still going on. the kids are still in college, the money is 
still piling up in the 401K, the stock market is still hanging, and we all 
have a life going on. We're still caught between the life now and the life to 
come, and it can be damned hard to navigate that distinction. All of us have to 
figure out what we believe, and hedge our bets as best we can. But it is damned 
hard to know what to do. Do we pick up our hats, put our kids on the train, 
give up the present for the hypothetical future? How do we know that something 
won't pull off a miracle?

One of my commentors pointed out that my prior post created an urge to hoard, 
to preserve one's own, rather than think communally. Now I grasp that urge. 
My first reaction to peak oil, many, many years ago, was precisely the same. I 
had it again when I had my first child, and I have it again every time I worry 
about my kids. And I did pick up my hat. I blew off my Ph.d in order to start 
a small farm - I thought for a long time I could have it both ways, but it 
became increasingly clear that I couldn't, and so I gave up Shakespeare, which 
was sad in some ways. I closed some options off. We made some bets on what our 
kids will need - our money is more in land than in the stock market, so who 
knows what we'll have to do if nothing bad happens when the boys want to go to 
college. We can't have everything, and we've made our choices, and we have to 
live with them.

But we also can't choose all the way every time - so we hedge. We put money 
away for college, and we also put money back into the land. If I had to pick 
one, I'll tell the truth - I don't think the college dollars will be there in a 
decade. But I'm not willing to risk my kids entirely on my predictions. I quit 
my Ph.d, but in part because I love farming and writing, and I wanted to do 
those too - I didn't just dump it. I invest in community support, but I also 
have a stockpile of clothes for bigger kids, and educational books for children 
so that my kids can learn at home through the college level and so they have 
shoes to wear and don't have to dress in the ugly things I can sew if the worst 
happens. I don't believe I can stockpile my way out of anything really bad - 
but I also store food as a hedge, a way of dealing with extended family that 
might need extras, crop failures, my own mistakes.

We all know people who were prepared for Y2K, had nuclear bunkers, went back 
to the land because the end was at hand in the 1970s, have been expecting the 
last coming for decades. And it is tempting, because of those factors, to 
think that the system is strong enough to endure any crisis. And who knows, it may 
be. I'm not a prophet - I don't know the future. But look back a little. In 
the course of a lifetime, ask yourself if your grandparents, and 
great-grandparents ever endured a time of crisis during the course of their lifetimes. 
Again, we're not talking about Mad Max here - we're talking about poverty, war, 
economic disruption, having to leave a beloved place for a new one, epidemic, 
hunger, want. Now maybe none of your family has ever had those things, but 
looking back at my grandparents and great-grandparents, I see 2 world wars and a 
host of smaller ones. Hunger. Want. Poverty. Desperation. Dislocation. 
Refugeeism. Violence. Disease. Death. And thoes were the lucky ones, who survived to 
have kids and grandkids. The generations after World War II are among the first 
in human history to live their whole lives in peace, wealth and good fortune. 
Should we bet that we too will be so fortunate? And what's the price if we're 

That last question is the real bugger, isn't it? And that's the one that I 
rest on, my own private version of the precautionary principle. That is, in 
trying to decide whether James Hansen or the IPCC is right, ultimately, I find 
that the price of believing in Hansen and being wrong is a lot lower than the 
price of believing the IPCC and being wrong in my choice. I think the evidence 
for Hansen's reading is probably better, but the cost in lives and the future of 
not making changes quickly is almost certainly greater than the admittedly 
high price of making them sooner. The same is true about personal preparedness. 
What if I don't do it? Sometimes the price is low and light. Sometimes it 

Ultimately, what has to happen is that we find ways to be prepared, and to 
hedge our bets, without compromising many of our basic principles. This means 
that we prepare for a future that doesn't work out very well, while also trying 
to build a future in which it does. That's harder than choosing just one, but 
I think it is also necessary. That means we buy local, organic, sustainably 
grown bulk foods for our storage, and fill out those clothing bins with used 
goods, not new ones. It means we make the new purchases we do need judiciously - 
yes, perhaps, to the grain grinder, no to the fancy butter churn when a shaken 
jar will do as well.

I want everyone who reads this to make their own choices based on their own 
experience, their own reading of the data available to them, their own needs 
and personal circumstances and their own ability to change. My bet is that 
change will come soon to some of us, later to others, but that the changes I'm 
worried about are now essentially already in motion - that whatever happens, we're 
probably never going to be quite as comfortable or priveleged or lucky or 
ready as we are today. That sucks for all of us - others even more than me. I 
want time. But I don't think that I can live my life based on my own want for it 
- that's wish fulfillment fantasies. Ultimately, my life needs to find a 
balance between preparing for hard times and attempting to avoid them, between 
living now and being ready to live in the future. Everyone will choose a different 
balance. Everyone will make different bets. Everyone will read the future a 
little differently. And some of us will be wrong - quite possibly me. It is 
impossible to be prepared for everything, but it is not only possible but wise to 
prioritize and prepare for many outcomes.

In the end, my own analysis comes down to this. If I'm wrong about what's 
coming down the pike, what price did I pay? I never got to be a professor of 
English Literature. My kids may have to earn college scholarships, or we may have 
to mortgage our land. We may have missed out on some opportunities. But 
generally speaking, I have a life I love now, work I love now, a family that I 
wouldn't be able to enjoy as much if I were doing the full time academic life. I 
have an imperfect degree of security, but a vastly greater one than I could have 
had otherwise. In the net, the limitations of my choices are endurable. If 
I'd chosen otherwise, would I be able to say the same? I might love my work, but 
the risks to my kids future are unacceptable to me. Others would make a 
different choice, and I don't know if they are wrong - only time will tell.

If it were me, I'd at a minimum make a serious backup plan for what to do if 
your five or ten year plan fails. That is, I'd be ready now to live where you 
are, with what you have. And if you don't think staying where you are is 
possible, I think I'd risk relocating. But I'm not you, and I don't want you to do 
it because I say so - make your own decisions.

What I can say is this. If you see the evidence much the same way I do, if 
you really believe it, then it really is time to pick up your hat, or at least 
memorize the train schedule heading wherever you want to be.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

     If anyone knows the title of the Heinlein story Sharon refers to, please 
let me know?

     You have received this message as a friend/member of Shivani's e-lists.  
 If you no longer wish to reeive such information, please reply to that 

 Get a sneak peak of the all-new AOL 
at http://discover.aol.com/memed/aolcom30tour

More information about the permaculture mailing list