Sunday, 22 April 2012

What the heck do we do next?

When my kids where younger and occasionally found themselves in what their mother referred to as a "pickle situation", I would remind them that the only question that really matters is "what the heck do we do next?" No use agonizing over how we got to this point, no use obsessing over how bad we feel about it. Time to admit that we really do want to carry on and find a way to do so.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, it should be pretty clear that I think the whole world is in a considerably worse spot than a "pickle situation". Economically, we are facing a general downward trend until our energy use balances out with the renewable energy supply, and there will be lots of crises, emergencies and disasters along the way. There are many ways to approach the subject of preparing for this, but I think it's best to start close to home and at the personal and family level. In an emergency, the rule is to first protect yourself, then help those around you. So I would recommend getting prepared right away for the kind of emergencies that are likely to happen in the area where you live and work. It's no good having a long term plan if you freeze to death in the first blizzard.

Here I'll borrow the three rules contributed by "FreeGoddess" in her comment to my last post: The first rule is 'don't panic'. The second rule is 'be prepared for anything'. Third rule is 'help others to do the same'. Each of these rules brings up a post worth of thoughts that I'll be sharing with you soon. But definitely, you should apply these rules to everything I am recommending below. And one more borrowed rule (from Sharon Astyk) – the "Rule of Anyway", is that your preparations, both short and long term, should still leave you in a good or better situation, even if things don't turn out as bad as we expect. They should be things that you'd want to do anyway.

There is lots of good information on the internet about emergency preparation. Unfortunately much of it is posted by survivalists, who's attitude doesn't sit well with me. The good news, though, is that if approached in the right way, preparation for short term emergencies leads naturally into long term preparations. I'll devote my next post to that subject.

Before I get into what I think our long term preparations should be, there are a few things that I think you shouldn't waste time on.

It is important to understand that the situation we are in is what some people (notably John Michael Greer) refer to as a "predicament rather than a problem". The distinction they are making is that a problem is something you solve, while a predicament has no solution – it is a situation you just have to cope with as best you can.

If you are driving down the road in your car and have a flat tire, you have a problem. It can be solved by changing the tire, and then you can continue on your way, perhaps even driving a little faster to make up for lost time. All that has changed is the tire, and even it looks much like the old one. The idea that you have important places to go and people to see, and that your car is the way to get there, hasn't changed.

If, on the other hand, you commute to your job and the price of gasoline goes up significantly and there are shortages and on some days none of the local service stations even has any gas, then this is a predicament. You may be able to adapt to it, but your life is going to look different afterwards. And bear in mind that if the price of fuel is a problem for you, it's highly unlikely that you can afford a hybrid or electric car. If you are very lucky you may find an affordable older economy car that gets significantly better mileage than what you're driving now, or you may be able to telecommute – do part of you job at home and reduce the number of days you have to drive to work. More likely you will start car pooling, take public transit, bicycle or walk to work. You might move closer to work or take a job closer to home. If you aren't the only wage earner in your family, you may decide that it's actually costing you more to work than it's worth, that you would be better employed at home in the "informal economy".

So, beware of any suggested course of action that promises to "solve" our problems without calling for any changes in the things we are doing that are causing those problems.

I am also unimpressed with the sort of activism where people go out and protest against various environmental problems, and then think they can continue on with a clear conscience, still doing the very things that are causing those same problems. We are all part of and dependent upon our present system, bad as it is, and we shouldn't be too quick to tear down. At least not until we've made a start at building something to replace it. Having just had a run in with some of our local activists, I have more to say on this, which I'll be putting in another post soon.

And lastly, if you've come here for investment advice, I'm going to disappoint you. Wealth is a claim on someone's future productivity. I can't think of any investment that is certain to be able to maintain that claim, even assuming that the future productivity you've laid a claim to is going to live up to your expectations. This includes precious metals. It is a good idea to not to take on any new debt and very likely a good idea to pay it off what debt you have, once you've spent a few vital dollars on short term emergency preps.

Well, maybe just a little bit of investment advice: when the price of food is going up quickly you could buy storable food (that you will need anyway) now, rather than later when it will cost more. There have been periods in the last few years when this would have given pretty much the best return of anything you could invest in at the time. And storing food is a basic part of emergency preparation. But really, we got ourselves into this mess by being altogether too ready to spend money on stuff, so approach the idea of "what do I need to buy to solve this problem" with extreme caution. Skills and knowledge, on the other hand, are investments more of time and effort than money. They are light to carry, and you are more likely to use them than lose them in a disaster.

As we move deeper into the age of scarcity, it looks like we are all going to encounter economic difficulties and in that realization lies the key to effective long term preparation. The game is rigged against us. The thing to do is get out of that game, to whatever extent you can.

Unfortunately, most of us feel a huge pressure to maintain or improve our situation in the "business as usual" world, whatever it takes. For the last few decades that has meant borrowing against our future productivity in ways that seemed likely to enhance that productivity. For those of us not born into wealth, the "game" has gone roughly like this: borrow money to get an education and then get a good job with prospects for advancement. Borrow money to buy a car so you can drive to your job, if you didn't already get one to drive to school. Borrow money to buy a house, more as an investment than a place to live. Plan to pay everything off before you retire, pay into the company pension plan so you'll be able to retire, and make good investments to add to that pension. In the meantime, compensate for a job that you've found you really don't like all that much by buying all the latest toys, taking up expensive hobbies and travelling during your vacations.

There have always been those who pointed out flaws in this plan, even when it was working well – one gets locked into a rut, the job takes you way from your family, and in any case provides a limited degree of fulfillment. But even if you are currently a willing participant in this game, you have probably noticed that it isn't going too well in various ways, depending on your age. University tuition has gone up considerably and jobs prospects for successful graduates are poor. The price of a car and the cost of operating it, especially fuel and insurance, are becoming prohibitive. For those with jobs, job security, benefits and regular raises are all a much more doubtful proposition than they once were. Houses aren't proving to be the investment that they once appeared to be. Retirement recedes into the future as the cost of living goes up and return on investments go down. For those of us who have managed to retire, increasing costs of necessities are making once generous pensions look barely adequate. And pension funds that once looked rock solid now seem pretty shaky, with the possibility of pension cuts looming ahead of us.

The temptation is to continue on as usual at all costs, hoping that things will straighten out soon. Dmitry Orlov refers to the trio of car, job and house as the "iron triangle" – the surest way of locking oneself into the "business as usual" world and going down with it as it falls. Poverty bears an immense stigma in our culture and we are very reluctant to look or act "poor", even if that is the surest way to avoid becoming really poor. But a good piece of advice for a man who finds himself in a hole is to stop digging before you make it even deeper. The age of growth and progress is over and we are entering the age of scarcity. There is no remedy for that and it's time to start adapting to the new situation, rather than denying it exists.

So, the thing is to realistically access your situation in the light of this and admitting that it is likely to get worse, take steps that will allow you to cope. Having done that, you will find yourself living some years ahead of the curve -- living as you would have been forced to do anyway, eventually. But you'll be making the changes at your own pace, while you still have some money left to finance things like emergency preparation, setting up a garden, insulating and sealing your house, installing a woodstove, a solar water heater and so forth. A few years down the road, others will find themselves forced to make the same sort of changes to their lifestyles, but not willingly, almost certainly not happily and with far fewer resources at their disposal. And if things don't go as badly as I am predicting, you'll have your debts paid off, money in the bank, and you'll be accustomed to living frugally, so that whatever your circumstances, you'll feel like you are doing better than most of the people around you because you have more realistic expectations.

All this is sometimes referred to as voluntary simplicity or voluntary poverty. But all of these terms carry certain misleading connotations, so rather than trying to name what I am talking about, I'd like to go on talking about it in enough detail to make it clear what I really mean. Unfortunately, I just spent the last two weeks trying to write up some specifics of how one might actually "get out of the game". But there is material enough to fill a book (or several) and it is not the kind of stuff that will condense into single paragraph chunks without losing a great deal. So I think that instead of continuing now, I'll do a series of posts about various aspects of this subject, giving each enough attention to do it justice.

Before doing that, though, I'll be devoting my next post (as promised above) to emergency preparations.