SUMMARY: As the Four Horsemen of Monumental Change approach the outskirts of our sleepy hamlets, it is vital that we -- at the individual and community levels -- accelerate the building of resiliency into our lives. I propose a good start would be using a few of our last nickels to purchase and plant open-pollinated veggie seeds and lots of food-crop tree seedlings this spring. So break out the shovels, America – we’re havin’ a resiliency party!
THE FOUR HORSEMEN DRAW NEAR
Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop… Can you hear it? It’s really getting hard not to, huh? The ominous sound of approaching hoof-beats is now even occasionally seeping through into the mainstream media: possible climatic tipping points, increasingly debilitating debt in several US states, European credit implosions, political entropy in key oil-producing nations, incipient resource and food shortages, accelerating degeneration of our social fabric, etc.
The Four Horsemen of Monumental Change are fast approaching our sleepy hamlets – but still largely under the cover of corporate green & whitewash. And although we still don’t know exactly what goodies these horsemen bear, we have a pretty good idea; it’s probably not gumdrops and lollipops. These horsemen aren’t historically known for their warmth, kindness, and gracious forgiveness of economic and environmental sin. (Oh, and how we’ve sinned!)
If I may be blunt for a moment, they’re coming to kick the shit out of us.
When will they arrive? It could be tomorrow. Or it could be in a few years. I’d put money on the ‘sooner’ side myself. And given the stakes involved and the inevitability of their arrival, I’d strongly suggest that everybody assume the arrival time posted on the big board at the station is “damn soon.”
And while I think it’s instructive to keep an eye on what’s going on politically and economically on the global, national, and regional stages, I would also strongly advise not holding out any hope that any actors on those larger stages will ‘save us.’ For they are, tragically at this crucial time, becoming as irrelevant to our lives as literal actors on a stage. …That is perhaps until, in vain desperation to ‘hold our attention,’ they let out their attack dogs and start hurling tear gas out into the crowd. (See Kunstler’s “The Big Slide” for a chilling theatrical take on this: http://kunstlercast.com/. See also Chris Hedges’ insightful/unsettling essay at https://www.adbusters.org/magazine/88/chris-hedges.html)
SEIZING CONTROL OF OUR LIVES...AS BEST WE CAN
But the absurd pantomime occurring on the larger stage is not my focus here. My focus is this: what should WE do – you and me – in the face of these rapidly approaching monumental changes?
What do WE do on the scale where we can make a difference -- as individuals, families, and communities? Do we pull the covers of reality-TV over our heads? Do we use our last bit of overdrawn credit to throw ourselves one last roof-raiser of a party? Do we hole up in the basement with cans of Pringles and ammo?
No. We take control of our destinies. We start building some sanity into our lives. Now. You and me and our communities. Right now. With the same urgency, precision, and self-control as downed airplane passengers filing determinedly down the aisle towards the awaiting life-raft outside the plane -- a plane that could sink at any minute.
And I think for the sake of honesty, and perhaps our future sanity, it’s useful keep in mind the distinct possibility that very little -- or maybe nothing -- we do now will make any difference; that perhaps the coming changes will be so different than we expected, or so overwhelming, that we must adapt to an entirely unexpected reality. We should hold open this possibility as a way to keep our minds lithe and nimble. In short, we may have to wing this entirely.
But please don’t count on our present efforts being meaningless.
Because maybe our present efforts WILL matter. Maybe, in the not too distant future, they’ll mean the difference between comfort and pain; between health and sickness; between life and death. Because they could. And that’s a good enough reason to act.
And that’s why we need to get down to work now. Right now.
RESILIENCY VS. FRAGILITY
But what then should be the focus of our efforts as we attempt to regain our collective societal sanity and seize control (as best we can) of our destinies?
In a word: resiliency.
Resiliency is not about preventing change – because change is already a given. Wrenching change in every form is coming by the truckload: economic, political, social, environmental. And again, probably pretty soon. Our economic and environmental sins have guaranteed that the relative stability we’ve enjoyed in this country in the past several generations will be long gone as we move forward in the turbulent post-carbon, post-industrial era.
Instead of trying to prevent inevitable change, resiliency is about rolling with the punches. It’s about being able to take the inevitable blows as they come, get up, dust ourselves off, and keep going. It’s about rebuilding the essential structures of our lives in a more robust and redundant way – a way that just might have a chance of holding together in a radically unsettled world.
Another way to describe resiliency is to look at its opposite: industrial anything. Despite its awesome complexity and globe-spanning breadth, industrial civilization is the epitome of fragility. Its functioning is crucially dependent on the simultaneous integrity of so many tenuous threads: fragile electronic technology that is constantly breaking down and is so complex that it cannot be repaired by the users themselves; absurdly long, fossil-fuel dependent supply lines for replacements and spare parts; the just-in-time delivery of just about every crucial item involved – from food to fuel; and the shaky cooperation of several often-politically-unstable countries and thousands of people to move anything so far around the planet. The mind reels.
In fact, I’m constantly amazed that the whole rube-goldberg contraption of industrial civilization holds together at all. The whole thing just seems so damn unlikely. But of course, what explains the improbable persistence of this counter-entropic behemoth is the unimaginably huge rivers of fossil fuel energy that feed it. But those rivers of ancient energy are soon to run dry, and the huge industrial cogs that consume the Earth will grind to a halt. And then what? Well, we’re on our own.
BUILDING RESILIENCY: FOOD FIRST!
So here is our challenge as individuals, families, and communities: As rapidly as possible (for time is short), begin replacing our doomed industrial infrastructures with resilient structures perhaps capable of being sustained through the turbulent times ahead. Such structures must be able to, at the very least, provide the ‘basics’ for our species as we scramble to reconfigure our lives around a reality defined by much lower energy inputs.
The key low-energy systems we need can be categorized as such: food, clean water, shelter, manufacturing of basic goods, and transportation. And I would suggest that, among these required resilient structures, food is perhaps paramount. For what good are functioning low energy transportation systems between walkable communities of cozy, energy-efficient dwellings if we have no food?
Of course, all these required systems are related and need to be interwoven in some fashion -- but at this late date, we need to practice some triage.
…So food first!
And remember: clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop… The grim riders draw ever closer.
THREE REQUIREMENTS FOR A RESILIENT FOOD SYSTEM
So what are the requirements for a resilient, low-energy-input food system – one that can take hit after hit, and still keep producing food? I can think of three off the top of my head.
First, it must be locally-based. With severely reduced fossil-fuel availability and the inevitable political and environmental disruptions, supply lines of any length will be a thing of the past -- undependable at best, and very possibly nonexistent. We simply cannot count on anything that needs to come from very far away – seeds, tools, labor, or the food itself. The safest way to think about our food system in the coming low-energy future is this: if you can’t walk a few days to get it, don’t count on having it. If we want resiliency, we need to be able to fashion just about everything for our local food system from our surrounding areas.
The second requirement for the resilient food system is that it must be easily maintained and fixed by users. Again, we likely won’t be able to just ‘send away’ for replacement parts. If you or your neighbors can’t fix it using locally-available materials, don’t count on it getting fixed. And a good rule of thumb is that, with all the human shrapnel flying around as our civilization collapses, things will probably be getting broke – accidentally or not -- a lot more often in the years ahead. If your food operation depends on the continuous functioning of a solar array and neither you or your neighbors can fix a broken/malfunctioning solar array or fashion replacement parts from local materials -- well, you should probably have some back-up plans. Likewise for tractors, freezers, hay-balers, etc.
The third requirement is this: the food system must be redundant. In other words, in the crazy days ahead, you can probably count on some significant fraction of your local food system to crash and burn every year. We just won’t have the fossil-energy safety blanket we’ve enjoyed for so long. Maybe it’ll be drought or floods, maybe blackouts or fertilizer shortages, maybe heat or cold, maybe vandalism or armed skirmishes, maybe hail or wind, maybe…heck, you name the disturbance and it will likely occur with increasing frequency in the turbulent years ahead. So let’s not put all our free-range eggs in one basket. Such disturbances do not usually hit all crops or livestock in all locations equally. For resiliency, we need many different crops, spread out across all ecological gradients of the local food-shed, tended by as many knowledgeable farmers as possible. In other words, a resilient food system will need backup plans – lots of them.
"THEY AT LEAST TRIED TO MAKE IT RIGHT"
…Now, before I get into some specific recommendations, I have to admit here that my head starts to spin when I contemplate the near-impossible logistics and death-defying learning curve associated with the task ahead; with teaching 100+ million American cubicle-potatoes and fast-food patrons how to grow enough food for their families in few years with the knowledge-intensive, resilient, low-energy food system that will be required of us – essentially from scratch! And all this in the face of the wrenching upheaval that will surely come with an imploding civilization!
So in the name of honesty, I don’t want to underestimate what a fearsomely large task this will be – what an awesome, monumental, seemingly-impossible undertaking it is.
But heed this: it must be done; it will be done soon whether we want to or not; the sooner any of us begin, the better chance we’ll have for some measure of success; and the very real and growing risks of a catastrophic economic ‘discontinuity’ suggest that perhaps our window of opportunity on getting started is much slimmer than we had thought.
And also heed this: the question is NOT whether such a system should or can be put into place – it must and it will. There will simply be no other option. No other food system will be able to withstand the coming convulsions and resource-depleted reality. It’ll be the only game in town.
The key question – and I apologize here, for it is a grim one indeed -- is how many of us will die before the new system becomes able to feed us. The answer may range from ‘a few of us’ to ‘most of us.’ We just can’t tell for sure at this point.
Now again, I apologize if that was a little grim. Because maybe such thoughts (however true perhaps) tend to leave us on the verge of unconstructive panic or debilitating despair – like, “This problem’s too huge!”, “It’s too late!”, “There’s nothing useful we can do about it!”
But again, I would answer with this: WE MUST TRY – at the family and community level. We must do whatever we can; and we must do the best we can. For the issue of ‘what to do now?’ is heavily steeped in morality: if we do not have the decency to at least TRY to fashion a livable world for our children – in the face of a series of incipient economic, political, social, and environmental disasters we nurtured ourselves – our culpable generations become worse than mere global criminals; we become monsters.
We must do SOMETHING. We must try – however hard or unfamiliar the path ahead may be. For if we are not destined to deserve the epithet, “They saved their species and stabilized the biosphere” on our grave markers, we can at least have this: “When the shit came down, they at least tried to make it right.”
OPEN-POLLINATED VEGGIE SEEDS
So that’s a certifiable challenge, all right. And I suppose I should now give some specifics on how we might begin to meet it. So I will.
What follows are a few things we can do – some things we MUST do – right now. And by ‘we,’ I mean you and me at the individual/family/community level. And by ‘right now,’ I mean within the next few weeks or months. (Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop…)
So do your species a favor and do this: this spring, buy a mess of different open-pollinated vegetable seeds and fruit/nut tree seedlings – and then try to figure out what to do with them in a way that might contribute to building a resilient food system in your community.
Got that? Veggie seeds and food-tree seedlings. Now. This spring. Clip-clop.
So let’s start with the seeds: I don’t mean get just any old veggie seeds. They can’t be ‘F1’ or ‘hybrids.’ They must be ‘heirloom’ or ‘open-pollinated.’ Why? Those are the only ones where you can save the seeds from this year’s plants, re-plant these seeds next year, and still get something resembling the variety you planted the year before.
Because remember: we’re trying to make a local, maintain-it-yourself, redundant food system. A resilient food system. And these open-pollinated veggie seeds are where we start. These magical little specks full of biological potential are THE cornerstone of a resilient food system. Get them while you can -- i.e. now.
And in case you already garden and have some favorite hybrid varieties, let me be blunt: screw hybrids! They’re a relic of the soon-to-be-over fossil-fuel age. They have little relevance to our coming post-carbon civilization – marginal at best. Their large-scale production and deployment requires a societal complexity that we won’t see again on this planet for a long time – if ever. In other words, don’t count on being able to send away for hybrid seeds every year to the ever-fewer and ever-larger seed companies that sell the hybrid seeds. They won’t be able to help you. They probably won’t exist. Heck, the mailman might not even exist. You shouldn’t count on it, at least.
In short, you and your community will very likely be on your own with only the open-pollinated vegetable seeds and varieties that you are able to maintain yourselves – by skillfully growing them out and saving seeds. And that will require knowledge and skill and teamwork within your local community. And you’ll probably mess up a lot until you work out the bugs – so you better start now.
I’m in New Jersey, and I get my open-pollinated seeds (for now, at least) from Fedco Seeds (www.fedcoseeds.com/) in Maine. They’re also available from Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org/). There are lots of other places too. Look them up. Find someone who sells them in your general region. Get some now. Start experimenting.
And if you’re not sure how to garden, I recommend asking a friend or neighbor who does and/or checking out some good gardening books; I like Eliot Coleman’s books. Also, check out the Johnny’s Seeds catalog (www.johnnyseeds.com/) – it tells you how to grow just about everything.
And remember: clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop…
FRUIT AND NUT SEEDLINGS
OK. Now for the food-tree seedlings.
If we had ever gathered our wits about us as a civilization, we would have put far more emphasis on perennial food crops (like fruits & nuts trees/bushes, perennial tubers, etc.) than annual ones (like corn/wheat/beans and veggie row crops). The destructive history of annual-based industrial agriculture is well documented and horrifying. We have literally been destroying the biosphere to feed ourselves in this manner.
Perennial crops – in addition to being easier on the land then annuals – would also introduce greater resilience into the food system. They require no annual collection and storage of seeds, with all the risks involved there. With their typically-larger root systems, they are also better able to survive droughts or other ‘weird’ weather disturbances. And if, for some reason, you had to evacuate your home for awhile – they’d likely still be there when you got back.
I should mention that the use of perennials in agriculture has already been advanced in the fields of Permaculture (see Holmgren & Mollison, etc.) and Natural Systems Agriculture (see Wes Jackson’s The Land Institute). Our efforts and any future resilient agricultural system would do well to borrow heavily from that body of literature.
But even without lots of knowledge about permaculture design (or the not-quite-yet-ready perennial grains of The Land Institute), you can still make some initial steps towards a perennial agriculture by planting some fruit and nut seedlings this spring. Find a nursery that sells plants adapted to your region (or maybe a bit warmer, given the coming climatic changes), and get as many different types as you can.
I get my fruit and nut seedlings from both Miller Nurseries (www.millernurseries.com/) in NY and Fedco Trees (fedcoseeds.com/trees.htm) in ME. I also get Chinese chestnut seeds & seedlings from Empire Chestnut (www.empirechestnut.com/) in PA. They come ‘bare-root’ (i.e. with no soil) in the mail in the spring & I just pop ‘em in the ground. I also recommend eventually learning to propagate these trees yourself via grafting and rooting methods (see Toogood’s ‘Plant Propagation’).
And if you have lots of land – like a field -- get ‘standard’ sized trees. They get big & live a long time. If you have less land – like a baseball-field-sized yard, get the smaller ‘semi-dwarf’ trees. And if you have a postage stamp of a yard, get ‘dwarf.’ The smaller trees, although they produce sooner and are sometimes the only practical option, tend to fall over a lot easier & don’t live as long.
If you don’t have any land, maybe try to sneak some trees onto public or private lands near your residence. Property lines make good sneaky places to plant food trees – usually nobody notices. But remember -- you’ll have to protect them from deer somehow. I use cylinders made from wire fencing, with a re-bar stake for support. You’ll also need mouse guards on the bottom during the winter.
THE FIERCE URGENCY OF...THIS SPRING!
So there it is. Clip clop, clip clop.
Now, in light of the urgency of our situation, the huge changes required to replace our current industrial food system with a resilient system, and the lack of any real major ground-swell already trending in that direction, these meager steps I’ve proposed are bound to seem quite…well…pathetic. As if your one little box of seeds and a dozen or so wimpy little seedlings are going to be able to fend off the tsunami of change soon to be crashing down all around us!
But I’ll respond with this: What if they DID help – even a little? What if you found out you really NEEDED them? What if these little seeds helped get your family and your neighbors through a disastrous year?
And what if we do even have a couple more chaos-free springs remaining to hone our skills? What if you convinced your neighbors to start saving seeds and planting trees? What if they convinced some of their neighbors? What if you started a Transition Towns program (http://transitionus.org/) in your town? What if, due to progressively-deteriorating economic conditions, people actually started to ‘get it’ about this resiliency stuff? What if you became a leader in your community?
And what if the little seeds in your little box become THE varieties grown by your great-great-great grandchildren on their resilient, ecologically-sane farm sometime in the 22nd-century. And what if a little barefoot girl on that farm picks a ripe peach off your tree, bites into it -- and smiles. And what if it makes her fall in love with the Earth?
What if these seeds and these little trees DO make a difference?
Because they might.
So make the order, dig out your shovel, and call some friends – we’re havin’ a resiliency party!