Thursday, April 30, 2009

Books on Life Skills to Prepare for a Changing World

Here is a partial list of books that will provide useful skills in the case we can no longer rely on a complex social order (where doctors, running water, and other modern day luxuries abound).

The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook by Albert Bates is a good starting place as it's light and witty and fun to read.

For a more serious account When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance & Planetary Survival, by Matthew Stein is a good choice.

If you want to specialize, here are a few that'll get you started:

On basic survival and homesteading skills:

Tom Brown's Field Guide series is useful (on really roughing it)

as are The Foxfire Book series (on homesteading)

Also, if you want to learn basic medical skills, Where There Is No Doctor has proved useful in developing countries for decades now. Through the Hesperian Foundation, there are now over a dozen books of this nature: on dentistry, midwifery, is even one on Where There is No Dentist in case you're willing to learn to yank teeth without a license. All of these can be downloaded for free on Hesperian's website.

And if you do purchase any of these books (odds are they won't be in the library), remember to buy them used.

Prepare for a Changing World

Because of the rapid decline of the ecological systems on which human society depends, the probability is high that serious political, social, and economic disruptions will occur. We should prepare for this contingency, especially by cultivating one or more basic skills, such as food production, construction and repair, basic medicine, basic sanitation, and so on. Having these skills and teaching them to others will be vital in maintaining and rebuilding human civilization in the event that a collapse occurs.

The danger with including a principle like this is that it sounds so “doom and gloom,” so apocalyptic. But that isn’t the point at all. This is more an example of hedging one’s bets. To quote a cliché: “The only thing that’s certain in life is change.” If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to live our entire lives in a country that has access to hospitals, grocery stores, clean tap water and sanitation, and electricity. But there is no guarantee of this. Much of the infrastructure in the United States is old; we expect it will be repaired when it breaks, but if a major depression occurs it’s possible that increasing numbers of Americans will no longer be able to count on access to basic services we see as natural. And in many other places these services are still just dreams. Almost a billion people are underfed, and lack of clean water and sanitation accounts for 10 percent of the global disease burden.

If we don’t shift our economy away from being dependent on ever-increasing levels of consumption—an impossibility on a finite planet—Earth’s ecological systems will fail and, with them, the economies of many countries. (And these will be deep failures that will make the current recession seem trivial.) Already the effects of climate change are being felt in some areas and are leading to less certainty in crop cycles, declining access to fresh water, and more erratic weather patterns. Not possessing a diverse set of skills or the knowledge to adapt to changing conditions will leave you at the mercy of others—but having a skill will enable you to adapt, and to barter your knowledge. And if these changes don’t occur in your area or lifetime? Many of these skills can be fun to learn, so just consider them eccentric leisure activities and fodder for cocktail party banter.

Over the years a slew of books has offered survival tips in case a rapid economic or ecological decline makes our current way of life impossible. The Post Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook is a recent one that injects a sense of humor into what could be a dire discussion. (See here for a list of several more.) This readable guide includes many important tidbits of information—from how to can food, grow sprouts, and do basic first aid to instructions on designing rainwater collectors, composting toilets, and solar ovens. It also provides references for those who want to specialize in a specific topic. Of course, it’s impossible to learn all the skills, but learning a smattering of many or gaining expertise in one will be useful, in case all the skills in Excel, Word, and surfing the Web we’ve been honing over a decade become suddenly irrelevant.

This essay is reprinted from World Watch Magazine, May/June 2009

Life of Service

We are all part of a greater system, and the whole will only be healthy if its constituent parts are. Thus we should help those who are in need, especially in ways that provide a useful understanding of the world and our role in it—namely that we are dependent on and part of the Earth, and that only through sustaining this beautiful, fragile system will we lead meaningful and satisfying lives.

With the current recession, economic insecurity is spiking worldwide. But even before this crisis, there were almost 2.6 billion people living on less than US$2 a day. Those of us with the means to help others less fortunate than we are have an obligation to do so. I won’t justify that statement here; anyone who has seen others suffering and doesn’t feel compassion to help will surely not be transformed by anything I might say in this essay.

Nor will I go into the ample research showing that helping others often makes one happier and more fulfilled. But what I do hope to make clear is that some ways of helping are better than others. There’s an old Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Of course, that was before oceans were acidifying and fish threatened to become a rare luxury, but the broader point still rings true. Providing temporary aid that doesn’t get to the root of the problem is futile. (For a detailed discussion of this, see the book Sweet Charity.)

Considering our rising population and declining ecological systems, it’s imperative that we teach people to live simply. Not surprisingly, living simply will actually reduce economic worries, while increasing free time and reducing impact. Too often wealth is conflated with wellbeing, when in fact the two are only tangentially related. By recognizing that a good life depends not on wealth but on health, basic security, community, and purpose, lives can be very good while being simple and low-impact.

Charity, in theory, could be a perfect vehicle to teach this, but is rarely utilized in that way. Instead, most charitable operations provide a fish each day and do nothing to counteract the billions spent by advertisers to teach that unless you have not just swordfish on your plate but a yacht to catch them from, you’re not going to be happy. Hence, people have trouble making ends meet, even when earning good salaries, because they’ve reached their credit-card limits and taken additional mortgages on their oversized homes—all for consumer goods like flatscreen televisions that increase their electricity costs and encourage them to sit still and watch more ads.

Imagine if charities were designed to reeducate “failed” consumers in simple living, ecological stewardship, and informed citizenship, so that when a new family walks into the food pantry they receive food aid, but only after they agree to enroll in a course on financial planning, living simply, media analysis (to help defend against advertising messages), our ecological footprints, and so on. Or when a diabetic walks into a free clinic, he is treated—but only after agreeing to take a course on healthy cooking and to work several hours in the clinic’s community garden. Yes, give fish to those in need, but teach them how to fish while they eat. Slowly but surely, by replacing the influences of the consumer society, people will learn how to live healthier and more sustainable lives, and most likely become happier in
the process.

Of course, one problem here is that few such programs exist. For the social entrepreneurs reading this, consider starting one. For others, don’t let the Perfect be the enemy of the Good. Search out a local urban garden or food security agency that at least understands these points and then push them to do more to address root causes.

Ultimately, the best way to serve may be the least satisfying: lobbying to make major changes in the systems that prop up the consumer culture. But one can be an advocate for change while helping individuals directly. And every person awakened from the consumer dream can also start helping others, both directly and through advocating systemic changes.

This essay is reprinted from World Watch Magazine, May/June 2009