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