I think I’m having a survivalist panic…

… I’ve been inflamed by several things recently – including rising oil prices, estimates about peak oil production and decline (check out peak oil  and then tell me you aren’t planning on getting your bike out!)

What started it off was the price of chicken food. It’s gone up 70c to 2€ 70. Not a big thing in itself, but a reminder about several other things: wheat failure in Russia and China, rising food costs, inflation. Then Prince Charles, rightly, is telling people to eat less beef. Beef is a hugely hungry food crop – and rearing cattle is costing the planet dear. Something has to give. Either we have to have a drop in the population – probably enforced because of starvation – or we have to eat less-consuming products. Or both. As it is, rising food costs are telling us that we can’t keep going on forever. Not only that, but the people being priced out of the market are the poorest.

Then I read a little something posted by Mark from hed(pe) on Facebook, linking from survivalblog about spotting potential domestic terrorists. And I realise I fit the bill in so many ways.

I have libertarian philosophies!

I am trying to be self-sufficient!

I am afraid of economic collapse! Nothing is too big to fall. If you don’t believe me, ask a dinosaur.

I hate big government!

I would like to add, I don’t have second-amendment issues and think we should all be carrying weapons. I’m leaving protecting the property to Jake in the event of cataclysmic collapse. I’d also like to add I’m not a religious zealot or think the end is nigh. I would like to pass a little of the blame onto the Cold War instigators and also to the makers of Threads – a film about the aftermath of nuclear war. All that fuss about nuclear weapons and enemies and iron curtains and Communism just deflected us from bigger problems: we’re outgrowing the planet and nothing is more likely to spark revolution than hunger. Just ask Marie-Antoinette.

And it’s not just all about what us human ants are up to. Mother Nature has a good way of warning us that she’s still more powerful than all of us. It doesn’t matter that economies are strong, or societies are cohesive if she’s going to throw a hurricane Katrina your way, or a tsunami, or a fukushima-scale disaster.

However, I took a leaf out of the ‘worrying is as effective as solving an algebra problem by chewing gum’ book and decided that my panic was a little premature and I shouldn’t start stockpiling just yet. If the world wants to know how it is without petrol or enough electricity, or with limited resources, it should look to Cuba.

In the interim period before deals with Venezuela and after the Soviet empire collapsed, in the so-called ‘special’ period, Cuba had nothing. All the oil-based goods sank to a minimum. Petrol came in at 10% of its former levels. Imagine having only 10% of the petrol we have! Food was scarce. And I think this would be my ‘look to and learn’ country for how we can avert peak oil problems and food shortages.

Firstly, everybody shares a car. If you have a car, you maintain it and you learn about engines. You realise you can put a lada engine in a huge American behemoth. You travel by any means necessary. If you have a tractor, you hook a cart to it and shift people. And then you are forced to say ‘to hell with travel’ because you can’t get around anyway. No petrol means no petrochemicals and this means no tyres. No tyres means you’re not going anywhere even if you do have petrol or bio-diesel. So you get a bike. If we’re lucky, we’ll soon see the sense in keeping more bike tyres than you need as spares for the future.

And if you can’t get a bike because resources mean there are none, have a horse or a pony, a mule or a donkey. We forget it’s only 200 years since these modes of transport were de rigeur. 

I bet it has a Russian engine under the hood!

Another thing about Cuba: consumerism is dead. There are shops, but they have nothing in them. We went in a shoe shop looking for a pair of sandals for Pete. We found some flip-flops – that was all – and they were so crap they broke within days. But you realise people can get along without ‘stuff’. If you don’t have CDs, make your own music. If you have finished a book, pass it on. If you don’t have a computer, meh, write a letter. Second-hand markets are not just ‘vintage’ and kitsch, but essential!

If you haven't got new stuff, make do with old

In the state-controlled hotels, the food was dire. Clearly there were food shortages and whilst people equate rations with not getting what you need, it also ensures what there is can be shared equally. I like that idea. Not only that, but most people supplement what they get with what they can grow. Chicks were everywhere, as were ducks and geese. Hens are great. Not only do they eat a lot of scraps and insects, but they also provide you with an egg. A vegetable garden and a hen and you have enough to supplement your basic food.

Medical supplies also became incredibly hard to source or pay for – so all those herbal remedies the EU directive banned as from April 2011 would have to come back into play.

Not only did petrol imports drop off, so mechanical aids were useless – no point in having a tractor if you can’t fuel it – but fossil fuels too – so brown-outs became the norm. And then you realise you can live without so much electricity. Street-lights are the first thing to go (and I like the fact our streetlights here go out around midnight and come back on about six in the morning… that’s six hours of electricity less than the lights outside my house in Bolton) and you cut back on all non-essential electricity. All those fancy porch lights and path markers and so on become expensive and pointless.

Oxen are the new black
Oxen are the new black

But petro-chemicals also supply the pesticide and fertiliser trade – so you have go back to organic methods, like nettle feed and horse manure. And you get out all your old horse or oxen ploughs and very soon, by force rather than middle-class white-girl westernised liberalism, you’re organic and petrol-free. Because industry relies on raw materials like steel and fossil fuels, industry drops off and agriculture becomes the main employer once again. People fish to supplement their income. No motor boats means no intensive fishing, so fish thrive. I ate the best lobster ever in Cuba, spear-fished by a guy who used the lobster to supplement his diet – but not having diesel-powered boats meant the waters are clear, clean and those lobster, not over-caught, were huge and delicious.

Diet changes too. Meat and dairy – so expensive in terms of how much it costs to raise, both financially and environmentally – become part of the past, and vegetables and grains take over. People become accidentally healthier – forced into healthy eating. You can’t afford to smoke or take drugs. So health improves although medicine is less available. Ironic. Diabetes, heart disease and early mortality all dropped – albeit in highly unfortunate, imposed circumstances.

So… I’ve decided we should all make our drop in the ocean – although bigger changes are needed to avert major disaster – and not for us, for people in the poorest communities, the most fragile of society, the old, the young, the weak. The death rate amongst pensioners went up 20% in the Special Period in Cuba – not amongst other groups. We owe it to each other. We owe it to our future selves.

Unfortunately, change is often powered by necessity rather than altruism. Drive less, consume less, grow more. Switch things off. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Maybe I should start breeding oxen and cart horses!!

Just as a parting shot, I’d like to say we 30-somethings with dread in our soul are a product of our societies’ upbringing. I watched Threads in school about nuclear disaster. I remember the gravestone-AIDS-ads. Nuclear threat, epidemics and Greenpeace all contributed to this survivalist panic. But no matter what, the media can’t disguise the fact that inflation is up because of two things: rises in food costs and rises in petrol. If you want my money on the future, these two will be the driving force behind change. You can keep your nuclear war and your hazmat suits. We’re only three meals from revolution. And heaven forfend we have to give up our beloved motor vehicles!

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