Tuesday, May 15, 2007

I’m reading a really good book. It’s called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The author is Jared Diamond. I’m about three-quarters of the way through it. The last chapter, where he’ll be applying the possible lessons of previous cultures to our current one, should be the most interesting. But so far, he’s examined a spate of ancient cultures that failed (and a few successes) and several modern ones. I’m just starting on his chapter on China.
In my mind, China is what makes this whole end of oil, environmental crisis, climate change issue a runaway train that can’t possibly be stopped. Even if the rest of the world suddenly started living sustainably, China would take all of us down with her.

In my mind, there’s no stopping the fall of civilization worldwide that’s about to happen. What country is going to step forward to implement draconian environmental measures in their own land, when doing so puts them at an economic disadvantage in a world context? The economy within the country would crash, and it would then snowball around the world.

If leadership’s choice is between starting the collapse of society now, or putting it off until it just plays out in naturally unfolding consequences a little further down the road, of course they’ll wait. Why risk being overthrown and throwing your country into anarchy?
It’s just a runaway train were on. I’m convinced of that.

In playing with this in my mind, I’ve been trying to figure out, if oil runs out and society collapses, where the best place to be would be. I would love to be back in Pennsylvania. My dream is to have 50 or 100 acres, partly wooded, partly pastures and fields, and to live without electricity. That’s my “retirement” dream, to live self-sufficiently off the Pennsylvania land I love so dearly.

But were society to collapse, Pennsylvania probably wouldn’t be the best place to be. The whole eastern seaboard is one great megalopolis. When all of those millions of people are forced to leave the cities in order to survive, they’ll flee to the hills. They’ll chop down the forests for fuel and shelter through the long cold northeastern winters. The hills will become denuded and eroded and sterile. Topsoil will run off, down the rivers, killing fish along the way. People will fight over land and resources, the locals trying to fend off the invading city people. Even though the land there is so fertile, I think the stress of too many people, especially those who don’t know what they’re doing, will be its undoing.

And what if I’m stuck here when society classes? I’ve always thought this would be a horrible place. It’s high desert, so there’s not much rain and the soils are poor and sandy. Though if John gets his farm and I join him there, could we become self-sufficient?
The dust bowl is not so very far in the past, and farmers are still fleeing the plains, finding it too difficult to eat eke out a living here. Without irrigation it’s a very iffy proposition. John’s new property is not irrigated, but it’s on the floodplain of the river, so there may be somewhat more fertility there than elsewhere in our region. There’s a well for household use, but who knows ultimately how reliable that would turn out to be. You would want to catch all of the rain water from your buildings to use on your gardens and drip-irrigate and mulch heavily so as not to waste it. There would be so much to learn, and initially so many tools needed to get set up adequately.

But the good thing is millions of people wouldn’t be fleeing to such a marginal area. They won be that dumb. There would be virtually no wood to speak of. How would you heat your house and cook? If I saw society’s collapse coming and had the resources to deal with it, I build a small passive solar straw bale house with a masonry stove. Granted, you still need wood or some type of fuel for the stove, but at least it would use it efficiently. And the combination straw bale/passive solar design would go a long way in keeping the house warm on its own.

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