12 04 2009

Over the past several months, I have read three books on the same subject–what to do when the trucks stop running and the big box stores close down.  I guess you could call this reading diet “cramming for finals.”  In order of increasing complexity,the three are Terry Kok’s Sustainable Life Beyond the Big Lie (Emergency Remedial Edition), Peak Oil Survival (Preparation for Life After Gridcrash) by Aric McBay, and Albert Bates’ Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook, subtitled “Recipes for Changing Times.”

It so happens that I know two of these three authors personally, and can vouch for their bonafides.  Aric McBay, the third, lives in Canada and our paths have not, to my knowledge, crossed, but he is coauthoring a book with Derrick Jensen and that’s a good recommendation in my book–which is, as yet, unpublished, in part because I think it’s a whole lot more important for me to actually do things than it is to write about them.  The word is out there–we hardly need any more inspiring communicators, we need boots on the ground.  In fact, my wife wishes I spent less time at my infernal computer and more time doing things, and sometimes I think she’s got a point.  But I digress….

Since it’s the shortest, I’ll tell you about Terry Kok’ and his Sustainable Life” pamphlet first.  Terry is a rowdy, ragin’ agin’ Pagan, and a founder of the Lothlorien Community in Southern Indiana.  Terry and the community have parted ways, a story I don’t know enough about to tell or judge, but Terry has started over on a hilltop in southern Indiana, where he and his partner live in a partially completed “Closed Ecological Life Support System”–Terry is concerned that the coming planetary changes may include temporary loss of a breathable atmosphere.  Terry also hosts a Yahoo group called “Andorprojex,” which deals in great detail with many post-collapse survival questions, and his pamphlet is, in many ways, an invitation to join his e-group.  I have been an active member of it in the past, and it’s an informative list, but since most of the same territory is covered by our local Cumberland-Green River Bioregional elist, I’ve backed out of Terry’s and concentrated on getting closer with the folks at hand.  If you don’t know of a local group in your area, or if you have more time to be on the internet than I do, I recommend hooking up with Terry and his merry band.

In only twenty small pages, Terry gives concise introductions to energy efficiency and production, sustainable shelter, gardening, health care, ecovillages, and rousing yourself and others out of civilization’s trance and into action.  In closing, he leaves us with these words:

We, the people, need to care for one another, pool resources for mutual aid and support, and become sustainable–or mark civilization up as another failed experiment in the forgotten history of the world.  We cannot afford to mess around this time.  The changes are real.  So must be our responses.  Consider yourself forewarned & forearmed….

The pamphlet is available through the Faerie Hill website,, at the bottom of the “home energy” page.

Aric McBay’s volume, while still relatively slim at just over a hundred pages, is packed with useful instructions and how-to diagrams that you will be glad to have on hand when the ‘net goes down.  He includes plenty of basic information on how to catch, store, and purify water, how to keep food cool when your refrigerator doesn’t work any more, how to build rocket stoves, and much more.  (No, rocket stoves don’t burn rocket fuel–they’re an extremely efficient wood-burning cookstove design!  They are being disseminated widely in Africa to try and turn back deforestation there).  The book concludes with a checklist of useful tools and materials to have on hand just in case….  There is little philosophy or background material in the book, once you get past the fifteen pages of introduction that outline our current predicament.  Deeper background is available on his website,; I found the interview with Chellis Glendenning particularly worth reading.

The only criticism I have of McBay’s book is that it’s a little too dry–it reads like a post-apocalyptic boy scout manual. That is not the case with Albert Bates’ newest book, which is like a long, rambling conversation with a gifted, witty polymath–which is exactly what Albert is.  He has recently revised the Post-Petroleum Guide, renaming it The Financial Collapse Survival Guide and Cookbook , but it‘s only available on Kindle, and I don’t have a “kindle’–nor, frankly, do I plan on getting one. with all due respect to my high-tech friend.  Books will be readable long after we lose the ability to recharge, let alone make batteries.  Making paper?  We’ve been doing that for about five hundred years. Somebody ought to be able to figure it out.

Collapse is already taking its toll on Albert’s publishing plans–if I remember the story correctly, a Spanish-language print edition of the Financial Collapse version was scotched because the publisher first couldn’t get credit to print it, and then went belly-up anyway.

OK, enough about the author, what about the book?

Well, for a book about how to survive the end of civilization as we know it, it’s pretty upbeat.  From the recipes, we can gather that Albert expects that we will still have such amenities as flour, cooking oil, salt, sugar, and peanut butter, for example.  Something like most of these substances can be produced at home given enough garden space and a couple of smooth stones, but let us not forget that salt was, until recently, a rare and precious commodity, and that sugar, likewise, was considered more a medicine than an everyday sweetener.  Many of the spices his recipes call for will, likewise, revert to being rare commodities brought by sail from the Indies (or, in the case of cocoa, Central America, unless it is submerged and dessicated by the further progress of global warming).

The chapters are expressed as steps to be taken.  Some are pretty broad:  “Rebuild Civilization,” or “Utopia By Morning,” which examine our flawed present and our best-outcome potential futures.  Others are more hands-on:  “Save Your Water” and “Begin Storing Food”are two examples.

In his chapter on saving water, Albert includes informative, relevant sidebars on water privatization and ancient Meso-American water storage techniques (that are still relevant today), and a bit more detail on water purification, but you’ll have to read Aric McBay’s book to find out anything about water filtration.  Albert does refer us to other books for details on this subject, but this information is buried in the text.  Such practical references, as well as the great quotes with which the Survival Guide is liberally peppered, cry out for a bibliography, but alas, there is none.

Overall, however, I score Albert’s book very highly for its vision and comprehensiveness, especially his willingness to deal with what will be the real substance of successful post-collapse community:  our ability to not just get along with each other, but to work together to maintain a saner, more grounded society.  A quote:

…Too many people want to start ecovillages rather than join existing ones.  Is it that they think the existing ones don’t have the  same values they do?  Are they worried that their design sketches might not be appreciated?…..I don’t think that it is a matter of mismatched values.  I think it is about ego.

People who are unwilling to set aside the supremacy of their own preconceptions and listen to, and maybe even try out, the ideas of others are unlikely to adjust well to the life of any small and intimate community.  Sustainable community is not about dominance.  It is about listening.  And after everyone has listened to everyone else, usually the best choice emerges on its own merit….

Every group has conflicts, and they aren’t even a bad thing.  Conflicts show that people care enough to be invested and to go for what they want….People in conflict can sometimes behave unscrupulously, using coercion and threats, intimidation, economic leverage, emotional abuse, gender or other privilege, minimizing, belittling, distorting, denying, or blaming to get their way.  In isolation, shielded from consequences, they can come to believe these methods are the most effective.

The problem with letting individuals get away with outrageous conduct is the that it lowers the level of discussion; people end up listening to an exchange of taunts between bullies instead of a reasoned exploration of solutions to real problems…..This is as true at the UN or in any government as it isin your family, workplace, or personal relationships.

As a solution, Bates points to the success of Marshall Rosenberg and others with a technique called “Non-violent Communication, which emphasizes clear, non-critical expression of one’s feelings, empathic listening, clear, non-demanding expression of one’s needs, and an ability/willingness to hear what others need, even when it is wrapped in several layers of neurosis.  I might add that this takes patience and some courage to employ, but I can’t think of a better alternative, whether we are dealing with grumpy neighbors or the financial establishment.  At this point in time, we have everything to gain, and everything to lose.   In another couple of centuries, either these books and others like them will be enshrined like the U.S. Constitution, or they will be forgotten along with most of the rest of human history.  It’s up to us.  Now.

music:  DJragon, “Green Magic Spell, Brighter Days



3 responses

13 04 2009
John Thornton

Hey, this is John Thornton with Seven Stories Press, who’re publishing Aric McBay and Derrick Jensen’s new book, What We Leave Behind–just wanted to say that we do actually have it available for purchase on our website at; it’s just not going to be in stores until later in the month. (Sorry for drive-by commenting; this just popped up on my Google alerts and you seem totally into Derrick & Aric’s work; just wanted to let you know it is available to check out.)

4 03 2010
Anna Gurol

Hi Brother Micheal—
What about the following:
In our high tech world, we think of technology as innovations pioneered by geniuses and followed by masses.
What worries me is that I think lower tech societies are less individualistic. In our own country, look at the Amish, Mormons or the New Mexico communities Chellis Glendinning talked about in that McBay interview.
These cultures are resilient because they are communitarian and UN-individualistic. Their technology is sustained not by innovative genius but by conformism, pretty rigidly followed, which also includes a true onus of expectations on the individual.
I think we have a problem in that we are valuing the opposite in people. Our notion of individualism mediates against community values, yet we are expecting innovation to come from this individualism and save our collective bacon.
What do you think?
I think there is a contradiction here.
Brother MIchael, from your years at The Farm, do you have any insight into how to reconcile the individual and the needs of the group?

7 03 2010

Sister Anna,
I think that we can’t go back to the “less individualistic” human state that once provided a greater measure of cohesion to society, but at the same time, we cannot remain in the adolescent narcissism that is the typical level of ego-development in mainstream, consumer culture.
As I see it, there is what C.G. Jung called “the process of individuation” taking place, a kind of collective/personal evolution of the psyche towards a more mature level that will enable both a deep sense of personal identity and an enhanced ability to co-operate with others to create a more conscious, intelligent society that will combine the ability to run smoothly and the ability to evolve.
Whether we will evolve this capability faster than climate change and civilizational collapse take us down is completely up for grabs at this point, as far as I can tell. Just another reason why this is such an exciting time to be alive…

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