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Shifting Gears

Near-term effects of peak oil and climate change

There's this ironic thing about a great many of the survivalist blogs out there: they are preparing for a great disaster that *could* come in the future, or even one that they believe *will* come in the future. And when they talk about this implosion of life as we know it, it's clear that they'll know it when they see it because things will unwind quickly.

Meanwhile, there's this enormous disaster already taking place (but *slowly*) all around us. And an awful lot of preppers seem to be sharing in just the same denial as most everyone else.

I'm talking about climate change. And to a lesser degree, I'm also talking about peak oil. Other people have offered better recaps on the evidence that these things are so, so I'll just point here here and... hmm, can't seem to find a good Web explication of peak oil (Kunstler's The Long Emergency is good if you want it in book length--I'll either find a good one or write one myself) but I can also say that, looking at the storms of the past few years, I feel visceral evidence that things are changing. And yes, I understand that anecdotal evidence doesn't really tell you much. But there are clear, statistically measurable increases in violent, unpredictable weather. Every season brings its fresh share of "unusually" violent storms. There is an unusually strong category 5 hurricane brewing in a distant sea as I write this. This time year there was Superstorm Sandy tearing up all the beach towns within a hundred miles of where I now sit.

But the point is that a superstorm, for all the damage it may cause, despite the fact that it leads to a certain amount of property abandonment, doesn't bring the world to a screeching halt. Rather, it exacts a price. Over time, the costliness of these things add up, local governments run into financial trouble, businesses slump a bit on lower consumer demand.

It's a slow-motion catastrophe, not a situation where you board up the windows and sleep with a shotgun at your side. To be honest, I don't think things will descend into utter chaos all at once. It's more that they won't be eating lobsters in Las Vegas than that we'll be eating pine bark in the Philly suburbs. There are people who aren't going to rebuild their uninsured coastal houses in the wake of last year's Sandy. Those who are (somewhat recklessly, in my view) rebuilding, are paying more for more robust construction on piers. There will be less going on in a number of those towns. After the next superstorm, there will be that much less. And so on. It's not that martial law will reign. It's that those towns will become decrepit and sleepy. The roads to them will have more potholes. Chain stores won't bother to locate there. In parts of the West where climate change currently manifests itself as frequent drought, we'll see a similar tailing off of towns that can't keep on top of the water allocation game. Not a lot of gunplay, just higher bills, water rights litigation, and a trickle (as it were) of departees who don't see how it's worth it to stay.

It's a trickier problem, honestly, than a sudden collapse. If the power goes out nationwide for a couple of weeks, well, after a couple days you may very well want that bedside firepower. But even then, I'm not so sure. There are bad eggs who act badly in disasters, but by and large what we've seen in actual recent disasters is people pulling together, people going way beyond the call of duty. But in any case, if there were a sudden collapse clearly in the offing, there would be no question that you should spend your money on emergency rations, bunkers, portable generators, camouflage netting, and so on.

But the current disaster is slow motion. The storms are bigger and they take a toll. The draught in the farmlands of Syria sends ruined farmers into the cities where revolution breaks out. Corporations act increasingly in ways that run counter to society's overall best interests. The Federal government brings any significant civic debate to impotent arm flailing. Huge changes, but not something you can point to in any given week and say that's when it happened.

Life not only will change, it is changing. But how best to prepare for it?

I don't think, for example, that $3000 spent on a "third generation" night vision scope so that you can shoot nighttime marauders when they come to loot your stronghold is necessarily the best use of your finite resources. None of us knows what will happen in life, but it might be a better bet to spend that money traveling to Venice or the Great Barrier Reef (two places that it's relatively safe to figure won't be here in a hundred years).

Increasingly, we have to think about being less on the grid. That's in part because the grid will fail in localized regions more frequently, but also because grid electricity is going to become more expensive, not to mention more problematic to produce. We have to think about household configurations that drastically lower our electrical draw.

We have to think about more locally produced food. The "locavore" trend is a decent expression of this, except that it is mostly honored in the breach. In any case, storing emergency rations in mylar bags in nitrogen packed plastic buckets isn't exactly the right response from the point of view of combatting climate change.

If things don't completely fall apart, then we're better off moving to more compact, walkable, village-like environs than we are trying to bug out to forty-acre spreads. Which means supporting government initiatives to support these moves. The full-bore suburban scenario doesn't wash, but we'll all be better off if we don't make the realignment to villages and lower-density cities so disruptive that our economies collapse.

The trick is to aim for something a little higher than survivalism. Preparedness, yes, but with an eye toward civility and the intellectual fruits that civilization has brought us. Emergency food and water in the basement, but not a world where we never go to a restaurant.

Robert Richardson is the principle nomad here at the Mode.
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