Saturday, May 30, 2015

Survive the Coming Collapse

Modern industrial civilization is based on fossil fuels; we have been burning about 30 billion barrels of petroleum every year. Fossil fuels make possible our manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, mining, and electricity. The problem is ''peak oil'': the world’s supply of usable, recoverable oil is on a long and bumpy plateau that will become less horizontal as time goes by. Production will drop to half of the peak amount around 2030. In fact, oil production per person (as opposed to oil production in an absolute sense) declined from 5.5 barrels per year in 1979 to 4.3 barrels in 2013.

Fossil fuels are in decline, but metals are also becoming less plentiful. Electricity will be in decline worldwide because it is produced mainly with fossil fuels. These three -- fossil fuels, metals, and electricity -- are highly interconnected: if one of the three fails, then so do the other two.

Alternative sources of energy will never be very useful, for several reasons, but mainly because of a problem of ''net energy'': the amount of energy output is not sufficiently greater than the amount of energy input. Alternative sources simply don’t have enough ''bang'' to replace 30 billion annual barrels of oil -- or even a small fraction of that amount.

''Peak oil,'' however, basically results in ''peak food.'' Without mechanization, irrigation, and synthetic fertilizer, crop yields will drop considerably.

The following suggestions will vary in their applicability as the years go by, but most of them will remain relevant over the course of this century. The slight bias toward the United States and Canada is partly due to the fact that these areas meet most of the criteria for a suitable post-oil habitat.

1. Preparing for the post-oil world, which is really the post-almost-everything world, is quite different from preparing for the short-term emergencies covered in most survival manuals. The future will not consist merely of "stocking up," waiting for the big moment, and then locking your doors and waiting for "the authorities" to arrive. In fact, you should stop thinking of it as an "emergency" -- after all, your ancestors lived in that same "emergency" for millions of years.

2. The world now has an average of more than 100 people for every square mile of land surface. In foraging (hunting-and-gathering) societies, on the other hand, there is an average of only about 0.1 person per square mile. Since the survivors will be living closer to a "foraging" way of life than to an "industrial" one, it would be better to move to somewhere with a low population density.

3. Those who live in rural areas will be better prepared than those who live in a city. A city is a place that consumes a great deal and produces little, at least in terms of essentials. A city without incoming food or water collapses rapidly, whereas a small community closely tied to the natural environment can adjust more easily to technological and economic troubles.

4. Learn to grow your own food. However, only about 10 percent of the world's land is suitable for crops, and nearly all of that is already being used. Also, the "10 percent" refers to the land when it was virgin soil; since then much of it has been quite depleted. Nevertheless, people have drifted into urban areas to such an extent over the years that many rural areas now have a fair amount of abandoned but arable land.

5. No matter how many books you've read, it takes years of large-scale gardening to become sufficiently skilled that you could safely grow enough food to keep yourself and your family alive through a winter. Learning to raise animals takes even longer. A further restriction is that you'll probably be living on only marginally usable land.

6. Good soil has sufficient humus (organic matter, perhaps from compost or from animal manure), and also adequate amounts of about 16 elements, especially nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium -- naturally occurring or otherwise. Humus will do little to make up for missing elements. (Be leery of "organic gardening" -- much of it is little more than folklore.) There's no practical way to turn sand, rock, or swamp into a garden large enough to feed a family. If you're planning to grow anything, you'll need to find good land.

7. It's possible to live mainly on cultivated plants, but at least half an acre per person would be needed, because the plants need to be spread out to catch whatever water falls from the sky. (''Intensive" gardening is possible only with motorized irrigation to supply sufficient water.) Useful crops would be those high in carbohydrates and protein. Less useful would be those susceptible to diseases, bugs, bad soil, or bad weather.

8. Where farming isn't practical, you might survive on foraging (hunting and gathering), especially in areas of very low human population density. It's generally impossible to live solely on wild plants (in most of the north, blueberries are the only wild plant food worth serious attention), so it would be necessary to hunt, trap, and fish.

9. A gun would be handy until there was no more ammunition. There's no such thing as a perfect gun, so you have to make your own decisions. A .22 is quiet, with very lightweight ammunition; even large animals can be killed with such a gun (although perhaps not legally) if you hit the vital areas. A 12-gauge shotgun will take a variety of ammunition, but it's good only for short distances. Probably most people would do best with a rifle in .308 or .270 caliber. Bolt (and, to some extent, lever) actions are less trouble-prone than either pump or semi-automatic.

10. A possible problem with hunting for game, in post-collapse times, is that there might be too many people doing it. However, the shortage of fuel will cut down the number of motorized vehicles on which modern hunters depend. Also, most people in modern industrial civilization lack the physical stamina to go wading through a swamp all day, looking for a moose. Finally, there are simply not that many people who have the skills for serious hunting.

11. The only heating fuel will be wood. In a cold climate, from 2 to 10 full cords are needed for a winter, depending on many factors. A full cord is 128 cubic feet , which is 4 trees of 12-inch diameter. Two acres of trees will provide 1 cord on a sustainable basis. With a non-motorized saw, conserve your strength by cutting logs less than 6 inches wide -- also, they will not require splitting. The smaller the house, the less wood that will be needed. Rooms that are not needed in winter should be closed off; windows should be covered.

12. Except for a very few people who have the temperament and the skills, living alone will not be practical. "Dunbar's number" of the maximum practical size for a human group is 150, but in reality a tribe takes generations to form, so a rapidly assembled group might be much smaller. For the most part, it is the family -- the ties of blood or marriage -- that serves as the basic unit of any society. Groups of the size of a village are viable because everyone knows everyone, and a smaller community has a greater chance of cohesion and consensus.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Survival Gardening: Growing Squash

The simplest way to categorize squash is to divide them into summer and winter types. Summer squash grow quickly, have soft skins, and can be eaten either raw or cooked. Winter squash take months to grow, have hard skins at maturity, and are always cooked before being eaten. However, that division doesn't fit in neatly with their scientific classification into species. There are 4 species of squash, each with many varieties. Cucurbita pepo includes all the summer squash, but it also includes many winter squash. C. maxima and C. moschata are winter squash of various sorts. C. mixta includes cushaws and a few other Asian types, most of them not well known in North America.

Out of those many types, there are only a few that are practical to grow in the United States or Canada. Most of the summer-squash (C. pepo) types are useless because they are bushes rather than vines, so they are not drought-resistant, but Yellow Crookneck and Black Zucchini will do well. There are more good varieties of winter squash. C. maxima includes Buttercup, Hubbard, and Delicious, all of which are drought-resistant. C. pepo winter squash worth growing are Acorn, Spaghetti, and the "true" pumpkin (a lot of so-called pumpkins are a type of C. maxima); these are also drought-resistant, but Acorn squash is not especially good for storing. Of the C. moschata types, the most familiar is Butternut; while it isn't noteworthy for being drought-resistant, it is one of the best squash for storing.

It is usually the flesh of squash that is eaten, but nowadays there are several varieties of pumpkins and other squash that have naked seeds (i.e. seeds without hulls), and these plants are well worth considering as a major source of oil in your diet. In fact, in very early times squash was cultivated more for its seeds than for its flesh.

If you want to grow squash, be sure to start by digging plenty of compost into the soil. Don't do any planting until good weather in late spring or early summer. Then put 3 or 4 seeds in a hole ½ inch (1 cm) deep. Squash take a lot of room, and there should be 4 feet (1.2 m) between holes for bush-type squash, 8 feet (2.5 m) if you're planting vining squash; the vines will eventually fill this area -- and the roots can reach outward and downward by the same amount. Go easy with planting; 3 or 4 plants may be all you need. Contrary to what one may read in some books, it's better not to transplant squashes, because their roots are too easily damaged, although if you have a short growing season you may have little choice. Don't walk near the plants any more than necessary, because loose soil is needed for the roots to expand. Keep the plants watered until they develop a few true leaves, and then thin each group to the one strongest plant (not several). After they've begun to grow, they should need little or no irrigation.

Summer squash can be picked and eaten when they are quite young; the entire fruit is edible, raw or cooked. If you keep picking young fruit, the plants will keep producing more.

Winter squash should always be left on the vine until the first few frosts. The fruit can then be peeled, and the flesh is baked or boiled. By the middle of summer, you should remove any remaining flowers and pinch off the tips of the vines, so that the plants can put their energy into growing the fruits that are already there.

There are not many problems that squash are subject to. If you have to water them, you can avoid powdery mildew by putting the water on the soil, not on the leaves. Two insects you may encounter are squash vine borers and squash bugs. The former are white caterpillars that make holes in stems. Look for these holes and the "sawdust" and use a knife to slit the stems and kill the larvae. The adult is an orange-and-black moth that lays orange eggs under the leaves. Squash bugs are large grayish-brown insects that give off a bad odor when crushed. If you leave old boards on the ground, the bugs can be found under there in the morning and easily killed. The eggs of squash bugs are reddish brown and are laid on the underside of the leaves.

If you're cutting winter squash for storage, you have to be a little more careful. When you cut the fruit off the vine, leave about 4 inches (10 cm) of stem attached to each fruit. Don't carry the fruit by the stems, or you can cause damage to the fruit. Leave the squash in a place that's warm and dry for 1 or 2 weeks. (Acorn squash, however, don't need to be cured.) Don't wash off any dirt you may see. Then put the squash away for the winter in a place that's cool but not cold; squash will rot if it actually freezes. The average root cellar is perhaps too cool; an unheated room in a house would be better. Don't let them touch each other in storage.

Another excellent way to preserve winter squash is to use the old pioneer method: peel and slice it, then hang it up to dry. Although that may seem like a lot of work, you'd have to do most of that work anyway if you were preparing fresh squash for the table.

It's usually winter squash that's put away in storage, but if you're careful you can also preserve summer squash for a few months of fall or winter: let the fruit grow as big as possible, with hardened skins like those of winter squash, and then store them in a cool room.

Getting seeds for next year's crop is quite easy: just remove them from the fruit as you prepare it for cooking. Add some water to the pulp and work it with your fingers for a while, and then spread it out to dry in a thin layer before you pick out the seeds. To get seeds from summer squash, again you'll have to let them grow to maturity. The viability of squash seed is about 3 or 4 years.

If you intend to collect seeds, however, beware of crossbreeding. Which kinds of squash will cross is a complex subject. Don't grow two varieties of the same species within 500 feet (150 m) of each other. But it's even possible for crossbreeding to occur between separate species. To play it safe, grow only one kind of squash at a time.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)