Previously, I observed that not knowing what level of consumption to expect in the post-transition era is risky business. It would be very comforting to know that we can sustain ourselves without huge doses of fossil fuel energy.
Unfortunately, predicting the future is risky business too. Some have argued that our past has often been shaped by events that were never anticipated. I agree and see no reason why the future should be any different. The best we can do is to explore various possible scenarios. If we explore wisely and with sufficient rigor, we’ll be better prepared for whichever scenario actually materializes.
What I’m proposing is more of a “what if” analysis than a prediction. Specifically, what if the future brings the most challenging conditions imaginable? Could we still sustain ourselves? And, most importantly, what assumptions are necessary to arrive at the reassuring conclusion that we could?
There are two reasons to start considering the future by examining the worst case scenario. First, the worst case is also the simplest. We don’t need complex, unreliable forecasts for the global economy. In fact, we don’t need forecasts for the regional or local economies either. That’s because none of those economies are viable in the worst case – they’ve disappeared!
The second reason for starting with the worst case is that it immediately gets to the heart of the matter. If we can’t sustain ourselves under the most challenging conditions, then right away we know that we must work to avoid those conditions. However, if we can actually handle the worst case, then we can be reasonably confident of sustaining ourselves whatever happens. If future conditions are better than the worst case, that only makes things easier.
Following a total collapse of the existing economy, the crucial question will be whether a single individual with adequate knowledge, experience, land, and equipment could sustain himself (or herself) for a year on the fruit of their own labor. For our worst case scenario, a person would have to do that while consuming only locally available renewable energy and resources.
To sustain themselves, a person must obtain at least the bare necessities: water, food, shelter, clothing, and energy for cooking and heating. And agriculture, plus the related arts of self sufficiency, are the traditional way of obtaining these basics. This is also the starting point for developing any more complex economy.
The agriculture I refer to would not be the energy intensive, cash crop enterprise that is common here today. I’m talking about something more like subsistence agriculture, but I prefer to call it “self-sufficient agriculture”. I mean agriculture as it was once practiced, and still is practiced, in places without much of an economy. This would be the ultimate do-it-yourself experience, and it would probably resemble a pioneer lifestyle.
Some might argue that the pioneers managed to survive here, and since we know a lot more than they did, we’ll be just fine. That’s true, except that there are now a lot more people, a lot fewer trees, fewer fish in local waters, and fewer animals to hunt in the woods. I would be quite pleased to know that we can beat pioneers at their own game. But I need to see a few details about how that would work. Illuminating those details is part of what I propose.
There are a number of benefits to finding out whether or not a person could survive under updated pioneer conditions. First, we would have assembled lots of useful data. Second, we would have a much clearer understanding of the issues. And third, we would have a process that could easily be replicated to examine different assumptions. For example, we could reasonably consider what happens at larger scales. We could consider the sustainability of subsistence agriculture for a family, a community, and finally the entire population of the County.
There is also the possibility that, at some scale, we could foresee productivity that exceeds the minimum for subsistence. Individual productivity could be elevated by techniques carefully tailored to low energy agriculture. We might also expect increases in productivity from local trade and specialization.
If we could exceed the subsistence minimum significantly, we would have the seeds of a new local economy founded on sustainable practices. All together, we would have a real opportunity for a brighter future – an opportunity that we could actually believe in.Next time I’ll discuss the how we arrive at a better understanding of the future using this strategy.