Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Curbing the Apocalypse

Back in September of last year I wrote a post on climate change and complained about there being a lack of good speculative fiction dealing with the issue. My friend and frequent collaborator, Ahimsa Kerp, politely suggested I read The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (it only won the Hugo and Nebula awards—how could I possibly have known about it?). The book is set in the near future when the global oil supply is for all intents and purposes gone, and rising temperatures have resulted in higher sea levels and a global food crisis. Huge agricultural corporations hold the world hostage with their genetically altered seed supplies, and combat independent nations with designer pests and blights.

When you consider the mounting evidence of climate change and hear more and more about real-life corporations like Monsanto snuffing out local farmers to gain a monopoly on the world's seed supply, Bacigalupi's vision seems awfully prescient. Reading this great novel, along with having recently read Bill McKibben's Eaarth and State of the World by the non-profit World Watch Institute, I can't help but feel a greater urgency to make changes in how we live—to try and save the world from ecological disaster, or if nothing else, be more prepared when the apocalypse does arrive. So, without further ado, I present to you:

How to be Self-reliant and Environmentally Responsible (without being a pussy or dirty hippy, not that there there's nothing wrong with that...)

Step 1: Quit Buying Cheap Shit!

We've been conditioned as consumers to think that everything is disposable. Buy, use, throw away, repeat. While most people are aware that this fills up our landfills, the more pressing issue is the carbon dumped into our atmosphere thanks to the endless manufacturing and distribution of these disposable consumer goods. The solution is easy: quit buying disposable, cheap shit.

The most obvious culprit is bottled water. It takes about 47 million gallons of oil to produce a year's supply of disposable water bottles, and then there's the bottles themselves to contend with—only around 20% actually get recycled, leaving the rest to pollute landfills or add to the floating islands of trash in our oceans. Instead of drinking bottled water, buy a reusable water bottle and refill it (even tap water is equally clean as most bottled water). There are dozens of styles to choose from. Choose one made of BPA-free plastic, or better yet, pick one of the stainless-steel or aluminum varieties and you'll always have a makeshift club at your disposal.

And as long as we’re talking about potential weapons to utilize in case the apocalypse arrives, let’s up the ante and talk straight razors. I got fed up constantly buying replacement blades for my Gillette Mach 3. In addition to hitting my pocketbook pretty hard (seriously? a 3-pack of replacement blades costs twenty fucking bucks when the entire razor only cost ten dollars in the first place!??), there’s also gobs of waste packaging and the aforementioned manufacturing and distribution pollution. The alternative? A straight razor and all the accessories. You’re looking at dropping a couple of hundred bucks on a decent razor, whetstone, strop, brush, and shaving soap, but the cost is well worth it. A good straight razor will last you your lifetime and nothing makes you feel more alive than shaving your neck whiskers with a blade that can slit open your jugular with a simple twitch of your hand. Visit the super cool blog The Art of Manliness for a great guide on how to shave with a straight razor. (Ladies, though I’ve never heard of it before, I don’t see why you can’t shave your legs and ‘pits with a straight razor. If anyone has done this, chime in and let me know how it works.)

There are lots of other examples like these. The trick is to see what you throw away a lot and replace those items with reusable ones. Tired of plastic grocery bags? Buy reusable ones. Have a coffee shop addiction? Buy reusable mugs and cups and take them with you. Does your nasal passage manufacture too much snot? Start using a handkerchief. You get the idea.

Step 2: Embrace Your Inner Farmer

These days the term farmer has the connotation of being an inbred hick, but go hang out with any real family farmer and you’ll find one of the most self-reliant, knowledgeable people you’re ever likely to meet. In addition to growing their own crops, they raise animals (and know a thing or two about being a veterinarian), manage their water usage, and can fix damn near anything, whether it be a leaky toilet or a busted up tractor. I’m not saying you should quit your job and sell off all your assets to buy 100 acres and start your own farm, but there are a lot of little things you can do to become more self-reliant and lessen your impact on the environment.

Growing a garden is deeply satisfying, both the physical labor involved and the act of eating what you grow. After eating a home-grown tomato on your next BLT, you’ll never want to eat a tasteless store-bought tomato again. Some easy things to grow in a backyard garden are tomatoes, squash, peppers, and herbs. Do some research on what you want to grow and try it out. The first garden you grow probably won’t turn out great, but that’s the point, to practice and learn how to do it right, so when the world is reduced to a bunch of starving, cannibalistic scavengers, you can grow food in the safety of your stronghold. If you live in a more urban space, your options are limited, but you can still put together a hanging herb-garden like I did by mounting hanging brackets on a wall or the side of your house. And let me tell you, if you don’t have a hammer drill, you’ll get one hell of a workout drilling through concrete cinder blocks.

In addition to gardening, it’s a good idea to give some thought to your landscaping. If you live in an area that doesn’t get a lot of rain, it makes no sense to have a lush, green lawn. Replace your grass with plants that are indigenous to your area and are drought resistant. If your house gets bombarded by the afternoon sun, plant some shade trees. I also like to compost unused produce, leaf litter, and grass clippings. Chuck it all in a pile somewhere, mix it up occasionally, keep it damp, and—bam!—you have a ready supply of potting soil/fertilizer. I use the stuff in my garden and to green up dead spots in my lawn where the soil is bad or my dogs piss. (Yeah, yeah, I know I said to get rid of your grass, but I rent my place and don't have the luxury.)

Speaking of dogs, I got overly-ambitious and built a cesspit in which to dispose my dogs' turds (as opposed to picking them up and throwing them away in plastic bags, which essentially seals and immortalizes the poop). All I did was dig a hole a couple of feet deep, line the bottom with some gravel, toss in some cesspit starter bacteria (from my local hardware store), shovel the turds in, add some water, and throw an old garbage can lid on top to keep the poopy fumes from inundating the backyard. Not a bad solution to poop and other unsavory organic waste you don't want to throw in your compost pile and eventually your vegetable garden.

Other ideas you can steal from farmers include capturing rainwater runoff into buckets or a cistern to use for irrigation, and raising your own small animals: chickens (for meat or eggs), rabbits (for meat), or, like they do in Peru, guinea pigs.  Mmmm, guinea pig burgers....

Step 3: Head Down to Barter Town

While you might get good at being a farmer, the fact of the matter is you will not be able to grow or build all the necessities you'll need to survive. To that end, it's smart to start shopping at your local markets, and I'm not talking the grocery store or lame-ass Walmart down the street. I'm talking farmer's markets, swapmeets, and such. Buying at a local market like this has several benefits. One, it supports your local economy. Rather than bitching about how everything is made in China or how politicians fail to create jobs, put your money where your mouth is. Buy stuff locally and the money stays local. What's more, you'll have bought stuff that doesn't have a huge carbon footprint from being shipped halfway across the world.

When it comes to buying produce and grains, take it a step further and buy organic, if possible. I know, I know, the stereotype is that people who buy organic are health food nuts, but that's not my reasoning for touting organic. Sure, it's healthier and that's all good, but more importantly it's made without fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides, all of which are made from petroleum. Most people don't realize that all the chemicals pumped into foods grown on mega-farms are made from oil, but it's the dirty truth (another reason to compost at home and use the compost instead of fertilizer).

Perhaps buying local and buying organic won't keep modern civilization from toppling into chaos, but if nothing else, it'll give you the skills you need to strike bargains on the real open market, and it'll help you forge a network of locals you can band together with when the shitstorm arrives.

Step 4: Become a Mad Scientist

In addition to lacking a sustainable supply of food, the other two big issues our world is about to face are where we'll get clean water from and where we'll get our energy from. Might as well get used to using less of both now. With water, you can start with the water conservation methods I suggested in the farmer section. Beyond that, you can install low-flow heads on all your faucet and shower heads, swap out old toilets for low-flow toilets, fix any water leaks or drips you have, and simply start paying attention to your daily habits. No need to run the water while you're brushing your teeth. Refrain from taking those twenty minute showers. Use smaller load settings on your washer, and forgo the extra rinse. If you squirt off only a small pee (and haven't been eating asparagus), don't bother flushing the toilet yet.

With the energy issue, everyone already knows that we're addicted to oil and coal. The problem is figuring out what alternatives we have. Going electric is the most obvious answer, but for the time being, most of our electricity still comes from dirty, carbon-based sources. To reduce your electricity usage, there are a bevy of things you can do. Most electricity is used to heat water and to heat or cool our homes, so that's the first place to start. Wash your clothes on the cold water setting, turn your water heater temperature down a notch or two, install instant water heaters, or better yet, use a roof-mounted solar water heater system. To keep your house at a comfy temperature, make sure your exterior walls and attic are insulated, install double-paned windows, install good window coverings, and ease up on your thermostat. You don't need it to be 72 degrees inside when it's well over a hundred outside. In addition, update old appliances and use energy efficient lighting.

If you're feeling really ambitious, there are more drastic measures. Kick your gas guzzler to the curb and buy a Tesla supercar. Give the utility companies the finger and install solar panels on your roof. Install a windmill if it's constantly windy outside. Have a creek on your property? Try out some hydro-power generators or an old fashioned water mill. And if you're really crazy, build a Tesla Generator for “free energy.” Sure, the websites peddling guides on how to build one don't mention that your antenna will have to be the size of the Statue of Liberty to generate enough power to supply one house, but maybe—just maybe—you're the person who can modify it to be more efficient. Or maybe you're the one who can figure out cold fusion and keep the worldwide energy party going. I really do hope someone finds a miracle solution, but just in case, I'll be at home with my water bottle and straight razor, building better cesspits and growing tastier tomatoes.

-Garrett Calcaterra

1 comment:

  1. After rereading my post this morning, I realize that many of the suggestions I make require buying stuff, and that wasn't necessarily my intention when I said we should become more self-reliant, but I suppose it's unavoidable to a degree. To clarify, I'd like to add that most people already buy tons of crap, so let's be more aware of what we buy. Yes, the stuff I mentioned tends to be expensive, but after the initial investment--whether it be a straight razor, gardening supplies, or solar panels--most of these items will pay for themselves and you'll be set for years to come.