Doug Fine -- Globalization, Survivalism and a Post-Oil World

By Doug Fine
Sunday, August 9, 2009


I've spent the past three years trying to get petroleum out of my life and live locally. Where I differ from many locavore cruncholas is in my determination to do these things without giving up digital-age comforts -- you know, the ones that allow me to file this essay from a solar-powered ranch 23 miles from the nearest town.

I was plugging along, burning about 80 percent less oil than I did before overalls became my fashion mainstay, when the world financial system nearly collapsed. Now climate change exists again (officially), and there's talk that a green-tech economy might somehow emerge from the ashes of the one torched by derivatives.

But no one's sure. What if the Earth's supply of oil is half gone, with the masses in India and China just now latching on to the consumption teat? What if "cap and trade" and plug-in hybrids don't get here in time?

Suddenly the end of globalization and other apocalyptic visions of the planet's near future, once the purview of Idaho survivalists, are prime-time stories on CNN. Mainstream suburban friends of mine who used to say that my experiment in neo-rugged-individualism was radically subversive have abruptly changed their minds. Now they just say it's radically unfeasible. Yet everyone seems to sense that 69-cent plastic garden buckets might one day be difficult to come by.

I have a fiancee and a son to provide for, so I decided to take a hard look at our prospects for survival if our consumer safety nets went away. For now, my green lifestyle choices at my remote 41-acre outpost in the American Southwest are optional. You know, growing lettuce instead of buying Chilean. Using organic cotton diapers instead of buying Pampers. But what if one morning in, say, 2049, I wake up to milk my goats and find out that supplies are no longer streaming in from China and California? What would I do if both big-box stores and crunchy food co-ops suddenly were no more?

In other words, I'm examining my place in a hypothetical post-oil, post-consumer society 40 years in the future.

Now, I'm not rooting for such a thing. Slave labor, forest depletion, climate change and resource wars aside, globalization has a lot going for it. I love that I can e-mail a musician in Mauritania and ask to download his latest album. And anyway, lots of people think globalization is the economic model for the foreseeable future. Still, when I was covering the former Soviet Union as a journalist in the 1990s, every single person I met told me that they'd thought pigs would fly before the Politburo crumbled.

I started my year 2049 assessment by assuming that I'll be 100 percent food-, water- and power-independent by then. An optimistic assumption, perhaps, but three years into my local-living experiment, my solar-powered fridge is filled with regional (and often home-grown) produce, and thanks to a solar-powered pump with a 30-year warranty, my water flows to a drip irrigation system that requires no electricity.

I own healthy if rambunctious goats that, despite the carnage they wreak in my rosebushes, give me more than half a gallon of milk per day, and the ranch's chickens provide so many eggs that I can practically feel my arteries clogging from all this healthy living. When I embarked on this project, I had enough food in my home for about three days, in case of a supermarket disruption. Now I have three months' worth. I need to do better than that, but I'm on my way.

With my growing brood fed, I wanted to analyze our prospects in other basic areas we often take for granted -- clothes, for example. I quickly realized that the long-term question might not be "Where will I find fair-trade organic cotton boxer briefs?" but rather, "Where will I get any underwear at all?" In post-consumer 2049, children in Bangladesh will no longer be sewing my skivvies for me. Luckily, my sweetheart has taken up knitting. And we're pricing alpacas.

First things first, though. I won't even have a place to store my underwear if I don't think about the ranch's physical security. What if my family gets its survival cards in order -- and hordes of former Wal-Mart shoppers don't? What could we do to stop them from treating my ranch like a buffet line?

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