By Doug Fine
Sunday, August 9, 2009
GRANT COUNTY, N.M.
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?
"Form a small army," my friend Wiley recently suggested -- or at least a well-armed clan. That might be a good start. I've kept his suggestion under my hat until now because I recognize that, to people in the civilized world, the idea of armed ranch protection conjures images of Waco compounds. But here in rural New Mexico, folks take this kind of discussion seriously.
Security, alas, is just one of my concerns about a post-oil scenario. I have to be able to maintain a life worth securing. Here again, I found myself thinking tribally, recalling my predecessors in this valley and on my very property, the Mimbrenos.
The Mimbrenos were the indigenous folks who thrived here for 1,000 or so years in numbers greater than we have today, and without Realtors. Maybe their share-the-tasks system would work in post-consumer society. Someone else could take care of, say, the equipment maintenance work I don't know how to do. I'm talking about basic stuff -- fixing broken windmill blades and fridge motors.
That brings me to my worst fears about 2049. Having been raised in the suburbs on fast food and TV (Gilligan, though a survivor, offers few useful tips), I can barely change my truck's oil, let alone wire a solar panel. So I have to make sure that my solar electrician, a former hippie named Craig, is a high-ranking member of the tribe. You think an electrician is hard to schedule now? The best house, polygamy, whatever it takes -- Craig would get it. We can write the myths however we want.
Nascent tribalism is already appearing in my obscure valley, largely because we modern Mimbrenos are so sick of driving 46 miles to and from town every time we need a carrot. In the past two years, a food co-op, a farmer's market and a harvest festival have all started up.
Surely I'm forgetting some essential aspect of life in 2049, the way I inevitably forget at least one shopping item every time I schlep into town. Have I stockpiled enough light bulbs and seeds? What about medicine? I'm not too concerned, though. I think I have a priceless asset in my expanding herd of goats, which will make up for supply gaps. Whenever I need something I neglected to stockpile during the boom times of globalization, I'll barter off a goat kid like someone out of "The Red Tent." I don't think we'll starve.
Overall, I'm surprised to have come away from my ranch assessment feeling fairly well positioned for a post-apocalyptic 2049. Of course, the chaos that's sure to ensue if local living morphs quickly from voluntary to mandatory makes it difficult to predict exactly what life will be like. But this assessment has shown me that the only way I can become truly independent (a word I like even better is "indigenous") is through incremental steps based in a local economy. Yikes. I'd better start trying to get along with my less-friendly neighbors. Meanwhile, I'm investing in green tech.
Doug Fine is the author of "Farewell, My Subaru." He blogs at www.dougfine.com and will be online to chat with readers Monday at 11 a.m. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.