My Daughter

My Daughter
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Monday, August 18, 2008

Relocalization and Cottage Industry

I started this all off by thinking about food preparation. I was packing corn in Mylar bags and got to thinking that none of my neighbors were doing this, and that few of them would know what to do with it, and that even fewer have the tools to do much with it. This is where it took me... Having spent the last few decades living in cities, eating fast food, prepackaged TV dinners, and food so heavily processed they can't identify the ingredients, a great many people have lost the ability to prepare basic meals from fundamental ingredients. Corn, rice, wheat, oats, and beans are simple foods. They are available cheap, in high volume, and store for years when properly packaged. There are plenty of people who are not able to identify whole wheat. Hand someone a bag of whole dry corn, they have no idea what to do with it.

Rice, on the other hand, has a chance. I was looking online at some recipes for beans. One recipe said something like open the can, cut some hot dogs, mix the hot dogs and beans in a bowl, microwave for 2 minutes, serves 4. years ago I was training a kid to be a shrt order cook at a diner just outside albany NY. We had an order for 2 eggs over easy with some toast. I told him to put two eggs in a pan, buttering it first, then 2 slice of bread in the toaster. He buttered the pan, put in 2 eggs, then showed me to see if he had done it right. I said "Thats good with the butter, but you'll need to crack the eggs open. I though it best if I took care of the eggs, he moved on to the toaster. After a few seconds I hear the guy going "Ouch, Ouch!" It was a conveyor belt toaster, he did not understand that you simply set the bread on the belt. He was singing his hands holding the bread inside the toaster. Simple skills have been lost. Much of the loss is a result in the simple nature of modern appliances. It used to be common for every home to have a woodstove or fireplace, a couple of cast iron skillets or pans, and every town had a grain mill. The loss of the electrical grid will remove the ability to cook a meal from a great many homes in the developed world. If you don't own a grain mill, how many of your friends have one. Where is the nearest one to which you can gain access. What can you make with dried whole corn and or beans?

In the absence of electricity, how many people out there can heat a quart of water to 160 degrees? Its not that many. There are some people who have the ability, campers, camp stoves, bbq grills, some woodstoves out there as well. I can see these items being in high demand in a crisis situation. Bread is a common staple. Local bakers are still around, although the big box stores with a bakery department are surely cutting into the market. I live in a town with 10,000 other people. I know of 1 small bakery downtown. Where is the bread made that the big box stores stock? I have no idea. How many people do you know who have made bread before? The ability to bake bread in a crisis situation would be a skill in such demand that I don't know what to predict. This of course assumes ground wheat, oil, sugar, salt and yeast is available, along with a working oven to bake it in. To maintain bread production a community would need everything already in place to last a considerable period or the ingredients and energy brought in regularly. Equipment which operated on locally available renewable energy would be required at the very least in the event the electricity goes down. In a Post Peak Oil collapse, everyone returns to gardening to replace the lost goods from failed distribution systems. How many of these people will be able to raise enough tomatoes, as well as other ingredients, and produce tomato sauce.

How many have a cooking device which will allow them to do so if they knew how? Preparing for the Future is a tremendous project, requiring tools, expertise, systems, equipment and skills for even the most basic of self sufficient production. The ability to raise and grow food. Garden tools, arable land, water, energy to move the water, the know how to raise this food in a sustainable, duplicatable manner. Harvesting and processing the food, and storing it. Pressure canners, as well as jars and lids, dehydrators, sinks, stoves, pots and pans, mills, grinders, knives, and of course all the tools and supplies to clean up and maintain sanitation. Cooking equipment, be it stoves, ovens, open fires, smokers, BBQ pits, pots, pans, griddles, and a myriad of smallwares are essential to a diet based on local foods coming ripe at different times. How many people do you know who can make their own cheese, flour, butter, vinegar, or wine, have all the equipment in place and are able to grow all the ingredients in their backyard? Don't get me wrong, there are people out there with some ability. Soap and candle making is a hobby craft, basket weaving, pottery, cooking, organic gardening as well. There are those who tinker around in the shop with metal sculpture or blacksmithing, woodworking set up with great skill and a keen eye for detail. Some people make quilts, dresses, even hats. Of all these people, what percentage would be able to continue their skills without electricity and a distribution system to bring them supplies and actuate equipment? A crash that is slow enough to motivate people to get deeper into their crafts to such an extent that they are able to create their products from local materials is a best case scenario.

Small economies and team work can help. One guy cuts down trees, makes lumber and firewood. Another builds fences and cabinets. Someone raises sheep for meat and wool, another takes fresh wool and turns it into yarn, then socks. Someone raises bees for honey and wax, others make candles and mead. The population needs time to relearn crafts which were performed locally a century ago, lost to the ravages of machines and industrial production. A town without a beekeeper has no honey and no candles. Maybe there is a beekeeper in a town close by. Sure their may be horses, but the closest farrier is 50 miles away. If the farrier needs charcoal, he's hoping there are plenty of trees around and someone who knows how to produce charcoal, with the equipment in place. There are seamstresses out there who can make a suit of clothes in her home, but she needs a source of thread, fabric, and parts for the sewing machine. Farmer John can raise the wheat, mill it, even bake the flour into bread. He still has to get it from the farm to the customer, and needs a system of money or barter in order for his activity to be worth his effort.

Relearning a single skill for a cottage industry is all well and good but for that industry to be viable, a support system needs to be in place. While barter can replace money as a means of trading goods and services, there needs to be something out there to trade for. Farmer John is not going to spend all his time baking bread in order to give it away. He'd do better spending some of his time canning tomato sauce or cutting firewood for the winter. An entire community needs to relearn a wide array of skills in order that ancillary products and services are available. It takes time to learn a craft, and the right tools and equipment to do it. Whats more, the tools equipment and skills need to be useful in a pradigm of energy depletion. You can't run to Sears, buy a bunch of tools and start building cabinets unless you already have an understanding-even a basic one-of the steps involved. To keep going, your tools will need to work without elecctricity or fossil fuels. People can learn, they do it all the time, but the awareness of what they will need for the future is not in place on a scale that will be needed to continue any sort of localized barter based economy. The firewood guy will eventually have to give up his chainsaw for an axe, and give up his F250 for a team of horses to haul the logs out of the woods, otherwise there is no more firewood. Furthermore, someone needs to have axes and teams of horses in place ready to sell.

How then, do we move backwards? How does a society, with most of the people having no clue of future events, move from being dependent on a vast and intertwined network of goods and services produced by the indigenous people of whereever, to a local resource and renewable energy based society, and do so in the timeframe available (20-30 years using the most liberal extimates, 10-20 with resonable estimates, 5-10 with worst case scenarios), all the while prices on everything increasing, world politics getting more militaristic, governments continuously reducing civil liberties, shortages of goods on the market and weather patterns resembling bad Hollywood movies? I think the world will simply explode under the pressure.