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On Being Connected When Things Start to Fall Apart

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       If Globally = A  BIG Problem. 
       If Locally = A BIG Benefit. 
       So, What To Do?

With the advent of cheap and apparently limitless energy from oil and coal, life entered a new era. After being stable at just over a billion, world population started to grow exponentially. No longer limited by the energy supplied by humans and horses, everything took off – exploration, migration, development, agriculture,  invention and manufacturing, transportation, etc., – you name it. And the energy needed for this appeared boundless.

One of the characteristics of this new growth economy has been rapid development of the Division of Labor. No longer did household members need to have the range of skills necessary for them to survive, as an isolated farm on the prairie, for example. Some members continued to focus on household and farm chores while some developed a particular skill to a high level; they then served others with that skill, were paid by the others and used that money to acquire other goods and services for their family, like clothes, potable water, electricity, a furnace, etc. Thus came about the Division of Labor, and with abundant cheap energy from fossil fuels we all flourished.

And we have now arrived at a high level of connectedness. No longer is communication dependent on a messenger. We  connect with each other by telegraph, by phone, by books and newspapers, by mail, by movies, by radio, by TV, by e-mail and Skype and even some (I’m told) by telepathy. And getting together via a  horse was gradually replaced (for almost all) by bikes, cars, trucks, boats, trolley cars, trains and aircraft. Evolution of such means for transportation required and enabled roads, mines, steel mills and factories and stores of all sorts and brought about gas stations, airports, radar and traffic cops, as well as living far from work and every day eating food grown on other continents.

You get the idea. We buy, borrow or rent from some one else almost everything we use during the day. We are now so dependent on such networking, on being easily connected to all other elements of our global economy, that virtually all families have lost survivability if not connected.

And therein lies a big problem. Various elements of our many, many interconnective systems are now threatened by events beyond our control, events that are unpredictable in detail, intensity and timing. The global population is unsustainable but still growing, and some major correction is coming, sometime, somehow. Increasing degradation of our environment and of its ability to support the people who depend on it is a consequence of there being more and more people. The supply of cheap oil needed to enable growth of that population, oil once considered limitless, has now peaked and is increasing in cost. Global financial systems and the value of our personal assets are threatened by the many governments, including ours, in virtual bankruptcy.  Transportation for us and for the goods and services we need every day is being crippled by the increase in the price of oil as it continues to become less available. The electric grid is at max capacity and is not being well maintained. Solar-generated ElectroMagnetic Pulse, if happening again as in the past, could take out virtually all our long distance conductors, whether they be for communication or power. Fukushimas of our own are now seen as a real cause for concern. And the list goes on!

That is, failures occurring in any of the already stressed global systems which provide  connectedness to us would trigger failure in other systems and in a short time could seriously threaten not only our comfort but also our survivability. We are vulnerable, not only long term but also short term!

But while an expedited return to a prairie homestead style of living is just not conceivable, one approach we could take is to try to reduce our dependence on the national/global economy by creating and nourishing resilient local economies. Facilitating the sharing and exchange of information, skills, resources and products within the local community could do much to improve local sustainability, particularly through reduced energy dependence and increased use of local food.
Greeting at door
This could in principle begin with one person going from the thinking-about-it and talking-about-it mode to the feet-on-the-ground and finger-on-the-doorbell mode. A big challenge! Typically the usual neighbor has not realized that those events in the headlines he reads each day could have any possible impact on his own job security or pension or medical care or what there is to choose from at the supermarket he drives to. And getting this message to him in the minute or so I could hold his attention after he answers the doorbell would be beyond me.

And yet, not somehow getting something like this started is an invitation to chaos and panic if we do lose the ability to connect; individually none of us has the skills and resources needed to go it alone. And note that it’s much easier to start right now, before the fan gets dirty, because many of the changes one would make to improve survivability turn out to have immediate and quite positive payoff. Reducing energy usage in your home cuts the bills right away, and living without drafts can be delightful. You’ll be glad you found a way to cut transportation costs when gas crosses the $5/gal mark and keeps going. And eating better at the cost of a little regular exercise and maybe even sunburn and less lawn to mow is too good to put off getting started on.

So, when we commit to trying to jump-start creating a local and resilient economy, what do we do? Fortunately there have been others ahead of us in doing that and there is much we can learn from their experiences. A good start could be to look up writings from the Transition Network on the internet (; you may well find unheralded projects nearby with workers anxious to be of help. In the meantime, however, the challenge of making others more aware of what the future probably holds can be started on right away, both by your continuing to educate yourself and by making opportunities for nearby neighbors to get together over something.

So if anyone has raised this with you but really didn’t get through to you, get back to him and ask what he was trying to say. Take it seriously and ask for more info and offer to help. And if reading this is the first you’ve heard this kind of stuff, start looking it up and asking around to see if others have heard; you’ll find some that have and are in the same position you are, but now neither of you are alone. Then together tackle the puzzle; with what you have and where you are, what’s the best way to learn more and to spread the word and what actions could you then take to increase your mutual survivability?

I sure wish you luck, and maybe at some point we’ll be able to help each other!!!

Don White was a physicist in GE’s R&D Center, retiring in ’85. He and Nancy currently revel in their new solar home. He enjoys gardening, where he pays special attention to berries and to shade-loving plants, with a particular focus on ramps, ginseng and eleuthro (formerly Siberian ginseng).

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