In 2005 the square footage of the average American new house build decreased for the first time in half a century. That same year global oil peak became a fact of life. Last year was the first year in a century in which cities grew faster than suburbs, marking, among other things, a reverse in the general trend toward increasing affluence in America. People need jobs, and with gas prices the way they are, they want to live closer to those jobs. Oh yes, things are still growing, but only from a very localized point of view. People are moving to the cities because there isn't any gainful employment to be had anywhere else. Entire exits in rural areas of Georgia off of I-75 have dried up and are slowly blowing away, gas stations shuttered, signs of former economic activity faded and peeling, and accompanying stretches of billboards still advertise the same (sometimes very specific and time sensitive) things they were advertising back in 2011. Ostensibly without paying the bill. So Grow Atlanta! Grow! The worst is behind us;) As William Gibson famously pointed out in The Economist way back in 2003, "the future is here - it's just not evenly distributed." It's distributing itself quite nicely around the rural backwaters of our country, but for now the big cities don't seem to be feeling it. (Unless you count pesky little things like light bulbs not being replaced along I-75 through Atlanta. The lighting is down to around 10% now, and I say good riddance. But dark freeways are still small potatoes compared to dried up towns...)
You are welcome of course to interpret the facts any way you like.
Moving on, it's customary for peak oil prognosticators to make some sort of prediction about the upcoming year round about this time on the calendar. Thankfully I am not a peak oil prognosticator, nor do I own a crystal ball, functional or otherwise. But, like any observant participant in the web of life, I can certainly sketch out some trends in rough outline.
Reducing our economic obligations is a common thread in the fabric of our particular life, and I imagine that strategy is gaining traction all over the industrial world right about now. Most of you have some idea of the lengths we've traveled to cut our bills, but there is still plenty of room for improvement! Mrs. Small Batch Garden and I sat down the other day to confront our top expenses and talk about how to reduce or eliminate them. Probably quite minor compared to most budgets, but our top expenses were 1) the cost of storing our possessions since we live in such a small place, 2) the cost of supplemental propane heat to keep us warm at night and rested, and 3) laundry at the laundry mat! At about $75/mo each, this trio comprises about 3/4 of our monthly bill load.
The first two will be taken care of when we convert the tent we live in now to a wood cabin, which is coming up very soon! No more storage unit, and we'll be able to hold onto a lot more of the heat produced by our rocket mass stove, plus gain plenty of passive solar heat from the south-facing-window-rich design we have planned. Supplemental propane heat should be almost negligible by next winter. We will install it, because the county will insist, and heck, we have the bulk of the equipment already, but it won't get used much. The surprise for me was just how excited my wife was about bringing the laundry back home with the purchase of a few useful tools. We sat down together and looked through the Lehman's catalog as she pointed out a wringer, a washtub setup, an old-fashioned scrubbing board, and a couple of well-designed retractable drying racks - one for kitchen towels, and one to mount by the dragon for clothes. Another retractable set of lines for the porch addition should round out summer drying needs. So by building the wood cabin and bringing laundry home our bills outside of food and transportation should be well under $100/mo! Which frees up more money for fruit trees, earthworks, livestock, and so forth, which further reduces our need for money to buy food, water, and so forth, which...well, you get the idea. It's probably the reason you're reading this.
As I mentioned up-thread, moving from a rural area to a big city also fits the bill of the reduction directive, as it cuts mileage traveled for work, sometimes even eliminating the need for a car altogether. In big cities most daily needs can be had within walking distance, or a short bus or bicycle ride, and like minds are almost always nearby. I have good friends who would rather live in the mountains like us, but manage to grow a substantial market garden for sale at a few local farmers markets and local-slanted restaurants, and make a pretty decent living doing it too! Their life just wouldn't be possible where we live because the local economy wouldn't support it. And although they must own a pickup to do business the way they do, I bet they drive less than 500 miles a year. That's hard to compete with in the country. Expect the urbanization trend and the reduction benefits it conveys to continue full-force in 2014.
Reusing goods will continue to become more common. Outfits like Craigslist should continue to gain market share, much to the chagrin of the IRS. If you're not in a big damn hurry, bundles of money can be saved when the perfect item shows up in the list and you're sitting there prepared for it. And bundles of money are just what people, who may suddenly find themselves in less of a big damn hurry, in this country will be looking to save this year. For housing needs buying a "fixer" instead of something turnkey will become a little more normal this year, as will buying used cars over new ones, which to me seems like a no-brainer. Fewer Americans will have the disposable income to just toss ten grand out the window as they drive off the showroom floor just to get that new car that no one else might have screwed up (or perhaps TO get that lovely VOC smell that gets peddled as "new car scent" at car washes. Ridiculous.) Buy something used and reliable that is below your budget, and keep it in good nick. Avoid loans wherever possible.
Recycling materials will gain new meaning for a lot of people this year as it has for me in the past half decade. To most Americans, recycling means placing your glass, plastic, paper, and metal in a blue bin on the curb for someone to pick up. I get recycling paper, so we can avoid cutting down more trees, trees that we desperately need in the landscape of the future, and recycling metal is a gimme, since you can actually SELL it to someone who wants it for very little effort, and sometimes a surprising amount of money! [If you're looking for a real eye-opener (and have some mental discipline) check out this video called "Peak Mining," and you'll understand why more and more people will be selling metal from here on out.] But plastic and glass? Do entire recycling infrastructures really represent a net energy or material gain compared to making new ones? All the bins, all the trucks, all the gas, all the personnel, salaries, and benefits, all the facilities, the sales, marketing, and distribution folks on the other end, and so on - these all have real world impacts to consider. It's not enough to just say that it's better to keep it out of the landfill. We have to be brutally honest about the systems impact of our proposed "solutions." Better yet would be to reduce or refuse items packaged in the materials in question - something I've heard referred to as "precycling." Or reuse them again and again if you have them. Buy wine in glass bottles and then make something that you can put back in that bottle; I've been making mead regularly this last year and bottling it up in old wine bottles for the cellar. I want to add cider to the repertoire this year, and perhaps beer and/or wine, too. I find a wine bottle's worth of beer to be a great serving size for most people.
But beyond the usual suspects of America's recycling juggernaut, there are endless material resources we can recycle. By metal I don't just mean aluminum cans, but scrap iron, copper wiring, old appliances, electronics - anything made of metal will sell. I see metal scrapping as a time-traveling scout from the salvage culture that will replace the scarcity industrialism into which we're just now headed [See John Michael Greer's book The Ecotechnic Future for more on these thoughts about the coming phases of cultural senescence.] Beyond metal, there are so many things lying around for free that can be put to good use - old tools and furniture, rock, brick, tile, scrap lumber, fencing, the list is endless. 2014 will be just the latest in a run of years of expanding perceptions about recycling.
Repair will continue to become an increasingly familiar part of daily life in the States. With less money to throw around, we will start fixing the things we already have instead of throwing them away and buying new ones. The other day my wife saw an old Toyota Camry just like ours that had wood shims wedged under the headlights to hold them up. Ours could probably use that too! I imagine the garages of this land are staying pretty busy these days. I know we have a sizable chunk of our forthcoming tax return set aside for routine maintenance - tires, brakes, tune-up, that sort of thing - this on a car sporting 260k+ miles on the odometer (and still spinning like a top). It's just a machine. Keep it repaired! Beyond a status issue, there's no real need to keep buying new cars...
Nor for that matter is there any need to buy the cheapest option that fits our needs. It's a waste of all kinds of resources to buy "the cheap version," and have to throw it away and get a new one later. Buy something of value, something that can be repaired, and if it has components with built-in obsolescence replace the part in question with a higher quality one when you do repair it, say, a metal version instead of the plastic one it came with. I've worn the same good-quality shoes for many years and kept the local cobbler busy, probably spending roughly the same amount of money as someone who has bought and tossed several pairs of cheap shoes in the same time period. For heaven's (or perhaps more appropriately, Earth's) sake, buy good-quality durable goods, and keep them repaired. By buying good shoes and keeping them mended, I've thrown next to nothing in the landfill and helped to keep craftsmen employed in an unusual (these days) but very useful trade.
Refuse to buy things you don't absolutely need, or can rent or share, or make, or pick up a recycled or reused version of. If you must refer to this last strategy as "upcycling" by all means do [gag], but just do it, no matter what it requires. That's the most important part. The emerging trend for industrial culture is a movement away from materialism and toward a more spiritual existence. This is a tough one for Americans in particular, but I don't believe that one can really move toward increased spiritual awareness while clinging to materialism. "Simplicity" sells, can be marketed, has become its own economy actually. What Thoreau had in mind was very specifically embraced poverty, not simplicity. But poverty doesn't sell, can't be marketed for private gain. It takes balls to embrace voluntary poverty in a land of plenty, and most people WILL NOT understand it, or will completely MISunderstand it. They'll forward email after email about how their particular political interest is making the lives of the poor more tolerable, making things better for you, or they may just think you're a lazy, good-fur-nuthin' scoundrel. But a serious scale-back of our activity and consumption is precisely what the planet needs, and will be requiring, from us in the years to come. I have discovered that embracing the tidal shift away from materialism has opened unexpected doors to much more interesting ways of being and thinking in the last five years. Try selling that one to America.
But one of the most unusual aspects of permaculture is its tendency to try to improve system function by removing elements from the system rather than by adding something. Instead of adding a new mouthwash, or electric toothbrush, remove something you find damaging from your diet. Instead of taking an aspirin, stop hitting yourself in the head with a hammer (Mollison). Instead of adding a pesticide, try removing soil life-damaging fertilizer. It doesn't work every time, but it's amazing how often it does. But of course the establishment finds this sort of anti-economic behavior extremely threatening. Refusing to buy, use, or participate is damn near an act of aggression against the state in this country. Which makes it one of the most potent actions we can take as individuals!
Hmmm, reduce, reuse, recycle, and the two largely ignored by America, repair, and refuse. Seems like I've heard it somewhere before. Expect actions that fit into these categories to continue becoming more mainstream in 2014. They are, after all, the most adaptive strategies we have for a declining energy base, and 2014 should be no exception.
There, is that vague enough for you?
Just my .02