Lifeboats, The Id, and Me

In case you hadn’t heard the times, they are a changing.  I just reread a piece I had written a few weeks ago at the beginning of the Economic Turmoil.  Since then I, like all of us, have spent a lot of time talking to my co workers and neighbors about it.  Those groups run the gamut from sound advice (don’t sell now!) to indifference to emotional reactions of rage and frustration.  Very few people are doing anything other than a few tightening up their belts.  I contrast that with what happens when I talk to my sustainability minded friends.  They still have the rage -actually alot more- but dammit many of us are getting busy.  And we really don’t even realize it.  

First clue was last week at my first Community Supported Energy (CSE) meeting.  We’ve talked about this for a year now, and the simple act of calling it can be attributed to recent events, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I had expected 4 people and I got over 15, many of whom I didn’t know until then but had heard about it through friends -and these people are motivated and energetic.  We reach consensus quickly and volunteers for action items are easy to find -very, very different than 3 months ago. The next clue was when I kept bumping into my farmer friend on odd corners of his land -we were tilling under fallow land and sowing cover crop like mad.  Then a day later I started getting calls to hire my tractor to help other friends till more land under.  Granted, my eco-peer group are a bunch of doers; 501C3’s and CSA’s don’t start themselves. But we are doing ALOT these days.  Certainly there is some psychological coping mechanisms going on here -we feel helpless and are trying to just do something.  But I also think it is more than that.

We have spent the last 2 years in educating mode – getting the word out, holding study groups on The Natural Step, going to Village Meetings, and holding talks at conventions and rallies.  Our group has put over 250 people through the study groups, and as we “train the trainers” we have contributed to another 500-750 more going through Natural Step training in SE Wisconsin.  Our little group has seeded much larger areas like the Greater Milwaukee Area with Big Ideas. At MREA we talked to thousands and are still getting call backs, and have held breakouts at several other events.  We have made real progress in Being The Change.  But in the past month, I have heard less of us talking about educating – we have made a steady, inexorable change to spend our time doing.

Without even discussing it, my farming mentor and I had decided to double our tilled land -even if we don’t plant it this year we had both decided to get it under cover crop to start stunting the perennial weeds.  We both have the strong suspicion that we may need those extra acres.  The CSE project went from esoteric musings to talks about business plans and zoning in less than 2 weeks as the DOW tanked and Iceland neared bankruptcy.  Talks of community sized root cellars began to happen as did shared conversations of harvestable stands of timber in our collective’s property.  As Paulson was talking bailout, we had begun thinking in terms of “lifeboats” and directing resources accordingly.  

“Lifeboat” is a great term to describe what we are doing.  Our guts are telling us the “ship” is sinking – we spent the last two years bailing and trying to patch the hull by building grassroots support and spreading skills in Systems Thinking like Permaculture and The Natural Step and the Earth Victory Garden.  Now we are shifting resources to swinging the boats over to the side in case we need ot cut loose when the ship falters.  We are actively building infrastructure to keep us afloat: Roots Cellars, Energy Production Systems, tillable acres of living soils, harvestable timber plots to be managed, partnerships with grain farmers to work in oilseed crops in their rotations.  We put in for our first grant today from Google.  For $2,000,000.  That much would let us build a CSE in every county in Southern WI and run them for 3 years.  Crazy -damn straight!  But ideas that make alot less sense than this have gotten more money.

If the ship stays afloat, even if only to falter to shore, all the time we put into our lifeboats will not be wasted.  Root Cellars for year round eating of locally produced food, producing hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel from local waste products while producing dozens of tons of fish protien make sense no matter what size boat you’re on.  The Funnel is still closing, we are still using resources faster than they can be replenished – even if we stop the Economic Leg of the Sustainability Stool from wobbling, the other two need some serious help.  

I guess psychologically I am still in a twilight phase right now -but am hopeful enough still that it is dawn and not dusk.  Or maybe I am somewhere between Billy Oceans “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” and Margaret Mead’s “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” with a healthy dose of Emersonian “Self Reliance” thrown in for good measure.   Americans are fantastic about rising to a challenge, we just need help seeing the challenge.  This time I just hope it doesn’t take Pearl Harbor. 

Be the Change.



6 Responses

  1. All sounds good – but who is going to get in the lifeboat? You and family/friends or someone who shows up later? And how will you decide who gets to get in the boat?

  2. We need to be careful to not take the analogy too far; while we are building systems that can help to offset the drop, it is a stop gap for maybe 4-5 families. the important part is that we have begun putting our ideas more fully into action rather than just talking about systems of living more sustainably.

    Especially with the CSE, once we have a working system up, it can be repeated everywhere. The sustainable ag stuff is not nearly so revolutionary and much is already being done to that end across the country. It will be nice, however, to show what is possible in our county to those more inclined to grow corn/beans than veggies and Real Food.

    I guess to attempt to answer your question -anyone can get in the lifeboat that is willing to wake up and start DOING -there is nothing special about us other than that -all the info we are using is from open source items like the Net or books, and, like the gasifier, we are writing about almost all of it. If it hits the fan, our systems will be used to meet the needs of those who built it first, but the goal of Permaculture is always to make a surplus and more importantly to spread the skills needed to make these “lifeboats”.


  3. Well yes and no on taking analogies and running with them. We too are making preparations. And considering how to protect them. If things get bad you can be sure that people who haven’t made preparations are going to be interested in the preparations others have made.

    How bad things are going to get, and how much we want to think about and prepare for this is of course up to each of us. But to prepare for “Economic Turmoil” and think that people always will behave civilly seems naive to me.

    That said, I think building community and neighborhoods, growing more food, looking for local energy source and learning new skills are all good things. Lets all keep doing it!

  4. I think that what Rob is doing is closer to building a new ship than a lifeboat- it is a long term solution, and it serves the entire community by providing fuel and food.

    I think every family should have a lifeboat- a reserve of food and fuel and other supplies to carry through a disaster like a blizzard, hurricane, or worse. It is nearly impossible to store enough supplies to get through a Great Depression.

    It is important to have a means of self defense in emergencies, but in a “long emergency” the best defense would be a strong connection to the community.

  5. Matt, thanks for your words.

    EJ, Toby Hemenway writes of a similar concern to what I think you are getting at -that we do all the work only to have our neighbors with guns take it away- in an article awhile back:

    I guess I am planning for an end state somewhere this side of Mad Max. I am not assuming that people always behave civilly, but I am not going to start spending money on M4 Carbines and putting tripwires primed pipe bombs around the root cellar either. If roving mobs are in the countryside we have bigger problems than I can prepare for right now. That kind of fear is a slippery slope I’d rather not start down.

    Instead I’ll work toward the security that comes from being able to grow and preserve food and energy and work on my neighbors to see value in the same. Food and energy security cross alot of lines in the community.

  6. Rob, I laughed when I read your reply regarding the M4’s and tripwires, because I know someone who does exactly THAT to his property and has for years. He came out of Vietnam scarred, both physically and mentally. He is also, at the same time, one of the sanest people I know and is one of my most cherished mentors regarding sustainability and surviving the Long Emergency that is surely coming.

    I think we need BOTH types of people: those like you who are community activists, and those like my friend, who are nobody to mess with…and in the middle there are people like me, who simply do what they do and educate where given a listening ear.

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