To some the idea of becoming self-sufficient seems silly, or even overly paranoid. But, only a bit of tentative research in to the topic shows that developing the ability to live without the grid is a prudent move. The expectation that our age of abundance can last indefinitely has been repeatedly proved foolish in the annals of history. But, beyond even that, the tonic of self-reliance and personal responsibility holds the promise of even greater years to come.
What is the Grid — And Why You Should Be Worried
“The Grid,” somewhat like “the Matrix” has become a vague term that can mean anything from the electrical power distribution network, to the complex interconnected web of human relationships that governs modern life.
To me, the grid is best defined as a collection of monopolies, or near monopolies, that has left the average American both absurdly wealthy by historical standards and simultaneously more dependent for survival than ever before. This can very clearly seen in things like our food supply and public utilities.
Don’t think you are venerable? Try this experiment, even if just mentally. Turn of the main circuit breaker to you house for a week. How would that go? Would you be able to cook? Store food without a fridge? Clean? Or run your generator long enough to last?
Now, think about a month without power. That may seem like a doomsday scenario, but now that hackers have compromised the power distribution network of the Western United states, it is a remote possibility worth considering.
The fact that one nerd on a computer could potentially bring your community to it’s knees should be unsettling.
Where Your Food Comes From
Another aspect of life we take for granted is food. Although, a casual walk through your local shopping center may seem like there is an endless supply of food for the taking. Anyone who has tried shopping right before a hurricane or major storm will witness first hand the devastation a higher than average shopping load can wreck on an unsuspecting shopping center.
This problem is only exacerbated with modern just-in-time (JIT) supply chains, which require daily shipments and constant real time adjustment to keep shelves full. There is an oft cited figure (although I could not substantiate it) that American cities only hold 3 days worth of food on average.
With all this in mind, consider any extraordinary event that might distrust this machine. Computer failure, sustained regional power outage, oil shortages, etc. Would you trust your life that it will never falter?
The ICIC’s report “The Resilience of America’s Food Systems” details potential problems facing food distribution in the United States. Particularly, we need to look at the long and strenuous international and interstate distribution network put in place by Americas biggest supermarket chains. The ICIC report concludes that by far the majority of food sold in American cities travels long distances by truck. And, that most cities only have 2–3 major road connections which allow long haul trucks in to supply food from regional distribution centers.
According to the USDA, the top 20 grocery chains sell 2/3rd of all food in the Unites states. This is up from 42% in 1996. And Walmart, by far the largest, is infamous for its highly centralized control structure and tightly regulated supply chain. Even if you abstain from shopping there, what would the impact if this company suddenly failed for some reason. Could the food system handle a sudden 20% decrease in its ability to get food from farms to tables?
Much of the problem here is not the “difficulty” of growing food, but rather the voluntary way we have chosen to organize our society. According to research conducted at the University of California, up to 90% of Americans could survive entirely off food grown within 100 miles of home, and 80% could survive on food within grown within 50 miles. Yet, looking at the crop distribution map above, it is clear that crops are extremely concentrated, and what you need to survive may not be commercially grown except for 1000’s of miles from where you live. (Unless you live in Central California.)
Stability and Globalization
The imperative for every person to look to their own stability and ability to survive lies is in the seductive urge to centralization. Trade makes people wealthy and the powerful even more powerful. But it comes at the cost of stability in the long run.
Initially, interconnected societies pay off big. A single person may fall on hard times, but if the community can fill in the gap temporarily the entire system remains more resilient. Likewise, a community or region may suffer drought, but if their neighbors can close the gap starvation years can be avoided.
The problem comes with excessive integration and specialization. This is where we are now. When very few multinational corporations control trade, we get things like a global banana disease wiping out the world’s banana supply.
This isn’t the first time that this has happened. The amazing book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed unearths what is known about the slightly mysterious global collapse of all major societies that existed at that time. This was the era of Moses and the great pharaohs Egypt.
The author, Eric Cline, traces part of the cause to a globally interconnected trade network and dependence on foreign goods (particularly tin to make bronze). This dependence lead to a hard collapse of technology of the time, once those trade routes were disrupted. After hundreds of years of prosperity and growth, some of the greatest empires to ever exist all but vanished from the face of the Earth.
The Fall of Empires
In his seminal work The Fate of Empires, Sir John Glubb hypothesizes the means by which empires grow and die. Central to his explanation is the idea that grow less self-reliant and increasingly hedonistic in their pursuits. Rather than build on the solid base of sound governance and good judgment left by their ancestors, the gradually gravitate towards excessively intellectual pursuits, entertainment, and debauchery. Although a great empire may persist for some time in this state, they have all eventually fallen victim to this internal rot.
There is no better example than the Roman empire, which once spanned continents and built so soundly that their roads and aqueducts have lasted thousands of years. Yet, in the twilight of their years they succumbed to a welfare state that not even Julius Caeser could dismantle.
Eventually, many Roman citizens enjoyed a hereditary “right” to food provided by the state. The state itself, amazing lean at the time of the Roman conquest of Europe, grew ever larger and constantly hungry for new taxes. Eventually extreme inflation set in, due to over production of currency. At one point, Emperor Diocletian desperately set in motion a price fixing law, that punished violators with death. Yet, the real cause of decline, over burden of the state, increasing unemployment, and decreasing production were not addressed.
In a sense, they could not be addressed, because the over centralization of power in to an elite slave owning class. And the simultaneous infantilization of the general population who grew lethargic with free public games and free public bread.
The death of Rome, and potentially the death of all civilization, was not due to religion or military conquest. Truly, the Roman empire overcame much worse than that in its millennia of existence. Rather, it fell because of a lack of farmers and a decline in self-reliance.
Victory Gardens of the “Greatest Generation”
This trend of reliance on others for survival can be starkly felt here in the United States. A trend falsely attributed to industrialization and technology.
There is an acute lack of practical skill development in modern western society. Most of our grandparents or great grandparents knew how to grow food, preserve it, sew clothes, and keep themselves warm if it came down to it. In 1944, individuals grew “victory gardens” in their yards to support their country, and in this way supplied > 40% of all fruits and vegetables in the country.
In 1944, an estimated 20 million victory gardens produced roughly 8 million tons of food—which was the equivalent of more than 40 percent of all the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States. (History.com)
If you still doubt recent ancestor’s abilities, check out the Foxfire books. This student project of the 1960 catalogs the knowledge, skills, and folk lore of the elderly generation in the Southern Appalachians. People back then new how to get or make almost everything they needed. And, even if they could buy it from someone else, they were secure in the knowledge that they were not beholden on anyone but themselves and their family for survival.
The key element of this mindset and philosophy is that it is incumbent on the individual to keep themselves. And, in times of need to contribute what they can.
A Decentralized Vision of Humanity
The real question in my eyes, is it inevitable that civilizations must fall? Is there a dark age on the horizon, as there once was for ancient Rome?
The solution cannot come from authority or institutions. If the great Caesar himself couldn’t stop the decline of society, which politician today will best him? No government exists strong willed enough, and no corporation so selfless, that urge to increased centralization of influence can be halted or reversed.
We are too far gone to wait for a miracle.
For the miracle to come, it has to come from the same place as always. The hearts and minds of every day people. Only they are humble enough and hard working enough to put in to place the right system for eternal stability.
And, that system is a decentralized, voluntary, interconnected web. A fungus like system. The best living example of this is the internet. No one truly controls the internet, yet it spans the Earth. It has no central location or HQ. This was by design, conceived by the scientists who created it to withstand global nuclear war.
The goal of Off Grid Permaculture is to realize a decentralized future for humanity. By leveraging technology, learning from the past, and thinking of the future, there is a possibility of glorious days ahead, for all of us.