Special Report: Peak Oil

The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook

Sustainability, permaculture, and the novel idea that living with less stuff is actually a good thing.

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 10, 2007

Albert Bates, The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook, New Society, 2006.

This remarkable book could be summed up as Accept the fact that you're going to have less stuff, and find ways to make that work for you, but that summary isn't nearly as much fun to read.

In what may be the first cheerful Peak Oil book, Albert Bates has used his experience as the director of the Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology at The Farm in Tennessee to write a handy, helpful, and hopeful book.

Bates lived for years in an intentional community based on sustainable living and voluntary simplicity, so he knows firsthand that the end of abundant hydrocarbons is not the end of the world - quite the opposite, in fact, since it opens up a new (to the rest of us) experience of cooperation and convivial work.

After an introduction that sets the scene of declining fossil energy and looming climate change, Bates takes the reader through a twelve step petrochemical recovery program, starting with post-growth economics and running down through methods to conserve fresh water, manage wastes, create energy, grow and store food, and get around in the absence of cheap power.

In the chapter called "Be Prepared", Bates writes:

Try this experiment: Go to the main electrical breaker box for your home. Turn it off. Do the same for your gas inlet. Take a few days, maybe longer, and begin the experience of living off the grid.

Then, instead of blasting you for your uninsulated water pipes or lack of non-perishable food, he calmly walks you through crashproofing - preparing all the things you need to do and have to have to live comfortably.

"You get better with practice," he assures the reader. "Your comfort level in this self-imposed state of deprivation rises as your knowledge, skills, and toolkit improve."

The central message in this book is sustainability and permaculture. A recurring theme is that every waste product is something else's food, and that the most sustainable arrangement works with the prevailing conditions, not against them.

Survival really boils down to attitude. It's all mental.
-- Albert Bates

Instead of wasting energy trying to fight nature, it makes more sense to understand nature and use it to your mutual benefit. This, of course, means the end of one-size-fits-all industrial solutions and a return to decentralized, idiosyncratic plans based on local conditions.

Further, unlike Montana-style survivalist tracts (in fact, he recommends against stockpiling guns and ammunition), this book is based on the idea that without inputs of cheap energy, people need communities to live well. Bates writes:

The Latin word munus means "gift," as in "giving of one's self to others." The word munere means something prized, precious, and worth defending. Whenever people develop an attitude of caring for the wellbeing of the whole, community is present.

Bates looks at different community models that have promise, from the New Urbanists to Richard Register's Ecocity movement and intentional communities like The Farm.

Did I mention that this is also a cookbook of simple, tasty, and nutritious meals from organisms lower on the food chain than North Americans are used to eating? Notwithstanding the grasshopper quesadillas (you can substitute crickets or locusts depending on availability), the recipes I tried are excellent and will provide newcomers with easy ways to explore vegetarian cooking. (Okay, I admit: I didn't try the quesadillas.)

I highly recommend this book as an antidote to the doom and gloom that comes with assuming our civilization is the zenith of human achievement and that any move away from it is a step backward. Deliberate, conscious sustainable living puts our power-hungry, gas-addled culture to shame.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By David (anonymous) | Posted January 11, 2007 at 12:40:10

Books like this read by masses well in advance of the energy crunch might be the best answer. I live where it is considered posh to be off the grid. If more and more can adopt Burnsian Economics, end the consumptive madness, and find more pleasure in simple living, the energy issue won't be so catastrophic. But having said that, the folks off the grid still depend on materials made of and delivered by oil, or have jobs that depend on oil, and on and on. It would be difficult to live totally insulated from the needs of oil, but I think even tougher will be to live insulated from the anarchy that results from the majority of people who didn't take any steps toward independence in advance - it will certainly be a minority who do.

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By jph wacheski (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2007 at 09:44:47

As much as i applaud the ideas of this book,. positivity is a powerful perspective. I regrettably must agree with the post by David. It's not so much that we are concerned with how we can live with out oil,. permaculture is the best known model,. it is the fact that the vast majority of people all around us have no idea at all,. many have guns and have been trained by the media to be as stupid as can be,. . We need to challenge the corpo./fascist system before it implodes. Why wast the oil we have left to us, driving back and forth every single day? We should be using it to build sustainable systems.

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