An entry in How To Be Poor
In the previous entry in this series, The Reductionist Trap, I wrote about a possible diet I could eat that would seem to be sustainable and practical, given my circumstances and the broader world at large. As I noted in that post, I believe such a diet could be resilient, both in the world as it is today and, quite possibly, in the world as I expect it to exist over the coming years—that is, with reduced available energy and resources and lower purchasing power for most involved. In today’s post, I want to speak in greater depth about resiliency, raise the issue of margins, and make an argument for how these concepts can help guide how we structure our lives for a future sporting greater material poverty.
Resiliency is defined as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” and John Michael Greer— in a post about resiliency that I’ve referenced before, in this blog’s longest, but by no means best, entry—defines it as “the opposite of efficiency.” He goes on to write that, “What makes a system resilient is the presence of unused resources, and these are inefficient by definition. A bridge is resilient, for example, if it contains a good deal more steel and concrete than is actually needed to support its normal maximum load; that way, when some outside factor such as a hurricane puts unexpected stresses on the bridge, the previously unnecessary structural strength of all that extra steel and concrete comes into play, and keeps the bridge from falling down.”
If I’m correct in the belief that the future is going to sport a good deal less energy and resources—a good deal less wealth for most all of us, in other words—than resiliency is exactly what we need. That future is going to be rife with misfortune and change, a series of shocks to the industrial system, and an altered landscape—figuratively and literally—on which we’ll have to make our livings. Jobs will be lost, incomes will drop, food will become more expensive and scarce. Blackouts are more common, and that trend will continue as power companies cannibalize their existing infrastructure. I wouldn’t be surprised if rural areas started deelectrifying within the next half century. Road systems will degrade, bridges will collapse or be shut down due to safety concerns, and driving will become less viable in a wide variety of ways. America is in the early stages of decline and faces a rough future in which the general state is one of contraction—thus, the list of these changes could go on and on. Suffice it to say, though, the future is going to be much more rough than the recent past.
To imagine this future in simpler terms, let’s consider a piece of lined notebook paper, 8.5 x 11 inches. But let’s change it a bit from a standard piece of notebook paper. This one has two inch margins on either side, leaving just four and a half inches of writing area in the middle. Not much room in the core, right? In fact, barely more than in the margins. The core of this paper is industrial society as we expect it to function, complete with high technology and massive energy usage, the waste of natural resources, and the assumption of perpetual growth. Draw a line straight down the middle, top of the paper to bottom, straight as an arrow. That might be something like the Wal-Mart ordering system and supply chain—one of the more efficient structures in today’s industrial society, within the confines of how we define efficiency. There’s little waste in the sense that products are ordered just in time, from centralized factories, arriving via centralized transport systems, all maximized as much as possible within a computerized system. There are wastes, granted, but they’re wastes that we by and large ignore within the context of our industrial assumptions and economic organization.
There’s little resiliency to this system. A disruption in the transportation, or in the ability of the factories to function, or in the supply chains that feed the factories, or in the computer system that does the ordering, or in any other number of the system’s numerous points of functioning could lead to empty shelves and lost profit. But so long as everything functions according to plan, the shelves stay full and the profits stay high. On our hypothetical piece of paper, a straight line unimpeded is the supply chain functioning properly, and the line ends in massive profits. But this line can only follow one way to that destination, and it’s straight as an arrow. Put anything in its way—any disruption to the system, in other words—and it stops. It can’t go around. It has no ability to bend, to curve, to find a different way. It only knows the one.
Now, any number of systems reliant on the functioning of the industrial economy can be drawn within the core of this piece of paper. Some must stay straight and will stop if they hit any blockade. Others are more resilient and thus can veer around a bit. They’re capable of twisting and turning and finding new ways. But even these are bound by the margins. Those are lines they simply cannot cross, and so they’re left with four and a half inches of wiggle room, and a couple of wide and wild, two inch stretches on either side that can’t be entered without the system falling to pieces. That’s because these margins don’t function under the rules of industrial society. Fossil fuels are lacking or nonexistent in these margins, there’s no perpetual growth, waste doesn’t exist and energy usage per capita is low. High technology functions poorly or is absent altogether. Sun and air and water flow through these margins, but not reserved masses of millions of years of condensed carbon. Labor is provided by humans and animals rather than machines. Food is provided by soil rather than oil and natural gas. The margins do not function as the core does.
Consider, still further, that the margins are widening a bit each year. Accordingly, the core is shrinking—and, accordingly, the available paths for systems and processes dependent on industrial society is shrinking. Every year the margins grow closer, offering a place to live but under the condition of adapting to new rules, new ways of living, new forms of personal and social organization. Within time, these margins are going to squeeze out the core and leave all those people, communities, economies, businesses, machines, and so on that depend absolutely on a functioning industrial society with no place to live. At that point, they’ll be forced to either survive in the margins or perish.
If we’re to face the future in a coherent and resilient manner, we’re going to have to broaden the ways in which we can function in this world. We’re going to have to learn to live in the margins. That may not mean living entirely in the margins today or tomorrow, but we have to take our first tentative steps into them and begin the long and challenging process of learning the new ways of living that they require. We’re going to have to veer into them at times, familiarize ourselves with the marginal world, and continually increase our comfort there. If we don’t do that, we’re going to be in a heap of trouble as the core continues to shrink and crowds more and more of us out of an industrial economy based on perpetual growth and increased consumption, and into a contracting economy that demands a dramatic scaling back of our lives.
To engage these margins, we’ll need to change our behavior. But to do that, we need first to change our ways of thinking. Many of us have been taught to live in a world of growth, a world of industrialism, a world of massive available resources and energy. Trying to live differently without first changing the way we think is only going to serve to compound an already challenging situation. This is why, in the previous post, I wrote about the need to move away from the sort of reductionist thinking that is employed and common in the industrial world—the core of the paper—and toward a systems thinking that is rooted in the natural functions of ecosystems. The margins, after all, are wild. They’re rooted not in machine control and the brute force application of massive amounts of energy, but in the elegant and complex functioning of ecosystems. To make our way in them, we’re going to have to learn to think as the margins function, thus providing us the tools to tease out the full implications of our actions—to see the rippling effects of the way we live and to understand what underlying systems support or don’t support those ways of living.
As an example, let’s consider a wood stove. One has existed in each of the three places I’ve lived out here on the Oregon coast. It was the source of heat in the yurt I lived in when I first came here in 2011, an option in the old farm house I lived in last year—which also had available the horror that is electric wall heaters—and an option in my current residence, in addition to an electric furnace. Despite the presence of that electric furnace, the wood stove is far and away the primary source of heat in this house. A good question, though, is whether or not it should be.
One way we could consider this question is through a simple, reductionist lens of trying to suss out exactly how much energy is used by the wood stove versus how much by the electric furnace, looking at efficiency ratings of the actual devices, the efficiency rate of conversion of wood and electricity to heat, or perhaps try to determine the cost of a cord of wood in comparison to the cost of an equivalent amount of heat via electricity. Perhaps we might broaden out this reductionist perspective by crunching all these numbers to the best of our ability and then evaluating all of them in conjunction to try to come up with a final determination. We may even bring in yet more variables, such as the cost of the electric furnace versus the wood stove, the amount of energy used in their manufacture, and so on. All of this is good information to consider, but it’s only a small piece of the whole system consideration of how to heat your home, and it takes only the dimmest account of resiliency.
What if we instead evaluated the two methods in terms of resiliency, in terms of how straight must be the line that leads to heat? If we do that, then we’re talking about a whole host of other considerations. The electric furnace, for instance, deals in a mighty straight line laid down within the core of our hypothetical piece of paper. To create heat, it needs a steady flow of electricity, and that electricity needs to flow at a certain level. As currently designed, our electric furnace would pull that electricity from the centralized energy grid. If the flow of electricity stops, the heat stops. Period. If there’s a blackout, the heat stops. Period. If the bill for that electricity becomes too expensive to pay, the heat eventually stops. Period. If we get far enough into contraction and decline that our rural area completely loses access to centralized, grid electricity, then the heat stops. Again, period. And even if we wanted to attempt to replace the grid-sourced electricity with renewable electricity produced on site, it’s not likely we could do that. An electric furnace needs a heck of a lot of electricity, in heavy bursts. I don’t see any way we could cobble together any combination of solar PVs, small wind turbines, and micro hydro generators—and the necessary battery rack—to make that happen. Not for heat on demand. Especially in the winter out here, which is when we need the heat and when the sun isn’t shining. (There’s an important connection there, we should note.) In other words, our electric furnace needs the centralized industrial economy and the electric grid it provides to produce heat.
Now let’s consider the wood stove. Here we find that the line is not nearly so straight, and even is capable of veering into the margins. Unlike the electric furnace, the wood stove can work with a variety of different types of fuel. First and foremost is wood, of course, but it could produce heat from many different combustible materials. Even if we were to stay with wood, though, the ways that wood can be acquired is far more varied than the electric furnace, which needs to be hooked up to a centralized electric grid to work. Wood can be acquired in ways that are highly dependent on the industrial economy and ways that are far less dependent on it. Depending on where you live, it could even be acquired without help of the industrial economy. Scrap wood can be harvested from the forest floor. A series of sturdy hand tools combined with human (and perhaps animal) labor can take a tree and fell, split, chop, and stack it into a winter’s worth of heating. For us in particular, out here on the Oregon coast, access to consistent and reliable electricity is almost certainly going to go away before access to locally grown wood.
Furthermore, a bit of systems thinking leads us to other advantages of the wood stove. As a concentrated source of heat, it not only can be used for heating the home, but for cooking food—and it can do both those things at the same time, with the same heat. Even those wood stoves not made explicitly for cooking provide a hot surface. If you have a cast iron pan and that surface is big enough to balance it on, you can cook food. Still further beyond that, modifying your wood stove to include some kind of wetback system could provide hot water, to boot, providing you three critical functions for the price of one. In the world of permaculture, this is called “stacking functions” and it’s a way of making the most out of your resources that’s rooted in ecological and systems thinking. The beauty of a wood stove is that—in the simplicity of its design and its lack of high technology, which tends to focus on single tasks—it’s capable of supporting multiple functions. An electric furnace, on the other hand, simply can’t heat your water or cook your food. It’s designed only to heat a house, and it goes about that in a very particular way.
In fact, considering the heating device itself is also a good exercise in systems thinking. Our electric furnace is a single-trick pony, designed to be hooked up to an electric grid, a duct system, and a thermostat. Take any of those pieces away and its functioning is either reduced or eliminated. I know of no way to modify it to do other tasks at the same time as its heating the house (though perhaps that can be done and I just don’t know about it!) As well, the electric furnace is dependent on the continued functioning of the heating coil and the blower, or else it simply won’t function properly. If one of these breaks down, the furnace must be repaired or replaced, and that likely will require parts out of an industrialized supply chain. A wood stove, on the other hand, strikes me as a much more sturdy device. It is, first and foremost, a heavy metal box. It’s not dependent on a number of moving parts, nor is it dependent on a duct system (outside of the chimney) or on a thermostat, outside of the predilections of whichever human is charged with starting a fire. It is a sturdy device, likely to last longer than the electric furnace, and certain repairs may be possible without resort to a long distance supply chain. Its heat can more easily be localized if you want to maximize your fuel by heating less space. Closed doors make for a better barrier than closed air vents, after all. In the starkest of situations, you’re likely to have a bit better a time cozying up to a wood stove than to a HVAC vent. (Not to mention, it makes for a more romantic, or haunting, image.)
In short, the wood stove can take a multitude of different paths to the final goal of heat, and can even provide multiple functions upon achieving that goal. The electric furnace knows one path, and its final goal is limited in scope, as well. As such, the wood stove—for many people—is much more resilient a technology for a deindustrializing future than an electric furnace.
This isn’t to say the wood stove is a perfect solution, even for those of us who live surrounded by forests. For starters, those forests can go away fast. The number of clear cuts out here are already too numerous to count and, as we go through the long and harsh process of deindustrialization, there’s good reason to think that quite a bit of rural land could easily be stripped nearly bare by desperate individuals, desperate communities, and desperate governments. It doesn’t have to happen that way, but it might. So even for those of us living amongst the trees, firewood could eventually become more challenging to gain hold of. Furthermore, a good supply of firewood involves quite a lot of labor—either done by humans, animals, machines running on fossil fuels, or some combination of those. A future in which chain saws and diesel-powered splitters are more scarce—either with less of these actual tools around or less access to the fuel to run them—is going to mean that putting away a winter’s worth of wood heating is going to be a challenging task. Particularly for those who are older, in poorer health, or simply not used to hard physical labor. But they’re not insurmountable, and a good community—and good relations with that community—could go a long way toward getting over that hump.
Similarly, the electric furnace could prove to have more worth in certain situations, such as in an urban environment. While I still wouldn’t want to count on it for the long term, there could easily be a day a few decades down the road when a city dweller still has access to the centralized electric grid but couldn’t easily get firewood, while a rural dweller might be able to come across a good supply of firewood fairly easily but has lost any connection to a centralized electric grid. In this case, the city dweller is obviously better off with the electric furnace than a wood stove and the rural dweller vice versa. This comes back to one of the basic tenants behind systems thinking: that it has to be rooted in the local context, not in theory. Systems thinking is about dealing with the world as it is. As such, my above example about wood stoves is relevant for me, in my rural home, and likely relevant for a good number of Americans—but it isn’t relevant for all. Each person has to engage their own local context—their community, their ecosystem, their personal reality—to come to the most resilient way forward.
A final moment of reflection on this post, though—and particularly that last paragraph—will reveal an important truth. All this talk of wood stoves and electric furnaces is rooted in a basic idea that’s very much a product of industrial and reductionist thinking, which is the idea of bending the world to our will. But one inconvenient reality of the future is that we’re going to have much less control over our world than we’re used to today. We’re going to be making do with what we have far more than we’re used to. The margins are wild, and they’re going to demand more from us than we’re going to be able to demand from them. Learning to live well within and accept that reality is a key part of learning to live in the margins, and I’ll delve into that in the next entry in How To Be Poor.