When Technology Fails: How to Survive the Long Emergency

Finally, a book for the millions of people who realize that making the shift to sustainability is a matter of economic and ecological survival.

The following is an interview with Matthew Stein, P.E., author ofWhen Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability and Surviving the Long Emergency, fromChelsea Green.    

Brianne Goodspeed: A lot of people are now really concerned -- or even hopeless -- about the state of the world and what our future holds. Peak oil and climate change, the global food crisis, the war in Iraq, a weak economy and a number of recent devastating natural disasters give us real reason for concern, but many of those things weren't even on the radar -- or were, but to a lesser extent -- when When Technology Fails was published in 2000. What was your original intent in writing the book?

Matthew Stein: My original intention was to provide a practical handbook to help people to plan for, and deal with, the difficulties that most of us will face as we pass the peak in global oil production and experience the consequences of escalating ecological decline exacerbated by catastrophic climate change. It is my hope that many millions of people will wake up to the realization that making the shift to sustainability is a matter of economic and ecological survival. If enough people awaken to this understanding, we will be able to force our governments into making the radical changes that are needed to change our course and avert economic, social and ecological collapse.

BG: You write, "Emergency preparedness isn't about a bunch of survivalists crawling around in the woods, preparing to fight off the starving hordes in some grim post-9/11 apocalyptic fantasy." That stereotype does exist, but given a rising level of alarm, do you think more middle-of-the-road folks are beginning to think about emergency preparedness?

MS: My book is quite unusual in that it appeals to eco-green types, survivalists and all the average folks in between who simply want to be able to help their friends and families in times of emergency. Emergency preparedness is kind of like car insurance -- you hope you never need it, but when a real emergency does arise, you thank God that you had the foresight to spend a few dollars and a few hours of your time on basic preparedness supplies and planning.

BG: When Technology Fails is -- at its root -- a comprehensive handbook of survival skills. Those skills range from building an emergency shelter and purifying water to foraging for food and dealing with medical situations at home. Obviously the future is uncertain, but can you give us a list of your Top 10 most crucial survival skills?

MS: OK. Here's 10:

  1. Be Prepared: I strongly suggest that everyone put together a basic 72-hour "grab-and-run" survival kit (see page 51 for full list of items). This kit should cover the basic food, water and survival needs for you and your family for at least the critical first three days after a disaster. Most of us could survive for a month without food, but a single day without water in extreme heat is enough to kill a person.
  2. Develop Your Intuition: Most survivors credit their instincts and "gut feel" with saving their lives. Natural selection has bred the most incredible survival mechanism into man. It is called "intuition," and primitive man has relied upon it for untold millennia to help him to make life-and-death decisions in a split second.
  3. Disaster Plan: See the Short-Term Preparedness Checklist on page 50. Discuss a plan with your family for communicating and responding to a disaster when phone lines may be dead (select a predetermined local meeting area and out-of-town contact; know how to shut off your home's gas and electricity supply, etc.).
  4. Learn First Aid: In the back country, as well as in most natural or man-made disasters, knowing fist aid (including CPR) saves lives.
  5. Go Camping and Backpacking: Most people have not camped or backpacked since they were a kid, or perhaps never at all. If you are in this category, start with some car camping for a few weekends. I suggest you get comfortable with car camping before graduating to overnight backpacking trips. Backpacking will accustom your body to hiking several miles at a time and carrying whatever you need yourself.
  6. Know How To Start a Fire: Being able to build a fire is important for cooking, purifying water, preventing hypothermia in cold climates, keeping wild animals away at night (in some areas) and signaling potential rescuers. Starting on page 76, my book gives illustrated instructions for building fires including: starting a fire with matches; using a flint-and-steel; starting a fire with a primitive fire drill; using a "fire plough;" etc.
  7. Learn How To Find and Purify Water: Unless you are in a cold climate, a single day without water will make you quite miserable, and three days could kill you. Bees and birds can lead you to sources of fresh surface water. A primitive solar still can collect enough water for survival from plants and ground moisture.
  8. Survivor Personality: Developing the mental traits of the "survivor personality" will help you to navigate and thrive in spite of life's challenges. The best survivors are flexible, tend to keep their cool in stressful situations, don't give up, have a playful curiosity, have a good sense of humor, don't tend to "cry over spilled milk," follow their "gut feelings" and are often "bad patients" and poor rule followers.
  9. Learn the "Plant Edibility Test": Most people will not happen to have a guide to wild edible plants on hand when they are thrust into a survival situation. If you know how to perform the "Plant Edibility Test" (see page 81), you will always have a safe way to test local plants for potential edibility.
  10. Learn How To Make a Primitive Shelter: Learn how to make a "Scout Pit," "Squirrel's Nest," snow cave and other primitive shelters. In severe weather, a shelter could save your life, and at other times it will make your life far more comfortable.

BG: Has your life ever depended on any of the skills in this book?

MS: Yes, on a number of occasions. I used to enjoy taking solo back-country trips through the high Sierra in the dead of winter, which required several of these skills. From extreme skiing, to rock climbing and mountaineering, to surviving avalanches, several times my body has reacted perfectly to potentially deadly situations faster than my mind could think of the proper thing to do. I have also used the "Pit of the Stomach" method to help me make a few critical decisions. I once kept the airway open for a woman who had fractured her skull in a mountain biking accident. She was gurgling and choking on blood, and may have suffocated before the ambulance arrived had I not intervened.

BG: At one time -- and not really that long ago -- it was considered impractical for a middle-class college kid to want to learn to farm, whereas learning computer skills was seen as critical for a young person's future. Do you think ideas about what is practical and impractical -- good versus not-so-good investments for the future -- are changing at all?

MS: The truth is that if technology fails in a big way, your ability to do things with your hands, like grow food, make a shelter and heal people without high-tech pharmaceuticals, will be quite valuable. Your ability to work well with others, and to be well liked and personable, will also be quite valuable. The lone wolf will face a miserably lonely existence and will be easy pickings for someone who is tougher, has more buddies and is better armed. Strength will be in tight-knit communities with a shared pool of resources and skills cemented by strong personal bonds.

BG:You write that you doubt we will see technology fail completely. What do you think will fail and -- if you don't mind indulging your imagination -- how do you think it will happen?

MS: If we don't proactively develop carbon-neutral alternatives to both oil and our current ways of burning coal for making electricity and cement, I believe that the dual threats of climate change and economic collapse will take our society down. We are already seeing huge economic repercussions from the past year's record-breaking oil prices, and I believe that this is just the beginning, because even though the world's output of traditional crude oil has been dropping for the past few years, this drop has been offset by increases in production from tar sands and biofuels, which are much harder to process than good old "sweet crude" oil.

In the next year or two, it appears that the declines in traditional oil will accelerate and the gains in biofuels and tar sands will not be able to keep up with these declines. Adding to this problem is the fact that India and China's rapid industrialization is increasing their appetites for oil at a rate of about 10 percent per year. The world's declining oil fields just won't be able to keep up with the demand for oil, so unless we hurry to develop and implement the technologies to get us off the oil and coal habit (burning coal contributes nearly twice as much greenhouse gasses per unit of energy as does burning oil), then our economies will collapse under the strain of escalating fuel prices exacerbated by horrendous global calamities due to climate change.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba's supply line to foreign oil, consumer goods and spare parts evaporated. Most Cubans lost at least 20 pounds of weight, agriculture switched from oil- and chemical-intensive methods to organic methods, and natural healing replaced most pharmaceuticals. Most people's lives went on fairly well, so Cuba is a good example for how to make the best of a bad situation.

On the other hand, as a result of the same Soviet Union collapse, the lights and the heat went out for most North Koreans, and many millions of people starved or froze to death in the harsh North Korean winters.

So, do we proactively do our best to minimize the pain of our transition from "business as usual" and a fossil fuel based economy to a sustainable way of life, or do we just try to pump the oil faster, net the last remaining fish in the sea as quickly as possible, and cut down the last rain forests so we can maintain the illusion of a good bottom line for as long as possible before the depleted natural systems collapse all around us while we go out with a bang?

BG: So, uh, what happens when our iPods won't work?

MS: We may have to learn how to sing, play banjos and gather round the camp fire to entertain ourselves, much like our ancestors did.

BG: Are there positive aspects of technological failure?

MS: In general, technology failures usually bring out the best in people. When the Cypress Freeway collapsed in Oakland, Calif., during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, homeless people became heroes risking their lives to crawl under tons of debris and pull survivors from their wrecked vehicles. I think the heroes in New Orleans outnumbered the looters and rapists by at least 20-to-1. Local catastrophes usually nurture a strong sense of community and the desire to serve others unselfishly.

If technology collapses totally, we will probably take many of the earth's ecosystems down with us in our final efforts to keep business-as-usual running, but my guess is that most humans will die off after the collapse of technology, and then nature will rebound quite well within a couple hundred years. Good news for nature -- bad news for us!

BG: OK, this is my last question and I'm sorry, but I can't not ask you. Remember Y2K? Is it possible that you're advocating preparedness for scenarios that will never happen, except in the case of localized natural disasters? Is there any part of you that thinks that, actually, for the most part things will be just fine, and mostly we'll just keep on keeping on in the future pretty much the way we've kept on keeping on until now?

MS: No. I never thought that Y2K would amount to much since it was all about a silly little computer glitch, and the private sector had too much at stake to not implement some relatively simple software fixes. This was a simple problem with a simple solution.

On the other hand, oil depletion, climate change, overpopulation and global ecological degradation are trends that have been foreseen by scientists for many years. These are real problems with difficult solutions. The implementation of these solutions will take major financial, resource and time commitments, coupled with huge shifts in public policies. Just because our scientists know this is happening does not mean we will be successful in changing our course and implementing the right solutions.

Take a look at New Orleans. For over 50 years, engineers had been warning politicians that the levies needed replacing. They warned that there was no way that the city's levies could withstand a direct hit from a storm like the hurricane that flattened the city of Galveston [Texas] in 1900, killing an estimated 8,000 people.

Some people might ask, "Mankind has been on this planet for many thousands of years, so how could things get so bad so quickly?" The answer lies with global population growth exacerbated by rapid industrialization and consumption that has effectively multiplied the effects of population growth many times over.

From the time when I was a kid in the 1960s and the Earth's population was 3 billion, it took only 40 more years for the planet to double again to reach a population of roughly 6 billion in the year 2000. It has been scientifically estimated that the global footprint of mankind exceeded the Earth's biocapacity in the mid-1980s, and that since that time we have been operating in an "overshoot" mode, meaning that we are consuming the planet's resources faster than they are regenerating.

Any scientist will agree that the continuation of this pattern is 100 percent guaranteed to result in collapse. So, if we do not change the way we do business on our planet, we will collapse and business will fail! Back in the mid 1800s, many millions of people decided that slavery was an evil whose time had passed, and they put Lincoln in power to end it. The world never would have defeated Hitler if it was No. 10 on the priority list.

"Making the Shift to Sustainability" will not be easy, but it is doable, and it is much better than the alternative. Shouldn't saving the planet be at the top of our world's priority list?

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