Friday, February 27, 2009

Book: The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook

I've been reading The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook by Albert Bates lately. The book has a moderate ink-stink so it's slow reading for me; a few pages every couple of days.

I love the idea of living a self sufficient life; of opting out of the industrial establishment if you will. People living in small communities, helping each other out. That idealized past that never really existed except as a longing in the harts of people.

Lately, the importance of being able to live without petroleum products has taken on a new importance in my life due to recent health issues. But even without that, I've always wondered if a catastrophe happened that cut the place where I live off from the rest of the world, how long could I survive? A week? A month? A decade? If we had no electricity, if we had no trade outside our little island, if we were suddenly forced to be entirely self sufficient, would we make it?

Actually, this is one of the reasons why I now live on a farm. I want to be as self sufficient for food as possible, that way, if things do go to hell in a hand basket, the transition to fending for ones self won't be quite so bumpy. I'll have the skills to do everything from grow my own food to make my own clothes.

That's a bit of what this book is about. Bates addresses the fact that, guess what, we are running out of oil. Even if we don't use up the world's oil, it will soon become so expensive that we will need to seek out alternatives. This is going to hit society as a whole really hard as it will effect everything from food distribution to garbage bags. How do you dispose of your garbage without using plastic bags?

Functional anthropologist like Marvin Harris state that in previous cultures, drastic changes in technology, for example from ox to horse for ploughing fields, don't occur the way we would think. People on the whole, hold on to older, inefficient technology for longer than is prudent. No matter how economical or efficient the new technology is, a culture does not take up the new technology until using the old technology costs more than twice what is required to acquire the new technology. This cost isn't always financial either. I think that this has something to say about where we are as a culture just now. We are on the cusp between technologies and if we follow the patterns of the past, we won't switch to a more efficient source of energy or systems of distribution until it costs too much to continue as we are.

There is another thing we can learn from the past, when it comes to the vital structures of a culture like energy or water for example, this is where previous state level societies die off. If they are incapable of adopting or abandoning certain technologies in time, societies fall apart, sometimes in as little as ten years, sometimes it takes a hundred, and we are left with nothing more but the basic parts: small communities and family units. This is a repeating pattern in history and I think it is hubris to assume that we are immune from such a possibility.

It's worse than that, the technologies we are using now are capable of making the world inhospitable to human existence and instead of the collapse of society as we know it, our failure to adjust our technology will result in the end of human existence on this world.

I've strayed away from the book I wanted to tell you about into my own opinions. The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide dosen't go about pestering us about just how doomed we are. Instead, Bates looks at how we, as individuals and small communities, can adjust our lives now so that the transition away from a petroleum based existence can be as smooth as possible with as little loss of life and of standard of life can be managed under the circumstances.

The argument goes basically that governments, industry, &c. are not the place to look for change. People have to take responsibility for their own existence in the world. If individuals vote for a new way of life with their dollar then the larger organizations will follow. This is easier now than it ever was. We have access to things like solar panels and such. The book is about how to go about this. I think that's great.

There are a few points I disagree on. First, Bates would benefit from reading older works, say anything pre 1970 but especially pre 1940 which had a lot better information on how to get on in hard times. Many of his recommendations are not practical, take far more effort than pre-petroleum methods, and many of the equipment required for his suggestions require petrol for either creating it or acquiring it. Also, things like the solar powered dehydrator, which Bates gives plans for, would be pretty lousy in our climate where it gets quite moist at night which would cause the dehydrating food to rehydrate each evening increasing the possibility of food contaminants like mold.

Also, I have major issues with Bates exaltation of soy as a viable source of food in a post-petroleum life. The controversy of the nutritional value of soy aside, the ease of access to soy and the wide spread knowledge of how to process it that Bates describes is dubious at best.

All in all I would say that the value of this book far outweighs my objections to some of it's content. It got me thinking about things in a different way and I think that is the most valuable thing a book can do for a person.


Josiane said...

That sounds very interesting! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on that book.

Jen said...

Keep in mind, Marvin Harris is full of crap. Seriously, there are major issues with his cultural materialist approach.

The most noteworthy thing about Marvin Harris was his colossal and unassailable ego. And that's really not saying much.

Jen said...

Just as another aside, you might also think about reading Bryan Pfaffenberger's Standard View of Technology. It might help you understand some of the anxieties we have embedded in our assumptions about technological progress and innovation.

raven said...

Sounds like you think of Marvin Harris the same way I think of Descartes: completely off base and useful only as a way to get people thinking for themselves about the topic.

Jen said...

You're so right! I'm definitely not a fan. We were subjected to one torturous article of his titled "Cultural Materialism is alive and well and won't be going away until something better comes along".

On top of his horrendous ego, he liked to completely misrepresent other approaches as either asinine if he disagreed with them or claim them as cultural materialist if he agreed with them. He's good for thinking about how not to do anthropology.

I tried calling your land line, but a man answered and said that no one by your name lived there.

amy said...
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趙又廷Mark said...
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