I wrote this article 13 months ago, and while I am proud of the steps that my family has taken over that time, I can see that I still have many goals to accomplish. I am republishing it in its original form, with an update, and a few more “thoughts for 30-somethings.”
Well, I have been digesting The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler. It is a bleak vision of the future of America, with declining oil supplies. I, like the author, would not live to see many of the changes that he describes in his idea of the future, but I do believe that there are many things that people in our generation could do to prepare to face any eventual hardship. I will lay out what I plan to do personally to get myself, my finances, my family and my home more self sustaining, and ready for whatever may come our way.I, and others my age have grown up in a time of plenty. Most of us are used to an abundant opportunity of education and employment, compared to any time in our nations history. Born after Vietnam, witnessing the end of the cold war, seeing decisive victories in the first Gulf War, no causalities in the Bosnian conflict, we have seen little in the way of war growing up. (No disrespect for those who have lost their lives fighting for our country during our developmental years.) Our battles were fought in our imagination with sticks and toy guns, or against aliens on video games. The Dow Jones Industrials were at 703.69 on Jan 1st 1975, and as I type the Dow closed at 10,471.91 this past Friday. This is a 1,448% gain in my lifetime. Energy prices, unemployment and interest rates fell. Home ownership, investment in the stock market and personal wealth increased.
Luckily, our generation can still remember a time without cable TV, with rotary phones, playing outdoors and biking through the neighborhood without a care in the world. Computers entered the home in our youth but were items of mystery and functionality vs. items of necessity. We had sketchpads to fill with our art; we had endless sheets of loose-leaf paper to write our stories on. We read books. We read more books, until the words on the pages turned into beautiful and profound worlds in our minds. We listened to the Top 40 countdown on our new AM/FM Walkman silently in the backseat, while our parents enjoyed a moment of silence in the front seat. (Or, sometimes we’d sing loudly and badly, as if everyone should be hearing the song we were experiencing larger than life between those two orange foam pad earphones.) It was a wondrous time to grow up. I seldom take the time to think about it now, in the hectic grown up world that we live in now. But we do have that time somewhere back in our memory, I fear for the generation of kids who do not.
We would be foolish to believe that the time of plenty could go on indefinitely. Ignoring history would be irrational, as written in the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There were times of need just prior to us entering the world and seemingly every 25 years before that. Those who lived through the Great Depression, the First and Second World Wars are passing away. Lost with them are the ideas of frugality, self-sufficiency and savings. Shoes, socks, clothing, appliances, and electronic equipment were to be repaired when damaged or broken, not replaced. Our economy is becoming solely dependent on the extension of credit and the purchasing of items made mostly far far away. We produce less and less real goods, in this “service” economy. We depend more and more on others to perform tasks and the creation of goods for us. I’d love to see a chart of the number of women who could knit or use a sewing machine as a percent of the population, and equally so, how many men could tune up their cars engine, or perform basic carpentry. I am sure you’d see a steep decline in the past 30 years or so.
After reading The Long Emergency, I am still not convinced that Peak Oil will happen in the next year or two, or that our economy is a dead man walking, but I do realize the possibility that I could be very wrong about that. I see the decline of cheap oil as a tremendous burden that at this stage our country will not be able to stomach. 5-10 years from now we could be looking at a very different financial and societal picture. Already $2.20/gal gasoline is starting to look “cheap.” It happened in a blink of an eye, that we went above $2/gal gas, with little fanfare in the press, other than, “boy Wolf, gas sure is getting expensive isn’t it? Yes, Judy, we’ll have more after the break. Will gas prices keep going up? Geez I sure hope not, heh heh…” Our government uses increasing gas prices as a way to promote an energy policy that will give tax cuts to the big oil companies, during a time where they are reaping record profits from us. Like I said, we are not prepared as a government or as individuals for this.
So I have been thinking, what should I be doing about it? The first is to educate my friends and family about this short-term possibility, I guess. I figure those who I care about the most should have the information available. And, shit, I don’t want to be the only one worrying about this happening! I digress though… I came up with some ideas that we will be working on in our home, and figured that along with the bad news, I would share some of the “bright ideas” that I have. Most are not novel; most are not difficult or expensive. All are things that we can start thinking about now.
The main ideas that my preparation for the future revolve around are:
Home Improvements and Increased Energy Efficiency
Gardening/Food Production and Storage
Improving Health and Well Being
And Modestly “Filling the Cupboards”
My idea of conservation is more a self-centered approach to conserving energy. Not for the greater good, although its effects would no-doubt help the national consumption of energy. This idea of this conservation is to reduce energy use bills, and allow us to save even greater amounts of money when energy prices increase.
– Return to working locally, vs. in the adjacent county. I drive hundreds of wasted miles a month to visit my clients in the neighboring county instead of the Syracuse area. I would save gallons of gas and conserve hours of my time working locally.
– Carpooling. We decided that we would start to car pool when gas hit $2.50/gallon, but we are considering starting to carpool on a limited basis to conserve gas.
– Put TV/Stereo/Computer on power strips, and turn to off position when not in use. This saves up to 12% of your electricity portion of your utility bill. All of those great electronic devices that we have suck up power to sit in “standby” mode.
– Turn things off when not in use. Sounds simple, but how many times do you find that you’ve left the light on, or computer on overnight. Can’t you just hear your dad “reminding you gently” to turn off the light when you were done in room.
– Replace bulbs with fluorescent compact bulbs when blown. Buy those in bulk to save money. They last longer, and use much less energy.
– Circulate cool air from basement to upstairs during summer months vs. running central air conditioner.
Home Improvements/Increased Energy Efficiency:
Related to the idea of energy conservation, we plan on making some energy efficient upgrades to our home.
– Install energy efficient windows. Our 1956 home has the original windows, single pane with a storm window. You can feel the cold air come down off of them like a waterfall in the winter. Replacement windows will quickly pay for themselves in the cold Syracuse winters. (And cool spring for that matter!)
– Replace any appliances with energy efficient Energy Star appliances, when they reach the end of their useful lifetime.
– Update insulation. NYS offers a Home Performance Evaluation that can help determine ways to make your home more energy efficient. We plan on doing this in 2006.
– Wood burning stove insert for fireplace, capturing the heat that travels straight up the chimney.
I initially looked into solar and wind energy production, but given the weather in upstate NY, the solar panels didn’t seem to be a prudent purchase, and although reducing energy costs, would take decades to recoup the cost. Perhaps in your neck of the woods, this could be an option. As far as wind goes, we sure have plenty here, but given our small plot of land, and the aesthetics of the home and the neighborhood, it doesn’t seem feasible. Perhaps when the mills get more compact, (as they apparently are) I will re-consider it. Again this might be something that works for you.
Gardening/Food Production and Storage:
I have always loved to have a garden. My Dad instilled that in me in a young age, as he planted his small garden in the backyard. I find it meditative and very rewarding to tend a garden and harvest my efforts. Others may find it annoying to weed, and fruitless when the cost of vegetables is many times less at the local grocery store. In the future, there may not be an endless supply of grapes from Chile, apples from Australia, and salad from California. Home grown food, without its pesticides, manufactured oil based fertilizers, and who knows what else sprayed or spliced into them to make them travel better, not only tastes better, but is better for you. Here are some of my ideas to increase food production on my meager yard, as Kunstler predicts that food production locally will be the focus on much of our lives.
– Increase size of my garden plot. Cutting back the maple branches overhanging our lawn to let the sun shine in. Also to use raised beds to control the soil that is used for growing and to limit the weeding.
– Plant fruit trees. I personally love apples and cherries, and know that they do well in our climate, so those are what I am looking to purchase and plant. For you flower lovers, they also bloom brilliantly in the spring.
– Plant raspberry bushes. Don’t know much about the care and growing of these plants yet, but I know they grow wildly in the woods around me, so must do well in central NY.
– Plant grape vines. My grandfather used to make Hungarian Fruit wines that were delicious (and then distill those into a mean moonshine.) I would love to be able to make my own wine, so I plan on planting a few grape vines to begin maturing, while I take the time to learn how to make homemade wine.
– Plant herbs, garlic and onions. We buy these all the time, so it makes sense to have them self propagating at home.
– Learn the old school ways of making Italian tomato sauce. (I am Hungarian, so I refuse to call it “gravy.”) My wife’s Gram and Dad can pass the secrets of making and canning the sauce to us, to be able to enjoy it all winter long.
– Learn how to dry and store herbs.
– Learn how to make jams and jelly from my Gram.
– Learn how to can/jar food, make pickles, how to keep a root cellar.
– Create a functioning compost pile; get a pitchfork to turn. Then we’ll have a great source of nutrients for our plants and garden.
– Replace gutters, and create rainwater collection.
The nice little old lady across the street only puts out a Wegman’s sized grocery bag out to the curb on garbage day. We seem to put out 5 times that amount. This costs us indirectly in increased municipal costs and taxes, more gas is consumed trucking it to the landfill. Not to mention filling up our landfills more quickly.
– Comply with all recycling rules, and use as much as possible.
– Increase re-use of items. Substituting plastic containers for sandwich bags when packing a lunch. Save food containers for re-use in food storage, or other uses including starting seedlings, storage of supplies, etc.
– Increase use of compost to all materials that are appropriate.
– Garbage only containing non-recyclable paper and plastics, fat/meat, dirt/dust, etc.
I think that the area of finances is the area that 30-somethings can affect most to improve their future preparedness. The level of unsecured debt that we carry can make it seem like it will be impossible to pay off. Student Loans make up the bulk of my debt, followed by credit cards. The “secured” debt that we carry could also become an issue, if the value of our homes and the cars that we drive depreciate, so it too shouldn’t be overlooked. We have begun an adventure into paying down first our unsecured debt, and then we’ll consider extra payments to the house. We have begun to add to our balanced retirement accounts after neglecting them with our move last year. Another area of financial stability we have begun to consider, is the saving of hard assets and tangible goods, along with a small stash of cash. Didn’t you ever notice how your grandparents always seemed to have some cash stashed away in the house? That’s because one day their parents went to the bank and there wasn’t any money to take out. They never forgot that, and never fully trusted the ATM card. I think that it would be prudent to take a page out of their book, especially in this debit card/no cash in the pocket area. Some blogs out there subscribe to having gold and silver coin on hand. I don’t think that we are at that point personally, but if you have all of your other financial ducks in a row, then maybe that would be right for you. I’ll stick to paying off the Visa, and Uncle Sam’s student loans.
– We read Suze Orman’s book, Young Fabulous and Broke, and got some good tips from that. There are a million and one financial advice books out there, find the one that is right for you.
– We have a debt reduction plan that is as basic as this: We have a set amount of money that we put towards our debt each month. Currently that money is completely dedicated to our credit cards. When the credit card is paid off, we will take that money, as well as the payment we’d been making and apply it to our next target, a small student loan. After that is paid off, we will take the sum of the original credit card payment, the money allocated to debt and the student loan monthly payment amount and will apply that to the missus’ car, along with it’s payment. Each month the amount dedicated to paying off debt will remain the same and manageable, but will be applied to a progressively decreasing number of outstanding debts.
– Increased percentage saved towards retirement. Ours is currently at 10%, but we hope to increase it with a Roth IRA to a total nearing 15% of income. I am not for any changes to social security, but you have to realize that you need to take care of #1 in an uncertain retirement future, and have no one but yourself to blame if you had the opportunity to save and haven’t.
Improving Health and Well Being:
Self explanatory. Improve health, physical strength, and well being. Cut down on TV and Computer time (yes, blogs too…) Increase intake of fresh veggies and fruits that are in season and local. Walk to the grocery store or corner store for food. Read more. Don’t stop learning. Just because we are out of college doesn’t mean that we should sit back and rest on what we’ve learned so far. We should be striving to learn more, and better ourselves. Remember, our kids will expect us to know everything!
[Wilco – Wishful Thinking
Fill up your mind with all it can know
Don’t forget that your body will let it all go
Fill up your mind with all it can know
What would we be without wishful thinking?]
Modestly “Filling the Cupboards”:
Filing this under the “things you never knew before”, Kunstler tells us that the Mormons as part of their faith are required to keep one years worth of supplies on hand in their house. I don’t plan on going that far, and I like the author am not a “survivalist”. But when you think about things that you’d want to make sure that you’d always have, doesn’t toilet paper come to your mind? I plan on slowly stocking the pantry with some non-perishables, which I should have anyways. The other items on the short list are:
Ball jars and Mason jars, PB&J, Soup, canned fruit and veggies, bottled water, velvetta, cereal, oatmeal, soap, shampoo, paper towels, razors, batteries, flashlights, firewood, pack of butane lighters/matches, second sleeping bag, mess kit, and extra propane tank for the grill and small tanks for the camping lantern and stove.
I am sure that there are other things that should be on there, and many different things on other people’s lists, but just some food for thought.
Final thoughts: These thoughts are my response to a thought-provoking book, and the current geo-political state of affairs. I think that learning to conserve and to be more self-sufficient is something that I should be striving for anyways. I know that I’ll think twice about the next time I throw something out. I will try to glean as much information from our grandparents and elders as possible. I’ll learn how to make wine, and jar freshly made sauce.
Sometimes as you try to get you act together, don’t forget to sit back and smell the roses… meaning, don’t take for granted all of the great conveniences we have today. I still love driving my car with my windows down and the music on, ripping down the open highway. When I think about a time I may not be able to do that anymore, I appreciate it even more…
It is very interesting to look back at my writing, to see how I originally tried to digest the idea of peak oil. To look at my first grasping of sustainable living, and self-sufficiency.
So what have I learned over the past year? What tidbits of information can I pass on to others who may be struggling with many of these same issues?
I continue to operate in my daily life with the notion that peak oil is 5 years away. Why 5 years? It’s a semi-round number – far enough off to limit despair and make me want to give up, yet close enough to keep me motivated. Who knows for certain when the actual peak will be upon us, but whether it is 5 years, 10 years or a generation away (unlikely), my efforts over the past year have been well worth it. I now know how to frame a wall, run electrical wire and outlets, and insulate it. I learned how to hang a window, make sure it’s square, plumb and level and how to seal it up. I learned how to compost, how to start plants from seeds indoors, and joined a CSA. We sold a car, reduced our debt load, and are making an extra mortgage payment a year. We keep a small amount of cash stashed in the home. My wife rides the bus to work, and I have cut my miles driven by 60%. I say these things not to brag, but to inspire. We did all of these things with mostly blood, sweat, and tears compromise. And, I might add, we did all of these things together. Working along side my wife on our projects in the home has strengthened our relationship, and we helped keep each other motivated.
What are our plans and goals for the next half of the year?
First, finish our basement project, which entails putting down an insulated pad and carpet, finishing the paint and trim, and having an electrician come and hook the circuits to the main breaker. Next a wood stove will be installed (yes, low emission…) making the basement climate controlled year round. Being an “earth-berm” basement, with a full story exposed on the west wall the temperature stays within a range of 50-70 deg year round. With the added insulation we hope to keep that temperature closer to 60 degrees without external heat sources. Why so much emphasis on the basement? In our case it will provide us with 500 square feet of energy efficient space through the difficult Northeast winters and soaring heating costs. A wood stove as a second heat source will allow us to reduce our utility bills and be able to “winter” and shortages. A new blanket of R-49 insulation installed this fall will add comfort to the rooms on the first floor.
In your home perhaps your basement might not be the ideal space to insulate and make extremely energy efficient. What you might consider though, if you live in cooler climates, is a room or section of rooms that you can start on to make part of your home somewhere you can retreat to, and avoid heating vast amounts of unused space during the winter. Consider south facing rooms for passive solar heating, and active landscaping to provide windbreaks and insulation outside your home.
The pantry is expanding, we have an electric mixer and knowledge on how to bake our own bread. More of the flower garden is dedicated to herbs, tea plants, garlic and spinach. The veggie garden has expanded and is becoming more efficient. I read the updated version of Square Foot Gardening, and I highly recommend it. As I said before, we joined a CSA, and not only will we be getting weekly baskets of organic produce, we will be sharing this experience with our friends. I look forward to comparing recipes and sharing meals with our two families. We are also in “negotiations” with friends on the group purchase of a local organically raised head of cattle, which will provide a bounty of safe local meat. The fruit trees and vines have yet to be planted, but are just waiting for the extra bit of cash. As far as the fruit wine production goes, I recently found out that my dad still has something needed for the production. Something else high on the list are rainwater collection barrels, or a small cistern – the gutters are installed and awaiting an attachment on the downspout.
However, our expanding pantry is no where near fully stocked, and I fear that our modest supplies would not last us more than a month or two if stretched to the maximum. Canning supplies and the ability to use them are high on our priority list during the harvest season. Pasta dinners with canned homemade sauce can take you a long way and store well.
Not that I am trying to convert anyone – but the Mormon website has great information on food storage and keeping a years worth of supplies in the home for an emergency.
I cannot emphasize enough how controlling your spending and reducing unsecured debt should be your undivided financial focus. Debt should not be ignored, or thought of as “just another monthly payment.” We are slaves to interest and debt. Think of what percentage of your paycheck goes to servicing your debt. Get disgusted with it. Then, start attacking it.
Living paycheck to paycheck? Figure out which of the “necessities” of your life that you pay each month can go. Killing cable and cell phone use alone can save you over $1500/year. Talk to your neighbor – share a high speed network and cut your internet costs by 1/2. Split a CSA share with friends and save on your grocery bills. Use this money to pay down your debts and get started!
Also, spend wisely. Keep your purchases local, and your money circulating longer in the local economy. Buy items that are durable and high quality. Also, look for items that can be repaired, not part of the “throw away” society (you may have to buy used). Use CASH. See your money, don’t spend on plastic. Keep money real, not abstract. Cash a paycheck instead of direct deposit to see what your efforts have been worth. Stash a $20 bill in your piggy bank. $20 every two weeks is ~$500/year, $20/week is over $1000! Not bad for some cash on hand.
Our plans? Invest in ourselves, not stocks and bonds. We’ll take advantage of my companies 401K match (free $ is free $), but the rest will be invested in our remaining car debt @ 6.9% until we are car payment free. Then we will begin to dismantle our mortgage. Yes, we have changed our debt payment planning. We are bypassing student loans and going directly to our home. We’ll be earning a guaranteed 5.875% (our mortgage rate) on our investment, while helping secure our living situation in unknown financial outlook. Living in a home that is fully paid off is a dream right? Reserved only for retirees and the wealthy? Why is that? Yes, the level of debt seems downright insurmountable (we were elated to get it down into the 5-figure range this year). But something stuck in my head that I heard on the radio – An extra mortgage payment per year can reduce the length of your loan by 7 years. Hmm, 7 years – that seems decent. Not good enough for me. How much is it to pay off by 10 less years or 15 less years? Now were talking. Mortgage free before we hit the age of 40? Impossible? Maybe so, but I am out to prove that wrong. What a great financial place to be in. If poor economic circumstances arise? You are that much more ahead of the game, and much less at risk of losing your home.
A final thought on money. While I have always been of the mindset that it is important to find a balance between work and play, lately I have been leaning towards the thought that perhaps we should be working and earning as much as possible over the next several years. I can just picture myself years from now, in a poor economy kicking myself and thinking, “the economy was so (relatively) good? Why wasn’t I working harder, and doing all that I could to save for the future?”
Make hay while the sunshines – that is my new motto. And while it might feel like the world is going to hell in a handbasket, at least the sun is still shining.
I’ll wrap up these thoughts with conservation. It is key to a sustainable future. Start at home, you’ll be amazed at the results. 8 CFL bulbs, putting the computer on “hibernate”, being diligent about not leaving lights or appliances on unnecessarily and lowering the thermostat in winter has made a substantial difference in our utility bills. We’ve cut our kWh consistently below 400 over the fall, winter and spring, and with our new cool basement, we hope to slash our central air bills from last year. Not only is it good for the earth, but it is good for our wallet! Find the money that you need for projects in the savings you can find in your utility and gasoline bills. Think seriously about going to one car in the family (rumor has it someone else in the groovy team is considering it…). Find innovative ways to recycle. For example, our junk mail and paper that would hit the recycling bin now finds it way to our computer printer for non-formal printouts.
Yes, consider a cool gadget like the kill-a-watt. (I love mine.) But more importantly, just keep letting in that sun shine during the day, and kill the lights when not in the room. Be a geek like me and plot out your energy use on a graph, and try to beat the prior years amount. Always challenge yourself to do better.
I ended by article last year by saying that we all need to take time to smell the roses, and enjoy some of the conveniences that life has to offer. I’ll end on a positive, but different note this time:
Take time out of your work and your preparations to inspire and share. Let others know what you are working on. Share your knowledge with your friends and family. Be the change you want to see in the world, and inspire others to join you along the way.