The Four Horsemen

I often mention The Four Horsemen in some of my posts, which I use as an analogy for societal collapse.  I am not a religious man and you can believe what you want to believe, however according to Wikipedia, the Book of Revelation, chapter 6 describes them as follows;

“Jesus Christ opens the first four of the seven seals, which summons forth the four beasts that ride on white, red, black, and pale-green horses symbolising conquest (or pestilence), war, famine, and death, respectively. The Christian apocalyptic vision is that the four horsemen are to set a divine apocalypse upon the world as harbingers of the Last Judgement.”

I am not a big fan of the horsemen, and hope they never, ever, come riding over the hill.  So that leads me to the subject of this post.  One of the comments on my last post was left by Samantha in OZ who said;

“Hi Gavin,

I’m very curious to know, when “the four horsemen ride over the hill”, where do you imagine you will be buying the chicken feed, lye, olive oil, coconut oil, etc that your soap making and egg production depend on?

If the supermarket is no longer selling soap, why would it still be selling industrially-produced soap-making ingredients such as lye and olive oil?

I mean no offence by asking these questions – I am genuinely keen to understand your line of reasoning (which is obviously shared by very many people).”

Thanks for your comment Samantha, and no offence taken.  You pose a great question, and here is my line of reasoning.

You are absolutely right that supermarkets will be the first to run out of supplies in the event of a crisis.  We have seen how fragile our ‘just in time logistic system’ can be, and I described such an events in my post, Nine Meals from Anarchy.  This post describes events that may happen when the oil crunch eventuates, and ways to prepare for these types of disruptions.

As for your specific question, lets look at them one by one.

Chicken feed.  Chooks eat seed bought from the feed store that is true, however they do eat many other things as well.  They eat greens, kitchen scraps, worms, bugs, cockroaches, lawn clippings, meat, and just about anything else you throw into their yard.  I am sure that if push comes to shove, I will be able to muster up enough free feed for my little darlings, and if I can’t, I will just have to thin the flock, thereby producing a few good meals for my family, until they get to a manageable flock size where I can feed them.  This will be a last resort, as the eggs are far more valuable  as a reliable source of protein, rather than their meat.

Lye.  The Romans made soap over 2000 years ago, and they produced lye by pouring water through wood ash filtered through straw.  I have been doing a bit of research and came up with this cool link on how to make your own lye at  It looks fairly simple, and I have a few large plastic buckets with taps that will do fine for the barrel.  I also have a few neighbours who have wood burning stoves, so getting wood ash will not be a problem in the short term.

Oils.  Soap can be made just about any oil or fat.  We have quite a few olive groves around here so in the short term getting olive oil would not be an issue, however in the longer term I would resort to tallow which is rendered animal fat.  It makes a hard, but usable soap, and once again very similar to the type that the Romans used to make.

These three examples aside Samantha, you highlight something that people should have a good think about.  Other ways I have prepared is to educate my family to better understand what may be coming down the track, and teach my kids the skills to grow their own food, be independent, think for themselves, and be able to build things from scratch.  I have collected quite a few how-to books myself that have helped me learn to do some of the projects around my home like basic carpentry, build a chook house, build garden beds all with hand tools. 

Also, I believe that self sufficiency is a myth.  You need strong communities with various skills to see you through.  I hope that in my small way, I have taken steps towards building those communities but still have a long way to go.

So, what would you, the reader, do if the supermarket shelves became bare after a disaster, whether it be for a short term or a longer, prolonged period of time?  Could you cope, and are you prepared?  Think not only the physical, but mental preparation as well.  It may or may not eventuate in our lifetime, but I am just as curious as Samantha.  Let me know in a comment about some of the simple things you have done to prepare for unforeseen (or foreseen) circumstances that maybe well outside of your sphere of control? 


  1. Anonymous says

    Thank you Samantha! These same thoughts run through my head all the time. I am often so frustrated with this idea that making things yourself makes you “greener” or more self sufficient. The ingredients do have to come from somewhere. And then really, what is the difference between buying the ingredients or the finished product? Close the supermarkets for a month and then you’d really get an idea of how self sufficient you really are (which my guess is not even close for most people). I love to make things myself, I love to grow a garden- but I am not trying to pass these off as being a “greener” way to live life. These things are hobbies and I do my hobbies because I enjoy them, not as a way to alleviate my “green guilt”. There is no way my hobbies come anywhere close to undoing my impact on the environment.

  2. says

    Hi Gavin – I’m unfortunately with Samantha on this one, which is why we ended up moving out of Melbourne.

    I guess I figured if I wanted to be anywhere when the s*** hitteth the fan (so to speak), I wanted to be in a food growing area, with good water and fuel, low debt, strong community, low population density, good climate, and an advanced government (i.e. not fascist communist paranoid whatever extremist).

    2 1/2 years on, we’re on a 3 acre organic hazelnut farm outside Dunedin, New Zealand (as you know) and couldn’t be happier. So I guess we traded up in happiness too, which we didn’t expect.

    I didn’t want to move, but all my maths, statistics, analysis and figures (and I did a lot of thinking on the issues facing society) couldn’t help but conclude that transition will be easier for some communities than others, and that those with good access to resources will have the smoothest ride.

    Already I’m seeing some products not as easily available in supermarkets – mainly specialist foods, which I notice, as both my kids are on gluten-free, dairy-free vegetarian diet. And we’re working hard to reduce our dependence on supermarkets pretty much altogether.

    When the four horsemen come knocking here, we’ll offer them some eggs and salad, or maybe a bowl of organic soup with some drinking yoghurt! All home grown from scratch. That should keep them quiet!

  3. says

    Even in a civil emergency, not everything disappears overnight. I doubt very much that I’ll have to make soap by hand without access to any fuel, ingredients or equipment in Sydney. And frankly, if we’re at that stage, soap won’t be a priority. My Dad went for a few years without a bath during WW2!
    It’s good to develop the skills, but human beings are very shrewd and ingenious when pushed. I do think good basic understandings of physics, chemistry and botany are useful.
    And the Captcha word for me today is “carks”!

  4. says

    Other comments I was going to add have already been added here. I will add one more though. What would Samantha have everyone do. Just give up? Not try? Of course I may not know how to do everything but I at least feel better knowing and accepting inevitable changes that are coming. I believe that the one thing that most people do not think of is the inevitable feeling of loss and grief when things change. If I can go through some of that grief and letting go now I believe that it will help me and my family in the future. I am teaching my daughter – who now has a young family of her own – as many skills as I have. I don’t have them all. Big changes might not be in my lifetime but they will certainly be in hers and my grand children. I try and teach her acceptance and to live frugaly now. Waste not want not. Do without so much stuff. Accept that things will change. Look at alternatives and build a network of friends. In the event of these changes I believe the only thing you can rely on will be your community and shared skills.Your local tribe as such. I don’t worry about every little aspect of things. I just do one change at a time. I can’t make soap but I can cook up a heck of a storm with very minimal ingredients and I can teach quite well. So if needed I can cook and teach english and reading to children. So much to say and I had better sign off. Thanks for the interesting post and thanks to Samantha for posing the question. Cheers, Wendy

  5. Anonymous says

    Here here Gordon and anonymous.

    Btw for ‘everyone’ to use their wood heaters for cooking and making lye I believe that would need a massive influx of wood heaters and people making them which once again would rely on fossil fuels to make them and deliver them, would these fossil fuels be available? Where would those in the cities get their wood from if they have no petrol to operate their gas guzzling machines to find the forests. Our councils have chopped down trees to create their cities. Where would those in high rise apartments put their flued wood heaters or is there going to be enough room in the cities to build a campfire each and using that ash, city dwellers having had the forethought to arm themselves with the knowledge on how to make lye, be able to find the fat (which for most of them would require an animal to get fat from), to create soap?

    I think humans have an incredible ability to adjust, live and survive without what modern western society tells us we need to do just that, and yes I’m sure the chickens will survive on grubs and whatever else gets thrown to them, after all aren’t wild chickens found all over the world in forests surviving just fine with what they find in the wild?

    A lot needs to be said for community and working together, we may not all have the ability or resources to make soap or space to have chickens but surely communities can work together so life can go on?


  6. Anonymous says

    Im with Gordon.

    Spent some time in Rural Thailand and have friends who do Missionary Work in Africa.SO HAVE SEEN AND KNOW ABOUT LITERAL SIMPLE LIVING FIRST HAND.

    Life goes on without electricity, without modern processing methods etc. People live, and cope and contiue to flourish albeit not exactly to our modern western standards, every day.

    Many people may not make it, but dont discount the human spirit.
    After all it got us this far.

  7. Gordon says

    Samantha said “I’m yet to meet a single person who actually does feed their chickens without purchasing any feed or supplements. I wrote a detailed blog post on this issue quite recently, here: How big is a chicken’s footprint?”
    I wonder if anyone from an underdeveloped country is reading this blog. I’ve just come from Cambodia where about 45% of the people are living in rural poverty – and the majority of them are raising chickens. If they feed them at all it is with food scraps and possibly a little rice from their rice barns. They don’t go to supermarkets or feed stores – there generally aren’t any within easy travel, even if they could afford to shop there, and yet they manage.
    We in the rich countries sometimes get too short-sighted in our attempts to identify solutions to livelihood issues, and forget to look at how the majority of the world’s people are coping.

  8. Tracey says

    Samantha has put her finger on the elephant in the room with respect to sustainable living – population.

    My feeling is that even if we were all living at a lot lower level of consumption, there are simply way too many humans for the planet to sustainably support.

    I have no doubt that competition for resources will become intense in the not too distant future, and a likely outcome of that is that millions of the most economically and politically vulnerable people across the world will die. That is a tragedy. However there is nothing inherently wrong IMO with wanting to be among the survivors. That is human nature.

    My suspicion is that even if a new apparent stability arises on the back of new technologies (although current governments certainly show absolutely no will to develop any!), that won’t be sustainable, either.

    We’re a weedy species, great at colonising new environments and expanding to fill them, but I don’t see how we can avoid being brought up short by resource limitation eventually (short of mastering transmutation of elemets!). The longer we manage to stave it off with technological quick fixes, the less we’ll have to work with at the end.

  9. says

    Hi Gavin,

    Thanks for your detailed and thoughtful response to my question.

    I come from a position of being quite familiar with how to obtain lye, fat, and chicken feed in the event that the supermarkets close down – which is really why I asked my question, because I know exactly how hard all of this stuff is to do from scratch, without the benefit of supermarkets, feed stores, fossil fuel, and electricity.

    I have a degree in agricultural science, and I’ve worked in the chocolate industry for a number of years – including pressing cocoa butter. Also, I live in a rural community that grows olives and presses olive oil, so I know a fair amount about that industry as well.

    Hence, I’d be surprised (and very impressed) if your local olive growers press their olive oil without the use of expensive machinery that is powered by fossil fuels.

    On the subject of chickens: raising healthy and productive egg-laying chickens without external inputs is much harder than most people realise. Almost everyone I speak to is very confident that they could do this easily if they had to — but I’m yet to meet a single person who actually does feed their chickens without purchasing any feed or supplements. I wrote a detailed blog post on this issue quite recently, here: How big is a chicken’s footprint?

    As for making lye from wood ash – that’s great … until everyone starts using wood for heating, and cooking, and we end up living in an environment reminiscent of Haiti. (I’m sure many people who read this blog have also read Jared Diamond’s excellent book, “Collapse”, in which he contextualises the almost complete deforestation of Haiti).

    I applaud your efforts at skilling-up, but I think it’s crucial for people to realise that skills will not help in the long term if you don’t have a sustainable supply of the “ingredients” required to put those skills into practice.

  10. says

    It’s really interesting to look at how Cubans coped throught the Special Period. They ran exactly this experiment – a westernised urban community, used to supermarkets and tourists and taxis, suddenly (over a period of just a few months) left with nothing on the supermarket shelves, petrol almost impossible to get, power blackouts for most of every day. Hindsight is 20-20. Cubans can tell you, really clearly, what they wish they had done to prepare.

  11. says

    I really like your comment about building communities that help each other. I also wonder what would happen if disaster were to strike. I live in a city, and although I grow some of my food and go out of my way to eat as local as possible, it’s disconcerting to realize that there isn’t enough local agriculture to support our city. Still, it’s overwhelming to consider handcrafting everything from scratch. Your comment helped remind me that like minded people can pull together to create a sustainable community. Thanks.

  12. sawn61 says

    Several years ago, my sister tried to raise her two girls with this constant thought in mind.”If we can’t make it, we don’t need it.” It seemed like a harsh and cruel way of raising children, at the time, but I’ll bet they are thanking her today.They are so far ahead of other children their age, it isn’t funny, when it comes to getting through rough times. The older generations, myself included, learned these things growing up,because it was the only way of life for many at that time, and it made us stronger and feeling more secure, for it.Most young folks of today,have no clue how to survive without all of the modern day luxuries and conveniences.

  13. says

    You know how sometimes it seems that the connections in your life are just divinely manipulated? :) When I read your post this morning, that’s exactly how I felt.

    Last night, I sent the first draft of my manuscript to my publisher, and the book is about just what you’re saying here – it’s about imagining that the unimaginable has happened, and describes ways we could start preparing right now ;). There’s a whole section on keeping clean and a recipe for making both lye and lye soap. Indeed, our ancestors here in colonial America made their own soap using lye (water filtered through wood ash) and animal fat (although tallow is rendered beef fat and lard is rendered pork fat, but both can be used, as could fat from just about any animal).

    Incidentally, if you’re interested, there is a manual oil press on the market that can be used to make nut oils. There are a number of readily available nuts and seeds from which oil can be extracted.

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