So far I have written about food, transportation, family, community and we even heard from Linda Woodrow about the Cuban Special period and how they handled energy descent. One of the few things I have left out are ways to retrofit the suburbs, or more specifically a suburban home to prepare for energy descent, and in many ways, help mitigate climate change.
Lets start with the basic inputs into an average suburban home. These are the utilities that service the home for instance Electricity, natural gas, water, telecommunications, food and fuel.
The outputs are waste (organic and inorganic) in the form of sewage, garbage, green waste, storm water and greenhouse gasses.
As fuel costs begin to cripple the global economy along with increasing financial pressure on governments to repair damage after climate chaos events (i.e. Flood levy), these inputs and outputs within our suburban landscape will rise in cost (everything has a cost) and in some circumstances may cease altogether either sporadically or completely. How do we prepare for the loss or disruption of these utilities? Well it just so happens that I have already written about preparing for one off climate or civil disturbance events in the Be Prepared Challenge. All of the advice given there still rings true when preparing for energy descent, but only in the initial stages.
You will need to plan for the longer term. By starting now there are advantages like lower costs (materials will rise in cost), current abundance of materials, and youthful exuberance (however you are only as young as you feel). So lets go through the list of utilities and have a think about what we can do for the longer term to make life as sustainable and comfortable as we can under the circumstances. Before I do though, be clearly aware that a massive reduction from present day consumption levels is not only going to be necessary due to rising costs and scarcity, it will probably be forced upon us. Think of rationing in Allied nations during WWII, but without end.
- Electricity: There are a few options. If the grid remains stable, then we will be asked to ration electricity. It maybe unreliable, and we will have to find alternatives to modern day conveniences. Think of all the things you use electricity for now, and try and find other ways to do them. Alternatively you can prepare by installing an off-grid renewable energy system. Wind and Solar PV are probably the most effective in the suburban environment. At the moment, costs are reasonable for this type of retrofit, but prices will sky rocket when components for these systems become scarce. As for maintenance, we better learn to do it ourselves or do without.
- Natural Gas or LPG: Many Australian suburban homes are connected to the gas main for heating, hot water and cooking. Alternatives can be passive heating, ensuring that north facing windows (in the southern hemisphere) are not shaded in the winter to allow maximum solar gain, wood stove for cooking/heating/hot water, solar hot water system to heat water, or even an outdoor clay oven to cook in! Firewood will need to be sustainable harvested by coppicing, and not obtained by clear felling the neighbourhood’s trees. Firewood will need to be seasoned to burn the best so allow for some storage and cover. Another alternative for cooking is to make or buy a solar oven. At the moment you can purchase them for under $500, in which you can bake, roast and casserole amongst other things. There are many plans for solar ovens on the Internet. You could also make a methane digester if you have access to manure (animals or your own) to make a fuel to cook and heat with.
- Heating/Cooling: Both Electricity and Gas will be in short supply, so prepare now by insulating your home to lower these requirements. Learn how to actively manage you home so you can heat it in the winter with the sun, and cool it in summer with evening breezes.
- Water: Our water system relies on pumps which are fuelled by electricity or diesel. These may fail, so to have your own water supply will be crucial. Install a water tank/butt/cistern to store as much water as you can. You will not only need it to water your food garden, but to survive on yourself. While you are at it, make sure that you can move it around the home, either by gravity or a solar powered pump. Water is the most important resource that you will need. Make sure you have some on hand.
- Telecommunications: Electricity is required to power our communications infrastructure. This includes mobile phones, home phones, and your Internet connection. Without electricity there is no telecommunications network. Alternatives are a CB HF or UHF radio for local comms, powered by a battery charged by solar PV, the postal system, yelling (think town crier), or visiting the person you want to talk to by riding your bike! All that being said, if we can save one thing in a post energy descent future, I hope it is the Internet, which has helped us to communicate and share information on a global scale, but don’t bet your shirt on it being available.
- Food: The supermarket shelves will drain of good, so the only alternative is to buy locally, or grow your own. You will really need to learn now before things go pear shaped. As Linda mentioned in the podcast, Cubans didn’t know how to grow their own food, so had to learn by trial and error whilst under enormous pressure to succeed. By using the time we have, we can learn by joining a gardening or sustainable living group. This way we can learn quickly by utilising collective experience of the other members. Take a look at where you have ornamentals in your garden and think food. Starvation is not a pretty thing.
- Fuel: Transportation fuels will spike in price and will be rationed. We will drive less and less, and seek alternatives like bicycles in all shapes and forms, draught animals, pack animals, and shanks pony (our feet) to get around and to transport local goods around. I expect that governments that remain will try and keep rail services running so this will be the mainstay of bulk transportation for long haul purposes. If you want to buy an electric car now, you better have the independent means to charge it. You could become the local taxi service and be in huge demand!
- Sewage: No water for flushing, so the alternatives are a long drop toilet (outhouse) or composting toilet that does not require electricity to work. You will save on water costs, and not have to worry about an unreliable sewage system.
- Grey Water: Divert it to the fruit trees in your garden. Save every last drop by using it to grow food.
- Organic/Green waste: Ornamental lawns will be a thing of the past, so you won’t have that waste stream, and all the other waste will be fed to the chickens (you will learn to love them), or the worm farm or compost bin. So many choices.
- Landfill waste: As fuel get expensive, local governments may have to restrict garbage services to high priority requirements only. This means that your weekly garbage truck visit will become less frequent or non-existent. As consumption of stuff will be much lower, I would expect that packaging waste will be minimal, so we may not have too many problems. Any waste you do have will have to be re-purposed or just don’t buy goods that leave you with waste that you cannot deal with.
- Storm water: If you are harvesting water off of your roof, you wont have this waste stream. If you reach storage capacity, let it flow onto your garden, unless of course you get a deluge.
- Greenhouse Gas: With fossil fuels being limited, and hard to come by anyway, you will not have this output.