This week I'll be reviewing the book "Crash Course: Preparing for Peak Oil" by Zachary Nowak. The book has a concise introduction to the concept of Peak Oil, followed by what I see as the strength of the book: an interesting discussion on scenario planning, rounded out by an extensive guide to the skills and knowledge that will be necessary to make the best of a less-than-ideal future.
Scenario planning is something that I think is vitally important for everyone to perform on an ongoing basis. I wrote about the concept last week, but in reality it's something that we should all be doing continuously for all manner of life decisions. In "Crash Course," Nowak outlines four separate future scenarios for planning purposes (setting aside "Status Quo" and "Total Armageddon" as either too remote or pointless to plan for): The New Green Revolution (most optimistic), Powerdown USA, the Great Energy Depression, and The Crash (most pessimistic).
He then discusses the merits of planning for the future via a "refuge" or through fostering "community." He discusses the merits of these various approaches, and suggests that alternatives such as the rhizome model for communities that I've suggested may offer a viable compromise between the two. I increasingly think that the our future plans must be seen as a continuum--resilient community is the goal but cannot be just set up like a lego set; personal refuges are immediately implementable for many because they are under individual control but are not desirable long term solutions; the answer seems to lie in planting seeds of personal refuges that, from the outset, are intended to anchor the networks of sustainable community, knowledge sharing, and local solution development that will one day grow into resilient local communities. While certainly an imperfect historical parallel, I think that the monasteries of Dark Age Europe serve as a valuable example of how "refuges" can survive tough times, carry knowledge forward from past civilizations, develop newly appropriate skills and techniques, and later serve as the physical and intellectual framework for the construction of a new society. Nowak points out exactly this--that refuge and community are not mutually exclusive paths--but I would like to see this point developed in more depth. That might be asking too much, however--it's something I'd like to do, as well, but have not been able to put together satisfactory principles and rules for how it can be best accomplished. Perhaps this is because the transition plan between refuge and community is necessarily one customized to a cultural set, to a geographic area, and to an unknown future.
Nowak then discusses "the house." He goes through a variety of alternative techniques and discusses several books on the topic. Some, such as "Shelter" by Lloyd Khan are outstanding, and I second the recommendation. Others, such as Earthships, are not among my favorites (I think the Earthship design places too much emphasis on aesthetic homogeneity, and does a poor job balancing insulation and thermal mass for all but a few climactic zones--a proper mix of insulation (e.g straw bale) and thermal mass inside the insulating barrier (e.g. adobe, cob, etc.) seems like a better rule of thumb). Nowak also covers rainwater harvesting and greywater (I like his recommendations) and discusses passive annual heat storage concepts that I think are critical (though I prefer Don Steven's take to the recommendation Nowak provides, and I'm currently working to adapt these same principles to create a passive annual solar COOLING system...). I've also heard of the rocket stoves that Nowak discusses for home heating, but his recommendation made me finally purchase Ianto Evans' book on the topic. I also appreciate that Nowak points out that the "back to the land" movement of the '60s and '70s did not fail, per se, but rather helped to perpetuate knowledge of old sustainability techniques and develop new ones so they will be available when the current generation actually NEEDS them (I'd say one cause for the failure of the prior movement was it wasn't immediately necessary, in the minds of many, and lost out to the allure of moving back to the suburbs and living during the last decades of the economic "good life" in America).
Next, Nowak discusses food production and storage. Nowak points out--rightly I think--that 1) it isn't that easy to garden, and 2) that even if you're a great gardener and have a large garden, it's not always possible to count on only your own garden to meet all your food requirements due to drought, pestilence, etc. One solution to this is to diversify beyond mere raised bed gardening into perennials vegetables and forest gardens (I heartily concur with his recommendation to read Eric Toensmeir's "Perennial Vegetables" as well as David Jacke and Toensmeier's "Edible Forest Gardens."). I've discussed this very topic in "Creating Resiliency in Horticulture." I like that Nowak discusses the need to augment the yields of a garden with wild harvest from surrounding fields, woods, etc. I think this is a critical component of any resilient scheme--both skills and the access to suitable environments to ensure that when garden yields fail, natural yields pick up the slack. This is an integral part of my own planning--the need to acquire land not only sufficient to grow an intensive garden and less intensive forest garden, but sufficient to create a natural buffer (lightly "guided" with planing, rainwater harvesting earthworks, etc.) that will serve as a back up. In fact, my choice of location is largely driven by the ready availability of forageable foods--especially those that are consistent in times of drought and not readily recognized as food by most people (for me, mesquite trees). Nowak also deals with the essential skill of preserving foods--no matter how well planned and successful one's garden harvest, it's unlikely that the right food will always be available for the picking!
If I could point to one weakness in Nowak's book, it is that the book consists largely of a series of book reviews. That is also one of its greatest strengths. Any book that proclaims to provide all the knowledge that you'll need to deal effectively with Peak Oil should be dismissed as bunk at the outset. Instead, what most people (myself included) really need is a pathway to gain the knowledge necessary to succeed in a variety of future scenarios--both topical knowledge AND the analytical framework for future scenario planning to apply that knowledge. In that respect, "Crash Course: Preparing for Peak Oil" excels. "Crash Course" is like a knowledge map, outlining a concise path through the myriad of useless, incorrect, or irrelevant books, and taking you directly to those books that really should be on your shelf. I highly recommend the book for those interested in learning how to better prepare self and family for whatever future scenario you envision.