A year ago a friend of mine, who works in cyber security, was experiencing an overwhelming sense of climate grief, hopelessness, anxiety. She wanted to do things to improve her resilience, so we talked about what and how. Because of her professional field and the language she uses for work, I suggested she consider threat modelling the climate crisis. What were the most likely risks to affect her? What were the best, likeliest and worst case outcomes be for each one? And then, based on the answers to those questions, what actions could she take, and in what order, to mitigate those risks?
At the time I told her that my top three risks, for which I’d been preparing for some time, were:
- Pandemic (most likely flu or SARS or something like that).
- Economic disruption/depression/collapse.
- Supply chain disruption, leading to shortages or food, medications, and other goods.
If I’d posted that last year, it might have made a few more people ready for 2020.
When I moved to San Francisco in 2008, I found myself in earthquake territory for the first time in my life. I’d grown up knowing how to handle bushfire, but had no idea what to do if the ground beneath me suddenly stopped being stable.
A friend recommended NERT (Neighbourhood Emergency Response Team), run by the San Francisco Fire Department. I enrolled and spent the next six Wednesday evenings learning earthquake preparedness and how to support my neighbourhood in an emergency: small scale fire-fighting, search and rescue, triaging the injured to help out paramedics when they came, even the Incident Control System (made up of clipboards and paper) that showed us how to coordinate our response and communicate with the authorities. After six weeks, I took a test involving crawling through a darkened toilet block trying to “rescue” actors done up in fake blood, and was duly issued with my NERT badge, hi-viz vest and hard hat.
As well as earthquake prep, NERT gave us some training on other possible emergencies, pandemics and terrorist attacks among them, and gave us some interesting tips that turned out to be useful across a range of different disaster scenarios. For instance, after a quake there’s a lot of dust in the air, and they recommended having N95 masks in your emergency kit. Water was likely to be in short supply too, so have hand sanitiser and a bucket to crap in, along with cat litter or something similar to absorb the moisture and smell.
The upshot: I’ve had N95s and hand san in my kit for over a decade, and didn’t have to shop for them when we were covered in smoke in January, or when COVID hit around here in March.
I’ve been interested in Permaculture since the 1990s, when I first encountered it by living on Blyth Street in Brunswick East, just down the road from CERES, which at the time was far closer to being a dump than the slick enterprise it is these days. (Their showcase building at the time, built on passive solar principles, is now the toilet block near the bike workshop.) I attempted some permaculture practices in my mid-90s share house, with little success. I spent most of the 2000s overseas working in the tech industry, but when I moved back to Australia almost a decade ago, it seemed like time to buckle down and do this stuff.
I came to Ballarat with the intention of living a life that was not self-sufficient, because nobody truly is, but strongly oriented toward DIY and homegrown, local community, and informal economies. I wanted to be able to face future challenges with resilience and resourcefulness, and as part of an interdependent network of others doing the same thing.
By the time COVID-19 lockdown rolled around I had a well stocked emergency supply kit, our garden was largely feeding us (about 80% of our fresh fruit and veg), and my two pantries were full of the summer’s harvest.
We have about 3 months of staples (flour, rice, legumes, oil) at any time, and we have relationships with local farmers who deliver meat, eggs, milk and, since COVID-19, everything from organic garlic to artisanal cheese. I’d been gradually stockpiling a few months of my prescription medications, by filling each prescription a little early. I’ve been baking with sourdough for many years, and was able to share our starter with other people. And all those crafts people are picking up now they have time on their hands? I’ve been sewing and knitting many of my own clothes since I was a kid, and have a substantial (ahem) stash of supplies.
When lockdown kicked off, we didn’t really need to go out at all. My housemate, who’s new to this life, found it harder to break the habit of shopping so as the curve started flattening without much impact on our city, we started going more often just to pick up snacks and treats. But had there been no supermarket, we could have done without.
I know I run the risk of sounding smug. I know it’s not helpful to tell everyone how easy we’ve had it. But that’s what’s been happening this last couple of months.
The question is, where do we go from here? Everyone’s had a wake-up call, and the demand for backyard chickens and sourdough starters and vegetable seedlings show us that more people are joining the permaculturists on the do-it-ourselves train. As things go back to normal (however slowly), will people keep it up? Among my friends, I’m hearing a lot of people say they’re enjoying the slower pace, that they’re saving money by not driving, and are eating better than they ever have. People who told me they didn’t have time to learn how to bake bread are now posting proud pictures of their loaves. Maybe they’ll have the time to maintain the practice now it’s routine.
As the lockdowns lift, we’re still going to be living more simply. Fewer big events, big vacations, or big discretionary purchases — either because of lingering restrictions or financial uncertainty. Unemployment will stay high, and lots of people will continue to fall through the cracks of the government assistance. Supply chains will most likely stay disrupted, or become disrupted in new and creative ways: we have toilet paper back on our shelves, but I’ve seen more and more empty storefronts as I take my exercise around town, and shopping online means growing delays even as my poor postie is working seven days without penalty rates.
We’re shifting to a way way of life we might even call… dare I say it?… degrowth. I’m all for planned degrowth (aka downshifting the entire economy) but it’s not something you want to have nonconsensually thrust upon you, let alone in the mid of crises like bushfires and death plagues. That’s the very opposite of planned. If we just keep reacting to each crisis as it comes along, we’ll spend all our time in a state of shock, panic, and grief, wishing we could get back to our destructive “business as usual” — the last thing we actually need.
If we’re going to make a transition to this new normal, we need to plan ahead and build the skills and infrastructure we need, from well-stocked pantries and medicine cabinets, to networks of mutual aid and alternative forms of transport, before we need them.
My strategies won’t change much:
- Live relatively cheaply, and with low environmental impact.
- Build skills and bank resources, then share them.
- Diversify and relocalise sources of income, goods and services.
- Have at least 3 months’ supply of anything we can’t live without, or know how to substitute or make our own.
- Foster community connections and interdependence.
The next three risks on my list, for what it’s worth?
- Major power or water outage (days or weeks).
- Partial or complete Internet outage, including unavailability of particular services due to corporate or political action, or cyberwarfare.
- Need to evacuate my house due to fire or similar.
So, I guess we’ll see how that pans out.
I’m likely to be posting more about this stuff in future. If anyone has requests for particular topics, please let me know.
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