Survivalists, Suburbanites, and Sustainability

The End of the World is coming!

We’re having some friends over on December 21 for the Mayan Apocalypse. The general theme is “Drink like there’s no tomorrow, but not like you want to spend your last night on earth hugging a toilet.”

It seems an appropriate time to talk about Survivalism.

Because I grew up in the 1960’s in Wyoming, my picture of a Survivalist has always been the bearded wild-eyed loner with a barbed-wire-fenced redoubt dug into a hillside, stocked with guns, ammunition, and canned goods. He’s also got a dog, and it isn’t a Pomeranian. We can call this image the classic Right Wing Survivalist.

There’s another breed of Survivalist that has grown out of the dirt-worshiping Left: they talk about having their own vegetable gardens, and chickens, and composting toilets, and “sustainable” lifestyles.

These two types have a lot more in common than they realize: specifically, they are both focused on individual self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, neither has a workable vision for survival, much less sustainability.

I don’t want to waste too much space on the Right Wing Survivalists. I’ll grant that they’re well-equipped for handling the first month of the Zombie Apocalypse (scheduled to follow the Mayan Apocalypse, don’t turn that dial!) should it come to pass. Their problem sets in during Year Three, when a bad tooth has them thinking about shooting themselves in the mouth to get rid of the pain; or when the veins in their arm have turned purple and blue from having carelessly cut their finger opening a can of Dinty Moore Stew; or when their dog — which isn’t a Pomeranian — gets mauled by a raccoon and they have to put him down and afterward can’t think of a single reason to keep on living.

The Left Wing Survivalists aren’t in much better shape, though. Let’s look at that home garden for a moment, and do some simple math.

I just went to a web-based calorie counter and plugged in numbers for a 185-pound, six-foot, 30-year-old male doing 60 minutes of exercise a day, and it tells me that he needs to eat 3282 calories a day to maintain weight. So let’s take 3000 calories per day as a nice, round-number minimum for a hard-working “green” gardener living off the land. We’ll assume he prays or meditates to make up in spiritual nourishment any chronic shortfall in calories.

Adzuki beans provide between 300 and 600 calories per cup, depending on whether they are cooked or raw. Let’s use 600 calories (raw.) This means our gardener needs to eat five cups of raw beans every day, thirty-five cups every week, or 1820 cups every year. Since another web calculator gives me 2 cups == 1 pound for adzuki beans, this means our farmer needs about 910 pounds of beans a year, or twice that if he cooks the beans. Studies performed in Minnesota on adzuki beans say that yields (under irrigation) ranged from zero to 4000 pounds per acre, with an average of 1400 pounds per acre.

So under the best possible growing-season scenario, our raw-bean-eating single male requires about a quarter acre of land with irrigation. More realistically, using average crop yields, he will need at least two-thirds of an acre.

That’s the minimum plot of land needed to get enough (literally) raw calories to survive.

Of course, man does not live by beans alone. Not if he wants to avoid malnutrition. Nor are many of us happy crunching raw beans every day for the rest of our lives. So it looks like a more reasonable number is around one to two acres per person.

Looking at overall national numbers, there are about 442 million acres of land in the US devoted to crops, and another 587 million devoted to pasture and grazing. We currently have a national population of 311 million. That’s a little over three acres per person devoted to food production, and — of course — we US Americans eat well and are a net exporter of food.

As a third point of reference, this paper on soils breaks down land use by quality of soil and “inputs” (irrigation, fertilizer) and shows the highest-quality land with the highest level of inputs is able to support about four people per acre (ten per hectare) while moderate-quality farmland with low inputs supports a little over one person per acre.

These are all rough numbers, but they come from completely separate sources and they all match up pretty closely. We need about an acre per person in order to live: less on good soil, and more on marginal soil.

My wife and I just moved into a nice big house on a nice lot in a nice suburban neighborhood. The lot size is about 7000 square feet, or a sixth of an acre.

If we cut down all the trees on the lot and razed this house to create a garden, the entire year’s crop would be just about enough to feed me — only me — for  two months. I’d have to meditate myself into suspended animation for the rest of the year, and I’d have to do it between the bean-rows, since there’s no longer any untilled space for even a tent.

If I wanted to become a Left Wing Survivalist and drop off-grid, there is nothing I could do here — I’d have to move yet again. My land-use would have to go from a sixth of an acre to at least two acres for my wife and me to survive.

It boggles my mind to think about that much garden. The two houses to either side, plus the three behind. For me. Times two, for my wife. We would have to kick eleven families out of their homes so that two of us could make a show of living self-sufficiently with a “lighter carbon footprint.” Yikes!

My point is to put the backyard garden into proper perspective.

My mother grew up on an Oklahoma farm, and she simply couldn’t imagine living without her vegetable garden. As a kid, I’d go out and forage: fresh peas and baby carrots were my favorites, though I got scolded for over-grazing. I also liked to pinch off the tips of the onion shoots and smell them. We had plenty of rhubarb for pies, a bit of sweet corn in the fall, lettuce all summer, and other things she’d try from time to time. Nothing ever grew well in that baked Wyoming clay, but she was as stubborn as an old Okie, as she used to say, and she kept at it.

When I was newly married and living in my first house in Denver, we put in a vegetable garden in the back yard. The first year was grotesque, and there was no harvest. The third year was probably the best, and we were looking forward to the next harvest, which we hoped would be big enough to give us something to put up for the winter. That next summer, the tomatoes were overrun by tomato worms, the corn was taken by smut, and the urban rabbits and squirrels got everything else. We plowed the whole thing under that fall and never planted it again.

I’d never, ever argue that people should not have backyard vegetable gardens. It was wonderful for me growing up as a child, and it was fun for the three years before I learned what “smut” really is.

But a backyard garden is a vanity garden. It can’t supply any measurable fraction of even one person’s annual caloric needs, much less feed a family through an entire year.

I can’t emphasize this enough. Even a small backyard garden will produce enough zucchini to choke on, as anyone with a green-thumbed neighbor knows only too well. But if that was all you had to eat, you’d starve before Christmas.

Survivalism, whether of the guns and canned goods sort, or the back-to-nature sort, is misnamed. It should be called Isolationism. It’s all about going it on your own: going off-grid and becoming independent of the dysfunctional world out there.

Oddly enough, that’s the same ethos that has driven the flight to the suburbs: getting away from all those other noisy, dirty, messy, inconsiderate, weird people in the cities who are taking the whole town/county/state/country/world to Hell in a hand basket.

Also oddly enough, Isolationism in all three forms is utterly dependent upon modern technology and cheap energy. Only because the “dysfunctional” world out there works as well as it does can we afford to have so many people chasing their dreams on their own rather than breaking their backs getting in the harvest or in some other way contributing directly to the common good.

To put it very simply: Survivalism and Suburbanism are hobbies enabled by cheap energy, technology, and plentiful food.

So what does real Sustainability look like?

Well, we don’t start the discussion of Sustainability with peak oil, or global warming, or guns, or permaculture, or solar energy, or cold fusion, or any of the usual suspects.

We start the discussion of Sustainability with grandchildren.

After all, what are we sustaining? Our own future as a species. If our first concern is the trees, or the wolves, or the spotted owls, the solution is simple: kill every human being on the planet.

The trees and the wolves and the spotted owls are not the point. The real concern we have with them is as “canaries in the coal mine” — when they start keeling over, it means we’re next. And it’s our own future we’re trying to protect.

So Sustainability is about our grandchildren. Having them, or we’re extinct. Not having too many of them, or we condemn them to starvation. Providing a world in which they can survive to adulthood, and have grandchildren of their own, and hopefully — hopefully — a little measure of personal happiness. Maybe even a pinch of gratitude toward those who came before, but we shouldn’t count on that. Humans are, by and large, an ungrateful lot.

There are only two things I want to point out about this change of focus from technologies to grandchildren.

The first is that it isn’t about us. Nor is it about our heirs, as we imagine them living out the lives we never got to live. It’s about their heirs. We might be able to imagine we exert some kind of iron control over our own kids, but when it comes to their kids, we’re pretty helpless. The best we can do is to paint with a very broad brush — to contribute to the kind of environment that will give those grandchildren as good a chance at a future as we can imagine giving them, regardless of how badly our own heirs mess things up.

The second is that we cannot provide for our grandchildren in isolation. My little barbed-wire retreat, my little solar-powered self-sufficient Eden, my little castle with a moat of green lawn and indoor plumbing, are alike of absolutely no use to my grandchildren. Not if the world has fallen apart.

To create a safe haven for our grandchildren, we have to create a community, a society, a civilization. Something we won’t live to see perfected, and something that others will have to take on for us when we’re gone.

That’s how we start to address Sustainability.

This entry was posted in General.

2 comments on “Survivalists, Suburbanites, and Sustainability

  1. Stephen Nemeth says:

    Fine!  Since you’re so damn insistent.  😛

    Of course, there’s also phase 2, which I’m faaaar more concerned with: toolchains.  How the hell do we maintain our standard of living?  Genius prescience analyzing our overcompensation for over-centralization aside, how do I give my kids Ikea or Evercrack?  Where do we draw the thresholds against isolationism while still deterring warlords? 

    P.S. – You didn’t mention underground vertical farming. If it could be partially automated, geotherm (not solar) could theoretically used to power grow lights. Or we could live on underground mushroom farms like normal people. You know, if you’re a crazy multimillionaire isolationist. I feel they’re underrepresented here. So are futurists claiming that they can turn manure into a tasty ham sandwich in a single step not involving bread.


    • Thanks for responding, Stephen.

      The answer is that we don’t maintain our standard of living. We create a new standard of living. That’s what every generation has done.

      Whether it is a lower or higher standard of living depends on how people in the future define “lower” and “higher.” What is guaranteed is that it will be different. Values will change.

      Yes, I deliberately underrepresented crazy multimillionaires and deranged futurists. 🙂


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