Hi Paul and Toby,
I am interested in what Toby thinks what a transition to a more sustainable future will look like. Do you think people will tend to take what industrial society is giving them, with decreased pay, hours, and pensions, and try to make functioning semi-economies out of them? A really active garden is in some ways a retirement plan. You're healthier because you're eating better and getting more exercise. You live more cheaply even though you may need to. You have less stress from evil bureaucracies. Do you think we will financially value organic food more than current and live more like the French, with a higher % of household income invested in food? Do you think that grafters and gardeners will be considered a more central skill, and therefore paid/bartered with at a higher rate of compensation/trade? It is interesting to think about how much of this will be pushed by costs/peak oil/ pollution limits, and how much will be pulled by valuing the environment, better food, more harmonious and peaceful communities. Do you see any hidden positives in this transition? How much technology and what kinds do you think we will use, say, 30 years from now?
When I was a NROTC Midshipman, I had to write a paper for military history class about what the next big conflict was going to be. Instead of actually thinking about it, I asked my dorm neighbor (government major) what he though, and wrote that down. Needless to say, we were both wrong. I got a decent grade, but the Soviets never pushed through Iran/Pakistan to gain access to a warm water port.
So what class are you trying to get others to write a paper for? I'm not saying nobody wants to do it: It's a fun academic exercise. But it's just an academic exercise based an a lot of pre-suppositions that won't turn out to be accurate. Your questions seem grounded in the current paradigm, dominated by gradualist thinking and an industrial model. Think outside that box.
Start by imagining a world of 30%+ unemployment, with $15 a gallon gas. Imagine infrastructure breaking down because nobody can afford to maintain it. The lights go out in a lot of places, and are unreliable in a lot more. All the tractors that used to plow the midwest for grain sit idle, because there's a drought and fuel costs too much to run them. You've got a parent or grandparent with a replacement hip, and you can feel some of your joints giving you trouble, but you know that you can't afford that kind of treatment, and never will. Take care of yourself if you can.
Maybe you've been a student, but the student loan office is in trouble because of the financial crisis, and word comes around that next quarter they're not going to have the money to pay your tuition. Your part-time job has laid you off. The school announces that there will be a steep reduction in classes, and you realize you're not going to be a student anymore. Or maybe you're a little older. The story is the same: no job, not enough food, no reason to stay.
You look around the Portland Metro Area. People have been saying that urban permaculture is a good idea, and you've been trying. The problem is there are a lot of other people trying too, and there's not enough room. A hundred years ago in China, it took about a third of an acre to support each person through intensive traditional farming. You hope to do better than that because you're doing mixed crops in layers, but you've never gotten the space or the quantity of plants to actually provide you with enough calories, just from your garden. So you need to get out of town.
You head out into the Tualitin Valley. It's full of others like yourself, trying to find a spot for a garden. It's also full of tract houses and the remains of the old nursery plant farms. There's a lot of fighting over land. Gardens are planted and ripped up in the night as part of disputes. There are power structures, based on Neighborhood Watch and old property claims. There's less bureaucratic run-around and more outright hostility. You see it's not safe and move on. You've got a bicycle with an improvised trailer, which you plan to use as a garden cart too. So it's west over the coast range or south within the Willamette Valley. You pick south.
You fall in with others who are in similar situations. Most of them are young enough to travel under their own power. Some have limited tools while some barely have the clothes on their backs. Some are dreamers, but others have actual skills. Some are just discovering their skills or learning as they go. Some walk. Some have bikes. Some have grocery carts. You all trade ideas about how to do things. Eventually you get to a place where there seems to be a little abandoned land on the margin of the valley, and you all set up camp. This will be home.
Now begin practicing permaculture. The old model wasn't sustainable, but it was comfortable while it lasted. The new model is up to you.
I'm with Dan on the impossibility of making good predictions. I gave it up because they never turn out to be right. That said, I'll wade in. I'm not a big fan of "total crash" scenarios--I think we're in the middle of one of the fastest crashes humans have ever seen, and it feels very slow to those in it. I expect a grinding worsening of the economy, poorer access to goods, more expensive everything that requires oil, but not a sudden explosion into doom, though there will be shocks along the way. Food will return to being a much larger part of our budget--traditionally food has required 40-50% of our income or time to get. But this is all going to take a while, decades, to work through. The thing about permaculture is that it's never the wrong thing to be practicing. I see enormous opportunities in this, not the least of which is the abandonment of the idea of having a "job" to earn money. Far more people will be exchanging their skills for resources more directly--not by barter, but not by working for some company and getting a paycheck in wage slavery, either.
My husband is one of those people that graduated with a computer science degree right as the tech bubble burst. He was not able to get a job in his field. He ended up with a crappy job at Enterprise. He slaved away there for I think it was 7 years before he lost his job there right in the middle of the crash in the fall of 2008. It was awful at the time. But it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to us. He had to act fast to make a living so he starting putting his computer programming skills to work and getting jobs online. It's been 3 years since he started. We now make well over 3 times what he made before he lost his job and he simply doesn't even have enough time to keep up with the demand he has for what he does. But we are totally preparing for a large continuous decline in the economy and investing in our home and land.
We aren't investing in the stock market because honestly we don't know how to play that game. Our goal is to pay off our home, invest in solar and a well and whatever it takes to remove our dependence on the system. We are slowly increasing our gardens on our 1 acre. It's not an ideal acre. It's very hilly but it's what we have and we'd prefer to live in a more suburban area. It decreases our dependency on a car. We live across the street from my parents who have an over an acre and will probably end up owning that acre in the process of needing to support them in their old age. We don't ever expect to achieve real self sufficiency but we do think that working the soil is excellent for our mental and physical health and besides being a total joy to do it it's also a way to prepare for retirement. Our goal is to be debt free and as self supporting as we can be on our one acre and continuing to find ways to support ourselves without being subject to the whims of a large heartless corporation. We intend to do this regardless of what really ends up happening with the economy or peak oil because we think it's in our best interest to do this. We are investing in our soil and expect a great return on our investment. I'm thinking of that blog article someone shared recently on the return on investment we get growing food.
being on a very limited income I sure have seen where store bought food is really increasing in price as you have said, but also buying seeds, trees, shrubs etc to get started is expensive as well. We have been building up our permaculture garden again after having lost it recently and having to restart and it is so expensive. However, once it is up and growing again completely it should seriously cut our food budget down. Even things like canning and freezing are epensive so last year I did a lot more drying of food and root cellaring.
I was reading Paul's Eco Scale and will say I've never really represented myself as ECO or an Environmentalist, I have tried to get more sustainable over the years..but I still failed his test...not by much though, just that we do use both wood and gas for heat and heat 3 buildings with it, our house and our son's and his garage that he works in, so I guess if I divide it by 3 I might still qualify.
Bloom where you are planted.