A Small Survival Guide

Preparing for an Uncertain Future

by Arthur Noll

Some might call this a worst case scenario, but it is the only future I see happening, not a matter of bleak or hopeful, but just how I see it.

One can divide up our problems in two general categories.  One set of problems is what is physically possible for us to do.  The other set is what is psychologically possible.  The two categories are related and will obviously interact with each other for the actual reality of what happens, but we can look at the two categories separately to try and understand what the reality will be.

We know that we have a finite planet, and infinite growth of population and resource use is impossible without expanding beyond the planet.  We also know we do not have the capacity to transcend the limits of the planet to the degree needed.  At enormous expense a handful of people went to the moon, and found nothing to work with to make it even a baby step away for anyone else.  This planet is all we have.   We can see that food production is presently dependent on finite energy sources and so we are overpopulated.

If people were to become aware of this problem, and decide to work together to solve it, we have things we could do.  We could put a moratorium on births, and then perhaps we could have a lottery for healthy people to reproduce one child per couple, and this could dramatically reverse the current population growth.  We could start taking down buildings and restoring areas to sustainable food production, instead of the opposite we presently do.  Present farmland would continue as before, using fossil fuel and other techniques to produce food, but as population dropped, more and more land could be put into sustainable crops of plants and animals.  These sources of food would be different than before.

In other sectors, transportation, for example, present dependence on fossil fuel could be reversed towards sustainability, by immediately dropping speed limits on vehicles.  Each year it could drop by another 5-10 mph, until we were down to about 15- 20 mph. Such a speed limit would make possible vehicles that were far less complex and heavy to build and run, saving large amounts of fuel.  With a 20 mph speed limit, cars with 1-2 hp engines, getting perhaps 150 miles to the gallon or more would be possible.  Such vehicles have been built, but they are not safe with the present traffic.  Animals could safely share the roads again.  Roads would not need to be made with such care, lanes could be reduced.  Population reduction would play into this.  Major superhighways could be returned to sustainable food producing land.  Long distance travel and freight would be limited to trains and boats, eventually phasing out large engines for both.  Wind power can move watercraft, engines could be kept for emergency use only in storms or being caught in doldrums.  Whether railroads are energy efficient over the long term is doubtful, but they could be used for a time.  It might be practical to use wind power directly on some rail lines, with very much lighter cars, as the railroads were generally laid out as flat as possible.  Food would need to be moved less and less as population dropped and sustainable local production was increased.  Shipments of fossil fuels would drop as people used local renewable fuels and energy sources, and lessened the speed of vehicles, lessened the distance they had to travel.  Things that really needed to be moved can be moved by water, or over flat expanses of ice, the need for maintaining rail roads would be diminished to the point they were no longer needed.

Homes could be rebuilt smaller and more energy efficient,  clothes made simpler, with local materials and minimum of wasted effort.  Instead of everyone having a refrigerator, food could be cooked more often, people could eat together to make the cooking more efficient, food not eaten goes to animals that in turn become more food.

It seems physically possible to do these things, we don’t need any new technology, no scientific breakthroughs.  But we also face the psychological problems.  Do people want to do this?  It seems odd to me, but the answer at the present time appears to be “no”.  This is the other dimension to our problem.

There are psychological problems that most people have, with regard to all these changes.  Reproduction and the resulting population is deeply felt to be only the affair of couples.  People have deeply ingrained food prejudices.  Driving slower and slower, with the idea of phasing out automobiles, is in direct opposition to a very large attraction to fast, shiny, luxurious autos.  Cooperating so closely with other people, while once a common thing in many cultures, is felt to be an infringement of freedom now.  Market economies that largely allow people to do as they wish as long as they have the money, is felt to be the ultimate in social living arrangements. Most of the world´s people live in cities, and have small experience with the problems of agriculture, they see full supermarkets and cannot comprehend there are serious problems growing.

People attempting to live otherwise, can find that what they are doing is “illegal”.  You cannot drive slowly, you must keep up with traffic.  You cannot live in a simple dwelling, it is illegal in many places.  You have no say in how land is used unless you own it, and the price is beyond that of the average citizen.  Even if you own a small piece, management according to ecosystem dynamics requires cooperation.  You can chose not to reproduce, but if all around you are ignoring the problem, it seems a lost cause.

However, the physical constraints on why these things should be done remain.  People can ignore physical principles for a time, but they cannot be ignored indefinitely.  What, then, seems likely to happen?  We can hope that large numbers of people will become aware of the vital need for change, and we could put lots of energy into making everyone aware.  But such energy may be wasted. If we consider the patterns of addicts, energy spent convincing them to change is often wasted, and the psychological desires of people to continue to live unsustainable patterns is very similar to addiction.  People tell themselves lies, will tell other people lies.  Where should we put our energy, then?  What is likely to happen?

We will reach a breakpoint, where things don’t work anymore.  Already, our lives are held by a frayed rope with more fibers breaking all the time. The final break is likely to be marked with the use of some weapons of mass destruction.  It should be possible to arrange that this use is fragmented and not a total exchange of weapons. (See Harmony)

Human laws will largely be nullified at this point.  Under such conditions, people will take various avenues to survive.  There will be those who try to make things work by force, will band together and try to muscle their way to live through the disruptions.  The best fighting force is a group of males, ruthless, uncaring about women and children.  Most likely they will have dismissed worries about sustainability of actions, their solution to everything is to take what they need when they need it.  Such groups will generally defeat groups that are handicapped by defending women and children.  They will have accumulated the weapons that kill the best, put energy into how to use them, learning war strategies, will have put their energy into this solution.  But in destroying the opposition, they find themselves without women, and that much food has been destroyed in fighting over it.  Sustainability does matter, but at this point it will be too late to acknowledge it.  They will turn on each other and ultimately disappear.

They will choose to fight over food and fuel, to keep these aspects of the life they know, and do so where these things are found in their experience, not far from roads, in concentrations of people.

Instead of fighting with such groups of people, another sort of person can chose to avoid fighting, to join with a group that goes off the roads, lives off the land, in harsh environments that most people see as devoid of resources.  Women and older children are not a handicap in such an endeavor, but an asset. They can keep up with the situation just as well as men, if not better in some ways, as long as they are not pregnant or nursing.  Groups of people like this who get “lost” far off the beaten paths, have a degree of safety from the vicious fighting going on over finite resources in former population centers.

Harsh lands like these are not lands in which people generally live for the long term.  Desert nomads come back to richer areas to trade, rest and restore their gear, periodically.  We will have to come back, but we will also have to wait for the struggle to die over these richer areas.  We survive by being the last on our feet, at the end.  Only groups with the best measurements of the situation, of themselves, will make it.  They will have to follow natures rules, the physical rules that we should have followed from the beginning, about sustainable use of resources, and levels of population being a factor in that.  Pregnant women and nursing children are a liability, this will be seen and steered away from, meaning that the ability to be rational about sex is within the capabilities of the group.  We need to have children, but for the moment, the lightest way to carry children who need to be carried, are as separate sperm and eggs.

People will have to work closely together as a team, act as a single organism, with no one given special powers over the rest except by temporary agreement.  This will be shifting mastery, partnership.  Money will not be used, as it is a flawed measure that wastes energy.  Resources will be figured for the energy efficiency they can be obtained with, the sustainable amounts that can be taken, and then freely given and taken by everyone in the group according to need.

We need to find the people who wish to live according to these rules of sustainability and energy efficiency.  If someone resists the call, preferring to believe in miracles, which can come in many  variations, we can’t spend a lot of time trying to convince them, but have to move on.  We need to put energy into learning how to live with nature, what plants and animals are available, how to deal with them. We need to spend energy on educating ourselves in basic things.  Books on survival in the general area we intend to go into are good, though their usual aim is to get out of the area and back to population centers again.  This is because they are focused on an individual, who really has no long term hope of survival alone.  As a group, we can do much more.

We need to go look and see; what is out there?  If a place gets only 4 -10 inches of water a year, it will still have quite a bit of vegetation. There are deserts that get virtually no water at all for years at a time, these places may be too hard even for a group.  But some places like this have a sea shore teeming with life, if you could trust your life to solar stills and dew catchers, you might make a living in such places.  Test it out.  Inland, you need to map out where water is found, perhaps put some energy into making small caches of water, that are naturally replenished by the rare rainfall.  Using rivers as a long base is a possibility, rivers sometimes run for hundreds of miles through desert country, one can fill up with water, then spend three or four days grazing away from the river, then return in a different spot.  (Goats can go three or four days without drinking, camels for about twice that long) The land needs to be scouted for cliffs and other obstacles to the water.  In some cases it might be possible to have a rope and pulley for hauling the water up cliffs.   By attaching stones or containers of earth to the high end and allowed to drop over one side of a pulley, water can be hauled up the other side with a minimum of effort.  Someone may have to climb down the rope to fill containers, and come up the same way as the water did.  There may be wells in remote areas, abandoned.  A drilled well bucket, long and thin with a one way valve on the bottom could be very useful.  Someone should have a pair of vise grips, and a cold chisel and hammer, to deal with nuts and bolts, taking off caps on well heads.  Scrap metal can sometimes be found and pressed into service fixing broken equipment, with some basic metal working tools like these along.

We need to navigate, to find water, avoid obstacles.  Compasses are reliable, but if broken cannot be easily fixed or replaced any time soon, so treat them with great care.  Satellite navigation equipment is likely to fail and be useless, I wouldn´t invest in it. A compass is not much use without good maps, you will be making maps in your mind, but start off with the best you can find.  One of the biggest advantages of a group is that it can send out scouts, many eyes and minds, to find things.

Animals can eat common vegetation that we cannot, and turn it into milk and meat and hide, many, many useful things both to eat and for shelter and tools.  What sort of animals can we depend on?  How do you manage them? How to milk an animal, how to care for the milk, how to butcher and handle meat.  These questions need to be answered.  Waiting for the test to learn the answers is bad strategy.  All this depends to a degree on the sort of animal, which depends in turn on the climate and terrain.  Goats are good in mountains, camels good on plains.  Heavier animals like yaks, highland cattle, camels, will tend to do better in cold weather conditions.  Reindeer are for the far north. One principle to remember on all of them, is the carrot and the stick.  They are attracted to certain things and repulsed by others.  You find out what these things are, and they can be trained by applying them consistently.  Learn from them, they will be training you, too.  They have the instincts programmed over thousands of years to survive the land and climate they evolved in, that you are now on, so listen, watch, let them lead unless you know for sure a better way.

What sort of plants can be gathered to be eaten directly, and how are they are prepared?  The survival books will generally cover this, but you need to experiment, try things out. How long do we dare to stay in an area without damaging the plants, so we can come back and find it renewed in a year or so?  That is not likely to be found in survival books, but think about it, use some common sense, pay attention to how the animals behave, they will often have this instinctively programmed, to eat at a place and then move on without killing too much.   It is when animals are fenced, held from the natural inclination to move, that they tend to do too much damage.

Hunting animals is sometimes an option. Surrounds and drives are illegal in many places now, because it is so effective, but with care to leave some animals behind, such methods can help a lot to sustain us.  Driving into nets, snares, we can pick and chose, not kill everything.  Unattended snares will kill, but if you are right there driving, they can catch and hold, and are much easier to make than a large net.  With small game that is more numerous and needs less management, traps that kill are generally easier to make and use than live traps, and can help with the food supply.  Be wary of disease, bubonic ìplague” is carried by rodents in many desert areas.   It is the fleas that would give it too you.  They will hop off a dead animal and wait for another host.  So you might try learning to get animals out of a trap without approaching it.  If a long line is attached to a snare, with a fastening at the anchor that you can jerk free from the end of this line, but not from the snare end, you could drag the catch to you without going to the area.  A similar line on a dead fall could allow you to pull off the weight, and line and hook could be thrown to bring the animal to you.

Usually an animal that is healthy, going about on it´s usual trails where you set traps, with a healthy appetite to be attracted to bait, is not going to be dangerously infected with anything, but caution is always a good idea.  It might be good for those who would run such traps to be vaccinated, if this exists.  Perhaps everyone going into such areas should get this protection, and for whatever other disease might be endemic to an area.

How do we light a fire without the tools of industry like matches, lighters? In my research, there are three basic ways. The fire piston is fast and relatively easy to use, was known to stone age tribes in Southeast Asia, but even so needs very precise construction and won´t stand abuse.  Hand held flint and steel can work very fast sometimes, is frustrating slow other times.  Common stone age friction methods can be very fast under ideal conditions, but are bulkier to carry, and when conditions are not so ideal, they can be a lot of work.  However, if someone is carrying a small hand cranked stone wheel for sharpening tools, it will do double duty to put a shower of sparks on tinder and be as fast and easy a fire starter as the fire piston.  The stone could break, however.  A wooden wheel could be fashioned with sandpaper glued to the outside edge, though, and be much less prone to breakage.  And I forgot another very easy way to start a fire, using a magnifying glass.  My background in the cloudy Northeast at work there, probably.  Excellent way to use in most desert areas, obvious limits, but great when the sun shines.

Fire is such a useful thing that it doesn´t hurt for many people to know several ways of starting it.  The fire piston and spark methods generally need charred tinder from previous fires.  Charred cotton, charred punk,(not all punk wood is equally good), charred pith from large weeds, will all take a spark.  The friction methods are good to know, because they make their own charred tinder, you can go completely from scratch.

Shelter is highly dependent on the area, southern areas need only a tarp for shade and wind protection, protection against occasional rain.  Northern areas will need much more shelter and clothes to be carried.  You will want total enclosure.  Tents need to be very rugged to hold up to winds, or have internal frames as for tepees and yurts. Nylon and other synthetic fibers are  poor choice of fabric, they can be light and strong, but 6 weeks in full sunlight starts to seriously degrade them. The synthetics need to have two layers, a waterproof layer and a layer that will breathe, so the weight advantage is really not so great.  Natural fibers like long staple cotton, hemp, make fabrics that if not packed away wet, will last for years. A single layer will breathe, and yet swell and turn water when wet.

Where water is stored by freezing in the north, it may be more available, while in the south, it tends to run away or be evaporated faster, so the need is to carry more water.  So these things even out, you carry more weight of shelter in the north, more weight of water in the south.  But this is general, though, you can have dry areas in the north, too, and need to deal with it. High elevations in the south can be very cold.  Remember with water, that lots of small containers are safer than just a few large ones. Similarly with cold, many layers of clothing work better than single bulky garments.  However, you might want to experiment with using local insulation like moss, dried grass, fine wood shavings, plain wool, in between two layers of clothing or shelter, and adjust the thickness for the cold.  This cuts down on the amount of tailored clothing needed. Remember, this is not an expedition with a goal of reaching somewhere remote faster than others.  We can tolerate more primitive equipment and wait for better weather, many times.  For really cold temperatures, nothing beats local animal hides with the fur and hair on, and with time you can start outfitting people like that, if you can´t start off that way.

Staple foods, like grains, acorns, may be available only seasonally, so we need to bring a supply to begin.  You can find all sorts of estimates of how much animals or people can pack.  It really depends on the weather and terrain, and how long.  You learn through experience, listen and watch the animals closely for signs they are tiring, and don´t push them, or yourselves.  If it is too much, it is too much. You should probably make some good caches and store excess food there.  Remember that the best of such things are vulnerable, anything that happens to let moth, mouse or moisture in, or many other things, will leave you with nothing, and you aren´t there to see and defend.  So try not to depend too heavily on them.

One of the most difficult survival techniques for many to learn, is to slow down. We have commonly been programmed to work, work, work. Harsh climates demand you slow down, slow down.  Don’t push in the heat of the day, or into the teeth of the wind.  Stop, find shelter, rest.  We don’t fight the weather or the land any more than we fight other people.  The animals will tend to guide you in this.  Even when you are moving, they are meandering, finding a bit here and there to eat, not in any hurry.  When you move, you plod, conserving energy.  You sit and watch for much of the day.  If you work on fixing things, making things, you don’t work up a sweat, but take your time, plod as deliberately with your hands to build as you plod on your feet to move.  If you’ve planned right, you have time.  And you have time to plan. People always in a hurry in the harsh lands are in a hurry for their funeral.  Heavy exertion in high heat can kill, sweat buildup in clothes in the cold is also a potential killer.  There may be times to move fast, but it is a general rule to go slow.  You aren´t in a race.  Think ahead, plan ahead.  Plan to avoid problems instead of planning to fight or muddle through them.

There are those who spend their spare time learning the science of war. There are those who spend their time learning the science of luxuries, learning the denials of philosophy and mysticism. There are those simply unaware of problems, in spite of the great amount of publication about them. I think survivors spend their spare time learning the science of sustainable living. The middle groups will be crushed by the realities, with those who learn force and practice force on one side, and their lack of ability to escape to harsh lands on the other side. Denial of problems is not a solution, force is not a solution. We live on, by learning to live on. The means will lead to the ends. Those who live by the sword, will die by the sword, (Jesus mentioned that…) If you live by closing the eyes, you can die by walking over a cliff. (Jesus also mentions about the blind leading the blind, and falling into a ditch) Learn to live on sustainably, without forcing issues, opening your eyes to realities, and you can live on sustainably. (Blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness…)

Loving each other as ourselves, working together as a single organism, is not a platitude, not an optional bit of morality. It is the way to strength, the way to survival, to living on, when weaker systems fail and die.

Once through nature’s cutting and threshing and winnowing, we can plant ourselves in the nicer areas of the planet and thrive, but never forget the lessons we have learned.

Many feel that this path I outline is going backwards too much in time, to a herder -hunter gatherer past, with little concern for what we have learned about technology. I reply that sometimes the only way forward is to first go back. We are fenced away from really using technology properly, by economic systems, cultural values. We push to have it, like a goat pushing it’s head through a woven wire fence, and choking in it’s attempt to try and nibble some grain on the other side, when a gate is open to the rear of the pen. Instead of choking, trying to force it’s way through, backing away and going around is the sensible thing to do. I think we are in the same position. Only the rich nibble on the fruits of technology, the rest of society is choking. With a sustainable system in place, we will have millions of years to play with complex technology, find it’s true value and limits.

TrustMark August 2001 by Arthur Noll