At long last I feel able to start writing a page which attempts to address what all the other pages up ‘til now have merely been hinting at – how to survive when what is laughingly called civilisation goes bottom up. No, I have not gone totally mad, nor am I an extremist, just being realistic.
Actually we’ve been thinking about this for a very long time (since the first pesticides scare in the late 1980s). Planning, acquiring the necessary skills and capital, searching for the right place, and now for the last four years actually starting to put it all into action here at El Pocito. There’s still a way to go yet, and that’s something everyone considering a similar path should be aware of, the vast amount of input required, but hopefully you’ll find it a lot easier than we did because you have all this information as a starting point (we had nothing). What follows therefore is a checklist, covering all the stuff that doesn’t fit on the other pages. It’s by no means exhaustive or authoritative yet, but I will be trying to contact others who are further down this path to add their experiences, so keep checking-in for updates.
What is actually going to happen, when society collapses? And when? To be honest I have no idea. There are so many possibilities, with more being added all the time. 21 years ago it was a lot easier. Nature was going to take her bat home, and using a combination of melting icecaps and unusually strong tides, flood most of the world’s major cities overnight. Destroying in one stroke the core of what makes us behave in such an unsustainable way. It remains my favourite (natural selection), but the nuclear “accident” at Fukushima, where two years after the event 400 tons a day of highly radioactive material is still being dumped at sea and probably will continue for the next 40 years, is the one which will cause the most long-term damage. Radioactivity isn’t quick or selective. It mixes with water, making that radioactive too, and remains lethal for a minimum of 500 years, during which it has plenty of time to find its way around the globe, contaminate the food chain (don’t eat any more seafood or seaweed), all the beaches it washes up on (up to 1 km inland), and distilled as rain everywhere else. Depending on the dose, it could take 20 years to have an effect. Of the rest I reckon we could just wipe ourselves out. The exponential rise in population (from a sustainable 300 million to 7 billion, and doubling every few years), plus their insatiable appetite for spending, will render whole continents unable to afford even the basics possibly in the next 5-10 years. Take your pick. Whichever, life from now on is never going to be as good or the same again.
Preparing for this has been painful. No-one wants to think that very soon everything we enjoy and depend on is suddenly not going to exist anymore, not even chocolate or coffee (I’ve checked, neither can grow in Europe). Look around your home right now, not one thing there will you ever be able to buy or perhaps replace again. This is how de-skilled and dependent on money we have become. To survive therefore will depend on two things: being able to do everything for ourselves, and staying healthy in a very hostile environment. It sounds an impossible task, but hopefully by appropriate preparation, you can. Let’s get started then:
First off, location is everything. Ronald Wright’s A SCIENTIFIC ROMANCE describes this a lot better than me, but very simply when the S (shit) HTF (hits-the-fan) life as we know it is going to turn very nasty indeed, particularly for anyone crazy enough to be living in any kind of urban area. To be suddenly deprived of food/ water/ electricity/ fuel/ and any means of communication, means the chances of surviving by staying put are almost zero. Out in the countryside (and as remote as possible) the odds are a lot better. Already the people there are to some extent self-sufficient. They have well-developed systems for helping each other, all the natural resources exist in abundance, and they know how to live off-the-grid. The only problem will be insurgence from outsiders and the natural tendency for local bullies wanting to become self-styled leaders (read William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES).
Read also Emily St John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN, it may be fiction but you won’t find a better description of a post-apocalypse world.
Whether you survive therefore, depends (apart from being in the right place at the right time) on preparedness. Not only at being fully-equipped, but having put in the requisite amount of time and effort at learning the necessary skills you’ll need and coming to terms with will be an entirely new way of life. In addition to the other pages on this site therefore, here are some further thoughts I’ve had, based on our experience.
Starting, in no particular order, with:
Eventually (as with all these topics) you’re going to have to accept that what you like to eat/ how you get it (bought or grown yourself)/ storage/ and the method of cooking, is going to have to change, dramatically. Stockpiling (more on this in a minute) may postpone this for as much as a year, but even that will run out sooner or later (including chocolate and coffee). Far easier then, and cheaper, as well as a lot healthier, would be to start switching over to the diet you are going to have to get used to in the future. Fresh and raw. Or you could, if only I knew what that meant. For despite everyone and his dog seemingly into raw foodism/ frutarianism right now, I’ve not found a single book/ group/ forum/ or anything that actually tells you how to eat healthily without buying. The only suggestion I can offer therefore is to do what we’ve been working on, and get planting as many fruit and nut trees as possible (surplus harvest can always be dried/ stored), and then when that’s done add as many edible shrubs/ perennials/ and self-seeding annuals under that canopy (see my downloadable list of edible plants on the garden page). By then you will have probably worked the rest out yourself. With one word of caution, it’s going to take a lot of preparation and hard work. The minimum amount of land required (to feed say two people all-year-round) could be as much as 10 hectares (depending on location). It also needs to be fenced in securely from predators. Landscaped to make the best use of rainfall. Ponds dug. Plus all the plants should ideally be raised from (local) seed, which requires nursing them until their roots reach down to the water-table, several years possibly.
If this sounds far too much of an undertaking/ investment (for something that may never happen), and thinking that perhaps a conventional allotment would a lot simpler, albeit on a larger scale, think again. It just doesn’t work, not all-year-round. The level of fertility would drop dramatically without massive inputs, so animals would have to be added, who will also need feeding, or a lot more humanure than two people could ever hope to provide. Annuals on this scale also require a vast amount of different seed/ organisation. Plus water for irrigation, a nightmare that should be avoided at all costs (see separate section). And even with the perimeter fencing, the list of predators that can still penetrate and will want to share your bounty is a lot larger and more destructive than you could ever imagine. No, stick with the long haul. It’s hard work for sure, but ultimately you are creating something that will not only provide the solution to all your food/ fuel/ medicine/ and building materials needs, but is natural, self-sustaining (so less work each year), and on a scale big enough to keep everyone happy.
# milling – As well as growing the more well-known types of food plants, we are also interested in less known ones which can be used to replace staples like flour. Sweet chestnuts and acorns for example. Both are very easy to grow, crop profusely, and store well. If you’ve tried this already (or know of any other plants with similar values), have any idea where we can get a hand-operated mill (or 12v) please get in touch so we can add the information.
# cooking – This shouldn’t even be necessary with a raw food diet, but as you have the wood-burning stove going for at least six months a year, why not take advantage (using the inside to bake, and top for saucepans). Sadly solar ovens (for the summer) don’t seem to work in this part of the world. But if you stockpiled enough propane/ butane and were frugal, that could last you a very long time (a 13.5 kg bottle at least an entire summer).
# bulk buying (stockpiling) – May not have much point for the future but doing it right now is a very smart move. By switching to purchasing a whole year’s worth of food you can save a lot of money, by going direct through a wholesaler, which will be as much as half the price and they also deliver. You will however need the space to store all this stuff, and make sure it is always cool/ dry/ and free of bugs. Check sell-by-dates too, before ordering. Do not be put off by the huge sizes. Two people baking bread can get through a 25kg bag of flour in three months.
# honey – has a very long shelf-life, years, which is not only a far healthier sweetener to sugar contains essential nutrients and good for first aid too. Though getting your own bee hives (four for two people) would be a far better long-term investment.
# flor de sal – is a special kind of sea salt (though check first for Caesium 137 contamination). Essential for good health and preserving meat/ killing off bacteria. A 25 kg bag will last two people several years.
What do you do when there are no longer any hospitals/ doctors/ opticians/ or dentists? This is something we’ve been thinking about for a while, ever since we stopped being registered with a GP, which must be at least 25 years now, and further reinforced when we left the UK in 2000 and lived on the road. To cover ourselves then we bought a massive medical encyclopaedia, with remedies using all the major alternative medicines. A great idea, to learn how to treat ourselves, take responsibility for our own healthiness, but with one major flaw, you can’t treat yourself. It requires a practitioner, therefore none of these books have a section on how to diagnose. Since then though we have learnt a lot, enough to have survived several potentially fatal illnesses, still without having to rely on a GP/ the conventional NHS system.
# The most important being, whenever you get ill/ unwell, stop eating (apart from fruit), drink plenty of water, and rest. This is to give your body the chance to cure itself. If after a week this hasn’t had any positive effect then you need to move to the next stage, fasting with urine therapy (see the health page). This can probably cure anything really serious, but only as long as you stick strictly to the regimen and don’t weaken.
# homeopathy has a similar potential, but needs a practitioner, plus an endless supply of all the many different remedies, so is restricted to use for the minor ailments (but the remedies do stay potent for many years) – bites/ stings/ pain-killing/ even to prevent appendicitis.
# growing herbs of course is a well-known cure-all (we are trying to plant as many as possible here), though this too requires a skill of being able to diagnose. You also need a lot of them, and from what we’ve planted many are very fussy about where they will or won’t grow (most prefer shade/ fertility/ and plenty of water). For use as first aid though it’s perfect, comfrey/ marigold/ and st johns wort being unequalled for most bites/ cuts/ stings. Grow them where they can be in leaf all-year-round.
# eyes. If you wear prescription lenses, get at least two spare pairs. In case of injury or infection apply honey neat and regularly. Stings like hell but really does work.
# radiation. Have a stock of Siberian ginseng, this will help the immune system fight any damage.
# teeth. Toothpaste is a waste of money. It doesn’t work and probably causes other problems. Brush with flor de sal instead (half a teaspoon diluted in a shot glass of water), gargling with the water afterwards, then swallowing. Toothbrush. I was hoping to find an alternative, but no luck so far. They don’t last long so stock up.
# traumeel. This is a german homeopathic cream that is really good for all first-aid emergencies, until you start making your own. Long shelf-life too.
Everyone should own and learn how to use a rifle (.242 is the recommended bore), along with scope & silencer, plus enough ammunition to last several years. Not only to hunt for food but keep predators at bay. Anyone who can offer specific information on models etc. please get in touch.
# utilities. Chances are there never will be a mains supply of electric/ gas/ or water again. The alternatives therefore are:
# electricity – You can generate your own using natural sources of energy (solar/ wind/ water). A good small system properly looked after could last 10-25 years, depending on how you look after it and acts of god. The batteries will need a supply of distilled water to keep them topped up. Does anyone know how you can make this at home (without ice)?
# gas – Butane & propane used sparingly can last a long time, though the rubber piping needs to be regularly replaced.
# water – Without at least 35 litres of potable water a day (per person – to drink and wash with) you will not be able to survive. During the summer that figure could rise to as much as 2000 litres a day (for irrigating crops/ trees). You therefore need a totally reliable source, plus sufficient storage (the latter to generate sufficient working pressure for the house and irrigation system, and to allow the source to replenish itself). A spring is the best option, though it needs to be proven. Otherwise drill a borehole to at least twice the depth of the water-table. Pumping can be done with solar panels and a submersible pump. Except pumps have parts with a finite life (as little as 2000 hours), so you’ll need plenty of spares, and solar panels can easily be destroyed by wind/ fire/ lightning/ or theft. Another option is a high-lift hand pump, as used in third world countries. Virtually indestructible, and so heavy no-one is going to walk away with it, but limited by the small amount it can draw at a time – one person could just about manage to pump 25 litres before collapsing. Also needs parts renewing but much cheaper and easier. Click here for a download of a manufacturer in the UK. Or, you could just do it the old-fashioned way, using a pulley/ rope/ and a bucket (or stainless steel bailer for small bore wells).
# keeping warm – This is essential, as is designing your home so it is well insulated and easy to heat, along with buying the most efficient woodstove (in our opinion a Morsø). However cutting wood is very labour intensive. Here in the SW of Spain, which you’d think there was no need for heating, we get through a minimum of 12 m3 a year. With a chainsaw this takes me 30 hours to cut (and another 60 hours to transport back to the house). That will not be an option in the future, I’ll need a cross cut saw instead. These come in different lengths (related to the thickness of cut required – we have found 5-15 cm diameter logs burn the best), and either for one person to use or two, they also need a file to keep them sharp. All the cutting should be done at the same time – branch from a tree, then into stove-sized logs, as the wood gets harder once it starts to dry out. Dried fuel is lighter and burns better, also there is less build-up of potentially flammable tar in the chimney, so cut at least six months before use. Hardwood (like oak) burns the longest, but the heat it gives off is relatively cool, making it difficult to raise the room temperature quickly. It is also the hardest to cut, almost impossible beyond 10 cm in diameter. But the ends of branches, those with leaves, make perfect firelighters if left to dry in a pile for two years or until they snap easily. Softwood (like olive, arbutus unedo, and pine) is the best fuel. Easier to cut and burns hot (but quickly so you’ll need far more). Shrubby weeds, like cistus, dried and brittle make excellent firelighters or to raise the room temperature quickly. Store all cut wood somewhere dry but with plenty of ventilation. Sweep the chimney each year.
# tools – you’ll need hand versions to work with wood/ metal/ building/ and glass. Also the means/ know-how to sharpen and repair them. Replacement wooden shafts, and linseed oil to keep them from drying out/ rotting. A portable work-bench. A ladder with sufficient height to reach above the roof of the house.
# materials for repairs – Cement (stored in air-tight container)/ roof tiles/ glass/ glue/ wood treatment/ paint/ metal/ timber/ nuts, bolts, screws and washers/ box of thick latex gloves.
# replacements – Crockery/ plastic buckets/ sheets/ matches.
# soap – The bar type used for washing clothes. Lasts well and is incredibly good at getting really stained clothes and hands clean again.
# paper – Stock up with A4 and notebooks, as well as pens + ink.
# books – Both of the reference type and to read for pleasure.
# music – Get a library together of all your favourite CDs.
# short wave radio – with SSB capability to pick up ham broadcasts. Either wind-up, or a solar charging system to top up the batteries. To find out more on SW and the range of radios/ transmitters, download this recent article for newcomers from the brilliantly down-to-earth site on the subject, swling.com.
# lighting – We have been reliant on just candles for thirteen years now (supplemented by two wind-up torches). Very cheap bought in bulk, takes up little storage space, and if used sparingly (one at a time) last a long time. We use them in sconces fitted with mirrors to direct and intensify the light. The torches have not been a good experience though. Despite buying what we thought were the best (Trevor Bayliss – FREEPLAY) they have needed repairing constantly and the wind-up feature is pointless, charging should only be attempted with the USB lead via a solar/ wind source of power.
# clothes – Sufficient for all seasons and replacement, especially socks/ underwear/ shoes & work boots. A manual sewing machine (or powered by alternative energy) plus bolts of fabric would be very useful. As well as a good supply of wool & cotton to knit with.
# sewage/ grey water – This is covered on how the house works page. But always remember, NEVER dispose of anything on your land that isn’t safe enough to drink, or eventually it will come back and contaminate you.
# washing-up liquid – I haven’t found a natural replacement for this yet, so make sure what you stock up on is totally bio-degradable. We have found that most brands can be diluted by up to 1:10, which means a litre can last more than a year. Make up 500 ml of the solution at a time, in a 1 litre bottle, and when using always shake first until it becomes foam.
Apart from making sure you have enough seed/ trays/ irrigation bits & pieces/ large buckets/ and tools, including stuff to sharpen them with, the biggest consumable oddly enough is gardening gloves. I’ve tried them all and nothing lasts longer than a week (rock moving/ handling gorse). I now wear two pairs at once to try and extend it. Buy a box wholesale, you can never have enough.
# pulley & rope – Invaluable for hauling heavy stuff around.
# bicycle – A good quality mountain bike is essential. Buy enough tools and replacement bits to keep it going. A trailer is also a really good idea. Click here to see our favourite.
# In an emergency – when you have no access to drinking water, avoid dehydration simply by drinking ALL your own urine. This is not hazardous, in fact it will help if you have been injured or infected.