A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Collapse

December 29, 2008 – In change there is always opportunity, at least for those with the right attitude. In my case, preparing for the coming “collapse” has brought me full circle, and that’s a good thing.

By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond

Many of my posts on this blog are philosophical pieces, and while they often draw on my own experiences, they are not intended to be about me. This piece is about me, just to let you know.

The Idyllic Years

I grew up, like so many others, during that sweet spot of American history, the few decades between about 1950 and 1980, during which stability reigned, anyone who wanted a job could find one, a single wage earner could support a family, scarcity was not even a remote concern and economic problems were something other countries suffered. “Homelessness” first emerged as a social problem and a de-facto new socioeconomic class after 1980. Prior to that homeless people were referred to as bums, hobos and winos, the latter moniker reflecting the root cause of homelessness for many of them. It wasn’t until after 1980 that people started to become homeless in wide numbers, often for reasons uncorrelated with their own behavior.

Despite the regional wars around the planet (for which I feel ashamed of my country’s involvement) it was an idyllic era here in the United States. And like most of my peers, I indulged in and partook of that wonderful life. I traveled, partied, consumed, whored around, all the while carefree and blissfully ignorant. Well, that’s not entirely true. I was always studious as well, always reading, and regularly reading business and political magazines even in my early 20s. It may, in fact, have been my avid reading of business journals that planted the seed of knowledge deep in my brain that something was wrong with the economic model that began to emerge around 1980. I touched on one aspect of this new economic model in my recent post titled, The Myth Of The “Service Economy”, but there was even more that disturbed me, such as the increasing reliance on leverage to create the appearance of wealth, as opposed to the prior emphasis on actual production of goods to generate real wealth. As many people are now aware, excessive debt, which took root in the 1980s, is one of the chief causes of today’s economic meltdown.

Although I “lived it up” during this idyllic era and am undoubtedly the most profligate spender in my family, most others would consider me frugal! Given a choice between holding onto money or deriving some benefit from spending it, I usually choose the latter, but I’ve never been a “consumer” for the sake of consumption. I’ve never, for example, gone to a shopping mall and strolled around looking for something to buy. Whenever I’ve gone shopping it’s been to buy something specific I needed, or wanted. I also generally bought things that were useful, such as computers for my business, furniture, cookware, and so forth, and tried to buy things that could last forever. The truth is that I hate throwing things out, so the best way to avoid that is to buy things that won’t need to be thrown out.

Refurbishing And Innovating

As my means have diminished and my awareness of the coming changes has increased, I’ve returned to my roots and started refurbishing things rather than buying new things. Why, just this morning I spent half an hour repairing a thermometer that cost a mere one dollar! And this is the second time I’ve repaired this very thermometer! The first time I used contact cement to reattach the bulb to the scale. Unfortunately, the yellow color of the contact cement made the thermometer nearly impossible to read, especially for my old eyes.

$1 thermometer after second repair
$1 thermometer after second repair. Temperature has become such a sensitive issue with me that I have these scattered all over the house!

So this morning I scraped off all the contact cement and reattached the bulb using some clear tape, which works a whole lot better. Thus, I avoided generating another piece of trash – in fact, I’m not even putting out my trash can today, even though it’s trash day, because I have no trash this week – and I avoided making a trip to the store to buy a new thermometer and I avoided the expense, insignificant as it would be.

After repairing the thermometer I decided to clean my coffee roaster, which affords more than mere aesthetic benefit. When the parts are free of coffee residue the coffee beans circulate more freely and a more uniform roast is achieved. Unfortunately, while cleaning the roasting canister, shown below, it literally fell apart in my hands! Astonishingly, the glass and metal parts were held together with what appeared to be silicone rubber!

Coffee roasting canister after cleaning and repair
Coffee roasting canister after cleaning and repair

So I took it apart, scraped off the old adhesive, finished cleaning off the coffee residue, and then glued it back together with fresh silicone rubber. Instead of expending all that effort I could have called up the supplier and ordered a new part, and in the past I might have done just that. But today I’m willing to spend an hour and a half fixing something like this.

What I find interesting, and have noted before, is that refurbishing things is what I did as a child, out of necessity, because my parents weren’t the type to go out and replace things readily. So if something I owned broke, I had little choice but to fix it. Today I find myself reverting to that same behavior for much the same reason, although this time it’s me who’s refusing to buy a new replacement item.

In addition to refurbishing things, I’ve become more innovative in making use of materials I already have. For example, I had an old plastic map I wanted to hang on the wall. But instead of simply pinning it to the wall as I’ve been content to do in the past, I wanted to make it look nice, but at minimal cost. So using some wood scraps, glue and tacks I had lying around, plus $7.50 worth of fabric I purchased, I made a nice frame, as shown below.

Handmade fabric map frame
Handmade fabric map frame

The end result looks quite nice (especially if you stand some distance away and squint your eyes!), much nicer than simply pinning the map to the wall. To put the minuscule cost in perspective, I have in times past paid as much as $1,600 for a frame for a really nice antique oil painting! I wouldn’t even consider that today. I wouldn’t have spent even $20 for a frame for this map. My self-imposed austerity forced me to be innovative, a skill that people will have to increasingly develop in the future.

Finally, whereas in the past I would have promptly purchased new tennis shoes once mine wore out, today I’m content and not the least bit embarrassed to just slap another layer of duct tape on them instead!

Recognizing The Coming Collapse

Getting back to the collapse, it was around the year 2003 that I recognized that a housing bubble had formed. Having been badly burned a few years earlier when the stock market bubble burst (I recognized that bubble too, but trusted the “experts” and left my retirement money in mutual funds), I decided that I was not going to get burned again. So I spent most of the year 2003 searching the entire country for a cheap house to buy, one I could pay cash for. By that time I already recognized that our problems were deeper than a mere housing bubble and I was concerned about a number of things, including the economy as a whole, the security of my own job, and water and food issues. So I carefully selected a locale that had ample water supplies, a temperate climate and afforded me the option to grow my own food. And owning my house gave me great security in the event of losing my job. Interestingly, my fears about my job security were finally realized this year, and I’m now officially unemployed. Thank goodness I cut my living expenses in advance of my declining income instead of the other way around. It wasn’t until 2005 that I first heard the term “peak oil,” but as soon as I did I knew what it meant and immediately grasped its ramifications, and it vindicated my fears that had motivated me beginning in 2003.

Since becoming aware of peak oil in 2005 I’ve been operating more or less in “survival mode.” That’s not to say that I have panicked at all – I have not – but all my decisions are guided by thoughts about the future, particularly thoughts about basic survival. For instance, I now store bottled water – something I had never done before – and considerably more food than I did in the past. I also have several different means to keep the house warm, two of which are “off the grid,” meaning they are self-contained. I also have a plethora of tools for maintaining the house and garden and today view my own vegetable garden as an integral component of my food supply.

Another consequence of operating in “survival mode” is a change of attitude. Until recently I did not hesitate to spend money on something I wanted, such as a new computer. Today I’m far more circumspect about spending money, not because I’m hoarding money but because whatever I spend it on has to satisfy a need. I have imposed a new austerity on myself, satisfying needs and foregoing wants unless they are inexpensive, such as the occasional $5 DVD. The computer I’m composing this post on was purchased in 2002, practically an antique by computer standards.

Full Circle

I find that in a sense I’ve come full circle, to where I began life as a child. Back then I had no responsibilities, no job, no need to support myself, no dependents to support, nor any money. But I did have a house, a few possessions and food to eat, all provided by my parents, good health and an open-ended future ahead of me. Today I find myself in a similar position, though better off in several ways: I have a paid-for house, furnished with everything I could possibly need, food to eat, no job, enough money to live on for a little while, no debts, no responsibilities, good health and an open-ended future. Granted, that future will involve adversity and coping with change, but it also offers opportunity, especially to people who are in a position to be flexible and willing to adapt. In contrast to my childhood, however, I also possess knowledge, experience and wisdom. How many times have I dreamed about going back to my childhood, but retaining possession of my present knowledge, experience and wisdom? Well, I feel as if I have that opportunity right now, albeit with deeper crevasses sewn into my face.

Born Again

Planning for the “collapse” these past five years has utterly changed my life, for the better. It has weaned me off the consumerist model of living, taught me what’s important in life and what is not, learned me what is good and what mistakes to avoid, such as getting into debt. It has forced me to embrace austerity and scale down my expectations, which has taught me how to live a good life without consuming and spending. In a sense I feel as if I have been reborn, but with the wisdom and experience to “start over” and build a better life. I wish everyone could enjoy a similar awakening and renaissance in the coming years, although I know the sad reality is that most people will probably face an arduous struggle for which they are unprepared.

The End