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Carl Etnier: Survival 101

Carl Etnier – Published: September 14, 2008

Can a young person risk going to college these days?_ That’s a question nagging me after reading Zachary Nowak’s “Crash Course: Preparing for Peak Oil.” Nowak urges us to apply home-insurance reasoning to a future with less energy. Homeowners generally think the likelihood of their house burning down is tiny, but they pay thousands of dollars to have the resources for rebuilding in case it is destroyed by fire.

Similarly, Nowak exhorts his readers to prepare for severe impacts of peak oil. Not just the end of cheap oil, but the end of oil in any meaningful quantities. We now eat food and use goods from all over the world; prepare for a world in which the ships stop steaming and the trucks stop rolling.

How dependent are we on global trade? Consider the buttons on your shirts. According to a National Public Radio report, 60 percent of the world’s buttons are manufactured in a single Chinese city, Qiaotou. At a more fundamental level, around 95 percent of what we eat in Vermont is shipped in from out of state.

While Nowak doesn’t argue that rapid collapse of long-distance trade is the most likely future scenario, he says it’s possible. If it comes to pass, we will need a lot of skills that aren’t taught on the soccer fields of suburbia.

If you’re 18 and college-bound, you may be skilled at computers and driving a car; know how to take the second derivative of a quadratic equation in calculus and have learned about electron orbits in chemistry; and may be able to discuss Shakespeare and “To Kill a Mockingbird” intelligently. But do you know how to kill and dress a chicken, or find and prepare wild edible plants in every season, or keep a goat healthy so it produces milk and meat?

According to “Crash Course,” Course,” other skills needed for an oil crash include finding a safe piece of land to live on, building or renovating buildings that incorporate renewable energy and local water sources, staying well and healing yourself when sick.

If an oil crash lies ahead, it’s not clear how much time is left before the discomfort of $4-a-gallon gasoline and $5-a-gallon heating oil gives way to liquid fuels being unavailable at any price. Once the dynamics of a crash are in place, small events can lead to rapid changes. Look at the last century’s descent into the Great Depression, the outbreak of two world wars or the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Most college studies don’t teach skills needed to survive in a post-crash world. And for most people, going to college means going into debt. Is it wise to use precious time and money turning in homework assignments and writing term papers when there’s so much to learn about how to survive in case grocery stores close down before you graduate?

Nowak spent four years in college studying subjects not requiring any dirt under his fingernails: history and modern foreign languages. I interviewed him on one of my radio shows recently and asked him whether he’d recommend college today. Now 31, he said, “College, in my mind, is a big question mark. I’m not sure I’d decide to go if I were 18 years old.”

To those who decide to go to college, he said,

“At least use your free time to learn some practical skills. It’s not hard now. Colleges are pretty neat places with a lot of opportunities. Learn how to can (food), learn how to use an ax, learn more about horticulture and forest gardening. I think those are great things to learn about. There are some majors that might accommodate that. Environmental science might be one of them.”

As Nowak points out, the choice is not black and white, not one of going to college and preparing for life in an energy-rich world versus moving into the countryside and immediately trying to live off the land. Colleges like Sterling College in Craftsbury Common teach sustainable agriculture. Students learn to plow with draft horses, design a greenhouse for long-season production in snowy Vermont and pump water with solar panels. Vermont Technical College has a sustainability program, and there are numerous other examples in this state alone.

It’s also possible to study a college field designed for an energy-rich world and tailor the studies to an energy-poor future. In engineering, for example, there are people like Massachusetts Institute of Technology senior lecturer Amy Smith, who teaches low-tech design. (One of her prime design rules for her students is, “Try living for a week on $2 a day.” It encourages creativity.) In nursing or medicine, complementary studies include clinical herbalism, massage therapy, advanced nutrition and other approaches that don’t rely on industrial medicine.

Students can use their summers – or take a year off before college or during college – to work on a farm, learn to install solar hot water heaters or work with a local forester.

Of course, many of the most useful skills for surviving a crash are rarely explicitly taught and difficult to pick up from books. Sharon Astyk, whose reading of the peak oil tea leaves led her to quit a doctoral program in literature to homestead with her family in upstate New York, has compiled a list of skills that she calls, tongue in cheek,

“Everything you need to know, in order.”

The top three are “how not to panic,” “how to learn things – and how to teach them” and “how to get along with everyone else.”

Though it is written for survival in individual emergencies, Laurence Gonzales’ book “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why,” also emphasizes skills that are not directly teachable. Gonzales describes a “survivor’s frame of mind,” which includes such habits as paying attention to what is really happening (as opposed to what you expect to find), not hurrying and being humble.

What about possible missed opportunities from forgoing college, if the transition to a low-energy world is smooth, rather than a crash, or still decades in the future?

Interesting professional opportunities are available (if not abundant) even for those without typical credentials or education. Vermont Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Skoglund never went to law school. Samuel R. Delaney dropped out of college after a semester or two and went on to write best-selling science fiction books and to teach literature in colleges, including at least one Ivy League university. George Lisi, the naturalist at Wisdom of the Herbs School in Woodbury, is a self-described “junior high school dropout” who has received grant funding for bird research and taught at Community College of Vermont.

There’s also the option of going to college later, after some years spent learning practical skills. That’s a path my wife has followed.

When I first met her, Diana was 19 and an evangelical college dropout. She’d realized during her sophomore year that she was in college with no particular plan, and she decided she was wasting time and money. She quit school to learn farming through a series of apprenticeships and told every college student she met how happy she was with her decision.

After some years, however, she had identified a body of knowledge she thought would make her a better farmer, so she completed a degree in sustainable agriculture. (After years of farming, she’s now on a different career path and, many graduate courses later, has just become a registered nurse.)

Like Nowak, I don’t know what I would do if I were 18 again. When I left high school in 1981, the back-to-the-land movement was full of people who were trying to carve out a niche to survive a crash. I went to college and even got an advanced degree, and so far no crash has occurred. In the meantime, some of the back-to-the-landers have taught me skills I didn’t learn in college, and they have kept local economies and rural skills alive. I’m grateful for that.

In 2008, we’re closer to some sort of energy transition than when I graduated from high school. For today’s 18-year-old or 70-year-old, skills learned now could have survival value in a relatively short time.

[Source Carl Etnier, director of Peak _Oil Awareness, blogs at and hosts _radio shows on WGDR, _91.1 FM, Plainfield and WDEV, 96.1 FM/550 AM, Water-_bury. He can be reached at]