Friday, January 27, 2012

21 Days and Counting

I could hardly resist buying and reading a book titled Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs. It falls into that happy category I call "train reading": engaging enough to hold my attention at the beginnings and ends of work days, but not so demanding that I can't break off from it when I have to change trains or start walking.

The author, Wendy Brown, is a writer and homeschooler living in New England.

The premise of the book is straightforward: imagine you live in a house in the American suburbs, and you learn that the world as we know it will end in 21 days. "It does not mean that life will cease to exist," Brown clarifies, "and it does not mean that humans will be obliterated from the Earth" (p.9).  Rather, it means the social and technological systems on which we have come to depend will simply and abruptly stop working.
Twenty-one days from right now, it will happen overnight. Just like that. The light switch goes off . . . and does not come back on. The grocery store shelves are mostly bare, and the manager just doesn't know when . . . or if . .  the next supply truck will arrive. The gas station does not have lines, because there is simply no gasoline on most days, and when there is some available, it sells out before a line can even form. The tap is dry. The power grid has collapsed. Blackouts are the norm, and having electricity is an anomaly. No Internet, no cable, no cellphones. (p.9).
Now, Brown is not presenting this as a serious possibility, but as a (blog-inspired) thought experiment: given that you're stuck in the suburbs - a landscape more than any other abjectly dependent on the smooth and ceaseless functioning complex technological systems -  how could you prepare yourself and your family to survive or, indeed, to thrive?

It's an intriguing experiment, one that can be a spur to imagine the scope and the fragility of the systems on which we are, in fact, dependent, and to imagine alternatives that might have us living more adaptably, closer to the ground, as it were. On the other hand, even though I have read only the first few chapters, the experiment is problematic on a number of counts, and may do more to foster resignation than hope.

The most positive aspect of the book comes out toward the end of the preface: Brown is urging us to notice the degree to which we take for granted the systems by which we meet our basic needs.
For many of us, the ability to take care of ourselves without the modern conveniences we have come to take for granted is seriously lacking. The problem is that we just do not think about those kinds of things until it is too late. We do not think about what we will do in the event of a winter power outage until we wake up and the lights do not come on at the flick of a switch (p.11).
She gives the example of a crippling winter storm that hit the Northeast (U.S.) in 2008, which resulted, among other things, in widespread power outages that lasted for days.
Think about it. The key to most modern people's health and comfort is the spark that is carried through a wire that is suspended 20 feet into the air . . . and just hanging there, vulnerable to wind, rain, ice, snow, downed trees and bad drivers . . .

The point is that our survival is often dependent on an incredibly unreliable and fragile system.

And we do not even acknowledge it - probably, because most of us do not think there is anything we can do about it.

But there is (pp. 11-12).
So, there it is: systems imagination leading to an awareness of the fragility of those systems and our own vulnerability in being dependent on them . . . but also conjoined with hope and purpose: we have it in our power to do something.

The book is divided into 21 chapters, each purporting to give instructions for preparing for the impending (hypothetical) apocalypse. Although I've only read the first few chapters, I can already see the "21 Days and Counting" conceit really does not hold up very well.

Of course, that isn't really the purpose of the book. Whether we have 21 days, 21 months, 21 years, or 21 centuries, many of the ideas in the book are worthy of consideration on their own merits . . . but may be quite problematic on their merits, either because they would only make sense if we really did believe the end was at hand, or because they might distract us from more comprehensive solutions to the problems of vulnerability and technological lock-in.

To her credit, Brown divides and prioritizes tasks quite reasonably. Start with shelter, then move on to water, fire, food . . . and so on. Less pressing concerns, like entertainment, are put off for later chapters, closer to the end of all things. "Networking" is among these later, presumably peripheral concerns, which raises a particular doubt in my mind.

In the first chapter, the author considers shelter. The premise of the book is that the reader already lives in a single-family house in the suburbs, which is not, on the face of it, the most sustainable setting possible. Her advice? If the end is coming, stay put. A large house and suburban yard will be an asset.

The practical steps to take on Day 1 include paying off your mortgage and making sure your house is well insulated and in good repair.

On Day 1.


Already, the "21 Days" conceit is bursting at the seams. This is not something anyone could reasonably do in a day.

Of course, the timing isn't really the issue here. Take a month, or a week, or a year, the author is really saying, but make this a priority. Make sure you have shelter when worse comes to worst.

Except that, if the apocalypse isn't coming right away, if it's 21 months or 21 years away, is this really the best use of resources? And what if we can't be sure the apocalypse is coming at all, at least not in the abrupt, "lights out" fashion assumed here?

Maybe a better response would be a broader, more coordinated approach to retrofitting suburban landscapes, to make them more sustainable and more livable right now. Such efforts will not be aided by individual homeowners hunkering down in their private bunkers, unwilling to consider other possible ways of living because they are convinced the end is nigh.

But that, too, goes beyond the scope of the thought experiment here, which is focused entirely on individuals and nuclear families making provision for their own survival.

In short, the whole enterprise here reeks of rugged individualism and the ideology of self-sufficiency. There is some merit in this, perhaps, in the face of a real and unfolding calamity.

But there's also merit in considering whether and to what extent cooperation and coordination at the community level, and perhaps at broader levels of social and political organization, could not only make it easier to prepare for a crisis, but also help to prevent the crisis or, at least, prevent the worst of the crisis.

The myopic individualism of survivalists and "thrivalists" (as Brown styles herself) is more plainly evident on Day 2, when attention turns to securing a water supply.

On Day 2, you should make arrangements for filtering or otherwise purifying water for drinking and cooking, then either install rain barrels, dig or drill a well with a hand pump or, best of all, install an underground cistern.

On Day 2.


Again, this is not the work of a day, or even a week. It's also not clear where the money is supposed to come from to pay for having a well drilled or a cistern installed, given that you paid off the balance of your mortgage and had all the windows and doors in your house replaced (pp.22-23) just yesterday.

More than this, as the author begins to recognize, these solutions all depend critically on local hydrology. Not all of them will work in all places, and there are places (e.g., Phoenix) where none of them may work.

Imagine I lived a suburban neighborhood in a region with accessible ground water. I drill a well and install a hand pump. My neighbor drills a well and installs a hand pump. Her neighbor drills a well . . . and so on. My well goes dry, because of the draw-down from neighboring wells. So, I drill my well deeper. Then my neighbor drills her well deeper . . . and so on.

The well solution works only if my family is the only one to do it.

Cisterns may work out better, and I've visited at least one place (Bermuda) where private cisterns were the rule, given the lack of useable ground water and of the geological formations to support public reservoirs. But, again, rain falling on my own property might not be enough to meet my family's needs, especially if rainfall patterns begin to shift in the wake of climate change.

More than this, Brown seems to be evading the larger issue. In many times and places, there is good reason to opt for a coordinated, public solution to the problem of access to water.

I've read that, in many a hastily-built post-war suburb, the combination of wells and septic tanks did not work out to the benefit of residents, with taps sometimes issuing a frothy brown liquid rather than clean water. Even in neighborhoods with sanitary sewers, that sanitation system will presumably break down with the rest of the infrastructure of civilization, so the cleanliness of ground water cannot be taken for granted.

New York City developed its elaborate system of reservoirs and aqueducts, in part, in reaction to the problems inherent with using well water in a populated area with no public sanitation, including outbreaks of cholera.

So, perhaps the residents of a particular subdivision could have a communal well, with some system for allocating water resources, combined with a system for dealing with waste water.

But that assumes the residents of that subdivision all know one another, and are willing and able to organize themselves for action.

Maybe that should be the instruction for Day 1: Meet your neighbors! The instruction for Day 2 could then be: Get organized! Divide up the labor!

I really don't want to fault Brown too much for the shortcomings of the book (so far). Her imagination for systems goes farther than many.

What would benefit a project like hers is a further extension and refinement of that imagination, to include the interactions of systems and problems of impacts of private action at larger scales. With this would come a degree of political imagination, looking for solutions that depend on social cooperation and coordination rather than, or in addition to, private initiative.

I've been reading The Republic for a political philosophy class I'm teaching this semester. It's notable that, when Plato turns to his outline of an ideal city, he begins with the provision of the most basic needs . . . but almost immediately introduces a division of labor among the people in the small village with which he begins.

Here's an idea for a book: It Takes a Village to Survive the Apocalypse.

Brown, Wendy. 2011. Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs: The Thrivalist's Guide to Life Without Oil. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers. 


Deus Ex Machina said...


You are, perhaps, the first reviewer to really understand that this is truly a thought exercise aimed at prodding the "average" person to think about our reliance on these systems. There is no expectation that any one of these 21 chapters could be completed in a single day. Although, while you may not be able to build a complete garden in a day, you can plan one and purchase the seeds. You will find, as you read further through the book, that it encourages further thought, planning, and research. She expects that the reader will continue to explore each topic on a more personal level to find what works, personally, and what does not. As you have pointed out, there is no one solution for all of the individuals in our society.

Wendy approaches the exercise from a traditional "prepper" mindset, which differs from your, seemingly, sustainable urban cities mindset. Her intent was really to try to bridge the philosophies. We do not all need to have "bug out bags" and 50 acres of rural land to hole up in. We, also, can not all band together to form eco-villages and communes. As such, your particular prioritization of each topic is equally valid. The order she has chosen was based on, at least for the initial chapters, the generally accepted, basic survival needs (shelter, water, fire, food) and builds out from there.

anamika singh said...
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