Monday, March 17, 2014

Thoughts on the American Redoubt

One does not have to hang long in prepper/survivalist circles to come across the idea of the American Redoubt, a retreat area to which Christians* can John-Galt in preparation for the collapse.  The most famous proponent of the movement is surely James Wesley Rawles of SurvivalBlog.com (from whom I stole this graphic), though a few others advance similar ideas.  It's worth it to read through Rawles' linked piece and ponder what he's saying, for 99% of it is right on.  And like Christian Exodus and the Free State Project, both of which seek similar ends by massing like-minded people in a specific place, I wish the Redoubters well.  But I shan't be joining  the American Redoubt, and not just because the lovely and gracious Rogue is deathly allergic to pine trees.

First of all, the right stuff:

The Precepts of survivalist philosophy.  You'll likely not find anything in there to disagree with, because it's old and tried wisdom.

The idea, found throughout the 'checklist,' that local action is critical and that big-city expectations ought to be left behind. Our modern huge cities are a relic of the cheap-energy industrial age, and they are passing away.  Cheap fuel was a one-time gift to humanity, but it is likely being revoked. Time to move on. Or back, as the case may be.

The list of ways to help Atlas shrug is both insightful and cunning.  I long ago decided to emphasize reducing costs rather than increasing my income to pay those costs. I have never once lost sleep over paying too few incomes taxes.

Now, the wrong stuff:

"Expect a long driving distances(sic) for work and shopping." - I've spent a bit of time in northern Idaho and never once saw an oil refinery.  So I'm not sure how, once the market for petroleum products is significantly impacted by war, economic collapse, or peak oil, people will not be driving anywhere for anything.  As peak cheap oil really bites, I fully expect a nationalization of sorts - actually a government prioritization - whereby truckers get fuel, farmers get fuel, and drivers get, well, paper coupons.  If you have to drive a long distance to get to work, you'll likely be in a new line of work before you know it.  If you move to the Redoubt, expect to be a miner, a logger, or a subsistence farmer. Those have been the default careers in the region for a reason.

"Plains and steppes are tanker country."- a major part of the argument for living in the mountains is that the area is military defensible. Knowing nothing about military strategy, I cannot really comment on that.  But I do note that it's easier to grow crops in the same places tanks can drive. There is a reason that the mountainous areas of the world have never supported a large population density - they simply cannot. The soil is poor. Travel is difficult. Winters are brutal.** You can't organize anything larger than a clan or maybe a town. So if you're fine living in a remote mountain village with a couple other families that your kids will intermarry with for generations, that's fine.  I'm not, so much.  I prefer the plains, where tanks can move, but so can people, and where you can grow a lot of food and where you can travel by bicycle or train if necessary. The future military question will not be "Can a place be subdued?" so much as "Is that place worthwhile to occupy?" In that respect, any low-density area far from 'civilization' will likely fall into the 'not worth it' category in the government's calculations.

But all that said, I really count the American Redoubt to be anywhere between the Rockies and Appalacians, 50 miles from any city of 300k people or more. Yes, Idaho is politically conservative, but it's not more conservative than Arkansas.  Yes, Montana has lots of range land, but not much more than Nebraska. Wyoming has a low population density, but that of western Kansas and western Texas is just as low, albeit for different reasons.

I simply don't see the big problem in a nationwide SHTF scenario being the US government. I fully suspect that every soldier not stationed in Ukraine will be stationed on Long Island or in LA or Chicago.  The much-discussed FEMA camps will be full of former EBT recipients, not well-armed home gardeners from the outskirts of Sioux City or Tulsa. In short, the real problem outside the cities will be disorder that will be subdued by sheriffs and posses. That and a lack of finished goods, which people will just have to live without.  And I don't see those problems as being any smaller (or larger) in the Rockies than on the Great Plains.

And I'd rather be in a place where cattle can graze without starting avalanches, all things being equal.

* and Orthodox and Messianic Jews.
** This coming from a guy who grew up in northern Minnesota.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The SHTF Stockpile - Part IV

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
-- Robert A. Heinlein

In Part III we talked about tools, books, and barter. Today we're going to finish this series by covering three items: final thoughts on skills, stockpiling the future, and finally, what happens if you have to bug out.

10. Skills - In a real sense Heinlein is correct. While specialization makes us more productive, it can also make us brittle - it seems today that the only skills many people have is a) whatever they do at work, and b) changing the channel.*  For anything else we need to call - and pay - a specialist.  The backyard mechanic of yesteryear does not even change his own oil today - he pays someone who changes oil all day long.  Fruit that used to be gathered on the roadside is now flown in from 5000 miles away, picked by someone who picks all day long, packed by someone who packs, flown by one specialist, trucked by another, stocked on the shelves by yet another. This hyperspecialization does not bode well for a society entering a period of devolution, decentralization, and in many ways, simplification. We are going to have to do many more things ourselves.

On the other hand, specialization is a necessity - none of us can know everything, and there exists no final list of skills that one should have. For some, being able to build a fire without matches will be a lifesaver. Others might find that cooking sausage pizza over that same fire provides a perfect end to a joyful day. Concentrating on a few skills ensures we can learn them well.

You never know, and you won't ever know which ones you'll need. But in one sense you don't need to know, because you're not going to be in this alone. Individuals will not survive, communities will survive: those communities that are able to collectively apply enough skills to feed, clothe, and protect those within it. The most valuable skill of all may be the ability to find or build such a community and to make oneself irreplaceable to it. Or it might be dumb luck.

In a worst-case scenario, Americans will be thrown back to Plymouth Colony: a tiny, poor, hellhole of civilization clinging like a barnacle to a continent awash in cannibalism, rapine, and stone-age technology and religion.  Good thing for us that Americans did it before, even before they were Americans. It's a skill we have inherited: thought not all of us have it individually, it is a part of who we are. Or were until recently and can be again.

11. Stockpiling a future - humans change their environments to make life easier for themselves. All humans. It's almost comical to listen to some larval academic opine on how the Indians got along so well with nature.** The truth is that they impacted it as much as anyone, relative to their technology.  They burned the plains because they had fire, we pave them because we have asphalt.  Find a people that does not impact nature and I'll show you one that eats lice straight from their children's hair.

But how we impact it - how we will impact it in the future - is something we need to plan. We have stockpiled tools, we have stockpiled skills, now we have to stockpile the future. We do that by modifying our environment to the best of our ability and with an eye toward future production.  Dig a pond, plant apple trees, mulch leaves into the soil instead of trucking them away. This is not meant to appease the gods of carbon neutrality, but to help the ground produce for us - and in the case of trees, for our kids.  It's to apply the hard-learned lessons of the generations who starved before us, who through painful trial and fatal error passed to us the secrets of making the land feed us well.  We have collectively spent the last 50 years stripmining the land, pouring chemicals into the ground instead of knowledge.  If and when the end comes for trucking and shipping and flying the results of that petroleum-based process all over God's green earth, we will collectively grow a lot less food.*** That means we will individually need to grow more food. And that means that wherever we decide to bug in, we need to get to work today to make that land more productive in an authentically sustainable**** way.

12. Bugging out. Throughout this entire series, I have consciously avoided addressing the first thing most preppers address: bugging out.  And I've done this because I think bugging out is most people's excuse for not doing any real preparation.  I fully realize there are some who cannot bug in - as Huck so clearly explained, the City of Angels is never the right hill to die on.  Depending upon what kind of disaster we might face, even the dug-in prepper may have to bug out.  If Wolf Creek should do a Fukashima for some reason, old El B will have to head north. But just how far north, and by what route, he already knows.

But there are are two final thoughts to keep in mind when one is forced - absolutely forced - to bug out.  First of all, you are going to someplace specific, some place that can (and must) support you. That means you have no excuse not to prepare that place ahead of time. Everything that can be done in a bug-in location can be done in a bug-out one. In fact, it must be.  It's no better to starve on a mountaintop than on the plains.

Secondly, when you bug out, you'll be extremely limited in the physical items you can bring - in a real SHTF scenario, anyone who is seen carrying or hauling anything will be the first victim of ad hoc asset-gathering co-operatives.  If you think you're going to drive through St. Louis with a U-haul full of canned goods, you might want to revisit that assumption.  Our highways go through cities. In an SHTF situation, very little else will.

Your water takes up space. Books take up space. Tools take up space.  But your skills take up no space at all. They take no effort to carry. They cannot be stolen. They will arrive anywhere you arrive.  And if you can get to your redoubt with your skills intact and your tools waiting, you'll have as good a chance to survive as anyone.

Part III
Part II
Part I

* not including programming the VCR.
** He'll also bemoan how we don't, right before getting into his car and driving on paved roads back to his subdivision, built atop one of their cemeteries.
*** Sorry about that population overshoot, Africa and India.
**** have I mentioned how much I hate that euphemism for pretentious treehuggung? Our 'sustainable' campus is one where we recycle plastic bottles but use a fleet of propane-powered bobcats to move snow piles that will melt by themselves within the week.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The SHTF Stockpile – Part III

In Part II, we talked about guns and gold, and about assuming a producer mindset rather than a consumer one. We want to be people who produce what we consume, not those who consume all we’ve saved. Today we’re going to talk about how to expand that idea beyond ammunition and branch out into a broader area: hand tools, our how-to library, and barter items for SHTF.

7. Hand tools – These are wire cutters, pliers, wrenches, hammers, alan wrenches, axes, saws, and other woodworking tools, even coffee cans full of (straight) nails. Try to get your hands on as many different types in as good a condition as possible, especially tools for maintaining tools, like whetstones, files, and maybe an old jar of grease. Hand tools are available for next to nothing from the usual haunts (auctions, estate sales, ebay) and when organized properly take up relatively little space. Here are a few strategies for making the most of your hand tools:

a. Inventory all of your tools that need electricity (including batteries) to run, like band saws, electric screwdrivers, and the like. You will need to plan to replace each of these with hand tools. This need not be a 1-for-1 replacement, as losing the power drill may mean going to a hand drill, but it might also mean using nails rather than screws in large building projects. Think through the options for each tool. There is no one solution.

b. You can never have too many screwdrivers. This is not because you’ll have more and different screws in the future, but because they can be made into other tools, like leather punches, gunsmithing tools, locksmithing tools, digging or prying tools, even weapons. A plastic handle attached to a steel bar is an amazingly useful thing.

c. Squirrel away extras of parts that will wear out, like razor blades for xacto knives, hammer handles, saw blades. Even the best tools do not last forever, and the loss of the weakest part can make the whole tool all but useless. Spare parts will be worth their weight in gold.

d. Go build something. Build a bird house or a garden gate or plumb a sink using only your hand tools. Which ones work? Which ones suck? The time to make choices about tools is today while you can still get replacements or upgrades. If markets are interrupted for a significant period, what you have to work with now might be all you have to work with for years to come.

8. Books – Now is the time to develop a how-to library, including (and perhaps especially) how to do things you never thought of doing. However, don’t bother with ‘survival’ books. The idea of bugging out to live in some Idaho state forest with a K-Bar knife in one hand and a how-to book in the other is for fools. If you get shot by a French-Canadian fur trapper before you starve to death you’ll be lucky.

Instead, pick up books on gardening, bicycle repair, building a smoke house, gunsmithing, composting, or home canning – actual skills that people who live in one place might* need. Books need not be new: a 50-year-old field guide on how to identify wild plants is just as good as a new one - evolution or not, poison sumac and trumpet king mushrooms still look the same as they did in the 60s. Crop rotation works the same way today as was described in the Victory Garden Handbook of WWII.

In the near future we will not be mining the soil year after year, while covering the sin of non-rotation with petroleum-based fertilizer. The way we are going to produce is not just going to change; it’s going to change back a century. So now is the time to put the accumulated knowledge of last century’s gardeners and craftsmen where you can get your hands on it before it passes beyond our reach. Your local thrift store is likely bursting with such titles. If not, many can be had on Amazon for $4 – a penny for the book and $3.99 to ship it. Plenty can be downloaded for free and simply printed.

The truth is, no matter how much you know, you cannot remember everything, and in the future you may not be able to Google anything.  If it turns out you don't need a book, chances are someone else will, so you can always trade it away. Speaking of which...

9. Real barter items – Forget extra toilet paper. If you have done the prior steps, you will already have a veritable smorgasbord of barter items that will serve you well in any scenario. You’ll have tools, you’ll have information, you’ll be manufacturing consumables like food or ammunition or feather pillows. You might even be making other tools to trade.

One rule to ensure that you do not eat your seed corn, so to speak: never trade a tool for anything other than another tool. Manufactures and consumables can be traded or sold, but your tools, like your seed corn, are tomorrow’s harvest. They must be preserved for tomorrow, even at the cost of significant suffering today.

If you still don’t feel right going into SHTF without some good old-fashioned consumer goods to trade, I would suggest you limit them to pocket knives, small mirrors, sandpaper, led flashlights, razor blades, items that take up very little space and are hard to produce by hand. You can get used pocket knives for $1 each in bulk,** so get a box and put them away.

I promised we would find a way to make Al Gore happy, but that will just have to wait until the next (and perhaps final) segment.

Part I
Part II
Part IV

* "might" is the crucial word here.  Just because you can't imagine preserving beaver pelts using smashed brains as a preservative doesn't mean no one will want to learn to do it.  Expand your mind a little.
** TSA seems to have an unlimited supply of them for some reason, and they end up on ebay.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The SHTF Stockpile - Part II

In Part I we discussed why storing certain items in preparation for an SHTF scenario is not only useless, but can actually retard* your true readiness, either by taking up too much space or by buttressing the incorrect assumption that normal life can go on indefinitely via stored consumer goods.

That’s an interesting word, consumer. We see it in the latest survey of consumer confidence. We read Consumer Reports magazine. We are told that consumers are what make the economy run. “Consumer” is a word that’s applied to each of us, every day, in our modern consumer culture, and we assume that it’s a good thing. After all, it’s us.

But have you ever really thought about what the word means? To consume is to eat or drink, to use up, to destroy. Therefore a consumer is an eater, a user, a destroyer. When we consume, we use up what we have, and when that is gone, we are broke and hungry. Hoarding consumer goods simply delays the inevitable, but the inevitable comes nonetheless – if you store consumer goods you will eventually consume them all. That's what they are designed for. It's what they do.

We all need to consume – after all we must eat to live. But to successfully prepare, it is necessary to look at our stored goods in a whole new way. Rather than seeing things to be consumed, we need to see them as tools whereby we can produce the things we need to consume. That is the difference in mindset between a consumer and a producer.

A producer still consumes, but when he has consumed, he is neither broke nor hungry. In fact, if he produces enough, he can feed others and grow rich at the same time. So for the remainder of this series, rather than looking to store things we’ll consume, we are going to look at methods of capital accumulation, which is the basis of production.

With that in mind, let’s move on to the next group of items to add to our SHTF stockpile: gold and guns.

4. Shooting-related tools. It’s a fine idea to store ammunition for your guns. It’s a better mindset to gather the tools that will allow you to produce ammunition for them. Those tools might be as simple as an aluminum bullet mold or as complex as a progressive reloading press. Spent brass, a swage press, top punches, reloading and swage dies, cast iron pots, and high-temperature utensils are all capital that can be accumulated with the goal of producing ammunition rather than consuming it. It cannot be done completely, perhaps: unless you have a way to produce primers you’ll still need to buy them with an eye toward consumption. But every item you have the tools and knowledge to produce is one less item you'll need to store.  Again, learning to use your tools is critical – unless you are buying them simply for trade (not a bad idea, either) you should be growing more comfortable and competent with them by using them regularly.

5. Trapping-related tools. Unless you expect to use your guns to hold off zombies, you’ll probably be using them to supplement your garden’s bounty. But there are other ways to harvest small game than using up your valuable ammunition, like by trapping and fishing. Fishing tools are almost too simple to enumerate, but for the sake of completeness, we’ll add fishing rods, line, hooks in various sizes, jig heads. Plastic lures are fine in the short term, but do not expect to be able to replace your Hula Popper in a grid-down scenario. Stock up on hooks and learn to dig worms. Small game like squirrels, rabbits, and possums can be captured using live traps and steel leg/foot traps ($4 each on ebay), or snared using good old picture wire. Grab a few rolls (plain wire, not vinyl covered) at Wal Mart while you can. Just be careful with traps where pets are present.

 6. Gold. At last, the prepper’s dream metal. “God, guns, and gold” – these are what we are told the prepper needs. I agree, and place them in that order, but while gold will excel as financial capital under certain scenarios (e.g. hyperinflation in a producing economy) there are others where it is all but useless. The problem is not that gold will have no value – it will in fact have so much value that you are trapped with it: there may simply be nothing available to trade it for. So in addition to gold, accumulate some capital metals in the following forms as well:

a. Silver – Old coins, mostly, though “rounds” and bars are fine. The idea is to have a small-value currency that you can trade for small items.

b. Lead – an incredibly useful metal for making bullets, sinkers, and weights of all sorts. Old wheel weights are probably the easiest way to accumulate some. A 5 gallon bucket will cost $40 and will last your whole life most likely, unless you produce bullets and sinkers for others.

c. Copper (including brass and bronze) – probably too demanding for the home foundry, but these metals are useful enough that they will always have a trade value. The best source is pre-1982 pennies, followed by copper pipes and plumbing-related fixtures, electrical wiring, and the like. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, while bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. Learn to distinguish them.

d. Nickel – a useful metal that you will definitely not be working at home. But like copper, it will always be valuable because someone will figure out a way to work it. Best source – nickel coins, which are actually a 25/75 nickel/copper alloy. The best part is that you can always spend the coin if you don’t need it.

e. Tin – one metal you’ll need if you decide to produce rifle bullets. Mixed with lead it produces a harder, lighter alloy. Best source – soldering wire or bars. Though oddly enough, old organ pipes can be 50-100% tin. It can be easily melted into bars for convenient storage.

f. Zinc - Generally used for industrial applications like galvanizing, it is also used for making brass. Best source – post-1982 pennies, which have a pure a zinc core. A number of states have banned lead in wheel weights, so a few of the wheel weights in your bucket will probably be zinc as well. With a melt temperature of ~800f, zinc can be melted into bars, but be sure to keep them separate from your lead - a mixture of the two will ruin both.

In Part III we will cover hand tools and barter items, and how you can make Al Gore happy. Here’s to hoping it all holds together until tomorrow…

Part I
Part III
Part IV

* h/t Huck

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The SHTF Stockpile – Part I

The internets are full of lists detailing what the prepper ought to stockpile in order to survive and even thrive in a SHTF scenario. However, most of them fundamentally misrepresent the nature of SHTF and can cause you to waste precious money (and more importantly, limited space) stockpiling items that you don’t really need.

One example is toilet paper, which finds a lofty position on many lists, both as a stock item and a trade item. There is quite possibly not a worse item to stock in terms of storage space consumed. No one wants to live without toilet paper, but then again no one wants to live without electricity, internet, Wal Mart, or Wrestlemania, either. That's not really going to be a choice we'll make as individuals.

Stocking toilet paper gives the impression that things can go on as they always have – a mindset the prepper has to consciously shuck. It will run out at some point and then you’ll have to switch to a backup plan. Best to devise and implement a backup plan early – whether square-cut rags or Sears catalogs – and save a closet full of space today. Yes, stock a little toilet paper, a few boxes of tampons, some batteries. But realize these are transition items, not survival items.

The same can be said for long-term storage food. It is simply not enough to buy a collection of #10 cans full of freeze-dried green beans and call it a day. Not because they won’t last, but because you can’t eat it. “Of course I can,” you say. Then why aren’t you eating them now? There are many reasons, but two of them are that they taste like crap and that they stop you up. Guess what? In an SHTF scenario they are still going to taste like that and they are still going to constipate you, except then your body will be stressed so you’ll probably get sick as well. So if you’re not going to work them into your diet today – which you should if you have them, but probably won’t – then don’t rely on them for the future. Like TP, stored food is a transition item.

Instead of perishables and items that will be quickly consumed, the areas where the prepper ought to concentrate are simple: tools and skills. The former because an SHTF scenario is one in which tools will be unavailable via trade for some time, the latter because life is going to change, so best to get a jump on things.

So with all that intro, let's begin the big list of items for your SHTF stockpile:

1. Food preparation tools. These are the cheapest and most plentiful (today) of all the tools you'll need. Used can openers, spatulas, and cutlery are available for almost nothing at garage sales and estate auctions. Think about what items you use in food preparation, and most importantly, which ones break. Also ponder how many you can store in the space demanded by one case of toilet paper.  Don't forget a few nut crackers and maybe a cleaver as well. Choose metal over plastic and cast iron over teflon-coated aluminum. Your mindset should be, whenever possible, to buy tools that will outlive you.

2. Food storage tools. Rather than storing a bunch of canned goods, accumulate tools that will allow you to can those goods yourself. These include pressure canners and canning jars in various sizes, rings and lids, and even dried canning mixes (pickling spices, salsa mix). Then practice with them. Instead of throwing away the turkey remains, turn them into turkey soup and can it like your grandmother did. Make jellies and chutneys where possible. Not only will you eat better, you can reduce your food costs significantly by buying when items are cheap and preserving them yourself. A dehydrator, grain mill, and meat grinder will also prove invaluable. Again, use your tools - it's the only way you will become competent and comfortable with them.

3. Food production tools. Plant a small garden, even if it's in your kitchen window.  Plant some herbs, plant some perennials, plant some berry bushes and tomatoes and maybe some peppers along the side of your house. The point of planting a garden at first is not for food - that's just a side benefit while cantaloupe is still being flown in from Chile every day. The objective is to learn how to plant one, to learn what tools you'll need, to discover what you like and what works for you. Whether SHTF comes in the form of peak cheap oil or an EMP, a financial collapse or a pandemic, the future is going to demand much more human labor in the production of food, and it will be produced much closer to where it is consumed.  Learn to do it while mistakes are cost-free.  Then stockpile extras of whatever tools you use.

In Part II we’ll take a look at gold and guns, with related tool and skill preps.

Part II
Part III
Part IV