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Texas Al: Modern Don Qixote! (non fiction)

Texas Al
A while ago I started reading about the Peak Oil problem, and started thinking a lot about disasters in general. I had to face an uncomfortable reality...

I am an urban geek with no hands-on skills whatsoever and in the absence of computers, electricity, supermarkets, and a thousand other amenities of high-tech civilization, I would be utterly and totally helpless and everything I know would be utterly and totally useless.

This was almost a year ago, January of 2005. Long before New Orleans, but that disaster seemed like God making my point for me: if you don't have a plan (a REAL plan, not the one about some superhuman commando version of you holed up in a basement with an M16 and five years worth of MREs) your life is going to suck if the civilization you're utterly dependent on suddenly goes away, even for a brief period of time.

So I set about figuring out what the minimal things I need are, and how to get them on my own. And while I was learning, I figured I'd try to teach others, so they would know it too. The more self-sufficiency knowledge there is out among the general population, the safer and stabler society is for everyone.

Obviously food and water are the first problems. But a lot of people know how to grow food and purify water. Furthermore, it's relatively cheap to stock up on food that lasts practically forever (and not freaking MREs, people-- $0.50 canned vegetables, for chrissakes). The next problem is energy. That breaks down into two sub-problems-- energy for transport and energy for stationary uses. The last problem is being able to manufacture tools with which to make/repair other tools.

By the time I'm done with my project, I will have solutions for each of these problems.

Food = learn to garden, stockpile a growing season or two worth of canned food
Water = learn to build a solar powered distiller
Transport = buy a diesel-powered vehicle, learn to make vegetable-oil biodiesel
Manufacture = buy David & Vincent Gingery's series of books about metal-casting and machining, and follow the instructions to build a lathe and a milling machine
Stationary Energy = use Hugh Piggott's online plans to build a wind-powered electrical generator

I picked the electrical generator as the first project. In the process of building one, you end up learning some carpentry, some physics, some electronics, and some welding. Furthermore, without electrically powered tools, anything else you might want to build will take ten times as long. I figure I can bootstrap the rest of the stuff on my list once I have power tools.
Texas Al
So for the first few months we met once a month at my house and just brainstormed what the hell to do. One of the meetings I announced as the "appliance hunt" and told people to bring in old appliances they didn't want, and that we would tear them apart to collect magnets, transformers, and any other useful internal components that we could repurpose for our projects. At the time it looked like we needed a "real" workspace and my tiny condo in the city just wasn't going to cut it.

I met a man whom I'll call EG at a meeting of the local Libertarian Party. He had a couple of acres of semi-developed land that used to be a trailer park, and for a while we thought we had our workshop. I bought a bunch of tools (many of them at the $1 store, you'd be amazed what kinds of gems you could find there). I moved the tools to one of the buildings on his property and we had maybe two meetings there. However, he was having problems with city inspectors unrelated to our activities, but we all felt it would be best for the group not to complicate his situation. Luckily there was a lady named CG in our group by then who offered to let us use her farm, about 30 minutes from the city.

Now, CG has a real green thumb, and she was teaching us how to garden. One of the most memorable lessons I learned about gardening in our part of Texas is that it's backbreaking work. The soil is very rocky, and you're going to need a crowbar and sledge hammer to break up some of the rocks down there if you want soil deep enough to plant most types of vegetables. But it was very inspiring and wholesome. I loved looking at the garden that she had already set up-- it was like an edible jungle in there. Solid leaves, branches, and veggies, with chickenwire enclosing the sides and top to keep out animals.

We started meeting twice a month. At one meeting she would teach us about agriculture and at the other one I'd "teach" us about building windmills. Which I myself new nothing about, and was figuring it out as we went along.

The problem was, this was a 30 minute drive from town each way, and I never really had enough time there to figure stuff out before people would start showing up and I had to give them something to do. We were making slow progress-- one or two pages worth of the windmill plans per month. Finally, CG got irritated that people were relying on her to supply not only the space but also the tools and our general uselessness. As she put it, some of the people showing up were just doing it to socialize. At the time I was like "Oh great, now I have this to worry about as well". But it was good. It got me off my ass. This was in November. A few days after I had this conversation with CG I went to Harbor Freight and bought like $300 worth of power tools-- a jigsaw, a circular saw, and a drill. Harbor Freight is a great place for cheap tools, too bad all that stuff is imported, but I did what I had to... when I have the money to only buy domestic, I will.

At the end of the November meeting, I piled the tools I bought, and all the stuff I brought over from EG's property into my car and took it home. I decided that I had enough screwing around with remote sites. I would figure out a way to convert my condo to a workshop without trashing it and ruining its resale value, and I would hold the meetings there again. Where I would have all month to perpare, try stuff out, and have something coherent to present to the folks when they came over.

I also figured out how we're going to raise money for this thing. Now, this is still most likely going to be a non-profit, but it would at least be nice to recover the costs of building these things. But I'll save that for the next chapter.
Texas Al,
That's interesting stuff. I'm curious to know how your life, and your perspective has changed through all of this?
A few years back, when everyone was all in a panic about Y2K, we did some thinking on this subject, too.
But I don't live in a city, and a lot of things that some people would consider "emergency self-sufficiency measures" are just a way of life for my family... so we weren't ever worried.
Most of our hobbies involve "self-sufficiency" Our current project is learning to tan hides and work with the leather and fur. Although we currently live in town, and therefore don't have livestock, everyone in my family can hunt, dress an animal, and prepare the meat... although this of course, isn't necessary in the summer months.
We enjoy gardening, spinning wool, sewing, woodworking, gathering and preserving wild food plants... and so-on. Of course, we only have so much time to spend on these things. Our lives, like everyone elses, revolve around going to work, paying the bills, and (for me) spending hours and hours daily on the computer.
It sounds strange to some people, I guess. But to us, it sounds strange to hear people think of learning these skills because they "have" to and not because they want to.
If we had a societal melt down, we'd miss the electricity, but could comfortably do without, for long enough to build an alternative. We'd be most concerned about a clean water supply (which we have now, but you're talking what if) and staying warm. (We'd have to stay with neighbours, who have a wood stove, I guess?) Especially staying warm. (And would transportation be an issue... would you need to travel great distances, or do you just mean short term... it wouldn't be a problem here, lot's of people have horses, bikes, canoes.)
And people would mostly pull together and help one another with the skills and resources they had, don't you think? I'm sure that would happen in my community? What about yours?
ANyways, I think it's a fascinating subject. But it sounds like you're in a very different place than I am.
I'd be interested to hear more of your thoughts.
Texas Al
Wow, I wish you lived in Texas. Sounds like you know all kinds of fascinating things.

Actually, this stuff is fun, and that's what I've been telling people-- if you're capable of modding your computer or pimping out your car, you're capable of making things with your hands that actually are useful. And it feels real good to show up at the lab in the morning with sawdust on my jeans... no matter how much bureaucracy and nonsense I face that day, at least I started it off by doing something that will bring me a little closer to a functioning windmill.

I think community is tremendously important for self sufficiency. Every time I say self sufficiency, I'm really talking about a small, self-sufficient community. The more of them the better, and the more diverse they are from each other the better, as long as everybody plays by a few basic rules (fair trade, non-aggression, safe passage).

That's why it's so important to me to not only learn this stuff, but to teach as many others as possible. The more self-sufficient the people around me are, the more likely they are to be busy with something constructive instead of trying to rob me.

The problem with cities is that there are SO MANY people. Cities as they exist now just aren't sustainable. And they are full of deranged and maladjusted individuals who are incapable of living as anything but parasites or predators. Not many, but enough to make me want to buy land someplace rural.

What I'd really like to do is get together a group of intelligent and resourceful people, go in together for a large lot that's cheap per-acre, and then divide it into smaller two or three acre lots between the participants. That way, people of ordinary means could afford to have a rural retreat, and have each other as neighbors.
That may be the big difference between your situation and mine.
I don't live in a city. I live in a small village, near a small town (borderline town/city technically speaking), 2 hours drive away from the next equally small town. I thrive in this environment. A lot of people here are like me.
While you'll never hear anyone talk about self sufficiency, it's easy to find people who raise livestock or hunt or fish or... whatever, and are willing to share knowledge or trade labour, or whatever. It's not a big deal, it's just what you do in your spare time.
There's still a lot of people here who live the typical North American lifestyle, but there are no illusions that food comes from the store.
I would find it very difficult to achieve a lifestyle that fits my personality (and I secretly believe everyone has the same longings inside, whether they lnow it or not) from within the confines of a city. That's why I personally chose this lifestyle over a more career oriented lifestyle that would keep me away from all the things I love.
I think it's a beautiful thing you're trying to do, establishing a community within your community. Whether it leads you away from the city or not, returning to your roots and following your heart is always a blessing!
In my own life, the seemingly contradictory lifestyles are coming nicely into balance. I pray you find the same! Keep us informed!
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