Friday, 21 December 2012

When the lights go out..............

As I post the 21st December 2012 is about half over in Mexico where the Mayans lived, and I am confident that the world will not end today as predicted by some, but have you ever wondered what would happen to you, your family and friends if there were none of today’s electronic forms of communication, no transport due to lack of fuel, and no imports of food because of there being no transport? I have been doing a fair bit of tractor work recently, as well as many hours shelling maize and busting up olive stumps with a big hammer and steel wedges to reduce them to firewood. None of these jobs are particularly mind taxing, so thoughts just drift from one thing to another. Then I began thinking what I could do – with some help, so my mind wandered along several tracks before coming up with a few ideas of what I would like to do if that happened. Whilst it is only imaginative, I feel it is something worthy of consideration because it automatically led to thinking about what I currently produce myself, and what I currently buy, then led to considering what more I could produce so that I spend less. You can do the same.

I have not considered a sudden worldwide catastrophe where almost everyone is killed and infrastructures destroyed. There is no knowing what might or might not be available in that situation. Instead, I decided to form an outline of a possible plan for if and when the power goes off, there is no fossil fuel, and food is DIY. It is just a hypothetical situation that I hope never happens, but having an idea of what you might do cannot do any harm. To develop your own ideas on similar lines you would need to be living in a rural area, which I expect most readers of this will be, and, of course I am already part way there because of my lifestyle over many years being based on living on low income, and this would really be an enforced move further towards self-sufficiency.

The scenario includes a reasonably slow move towards the position. I was not prompted to think about it by the end of the world today predictions, but by reading an article about a TV show where people are asked to give details of their preparedness for an unforeseen event, and an internet forum thread along the same lines – both referring to the USA. It seems most people would stockpile and in fact some already have bunkers and fall-out shelters fully equipped with living accommodation, and food and water for several years. The supplies will run out at some time, even if the people survive to use them all and then they have to rely on another source of food – or die of starvation. Others are stockpiling food in a remote location, and, very frequently, excessive quantities of guns and ammunition with the attitude that they will shoot anybody who attacks them. Obviously they are expecting to be attacked – and why not? If so many people are relying on guns then they will be used. The trouble with that is that John Wayne and a couple of friends seeing off a large band of gunslingers in a film is a lot different to what would happen in real life. The enemy just needs enough firepower that can be used at a distance, especially against those (and there are many) who think they will survive best on their own. Everybody needs to sleep and a group can easily deprive an individual of sleep.

So, I decided that the US is not for me. Gun ownership in Portugal is fairly common, but not universal, and restricted in numbers and type of weapon - a shotgun and a rifle probably being the maximum owned by anybody who hunts (some will have more) but gangs of heavily armed raiders are unlikely, and in fact I would expect many family groups around about carrying on as their grandparents did. Such family groups have always been able to survive, so why not in the future? Indeed it is extremely common for the sons and daughters originally from the villages but who now live in the towns to return “home” at the weekend and help out on the property. For those not familiar with Portugal, almost all rural people live in a village that is surrounded by individually owned blocks of land known as a quinta. There is not often a house on quintas, but there is very frequently a building of some description.

The envisaged scenario would mean only a step-back in time, but with modern knowledge; and there are millions of people in the world currently living with less than I would anticipate us having. Portugal is a poor country, but relatively modernised, and many more countries are much more badly off. Indeed there are many people in other countries that would not notice any difference. Even here there are a very large number of houses without water and electricity connected so their inhabitants would not miss the power going off.

I decided I would prefer to stay where I am and bring into a group some others, including Patrick and his wife who are only five miles away and living on a similar property to us. They would continue to live there. We already share farming equipment and work together on building some items we need and cannot buy at an economic cost. Our house is an enormous 3-storey stone and concrete building that was formerly an olive mill and with several separate entrance doors into various parts of the building. It would easily split into several apartments. All doors are steel and the windows have vertical steel bars so the building is relatively secure. It is wired and plumbed throughout. Several other buildings totalling a few hundred square metres are also wired and plumbed and with lockable steel doors, therefore also reasonably secure. Some are set up for various livestock and others general storage. Included in the ex-olive mill building are a bakehouse with domed oven, a meat house, dairy and cheese store, olive storage bins, and a large wine making room and cellar.

The land totals about 16 acres, all ploughable, and has almost 500 olive trees, plus various fruit and nut trees and a productive garden area next to the house. Patrick’s property has less olive trees and not as many buildings but otherwise more or less the same. We currently have adequate machinery and the ability to repair or make more equipment.

The group comprises me, Patrick, my son and a friend who was at school with him, plus our wives and whatever children the two younger couples have when and if the worst does occur. We have, I believe, an exceptional range of knowledge and skills amongst us as well as being of above average intelligence if academic qualifications are an indication. This in itself means that the group are able to learn. The “end of the known world” has been discussed on a few occasions in a semi-jocular fashion and the ideas for long-term survival are not mine alone.

At a professional level we have a medical doctor, a veterinarian, two scientists – chemistry and physics, a teacher of cookery and needlework, a computer and electronics whiz with very good mechanics knowledge, and accountancy and administrative qualifications. Now some might question the usefulness of the more academic qualifications, but the knowledge of related science subjects makes the scientists useful in many of the things we would need to tackle, and an ability to crunch numbers or organise work sharing rotas, maintain supply records, crop rotation details etc. are also required. I have the most farming and gardening experience but everybody else is “countrified” with a combined experience in seven countries around the world. Several languages are spoken. Everybody can ride a horse and most have good shooting experience if the need arises, and wild meat is always a useful extra. The four youngsters, not blood related to each other, are keen hill climbers and walkers, capable of carrying a heavy pack for many miles.

Skills wise, we can keep our machinery going so long as we have no major parts to replace. Animal power is within our reach if all tractors fail. Many people around about now use donkeys or mules, and I have seen cows used as draught animals. The olives can supply oil for fuel, plus we have PV, generators, compressors, pumps, and the ability to make methane, ethanol and grape spirit. It is legal in Portugal to distil your own brandy, with stills and other equipment readily available, and absolutely everybody in the country has grapes, so fuel (and drink) should not be a problem. We would have birds and animals for eggs, meat, milk, cheese, butter and clothing if required, with the ability to shear, kill, skin, tan, butcher, design clothes, felt, spin, knit and sew whatever is required. I am sure weaving would not be too big a problem either. We also have experience of making mats for floor coverings. Cork for insulation is a further possibility, although not something you decide to use and then be able to grow your own supplies in a couple of decades. The cork oaks I have planted need about another 30 years to their first harvest.

Cooking and food preservation skills are excellent. The long growing season and reasonable temperatures, rarely above 35ºC and even more rarely below minus 5º, means we can grow most temperate crops, and some short-season sub tropical ones. We already produce a large range, and increasing that production would not be difficult. A river and farm ponds are useful for fish and irrigation, with boreholes for household water, although there are numerous potable springs every few miles along the highways. I need to do more planning of the crops that would be most beneficial to grow if we were totally reliant upon our own production. I have been increasing the amount of home grown stock rations each year, and have begun work on a plan to be self-sufficient in livestock feed because of recent problems of price rises and lack of availability of some products, and I shall extend this plan to cover our own needs too. I am drafting it in a form that can be altered to make it a blog, and it will be the next one after this.

Much of Portugal is still a peasant based economy so there are hundreds of thousands of people with the land, equipment and skills to survive, plus a family to assist in the work. Consequently I do not expect any large scale violence if modern ways cease and I believe the country will simply get on with life as it always has. Like my wife and myself, most of the older people have lived with limited money so they have had to fend for themselves.

Bartering is always a possibility, and although I think most rural people would have the same items, I also expect there would still be some urban life, and their skills could be bartered for some of our fuel, food and drink. There is a lot of vacant land around the country too, huge numbers of unoccupied former small farms complete with a building, olive trees and grape vines, and there is a lot of space for present townspeople to move out and start farming again. All in all, it is probably one of the countries least likely to suffer from a collapse of modern society. How would you cope?