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When Technology Fails: Old-Fashioned Self-Reliance Meets Modern Sustainable Technology

The following is an excerpt from When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency, by Matthew Stein.

Since before the days of the American Revolution, Americans have admired the ideals of ingenuity, independence, and self-reliance. Much as we admire those ideals, however, most of us have lost our ability to live a truly independent life. Somewhere between the home mortgage, the supermarket, the cost of medical care, the corporate work week, and the video store, the American ideal of rugged individuality has slipped through our fingers. We sense there was a simpler, yet more satisfying lifestyle in the days of our ancestors. How many of us, after working hard year after year, feel that we have little to show for our work? Or perhaps we have prospered materially, yet still feel that our lives lack deep, inner satisfaction or meaning.

My grandmother grew up on a mini-farm in the small town of Chelmsford, Massachusetts. At that time, over half of all Americans lived on farms, but now only 1 percent of the population is engaged in growing food. When Grandma was a little girl in the 1890s, the family’s small farm and other small businesses in her community provided practically everything that was needed to lead a reasonably comfortable life. The miller ground the grain, the cobbler made shoes, the tailor made fine clothes. Things like glassware and windows, iron for the blacksmith, plumbing components, and cloth to sew into dresses came from large industrial factories and mills, but almost everything else was made or grown locally. Once every month or two, the family took a trip to Boston to enjoy the city and to purchase supplies that were not available in their small town. Even though Boston is only 30 miles from Chelmsford, in those days it was a 2-day round trip by horse cart. When I was a child, my grandmother drove about a mile to purchase fresh eggs, vegetables, and butter from local farms. Now those small farms have been replaced by endless subdivisions that are part of the giant suburban sprawl on the outskirts of Boston.

In the event of a breakdown in the centralized systems that we rely on for our daily needs and comforts, a working knowledge of our ancestors’ technologies will go a long way toward helping us to live a comfortable life. Unfortunately, many of the simple technologies of the pioneers are no longer sustainable with today’s global population of nearly 7 billion people.

A typical pioneering family might have cut down 30 cords of wood to burn in fireplaces for heating their home during the long, hard New England winters. A single cord is a considerable amount of wood, measuring a stack 4 feet wide by 4 feet tall by 8 feet long. Is it any wonder that the American pioneers cleared practically all the accessible old-growth forests in the eastern United States? Recent design improvements have created clean-burning wood stoves, which heat very efficiently and leave no visible smoke once the stove is warmed up to operating temperatures. These EPA-rated stoves can heat a modern, reasonably well-insulated, 2,000-square-foot New England home for the year on only a few cords of wood. A super-insulated home with a passive solar collection system can make it through a Colorado or Montana winter on the heat given off by the hot water heater, body heat, and light bulbs, with just a little help from a wood stove on consecutive cloudy days.

The best of modern technology combined with old-fashioned self-reliance can provide a comfortable and sustainable lifestyle. Neither the agricultural practices of the 1800s nor today’s modern factory farms are sustainable. The good news is that advances in organic and biointensive farming offer sustainable alternatives to chemical-intensive farming that can actually increase productivity while rebuilding depleted soils. Unfortunately, agribusiness continues to deplete the topsoil and pollute the environment. As consumers, we can do our part by supporting organic farming and other planet-friendly practices.

Standard U.S. agricultural practice today requires at least 45,000 square feet of land to feed a person on a high meat diet, or about 10,000 for a vegetarian…. However, biointensive gardening can provide for a vegetarian’s entire diet, plus the compost crops needed to sustain the system indefinitely, on only 2,000 to 4,000 square feet, even starting with low quality land…. This works so well that biointensive agriculture is being practiced in 107 countries worldwide.
—Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism


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