What Should I Do? The Basics of Resilience (Part I)

Fri, Aug 6, 2010 - 3:00pm

Note: This is the first of a series on personal preparation to help you address the question, "What should I do?"
The copy in this series comes from a book chapter I wrote for The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises (Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch, eds.)

It is being reproduced here with permission. For other book excerpts, permission to reprint, and purchasing, please visit https://www.postcarbonreader.com.


It can feel pretty personally overwhelming to learn about all the economic, environmental, and energy challenges in store for us for the rest of this century. There's plenty of work to be done by governments and businesses, sure—but what about preparing yourself and your family for this quickly changing world? The choices seem overwhelming. Where does one begin?

Six years ago, I began to address these questions for myself and my family. I'll be honest; my first motivation came from a place of fear and worry. I worried that I could not predict when and where an economic collapse might begin. I fretted that the pace of the change would overwhelm the ability of our key social institutions and support systems to adapt and provide. I darkly imagined what might happen if a Katrina-sized financial storm swept through the banking system. I was caught up in fear.

But I am no longer in that frame of mind. Here, six years later, I am in a state of acceptance about what the future might bring (although I am concerned), and I have made it my life's work to help others achieve a similar measure of peace. While I am quite uncertain about what might unfold and when, I am positive that anyone can undertake some basic preparations relatively cheaply and will feel better for having done so.

I am passionately interested in helping others to gracefully adapt their lifestyles and adjust their expectations to a very different-looking sort of future. I have no interest in scaring you further, or having you approach the future with trepidation, anxiety, or fear. Quite the opposite. I want to let you know that adjusting and adapting can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling journeys you could undertake. It has been so for our family.

Just so you have a sense of the scope and the pace of these changes in our lives, I should mention that in 2003 I was a VP at a Fortune 300 company, forty-two years of age with three young children (the oldest was nine), living in a six-bedroom waterfront house, and by every conventional measure I had it all. Today I no longer have that house, that job, or that life. My "standard of living" is a fraction of what it formerly was, but my quality of life has never been higher. We live in a house less than half the size of our former house, my beloved boat is gone, and we have a garden and chickens in the backyard.

Peering in from the outside, someone might conclude that our family had fallen off the back of the American-dream truck with a thud. But from the inside they would observe a tight, comfortable, confident, and grounded family. We owe much of our current state of unity to the fact that we embarked on a journey of becoming more self-sufficient and discovered the importance of resilience and community along the way.

Anyone can do the same. But first, we must lay some groundwork and address the question, "Why prepare?" After that, we can delve into the details.

The Basics of Preparing

Becoming Resilient

The point of personal (and community) preparedness can be summed up in one single word: resilience.

We are more resilient when we have multiple sources and systems to supply a needed item, rather than being dependent on a single source. We are more resilient when we have a strong local community with deep connections. We are more resilient when we are in control of how our needs are met and when we can do things for ourselves.

We are more resilient if we can source water from three locations—perhaps from an existing well, a shallow well, and rainwater basins—instead of just one. If we throw in a quality water filter (essential for the rainwater anyway), then just about any source of water becomes potentially drinkable.

We are more resilient if we can grow a little bit more of our own food, rather than rely on a single grocery store. Our community gains food resilience when we demand local food, perhaps by shopping at a farmers’ market or purchasing a farm produce subscription (also known as "community-supported agriculture"), and thereby increase our local supply of food and farming skills.

We are more resilient when our home can be heated by multiple sources and systems, perhaps wood and solar to complement oil or gas.

For my family, resilience now stretches well beyond our four walls and physical things and deep into our local networks and community. But it began with focusing our initial efforts within our household.

Resilience now stretches well beyond our four walls and physical things and deep into our local networks and community.

Resilience, then, becomes the lens through which we filter all of our decisions. It is a great simplifying tool. Should we buy this thing? Well, how does it make us more resilient? Should we invest in developing this new skill? Well, how will that help us be more resilient? Should we plant these trees or those? Well, which ones will add the most to the natural diversity and abundance around us?

It's really that simple. Instead of finding ourselves overwhelmed by all the things we could or should be doing, we find our lives simpler and easier.

The first concept of becoming prepared is resilience.
(Photo credit Sand Storm cc-by-nc Roadsidepictures)

Insufficient, but Necessary

We must become the change we wish to see. If we just sit back and wait for a world where people are living with a reduced footprint and in balance with our economic and natural budgets, that world will never come. It is up to each of us to inspire others by first inspiring ourselves. The good news is that you are not and will never be alone on this journey.

But let's be perfectly honest: Any steps we might take to prepare for a potential environmental, societal, or economic disruption, no matter how grand, are nearly certain to be insufficient. Nevertheless, they are still necessary. They will be insufficient because being perfectly prepared is infinitely expensive. But actions are necessary because they help us align our lives with what we know about the world. In my experience, when gaps exist between knowledge and actions, anxiety (if not fear) is the result. So it's not the state of the world that creates the anxiety quite as much as it is someone's lack of action.

To put it all together, we take actions because we must. If we don't, who will? We change the world by changing ourselves. We reduce stress, fear, and anxiety in our lives by aligning our thoughts and our actions and by being realistic about what we can preserve, setting our goals and plans accordingly.

The second concept of preparation is that actions are both necessary and insufficient.

Set Targets

When considering preparation, the first question is usually, "How much?" Here I recommend setting a realistic goal, given the amount of money and time you have to devote.

My family's goal has never been to be 100 percent self-sufficient in meeting any of our basic needs. Instead, our goal has been to increase our self-sufficiency to something, anything, greater than "none." For example, until we got our solar panels we were 100 percent dependent on the utility grid. Now we are something laughably less than that, perhaps 3 percent, but we can manufacture and use our own electricity. What's the difference between being zero percent self-reliant and 3 percent? Night and day. We can charge batteries, have light at night, and, most important, prevent our fully stocked freezer from thawing during a power outage.

There's an enormous difference between being zero percent and 10 percent self-sufficient for food production. In the former case you rely on the existing food-distribution system. In the latter case you have a garden, local relationships with farmers, fruit trees in the yard, perhaps a few chickens, and a deep pantry. Developing even a limited percentage of your own food production does not take a lot of money, but it does take time. So set a realistic target that makes sense for you and your family, and then find a way to get there.

The third concept of preparation is to set realistic goals.

Being In Service

Reducing my own anxiety was reason enough to prepare, but an equally important objective was to be of service to my community. Should a crisis occur, I expect to find many unprepared people scrambling around in a desperate bid to meet their needs and many others paralyzed by the situation and unable to effectively act. I feel it is my duty to not be among them.

Some have commented that they think of personal preparation as a selfish act, possibly involving guns and bunkers, but that's not what this is about. My experience in life tells me that being a good community member means having your own house in order. If you do, you'll be in a better position to add valuable resources and skills to any future efforts.

My expectation is that communities will rally in the face of a disruption, an act I've witnessed several times having lived through hurricanes in North Carolina. But some communities will fare better than others and the difference between them will be dictated by the resilience of their respective citizen populations. I wish to live in a resilient community, which means I must become more resilient.

The fourth concept of preparation is that your community needs you to get yourself prepared.

Step Zero

Many people, when daunted by the potential magnitude of the coming change, immediately jump to some very hard conclusions that prove incapacitating. For example, they may have thoughts such as, "I need to go back to school to get an entirely different degree so I can have a different job!" or "I need to completely relocate to a new area and start over, leaving all my friends behind!" or "I need to abandon my comfortable home and move to a remote off-grid cabin!" These panic-driven conclusions may feel so radical that they are quickly abandoned. As a result, nothing gets accomplished. Further, nearly everyone has hidden barriers to action lurking within.

My advice here is crisp and clear. Find the smallest and easiest thing you can do, and then do it. I don't care what it is. If that thing for you is buying an extra jar of pimentos because you can't imagine life without them, then buy an extra jar next time you are shopping and put them in the pantry. I am only slightly joking here. I call this "step zero" to symbolize something minor that might precede step one.

The point is that small steps lead to bigger steps. If you have not yet taken step one toward personal preparation and resilience, then I invite you to consider taking step zero.

Examples might be taking out a small bit of extra cash to store outside of the bank in case of a banking disruption, buying a bit more food each week that can slowly deepen your pantry, or going online to learn something more about ways you can increase your resilience with regard to water, food, energy, or anything else you deem important to your future. It doesn't so much matter what it is, as long as an action is taken.

The fifth concept of preparation is to start with small steps.

The Importance of Community

My community is the most important element of my resilience.

In my case, I joined up with eight other gentlemen, and, as a group, over the course of a year we went through each and every “bucket” of a self-assessment we designed covering nine basic areas of our lives. We took a good, hard look at our then-current situations, made plans for preparation and change, and held each other accountable for following through with our plans. The support we shared was, and still is, invaluable.

My wife, Becca, and our children are deeply hooked into a wider community of people actively engaged in nature awareness, permaculture, native skills, fruit collection, and other pastimes that to them seem recreational, but also offer deeper local connections to people and nature.

I would recommend working with people you trust or with whom you already share basic values. The closer they live to you geographically, the better. One of my core values is this: I have no interest in living in fear, and my plan is to live through whatever comes next with a positive attitude and with as much satisfaction and fun as I can possibly muster. So it has always been important to me to be in community with others who share this outlook. And even now that I've experienced the pleasures (and joys and frustrations) of working in a group setting on matters of preparation, I would still immediately join or start another one if I happened to move away.

I now count this group as one of the most important elements in my life. I know who I can talk to about next steps, I know who I can count on in an emergency, and I know who will look after my family should I happen to be out of town when something big goes awry.

It is incredibly helpful to find people to join forces with as you step through the basics of self-preparation. I encourage you to consider seeking like-minded locals with whom to form such a group, if you have not already done so, and to encourage others to do the same.

My preparation group is now working outside of our group and exploring ways to help get our larger community into a more resilient position. I am only as secure as my neighbor is, and we are only as secure as our town, and our town is only as secure as the next town over. But it all begins at the center, like a fractal pattern, with resilient households determining how the future unfolds.

The sixth concept of preparation is that community is essential.
(Photo credit Hand tower (c) Claus Mikosch)

So ends Part 1 in this series, which focused on the framing that underlies my personal decision to become more resilient and prepared. Interested readers can access Part 2 and the other subsequent posts in this series at my website: https://www.chrismartenson.com.

About the Author

Economic Researcher & Futurist, Author