Moving toward resilience and a lower carbon footprint through appropriate technology



It's re-imagining our lives to be more resilient, more abundant and more luxurious, while also being gentler on the Earth. Sound impossible? It's not! My little family of four utilizes appropriate technology to lower our homestead's carbon footprint, and it makes us happier, healthier and better connected to our community. Check out what we're doing to learn how.

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  • Kara Stiff

Why I'm Not Preparing for Covid-19

We’re not preparing only because we’re already prepared, at least on the most basic and most useful level. I can’t think of much I could add today that would significantly increase our safety. Slightly, maybe, but not significantly.

The great news is that getting ready for one bad surprise gets you at least half way ready for all the others. Ice storm closed all the roads? Better make sure you don’t have to run to the store for food or bleach, and you have some other way to cook, heat and poo in case the power and water stop. Community-level health problem? You’re safer not leaving home, and you should probably assume that power and water employees may not be able to get to work. Lost your job? Better not go to the store, and maybe do without power and water in favor of paying the rent or mortgage. Are you seeing a pattern here? I certainly do.

As a child, every time the house shook from an earthquake I got up and stood in a doorway like you’re supposed to (because they’re reinforced). You either die under tons of drywall and roofing, or you don’t. If you live and the power is off, you brush the snow off the grill and fire it up. Mmm, grilled salmon, same as every night. When I was seven years old, Mount Redoubt blew its top and covered my city in an inch of ash. That stuff does terrible things to car engines.

When I moved from earthquake/volcano country to hurricane country almost a decade ago, I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t know what to do. We live far enough up-slope that we shouldn’t get hit badly, but storms are getting stronger, and recently we got the tail end of two different storms in one year. Nothing terrible happened here, unlike some other areas, but I was glad I’d thought it through before the clouds rolled in.

A basic level of preparedness isn’t difficult or expensive. The likelihood of any particular emergency is thankfully pretty low, but the likelihood that something unexpected will eventually happen in life is high. For most people, it's a job loss or personal injury that affects their financial health, but has similar consequences to a bigger disaster: inability to easily get what you need. It’s not crazy to get ready for things that are actually pretty likely. It’s crazy not to.

So what exactly constitutes our preparedness?

Water is the thing we as humans can do without for the shortest time. At our house we’re currently on city water but we also have a metal roof, a catchment tank and enough bleach to treat about a million gallons at eight drops/gallon. Beware that bleach goes bad in the bottle eventually. I’ve seen protocols for storing and using dry pool shock instead, but I haven’t personally tested any. I have successfully used the WHO’s protocol for solar sterilization, but it’s a little work and I wouldn’t want to depend on it in a developing emergency, so bleach it is. If our catchment runs dry, we have a pond.

If you have an asphalt shingle roof your catchment isn’t very healthy to drink, but you can use it for bathing and flushing a toilet. Many people recommend you store at least a gallon per person per day to drink, but in hot weather working outside my family drinks that much or more. You may think about a filter system. When I used to live in rental houses I would go fill the bathtubs the moment the power went off.

Check out the water resources in your area. There may be a hidden stream or spring in walking distance that could be treated to drinkability. Our local rivers, however, have advisories posted that we shouldn’t eat the fish. It probably wouldn’t be healthy to drink them for long.

Sanitation is probably the fastest-developing need after water. I’ve heard very sad accounts of folks cut off from city sewer who chose a room to eliminate in, and then chose a different one when that one got too yucky, until there weren’t any safe rooms left. We have a compost toilet partly because we want our sanitation to keep chugging along under any circumstances. As a backup for flush plumbing, something like this setup is inexpensive and effective for the medium-term. (That and others in this piece are affiliate links. My commission doesn’t raise the price of your item, and it supports this site first and then the Cool Effect.)

peppers and hibiscus in a solar dehydrator
Peppers and hibiscus from my garden, preserved with the power of the sun. A garden of any size is an excellent preparedness tool, because it increases your useful skills as it fills your belly.

Food and other consumables (soap, bleach) are another concern. My mission in life is never to have to make a surprise run to the store, so I keep a deep pantry of shelf-stable staples from rice and coconut oil to dish soap and baking soda. If for any reason we had to stop shopping today, we would miss chocolate and chips by the end of the week. In three weeks we would be missing fruit, but we would have carbohydrates, protein, veg and healthy fat to last at least three months, by which time the garden will be in full swing. This doesn’t take as much space as you might think. I live in a pretty small house, and there’s room.

It’s harder to build a deep pantry if you’re sticking to a tight budget, but it can be done. Here’s one resource. Be sure to stock only things you actually use, and not forget the stuff that seems less important, like dog food or favorite snacks. The psychological benefit of a beloved morsel is priceless, which is why my entire Covid-19 stock-up list reads: chips, chocolate, scotch.

A shelf of preparedness supplies
That shelf to the left of the compost toilet holds a year's supply of soap, baking soda, bleach, rubber gloves, sponges, reusable cleaning rags and other essentials. Below is about six weeks of paper products.

Keeping warm and cooking is essential. In winter we do both with our wood stove, while in summer we use a constellation of devices: a solar dehydrator, an All-American Sun Oven, an elderly Coleman dual-fuel camp stove and sometimes a wood-fired grill. Here’s a piece of mine on another site covering our entire off-grid cooking set-up in more detail. If you’re looking at propane heaters or cook stoves as backups, be sure they’re rated for indoor use.

A wood cook stove
Apples and oatmeal from the pantry cooking on our wood cook stove. That fan operates off the stove's heat, so it'll keep circulating warm air back to the bedrooms if the power goes off.

Other things you may need to keep healthy and sane include a basic first aid kit, a medical reference and at least a month’s supply of any essential medications, a cash reserve in case there are things to be bought but no access to credit or banking, and all the unpowered home-based entertainment you can come up with.

We keep a well-stocked and rotated first aid kit, for us as well as our animals. We have a lot of books and scrap paper and board games, as well as many months’ worth of homeschool materials. For cash, I’ve seen recommendations of anything from a thousand dollars to a full month’s worth of expenses, although you have to balance the amount you may need against the amount you’d be willing to lose to a break-in or fire. I’m sure you can come up with a number that suits you.

What about disaster-specific things? I'll admit I don’t have many of those. For instance, I don’t have masks. They work best when worn by someone who is infected rather than someone who is hoping not to be. When the flu went through our house last December I learned that if one of us has got it, we’ve all got it, even the people who had the shot, no matter how much we all disinfect and wash hands. Such is life with small children. The advantage of masks seems marginal under these circumstances. Better to leave the limited supply for people who might actually benefit.

In the same vein, I don’t keep iodine for nuclear fallout, or a Faraday cage for an EMP, or a portable defibrillator in case the hospital is inaccessible. It’s not that I think those eventualities are impossible, or that those things wouldn’t come in handy in the event. It’s that I think my ability to maintain, protect and use them correctly probably won’t be up to the challenge. I’d rather put my limited time and money toward the most likely, easiest-solved potentialities: hunger, dehydration, hypothermia, diarrhea, boredom, fear.

It may seem strange, but that last one is the easiest to work on. I used to worry about world events, bad weather, belching volcanoes. Ever since I addressed the simple items above, I have much less anxiety. Partly this is because I acknowledged and made peace with the undeniable fact that most of what happens on this planet is out of my control. But it’s also because I took charge of what was in my control, so now I can stop worrying about it. No plan survives contact with the hurricane, but any plan is better than a panicked run to Walmart with the masses.

While we’re at it, let’s dispel the myth that any house can stock its way to safety. Even out here in the boonies we are surrounded by neighbors, and as my favorite Australian permaculturists recently reminded the world, our household is only as prepared as our neighborhood, our town, our county. Which is to say, not very.

So other than stocking up on chips and chocolate, my preparations this week are to give extra money to my local food bank. To pause and shake the hand of my new neighbor again so he remembers my name. Gently check in with my parents up the road, and family further away. Take my elderly neighbors a carton of eggs as an excuse to catch up on their news. A disaster isn’t really a disaster until we look out for our well-prepared selves only, and forget the more vulnerable people around us.

If you’re keen to read more commonsense preparedness, I favor Sharon Astyk’s Depletion and Abundance or Making Home. She’s a mom and a gardener with a down-to-earth, community-based perspective, rather than a bunker-hunkerer (I think I totally just made that moniker up. Let’s hope it catches on). What do you do to make sure your household can weather unforeseen events? Tell us below, and help us normalize prudence.

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