A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.
by Orren Whiddon
Personally, I was first introduced to these concepts by a wise high school teacher who assigned me to read the original “Limits to Growth” report of 1974. The conclusions drawn by that report, which I have essentially presented above, hit me like a thunderbolt, followed immediately by the first global oil crisis of 1973-74. In those times there was a lively public discussion around issues of industrial sustainability, renewable energy systems and “Back to the Land Self Sufficiency.” I determined on a technical education to focus on renewable energy systems, and spent four years helping to build what was then the largest array of photovoltaic panels in the world.
As a society however we took a different path. The 1980 elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher represented the triumph of Milton Friedman’s Chicago School of unfettered, free market capitalism. Which ushered in a 30 year period of exponential global growth which has only now run its course, Reductio ad Absurdum, to its logical conclusion in financial collapse.
Like so many others I spent those years gathering in my piece of the American Pie, but always with one eye looking forward, one eye to the past and my third eye firmly fixed on “What If?” That “What If?” led to living in a log cabin, fetching water from a spring and cooking on a wood stove; all the while putting on a suit and tie to commute into the big city designing radioisotope particle detectors for MegaCorp. Just doing my bit to spread the wealth and keep up my end of the bargain with “Ole Scratch.” By the early 1990s my evolving sense of Earth Spirituality and the increasing difficulty in giving the Devil his due led to the founding of Four Quarters in 1995. Ole Scratch definitely had the last laugh! In 1998 we finally got local Internet service and I well remember my very first Google search. A “What If” question: “Oil Depletion.” Nothing would ever be the same.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified the five stages of grief as Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally, Acceptance. It has become a truism among those concerned with these issues that the five stages of grief also define the stages of an individual's developing understanding of global exponential growth, biological overshoot and population die off. That was certainly my experience. If you are new to thinking in these terms, denial is a most human reaction. It is the beginning of the process.
By the new millennium I was in a state of emotional acceptance and beginning to prepare, aided by the rapidly evolving scientific discussion that has emerged over the past 15 years. In 2003 I made a presentation to the Board of Directors of Four Quarters, outlined my understanding of the global state of affairs, presented an adaptation strategy and made three practical recommendations.
First, that world conventional petroleum production would peak by 2008, and that date provided a practical limit for our organization's ability to purchase the camp and see to the installation of basic grid power, water and sewer infrastructure through debt financing. Second, that we had to develop localized alternative incomes for the organization, based on a product that we sourced, produced and sold locally. Third, that the live-in staff would make the commitment to reduce their physical resource footprint to the bare minimum, freeing every available financial resource for the first two goals.
As it turned out, world conventional petroleum production peaked in late 2005 owing to the exponential growth of the Chinese market. In that year Four Quarters managed a successful fund-raising drive and secured commercial bank financing to purchase the camp, and install water and sewer systems, although we still generate our own power. 2005 was also the beginnings of the Four Quarters Winery, hand crafted with local supplies, and now being self distributed to a growing network of retail stores.
lt is in our daily living arrangements that we live-in staff at Four Quarters most reflect our awareness and preparations for the future Age of Limits. Interestingly, it is those very arrangements that are most important to us which are most transparent to our visitors; therein lies a lesson. We have for many years practiced radical commutarian living, meaning we share the use of every physical thing that can possibly increase our living efficiency. Autos, washing machines, tools, kitchen, clothing, it’s all put to common use. Among the four buildings that make up our living compound, only one has the full suite of kitchen/bath/laundry /communications that is generally considered a minimum. That would be the Farmhouse, and it constitutes the efficient nucleus of our day to day living.
Common food production, preservation and preparation is a key part of our adaptive planning, and after 4 years of very serious gardening we have advanced to beginner status. Raising your own food is the most radical social statement you can make, and if you are serious it will quickly become an everyday concern. Our soils are poor, and improving them with manures, composts and soon, bio-chars; has been a first priority. For preserving food, we have over a thousand mason jars, bean sheller, tomato press and three pressure canners, all of which are put to constant use during the harvest. We have completed our first root cellar and will have the second cellar complete by winter. Yes, you do need a lot of space to store food for ten people. We have planted a young but large orchard, which is just now beginning to bear fruit. Our fruits are frankly pug ugly; in fact some visitors will not eat them, go figure. But they taste wonderful, and they are from the land. We raise our own chickens too and our beef is raised by our neighbors here on our land, we pressure can and freeze a year's worth at a time. Yes, we think about food a lot. It’s a hint of the future.
We have invested much time and resources in the physical infrastructure required to support this commutarian group, and we hope to ride the wave of decline and install more. To the degree possible our buildings are solar friendly, super insulated and all of them are wood heated. And they are built for future energy systems. The new shop building was built with a roof line to take both photovoltaic and solar thermal collectors, with space allocated for the large water and battery storage areas those systems require. The Winery expansion was built with the foundation of a future double vaulted, two story composting toilet with solids and urine separation. When our buried garden water system was installed, provision was made for tie-ins to the fish ponds slated for the hillside.
We are developing a pragmatic coping strategy for the decline and it applies equally well to urban and rural situations. First, begin now. Choose your spot in the sunlight, put down roots and plan on staying there for the duration. Invest in the long term structure of your place in the sun, in a way that will return energetic and material benefits for decades to come. Make the commitment to living with much less personal “fluffy stuff.” Not because it is a moral choice, though it is, but because living with much, much less is our common future; either by choice or by blunt circumstance. Living with less means viewing life as a skill to be learned and lived. So pick a skill and learn it. Pitch the DVD, disconnect the cable service and entertain yourself. Reuse and repair, rather than replace. Use the moneys saved to invest in tools and learn new, entertaining skills by using them. Buy things that have practical value. Of every article purchased ask, will this be useful to me in 30 years? Practice commutarian living. Share a home with as many people as it will uncomfortably fit. Learn to store and grow as much food as possible and to eat simply. Provide private backup systems for the essentials of water storage, information access and minimal light. Become adjusted to being colder in the winter and hotter in the summer. Most importantly, localize your employment close to home and develop the deep network of reciprocal obligation that is true community. These strategies will require a lifetime to learn, which is less time than we have.
We have made a lot of mistakes in our process, and those mistakes have helped us learn to get it right the second time. And we have learned much; mainly that there is much, much more to learn. If there has been any realization over the past ten years, it is that to live this way, to prepare for the decline, one must become pretty good with a vast array of skills.
To that end Four Quarters is itself changing and growing. It seems clear to us that Indigenous and Earth Based Spirituality speaks in a voice that is incredibly relevant to the emerging Age of Limits. Because it is less about developing new solutions and more about relearning the old ways that worked. It is equally clear that Four Quarters has already made great strides on the practical side of adapting to a changing future. Whether your personal choice is rural or urban, we want to help develop and share the adaptations needed for the years to come.
We anticipate the creation of a sister non-profit, The Four Quarters Center for Earth Living, and a new web site designed as an information portal. We are already planning weekend intensives at the Farmhouse and Loft to focus on the techniques of Earth Living. You can expect to see Four Quarters melding Earth Spirit with Earth Living in our outlook, in our programing, in everything we do. We won’t offer easy answers, but we will ask some really good questions.
Perhaps in a few decades we can answer the question posed of us by the exponential function:
“Are humans smarter than yeast?”