Preparation for the Future (Thoughts for 30-somethings)
5/22/2005 02:39:00 PM | Author: baloghblog

Well, I have been digesting The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler. It is a bleak vision of the future of America, with declining oil supplies. I, like the author, would not live to see many of the changes that he describes in his idea of the future, but I do believe that there are many things that people in our generation could do to prepare to face any eventual hardship. I will lay out what I plan to do personally to get myself, my finances, my family and my home more self sustaining, and ready for whatever may come our way.I, and others my age have grown up in a time of plenty. Most of us are used to an abundant opportunity of education and employment, compared to any time in our nations history. Born after Vietnam, witnessing the end of the cold war, seeing decisive victories in the first Gulf War, no causalities in the Bosnian conflict, we have seen little in the way of war growing up. (No disrespect for those who have lost their lives fighting for our country during our developmental years.) Our battles were fought in our imagination with sticks and toy guns, or against aliens on video games. The Dow Jones Industrials were at 703.69 on Jan 1st 1975, and as I type the Dow closed at 10,471.91 this past Friday. This is a 1,448% gain in my lifetime. Energy prices, unemployment and interest rates fell. Home ownership, investment in the stock market and personal wealth increased.

Luckily, our generation can still remember a time without cable TV, with rotary phones, playing outdoors and biking through the neighborhood without a care in the world. Computers entered the home in our youth but were items of mystery and functionality vs. items of necessity. We had sketchpads to fill with our art; we had endless sheets of loose-leaf paper to write our stories on. We read books. We read more books, until the words on the pages turned into beautiful and profound worlds in our minds. We listened to the Top 40 countdown on our new AM/FM Walkman silently in the backseat, while our parents enjoyed a moment of silence in the front seat. (Or, sometimes we’d sing loudly and badly, as if everyone should be hearing the song we were experiencing larger than life between those two orange foam pad earphones.) It was a wondrous time to grow up. I seldom take the time to think about it now, in the hectic grown up world that we live in now. But we do have that time somewhere back in our memory, I fear for the generation of kids who do not.

We would be foolish to believe that the time of plenty could go on indefinitely. Ignoring history would be irrational, as written in the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There were times of need just prior to us entering the world and seemingly every 25 years before that. Those who lived through the Great Depression, the First and Second World Wars are passing away. Lost with them are the ideas of frugality, self-sufficiency and savings. Shoes, socks, clothing, appliances, and electronic equipment were to be repaired when damaged or broken, not replaced. Our economy is becoming solely dependent on the extension of credit and the purchasing of items made mostly far far away. We produce less and less real goods, in this “service” economy. We depend more and more on others to perform tasks and the creation of goods for us. I’d love to see a chart of the number of women who could knit or use a sewing machine as a percent of the population, and equally so, how many men could tune up their cars engine, or perform basic carpentry. I am sure you’d see a steep decline in the past 30 years or so.

After reading The Long Emergency, I am still not convinced that Peak Oil will happen in the next year or two, or that our economy is a dead man walking, but I do realize the possibility that I could be very wrong about that. I see the decline of cheap oil as a tremendous burden that at this stage our country will not be able to stomach. 5-10 years from now we could be looking at a very different financial and societal picture. Already $2.20/gal gasoline is starting to look “cheap.” It happened in a blink of an eye, that we went above $2/gal gas, with little fanfare in the press, other than, “boy Wolf, gas sure is getting expensive isn’t it? Yes, Judy, we’ll have more after the break. Will gas prices keep going up? Geez I sure hope not, heh heh…” Our government uses increasing gas prices as a way to promote an energy policy that will give tax cuts to the big oil companies, during a time where they are reaping record profits from us. Like I said, we are not prepared as a government or as individuals for this.

So I have been thinking, what should I be doing about it? The first is to educate my friends and family about this short-term possibility, I guess. I figure those who I care about the most should have the information available. And, shit, I don’t want to be the only one worrying about this happening! I digress though… I came up with some ideas that we will be working on in our home, and figured that along with the bad news, I would share some of the “bright ideas” that I have. Most are not novel; most are not difficult or expensive. All are things that we can start thinking about now.

The main ideas that my preparation for the future revolve around are:

Home Improvements and Increased Energy Efficiency
Gardening/Food Production and Storage
Reducing Waste
Financial Preparation
Improving Health and Well Being
And Modestly “Filling the Cupboards”


My idea of conservation is more a self-centered approach to conserving energy. Not for the greater good, although its effects would no-doubt help the national consumption of energy. This idea of this conservation is to reduce energy use bills, and allow us to save even greater amounts of money when energy prices increase.

- Return to working locally, vs. in the adjacent county. I drive hundreds of wasted miles a month to visit my clients in the neighboring county instead of the Syracuse area. I would save gallons of gas and conserve hours of my time working locally.
- Carpooling. We decided that we would start to car pool when gas hit $2.50/gallon, but we are considering starting to carpool on a limited basis to conserve gas.
- Put TV/Stereo/Computer on power strips, and turn to off position when not in use. This saves up to 12% of your electricity portion of your utility bill. All of those great electronic devices that we have suck up power to sit in “standby” mode.
- Turn things off when not in use. Sounds simple, but how many times do you find that you’ve left the light on, or computer on overnight. Can’t you just hear your dad “reminding you gently” to turn off the light when you were done in room.
- Replace bulbs with fluorescent compact bulbs when blown. Buy those in bulk to save money. They last longer, and use much less energy.
- Circulate cool air from basement to upstairs during summer months vs. running central air conditioner.

Home Improvements/Increased Energy Efficiency:

Related to the idea of energy conservation, we plan on making some energy efficient upgrades to our home.

- Install energy efficient windows. Our 1956 home has the original windows, single pane with a storm window. You can feel the cold air come down off of them like a waterfall in the winter. Replacement windows will quickly pay for themselves in the cold Syracuse winters. (And cool spring for that matter!)
- Replace any appliances with energy efficient Energy Star appliances, when they reach the end of their useful lifetime.
- Update insulation. NYS offers a Home Performance Evaluation that can help determine ways to make your home more energy efficient. We plan on doing this in 2006.
- Wood burning stove insert for fireplace, capturing the heat that travels straight up the chimney.

I initially looked into solar and wind energy production, but given the weather in upstate NY, the solar panels didn’t seem to be a prudent purchase, and although reducing energy costs, would take decades to recoup the cost. Perhaps in your neck of the woods, this could be an option. As far as wind goes, we sure have plenty here, but given our small plot of land, and the aesthetics of the home and the neighborhood, it doesn’t seem feasible. Perhaps when the mills get more compact, (as they apparently are) I will re-consider it. Again this might be something that works for you.

Gardening/Food Production and Storage:

I have always loved to have a garden. My Dad instilled that in me in a young age, as he planted his small garden in the backyard. I find it meditative and very rewarding to tend a garden and harvest my efforts. Others may find it annoying to weed, and fruitless when the cost of vegetables is many times less at the local grocery store. In the future, there may not be an endless supply of grapes from Chile, apples from Australia, and salad from California. Home grown food, without its pesticides, manufactured oil based fertilizers, and who knows what else sprayed or spliced into them to make them travel better, not only tastes better, but is better for you. Here are some of my ideas to increase food production on my meager yard, as Kunstler predicts that food production locally will be the focus on much of our lives.

- Increase size of my garden plot. Cutting back the maple branches overhanging our lawn to let the sun shine in. Also to use raised beds to control the soil that is used for growing and to limit the weeding.
- Plant fruit trees. I personally love apples and cherries, and know that they do well in our climate, so those are what I am looking to purchase and plant. For you flower lovers, they also bloom brilliantly in the spring.
- Plant raspberry bushes. Don’t know much about the care and growing of these plants yet, but I know they grow wildly in the woods around me, so must do well in central NY.
- Plant grape vines. My grandfather used to make Hungarian Fruit wines that were delicious (and then distill those into a mean moonshine.) I would love to be able to make my own wine, so I plan on planting a few grape vines to begin maturing, while I take the time to learn how to make homemade wine.
- Plant herbs, garlic and onions. We buy these all the time, so it makes sense to have them self propagating at home.
- Learn the old school ways of making Italian tomato sauce. (I am Hungarian, so I refuse to call it “gravy.”) My wife’s Gram and Dad can pass the secrets of making and canning the sauce to us, to be able to enjoy it all winter long.
- Learn how to dry and store herbs.
- Learn how to make jams and jelly from my Gram.
- Learn how to can/jar food, make pickles, how to keep a root cellar.
- Create a functioning compost pile; get a pitchfork to turn. Then we’ll have a great source of nutrients for our plants and garden.
- Replace gutters, and create rainwater collection.

Reducing Waste:

The nice little old lady across the street only puts out a Wegman’s sized grocery bag out to the curb on garbage day. We seem to put out 5 times that amount. This costs us indirectly in increased municipal costs and taxes, more gas is consumed trucking it to the landfill. Not to mention filling up our landfills more quickly.

- Comply with all recycling rules, and use as much as possible.
- Increase re-use of items. Substituting plastic containers for sandwich bags when packing a lunch. Save food containers for re-use in food storage, or other uses including starting seedlings, storage of supplies, etc.
- Increase use of compost to all materials that are appropriate.
- Garbage only containing non-recyclable paper and plastics, fat/meat, dirt/dust, etc.

Financial Preparation:

I think that the area of finances is the area that 30-somethings can affect most to improve their future preparedness. The level of unsecured debt that we carry can make it seem like it will be impossible to pay off. Student Loans make up the bulk of my debt, followed by credit cards. The “secured” debt that we carry could also become an issue, if the value of our homes and the cars that we drive depreciate, so it too shouldn’t be overlooked. We have begun an adventure into paying down first our unsecured debt, and then we’ll consider extra payments to the house. We have begun to add to our balanced retirement accounts after neglecting them with our move last year. Another area of financial stability we have begun to consider, is the saving of hard assets and tangible goods, along with a small stash of cash. Didn’t you ever notice how your grandparents always seemed to have some cash stashed away in the house? That’s because one day their parents went to the bank and there wasn’t any money to take out. They never forgot that, and never fully trusted the ATM card. I think that it would be prudent to take a page out of their book, especially in this debit card/no cash in the pocket area. Some blogs out there subscribe to having gold and silver coin on hand. I don’t think that we are at that point personally, but if you have all of your other financial ducks in a row, then maybe that would be right for you. I’ll stick to paying off the Visa, and Uncle Sam’s student loans.

- We read Suze Orman’s book, Young Fabulous and Broke, and got some good tips from that. There are a million and one financial advice books out there, find the one that is right for you.
- We have a debt reduction plan that is as basic as this: We have a set amount of money that we put towards our debt each month. Currently that money is completely dedicated to our credit cards. When the credit card is paid off, we will take that money, as well as the payment we’d been making and apply it to our next target, a small student loan. After that is paid off, we will take the sum of the original credit card payment, the money allocated to debt and the student loan monthly payment amount and will apply that to the missus’ car, along with it’s payment. Each month the amount dedicated to paying off debt will remain the same and manageable, but will be applied to a progressively decreasing number of outstanding debts.
- Increased percentage saved towards retirement. Ours is currently at 10%, but we hope to increase it with a Roth IRA to a total nearing 15% of income. I am not for any changes to social security, but you have to realize that you need to take care of #1 in an uncertain retirement future, and have no one but yourself to blame if you had the opportunity to save and haven’t.

Improving Health and Well Being:

Self explanatory. Improve health, physical strength, and well being. Cut down on TV and Computer time (yes, blogs too…) Increase intake of fresh veggies and fruits that are in season and local. Walk to the grocery store or corner store for food. Read more. Don’t stop learning. Just because we are out of college doesn’t mean that we should sit back and rest on what we’ve learned so far. We should be striving to learn more, and better ourselves. Remember, our kids will expect us to know everything!

Wilco - Wishful Thinking
Fill up your mind with all it can knowDon't forget that your body will let it all goFill up your mind with all it can knowWhat would we be without wishful thinking?

Modestly “Filling the Cupboards”:

Filing this under the “things you never knew before”, Kunstler tells us that the Mormons as part of their faith are required to keep one years worth of supplies on hand in their house. I don’t plan on going that far, and I like the author am not a “survivalist”. But when you think about things that you’d want to make sure that you’d always have, doesn’t toilet paper come to your mind? I plan on slowly stocking the pantry with some non-perishables, which I should have anyways. The other items on the short list are:

Ball jars and Mason jars, PB&J, Soup, canned fruit and veggies, bottled water, velvetta, cereal, oatmeal, soap, shampoo, paper towels, razors, batteries, flashlights, firewood, pack of butane lighters/matches, second sleeping bag, mess kit, and extra propane tank for the grill and small tanks for the camping lantern and stove.

I am sure that there are other things that should be on there, and many different things on other people’s lists, but just some food for thought.

Final thoughts: These thoughts are my response to a thought-provoking book, and the current geo-political state of affairs. I think that learning to conserve and to be more self-sufficient is something that I should be striving for anyways. I know that I’ll think twice about the next time I throw something out. I will try to glean as much information from our grandparents and elders as possible. I’ll learn how to make wine, and jar freshly made sauce.

Sometimes as you try to get you act together, don't forget to sit back and smell the roses... meaning, don't take for granted all of the great conveniences we have today. I still love driving my car with my windows down and the music on, ripping down the open highway. When I think about a time I may not be able to do that anymore, I appreciate it even more…

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On 4:53 PM , Anonymous said...

Very well written! You are absolutely right about becoming more self-reliant. It feels right when you are doing something worth while.

On 9:24 AM , J said...

I realize that you do not believe that things will get really bad, but even Exxon tacitly admits we have a severe problem. Read this:

There are several other avalanches pending in the near future, such as the Atlantic Conveyor current disappearing, global warming in-toto, the world housing bubble, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac corruption, our unserviceable national and personal debt levels, our near-dead manufacturing base....the list is long. It is not the singular event of Peak Oil, but the concatenation of all these issues in a short time that magnifies the possibility of total chaos...

On 9:36 AM , Anonymous said...

screw the razors, go for a razor:

then when you die give it to your grandkid. dont use the wasteful disposable bladed ones.

On 11:26 AM , Ianqui said...

One small thing I've been doing a lot of lately, in the waste reduction category: Don't accept plastic bags from grocery stores. Buy cheap cloth or canvas bags and refill them every time. Places like Whole Foods even gives a discount for this. Use them at Target, Wal-Mart, CVS--wherever you get plastic bags from.

On 7:35 AM , NYCO said...

Nice essay. Thanks!

On 11:49 AM , johnny drongo said...

Getting out of debt is JOB ONE. Don't be a slave...

On 6:40 PM , RomeHater said...

If you see this post, there's also the ground resources. One thing people around here can look into is a heat pump that runs through the ground. WHile it couldn't heat a house with the cold winters, it would do a good job with cooling as well as making the heating system work a lot less.

On 12:48 AM , Anonymous said...

Good article, good ideas.

I read many pages on subjects like this, and almost every one has a new idea that I hadn't considered.

Keeping a decent supply of toiletries was lost in the mix, food was obvious, but not shampoo.

The previous comment about a standalone razor rather than a disposable is good as well. I don't know if I have the nerve for a straight razor, but it is a good idea.

On 11:53 AM , Anonymous said...

RE: retirement investments
As a maximum, only contribute what your company will match. As economic growth slows and the baby boomers begin withdrawing their money from the market, 401(k) growth will be virtually zero. Take that 10% and use it to make larger payments towards your debt first. Only then should you consider investing.

On 1:03 PM , Anonymous said...

if you think the U.S. economy might crash, you might want to put your money into something more tangible than a ROTH.

On 1:17 PM , baloghblog said...

My wife and I were going over the finances last night, and both agreed that we should fund our retirement accounts only to the matching amount, and put the rest into our debt, which will pay "returns" of 4.11% to 5.875% in the form of less interest payment in the future.

On 11:42 PM , Fred said...


Checked out your blog after seeing it referenced in the Sunday Post-Standard. Glad to know that I'm not the only 30-something thinking about these things. I haven't yet read "The Long Emergency" but I have been chewing over Kunstler's ideas (from his website) for the better part of a year.

Regarding preparations. You might think carefully about your windows. I have heard it argued that the new windows don't provide that much savings over a tightly caulked storm window/single pane combo. Make sure you've got plenty of attic insulation first and see if you need to do some caulking. You are absolutely right about solar energy being of little value in these parts. When I was taking environmental economics at Cornell we did a little exercise comparing the economics of solar in Arizona vs. central NY. It was very economical in Arizona but not here.

On 9:17 PM , LuceLu said...

Yikes, have you been reading my mind? I haven't read this guy's book nor do I consider myself an "environmentalist". But then I never considered myself a conservative either but guess what? I think I am a conservative/libertarian type. I used to be a Democrat but that party morphed into something else. I live here too, in Liverpool. I just turned 40 and work downtown--actually have been seriously thinking about centroing it but am concerned about the paucity of buses after 5:10 pm.

We are focused on getting out of debt. We have some unsecured credit card debt, car loan and a student loan. We are already sending in an extra mortgage payment a year on a 15 year mortgage.

Controlling expenses: Tried to set a budget and it worked for 2 weeks and then gas went up over $3/gallon and school started. We send ds to Catholic school (which is a priority for us). I am now gathering bills and receipts to determine another budget. We used to get produce boxes from Grindstone but had to cancel d/t dh's long jobless state. He is a union electrician and was out of work for the ENTIRE CONSTRUCTION SEASON (thanks Matt Driscoll, the Syracuse Common Council and George Pataki). He is now working on the windfarm up in Watertown (hence large gas bills and he carpools).

Our goal is to meet bills easily on one income, stash the rest in emergency account, retirement and improve our house's energy efficiency/interior. And Stay. Out. Of. Debt. We can't afford new windows yet so I am making window quilts. We have a fireplace with insert so I need to order some wood. We also have a forced air solar heat set-up leftover from the 1970's. I totally agree with you on the 72 hour bugout kit with COH (Cash on Hand). My dh's grandfather used to hide money everywhere.

I have 2 composts piles, plan to transplant my perennials and put in some veggies (tomatoes, peppers, onions--stuff we use). Eventually we plan to buy some land out here (but not sell this house--hold on to real estate).

Like I said, you have been reading my mind. I thought maybe I was the only one out here that sees the writing on the wall and plans to plan ahead to be safe, warm and fed. My grandparents were savers, so's my dad. My mom not so much but her formative years were in war-torn Germany. I think in the near future, people who can grow safe food, have useful skills like sewing, first aid, canning, and repairing motors, carpentry and wiring as well as cooking from scratch in any situation (solar cooking/bbq/wood fire) will be held in greater value to their local society than the erstwhile ivory tower MBA/Law degree types. Who needs a marketing executive when people need to eat?

I'm from this area, graduated from Henninger in '83, lived up on Onondaga Hill, Strathmore and Eastwood. Went to OCC and Oswego. Can't convince my dh to move to TN so here I am.

On 10:12 PM , baloghblog said...

LuceLu, glad you found my blog. Sounds like you and I are on the same wavelength. Would love to hear more about your preparations, and your ideas. If you stop back to read this, email me at baloghblog[at]yahoo[dot]com.

As far as Centro goes, my plans include collecting petition signatures or starting a letter writing campaign to Centro to extend hours and capitalize on the high cost of gas, and to encourage more riders with expanded hours. Let me know if you would be interested in helping out.

If not, at least check back and comment often. It is so nice to hear a familiar sounding voice in CNY.

On 2:22 AM , Anonymous said...

You write:
I am still not convinced that Peak Oil will happen in the next year or two, or that our economy is a dead man walking, but I do realize the possibility that I could be very wrong about that.

That is the thing, isn't it? Even if there's only a 1 in 20 chance of happening, it behooves us to prepare.

On 7:30 PM , spelled with a K said...

I couldn't have found a more poignant post on my 30th birthday. If crisis will teach us anything, it is to learn what really matters in life.

On 6:26 PM , Kez said...

I know this is a really old post for you, but what you've written here is exactly how I'm feeling atm - albeit several years later. Off to check out the rest of your blog.