Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, May 10, 2008

MIT Engineer Asks: Are You Ready for the Future?

by Matthew Stein

Is it not already too late if one waits until one is thirsty to begin digging a well?
-- Chinese Proverb

The devastation of New Orleans, combined with the current rash of wild fires in the West and severe weather in the East, brings home the fact that climate change and ecological collapse are bad for business (and people's lives). Ready or not, life as we know it is going to change radically over the next decade. I doubt that we will see technology fail completely, but I am certain that we will see increasing environmental and political instabilities that will create disruptions in the flow of electricity, goods, and central services to huge numbers of people, and that America will not be spared from societal disruptions on a global scale.

When Technology Fails, a book by Matthew Stein, provides something for everyone, from folks who just want to help their families when disaster strikes, to the go-it-alone survivalist, to the eco-minded person who wishes to tread more lightly on the earth, whatever the future may hold. Hurricane Katrina, the Tsunami in Asia, and 9/11 really bring it home. How many of us are prepared for disruptions of this magnitude? How will you cope if the water stops flowing out of your tap, or if gasoline and electricity are unavailable? If the doctors and hospitals are overloaded, can you deal with common medical emergencies? How can we do our part to minimize our impact on this planet, and to live more sustainably?

What is this book about?

Information / Preparedness / Networking:

* Climate Change / Hurricanes / Superstorms
* "Peak Oil" and Gasoline Shortages
* Sustainable Living / Self-Reliant Communities
* Disruptions in Supplies and Services
* Biological Terrorism / Pandemics
* Skyrocketing Energy Bills
* Earthquakes / Floods / Wildfires

This web site, and my book When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance and Planetary Survival, are dedicated to helping people proactively plan for, and deal with, the coming challenges that we will all face in the first part of this century. Between global warming, terrorism, Peak Oil, eco-system collapse, and the threat of emerging viruses and anti-biotic resistant bacteria, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about our future. I am not suggesting that we all become survivalists, but I also don't suggest that you stick your head in the sand and pretend that these threats will simply disappear.

If we are to avoid global catastrophe, we must accept that we are occupants of a fragile planetary ecosystem that is showing severe signs of strain, and that to continue "business as usual", where the bottom line of profit has supreme precedence over all other considerations, is a recipe for world wide disaster. It is my desire that the resources in my book and web site will help people to live more sustainably, encouraging them to do business in more sustainable ways, and actively pursue policy changes in local and national government to make a sustainable future our top priority.
This web site, and my book (When Technology Fails), are dedicated to helping people to:

1. Understand the threats to our future.

2. Help our friends and family to be prepared for disasters and emergencies.

3. Seek positive solutions to these current and future threats at personal, communal, national and global levels.

4. Promote sustainable business practices from the personal to the global level, and the establishment of self-reliant sustainable communities.

Personally, I am very excited about the potential for positive transformation through dealing with the challenges that we will face in the coming decades. When faced with a potentially fatal disease, such as cancer, many people initially fall apart but eventually rise to the occasion, making personal changes and growing in ways that never would have happened without facing the challenges presented by their predicament. It is my hope that mankind will collectively rise to this occasion, working together to create a viable, sustainable future which respects the spirit of the individual, and the biological systems of the planet.

We are all in this together! Let us create a future that we can all live with.

´╗┐Do The Right Thing!

Most of us just want to "do the right thing" for our selves, friends and families, but what is this "right thing"?

First, we must educate ourselves (knowledge is power!) about where our world is headed so we may have a realistic view of the challenges facing the world in the next few years and the following decades.

Second, we can do our best to be proactively prepared for life on a changing planet as the business, social and ecological climates of our world becomes increasingly unstable. The rapidly escalating prices of gas and oil, which we saw in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, are simply a preview of future price escalations that will occur once the world's oil production passes its peak ("Peak Oil") and begins its natural and inevitable decline. Unless our scientists are able to develop a new "miracle" as-yet-undiscovered technology to bail us out (as an MIT engineer, I would not bet on it!), our society will soon grapple with significant escalations in global climate change combined with an energy crisis that won't go away. According to many oil industry experts, this peak in global oil production will probably occur sometime between now and 2010. As this occurs, the world's economy will become more volatile and unstable as the rock upon which it is built (cheap oil to fuel global industrial expansion and modern methods of food production) begins to crumble.

Third, once we have a realistic understanding of where our world is headed, we stand a chance of pushing our governments to make the difficult decisions and policy changes that may help us to avoid global collapse.

A Perspective on Relative Threats

In spite of the very real threat of terrorism, I believe that our greatest threats are from other sources. To gain some perspective, let's compare the impact of several major events:

1. Hurricane Katrina: The official death toll now stands at 1,163 and the damage higher than $200 billion, topping Hurricane Andrew as the most expensive natural disaster in US history. Over a million people were displaced - a humanitarian crisis on a scale unseen in the US since the Great Depression.

2. Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918: 675,000 American fatalities and estimates of 21 to fifty million fatalities worldwide, in a single year. By comparison, World War One killed nine million men over a four-year period. Recent analysis of eighty-year-old specimens preserved in wax indicates that this flu virus originated as a bird virus that mutated into a swine virus that mutated into a human virus.

3. Destruction of the World Trade Center (9/11/2001): Estimated fatalities of 2,936. Insured property damage to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is estimated at a combined total of $19 billion dollars.

4. Indian Ocean Tsunami (12/26/2004, Sumatra-Andaman earthquake): One of the most deadly natural disasters in modern history, the United Nations estimated 229,866 dead or missing people. The earthquake that caused the tsunami has been estimated at 9.1 to 9.3 on the Richter scale, making it the fourth largest quake since 1900. Over 1.7 million people were displaced and property damage has been estimated at rebuild costs of over $15 billion (relatively low due to damage in mostly third world locations).

5. Hurricane Andrew (8/24/1992, Florida): 65 fatalities, 600,000 homes and businesses destroyed or badly damaged. Property damage estimated at $26 billion.

6. Hurricane Mitch (October/ November 1998, Central America): Over 22,000 fatalities, leaving 3,000,000 homeless, Mitch was the fourth most intense Atlantic hurricane of this century. There is speculation that global warming contributed to Mitch's severity and unusually long duration (it stalled over Central America for almost one week). Property damage was estimated at $8.5 billion (relatively low figure due to third world location, but higher than the GDP of Honduras and Nicaragua).

7. Bubonic Plague (China and Europe, sixth, fourteenth, and seventeenth centuries): An outbreak in China was spread to Italy in 1347. Over the next five years, it spread throughout Europe, killing about 25 million people, roughly one third of Europe's population at the time. The cities became death traps and were deserted until the plague subsided.

8. Kobe Japan Earthquake (6.9 magnitude, 1/17/1995): 5,470 fatalities, 33,000 injured, 300,000 people left homeless, and an estimated $200 billion in damages (four percent of Japan's GDP). Nearly tied with Hurricane Katrina as the most costly natural disasters on record.

9. China's Yangtze River Flood (summer 1998): 3656 fatalities, 33,000 injured, fourteen million people left homeless (an astounding figure!!), 223 million affected, and over $20 billion in damages. Severe deforestation (85%) of the Yangtze River watershed has been blamed for significantly contributing to the flood's severity, by reducing the land's capacity to absorb excessive rainfall.

10. Bangladesh Cyclone (1991): Killing at least 138,000 people and leaving as many as ten million homeless, the 1991 Bangladesh Cyclone ranks as one of the deadliest tropical cyclones on record.

11. Shansi China Earthquake (unknown magnitude, 1/23/1956): Fatalities estimated at 830,000 people.

Except for possibly biological or nuclear terrorism, from a review the above statistics one may conclude that natural disasters, such as storms (growing more severe due to global warming), earthquakes, and plagues, far out rank terrorism in scope.

The Main Threats to Our Future

As I see it, the four main threats to a stable American and world future are:

* Peak Oil: The oil crisis of the 1970s was a result of a five percent drop in global oil production due to the OPEC oil embargo. We are facing an imminent, unavoidable drop in global oil production as most of the world's oil fields are now in decline. Many oil industry experts state that global oil production has essentially already reached a plateau and predict that it will start to decline sometime between this year and the year 2010. This is happening at precisely the same time that the huge populations of China and India are rapidly expanding their industrial capacities and their appetite for oil. Read more at

* Eco Threat: Global warming and other climate changes (super storms, et cetera) coupled with major ecosystem collapse are the basis for the Eco-Threat. Hurricane Katrina is a powerful example of the effects of climate change. When you consider that a single degree Fahrenheit of global warming so far has contributed to the changes in weather that most of us now acknowledge (re: severity of hurricanes Katrina, Andrew, Mitch, et cetera), and that a continuation of current consumption patterns is projected to result in a global warming that is 2.5 to ten times as great over the next century, it is obvious there are potentially dire consequences for the stability and quality of human life on our planet. Read more at

* Bio Threat: We face a potential for massive plagues due to:
(1) The ability of viruses to mutate into new forms that make the jump from animal to human species (for example, Bird Flu).
(2) The widespread use of antibiotics in animal feeds makes a perfect breeding ground for growing bacteria that are resistant to modern antibiotics.
(3) The potential for terrorists to secretly infect populations with deadly bacteria or viruses and for them to spread the infection globally (air travel) before it is detected.
Read more at:

* Terror Threat: The threat of terrorism is obvious. What is not quite as obvious is the connection between our dependence upon foreign oil and how it funds terrorism while putting our soldiers, engineers and oil company personnel in harms way, and draws the attacks of fanatical Muslim minorities in their attempt to drive American influences from the entire Middle East. Read more at

Preparedness Planning

I suggest that you develop a personal preparedness plan, and have prepared the following checklist which may be printed from this web site's "Articles" section:

* Place 72 hour Grab-And-Run emergency survival kits in your car or home.

* Determine a local meeting place with a large open area, such as a park or school, where your household can gather if you are separated and do not have access to your home during emergencies.

* Make sure that all capable members of your family know how and where to shut off the water, gas, and electricity for your home in the event of an emergency.

* Stash spare keys to your vehicles somewhere on the vehicle and an additional supply of keys somewhere outside of your home (securely hidden).

* Store at least one week's supply of food for your household.

* Store a combination of water, water treatment chemicals, and water-purifying filters to provide for your household for at least a week (see Chapter 5, "Water", for more information on filters and purification).

* Keep a survival manual in each car with your 72-hour kit.

* Get proper first aid and CPR training for all capable members of your family. See the American Red Cross for first aid training and assistance with local emergency planning.

* Arrange for an out-of-state emergency contact to reach for coordination and communication. After an emergency, it may be easier to call long distance than locally, or your family may be separated and need an outside contact to communicate through.

* Locate your nearest emergency shelter (call your local Red Cross for this information). Practice the route to the shelter, if it's not conveniently located.

* Make sure that you have smoke detectors in your home. Change their batteries at least once each year.

* Store your important papers in one easily accessible location, preferably in a waterproof and flameproof box.

* Discuss your emergency preparedness plans with all members of your household. Keep the discussion light and positive.

You may also use my book, When Technology Fails, as a guide for further preparedness planning:

1. Prepare a 72-hour emergency survival kit, including a hand crank or battery-operated radio, first aid kit, clean water and water purification chemicals or filter, matches, wool blankets, flashlight with spare batteries, candles, toiletries, multi-tool knife, map, compass, whistle, sewing kit, towel, cooking utensils and can opener, tent or plastic sheeting, extra outdoor wear, garbage bags, and rope. (See pages 31-34).

2. Stock up on dried and other nonperishable food. You can store enough food to feed a family of four for a whole year in a relatively small space without refrigeration. (See pages 35-40).

3. Have on hand methods of purifying water. You can boil water to kill bacteria and viruses. Various types of filters and distillers can be used to remove other types of contamination, such as chemical poisons and radiation (see pages 70-89, includes very specific recommendations).

4. Learn basic first aid and have handy a first aid kit (see pages 33-34 for items to include). See pages (176-199) for instructions with clear diagrams illustrating first aid for various types of injuries, from stabilizing a broken arm to giving CPR.

5. Learn how to prepare your home to use renewable energy for heat and power. There are simple things you can do to be prepared in the case of a total power failure. See pages (277-307). For emergencies, you can use a tent, tipi, or yurt. If you are planning to build a new home, consider one using alternative energy, such as solar power. (See pages 137-166)

6. In case of extreme emergency survival in the wild, know emergency measures such as how to tell if a wild plant is edible, how to safely eat things like worms, insects, and grubs, and how to make simple tools (see pages 46-65).

7. In the case of long-term disruption, learn how to live off the land through proper growing, hunting, foraging, and storing, without electricity or other modern technological advances. (See pages 97-127).

For several easily printed handy lists and information about preparedness, check out some of the articles listed on this web site, such as Preparedness Checklist, First Aid Kit, Grab-And-Run Kit, Earthquake Precautions, et cetera

Positive Action

Many people ask, "What can I do?" Individually we can educate ourselves and prepare ourselves to cope with future instabilities in the climate and the supply of gasoline and central services. Remember, preparedness is disaster & terrorism insurance.

Katrina gave us a glimpse of what we might expect when society reels under the load of a huge disaster, or simply degrades due to (in the words of James Howard Kunstler) the "long slow emergency" of life after Peak Oil. In these events, there will be safety in numbers, living among people you can trust, in localized sustainable communities built upon the principles of Permaculture. While the world is still functioning reasonably well, is the best time to start developing your skills and links with other like-minded people. Location will be important if and when the world situation takes a turn for the worse. You may use this web site as a good starting point. My goal is to make it a useful tool for networking, education, and activism.

Reducing consumption, recycling and the use of renewable energy sources are all positive steps toward reaching a sustainable future. Individually, none of us will save the world, but collectively we can decide that we (the people) wish to make a sustainable future the number one priority of business and government. There is a huge momentum that tends to keep the world on the same track of "Business as Usual". Currently, it would be political suicide for an American leader in today's world to make the difficult decisions to halt our momentum sliding towards global collapse, but this doesn't mean we can't change this course. We can change the world, but it takes massive numbers of people to make changes on the scale of the end of slavery or the institution of women's rights. Hitler could never have been stopped if it was number ten on the priority list. Stopping Hitler was a matter of survival. Changing the way we do business in our world is also a matter of survival.

Bill Totten


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