Monday, February 20, 2017

L is for Learning new Stuff

One of the benefits of knowing that the demise of the oil industry is at hand—and thus the modern way of life—is that it now makes sense to learn new skills. Under the standard educational model for most people in the industrial world, most learning takes place in the early years, perhaps stretching into early adulthood for a few. It is during this time, we are told, that the necessary skills are acquired to enable us to become obedient worker/consumers in the economy (or "upstanding citizens in society" in old money). For most people, any learning beyond this age tends to be merely a tweaking of what they already know. For example, they may already be able to operate a computer in an office environment, but they may need to be sent on a course to learn how to use the latest versions of a software package. This kind of learning is called training and one is expected to go through it in order to get a pay rise or avoid being sacked—at least until the day your job is handed to a computer algorithm or a robot.

Of course, this isn't real learning, it's merely learning how to tinker with an unstable and unsustainable system. On the other hand, many adults take it upon themselves to voluntarily expand their minds and pick up new skills. They attend night school classes and go on courses, learning a dizzying array of new subjects that could include anything from conversational French, stained glass window making or calligraphy, through to quilt making, taxidermy or astrophysics. Many more simply buy books and instructional DVDs and learn all about the foxtrot, Faberge egg painting or ritual magic that way—but usually the reason for learning this new information is motivated by a desire to practice a hobby in the leisure time outside of one's productive, money-earning life.

If you want to switch professions, say from being a teacher to a lawyer, you'll likely have to gain a professionally recognised qualification, awarded after a lengthy period of burning the midnight oil and at great personal expense. This is another kind of learning, often referred to as re-training, and although it might give you the ability to make more money in the short term it still likely does not address the problem of systemic instability in the longer term—you might be re-training for a job or profession that doesn't exist in five years.

Economic logic in our over-complex world currently dictates that it is very hard, if not impossible, to earn a living making useful things that can be made far more cheaply elsewhere due to mechanisation, cheap fossil fuels and globalisation. Only people in the continually-shrinking upper middle classes can afford to pay the real costs of production for items made by people who do not work under conditions of slave-labour. For example, I have a friend who is a highly skilled woodworker. He can take a piece of freshly-cut wood and transform it into a beautiful and practical object, such as a chair, a set of spoons and bowls, or a canoe paddle. The amount of work and attention to detail he puts into his creations is both impressive and admirable. But even he admits that he'd rather buy a cheap chair from Ikea than pay the full cost of one of his beautiful hand-made chairs — and he's realistic enough in his outlook that he doesn't blame others for doing so.

Yet this unfair-seeming scenario will not—cannot—last forever.

As the availability of high-density energy sources falters and dwindles, and the political technostructures that make globalisation possible grind to a juddering halt, the calculus of this setup will turn on its head. Many, if not most, of the items we currently take for granted will become very expensive. In other cases they will simply become unavailable at any price. When this happens, the laws of supply and demand will assert themselves and anyone able to provide necessary products and services will find themselves in an enviable position.

Learning new skills and how to make things, however, takes time. There's an assumption these days that anything can be learned quickly and easily, and that once one has learned it one can instantly become a teacher of it. The wife of my chair-making friend—who herself makes baskets, lamps and even coffins from willow—told me last week that she has fielded several separate phone calls in the last two weeks from people wanting to learn how to do exactly what she does. All of them, she said, wanted to quit their careers immediately and move down here to west Cornwall—which for many people is really the back of beyond—and instantly become basket weaving teachers, despite their never having touched a piece of fresh willow in their lives. When gently prodded as to why they felt so moved they each gave some answer that indicated Donald Trump or Brexit as the cause of their unease. An impending sense of Armageddon seemed to be the driver behind their sudden desire to learn how to make picnic baskets.

My friend patiently explained to them that it took her many years of practice to get where she is today. There were the years of experimenting with different designs, and of growing different species of willow, discerning which ones were appropriate for the local climate and soils. Aside from the ongoing learning of the skill of basket-making there were the years of plodding around the region's craft fairs—leaving home at 4:30am in order to get there in time to set up her stall, only to come home late in the day having hardly made the petrol money. There were the years of research into these lost skills (including hunting down old retired fishermen in their 80's and 90's, and learning how they once sat on the harbour walls weaving the extremely specialised lobster and crab pots before the era of mass industrial production) and the years of building up the strength in her hands and fingers. And then there were the numerous setbacks, such as rabbits destroying her willow crop, and all the other various slings and arrows that life chucks at you. Only, she then says, only after a decade and a half of dedication has she been finally able to call herself an artisan who is able to make a modest living from her craft—and she still refuses to call herself a master (you can see what she makes and judge for yourself).

But the people who contacted her were not interested in all of this—they wanted to learn how to make baskets next week and be teaching it the week after.

The point I'm trying to make here is that learning useful skills takes TIME. And the moment one begins to learn something new one begins to realise that there's a lot more to it than you previously thought. Growing food, for example, is another skill that many people assume you can just pick up more or less overnight. It's true that you might be able to quickly grow some food without any prior experience, but growing enough for a balanced diet that will keep you and your family alive is a whole different ball game: man cannot live by beans and potatoes alone.

From a personal perspective, since I first encountered the seriousness of our predicament some six or seven years ago, once I had worked through all the Kübler-Ross stages of grief "No, it can't be happening!", "I'll be alright if I just pack a bug-out bag and buy some gold," etc.) I have picked up quite a few new skills and been led down many an interesting intellectual avenue.  Having gone from a situation of relative complacency with a comfortable, if unfulfilling, office job, I have now learned the value of what it means to be a producer of things rather than just a consumer of them. Among the things that I can now produce are charcoal, wood products, fruit, biochar, natural soap, wine, cider, herbs and vegetables, and books. I'm working on producing many more things, including mushrooms, coppice products (fences, hurdles etc), herbal beers and honey. I've planted a forest garden, I've learned permaculture and coppice woodland management, I can strip a chainsaw down and I can field dress a squirrel. All of these things take skills that I have learned, to some degree.

Am I an expert at making and doing these things? NO! (I might be able to make some charcoal in an oil drum but I'll never be like the Japanese masters who had 2,000 different grades of charcoal, which apprentices had to learn to recognise merely by sniffing the smoke it gave off during production.) Could I live self-sufficiently using these skills? Don't make me laugh! In fact, I consider myself a rank amateur in terms of my practical skills, although to an outsider it might superficially appear that I know what I'm doing. This, I have learned, is the case for many people who nevertheless pass themselves off as experts (I recently heard of a young newly-qualified permaculture teacher who had never seen a carrot grow and was unsure how to get it out of the ground - and he was 'teaching' a group of middle aged people who had been expert gardeners since before he was born).

That's where the community aspect comes into play. Nobody can know everything. I would go further and say that hardly anyone can even know a lot of things. There are very few people in the world who  can do everything from rebuild a car engine, solder electronic circuit boards, grow (and know how to use) their own medicine, and defend themselves in a court of law. For the most part it is far better to specialise and organise into small, manageable groups. The ideal size for an autonomous group of differently skilled individuals is around 150 people (see Rob O'Grady's book, 150 Strong). This was the size of group I chose to use as an example of 'good practice' in my fictional novel Seat of Mars. In my story the 'clan leader' Art Gwavas, takes over a farm and only allows people with a variety of useful skills to live there. In this way they manage to make life a lot more bearable than it is for the hapless individuals hit by the same national calamity.

People learn in different ways. Many are autodidactic to some extent (can teach themselves), but many also prefer to be taught as part of a class. Some things have to be taught one-on-one. A good method for learning that I have heard works well is to be part of a skills swapping group. The concept is simple; you meet up once a week or month and someone teaches their particular skill to the rest. The next meeting it is someone else's turn. The ones I have heard about tend to involve skills such as sewing, soap making, fermenting and household item repair—but it could be anything really. What I have found with learning is that you should only try and learn things in which you have a natural interest. If you're unsure whether it is for you, you can always dip you toe in and give it a go to see if it appeals to you. I have something of a butterfly nature and tend to flit from one thing to next, so there have been many things I have thought would be interesting to me but turned out not to be. I've been learning my whole life and I plan to only stop learning new things when I'm dead.

It's scientifically proven that learning new things keeps your brain ticking over as you get older. My grandfather decided to learn Italian as an old man. Having never been outside of England in his life, he simply got on a ferry and a train and lived in Rome for a while. His method of learning was to sit on public benches and strike up a conversation with similarly-aged Italian men. They no doubt chatted about the war and the how things had been. When he was happy he could speak Italian he returned home.

So if you decide to learn a new skill for the future, make sure it's something that will likely survive the future. Learning how to race cars is probably not such a good skill for the future (nor is anything that would involve wasting fossil fuels). Also check out the competition. For example, when I lived in Denmark I taught myself how to make natural cold-pressed soaps. Everyone was amazed that I could do this ("What, you mean you actually make it? With your own hands?") and was happy to part with a tidy sum of money for a simple bar of soap. Then I moved to Britain and soap-makers are two-a-penny, and so my soap-making venture no longer makes sense*.

The main thing it's important to consider is the lead time involved in acquiring new skills. The best time to start learning them, ideally, is ten years ago. The second best time is today.

* Oh, and don't become a yoga teacher either. The world is already full of yoga teachers and doesn't need any more.


  1. Let me start by giving you a loud and heartfelt Amen, Brother. You have obviously launched into your, I don't know what to call it, experiment? homestead? sustainable lifestyle? with all your heart and soul and are sharing advice that comes from your efforts. You are not just talking theory with no practical experience to back it.
    My own activities in the do it yourself realm have been motivated largely by the fact that I tend to be dissatisfied by the industrial products available to me and so I set out to learn how to make things myself. So far, I have ventured into gardening, home canning, food fermentation, cooking, drying food, catching and preparing and preserving fish, kayak building, paddle making, yurt building, shoe making and sewing. So far I've achieved some level of competence in building nomadic shelter, in food production and preparation and water transport. I hope to launch into experimenting with land transport in the not to distant future. I cannot claim to be competent at making clothing or shoes. I am also not particularly adept at community building. Fortunately, I have a wife who is good at that. She started a sewing and upcycling group that focuses on taking discarded clothes and giving them a new life by modifying them or simply using parts of existing clothes to make new items. Lots of fun. Several times a month we get a house full of mostly women sewing and me doing some cooking and absorbing some knowledge by watching others sew. Meanwhile, we have accumulated a number of second hand sewing machines. I can now thread all of them and clean and oil them. My personal sentimental favorite is a hundred year old Singer treadle machine that was converted to a hand crank machine. Works off the grid, is solid as Gibraltar and has a lovely singing voice. It does no zigzag, or reverse, just straight stitches in a forward direction.
    Yes, really. It is a hundred years old and still works. No software upgrades required, no electricity, standard sewing machine needles work in it, and bobbins can still be had for it. We've taken it camping with us.
    The part of making my own stuff that I have come to appreciate the most is that in using what I make, I can see where my creation fail and therefore need improvements in their next iterations. I do not pamper my kayaks. They get filled with water and sand, buffeted by wind on top of a car, stood on end in surf and stored outdoors and exposed to the weather. Over a period of years, decades now, I get to see where the wood rots, how the lashings fail, how the skin gets abraded. How varnish cracks and flakes off the wood and the skin. Then I pull the skin off a boat, replace the rotted wood with wood that is more impervious to rot, (cedar, redwood), redo the lashings that have broken or rotted, re-skin the boat, give it a new paint job and then I'm good for another half decade.
    You are right, one cannot claim expertise in a craft until one has seen one's creations go through a life cycle, unless one is making
    Singer sewing machines which seem to outlast their makers.
    All of the stuff I am doing has no real commercial value, except that it gives me some comfort knowing that I have some skills that are useful outside of our industrial culture. I am not eagerly anticipating the end of industrial civilization, but then, neither am I dreading it. And I suspect the ecosphere will breathe a sigh of relief when that is over. I think the ecosphere is starting to run a fever to rid itself of industry.

    1. Hi Wolfgang - yes, I also have a Singer. It's sitting right on front of me as I type these words. I found it sitting there in a shed in someone's garden in Denmark and asked them if they wanted to sell it. They agreed immediately and I got it for the price of a couple of pizzas. It's got a treadle and a drawer still full of needles and bits and bobs from many decades ago.

      As for your last paragraph - I couldn't agree more.

  2. Spot on, Jason!

    I recall the fine craftsman who taught me bookbinding saying:

    'At first it all looks too difficult. Then you think it's easy. And then you start the quest for perfection.....'

    As for time frames, I was struck by the fact that an apprentice wheelwright, after 7 years of long hours in the trade, could make from start to finish a .....wheelbarrow. That's all. Not even a humble dung cart.

    Nor would he, in all likelihood, ever know how to select the tree from which to take usable wood worth the effort and time of seasoning.

    The apparently simple 'world made by hand' was actually a very complex and sophisticated environment.

    It's laughable that people imagine we can slip back into it.

    Look forward to more entries, as and when.


    1. I wholeheartedly agree with your comment about the complexity of pre-industrial society. People were just as intelligent then as they are now and it took those intelligent people just as long to learn their trades as we take now to learn ours.

      I don't imagine that we can "slip back" into a pre-industrial lifestyle, but I do believe that by proper preparation and practice, one can learn enough to subsist after the industrial world disappears. It won't be easy at all, but I still think it can be done, especially if certain remnants of the industrial world can be kept around for a while to ease what will be an abrupt and very difficult transition.

      Just one example is the transport of water, which, in the absence of pressurized piping, can consume huge amounts of physical effort to pump and carry water by hand. I'm pretty sure my family's self contained solar powered water catchment and supply system can be kept going for many decades, even long after I am dead and new solar equipment is just a memory. My grandchildren may have to carry water by hand, by my children won't.

      It may be laughable to imagine that returning to a 'world made by hand' will be a romantic adventure, but it certainly isn't laughable to attempt to survive long enough to see that world return in some primitive form. I intend to help my family do so.

    2. Hi Xabier - yes, it's certainly not the case that we can just 'go back' to a less complex suite of technologies. As we've climbed up the ladder we've kicked out the rungs below us. It's going to be a long drop!

      But, yes, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. I think a lot of people intuit that we may have to go back to the old way of doing a lot of things, and the more people who can preserve various techniques, the better.

  3. Hi Jason.
    Excellent words and I could not agree with you more. I wondered where you had come across the 150 people concept in your book "Seat of Mars". I forget where too, but someone once mentioned in passing – it may have been here on your blog - that that was about the upper limit of the number of human relationships that the average person is able to maintain - or words to that effect.
    Mate, this learning business is one huge journey with no end in sight. One interesting thing I'm realising recently is that with the whole food producing process you have to be able to intimately read the climate and respond accordingly and rapidly to that reality. You may laugh about that, but climate variability down here is way out of control and consistency is gone, but over the past few years I get an almost sense that the weather can turn on a day and it is then just different for the next little while before it changes again. And March looks set to be hot and dry down here after a cool and wet summer. Then you have to sort of know how to respond to those new conditions so that you can optimise growth or output - but generally not both. It is a complex business.
    Incidentally I despair of the "short course makes the expert" mentality as such a course is only ever a starting point and not an end in and of itself - and then the participants never quite realise that there really is no end in sight to the learning process (as you pointed out in your blog)!
    Hey, my wife and I met another sake brewer last night who had worked in Japan in sake breweries. What a great conversation and he said that we brewed sake like they did 1,000 years ago which I'm sure was an exaggeration, but still, it made for good listening! What are the chances of that? He said he was only aware of one other person down here brewing sake that way in this corner of the planet.
    Cheers. Chris

    1. Hi Chris - yes, the 150 people - aka Dunbar's number - was a concept that I wanted the include in my novel. Given that so much was going wrong for many of the characters I wanted to show a bit of positivity going on with the more clued up ones.

      I'm with you in the weather sensitivity thing - it always amazed me that farmers had/have to be so precise with picking sunny days to mow the hay. Sunny days are hard to come by over on these soggy islands, and even harder to predict. Get it wrong and you'll have a field of rotting hay, which is surely a major loss.

      Sake? Wow - I haven't heard of anyone else doing that but why not? I'm not a huge fan of the stuff but I do like the whole ceremonial thing that goes along with it. Good luck with that venture!

  4. I'm a little late to the conversation but I wanted to add my two cents, as this topic greatly interests me. First off, Jason, you're bang on with the "expert in a week" mentality that's apparently taken hold of western society. Unfortunately, I was one of those people as I started teaching permaculture shortly after a few months learning it. I've since stopped as it didn't feel right to me to be teaching something I had little practical experience doing.

    On a brighter note, I've been learning the trade of blacksmithing! It's been a hobby of mine for years and I'm just now getting to a point where I feel comfortable selling my garden tools to others. Blacksmithing seemed so simple when I started, then I got to know a little about and the depth of the craft expanded beyond my reckoning. Here is something I could spend my entire life learning about.

    I believe learning and preserving some knowledge of this skill will be invaluable for generations to come. I've been focusing especially on using scrap metal and charcoal to align my equipment and techniques with the future we face. I'm learning how to make charcoal in a oil drum too! Perhaps we could share notes??


    1. Hi Tim,

      I appreciate people's enthusiasm for immediately taking up what they have learned and teaching others. I reckon we are stuttering and stumbling into a new age of re-learning, and it wu=ill be a messy transition.

      Blacksmithing sounds good. I've a friend doing the same thing and he has made some pretty useful stuff of late.I've offered him charcoal, but he says he needs coke/coal, so we'll see how that goes.

    2. Thanks for the reply, Jason. It already is a messy transition to relearn lost skills. We no longer have the apprentice system in place for people to learn a craft. Weekend warriors, hobbyists and part time craters are the order of the day. We have so much to learn and so little time.

      Your friend will, out of necessity, learn to forge with charcoal at some point. Maybe not now but when that time comes your investment in learning charcoal production will pay off.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.