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.