Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Hard Goods

In the last couple of posts I’ve talked about the idea of having a range of types of capital to foster resilience. I started off talking about financial capital, because that is the form that first springs to mind for most people when they consider planning for the future, but it’s only one of ten different forms I outlined.

The next one I want to write about is hard capital. When I talk about hard capital I’m talking about physical objects that you can put your hand on. These are things that come under your orbit of control that you can put to good use in order to achieve your primary aim. What is your primary aim? It is, I would suggest, to stack the odds in your favour of living a good productive, healthy and happy life for as long as possible, and to resist being sucked into a chaotic void. Sound reasonable and realistic to achieve?

Many people these days have unrealistic aims. They want to do things like save the world from global warming, or push humanity onto a higher level of vibrational consciousness, or smash the patriarchy (whatever that is). As such, they are set up for failure, and the void stretches before them. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with aligning your life with your values and hoping for the best, but making an unachievable aim the major focus of your life will drain your energy faster than a solar battery on a cloudy day.

Instead, a wiser course of action would be to focus on things you can achieve within your own life. Once you’ve got your own house in order you’ll be of greater use to your family, your friends and your local community. Who knows, you may even have some energy left over to dedicate to achieving world peace.

The Brooklyn-born psychologist Abraham Maslow had a great deal to say on this matter. Maslow thought that the aim of life was to achieve “self-actualisation”. By that he meant climbing upwards and away from the drudgery of day-to-day existence, and achieving something truly remarkable with your life. To him a self-actualised person is:

“A person who makes full use of and exploits his talents, potentialities, and capacities. Such a person seems to be fulfilling himself and doing the best he is capable of doing. The self-actualized person must find in his life those qualities that make his living rich and rewarding. He must find meaningfulness, self-sufficiency, effortlessness, playfulness, richness, simplicity, completion, necessity, perfection, individuality, beauty, and truth.” Abraham Maslow

To this end, Maslow then went on to create his famous “hierarchy of needs” triangle, which sets out human needs, from the most basic to the most refined, with the implicit suggestion that we must all set out on a journey to climb our own personal pyramids.

Looking at the triangle, you may notice that, moving from the bottom to the top, is roughly equivalent of moving through the ten forms of capital needed for resilience which I outlined (financial, hard goods, mental, social, health, employment, bio, time, emotional and spiritual).  That is to say, one level needs to rest on the base of the one below in order to move up to the next level, with each level becoming narrower and more refined as you ascend. The pinnacle of the pyramid is the state of self-actualisation, and it rests on the firm base of the other states below it.

So, with the ideal of achieving our highest form of human experience, the next level of capital we’ll need to develop is the hard stuff. And the biggest piece of hard capital most people will need, and also something that appears very low down (i.e. of fundamental importance) in Maslow’s hierarchy, is a building in which to live. A home can take many forms, but it needs to provide shelter and safety at the very least. Ideally you will own your home and have the security of knowing that it’s yours and cannot be taken off you except in the most extreme of circumstances. Alas, housing across the industrialised world is a traditional favourite for speculative investors, meaning the price bears no relation to the materials involved in its creation. This puts home ownership out of reach of many people, forcing them into a life of renting or being shunted around from one social housing project to the next. And for now, strict zoning laws and obstructive planning rules keep it this way. Despite this, many people have found their own creative solutions. These include:

  • Tiny homes. Often the size of a garden shed, and sometimes on wheels to get round planning laws, tiny homes still provide the function of protection (from the elements), a safe place to sleep, a physical address and a store (however small) for other hard goods such as clothing and cooking wares. Pros: affordable: Cons: may fall foul of planning laws, not much space for anything except living
  • Earth sheltered buildings/hobbit holes. Increasingly common in northern Europe, these are partially dug out of the ground and usually hidden from view. Being constructed of natural materials and scavenged waste, they are very cheap to construct and are often situated on land deemed agricultural. Pros: cheap to build, close to nature: Cons: usually illegal, prone to demolition if discovered
  • “Wheel estate”. Living in a car, camper van (RV) or caravan is increasingly common, especially for people in the generations either side of the baby boomers. In the US there are now entire ‘communities’ of elderly workers living in these conditions and working for companies such as Amazon. Pros: very cheap, usually legal, mobile: Cons: little security, prone to breakdown/devaluation
  • Squats. Taking over unused buildings is not a new phenomenon but it is increasingly common in large cities. Pros: free: Cons: illegal, unsafe

If you’re one of the lucky few who can afford to own a regular house with a bit of land attached in the form of a garden, you should count yourself very lucky. However, there are pitfalls even here. We are told, and most people assume it to be an absolute truth, that houses are an asset. It’s an article of faith that they always rise in price over the long run, leading to the maxim “safe as houses.” But a house is not just an asset, it’s also a liability. Once you own a property that is legally registered in your name you are on the hook for whatever local taxes the increasingly cash-strapped municipal authorities decide to throw at you. Can you decide you don’t want to pay these taxes? Not without landing yourself in court — and if you still won’t pay, you may end up in prison (which is the ‘housing solution’ of last resort).

What’s more, houses decay. Roof tiles fall off and let water into the loft space. Damp spreads up walls from basements. Window frames rot and need replacing. Heating and cooling systems break down and cost a fortune to get repaired. The list goes on …

The aim of the game is to make your house more of an asset than a liability. You can do this by choosing to live in an area with low property taxes, running a business from home, making sure it is insulated properly so that it doesn’t waste energy, setting it up to run on renewable power, renting out a room (or even the whole house if you live in a touristy area), making use of outdoor space to grow food — again, the list of what you CAN do is long.

So, if you find yourself in the fortunate position of being able to buy a house, choose wisely. Get one that has a proven track record of standing up — newer houses (at least in the UK, and, I suspect, elsewhere) are made of cheap and shoddy materials that — even by the builders’ own admission — are not designed to last more than four or five decades.

Aside from housing, land is another eminently sensible physical thing to own. Whenever people ask me what I’d do if I won the national lottery (which is a pure thought experiment as I don’t buy tickets) I always answer that I’d buy land. As much of it as I could afford. Wherever I saw a field or a woodland or a degraded piece of scrubland, I’d buy it. I’d then get as many people as possible living and working on this land, restoring it to ecological health, growing food and generally being an example to others of what can be done.

Even if you don’t own any land, you’re still going to need some tools to ensure you can make some form of living. I have three main tools: a car, a laptop and a chainsaw. My car allows me and my family to get around and to move things that would be very difficult if we had to rely on muscle power alone. My laptop enables me to gather information, communicate, organise my life, apply for jobs, write blogs and books and a host of other things too. My chainsaw allows me to cut down trees and then butcher them up into small chunks in order to produce firewood, building materials and charcoal — something that would be very difficult to do if I had to rely on hand saws alone.

It's probably a good idea to get hold of any tools you think you might need in the future. The time to buy them is now, when all it takes is the click of a mouse button to have a diesel powered delivery van roll up outside your house a day or two later. Sites such as eBay are a great place to find old hand tools.  And old hand tools tend to be better than modern ones as the quality of metal ores used to be far higher than they are today. I have hammers that are probably 70 years old and still in great shape, and hammers that I’ve had only a year or two but are damaged after only light use.

Other hard goods that will improve your basic resilience in this category include:

-       Food and water. You should have enough food to hand to last you and your family through several months of disruption to supply. Most people operate a ‘just in time’ mode of living, going to the supermarket every day and having mostly empty shelves. This is an efficient way of operating, but it is hardly resilient. It’s best to build up a basic store of things that keep a long time, such as rice, dry beans and pasta, and then build of a store of canned goods, sauces, stock cubes and other items that will make consuming your bland basics a little more interesting. If you have somewhere to grow food, make sure you also have enough seeds in store. Always buy non-GMO heirloom varieties.

Clothing. Make sure you have enough clothing to last you a long time. If I had enough money, I would buy several pairs of really good boots, dozens of thick socks, several rainproof coats and hardwearing overalls, and I’d store them away for future use. Here’s an anecdote: my wife’s grandfather was a policeman in Denmark during WWII. One day the Nazis invaded and arrested all the police, but he managed to escape. For the next three years he lived rough in a forest, working with the resistance and enduring unbearably cold winters — an experience he never forgot. In 2002, just before he died it was found out that he had been saving in the attic all the socks, gloves and hats he’d been given over the years — “You never know when the hard times might come again,” he said.

Quality stuff. Despite the cornucopian abundance we enjoy at present, almost everything produced for consumers these days is cheap and shoddy. Unfortunately, for people on a low or average income, these are the only affordable options. Nevertheless, it pays to seek out quality things that will last a long time, and these can be cheaper than you think. Flea markets and charity shops are great places for the discerning scavenger to pick up quality objects. I have bought cast iron frying pans, ceramic pots and high grade ore tools very cheaply from these places. eBay is great for this too (just this week I purchased a hard wearing wax jacket for £40 that would have been £260 new – the reason being there was a small hole in one of the pockets.) If you can afford it, buy quality new things too. It might be painful to fork out the extra in the short term, but if it means you won’t ever have to buy said item again it will have been worth it.

Books and manuals. Again, these are very cheap at present and easy to obtain, so you may as well stock up if you have the space. “How to” manuals will be worth their weight in gold in the future as the internet becomes less and less useful as an information source, as will good quality fiction and non-fiction. Now is the time to build up your personal library.

Things of beauty. Okay, so not strictly ‘necessary’, but they will add value to your life. I don’t want anything in my house that isn’t either useful or beautiful, and some of the things I own perform dual roles. I’ve bought oil lamps from antique shops that look nice on my table now but will give light in the event of a grid interruption, artwork handing on the walls created by friends, furniture upcycled by my wife and old oak chests with beautiful painted artwork that I picked up for a song as they no longer fitted with people’s contemporary ideas of interior design.

I’m firmly convinced that if you live in a modern industrialised nation you can get hold of most of what you need to furnish your home either for free, or almost free. After all, this is exactly what I did in the very first blog post I ever wrote on here, seven years ago when I had no money.

So, anyway, there were some thoughts on getting hold of the hard goods you’ll need to build up that level of resilience in order to move onwards and upwards towards your aim of living the best life possible under the circumstances you are presented with. 

I’ll be taking a break for a few weeks in this series as I’m between jobs and focusing on getting the next instalment of my sci-fi book series written — the next in the series is called Neptune Rising — so have a great Yule/Christmas and see you in the New Year!


  1. Wise words! Interesting about the metal ores; that chimes with my experience. Our allotment shed is full of old hand tools which work so much better than our neighbours' expensive brand new ones, never need recharging & don't seem to get nicked like everyone else's. Sometimes they have to borrow them...

    Can I add a bit of a plug for wool? I'm sitting here in a 1900s house complete with original Edwardian drafts, on a cool December evening, perfectly cosy in a vintage pure wool jumper (sweater to our US cousins) that cost me £1 from a charity shop pound rail back in June. I'm pretty much "see the Woolmark, buy it!" although I can't wear it next to my skin. I do also spin, crochet & weave, but when someone else has done the work for me, and it's only a pound or two, it has to be a worthwhile investment. Curiously modern wool garments don't seem to be as good either, or at least, not the ones I can afford. I also have a number of old, handwoven wool rugs, many of them rescued from skips. Both beautiful and useful...

    We had a brilliant moment at our county agricultural show this year. A farmer walked up to one of my fellow spinners, and asked, "Are you Val, please?" On her assent, he whipped off his Barbour jacket & grinned, "There! This is the jumper you spun & knitted for me from my Jacob's fleece twenty years ago. I wear it day in, day out. It's just beginning to need patching at the elbows, but otherwise it's as good as new. Best value for money ever." Says it all really!

    1. Hi TW. Yes, wool is a great material isn't it? No shortage of it on these islands either ... I have a couple of friends who've set up a smallholding and they have introduced sheep onto it, so maybe I'll ask them for a bit of wool to play with (after I've learned how to wash and cure it).

    2. Be careful - be very careful! An offer to take fleece off their hands may result in you finding builder's bags full of the stuff on your doorstep... the fleeces that are too rough for handspinning make great peg-loom rugs, and failing that, a wonderful mulch, plus good nest material for the birds. But that runs the risk of causing an outbreak of the dreaded moths...

  2. Happy Christmas to you too, look forward to reading the next installment in the new year.

  3. Great post Jason! I'm totally into the same space of "light prepping" and trying to get organized for the future, including a small 220 sq ft tiny house build. One item I've gotten a lot of use out of is a sewing machine. 10 years ago I got a new one for my girlfriend (a Husqvarna) and later I also bought up a sail sewing machine (Sailrite). Both have paid off many times already, and the Sailrite is kind of like my car. Clunky. Repairable. Moody. I'm looking forward to future posts in the series.

    1. Hi Volvo - we have (at the last count) four sewing machines in our house. They range from a computerised one we bought in Sweden, right down to an antique treadle Singer. I don't know how to use any of them, but luckily my wife and daughters do.

  4. Hi Jason,

    A Merry Christmas / Yule to you and your family. I look forward to reading the new book when it is completed! Winter is a good time for writing.


    1. Hi Chris - Merry Yule to you and yours too. I'd better get a move on with writing my book ... there always seems to be something getting in the way every day ...

    2. Hi Jason
      I forget who but I remember a guy, in order to write his book getting a job looking after a big house overwinter for the absent ownerss. Didn't get any time to write!
      But you have already got two (at least) books plus short stories done, and with young family! Looks good to me.
      Next few days are going to be a bit busy if you are anything like us. Somehow though I like these short days. Have a good season one and all

  5. "And old hand tools tend to be better than modern ones as the quality of metal ores used to be far higher than they are today. I have hammers that are probably 70 years old and still in great shape, and hammers that I’ve had only a year or two but are damaged after only light use."

    To be honest its not so much the hammers that worry me but the nails, so many seem to bend out of shape at any contact with a hammer. Screws as well, some of their heads are more like fudge than metal once you try to use a screwdriver on them.


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