The Tropics - A Two Step Transition

The following is a guest post from Tom Peifer,(Tpverde), a TOD reader from Costa Rica. Thirteen years ago, Tom, an agroecologist, writer and builder from California took on the mission of regenerating a section of a 500-acre reforestation project near Paraiso, Costa Rica. In the last decade he has restored this seasonal pasture and spiny jungle thicket to a sustainable farm and research facility and educational institute called El Centro Verde (ECV).
(Reminder: The Oil Drum's Campfire series runs on Wednesday and Saturday nights, highlighting missives from readers on practical aspects of Peak Oil on Wed., and 'big picture' questions and discussion on Sat..)

The Tropics--A Two-Step Transition

The past is still here; it’s just not widely distributed

As someone who has spent the past quarter of his life in the lower latitudes, the fancy footwork and the tropical rhythms still present a bit of a challenge on the dance floor.

All the same, when I see my peak oil-aware brethren struggling to define and implement the best way to achieve a lower carbon future, I feel a bit of confidence that in this corner of the world, we are a couple of steps ahead of our temperate climate cousins. At times the contrasts are striking, at times comic.

Take yesterday. My neighbor Evido showed up on his bike at 6:30 AM. Dark circles under his eyes, he was delivering the kilo of ribs and loin that I ordered 3 days before. He slaughters at midnight, butchers until early light and then sets out to deliver. No refrigeration, no gasoline, nada. Grass fed beef to the doorstep and your dollars recycled in your community.

Evido, the local butcher, corn grower and deliveryman.

Ironically, Evido appeared just while I was skimming a review of the latest survival manifesto. This, on a web site featuring all the latest gadgets and multipurpose, stainless steel, apocalypse preparedness accessories so you can head off into the wilderness ready to dig in to a sumptuous repast of rat meat sashimi. Evido had a more primitive toolkit: a sledgehammer, an axe, a machete and a sharpening stone. All I had to do was plug into a socio-economic network with the ‘tools and the talent’ to deliver fresh filet on a weekly basis.

The area where I live, Guanacaste, the province of Costa Rica bordering Nicaragua, in fact, used to be more self-sufficient. Much food is now imported, processed, industrial junk with all the familiar brand names and unpronounceable ingredients. However there are nooks and crannies of the old ways. People like Evido or his mother Doña Juaquina who makes cheese and tortillas by hand. Other neighbors raise chickens and hogs. Anyone who has land plants corn in the rainy season. Many still gather food from the wild, shellfish off the rocks, crabs from the nearby mangroves. There is also a growing awareness that some of these hokey old traditions might be harbingers of a more livable future.

Our area has seen an influx of foreigners over the past decade. They are drawn by the warm weather, the margaritas at sunset or the relaxed pace of life. Local economies have flourished, but usually not in the directions favored by “transition” thinkers. Without going into a detailed critique of the negative impacts, I would like to offer up some advice to people whose plans for transition include the possibility of relocation to an area where the locals might be ‘behind the times’ but, unbeknownst to themselves, ahead of the game.

Try to remember, the better you are as a “scout” the more likely you’ll be able to claim “mission accomplished.” Try to get a handle on who is who, what is what and when and where you can begin to make a difference. Let’s go back to my relationship with Evido the butcher.

He also happens to be the only guy locally who maintains the tradition of preparing and selling the whole range of dishes which are prepared from “green corn,” before the kernels have gone starchy and are waiting to be dried and stored. The corn bread, tamales and green corn ‘crepes’ are delicious. Equally important, this is the season sometimes called the “hungry gap,” when the seeds are in the ground and everybody is waiting for grain to make tortillas, one of the dietary staples. These dishes are a culinary adaptation to obtain both nutrition and variety in the diet early in the cropping cycle while the corn is ripening. Also, Evido is able to generate some income before the main crop is harvested.

As newcomers to an area, let’s assume that the Prime Directive—that of non-interference—as mandated by the United Federation in Star Trek, does not bind us. Let’s assume we have scouted, identified what is here and what tendencies we want to strengthen. What do we do?

First, make sure you are paying the same price as the locals so as not to distort their market. Second, become a steady customer and spread the word—in my case to the local ex-pat population who generally don’t have a clue about sourcing local food. And third, I verified that Evido uses seeds from traditional varieties and not GMO hybrid corn seed. I make sure that he knows that I know, and that our business depends on that continuing to be the case.

A recent article in Forbes disputed the ‘locavore myth’ and argued that the carbon footprint of far-off food production may actually be lower. ‘Food miles’ is not the only yardstick in charting out a transition to a more sustainable future. As Richard Heinberg and others have pointed out, we need millions of farmers, and we need them everywhere. In an area like Guanacaste, where I live, the local traditions are like the seeds and sprouts that lie dormant in the forest, ready to spring into action to fill gaps when a big tree falls--the process known as ‘succession.’ My shopping helps to keep the ‘seed bank’ viable and ready to spread out and take over when the right conditions present themselves.

As an outsider in this setting my original goal of self-sufficiency has evolved to an active participation in local networks of production and exchange. If you think the past holds keys to the future, you can also find out about what crops or food from the wild people used to eat but which are fading away with time. These foods are unlikely to be found in markets. They were never commercialized, which is precisely why they are disappearing from use, just like so many heirloom varieties of apples and other crops in the States and Europe.

One possibility for immigrants with a gardening bent is to source these crops, multiply them up via seeds or cuttings and make them available locally. In my area, pardon the expression; we are ‘killing two birds with one stone.’ Foreigners here are considered the people who embody all that is smart and successful about the ‘future’. When instead, our efforts are seen as striving to reclaim the some aspects of the past, it imbues the traditional practices and heirloom varieties with more than just a sense of nostalgia about ‘tradition’, but with an extra dose of validity.

This is a more sophisticated technique of contour water spreading in a flood plain with a "fertility building trench" on the upstream side. Note all work done by hand, not backhoe. 2 men 2 days

Larger scale technical interventions, from rearranging fence lines on contours to preparation and application of massive amounts of compost for field crops like corn, need to be thoroughly considered within the context of the limitations of time, resources and labor power. What appears as a simple line on your permaculture design may be an investment beyond the capacities of nearby smallholders. And remember that small farmers are ‘risk adverse’, they can’t afford investments that don’t pay off or they go under.

Once you have proven things that work on your own site, you might want to simply invite some neighbors over to share the results. That is one way to gauge interest in new crops or varieties. My experience is that new crops are much less likely to generate enthusiasm than new varieties of crops which are known and used. The ten different shapes and colors of ‘cherry’ tomatoes that I grow are a big hit in my surroundings but eggplant and arrugala are hardly destined to play a role in local cuisine. Exotic banana varieties with different flavors and textures are eagerly sought and planted. But getting people to switch from rice to millet or amaranth is a lost cause—even though it might make ‘sense’ in agro-ecological terms.

A more complete list of the ‘comparative advantage of backward areas’ would include the capacity for arduous physical labor, the encyclopedic knowledge base of the elders, the level of expectations about the future, the role of extended family support systems and many more points which I may have overlooked, but will perhaps be offered up by readers.

There is a take home message here for individuals and families who are considering emigration as key to their strategy for “transition’. I have tried to indicate some of the nuances in choosing the steps backwards in time towards a more sustainable future.

After thousands of hours of conversations with my neighbors here in Guanacaste, I am convinced that the approach outlined above is more effective than trying to explain the complexities of petroleum depletion, EROEI and building a transition movement on the basis of abstractions which are likely beyond the grasp of people who are grounded in local realities and real time. Ironically, few of my neighbors realize just how well positioned they are for the challenges to come. From my perspective, however, there is little doubt that being firmly enmeshed in a tradition of self-sufficiency is a giant step towards a livable future.

Tom Peifer

Afterword: Recent posts in the Campfire series—and the accompanying lively discussions—have delved into various aspects of the enormity of changes which lie ahead. As perhaps the most (energy and affluence) spoiled children in the history of human existence we can expect more than a modicum of whining when reality begins to deliver a double dose of strong medicine and the occasional spanking. Nonetheless, it is extremely helpful to try to objectively consider a range of opinions and experiences and strive to avoid the extremes of crushing pessimism or false optimism when choosing options to pursue.

The ‘go it alone’ option may well work better for some than it did for the family of Harrison Ford in the movie Mosquito Coast. At the same time the human experience on this planet has been a social construct from day one. Building and balancing relationships in production and exchange will prove to be as or more important than the tools and techniques of scratching our sustenance from the soil. As the ‘top omnivore’ in the global ecosystem, homo sapiens var. transitionens has a fascinating, if daunting, journey ahead—in whatever geographical and cultural context we choose to sink our roots

Tom - thanks for sharing your experience and insight.

Question: isn't there a 'limit' to the amount of foreigners, in fact people themselves, who could live this way in your country? Why would you 'advertise' (other than pride/satisfaction) your general destination as one that is relatively sustainable given the tragedy of the commons phenomenon?

You seem to have a strong social capital in your community - like you could leave things around and not be stolen etc. I would much rather live in such a place than a gated community, though I have heard that Costa RIca has those as well.

Good luck to you!

Jones, thanks for bringing up some important issues.

On limits, my home state of California is 15-20 times bigger than Costa Rica and LA County has 3X the population. Clearly there are limits.

My intent was to explain the characteristics of where I live which make it in certain respects suitable for people who are considering different approaches in order to transition to a lower carbon lifestyle. I strongly suspect that there are many areas in the developing world which have more room and many of the characteristics which I highlighted. In addition, prices are probably a lot cheaper since they haven't been 'discovered' by foreigners to the same degree that Costa Rica has been.

Theft is an issue almost everywhere. My approach to the issue, and my retort to those who build and live in gated communities is: Don't gate, integrate!!!!

Hi Tom
I'm pessimistic about the future. I'm pessimistic because I understand my and my offspring's standard of living is going to plummet. There will be no more "the world is your oyster", "you can be anything you want", "there is no such thing as can't", "if you get a good education and work hard your life will be secure".............and so on. Each generation for the past seventy odd years has been fed those cliché’s.

My optimism is my human nature. I just hope I'm wrong, I hope all I've read is wrong, I guess I hope it's all a bad dream. But simply saying that we must discard the doomerism won't change what is coming. It’s just helps restrict discussions to the topic of choice, although I guess I fell through.

Reporting on a Shangri-la of opportunity and self sufficiency that works with low energy inputs is nice but we are billions, it's like telling a New York brownstone resident to support themselves with a balcony garden.

As we slide down the economic down slope, the out of work will pillage and plunder (maybe not literally) and they will move. There will be no islands of plenty in seas of want.

Despair and hunger will transcend borders. Many, many will still seek opportunity and if opportunity is represented by a fertile landscape in a remote location expect it to be either illegally settled, plundered, confiscated or obtained with an offer "too good to refuse".

Just as you have described in the above pics, the future will be hard work. Short term survival will mean understanding and having a willingness to work hard, long, anywhere and doing anything. I think though for the majority of the western world they will say "I thought Manual Labor was a Mexican tennis player".......They will desperately cling to hopes of BAU and a change to better times or a government rescue. My guess is they will be the first to………whatever.

I think 20K worth of sequestered freeze dried food packets is as good a survival plan as any. It won’t save everyone but neither will neighborly “self-sufficiency” during the transition. That will be what we will do when we have no choice and when there are far fewer inhabitants. (If there is anything left).

While Jones makes a good point about limits, I don't think Tom is advocating that everyone move to Guanacaste--that would be a disaster, and in any case the Costa Rican authorities would have something to say about that. But, on the other hand, on a more micro, personal scale each individual, family, clan or other social unit of choice, as a matter of practical future living, does at some point need to make a move in one direction or another. At some point, the discussion needs to end (no doubt before its really "finished") and transition needs to happen.

Now, Tom says that he has been in Guanacaste for 13 years and I wonder, despite all the positive examples in his post, and the implied application of years of hard work, how far along he really feels toward a truly sustainable arrangement. My point here is that transition starts with a strategy, is facilitated by an opportunity, and is then likely to take a very long time to implement, a longer time than we are typically used to thinking about with the exception of perhaps paying off the mortgage on a house. It's a life trajectory that is not only about ourselves, but our children and their children (even if they don't know it yet).

We don't all need to follow Tom's strategy, or any one strategy, but we do all (IMHO) need to find a direction, and probably a relatively unique direction that is suited to our circumstances, and get a move on. The hour is getting late, and although I sympathize, thinking about what everyone else is going to do can paralyze us into inaction.

For me personally, staying in the US is not an option. When I think about Bowling for Columbine, and how far the culture of guns and violence has developed, it just isn't an environment in which I choose to experiment with and live through transition. Instead, I've been looking around at other opportunities in the world, and in fact Costa Rica is top of my list. See you down there, Tom!

Good Luck I wish you well and sincerely wish I was possessed with your gonads.
Apart from that I agree with what you are saying. Curling into the fetal position won't cut it either, going down fighting is a perfectly legitimate strategy. Better keep your plan a secret though, don't want the world to know.

Columbine is scary, but for perspective compare it to deaths caused by automobile collisions. Compare deaths from lots of things that scare us (terrorism, violent crimes, anthrax a while back, etc) to deaths caused by automobile collisions. The sensational threats we fear most are less of a threat than the immediate threats we've become accustomed to and tolerate.

Yeah, and the deaths from automobile collisions have been going on in the U.S. and elsewhere for years, and years, and years. I nearly died that way myself, in a head-on collision with a very inebriated driver. She did die.
Now, I hate even riding in automobiles, and don't, if I can avoid it.

Actually, reading about what others are doing galvanizes me to action. I have stuck my stake in the ground, and Tom just makes me want to move faster. Your sense of stress is just because YOU need to get moving also.

Bandits is the one to ignore. Maybe he'll get out of the denial stage, maybe not.

I had opportunities in Europe, South America, Central America, Oceania, and the Caribbean but I'm willingly staying in the U.S. Not that any of those areas are wrong for others. Pick the spot that maximized your personal chances. Dang, I like that high altitude Costa Rican climate, but the package ain't for me.

Cold Camel

What am I denying?

You deny the possibility that your actions may have a significant impact on your future. A mature response is to act in the face of certain danger, or hold still and wait for an opportunity. Panic is rarely appropriate. "We're all going to die!" is a self fulfilling prophesy, so I suggest the rest of TOD ignore you until and unless wake up.

You are not the only one who feels pessimistic. Positive reports like Tom's inspire me to see if I can do better. None of us know the future and 90% of our personal outcomes will be due to luck, but we still plan and act. It's like the story about why you tie your shoes when you go for a walk in Alaska. You can't outrun a bear.

A huge pile of freeze-dried food is a start. Have you taken possession? Can you think of anything else that might improve your odds?

I was stumped for three months because I couldn't figure out what I wanted to grow in my pastures. I asked... and I received. TOD community filled my brain and I'm off running again. If you are locked up about any certain concern, feel free to post your problem.

Cold Camel

Correct, so what.

Cold Camel,
Which places in Europe? Care to talk about why those places were wrong for you?

Good question Single,
I could emigrate to Norway. It was a tough decision not to, knowing what I know.

Cold Camel

A very useful article, confirming the value of simplicity in an era of reduced energy supplies.

I am watching someone I know slowly becoming more like your butcher Evido. He used to be a person willing to get into any kind of debt. Flying all over the place for any reason as long as it was "professional". Moving to any sewer of a city in search of professional advancement.

I said, "no" (I am married to this person) but that was a really unpopular suggestion. I explained about peak oil....basically "deaf ears". Then came the credit crisis and watching the old income fail to purchase what it once could. Now talk about paying off debt. And no more traveling (it incurs debt even when it is partially covered by a grant).
More than that there is a gleam in the eye of this person, as though an ancient visitor (call him or her "scarcity") had come to call. It is a visitor he has never really met, only heard talk of (plenty of talk of, this being Japan!). I can see the process continuing until we leave this expensive crowded place covered with cement, until we drink out of streams, until we live in a shack, eat one bowl of rice a day and walk miles to see a doctor. I am not really too worried about the future. The past did used to worry me. But a simple future like the one you describe in Costa Rica seems like home.

"I am convinced that the approach outlined above is more effective than trying to explain the complexities of petroleum depletion, EROEI and building a transition movement on the basis of abstractions which are likely beyond the grasp of people who are grounded in local realities and real time."

Nice post! Totally agree, in my own village here in France I never talk about any of the things that actually brought me here (financial collapse, Climate Change and energy depletion). People in the village want to shop locally, they want a local economy, they want to personally know people they deal with. Simply by giving them what they want gives all of us a better chance of surviving the crises.

What's needed is people who will get on with the job, rather than people who can talk about what needs to be done. Unfortunately, there seems to be few of the former and a lot of the latter. It seems to me to be better to transform one's community via one's own action rather than by trying to make them transform via communicating what should be done.

It’s a joy to read about someone else who is actively preparing.

These are my concerns after reading about your actions and I share them with you to make sure that you are confronting the reality of your situation. But I do not fault your location or actions. With a close ear to the wind, you just might have made the move that will keep the Langoliers from your door.

First, agriculture in tropical latitudes destroys soil. The microbes are too active. Sustainable carrying capacity is quite low unless you grow rice in the lowlands. You may live in a Garden of Eden but you can’t support dense populations that allow diversity. If you make a mistake, the loss of nutrients will be unforgiving. Tierra Prieta is energetically consuming.

Second, Costa Rica has a rapidly growing population that has little appreciation for sustainable agriculture. My brother spent several years there and watched as his jungle research station became a forested island among cattle farms. The population of Costa Rica is significantly over the carrying capacity. When they are hungry, they will attempt to grow corn rather than rice, or sustainable forest crops. The combination of tropical soils and stubborn farmers is not good.

Third, while Ticos are tranquillo, there is little respect for private property. I was offered 100 acres of in Northern Costa Rica at a good price and scoured the internet looking at options in Costa Rica to evaluate the offer. It turns out that squatters routinely claim unoccupied land, so you can’t be a part-time Tico. Theft is a real problem, as anything you don’t actively use may grow legs. This is not a universal problem as you mention. My perspective is that during periods of extreme social stress, such cultures suffer much worse because the benefits from preemptive preparations are dispersed, so they don’t happen. Everyone goes down together.

Fourth, if you are not a Tico and are not related to your neighbors, your risk is increased. Germans are wonderful people. So are the tribes in Rwanda. Integration only works if they can’t pick out the gringo in a lineup. Your gringo neighbors also expose you to risk because they don’t sound integrated, and no matter what you do, you will never be Tico.

Fifth, there is not a chance in the world that enough people will read this blog and invade your region causing a negative impact on your future. Bully for you to have the guts to expose your hidey-hole. Nicaraguans will cross the border, and they are already hungry. I would want to be far from the border. But relatively speaking, the external threat to Costa Rica is non-existent.

Please don’t take my comments as criticisms; I just don’t share your perspective. I looked at a shared farm in Ecuador, a large spread on a river in Honduras, and considered joining a community in Mexico. If I had a different heritage, family situation, and the ability to settle in full-time, I might be a neighbor. The attractions of your situation are significant.

Cold Camel

This is a great article / glimpse at another way of existing but as one commentator stated its not going to be for everyone. The question then is can we build something that those that do not want to fit in with this model can live with or will 'they' simply die off?

I'm becoming convinced that one key element of any transition is our overall approach to food. Somehow we have lost the plot when it comes to food. I'm sure our ancestors -going back to some threshold date- had much better tasting and welcome fayre than we do. They ate in season, looked forward to a turkey at Christmas and respected it, where much closer to the production of the food they ate -jams, chutneys, herbs, etc. etc.

Simply getting 'anything' 'anytime' in a plastic wrapper from the local supermarket has devalued our experiance in addition to making what we eat taste poor.

Some of us have even lost the capability to combine ingrediants and now live almost entirely on 'factory food'.

I therefore think one key way to help any transition will be to regain an understanding of our food in its entirety.


Well put about food noutram.

Hi Nick! Your comment rings a big bell with me. On my own minipermaculture operation, one of the multitude of practical lessons that come blizzarding every foot of the way up the steep learning-curve is that producing the food, vegetable and animal, is only about half the equation.

This past few seasons, I've realised with the strong impetus of in-my-face practical experience that I have to be just as good a food preservation and storage as I have to be at plant growing and animal husbandry. Jams, chutneys, krauts, kimchis, purees, and bottled fruits and even nuts (pickled walnuts, outer husk and all, are delicious and healthy food any time of year, if you have enough stored) have all become an area of rapid study, experiment and self-education for me. Add pemmican making (dried Muscovy-Duck meat) and egg pickling too.

The result has been some sensational gastronomic and health-related surprises.

Perhaps sauerkraut plain and simple is the best example. At it's simplest: I pack fine-chopped cabbage into a recycled jam/marmalade/honey jar; a modest layer, then a very sparing sprinkle of sea-salt, then the next layer, and so on, till the jar is bulging-over full. Press it down hard, and crowd in more if room appears. Repeat till no more can be pressed in. Add a dash of moderately-dilute brine, to be the foundation of the lactic-acid fermentation-produced liquor which will be the natural preservative of the vegetable, and the carrier of much of the health-giving properties. Press the cap on and screw it down tight. Tip it about a bit, and watch the water creep up and down between the tight-packed bits of cabbage. Note that no cooking or pasteurisation are needed.

Over the next few days, the salt draws liquids out of the mulitple cut edges of the cabbage bits, and increases the body of fluid in which the cabbage is bathed. Its saltiness inhibits other fermentation-capable micro-organism, encouraging only those which can stand it, and which carry on the lactic-acid-producing ferment.

Within a day or two, you have a tangy, crunchy and highly tasty simple super-food; super both for health and for nutrition. Self-preserves without refrigeration for many months. Goes with masses of other foods, as a staple relish. Kimchis are the Korean equivalent, and are seemingly endless variations and elaborations on the fermented-cabbage base, limited only by your inventiveness.

And don't get me started about chutneys: just about any surplus vegetables can be included in a mix which is founded on vinegar, sugar, spices, apples and onions as the base, with just a few minute's simmering in a pressure cooker.

Someone who knows -- and practises -- MUCH more than me about this stuff can be found here:

And though browsing everywhere around Sandor's site is good, this page is particularly instructive:

Give it a go in the absolutely minimal way that I sketch above, to start with, and get the bug!

Next year, on the strength of several year's experimentation, I aim to grow enough potatoes, in scythe-cut mulch placed straight down onto sod, without any tillage (sic), to get a generous year-round store until the next year's crop starts coming in, with a good margin to spare for trading with neighbours, if only for community goodwill: making up for a mis-spent youth by being one of the proliferating low-profile trail-finders into the new paradigm, for the people here in Britain who are just beginning to feel the first cold winds of permanent prosperity-lowering, which is still being billed here by the 'expert's', for the time being, as a temporary recession. Hah!

So, from a wide boundary perspective, a transition to the tropics on the surface is just a 'lifeboat' scenario - e.g. not an answer for everyone (not there needs to be such an 'answer'. (But after thinking about it - it is more subtle. Many people understand what our energy/resource/supply side problems are, and more are starting to understand the neural/habituation impacts of the demand side mental demands. But the problem is huge built infrastructure/sunk costs - very tough to do what you are doing anywhere in USA. So transitioning to a locale such as yours allows one to pretty quickly live a lower energy footprint lifestyle - however it is a non-starter for most with friends and family elsewhere.

What is average consumption for Costa Rican vis a vis American? What is average for your area in Costa Rica vis a vis country average? Any idea?

I think lifeboats can play very important roles in developing and demonstrating techniques, preserving knowledge, etc.--see the networks of monasteries in Europe that (despite many other issues) helped to preserve knowledge and social continuity between the fall of Rome and the Renaissence.

However, I think the sine qua non of the coming crisis will be adapting suburbia. As I argued here, the majority of Americans who live in some form of suburban community cannot as a group leave that situation until there has been a total economic collapse, at which point it would be far too late to make any kind of orderly transition. What (I think) we need most are platform-orriented self-sufficiency models for suburbia that can be widely adopted and that will facilitate such an orderly transition (to the extent this is possible).

Very nice article, and I think he's doing important work, but I don't think it offers a viable model for transition. What I think it DOES do is offer an example of how simpler, lower-consumption lifestyles can be very meaningful and rewarding--and that IS something that I think will be of great value in a wider transition...

Jeff, there probably is no viable model for transition, at least in terms of a top-down solution, one size-fits all. Essentially the national centralised economic system is failing, the backup system is likely to be the decentralised local economic system working with whatever is left of the former. Such local economies will have to evolve naturally from the resources they're left with. Like seeds distributed randomly, some will fall on barren ground and fail to grow, others on poor to fertile soils and will grow with mixed results.

For a suburban local economy I guess the model will be one of exporting local produce, services/labour (ie. outside contracts and salaried employment) and importing necessities. The more self-sufficient the local economy is then the more likely the community will succeed and the less it will be bothered by the vagaries of its imports/exports with the national economy. Local resources currently in situ will mostly dictate the success of any local economy.

For the individual it will be essential to ascertain whether a local economy can in fact evolve where they live, if so, whether they want to be part of it (ie. it may be a crime based economy) or if they're in an economic die-off zone. If they're in the wrong place they need to move, period. By necessity IMO, the reorganisation of society has to be a disorganised, bottom-up, internal process to succeed in building natural local economies. Any organised, top-down, externally designed and implemented solution can only succeed in building a superficial synthetic economy which will soon fall to some malign outside influence or dependency.

Jeff just read your essay; " Diagonal Economy 1: Overview". Seems you're already well advanced in the above line of thinking already. I'll be following your series of articles with great interest.

One book I've mentioned many times on TOD for urban and suburban people is The Integral Urban House by the Farrallones Institute, 1979, ISBN 0-87156-213-8. It cover everything from energy efficiency to alternative energy to home food production. No hype. Just solid information. I highly recommend it.

The Mother Earth News did several articles on it and they might still be in their archives.


This is going to be daunting.

Not just that I finally got some sleep and so many comments came in during the night, I had to get my workers started on top-work in the agroforestry system. Warning: the telephone cable may be collateral damage at any time.

Last first. Jeff, I have read many of your articles and "kudos from the jungle" to you. Whenever you want a tropical vacation a couple of minutes from the beach I have a spare hammock or two. Your emphasis on reforming or retrofitting suburbia is, I suspect, the dominant model with real world possibilities for the US. Turn the 'greatest misallocation of resources' into the 'best case scenario' under the given circumstances and with the resources available.

The chain saw just fired up in the canopy, let me see if can send this and post again.

In an area like Guanacaste, where I live, the local traditions are like the seeds and sprouts that lie dormant in the forest, ready to spring into action to fill gaps when a big tree falls--the process known as ‘succession.’

Enlightening post, and I was especially moved by the implicit analogy of the above quote!

Like Jeff, I reacted to this article more in terms of figuring out how to transition successfully where you are, rather than as an invitation to 'lifeboat' to a promising far away location. If the collapse features a mad scramble to the tropics that would end up being the 2nd greatest misallocation of resources.

Awesome article and I loved your perspective and wisdom. I'm confident no matter what the rest of the world does, there will be healthy pockets where the human genome is preserved and where low impact living goes on.

Nate, I tried to reply to your post, but a branch fall in the ongoing canopy work punctuated my thought process.

On levels of consumption, I am not sure exactly what you are referring to as a whole but perhaps this recent info sent by a friend will help:

"The highest Happy Planet Index (HPI) score is that of Costa Rica (76.1 out of 100). As well as reporting the highest life satisfaction in the world, Costa Ricans also have the second-highest average life expectancy of the New World (second only to Canada). All this with a footprint of 2.3 global hectares. Whilst this success is indeed impressive, Costa Rica narrowly fails to achieve the goal of ‘one-planet living’: consuming its fair share of natural resources (indicated by a footprint of 2.1 global hectares or less)."

The footprint in my neighborhood is no doubt less, since it is a poor area and consider that the 2 million+ who live in the greater metropolitan area of San Jose, the capital, in general have a 'higher standard of living.' Consider just this salient fact. No wheat is produced in Costa Rica. Juxtapose the sandwich, pizza and pastry consumption of San Jose with the corn tortilla and corn meal based pastries of Guanacaste and you get a hint of the regional differences in "footprints."

Let me reiterate, everyone can't or shouldn't move here, that is not the point. Some may. but many can learn bits and pieces from other's experiences. Sometimes even, a time away from the mainstream can 'bring people to their senses' about what is important for them in their natural habitat.

Two experiences come to mind; a friend who also spent time in West Africa and remarked, " had I not lived in Africa I'd still think it was important what model of car I was driving." Another, a recent intern here at El Centro Verde, a casualty of the downsizing of Goldman Sachs, as he trudged over the hill to turn in for the night in our most isolated cabin, at 7:30 PM on a Saturday nite, "A month ago I never could have imagined this, now I totally dig it."

Nothing can be more subversive to the systemic disorder of stressed-out overconsumption than an adequate dose of quality time in a culture where people are actually happier, have more free time and know how to drop everything and go to a fiesta.



Very nice article! I While I wholeheartedly support any transition to a lower-energy life style, I still see it as a short-cut for a few and not as a solution to many. Sounds like an opportunity-grab much like building gated communities. I guess I don’t want to give up yet. I will keep looking and continue building resilience in my community including the poor and those who will not be able to escape to paradise islands.


I wholeheartedly agree, and repeatedly I might add, have stated that this is not a "one size fits all" solution.

Regarding 'opportunity grab'. My maternal grandfather left Germany in 1901 and moved to California where he drove horse-drawn delivery wagons. I am eternally grateful to Grandpa Straus that he G-T-F-out of Germany before the carnage of WWI and WWII, especially since he was half Jewish.

When times get tough people will grab for all sorts of 'opportunities'. What is considered moral will be subject to a constant, downward revision and simply packing off to another place will be one of the least offensive adaptations to scarcity.

I don't know if there is a hidden--and upsetting to some--irony in the fact that the US was for so long seen as the land of opportunity, settled by "opportunists" from all over and is now actually considered as a possible sinkhole--not just financially--by some who brazenly consider leaving behind the promised land.



I think you've hit the nail on the head-- I for one envy your foresight and ability to pick up and move. I've tried in small ways-- moving to a co-operative farm in Wisconsin for a summer, living for a while on a kibbutz-- but have not been able to make the move permanent. Being able to make the transition socially is a major factor that is hard to overcome, and the comments of some of the 'dig a hole and hide while eating freeze dried food for a year' survivalists reflect that.

I think an important thing that your article points out is that social skills are a survival skill. Many survivalists either don't have them or have neglected them while stockpiling their guns and canned tuna.

Knowing the neighbors (because there will be neighbors) and forming social networks is a necessity, and I'm finding it easier to do while living in a largish city, though I agree that there will be rough patches ahead.

The irony of the former land of plenty becoming a sinkhole is far too much to bear, esp. for those who still fly American flags off of their front porches, as some of my neighbors do. It may have been inevitable that the house of cards would fall, but the emotional investment in those cards will take a long time to discard, and that may be the source of many problems to come.

there are cooperative farms in Wisconsin??

actually quite a few. The one I briefly lived on is no longer very cooperative, but still quite organic, and a lifeboat by TOD standards.

There is an organization based in Missouri that publishes what it calls the Communities Directory every few years. I'm sure they must have a website by now-- my hard copy dates from the early 90's. They have quite a few listed in southwestern Wisconsin and there are many more that went unnoticed.

That part of Wisconsin is hilly and looks a lot like Vermont. It's a quiet hideout for quite a number of organic farmers, old (and young) hippies. The town I lived near had a small Waldorf school for the kids, and a food co-op. While I was there, I was able to pick raspberries for $2 a pound in someone's backyard, buy (delicious) pies from an Amish grandma and goat cheese from a lady down the road.

Living in a rural area is an intense proposition though. I had no idea how much time I'd spend behind the wheel of a car or how hard it is to find paying, consistent work. Or how hard it can be to make friends in a rural area if you haven't grown up there. Even progressive rural communities are hard to break into.

Hi Tom,

Please forgive me if I sound a bit too judgmental. My English skill is limited therefore my thoughts sometimes come out not the way my soul wants to. Anyway, I was referring to not your particular situation (which is rather inspiring to me!) but to a possible mass desertion to remote favorable areas leaving behind others to starve and die. I don’t know what future holds for me and my family. I might give up at some point and seek for a lifeboat solution. But not just yet. I still have fire in my heart and love for humanity in my genes and I will be fighting.

I left Russia in 1988 and since then had lived in three countries. I wasn’t running away from anything or anybody. Curiosity and ambitions were my driving forces. However, I am at a phase in my life now when I realize how small our planet is. There is nowhere one might hide or run for shelter. Chances are equal when you count in uncertainties of a new location. Might as well take chances where you are and try to improve them in collaboration with your community.

I had a long journey to Canada and I want it to be my final destination!

I am looking forward to reading more of your articles in the future.