Other Voices
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Other Voices


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Many things have changed during my 70 years on earth. But for me, one of the most striking is the disappearance — in only one or two generations — of what might be called individual survival skills. Two generations ago these weren’t the provenance of specialists or preppers, they were spread across most of the American population, male and female.

At the end of WWII, if you had gone to any small town or city in the US and picked one hundred people at random, you would have found that most of them knew many things that enabled them to survive difficult situations using their own know how and initiative.

They knew how to fix their own machines, build their own houses, recognize and use medicinal herbs and plants, grow their own vegetables and preserve them, hunt, fish, butcher and eat what they killed or caught, and protect themselves and their families. During the Depression, few people could hire out work. They had to do things themselves or with their friends and family members, or those things didn’t get done.

Well into the 1950s, many of these skills remained intact and in practice. In the Sixties, with the coming of age of my baby boom generation, they largely vanished.

One personal experience of this was embodied by my maternal grandfather who was born in 1909. He spent his twenties and surviving the Depression and war. He never got beyond the 10th grade. He was never formally trained to be a carpenter or plumber or builder. He was never formally trained to be anything. He picked up his skills as he went along from his parents and those around them.

But this uneducated man built, with help only from family and friends, two houses. Good, solid houses that still stand and are still inhabited. I personally remember the building and for a while my own family lived in one of them. By today’s standards they are simple and small, but in the Fifties they were normal and nice. He and his crew did everything, including the electric, although that did have to be inspected. Keep in mind, he had never built a house before. He just bought the lots, got the plans from magazines, owned or borrowed the tools, gathered my father and uncles for help, and did it on his own. No sub-contracting was involved.

How many men would even dream of trying such a thing now? Few for sure. Perhaps none.

Of course, our random 100 would have included women, like my maternal grandmother, born in 1911. Not only did these women do all their own cooking and house work, they grew gardens, canned their own food and for a long time took care of small domestic animals, often chickens, which they slaughtered and preserved. They usually made their own and their children’s clothes ( a practice that continued into my own high school years). Doctors were expensive so they did a good bit of taking care of the ill or injured. They did all these things without the myriad modern labor saving devices that we take for granted and without any formal training. Perhaps it was drudgery, but it was necessary and got done.

If you returned to those towns and cities now and gathered another random 100, you would be hard pressed to find any of these skills among them, unless they happened to have been trained for specific jobs. What you would find would be mainly people who buy whatever they have. People who replace rather than repair things. People who depend on a tenuous supply chain for the necessities of life. You can be the best Python programmer on earth, but that will never build you a house. They are used to paying for every good and service. Many don’t even cut their own grass. They have hired out their existences. They depend completely on money.

There was nothing paradisaical about my grandparents’ world. It was tough. It was a cash economy. There were no credit cards. There was little government assistance prior to WWII. Few know that prior to the war not quite 50% of Americans had running water, indoor plumbing, or central heat.

So what is the point?

The point is that we are much more helpless in the world than we were sixty years ago. It is axiomatic that the more you depend on something, the more dependent you become. We are now largely at the mercy of specialists and of the vast, networked, internet driven global economy they have built and which is now ubiquitous.

We are more and more alienated from the basic realities of the world in which we live. Woe betide us if those basic realities return in their raw form, if our networks fail. We will have to relearn what was fairly common knowledge 60 years ago. And relearn it fast, or die.

If this network was disrupted who would be better prepared to survive: my graduate school educated self or my “uneducated” grandfather? The answer is obvious.

The question is how and why did this happen so fast? How did self-reliance and the skills necessary to achieve it, skills that were learned over a vast expanse of time, disappear in one generation?

That is grist for another mill.


Below is a quotation from Robert Heinlein that illustrates what I am saying above.



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Mike Essig

Honorary Schizophrenic. Recent refugee. Displaced person. Old white male. Confidant of cassowaries.