Editor’s Note: This post is another entry in the Prepper Writing Contest from Bobcat-Prepper. If you have information for Preppers that you would like to share and possibly win a $300 Amazon Gift Card to purchase your own prepping supplies, enter today.
I recently completed reading “World Made By Hand”, and its sequels “The Witch of Hebron”, “A History of the Future”, and “The Harrows of Spring” by James Howard Kunstler. In each book, he covers one season in the life of carpenter Robert Earle and his neighbors of Union Grove, New York after waves of epidemics have caused the collapse of modern society. The survivors live (and die) in a world similar to the early nineteenth century in daily life and technology. They have almost given up on progress, until Brother Jobe and his New Faith followers arrive in town, buy the old high school, and restart the local economy with their beehive of activity. I learned that some folks have a resiliency to overcome awful circumstances, and will strive to rebuild a society that works on some level. Also, food will taste much better when it is made by hand!
The reason the America of “World Made By Hand” (WMBH) is stuck in the 1800s and cannot be as productive as today’s society, is the lack of cheap energy. America’s bounty was built on cheap energy, pulling ever-greater amounts of coal, oil and natural gas out of the ground for very little cost. Oil deposits that were close to the surface were used up first, and then as our technology developed throughout the twentieth century, we consumed deposits that were deeper and provided less return on investment. Likewise, the easy-to-access coal deposits have been used up, while plenty is still available with heavy excavation machinery and electrical power for lights, elevators, and ventilation. These fuel sources have allowed us to achieve a technology and productivity unthinkable two hundred years ago.
Here are a few ways that our world today could quickly end up “made by hand”:
1) An EMP weapon detonated over America’s heartland fries the electrical grid and most electrical devices. The 2004 congressional EMP report estimated that 90% of Americans would die within a year from starvation, violence and disease. Without electricity, we cannot pump the oil, refine it, or transport it to consumers.
2) A fast-moving epidemic that kills or incapacitates as few as 10-20% of Americans could easily set our society on a downward path, as employees critical to our power/transportation/food distribution systems die or, out of fear of contagion, refuse to show up to work.
3) A cyber-attack shuts down our power grid for a couple of weeks, American cities are torn apart by riots, looting, and chaos, and the American economy goes up in flames.
Most American workers today have jobs that would vanish in an instant once the power goes off, and the oil stops flowing. Stock trading? Gone. Marketing? Gone. Car sales jobs? Useless. If the worst happens, have you given any thought to how you would be making a living post TEOTWAWKI?
How could you thrive in a “World Made By Hand”? By getting a job from the 1820s.
Let’s look at how people made their living 200 years ago, at the end of the Industrial Revolution but before the discovery of oil near Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859. Which skills were in demand in a country of 9.6 million citizens? According to this National Bureau of Economic Research report from 1966, the top areas of employment in 1820 were:
Agriculture – 2.47 million workers (78.8%). After any world-altering disaster, everyone would put growing food first, and it is a good idea to become a master gardener now. Jobs associated with the farm could include field laborer, livestock care, animal husbandry, butcher, food preservation, beekeeping, and many more. “Squire” Bullock has a good feudal system going outside Union Grove, with all of his workers living on his estate and taking most of their pay in food.
As food-raising efficiency and preservation get better and business efforts organize, there would be opportunities for the WMBH economy to emerge, for a few workers to specialize in other areas like:
Trade – Estimated employment of 150,000 (~5%). Jobs associated with trade could include traders (deal makers), warehouse ownership/management, warehouse workers, retail shop ownership, and retail shop workers.
Construction – Estimated employment 150,000 (~5%). Much of building construction was done by farmers and their slaves in the 1820s, so the actual number of dedicated construction workers during that time period seems lower than actual level of work done. I can foresee survivors building outhouses and smokehouses for themselves, but very little construction done otherwise. Investing money and labor into new construction requires construction supplies, hope and economic growth, and there would be very little of that after SHTF. The residents of Union Grove did not build a thing until Brother Jobe’s congregation arrived, and gave the town the economic jolt they needed.
Domestic Service – 110,000 workers (3.5%). Servants did the housework for the folks better off, but there were very few mentioned in WMBH, and rightly so – a poor economy would allow few to afford such a luxury.
Transport (Ocean & Rail) – 50,000 workers (1.6%). These two modes of transport would be much reduced after oil is unavailable. The heroes of WMBH travel primarily by walking and horseback, but they also use horse-drawn wagons, mule-pulled flatboats traveling through canals, and small sail-powered cargo ships on the Hudson River and Great Lakes. These are great ways to move food and supplies, but they require a long lead time to learn to build/retrofit boats, breed more horses or other beasts of burden, and develop productive and safe trade routes. If Kunstler ever writes a fifth WMBH book, I hope he will have a wood- or coal-powered steam engine come through Union Grove – that is when you would know America is coming back.
Teachers – 20,000 workers (0.6%). Sorry, teachers – after SHTF, there will be no school board to hire you back, no property taxes to fund your paycheck, and most of the curriculum you teach now will be irrelevant anyway. What purpose will be served by kids learning the themes of Shakespeare’s plays and writing a 1000 word compare-and-contrast essay? Children will be needed to shoo the crows from the corn, pull weeds, and do all the chores the adults are too tired or big to do. When they are older, the children can work in the family business, apprentice with a craftsman, or work for wages (in some form) as a day laborer.
Fishing – 14,000 workers (0.5%). Without refrigeration, the jobs in this area will be scarce, but with the right fishing expertise, worm farming equipment, poles, nets and salt, a fisherman could do quite a business providing much-needed protein to the surviving community.
Mining – 13,000 workers (0.4%). Coal would be a much-needed commodity in a WMBH to get machines running again. Coal is valuable because it is eleven times as energy-dense as wood, but the business is problematic. Coal mining by hand is hazardous, back-breaking work. It was often performed by children in the old days because of the nasty work environment and low ceilings, or by slaves in some countries and times. To get coal out of the ground without petroleum-powered equipment would require a conveyance system of cars and tracks, or baskets and strong backs. Picks, shovels and lanterns would be needed, and a few canaries to warn of methane pockets, too.
I live in coal country, but the mines have been closed so long that few folks remember where the mine entrances are; an old coal mine map could be the start of a prosperous business in a long-term collapse.
Cotton Textile – 12,000 workers (0.4%). In an SHTF scenario, people worry about food, not new clothes, right? It is only as the societal collapse of WMBH unfolds over ten years or so, that poor quality clothes like t-shirts and cheap jeans fall apart under harsh conditions, and Union Grove folks look for new clothes made by hand from the tailors of Brother Jobe and his New Faith Church community.
Raising cotton (or flax or hemp) is beyond most gardeners’ ability or interest, but to have the supplies, equipment and ability to grow, card, spin and weave fiber into cloth would be a great asset in any long-term scenario.
Sewing clothes from store-bought cloth, on the other hand, is a lot more appealing and achievable today. A seamstress could also alter clothes for survivors losing weight, children growing up, or adjust clothes “inherited” from those who didn’t make it.
Iron/Steelworkers – 5,000 workers (0.2%). Due to the high fuel requirements, large equipment, and high skill required to smelt iron and forge steel, I didn’t even mention mining iron ore earlier. I don’t think our society could do it for a long time once the mills shut down. There would be plenty of steel left in our buildings and cars for recycling into hand tools, if life turned south.
To these categories of 1820 employment, I would add for your consideration:
Security – Federal or state soldiers, local police, and private security for businesses and wealthier families may all be needed. One would need to be proficient in firearms, sword and knife fighting, and hand-to-hand combat, depending on the situation and weapons available.
Craftsmen – Blacksmith, tanning/leather-working, carpenter, brewer, gunsmith, cheese maker, and baker. All typical jobs you might find in any European town for hundreds of years.
Doctors and Health Care Workers – The medical profession is especially important to preserving life after SHTF, and yet its effectiveness will be severely hampered by the loss of power, equipment and supplies.
Medical doctors will have only their senses and brains to figure out what is wrong with a patient internally, as X-rays, MRIs and lab tests will be a thing of the past. Their stamina will be tested by the flood of new patients arriving at their doorstep with work-related injuries and third-world diseases like cholera, dysentery, and typhus. Nurses, lab technicians and even veterinarians may be recruited and trained to help treat the crowds. Specialists will be needed to modify some equipment for non-powered use, herbalists to provide medicinal herbs in the wild for treatment, and scavengers may be helpful to find medications in abandoned pharmacies or homes.
Lumber and Firewood – Woodsmen would be vital to providing the main power source for the community, young men with axes and saws to turn the remaining forests into fuel for warmth, cooking and for many of the jobs above.
Very few people today can do the WMBH jobs listed above. We are used to power tools, internet access, and an accessible supply chain to help us get our jobs done. Think hard about your unique skills, and determine if they would be useful after SHTF. If not, acquire and hone new skills to complement your own, buy or build new manual equipment, and figure out new supply and demand chains to allow you to make a living in a “World Made By Hand”.