Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs

High gas prices are here to stay. Can suburbanites reinvent themselves?

Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs

If you own a home in the suburbs, you’re probably not moving anytime soon. Not with a shaky housing market and a struggling economy. And thanks to skyrocketing gasoline prices, your ostensibly idyllic drive-everywhere lifestyle is threatened too. But don’t despair says author/blogger Wendy Brown, who maintains that we can continue to live in our isolated, cookie-cutter two-car garage houses. It’s just that we need to transition from “dependent, consumerist lifestyles” to lifestyles that embrace energy efficiency and self-sufficiency. “Don’t focus on limitations. Imagine possibilities,” she says, putting a positive spin on the challenges ahead.

In her recently-released book “Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs: The Thrivalist’s Guide to Life Without Oil” (New Society Publishers), Brown lays out a comprehensive plan for developing a suburban homestead, including tips on everything from cooking and heating to sanitation and small-space gardening. To find out more about Brown’s vision, I called her at home in suburban York County, Maine.

What prompted you to write the book?
A big part of it was that my husband and I have always wanted to be self-sufficient. When we bought our home in 1997 we envisioned it as a temporary situation. Ten years later we were still in the house and housing prices went through the roof and we realized there was no way we were moving. Then two years before the economy buckled we had some income fluctuation, and I started researching what we could do on the quarter-acre where we live.

The conventional wisdom at that time was: you can’t grow food on a quarter-acre. Now we have eight chickens in our backyard, and we get more eggs than we can possibly eat. We also have a garden, which produced 180 pounds of Hubbard squash last year.

So instead of fleeing the suburbs, you’re advocating staying put?
The first chapter in the book talks about shelter and the whole idea is to change people’s mindset from one of “I have to move” to “It’s too late!” You need to stay where you are, and create what you need. You need to mold your suburban home into a self-sufficient homestead.

What would be the most difficult need for suburbanites to meet if the economy tanked and gasoline became even more expensive?
When Americans think about gasoline prices their only concern is: “Oh, no. I’m not going to be able to drive my car. How am I going to get to work?” But it’s not just about getting to work. It’s about the whole transportation network shutting down. We haven’t reached that [level of] consciousness yet.

The most difficult part is coming to terms with the fact that our society is changing and we are going to have to change. But [if it came to it] the thing that would be hardest for suburbanites to supply for themselves would be water.

One of the least predictable suggestions you make is for everyone to start a home library.
We live in the kind of society where we don’t have teachers. Not teachers in the school sense [but teachers of tasks that could help us become self-sufficient]. Do you know how to split wood? Can you put food in a jar and make it safe to eat? Do you know how to sew clothes? Can you butcher an animal? We need to make sure we have that kind of information somewhere.

If the country experiences a depression, how do you think suburbia will fare?
We may lose money perhaps, but life doesn’t have to be all about money. It can be about all of the other wonderful things that we have. I’m not suggesting that we need to revert back to the Dark Ages. We can still have abundance without having money. But we’ll have to be willing to do a little bit more work.

Wendy Brown’s Surviving the Suburbs blog

New Society’s Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs page