Learn from the past to be ready for the future.
One of the biggest political hot-button issues today revolves around climate change—a topic that literally gets people on all sides of the issue hot under the collar.
The fact is, the climate does change; it has done so before and throughout human history. Since man first built cities and plowed the fields, humankind has altered the environment and, with it, changed the climate … at least in small ways.
The question shouldn’t be whether it is happening but how to prepare for it. Aside from focusing efforts on lower-emission cars, more-efficient light bulbs and lessening one’s “carbon footprint,” the smart money is on adapting. Human history is filled with cases where humans either adapted to climate change or died.
Adapt or Die
It is possible to prepare for climate change—not by moving as the Vikings or Mongols did (see the sidebar below)—but by preparing for the changing conditions. On the simplest level, this means adequately ensuring your shelter will keep you warm in the winter and relatively cool in the summer. While heat in the summer can be uncomfortable, cold in the winter is a far bigger problem.
Water is a finite resource, so any climate change preparation should revolve around sustainability of this most precious resource.
There is the argument that you can always put on more clothing to stay warm, because the brutal truth is that cold actually kills far more people each year than extreme heat. For any very cold outdoor excursions, several layers are required for comfort and safety. This can present problems, not only in maintaining and cleaning what you wear, but also in replacing it if commercial production of apparel and textiles has ceased.
Therefore, the best advice might be to move to a temperate climate (but, again, the danger of climate change is that what is ideal now may be far less so in the future). Instead, it is necessary to prepare adequate and appropriate clothing for a long, cold winter and come up with a way to stay cool during long, hot summers. Shade helps in the summer, and wooded areas obviously provide materials for burning wood in the colder weather. But how long will that last?
Because climate change is relatively slow and gradual, shelter is actually a small part of adequate preparation, because most building materials are designed to accommodate heating/cooling needs and can be supplemented as needed over time. Rather, the bigger issue is one of ensuring you have enough food and, more importantly, water. Where there is the latter, there is life.
“We humans are infinitely adaptable to environmental change, to climatic events short- and long-term,” says Brian Fagan, world historian and author of The Little Ice Age: How Climate Change Made History 1300-1850. “What makes everything much more complex today is the multi-million-inhabitant cities on the coasts and in semi-arid lands that rely on imported food. The future looks bleak unless we take climate change and both water and food shortages seriously.”
Water, Water—Not Everywhere
Clean water is a finite resource, so any climate change preparation should revolve around sustainability of this most precious resource.
On a large scale, access to clean water could be what tips society over the brink in the coming decades. Right now, efforts to prepare on the large scale are falling short.
“The strategies have to be diverse—desalination, water reuse and recycling, conservation, and planning for cycles in rainfall and drought,” Fagan adds. “The silent elephants in the room are, of course, growing urban populations, as well as industrial, water-hungry agriculture.”
The fact is, the climate does change; it has done so before and throughout human history.
On a smaller scale, people can prepare by ensuring they have enough water. Key to water storage is having the right container. While water can be purchased in easy-to-store plastic bottles by the caseload, these aren’t ideal for long-term storage. Plastic may not be biodegradable for the most part, but plastic water bottles are photodegradable and will break down quickly if exposed to sunlight.
More importantly with plastics, it is crucial that water is stored in plastic that is truly food-grade safe, so look at the numbers: Food grades are 1, 2, 4 and 5, as well as some bio-plastics that are marked with a 7. Likewise, not all glass is food grade and shouldn’t be used for long-term storage—especially because glass can break and crack as a result of changes in temperature.
The best method for long-term water storage is actually a stainless steel tank, because these have up to a 40-year life span. When adequately sealed, the water can be stored without fear of contamination. If possible, water should be stored in a dark room and the oldest supplies should be used first, because it can have small amounts of contaminants that can compound over time.
After water, food is the most basic key to long-term survival, and access to it has resulted in some of the greatest mass migrations in history. The Vikings didn’t so much abandon Greenland
Because climate change is relatively slow and gradual, shelter is actually a small part of adequate preparation …
because of climate change; it was because of the lack of food from that change. And the Huns and other Eastern tribes didn’t migrate to the lands of the Roman Empire because of a desire to have baths and travel on roads. It occurred because the lands to the east weren’t sustaining the population.
“Food drives history, from migration to innovation,” says food historian and expert Frederick Kaufman, “[the] most recent example being the soaring food prices that lay behind the world-changing chaos of the Arab Spring. Food riots topple governments … The shortest path to regime change is food inflation.
“Food and money have gone together since time immemorial,” Kaufman added. “The first contracts on cuneiform tablets were about who owed whom how much wheat going forward. Ever since the Old Testament’s Jacob made his fortune as the price of wheat went through the roof, the ‘money people’ have been waiting around, waiting for the next scarcity.”
The irony is that despite the often-repeated message that kids in Africa or Asia are starving, the world already produces a great deal more food than is needed.
“The problem is that most of the food and water goes to feed cattle, and one part of this is our addiction to meat,” adds Kaufman.
Even on a small scale, producing meat isn’t sustainable for a farmer. The land needed to raise enough cattle to feed a family could be better used to raise other foods, such as potatoes. Therefore, chickens are a more-practical option, because they can provide eggs; and a small chicken coop can allow you to store a live chicken in the yard instead of a dead one in a freezer.
Some chickens can lay up to 300 eggs per year, and each egg can provide about 74 calories, 5 grams of fat and 6 grams of protein.
Chickens also provide pest control for the rest of the garden. In addition, they are actually a tick’s worst enemy. A few chickens can reduce the tick population in a small area and keep it under control. These feathered friends will also eat fleas, beetles and ants —all pests that like to feast on your vegetable garden.
Professor of Anthropology, retired,
University of California, Santa Barbara
Professor, City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism
Adapting to Climate Change: Lessons From History
“Adapt or die” has been the unspoken motto of human civilization for eons. One of the best examples of this might be the Norsemen who had settled Greenland—a land that once lived up to its name as lush and “green,” only to suddenly face a decade-long span of cold winters and damp, cool summers. Known as “Vikings,” from the Old Norse word meaning “voyaging,” these were the first Europeans to reach North America.
They sailed west during the Medieval Warm Period, which ran from roughly 950 to 1250, but they also sailed east toward Russia and notably, south to France and other parts of Europe. Because of this, Vikings have been described as the first climate-change “profiteers”: They took advantage of warmer ocean currents and generally more-inviting climates to be the first to settle areas other humans hadn’t.
But then came the Little Ice Age, which lasted from around 1300 to 1850.
The Viking settlers in Greenland had to adapt from raising cattle, which had been brought from Europe. In addition, they also found they were left pretty much on their own: The cold weather meant it was difficult to build trading ships to return to the Old World. Instead, they had to become trappers as trade collapsed, and new evidence shows that they survived on seal meat more than cattle.
Just as the warming period was a catalyst for the Vikings to sail in all directions, the warmer weather also spurred another people, far away in Asia, to get moving; these were the Mongols, who had lived on the harsh steppes of Central Asia for eons. The warmer weather stimulated the growth of grasslands that fed the Mongols’ herds of horses and livestock.
Now, in the case of the Mongols, it also took the leadership of Genghis Khan, who was born during this period, to motivate his hordes of warriors. Nevertheless, the change of climate most certainly played a significant role.
Best Chicken Breeds
Just as some people like dark meat and others like light meat, and some like fried chicken while others prefer chicken soup, consideration of the breed of chicken also needs to be made. There are chickens that have been specifically bred for certain conditions.
Ameraucana. Harsh winters won’t slow this snow bird down. While it can be broody, it matures fairly quickly and also produces a lot of eggs.
Brown Leghorn. This breed is good for hot climates and is an active forager. It is also a great egg-layer.
Buckeye. This breed can endure cold winters and still produce an adequate supply of eggs year round. The downside is that it is slow to mature … so don’t plan that chicken dinner for a while.
Chanticler. This is another hardy bird that can deal with the cold. It is docile, produces a lot of eggs and is a good mother bird—with early maturing of offspring.
Dominique. While this chicken breed won’t like the coldest of winters, it won’t mind a white Christmas (and it is early-maturing, so it would be ready for Christmas dinner).
Egyptian Fayoumi. It might not be ideal for today’s Egyptian deserts, but it does like hot climates and is a good egg-layer. More importantly, it is disease resistant and matures early, so it can go from field to frying pan in a season or two.
Marans. This variety of chicken won’t worry about water falling from the sky. It is adaptable to a variety of conditions and lays a good number of eggs during the year.
Climate Change & Spirits
Today, beer is enjoyed by literally billions around the globe; but, in many ways, it is because of the Little Ice Age, which began around the year 1300. Prior to this time, wine-making in Europe thrived, because grapes grew in abundance, even in southern England.
Then, with the arrival of the colder climate, the vineyards failed, and wine production fell. The hearty Europeans weren’t about to give up alcohol, however. Turning to grains, which were plentiful and could endure bitter cold, they brewed beer and distilled hard alcohol.
The fermentation process that had been perfected for wine production was used for the brewing of beer and spirits such as whiskey. Instead of German wines, there was now German beer—something that came to the New World with the early immigrants. Likewise, instead of British wines, there was now Irish and Scotch whisky. (Cheers to that!)
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the October, 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.