There are two kinds of people in the world of future predictions: Pessimists, and everyone else. James H. Lee is a starry-eyed optimist, and so it's no surprise that his book falls into that category as well.
He starts out pretty well, with a book theoretically laid out into two parts. Part One is appropriately labeled "Gloom and Doom" and it is, as one might expect, all about how things have gone so terribly wrong. The first chapter focuses on economics--rising income inequality, outsourced manufacturing, debt (personal and national) and so on. The second chapter tackles environmental issues like climate change, water problems, peak everything, and soil degradation.
In Part Two, he provides chapter after chapter of anecdotes and research that discuss the rise of cottage industries, microfarms, co-housing, and various lifestyle changes in how we use money, shop, work, raise families, and age.
Lee postulates that there are three avenues for solving the crises of our age: Time (wait it out until the next economic recovery), technology (algae biofuels and electric cars) and social-transformation. He believes that social transformation is the most likely solution to our problems, and so the parts of his book that focus on lifestyle changes will be my primary focus here.
As might be inferred from the introduction of this post, I have some real problems with this book, but let's start with the good.
Each chapter has a list of resources at the end, including websites and books. I found a lot of great websites I want to check out on a variety of different subjects, and I know that most folks who falls on the Doomsteader side of the spectrum will get much use out of that collection of resources. In fact, the book might be worth buying just for the sources Lee has gone to the trouble to track down. My favorite site is sharedearth.com, a website that links homeowners with space for a garden but not enough time to garden with people with the time and no space. As food supply chain issues and locally grown produce will be a significant factor in creating resilience during a collapse, such a resource is well worth exploring, especially for apartment dwellers or folks with draconian land-use policies. I also appreciate how the site can help folks who might have some property but who work too much in the tertiary economy to make use of it to get more engaged in the primary economy.
I also enjoyed Chapter 12, which discusses "Eldering." This chapter delves into two themes I'm written about here: Wisdom Culture and Death. Part of collapse is learning to deal with lifecycles--from those of countries all the way down to our own. Just as America's international influence and hence, prosperity, is coming to an end in my lifetime, so too is the industrialized health system that artificially prolongs our biological lives well past their expiration date. Learning to be at peace with those two hard facts--to accept our own deaths--takes time. For many people, exposure to that idea will have to come from multiple different sources and in many different ways before they can even begin to accept the reality of their situations. It heartens me, then, to see such topics discussed in what is a relatively optimistic, almost mainstream Doomsteader book.
There's a fair bit of the book discussing different economic ideas, like community timebanks, the rise of bartering, and reputation-based currencies and modes of exchange. As I'm concerned with the disconnect between our primary and tertiary economies, and find it likely that another recession will significantly reduce Americans' purchasing power in the mid-term future, alternative ways of exchanging tangible goods and services are important to discuss.
Lee doesn't talk much about politics, which I appreciate. I find it pretty unlikely that any national political response is going to do much more than produce a good sound bite, and a lot more likely that any response we'll be getting anytime soon will actually make things worse. So it's nice to see an author appeal to individual and community actions as the best possible response to the coming collapse.
Now for the bad.
Part One of this book covers 42 pages. Part Two covers 138 pages. That means the entire book is too short to do justice to any of the subjects Lee raises, period. It is at best a sampler book to get the most beginning Doomsteader into more advanced, in-depth material on a subject that interests them. Additionally, it means that Part One--discussing the trouble we're in--is only 42 pages. The first "half" of the book doesn't do justice to the real predicaments we are facing as a country. If those 42 pages represent the sum total of Lee's research into the many problems we will face in a long collapse, it's no wonder that he thinks that they can be solved with the right application of technology and hipster lifestyle.
Chapters are divided up into sub-sections, which means the book is very well-organized (it's easy to find topics I'm looking to reference), but again, glib. Each section is a page or two long. Anybody can go find a wikipedia article on Edible Landscaping and write one page about it without any further research. The difference between anyone and Lee is that he stuck that page into a book and got it published. I get the sense that the author has little personal experience with a lot of the cultural changes and emerging trends he's talking about.
This book reeks of privilege. The author is white, married to a woman, and male. He has worked as a financial advisor for "high net worth clients" for 20 years. He has a B.A. from the College of William and Mary and a Master's from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. In his acknowledgements page, he thanks his life coach for encouraging him to follow his passion for writing.
None of these facts make Lee a bad person or even a bad writer--his prose is clear enough and appropriately cited. He's obviously passionate about his subject. But he does nothing to demonstrate any knowledge of his own privilege. He has not put himself in the shoes of millions of Americans without access to the resources or education he has, and makes certain assumptions about the average person's ability to practically engage with many of the ideas and solutions he proposes.
For example, one of Lee's "emerging trends" is a discussion of personal care robots for elderly folks whose children can't dedicate their own time to a caretaker role, and don't want to put mom and dad in an assisted living facility (a choice I support, mind you).
"In a world where there are more grownups than children, we can only hope that care and independence can be provided as long as possible. Automated care will eventually help to bridge the gap."
Maybe for relatively wealthy people.
His discussion on retirement is equally out of touch--perhaps not a surprise given his background. He seems to assume that every one of his readers has planned to retire and knows about generating a fixed income from investments. He does propose some condescending solutions--simplify, focus on health, and develop a contemplative practice to ensure the best possible retirement.
I wonder what he would say to the mid-forties woman I know who lost everything in a nasty divorce, has no family support, was homeless for 12 years, makes $15/hr cleaning houses, has no driver's license or car, and who has a place to live now only because of government assistance. Her retirement plan is to die when she can't work anymore. Maybe Lee would tell her to make better choices 25 years ago?
The author's discussion of people who opt out of the system and become self-sufficient is inspiring but, again, out of reach for many. His introductory anecdote profiles Doug, a journalist "determined to break his oil addiction." Doug buys a 40 acre plot in New Mexico and starts to farm and raise livestock. He builds his own solar hot-water heater--but leaves the solar roof panels to a professional contractor (who he can obviously afford, of course--he was DIYing that water heater out of choice, not necessity).
Perhaps Lee needs to get outside of his bubble a little bit and take a walk down to the other side of the tracks. There, he'll find people on WIC and regularly visiting their local food bank to make ends meet. He'll find people juggling their bills in order to keep the lights and gas on, or folks who can't afford insurance for their cars (and drive anyway, or rely on public transportation). He'll find folks 10k in credit card debt with sub-500 credit scores and no intention or desire to pay off said debt. None of them will be purchasing 40 acres in New Mexico anytime soon. Homesteading: Just for rich people.
Finally, this book doesn't age well. It was published in 2012 and obviously written at the height of the Great Recession. What Lee saw as emerging trends then--multi-generational households, more community orientation, a rise in DIY and thrifting, have gone by the wayside for those who can now afford to do so. Those who can't afford to do so were probably already living in a multi-generational household even before the crash. As the economy has recovered, sorta, people's memories of those hard few years have faded. The amount of outstanding personal credit card debt is $3,766.2 billion as of August, 2017, up from $2,919.7 billion in 2012. Life will have to hurt a lot more for a lot longer for most of Lee's "emerging trends" to become more than a flash in the pan.
Summary: Buy the book for the resources and the ideas. Expect to go do more research on any topic that interests you, as Lee's treatment of it will be an appetizer at best. If you're already living in a multi-generational household, take the bus or bike, work a minimum wage retail job, buy your clothes at Goodwill, and get groceries from a food bank, don't expect much from this book to speak to you.