In challenging times, wise people start to look for investments that won’t lose their value, and will pay bigger and bigger dividends as time goes on. The return on what I call “solid investments” or “real stuff” isn’t financial (unless, for example, you end up growing enough food to sell). But, to paraphrase an old saying from the 70s, “Real stuff will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no real stuff.”
Today I’m starting a list of the most solid investments I know. No money to spare? Got you covered with cheap or free alternatives.
• Food garden: Seeds; seedlings; soil; pots or containers. Buy from your local nursery if at all possible; we need to support these guys, whose role I predict is only going to get more essential over time. No money? Connect with neighbors who grow food. Most gardeners produce a surplus of seeds, seedlings, and crops, and sometimes are actually scrambling to give this surplus away. As part of growing food, be sure to invest in building your soil via mulching and composting. This can be done cheap or free with leaves, grass clippings, your kitchen scraps. As part of your food garden, plant native wildflowers for the pollinators (and to give your neighbors a gift of beauty whenever they walk by). You may not even have to plant wildflowers; often they will emerge if you simply let the grass grow out. People are calling this a “meadow yard” or “freedom lawn.” (The latter is a phrase coined by native gardening expert Ginny Stibolt (Climate-Wise Landscaping and other books).)
• Rainwater harvesting: A golden investment that not enough people are doing. I can hardly think of any place on earth that isn’t dealing with chronic drought-flood extremes, and I predict that this situation will continue if not get worse. Barrels and other containers can be expensive but keep an eye out; for example, sometimes restaurants give away food-grade barrels. Don’t get discouraged thinking you need to shell out for a 5,000-gallon cistern or something. In fact, that’s probably not a good idea. Too many eggs in one basket, so to speak (cost of a leak or other failure is large), plus which it’s a kind of hoarding. I was impressed when I heard Brad Lancaster (Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond) say in one of his public talks that he and his brother only have a total of 1,500 gallons of cistern/tank at their house. That was some years back, but I doubt they have significantly upped their capacity; Brad always counsels against “tank envy” and encourages us to do small earthworks that help the land do the heavy lifting, collecting and retaining more water itself so we don’t have to be collecting so much in a tank. If Brad can do this minimal-tank approach in Tucson, Arizona USA (which only averages 11 inches of rain annually), you and I can surely do it too.
• Renewable-energy, grid-free cooking equipment: Woodstove (conventional or Rocket Stove) is a big one. My personal favorite is the solar oven. It’s great not only for cooking but also for tasks such as drying food, pasteurizing potentially contaminated water, sterilizing washcloths and dishcloths, heating water for washing dishes. A sun oven is basically a plain box that’s painted black and covered with a glass lid. This combo turns the sun’s rays into heat enough for slow-cooking. A medium-temperature oven that needs no fuel! Sort of like a crock pot that needs no electricity. The Global Sun Oven is my personal favorite; I own two of them. Such a high-value investment. If you just don’t have $300 or more to spend, other companies make lower-end versions, or you can make your own. Ditto for a Rocket Stove; I’ve made and given away a number of them.
• Renewable home energy: Look into getting solar panels to meet your home electricity needs. It’s not physically or economically feasible for everyone, but it’s ideal for many, and you might qualify for rebates. Contact your nearest solar company for an assessment. (A company local to me, Solar-Fit in the Daytona Beach area, offers free assessments and seminars; your locals might also.) Even if you’re not a good fit for rooftop solar, consider investing in a portable panel to charge your smartphone and tablet or laptop.
• Resilient transport: bicycle, panniers, bicycle trailer. And, good walking shoes, or feet tough enough to walk barefoot. To go with this, you’ll need a certain general level of physical fitness, but you don’t need to be mega-fit. The human body is designed for foot travel, at long distances if needed. Even if your distance radius is relatively small, you can expand it fairly quickly and easily just by walking a little each day (this is assuming you are able to walk; if you aren’t, you may have to rely on neighbors for resilient transport; more about that in the next bullet item). And the bicycle is a highly efficient machine (the world’s most efficient machine, according to what I’ve read), designed to take maximum advantage of human power. If you have the physical fitness for human-powered transport, reach out to help your neighbors who are not mobile.
• Social connections: also known as “social capital.” Though the idea that building relationships with your neighbors is an “investment” may sound crass, the truth is that for decades, the trend in our hyper-affluent, widely geographically scattered society has been to DISinvest from neighborly connections, because our relative economic affluence gives us the illusion that such connections are not essential. Of course this is a huge mistake, as witness the toxic effect of social isolation on people and communities. Our social fabric and our economic resilience have suffered greatly. So, we can think of (re)building neighborly ties as a long-overdue “correction” (to use another word associated with financial markets) to a highly dysfunctional norm. To get on the right track, think of all those quaint, old-school things like asking if your neighbor needs anything from the store when you’re going; bringing your neighbors tomatoes from your garden; initiating a block party or potluck; offering help with onerous yard tasks.
• Skills: Educating yourself on basic life-skills is truly a blue-chip investment in your household and community resilience. Besides the above-mentioned skills, you can study and practice food foraging, food preservation, berm-building and other small earthworks, weaving from locally abundant natural fibers, carpentry with hand-tools, and much much more. Pretty much anything you could possibly want to know can be found for free online or at your public library. It just takes an investment of your patient attention. Bill Mollison, known as the father of the permaculture design movement, said that education is the most portable and flexible investment you can make. Truly golden advice!
• Mental health: Whether or not you consider yourself to have mental-health “issues” (I myself do; fairly serious ones though manageable), mental health is an investment that always pays off. Barring a chemical imbalance or other condition that may require medication or other special treatment, it’s not about “fixing” yourself so much as really getting to know yourself. Become a brave explorer of your own mind; learn more about what makes you tick, how the human mind works (your own, and minds in general). Some call it “inner permaculture” or working on the inner landscape. I will post some of my favorite resources for this in a follow-up post. For now, be assured there is much available for free online, and you can trust yourself to find what’s right for you. I can truly say that every dollar and every hour I’ve spent on learning to navigate and master the operation of my own mind has paid off thousand-fold. More than all of the above investments combined. Note: If you are experiencing any kind of mental-health crisis right now or at any other time, don’t mess around: Call a hotline or seek other immediate help from a professional.
• Music, visual art, storytelling: These arts have been shortchanged in our education system and in greater society, but make no mistake, they are essential to human survival, even if we were only using them to transmit valuable information in memorable form (which of course, is far from being their only value). Solitude and isolation are silent killers; the arts can help bridge the gulf of social isolation. Even in solitude, engaging with the arts reminds us of our connection with all our fellow humans and all of life, across time and space. The elevation of STEM and denigration of the humanities in recent years notwithstanding, a society composed only of scientists, engineers, and MBAs would quickly wither. Resurrect your long-buried art-heart. Sing; play music; even if you simply shake a gourd or bang on a can. And while you’re at it, if you’ve studied sociology, philosophy, anthropology, history — bring those out of the closet as well; we need that knowledge.
• Spirituality, metaphysics, the divine: I know not everyone is into this, but I have to mention it since it is the main theme in my life. Everyone who chooses, can cultivate a connection with the divine, the beyond-earthly realms. Ample resources exist online and in libraries, as well as via priests and shamans, established meditation techniques, spiritual sanghas. I have often found all of the above sources helpful. But also, the divine realms are accessible directly by anyone who is willing and interested. No special training or tools needed. Going out in nature and being quiet is one reliable way. Another is engaging in nondemanding repetitive tasks such as sweeping a sidewalk or path, shelling nuts, and allowing your mind to range untethered (when worries come, let them float past rather than engaging with them; this gets easier with practice). Still another is via our dreams. Yet another is listening to music or tuning in to nature’s sounds (rivers, surf, and the sound of trees and grasses rustling in the wind are some of my favorites). The highest prize in life (in my experience) is being able to engage fully on earth while staying connected with the divine (whether you call it God/Goddess, higher self, the cosmos, all-that-is, the transcendent, or some other name).
In the interest of brevity, I have not gone into deep specifics on any of the above solid investments. But I will be adding to this post and/or making follow-up posts on each topic. In the meantime, a wealth of information on food gardening, rainwater harvesting, and other essentials is available free, via sources such as YouTube and public libraries. If you notice anything I left off this list, drop me a line!