Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sustainable Quickie II

In the list of 100 Items to Disappear First Coleman Fuel (propane fuel canisters) is number six, which leads me to believe it's a pretty important item, in the author's opinion.

I've published the link to the list many times, and so obviously, I think it's a good resource, but what concerns me about this list, and others I've seen, is the assumption that the "emergency" will be temporary, and then, things will get back to "normal." In the coming times, I believe this assumption will be an incredibly misguided one. In my opinion, we're not going to be climbing back up this slippery slope we're sliding down right now. When we hit bottom, we'll have what we have, and once the consumables are used up, they won't be renewed - at least in the form we have them today.

As such, I think a dependence on those things as an alternative is going to leave many of us sorely disappointed. The list advises that one can not have enough Coleman fuel, and if one intends to be solely dependent on one's camp stove for cooking, I would heartily agree.

Except that ...

At some point, no matter how much one stores, without the ability to replenish one's reserves, it will get used up.

And then what?

My advice, therefore, would be to enjoy the campstove, for camping, and rather than store up a bunch of propane fuel in tidy little (contents under pressure) canisters, make a more permanent, long-term solution.

Fire is the element that enabled man to advance as far as we have. It gave us warmth, which enabled us to expand our range from climates that can support a virtually unprotected body into more inhospitable territory (like Europe). It allowed us to cook things that are otherwise inedible, like potatoes (unless you're my eight year old, who eats them raw). It gave us light on the darkest nights, which enabled us to work longer hours. Fire is the thing that separates man from beasts, and the ability to control it is a uniquely human characteristic.

In modern society, we've replaced fire with oil for all of those things, but in our future, it's very likely that we'll relearn our dependence on this amazing element.

The key will be knowing how to make it. So, while Coleman fuel is good in the short-term, in the long-term, we'll need to have other resources and/or more skill.

In addition to the dozens of boxes of wooden matches I hoard, we have about half a dozen of these:

They are called magnesium fire starters, and all that's needed to use them is a knife, to scrape off the magnesium and to strike the flint, and some tender (dryer lint works well, but so do cedar bark shavings).

They aren't difficult to use, but it can be frustrating, and it takes a bit of practice. Like most things, it's better to get the practice using them now rather than waiting until not having the fire is an emergency.

Of course, if like me, you're lucky enough to have someone as highly skilled as Deus Ex Machina on your team, he'll light the fire, while you run and grab the marshmallows.


  1. I have been wanting to pick up a few of those. We also need to learn to start fire without them too. Those - just like matches are - consumable. Eventually you scrape off all the magnesium.

    Wendy says..."In modern society, we've replaced fire with oil for all of those things, but in our future, it's very likely that we'll relearn our dependence on this amazing element."

    We haven't replaced fire with oil. We just have become dependant on oil to obtain fire. Either way we can't sustain consumption of fire (energy) at the scale we consume it now because no other known fuel can match oil's out put as of yet. Well, the sun could if our technology can be made to harness it but we can't yet harness it to the same scale as petroleum.

  2. I've been meaning to buy a couple of those magnesium fire-starters, but it's always something that I KNOW I can't really justify the cost of right off, and even though _I_ would be more comfortable having a couple of them on hand, and knowing how to use them, the harrassement that I know the hubby would heap upon me makes it not really worth it. (As it stands, I try to "sneak" a bit of money here and there from the food budget to buy things like this. But, it's not easy living with a guy who's a firm disbeliever in anything "Peak Oil" or "New Depression".)

    Enjoy those smores! *wink*

  3. First, hooray to the post! All the emergency preparedness stuff, instead of *living a live* always irritates me.

    But having read the comments, I have to disagree with Wooly that the sun could equal the amount of fossil fuel we consume because, ta da, fossil fuel is stored sunlight energy. Capture every bit of it, make the earth dark, and you still don't have that much energy. Especially with the inefficiencies of it. What is needed, desperately, is the vision to live a simpler (a MUCH simpler) life that just doesn't consume much energy.

    I tend to think people will die getting there because so many people will not think it is worth living a life without excess energy. But I'm a cynical about people.

    Although magnesium firestarters can be a good idea, one thought I always have is, how long have matches been around? Readily available. Why would we believe that they would suddenly be unavailable? That some entrepreneur down the road wouldn't make them in small batches to supply the holler?

  4. I agree completely about the propane. We have a few of the small greenies and I usually rotate two of the larger ones for the camp stove but honestly I really want a wood cookstove. It's pretty much the last thing on my non-electric bit ticket list. That and a few more candle lanterns.

  5. i use propane to start all my fires. it one of those click button soldering torches. methane could be used as a replacement to propane in on of those things. knowing how to make a methane digester seems pretty important to me.

    kassi would love some edible flower seeds if you still have them?

  6. That sounds like a fun little tool there!

    I love that portable toilets is #3. Ummm....what exactly constitutes a portable toilet. I've got a bucket in my closet I've been saving. That's what "portable toilet" meant when I was a kid ;-)

  7. CG: Matches first started being used in 1827, but they're made using chemicals, which may not be readily available every where (interestingly, the phosphorus used in matches is also used in chemical warfare ;). I totally agree with you about simple living. I just don't think we can store everything we could possibly need, but we can learn to live more simply, so that, possibly, we don't need so much ;).

    Woolysheep: The beauty of a magnesium fire starter is that, even after the magnesium is scraped off, the flint can still be used to make a spark, and starting a fire using flint and steel is an old practice ;).

    Kati: I have one in the "emergency kit" I keep with me at all times. Thing is, if I ever get lost in the woods, at least I can build a fire - and if they get wet, they'll still work - unlike matches. Oh, and they're relatively cheap - about $5.

    Anna - we replaced our old woodstove with a more efficient model last year. It's not a "cookstove", but we do use it for cooking, and it's wonderful. Plus, we saved a bundle on heating oil and electricity from not using the furnace this winter. If you don't have to do any costly renovations to your house (like building a chimney), I'd encourage you to consider moving it up on your list.

    Karl: I'd love to send some seeds to Kassi ;). Send me your address to wendy (at) happilyhome (dot) com.

    Bezzie: It is a fun tool, but it's tough to master. Deus Ex Machina has it down, though. He's pretty handy ;).

    I saw that portable toilet was #3, too, and I thought of the bucket ;). In fact, when we were in the "outdoor" store the other day, that's exactly what they had - a 5 gal bucket with a toilet seat on top. I laughed. We have lots of 5 gal buckets. I guess we're all set ;).

  8. You won't be surprised that I too, hoard big boxes of matches. But, I can't say as I have more than one of those gadgets - I'll remidy that to be sure!

    I hear you about long term problems. I think supply will get to a point of being intermittant. I do keep a couple of the larger propane tanks filled and use them for summertime canning.

    Our alternatives we're still working on for summer are solar, and adobe oven. In the winter our new woodstove has cooking "wings"

  9. Verde: Oh, definitely - get a couple more. They're just fun to have around, are cheap, and don't take up much space. And, if all else fails, they make a nice conversation piece ;).

    My mom was telling me that when my grandmother used to can, she'd dig a hole in the backyard and build a fire, and then, she'd take her wash tub full of water and put it over the fire. That's how she did her canning. Deus Ex Machina boiled our maple syrup outside over a wood fire, and he was able to keep the sap boiling all day long - even when it was only a few degrees above freezing outside. I'm thinking, in a pinch, that's what we'll use for canning - especially things like jams and pickles. And as luck would have it, I happen to have a washtub ;).

  10. well, phosphorus was first used to ignite sulfur tipped wooden splints by Boyle considerably earlier than your citation: 1680. And phosphorus was most certainly known even by the Greeks. Neither it nor its uses are particularly modern. Nor is it hard to come by, being able to be derived from urine.

    I absolutely totally agree with your point that it is better in every way to not need so much. It is wise to use our brains in figuring out what we need, which is mainly know-how. While I think a cottage industry of making matches might be an opportunity in the future, it is very likely that the skill of keeping a fire will be highly developed and fewer matches, or various other firestarters, will be needed. Again, more skill, less to need.

  11. CG: Thanks for that correction. On a side note: we were at a class the other day and learned that there was a national "Pee on the Earth Day", because as many gardeners know, urine is incredibly beneficial to healthy soil. Who knew urine had so many uses? And isn't it a shame that we've lost so much knowledge about the usefulness of something that's so easily accessible ;).