Skills for the End of the World


It’s rare to get through a day without hearing or reading about climate change. It’s not as though it’s new—Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature in 1989, one of the first books on global warming for the general public—but we’ve been slow to acknowledge that there’s anything we can do to alter climate change or to prepare for the adjustments that lie ahead.

Nearly twenty years after McKibben wrote his book, he and some university friends started The number 350 refers to the level of CO2 in the atmosphere to preserve a livable planet; we’re currently at 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide. So, works around the world on campaigns like fighting coal power plants in India, stopping the Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S, and divesting public institutions everywhere from fossil fuels to help knock off some of those parts per million. All of the organization’s work is toward developing people-centric solutions to the climate crisis.

Kayaktivists in Seattle – photo courtesy Milla Prince

SHELL No recently organized people-powered resistance to Shell Oil Co.’s preparations for Arctic drilling. In mid-May, “kayaktivists” (including a number of folks from my community of Lopez Island) converged on Terminal 5 and Harbor Island in Seattle to create a mass, water-based blockade at the site that Shell intends to use as a staging ground for oil drilling operations in the Arctic. The focus of the protest was Shell’s Polar Pioneer rig, which the activists hope will be ejected from the Port of Seattle. Mayor Ed Murray and the city council oppose the rig, too, and have required the Port to reapply for a new permit to lease terminal space to Shell. Time will tell if this will delay Shell’s Arctic drilling plans enough to make a difference.

Another people-centric approach was the Great March for Climate Action. On March 1, 2014, dozens of people set out on foot from Los Angeles to walk 3000 miles to Washington, DC. A friend from Lopez, Kai Sanburn, joined the march a couple of times between March and November. She blogged about being among about 35 people from all over the country, ranging in age from 18 to 76, engaged in discussion about climate change as they traversed west to east, across the country. Her reflections on visiting communities affected by fracking (the process of drilling and injecting water into the ground at high pressure to fracture shale rocks and release the natural gas inside) show both the environmental and personal burdens of this process.

Even with all of these and many other efforts, we’re already experiencing change; there undoubtedly there will be more. Terms like post-carbon, post-oil, and post-fossil fuels have joined the vocabulary of climate change. The Post Carbon Institute summarizes the interrelated economic, energy, and ecological crises we face this way:

  • Declines in the amount of affordable energy available to society resulting in far higher environmental, economic, and social costs.
  • Overshoot abounds—we’re hitting biophysical limits in regard to food, population, water, and biodiversity.
  • The end of economic growth as we’ve known it.
  • Increasing domestic and global inequality as a growing population struggles to share diminishing economic and natural resources.

ferry in fogAs grim as talk of “post-world as we know it” can be (and believe me, there are days it’s as gloomy as the fog that delayed the ferries in the San Juan Islands today), I’m focusing on the signs of hope that I see. Like those kayaktivists at Terminal 5. And those walkers, like Kai, who listen to stories of how people’s lives are affected by our dependence on fossil fuels. And this week, a new book by writing friend, Ana Maria Spagna100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (As We Know It).

skillsNumbered from 1-100 and in alphabetical order, the book’s list began with just 10 skills to hone for a post-oil future that Ana Maria wrote about in Orion Magazine. Ana Maria ended that slightly tongue-in-cheek, yet earnest, essay asking readers to add to the inventory in the magazine’s online version. Dozens of them did, including one who offered 10 more skills

Then, Ana Maria heard from Storey Publishing, asking her to come up with 100 skills. “I told the folks at Storey that I was no doomsdayer,” Ana Maria says about her desire to offer a “quirky shift in thinking about what makes us human, what might help us survive.” The folks at Storey got it. “They said they wanted exactly the same tone … and if I had any doubts, they showed they definitely did get it when they chose Brian Cronin to do the whimsical, unexpected illustrations.”Jennifer Sahn, editor of Orion magazine, describes the end result well— “a handbook for how to be a better human: more self-sufficient, more cooperative and kind-hearted, more in tune with your surroundings… a humor-infused exploration of how to live more lightly on the planet while getting in touch with your more virtuous self.”

Many of the skills cross-reference each other, and some include Cronin’s detailed drawings, such as the instructions for #32, Finding Your Way (by the sun and by the stars and moon) and #57, Knot Tying – 7 knots everyone should know. I smile as I read the skills and study the illustrations. With many of them, I think, I already do that (composting, laughing, mending, walking) and with some, I could learn to do that (brining, knitting, sharpening). For a few, though, my thoughts go to, I’ll never do that (snowshoe crafting, tanning, welding). But if I get better at #9—Borrowing and Lending, #22—Conversing, and #65—Negotiating, maybe I’ll find people who’ll share those skills I don’t have and others who need the ones I do.

In the meantime, I plan to gift this timely book to friends and family. We can all use its delightful reminders that, while we’re going to be forced to shift our thinking and our behavior, we can have some fun.

What skills do you want to hone for a post-carbon, post-oil, post-fossil fuels future?


  1. Thank you, Iris, for this thoughtful post. Your dedication to “focusing on signs of hope” while remaining clear-eyed about the challenges we face is an inspiration. As is your generosity.

  2. You’re welcome, Ana Maria. I’m no doomsdayer, either, but sometimes I struggle to see the positive. Your book offers sound and creative advice to make us better humans and possibly the world we have a better one.

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