Self-reliance over technology

A Truckee author’s low-tech guide to self-reliance and planetary survival

Matthew Stein, the author of <i>When Technology Fails.</i>

Matthew Stein, the author of When Technology Fails.

Photo by Dan McGee

Technology supports the modern American lifestyle like a giant spider’s web; it is woven into everything that we do, but it is surprisingly fragile. Without technology, an act as simple as driving to the store to pick up dinner would be nearly impossible. No electricity? You can’t buy gas—the pumps don’t work. You can’t buy food or water—the cash registers don’t work.

None of this surprises Matthew Stein. The 1978 MIT graduate and Truckee-based mechanical engineer is the author of When Technology Fails, a book that aims to prepare you for Earth’s impending technological collapse.

“In 1996, my brother and sister-in-law were caught in the Central Valley of California during a power outage,” he said. “They had to wait, on a hot day, in a gas line for five hours. They couldn’t even buy a bottle of water or check into a motel.”

Perhaps this image lingered in Stein’s subconscious, growing, developing and waiting to be set free. It emerged a year later, while Stein was meditating, something he has been doing for more than 20 years to help him solve problems.

“I got a giant flash,” he said. “One second it wasn’t there, then both the title and the plan for the book were there.”

After dealing with some doubts, Stein ran the idea by fellow writers Rick Sylvestor and Howard Rheingold, the editor of the Millennium Whole Earth Catalogue. Both encouraged him to write the book.

“I got a copy of Writer’s Market so I could find the publishers to send proposals to,” he said. “And, since I would be writing a book, I got a [computer] program to teach myself typing.”

Three years later, and after buying several thousands of dollars worth of research books, Stein wasn’t getting anywhere. Just when he decided to give up on the book, one of his proposals paid off.

“In February 1999, I decided to quit,” he said. “But the next day, Clear Light Publishers [from Santa Fe, N.M.] called to ask if I had written the book. We made a verbal contract then and later signed a formal one.”

When he first started writing the book, Stein had no idea about the coming Y2K scare, and he missed the window of opportunity that would have made When Technology Fails an instant hit. Since its release last December, book sales had been flat—until about a month ago, when Stein appeared on Art Bell’s radio show. After the appearance, Stein’s book skyrocketed to No. 13 on’s bestseller list.

“First, Clear Light said it was starting very slow,” he says. “Now, they’re complaining about not having enough books on the shelves and have started a second printing.”

So despite missing the boat on the Y2K fervor, things have worked out well for Stein. What’s more, he feels his book’s message is even more appropriate now than it would have been in 1999, especially with the recent changing weather patterns, earthquakes and California’s power problems.

Packed with information, When Technology Fails is 404 pages long and has 15 chapters covering a wide variety of subjects. Each chapter ends with a list of reference materials for further reading.

“I want to give people practical information so they can come away with a pretty good grasp of the subject,” he said. “There is something for everyone.”

While the first chapter gives an overview of the book, Stein says the second is critical.

“Chapter two is the least practical, but it’s the most important regarding the trends we face,” Stein said. “We’re probably going to see marked changes in the stability of weather patterns, as well as disruptions to both the supply of energy and possibly the distribution of food.”

The next chapter, “Supplies and Preparations,” was put to use by Stein after an earthquake at North Lake Tahoe a couple of years ago. Now his car is stocked with clothes and some food.

He went on to cite two examples of the havoc that even a moderate earthquake can create.

“Japan is the most earthquake-prepared country in the world,” he said. “Kobe, which lies on soft soil, had a moderate quake, and it took a week for supplies to reach the city. After the Northridge earthquake, which affected only 60 freeway interchanges, traffic in Los Angeles was disrupted for nine months.”

The next few chapters deal with supplies, preparation, emergency procedures, water and food.

“Many people don’t realize that the shelf life of foods we think will keep are very different,” Stein said. “A person needs to know what will last, especially if things get bad.”

With California’s energy problems, the chapters on structures—building houses that use passive heating—and energy are very relevant. Stein says the chapter on energy alone could help a homeowner save money and achieve self-reliance.

Stein is both pessimistic and optimistic about the future.

“It’s projected that things will go down, recover at a lower level and get worse again,” he said. “I know that if we go like we are now, in 50 years, everything will come apart. Personally, I feel this might start in the next 10 years, and we’ll look back at this time and think how good we had it.”

Despite his bleak outlook, Stein said he’s hopeful—but only if many individuals make a concerted effort.

“Alone, we can’t change the way things are,” he says. “But as a group, we can.”

Stein feels we have both the technology and tools to create both a sustainable and healthy economy, even though changes will have to be made.

His only question: “Are we going to be remembered as the generation that valued next quarter’s return more than our children’s future, or are we going to be remembered as the generation that recognized the problem and created a sustainable and viable future for planet Earth?”

His hope is that When Technology Fails will be the wake-up call that helps provide a positive answer.

Matt Stein will be at Wild Oats Market, 5695 S. Virginia St., for a talk and book-signing session on April 24 at 6:30 p.m. Call 829-8666.