Published: February 13, 2009

by Beth Ingalls

Mat Stein had an epiphany during his daily prayer and meditation session in 1997. A voice told him that he was going to write a book focusing on the future of the world and that he would get the help he needed if he took the project on. As an added bonus, he received an outline and a complete visual storyboard for the book that morning, which was especially helpful for someone who had never considered writing a book before.
Stein, 52, a Glenshire resident, graduated with a Mechanical Engineering degree from MIT in 1978, and first came to Tahoe in 1980. Working for the majority of his career as an engineer and building contractor, he also holds several patents and has designed water filtration systems, photovoltaic roof panels, computer disk drives and more. Taking on the book project shifted his focus completely away from these endeavors and thrust him headlong into an unknown world of publishing, writing and researching. According to Stein, “I began reading more than I ever had in my life.”

The first edition of Stein’s epic tome, titled “When Technology Fails,” was published in 2000 and sold 35,000 copies, but Stein didn’t see a dime of the proceeds. In fact, after devoting three years of his time and putting much of his own money into the production of the book, he found himself deeply in debt. Rather than pursuing a potentially futile lawsuit against the bogus publisher, Stein decided to cut his losses and went with a new one, Chelsea Green, for the second edition. Significantly revised and expanded, When Technology Fails was given a new subtitle, “A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability and Surviving the Long Emergency,” and was released last September.

It’s a massive read at 524 big-book (8.5 x11) pages, but has sold nearly 18,000 copies since its release and has been hovering within the Top 1,000 on much of that time. Retailing for $35, Stein thinks of his epic as six books in one, thoroughly covering the topics of sustainability, emergency preparedness, first aid, alternative healing, green building and alternative energy. He calls it a “bible for emergency preparedness and green living” and would have much preferred the title to be “Making the Shift to Sustainability,” but his first publisher felt that was too boring and forced the other instead.

Stein notes that he would “much rather be remembered as a prophet of saving the planet, than as a prophet of doom.”

As a reader, to commit to a book of this size and weight and with a cover photo depicting a hillside engulfed in flames is a daunting undertaking. Once in hand, it takes even more courage and resilience to dig in after reading the opening paragraphs:

“The devastation of New Orleans, combined with the escalating rash of wildfires in the western states, alternating floods and droughts in the eastern half of the United States, and even severe weather events around the world, brings home the fact that climate change and ecological collapse are bad for business and people’s lives. The events of 9/11, the war without end in Iraq, increasing international instabilities caused by global warming, and the fact that our thirst for Middle Eastern oil puts us on a collision course with violent radical Islamic fundamentalists-all are contributing to widespread feelings of malaise and uncertainty.”

But if you make it past the harsh assessments of the disastrous future we face as prisoners of our own lifestyles and makers of our own doom, When Technology Fails contains great information and appeals to a very wide range of readers. Whether you’re a survivalist type seeking firearm and ammunition recommendations, a Birkenstock-clad hippie looking to make you own tofu, or someone in between, the book most likely covers a topic you’ll find interesting and extremely useful. Stein makes the point fairly convincingly that in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, or even a simple power outage which lasts for more than a few days, the book can “help you plan and prepare for the possibility of short-term or long-term disruptions in the flow of the goods and essential services that we have become so dependent on.” Stein notes that “somewhere between the home mortgage, the supermarket, the cost of medical care, the corporate work week, and the video store, the American ideal of rugged individuality has slipped through our fingers.”

The book provides practical lessons in everything from tanning animal hides to treating bone fractures and making solar water pumps. While practical guidance and teaching tools make up make up many of the pages and chapters, there are also lengthy discussions about peak oil, biological threats, deforestation and climate change. Stein concludes each chapter with an extensive resource section for further reading and information as well.

Personal vignettes pulled directly from Stein’s life experience provide context and pleasant contrast from the dense subject matter of the book. In Chapter Four, “Emergency Measures for Survival,” he discusses cultivating the power of our intuition in making decisions. Stein recounts a friend’s story of being stuck in a long line of cars during an accident on a snowy Interstate 80 during a storm. After getting a very bad feeling, his friend decided to pull out of the line of waiting traffic onto the shoulder of the road as the snow continued. Within minutes a car emerged from behind and careened into the stopped traffic causing a massive pile-up and many injuries. Stein offers what he calls a “pit of the stomach” exercise to help us test the outcomes of our actions and to help guide us through everyday life and in difficult moments.

Mat Stein doubts that we will see technology fail us completely, but he does believe that “if we don’t proactively develop carbon-neutral alternatives to both oil and our current ways of burning coal for making electricity and cement, the dual threats of climate change and economic collapse will take our society down.” Fortunately, Stein also has hope and faith in our ability to make the positive changes needed to turn things around. In the last paragraph of the book he writes, “Throughout human history, great changes have followed actions that began at a grassroots level before blossoming into large-scale movements.” He ends by quoting United Nations official Robert Muller. “The beauty of the world will depend on the care of its gardeners. Let us therefore all become living gardeners of the world.”