by Dmitry Orlov. Sep 2, 2011. Fleeing Vesuvius.
Collapse without preparation is a defeat.
Collapse with preparation is an eccentricity.
I concede that the choice is a difficult one: either we wait for circumstances to force our hand, at which point it is too late for us to do anything to prepare, or we bring it upon ourselves ahead of time. If we ask the question, “How many people are likely to do that?” —then we are asking the wrong question. A more relevant question is, “Would we be doing this all alone?” And I think the answer is, probably not, because there are quite a few other people who are thinking along these same lines.
Even so, it is very important to understand social inertia for the awesome force that it is. I have found that many people are almost genetically predisposed to not want to understand what I have been saying, and many others understand it on some level but refuse to act on it. When they are touched by collapse, they take it personally or see it as a matter of luck. They see those who prepare for collapse as eccentrics; some may even consider them to be dangerous subversives. This is especially likely to be the case for people in positions of power and authority, because they are not exactly cheered by the prospect of a future that has no place for them.
There is a certain range of personalities that are most likely to survive collapse unscathed, physically or psychologically, and adapt to the new circumstances. I have been able to spot certain common traits while researching reports of survivors of shipwrecks and other similar calamities.
- A certain amount of indifference or detachment is definitely helpful, including indifference to suffering.
- Possibly the most important characteristic of a survivor, more important than skills or preparation or even luck, is the will to survive.
- Next is self-reliance: the ability to persevere in spite of loneliness and lack of support from anyone else.
- Last on the list is unreasonableness: the sheer stubborn inability to surrender in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, opposing opinions from one’s comrades, or even force.
Those wishing to be inclusive and accommodating, who want to compromise and to seek consensus, need to understand that social inertia is a crushing weight. Translated, “We must take into account the interests of society as a whole” means “We must allow ourselves to remain thwarted by people’s unwillingness or inability to make drastic but necessary changes; to change who they are.” Must we, really?
Our social instincts are atavistic and result far too reliably in mediocrity and conformism. We are evolved to live in small groups of a few families, and our recent experiments that have gone beyond that seem to have relied on herd instincts that may not even be specifically human. When confronted with the unfamiliar, we have a tendency to panic and stampede, and on such occasions people regularly get trampled and crushed underfoot. And so, in fashioning a survivable future, where do we put our emphasis: on individuals and small groups, or on larger entities — regions, nations, humanity as a whole? I believe the answer to that is obvious.
“Collapse” or “Transition”?
It’s difficult for most people to take any significant steps, even individually. It is even more difficult to do so as a couple. I know a lot of cases whether one person understands the picture and is prepared to make major changes in the living arrangement, but the partner or spouse is non-receptive. If they have children, then the constraints multiply, because things that may be necessary adaptations post-collapse look like substandard living conditions to a pre-collapse mindset. For instance, in many places in the United States, bringing up a child in a place that lacks electricity, central heating, or indoor plumbing may be equated with child abuse, and authorities rush in and confiscate the children. If there are grandparents involved, then misunderstandings multiply. There may be some promise to intentional communities: groups that decide to make a go of it in rural setting.
When it comes to larger groups — towns, for instance — any meaningful discussion of collapse is off the table. The topics under discussion center around finding ways to perpetuate the current system through alternative means: renewable energy, organic agriculture, starting or supporting local businesses, bicycling instead of driving, and so on. These certainly aren’t bad things to talk about, or to do, but what of the radical social simplification that will be required? And is there a reason to think that it is possible to achieve this radical simplification in a series of controlled steps? Isn’t that a bit like asking a demolition crew to demolish a building brick by brick instead of what it normally does? Which is, mine it, blow it up, and bulldoze and haul away the debris?
Better living through bureaucracy – A 10-Step program
- Formulate a brilliant plan
- Generate community enthusiasm
- Get support from industry, government, the UN, the Vatican and the Dalai Lama.
- Use mass media to generate public awareness.
- Form action committees.
- Propose new legislation. Lobby parliaments.
- Secure corporate sponsorship.
- Execute pilot programs.
- Publish papers, present results at conferences
There are still many believers in the goodness of the system and the magic powers of policy. They believe that a really good plan can be made acceptable to all — the entire unsustainably complex international organizational pyramid, that is. They believe that they can take all these international bureaucrats by the hand, lead them to the edge of the abyss that marks the end of their bureaucratic careers, and politely ask them to jump. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to stop them. Let them proceed with their brilliant schemes, by all means.
There are far simpler approaches that are likely to be more effective. Since most wealth is in private hands, it is actually up to individuals to make very important decisions. Unlike various bureaucratic and civic bodies, which are both short of funds and mired in social inertia, they can act decisively and unilaterally. The problem is, what to do with financial assets before they lose value.
The answer is to invest in things that will retain value even after all financial assets are worthless: land, ecosystems, and personal relationships. The land need not be in pristine or natural condition. After a couple of decades, any patch of land reverts to a wilderness, and unlike an urban or an industrial desert, a wilderness can sustain life, human and otherwise. It can support a population of plants and animals, wild and domesticated, and even a few humans.
The human relationships that are the most conducive to preserving ecosystems are ones that are in turn tied to a direct, permanent relationship with the land. They can be enshrined in permanent, heritable leases payable in sustainably harvested natural products. They can also be enshrined as deeded easements that provide the community with traditional hunting, gathering and fishing rights, provided human rights are not allowed to supersede those of other species. I think the lifeboat metaphor is apt here, because the moral guidance it offers is so clear. What has to happen in an overloaded lifeboat at sea when a storm blows up and it becomes necessary to lighten the load? Everyone draws lots. Such practices have been upheld by the courts, provided no-one is exempt — not the captain, not the crew, not the owner of the shipping company. If anyone is exempt, the charge becomes murder. Sustainability, which is necessary for group survival, may have to have its price in human life, but humanity has survived many such incidents before without descending into barbarism.
Gift-giving as an organizing principle
Many people have been so brainwashed by commercial propaganda that they have trouble imagining that anything can be made to work without recourse to money, markets, the profit motive, and other capitalist props. And so it may be helpful to present some examples of very important victories that have been achieved without any of these.
In particular, Open Source software, which used to be somewhat derisively referred to as “free software” or “shareware,” is a huge victory of the gift economy over the commercial economy.” Free software” is not an accurate label; nor is “free prime numbers” or “free vocabulary words.” Nobody pays for these things, but some people are silly enough to pay for software. It’s their loss; the “free” stuff is generally better, and if you don’t like it, you can fix it. For free.
General science works on similar principles. Nobody directly profits from formulating a theory or testing a hypothesis or publishing the results. It all works in terms mutuality and prestige — same as with software.
On the other hand, wherever the pecuniary motivation rises to the top, the result is mediocre at best. And so we have expensive software that fails constantly (I understand that the Royal Navy is planning to use a Microsoft operating system on its nuclear submarines; that is a frightening piece of news). We also have oceans full of plastic trash — developing all those “products” floating in the ocean would surely have been impossible without the profit motive. And so on.
In all, the profit motive fails to motive altruistic behaviour, because it is not reciprocal. And it is altruistic behaviour that increases the social capital of society. Within a gift-giving system, we can all be in everyone’s debt, but going into debt makes us all richer, not poorer.
Barter as an organizing principle
One option is to organize as communities to produce certain goods that the entire community wants: food, clothing, shelter, security and entertainment. Everyone makes their contribution, in exchange for the end product, which everyone gets to share. It is also possible to organize to produce goods that can be used in trade with other communities: trade goods. Trade goods are a much better way to store wealth than money, which is, let’s face it, an essentially useless substance.
We’ll need to re-skill and toughen up
Supposing all goes well, and we have a swift and decisive collapse, what should follow is an equally swift rebirth of viable localized communities and ecosystems. One concern is that the effort will be short of qualified staff.
It is an unfortunate fact that the recent centuries of settled life, and especially the last century or so of easy living based on the industrial model, have made many people too soft to endure the hardships and privations that self-sufficient living often involves. It seems quite likely that those groups that are currently marginalized would do better, especially the ones that are found in economically underdeveloped areas and have never lost contact with nature.
And so I would not be surprised to see these marginalized groups stage a come-back. Almost every rural place has its population of people who know how to use the local resources. They are the human component of the local ecosystems and, as such, they deserve much more respect than they have received. A lot of them can’t be bothered about fine manners or speaking English. Those who are used to thinking of them as primitive, ignorant and uneducated will be shocked to discover how much they must learn from them.
Rules for your new life
- Conserve energy. Get plenty of rest and sleep a lot. Sleeping burns 10 times less energy than hard physical labor.
- Save time. Avoid living to a schedule. Work with the weather and the seasons, not against them.
- Pick and choose. Always have more to do than you ever plan to get done.
- Have plenty of options. You don’t know what the future holds so (don’t) plan accordingly.
- Think for yourself. The popularity of the stupid idea doesn’t make it any less stupid.
- Laugh at the world. Make sure to maintain a healthy sense of humor.
So what are we to do while we wait for collapse, followed by good things? It’s no use wasting your energy, running yourself ragged and aging prematurely; so get plenty of rest, and try to live a slow and measured life. One of the ways industrial society dominates us is through the use of the factory whistle: few of us work in factories, but we are still expected to work a shift. If you can avoid doing that, you will be ahead. Maintain your freedom to decide what to do at each moment, so that you can do each thing at the most opportune time. Specifically try to give yourself as many options as you can, so that if any one thing doesn’t seem to be working out, you can switch to another. The future is unpredictable, so try to plan so as to be able to change your plans at any time. Learn to ignore all the people who earn their money by telling you lies. Thanks to them, the world is full of very bad ideas that are accepted as conventional wisdom, so watch out for them and come to your own conclusions. Lastly, people who lack a sense of humor are going to be in for a very hard time, and can drag down those around them. Plus, they are just not that funny. So avoid people who aren’t funny, and look for those who can laugh at the world no matter what happens.
- ttp://www.theoildrum.com/node/5381 Dated 3 May 2009
- The average price of a barrel of oil in 2007 was $65.61 and production was 73.78 million barrels per day. The Gross World Product was $65,610 billion. This means that 2.7% of world output spent on buying oil. In 2008, the average price rose to $91.50, thus pushing the share of world output figure to around 4%.
- R,H. Tycot et al., “The Importance of Maize in Initial Period and Early Horizon Peru”, chapter 14 in Histories of Maize: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Prehistory, Biogeography, Domestication, and Evolution of Maize, J.E. Staller, R.H. Tykot & B.F. Benz eds., Elsevier, 2006, downloadable from http://shell.cas.usf.edu/~rtykot/14%20Tykot%20et%20al.pdf