by Ran Prieur
[This is an edited version of a 2004 article I commissioned for the June 2006 issue of the Vermont Commons, by one of the truly brilliant young prophets of our time.]
Abandon the world mentally. The world is the enemy of the Earth: The “world as we know it” is a short-lived culture that survives by taking from the biosphere without giving back, and it’s just about finished. We’re not just running out of cheap oil. We’re also running out of topsoil, without which we need oil-derived fertilizers to grow food, and forests which stabilize climate and create rain by transpiring water to refill the clouds. We’re running out of room to dump stuff in the oceans without killing them, and to dump stuff in the atmosphere without wrecking the climate, and to manufacture carcinogens without giving ourselves cancer. We’re coming to the end of global food stockpiles, and antibiotics that still work, and our own physical health, and our own mental health, and our will to keep the whole game going.
In the next five or ten years, the American economy will collapse, food, fuel, and manufactured items will get much more expensive, and most of us will begin withdrawal from the industrial lifestyle. SUV’s will change their function from transportation to shelter. We will not be able to imagine how we ever thought calories were bad. This isn’t the doom scenario – it’s the mildest realistic scenario: the slow crash. Resources will become scarce; in some places, people will starve, conflict will increase, and climate disasters will get worse.
Smart people will stop poisoning dandelions and start eating them. My young anarchist friends are already packing themselves into unheated houses and getting around by bicycle, and they’re noticeably happier than my friends with full time jobs. We just have to make the mental adjustment.
Abandon the world physically. Getting out of the system is not about avoiding guilt, or even reducing your ecological footprint. It’s not a contest to see who’s doing more to save the Earth. It’s about reducing your dependence, getting free, being yourself, slipping out of a wrestling hold so you can throw an elbow at the Beast. This world is full of people with the intelligence, knowledge, skills, and energy to make heaven on Earth, but they can’t even begin because they would lose their jobs. We’re always arguing to change each other’s minds, but nobody will change if their survival depends on not changing. We need to decouple our survival from the system that commands us, so we can say no to it.
Dropping out has both a mental and an economic component that go together like your two legs walking. It’s a lot of steps! Maybe you notice that you hate your job, and that you have to do it because you need money. So you reduce expenses, reduce your hours, and get more free time, in which you learn more techniques of self-sufficiency and establish a sense of identity not dependent on where you get your money. Then you switch to a low-status low-stress job that gives you even more room to get outside the system mentally. And so on, until you’ve changed your friends, your values, your whole life.
You are here to help. In the culture of Empire, we are trained to think of ourselves as here to “succeed,” to build wealth and status and walls around ourselves, to win in games where winning is given meaning by others losing. This value system only makes sense in a world rigged so you can win all the time. Thousands of years ago only kings were in that position, and they reacted by massacring all enemies and bathing in blood. Now, through a perfect conjunction of Empire and oil energy, we have just put the entire American middle class in that position for 50 years. No one should be surprised that we’re so ignorant, selfish, inflexible, and short-sighted.
It’s a simple but profound shift to think of ourselves instead as here to help, to serve the greatest good that we can perceive in whatever way is right in front of us. Being here to help is more suited to difficult times, because you will frequently be in a situation where you can’t win, but you will almost never be in a situation where there’s nothing you can do to help. It even has survival value: as the system breaks down, people here to win will waste their energy fighting each other for scraps, while people here to help will build self-sufficient communities capable of generating what they need to survive.
Learn skills. Skills are more valuable than stores of canned food and gold. You know the saying: get a fish, eat for a day; learn to fish, eat for a lifetime. (Just don’t take it too literally – there might not be any fish left!)
The most obvious useful skills would include improvising shelter from materials at hand, identifying and preparing wild edibles, finding water, making fire, trapping animals, and so on. But I don’t think we’re going all the way to the stone age. There will also be a need for electrical work, medical diagnosis, surgery, optics, celestial navigation, composting, gardening, tree propagation, food preservation, diplomacy, practical chemistry, metalworking, all kinds of mechanical repair, and all kinds of teaching. As the 15th century had the Renaissance Man, we’re going to have the Postapocalypse Man or Woman, someone who can fix a bicycle, tan a hide, set a broken bone, mediate an argument, and teach history.
Then there are meta-skills that make skill-learning and everything else easier: luck, intuition, adaptability, attentiveness, curiosity, physical health, mental health, the ability to surf the flow. The best bumper sticker I ever saw was a “think globally, act locally” sticker altered to say just “think, act.” Most human behavior is based neither on logic nor intuition nor emotion, but habit and conformity. This barely works in a controlled environment, and in a chaotic environment it doesn’t work at all.
Find your tribe. You may feel like you want to do it alone, but you have never done it alone. You’ve lived your whole life as a member of a giant mad tribe, where the relationships are exploitative, abusive, and invisible. Now this tribe is dying, and others will grow to take its place. You’ll depend more on relationships and less on numbers, trading your sterile, insulated links of money and law for raw, messy links of friendship and conflict. The big lie of postapocalypse movies is that the survivors will be loners. In the real apocalypse, the survivors will be members of multi-skilled well-balanced cooperative groups.
Get on some land. Not everyone is going to buy land. You need money, and if you don’t have money, you need the mental discipline to save it up — buying questionable land in cash is still safer than going into debt to buy good land. Then you have to spend a lot of time looking. Some people join land-buying groups to share the cost, the work, and the benefits. If you don’t buy land, other options are to find someone who already has land and will take you in for your skills, or to find a place you can occupy without owning, or just to stay in the city and do your best to make it survivable. There were cities before the industrial age and there will be cities after it.
If you do get land, the most valuable thing it can have is clean surface water, a spring or stream you can drink from. I agree with William Kotke that the ideal situation is “at the top of a watershed in low hills.” If you don’t have good surface water, you can still filter bad water through sand and reed beds, or set up a system to catch and store rainwater. Then you’ll need a few years to learn and adjust and get everything in order so that your tribe can live there year-round, even with no materials from outside. With luck, it won’t come to that.
Save part of the Earth. I think it’s self-evident that the biosphere is valuable on its own terms, and more valuable than anything else we can perceive. The popular focus is on saving trophy animals — whales, condors, salmon, spotted owls — but we could save a lot more species if we put that attention into habitats and whole systems. And the easiest way to save habitats is by just doing it: adopting some land, whether by owning or squatting or stealth, and building it into a strong habitat: slowing down the rainwater, composting, mulching, building the topsoil, no-till gardening, scattering seed balls, planting trees, making wetlands — a little oasis where the tree frogs can hide and migrating birds can rest, where you and a few species can wait out the crash.
This requires a new set of skills. A good place to start is the permaculture movement. What it comes down to is seeing whole systems and working with the flow of nature. Some rain forest environments, once thought to be random wilderness, have turned out to be more like the wild gardens of human tribes, orders of magnitude more complex than the monoculture fields of our own primitive culture.
Sustainability is only the middle of the road, and there’s no limit to how far we can go beyond it. We can live in ways that increase the richness of life on Earth, and help Gaia in ways she cannot help herself. This and only this justifies human survival.
Save human knowledge. When people of this age think about knowledge worth saving, they usually think about techniques for rebuilding and using machines that enable concentrations of power, economic “growth,” alienation from other life, and a doomed cycle of increasing complexity. But I’m talking about the knowledge to avoid that. In 200 years, when our descendants are brushing seeds into baskets with their fingers, and a stranger appears with a new threshing machine that will do the same thing with less time and effort, they will need to say something smarter than “the Gods forbid it” or “that is not our Way.” They will need the knowledge to say something like:
“Your machine requires the seed to be planted alone and not interspersed with perennials that maintain nitrogen and mineral balance in the soil. And from where will the metal come, and how many trees must be cut down and burned to melt and shape it? And since we cannot build the machine, shall we be dependent on the machine-builders, and give them a portion of our food, which we now keep all for ourselves? Do you not know, clever stranger, that when biomass is removed from the land, and not cycled back into it, the soil is weakened? And what could we do with our “saved” time that would be more valuable than gathering the seed by hand, touching and knowing every stalk and every inch of the land that feeds us? Shall we become allies of cold metal that cuts without feeling, turning our hands and eyes to the study of machines and numbers until, severed from the Earth, we nearly destroy it as our ancestors did, making depleted uranium and polychlorinated biphenyls that even now make the old cities unfit for living? Go back to your people, and tell them, do not come to teach us, because we understand your world better than you do yourself. Tell your people to come to learn.”
Ran Prieur survives by housesitting, is slowly building a homestead in eastern Washington, and publishes his writing at http://www.ranprieur.com
by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes