Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Where are the Lifeboat Communities?

Since the first serious doubts about the long-term survival of industrial society began to surface in the second half of the twentieth century, one of the most frequently repeated proposals for doing something about the situation has been the building of lifeboat communities: isolated, self-sufficient settlements stocked with the resources and technology to survive the end of the industrial age. Such Seventies classics as Roberto Vacca’s The Coming Dark Age discuss such communities in detail, and these discussions have been picked up and expanded substantially over the half-decade or so since the limits to growth have come back into sight in the form of peak oil.

It’s a plausible notion, and it has the advantage of a solid historical parallel to back up its claim to viability. During and long after the fall of the Roman Empire, Christian monasteries served as living time capsules in which many of the treasures of classical culture stayed safe through the centuries. Buddhist monasteries filled the same function in Japan’s feudal age, and Buddhist and Taoist monasteries took turns doing the same thing through China’s repeated cycles of imperial boom and bust. It’s by no means implausible that some similar project could salvage the best of modern civilization as a legacy to future ages.

Yet it’s curious to notice that all the current talk about lifeboat communities has yet to result in much in the way of action. I know of several groups that are seriously trying to put together the money, people, and other resources to make such a project happen, and doubtless there are others canny enough to pursue such a project without informing archdruids or anyone else about it. For the vast majority of people who talk about lifeboat communities, though, talk is as far as it goes. It would be easy enough to dismiss this as just another example of the common human habit of saying one thing while doing something much less impressive, and doubtless that has a good deal to do with it, but I’m convinced there’s more going on here.

Partly, of course, it’s that the same sort of disconnect between talk and action pervades every cranny of the question of industrial society’s future. In discussions about peak oil or any other aspect of the crisis of industrial society you care to name, people routinely bring up abstract possibilities as though the mere invocation of their names is enough to banish our problems. Solar power, or biofuels, or nuclear fusion, or breeder reactors, or, gods help us, “free energy devices” (the current incarnation of perpetual motion) will take care of the problem, I’ve been told time and again by people who are doing nothing whatsoever to make any of these things happen. On the other side of the equation, I’ve been lectured nearly as often about the evils of civilization and the inevitability of a return to hunter-gatherer economies by people whose utter lack of physical conditioning and basic wilderness skills guarantee them a quick and messy death if they ever follow their own advice and take to the wilderness.

Wish-fulfillment fantasy plays a much greater role in today’s debates about the survival of industrial society than most participants in those debates may want to admit, and the lifeboat community concept is no exception. How many science fiction novels, movies, and TV programs over the last fifty years have centered on some isolated community of survivors heroically rebuilding the world in the aftermath of some global catastrophe? Like it or not, all of us have such images moving through the crawlspaces of our minds, and it’s important to keep an eye on their potent gravitational attraction as we try to sort out fantasies from realities about the future.

This is particularly true in the present case, because the lifeboat community concept has extraordinarily deep roots in American culture. From colonial times on, groups of disaffected people from all corners of the religious, political, and intellectual continuum have set out to build communities in the wilderness, and very often a core element of their motivation was a conviction that apocalypse was close at hand. A direct line of cultural continuity runs from the Rosicrucian communes of colonial Pennsylvania straight through the Transcendentalists, the Mormons, the Sixties counterculture, and every other band of American dreamers who convinced themselves that a better world could be reached by the simple expedient of heading out into the Territories like Huck Finn and building it themselves.

From this perspective, peak oil – and indeed the whole contemporary crisis of industrial civilization – is simply one more excuse for disaffected Americans to dream about doing what their equivalents have dreamed about doing for the last three centuries or so. That the dream so rarely translates into attempts to make it a reality, though, has a tolerably simple explanation, and its name is the Sixties. Many people alive today remember what happened when large numbers of white, middle-class young people left the urban centers where the counterculture had its roots and tried to build a new society in communes scattered across rural America.

It was a grand experiment but, on the whole, a failed one, and the root cause of its failure is instructive. Of the many thousands of young communards who headed back to the land, vanishingly few of them had the least idea how much sheer hard work it takes to grow one’s own food and provide the other necessities of life by one’s own efforts, and not many more had even the most basic skills needed to tackle that technically complex and demanding task. A little pottering around in garden beds with a copy of a half-read book in one hand won’t do the trick. Idyllic fantasies of living the good life in the lap of nature thus collided head on with the hard reality that life in a fossil-fueled industrial economy really is much easier than subsistence farming in Third World conditions. Caught in this collision, most of the communes of the Sixties either figured out how to batten off the larger society through welfare, drug dealing, or some other sideline, or simply let out a few bubbles and sank once the first bright rush of idealistic enthusiasm wore off.

The same challenge faces potential lifeboat communities in a world perched unsteadily on the brink of peak oil. Anyone who wants to pursue rural self-sufficiency needs to check their desire for a modern American lifestyle at the door, and embrace a standard of living fairly close to that of a Third World peasant. Given competent training, rigorous practice, and a high tolerance for hard physical labor day in and day out, a group of healthy adults can keep themselves and their dependents adequately fed, clothed, housed, and equipped with necessary tools, with a little left over for barter or sale; for thousands of years this has been the standard human lifestyle over most of the world, and once the brief era of fossil-fueled extravagance we call modern industrial civilization is over, it will likely be the standard human lifestyle once again. Compared to the relative ease, comfort, opportunity and abundance of a modern middle-class lifestyle, though, the lot of a subsistence farmer is fairly hard going.

If the industrial world faced the sort of quick linear decline imagined by so many pundits of the Seventies and the present day, the transition from a modern lifestyle to a sustainable one would be much easier. Faced with the certain loss of familiar comforts and a future getting steadily worse than the present, many people could come to terms with the difficulties of subsistence farming and learn to enjoy the acquired taste of its pleasures. As I suggested in last week’s post and elsewhere, though, this luxury isn’t one we can count on.

Instead, the most likely course for the decline and fall of industrial civilization is a cyclic process, in which periods of respite and partial recovery punctuate the downward curve that leads into the dark ages of the deindustrial future. The cycles of sustainability outlined in last week’s post pose a daunting challenge for potential lifeboat communities. How many people could maintain their commitment to the hard labor and sparse rewards of a subsistence lifestyle in a period like the Eighties, when energy prices are dropping, supplies seem abundant, and the lessons of the previous energy crisis become at least temporarily irrelevant? If the arrival of significant declines in world petroleum production triggers economic contraction, and thus undercuts the demand for petroleum, another interval like the Eighties is among the most likely outcomes.

What all this suggests is that the central problem that proposed lifeboat communities must tackle is one of motivation. This same suggestion might have been drawn from the historical parallel that undergirds the entire project. The Christian monasteries that preserved classical culture through the last set of dark ages, after all, were not staffed by people trying to preserve some semblance of a middle-class Roman lifestyle while the world fell apart around them. Quite the opposite—the monks and nuns who copied old texts, taught at abbey schools, and kept the lamps of Western civilization burning when they were at their lowest ebb since Mycenae’s fall voluntarily embraced a lifestyle even more impoverished and restricted than that of the peasants among whom they lived. The same point is equally true of the Buddhist and Taoist monastics who accomplished the same vital task in other places and times. Arguably, it was precisely this willingness to embrace extreme poverty that freed up the time and effort needed for the economically unproductive activities needed to keep the heritage of a civilization alive.

The motivating factors that guided the followers of Benedict of Nursia, Kobo Daishi, and Chang Daoling, then, may be among the crucial missing pieces in current debates about lifeboat communities, and indeed the entire contemporary crisis of industrial civilization. To explore this possibility, we’re going to have to take a hard look at one of the least understood and, admittedly, most dysfunctional aspects of modern culture, and talk about the place of religion in a response to peak oil.


LizM said...
One problem with the lifeboat concept is that it's a bit like the "diet" thing: something you do suddenly and for awhile, and then everything is fine. No one lives on a lifeboat forever. So perhaps a more durable metaphor is in order.

My small group of friends are trying to find ways to replace the basics, food and clothing, with our own homegrown product or something manufactured locally and sustainably. That's a pretty big challenge. It takes time to work out how to make decent miso, can safely, source local fats and grains, practice effective vermiculture, and so on.

We're not a lifeboat community because we're not taking off for the countryside, much as we love it. That would contribute to sprawl. We're hoping instead to shift our urban environment back to its preindustrial habits, like composting, orchardry, the use of cisterns, shutters, canopies, lanterns, and so on. We're more about hoisting a main sheet and punching out long covered oarholes in the side of the dear old tub, which was a lively and stylish place to live long before petroleum and industrialization. Not everyone is so lucky in their locale, and I can appreciate the urge to move. But in the end, I suspect sanctuary is something you build, not something you find.

4/18/07, 3:13 PM

Erik said...
I can think of one factor you didn't mention that might negatively influence some who would otherwise consider starting such a community; the social stigma against "survivalists". In the wake of Ruby Ridge, Waco, Montana and a pile of Hollowwood movies, I imagine that some folks either don't want to be tarred with that brush, or fear actually encountering them if they *do* try to start a community.

On the other end of your post, I am struggling with an Earth Day sermon for my UU church this weekend about precisely that subject - the spiritual motivation for environmental action.,. it's a tough subject, and doesn't yield easily to being compressed into 15 minutes!

4/18/07, 3:23 PM

Erik said...
I've committed myself to learning this season how to put up food without freezing; I've got copies of "Putting Food By" and "Canning Without Sugar", but any other tips you might have would be greatly appreciated! We always have an abundance of leftovers from the CSA, and I want to be able to do something with it besides just sticking it in the freezer.

4/18/07, 3:27 PM

bunnygirl said...
While what you say is true, I wonder to what degree debt and the high cost of medical care (which keeps people chained to jobs that offer insurance) keep people enslaved to the gods of fossil fuel? A lot of people aren't free to leave the rat race, no matter how much they may want to.

4/18/07, 4:27 PM

Geoff said...
I always enjoy reading your posts, thankyou for putting such time & effort into them.

This issue is one I've considered for a while. I think lizm is right about the metaphor being wrong, we don't want lifeboats, which whilst they signify a journey through hardship to a destination, also indicate that you'll be getting out at the end. Rather we should be looking at seeds of new communities, of new ways of life, that will grow in one place and spread from that centre. Seeds don't have to be planted exclusively in the countryside.

I think your statement that the central problem is motivation is spot on. Part of motivation is always belief in the outcome. A lot of people still cling to the idea that there will be a way out, that salvation will come in some form and we shall be able to continue our affluent progressive lifestyles.

Perhaps the monks could see around them the dangers, they could see what was being lost, so the need to preserve things was immediate. The lack of concrete certainty in the current situation makes motivation more an article of faith rather than a response to current conditions.

4/18/07, 4:35 PM

Loveandlight said...
Your point about lifeboat communities is well-taken. Many of the few alternative communities from the 60's that were successful became casualties of the cyclic "upswing" period of the 80's and 90's for various reasons.

As for primitivism, I don't necessarily expect to survive the population "implosion" that will probably happen at some point. My own evaluation is that your theory on cyclic decline will be true for a while, then it will get to the point where civilization mostly disintegrates (which is not to say that human societies will cease to exist provided we don't go extinct). There are people who are learning primitive skills. Yes, this is a very small number of people, but once civilization with its complexity isn't around to provide a support system, the Earth will likely be supporting a very much smaller human population.

Why do I say that? Well, in this country alone, a huge percentage of the farmable topsoil is gone, maybe even as much as 80%. And what topsoil remains won't have much nutrients left in it for supporting agriculture once there are no more fossil-fuel derived fertilizers. Yes, there will be people who know how to rebuild soil with permacultural techniques, but what will likely be taking place is horticulture, or intensive gardening that observes certain limits and does not push yields past the point of diminishing returns. That's a different animal than the totalitarian agriculture civilization has used to support itself. A primitive lifestyle partially supported by horticulture can support a culturally rich human society such as that enjoyed by the pre-Columbian Native Americans, but it is a mistake to call such societies "civilization" in the proper sense of the word, because living within certain limits puts a cap on how complex such societies can become. (I am amused by the temper-tantrums that 20-something LiveJournal latte-liberals throw when I try to explain this difference.) Native American societies such as Cahokia that became addicted to ever-increasing complexity collapsed when the demand for perpetual growth that complexity (civilization) demands caused them to run out of their most vital resource (wood, in the case of Cahokia).

Another reason I don't see agriculture as it has been practiced over the past 10K years continuing is that climate-change will end the calm, gentle, stable climate (relatively speaking) of the Holocene era that made agriculture possible.

But as I've said before, it's probably not really for me to say how humans will live sustainably on the planet in the future. I just think the primitivist critique of civilization as it has been so far is the one with the most merit. And if you're going to sympathize with that critique, you pretty much have to take it for granted that the vast majority of people will disagree with you (not to mention that you will occasionally encounter the sort of temper-tantrums I mentioned in a previous paragraph).

4/18/07, 5:46 PM

LizM said...

Our canning techniques are evolving. This year we want to try a solar oven, which is a method not yet approved by agricultural extensions. Information is sparse, but there is a book by Eleanor Shimeall on the subject. If you want to stay in touch by email, I'll let you know how it goes. Otherwise, the biggest challenge has just been processing enough to get all of us through the winter and spring, with supplemental produce from our local foods stand. You have to be kind of disciplined and set aside several hours in the evening, when it's a bit cooler. We water can tomatoes, fruits, and conserves, and pressure can veggies. We use the Ball Blue Book as a guide. Our pickling and fermentation efforts are still at an early stage.

There are refrigeration techniques that you might find helpful. I'm planning to construct a root cellar my basement locker, and there is an Egyptian device known as a zeer, or pot-in-pot refrigerator, which you can read a bit about here:


4/18/07, 5:55 PM

By the Creek said...
Let me recommend Eleanor Agnew's
Back from the Land:
How Young Americans Went to Nature in the 1970s and Why They Came Back

One Amazon reviewer insightfully said "Many references are made to how easy Mother Earth magazine made it seem to drop out; a simile might be drawn that says Mother Earth magazine is to back to the landers as Lansford Hastings' The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California was to the Donner Party-both documents were oversimplified and omitted many important details to the sorrow of those that used them as a guide."

Another said: "One of the better books by former Hippies about the 60's and 70's. Well written and insightful. If you are really interested in the back to the land phenomenon and what it was really like this is highly recommended. If you want a light, "and then we all got stoned" sort of retrospective this will be too analytical but still interesting."

Myself, I found Agnew a little bit shallow and dismissive of the experiment. She published in 2005, but had no mention of climate change-- that ecological impulse she had was just hippy foolishness. That said, she explained just how easy it was not.

4/18/07, 7:50 PM

Danby said...
Well, John, this is certainly a post to my own heart!
Erik, try your local county extension office. Every county has one, and they have lots of free information and low-cost and even free classes on food preservation. The best 2 general books on the subject are Putting Food By, and Stocking Up. The best low-tech handbook, bar none, on food preservation is Stillroom Cookery by Grace Firth.

Having moved out into the sticks almost 20 years ago, I can tell you that it has been nothing like what I expected. As John says, the sheer amount of physical labor involved in raising your own food is incredible. The monetary input has been unbelievable as well. About 12 years ago, it became obvious that we weren't going to make it on the farm alone. I've been working full time at an outside job since. Thankfully, about 6 months ago, I was able to make the transition to full-time telecommuting, so I now again have some time to devote to the farm. The greenhouse will be finished tomorrow. I have some hope of raising a large percentage of our food this year, for the first time in those 12 years.

If you're thinking of going back to the land, I have some suggestions. The first is to understand why you want to. If you're de-urbanizing out of fear, of economic collapse, or crime, or pollution, or whatever else, you'd better just stay home. All the things you're afraid of in town are worse out in the country. I mean it. I have a convicted, level 3 child molester living adjacent to my property. Second, raise a garden, right where you are now. I've had gardens since I was 8, and I knew how much work it was to hoe a row of peas. Third, get and learn how to use a gun. Where I am it would take about 20 minutes for the police to get here, were I to call. That's enough time to get very very dead. You will have to defend yourself. No-one else will defend you. Fourth, get the tools and skills now. Trying to learn when you're dependent on the outcome can be a bad experience.

Explicitly lifeboat communities are doomed. Even if you can get one formed and working, it will only last one generation. What will last is a community organized around a specific purpose. I don't even think it's particularly important what that purpose is, provided it is meaningful to the members and serves as a means of ordering the life of the community.

I think the failure of the communes in the 60's has a simple explanation. What is most important about trying to build a community is that any small community must share a common culture. A culture consists mostly in a set of shared understanding of how the world works, and what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Most of the 60's communes failed because a bunch of kids smoking dope and sharing a vague admiration for Marxism is not a shared culture. Some would work hard and some would not. Some would be content to live is squalor, others would not. Some would put their Marxism in practice through petty theft. And free love is a disastrous undertaking in any human society.

It is also true that unrealistic expectations were shattered on the hard rock of reality. They always are. Some rose to the occasion (Terry Pratchett comes to mind). Most did not. Most do not.

I agree, from hard experience, that subsistence farming is incredibly difficult. Raising grain, as an example is more expensive than buying it. I don't think subsistence farming should be the goal, unless and until you see an actual societal collapse. The goal should be to be ready to raise most/all of your own food. To have the skills, tools, and resources in place to do so. And to have other skills that are of value in a post-petroleum economy, such as brewing, musicianship, spinning, knitting, knifesmithing, woodcarving, or, for you hunter-gatherers out there, flint knapping. Very few people around the world have ever raised all their own food, made all their own tools, did everything on a self-sufficient basis. Trade is a feature of all human society, so it's good to have something to trade.

Sorry to roam about so much, but there's far more to be said than really would be appropriate in this sort of forum.

4/18/07, 8:51 PM

Al said...
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4/18/07, 9:42 PM

Al said...
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4/18/07, 9:46 PM

Loveandlight said...
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4/18/07, 10:54 PM

Al said...
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4/18/07, 11:19 PM

eboy said...
I agree largely with Danby's post and Lizm about having fear as a primary narrative on the lifeboat. I would suggest that Danby's purposeful society should really be centered around a common belief and value set.
This no doubt will be where you want to go next JMG.
The world has a way of turning out differently than we expect.
Not that the buffalo's don't go over the cliff. But rather which ones go first? And when?
I would imagine that one of the 1st things that the m.i.c. (military industrial complex)types do the moment they feel threatened by shortages.
Would be to impose martial law and a rationing scheme.

There is still a large amount of oil out there, peak is about recognizing a forced change in the western economic growth model. The energy wasted in the industrial world is gauling. Rationing would have profound changes to the howdy doody lifestyle.
Conservation efforts, depending on how they are directed, can free up a lot of oil (let alone demand destruction).
The mad max future model, narrative is premised on fear versus promise. Thinking about clean air, water, food and hope for the grand kids is a much better goal than circling the wagons IMHO.

The bigger concern is the climate change consequences of not reigning in our CO2 emissions.
I fully agree with Danby that energy should be expended on growing as much of your own food. For knowledge, food quality (nutritional density). He indirectly points out that the requisite infrastructure needed to live the simple life is massive.

4/18/07, 11:47 PM

kjmclark said...
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4/19/07, 5:14 AM

kjmclark said...
I didn't realize there were so many different versions of lifeboats. Some people think of lifeboats as separate boats to ply the seas with when your main ship is sinking. I tend to think of a lifeboat as a life raft; it's only there to keep you out of the water long enough for another boat to wander by or until you're washed ashore. In other words, it's a place to avoid the disaster on the main ship until you can (quickly) get somewhere safer.

Danby, you're not the only one to point out the problems with living in the country. Do you think it's possible for someone to live in a small/medium city and maintain a small life raft in the country? I would be taking all of your valuable advice into account, of course.

4/19/07, 5:22 AM

dopamine said...
It seems that even if a lifeboat could be assembled and manned by able bodied, willing to work survivalists, it would eventually be capsized by waves of the hungry, dispossessed and aggressive. In the past, many or most individuals existed under regimes of hard physical labor and the difficulties of famine and disease, their Dark Ages may seem like a minor adjustment in lifestyle compared to what we may have in store. The religious orders could hide their information and relics and live sparsely. Why attack a religious outpost when you can’t find the treasures and they don’t have much food either? I’m afraid that we are entirely unfit and unprepared for what’s coming, not just the end of oil but the end of natural gas and then the collapse of the electrical grid. If we could all spend a few years in a labor camp and then find ourselves free in an energy restricted environment we might feel much better about the whole thing but we are spoiled by our energy slaves. I’m afraid we are being led right to the edge of a cliff while our corporate and government leaders hurriedly loot our treasury. Those on the edge of the cliff will pushed over by the incessant pressure from behind. Some will fight and throw others into the abyss. Some will close their eyes and freefall into their dreamy netherworld. Maybe they’ll decide to throw all the old useless people over first. “Everyone over 65, to the front.” Faster than the doomed can fall the word will work its way back through the throngs of condemned and anarchy will ensue. Maybe this is why the mass media has failed to mention our predicament. They want our procession over the cliff to be peaceful and organized and if our behavior becomes too unruly the Blackwater mercenaries will show us no mercy. So go out to BestBuy and purchase that home entertainment system and continue watching the fools on T.V., you know the ones, the chuckleheads whose job it is to convince all the zombies that everything is all right. That’s what you want to hear isn’t it – everything is going to be all right.

4/19/07, 5:56 AM

Steve said...
Regarding "self-sufficiency", Bill McKibben has a recent essay that makes some very interesting points:

Old MacDonald Had A Farmers’ Market –
total self-sufficiency is a noble, misguided ideal

Fantasies of self-reliance might just be the problem, and are almost certainly just that - fantasies.

By Bill McKibben

4/19/07, 6:49 AM

senecascenes said...
Sustainability is fighting the power of cheap energy. It is the rare human that will renounce labor that can be purchased at three cents per hour.

I may yet make that commitment myself.


4/19/07, 8:07 AM

By the Creek said...
I found this comparison of Chines to Americans intriguing. The person portrayed here seems to be a genration or two away from the land, but has much more discipline than most Americans (sort of like Daniel Bell's Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, perhaps?)
Many Savers, Few Spenders Leave South China Mall Almost Empty

"Private consumption in China, the world's most populous nation and the fourth-largest economy, accounts for just 35 percent of gross domestic product, about half the share in the U.S. and ``quite possibly the lowest consumption share of any major economy in modern history,'' according to a report by Morgan Stanley."

From an eco standpoint, it is good that they are saving and not consuming.

4/19/07, 8:51 AM

John Michael Greer said...
A reminder to all -- discussion and reasoned disagreement are appropriate here; trolling and flamebaiting are not. Posts engaging in the latter will be deleted. So will posts responding to them, on the "please don't feed the trolls" principle. Thanks for understanding.

4/19/07, 9:00 AM

Al said...
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4/19/07, 9:16 AM

John Michael Greer said...
I thought this one would spark a lot of discussion! Lizm, I agree wholeheartedly about the problems with the "lifeboat" metaphor. One of its many downsides is that it misses the existence of a world of options between full immersion in modern industrial life and an isolated cabin in the woods. It's in that middle ground, it seems to me, that successful responses to the crisis of industrial society are to be found.

This was among the reasons why my spouse and I moved from Seattle a few years back to a small town in southern Oregon. We grow some of our own food and support local organic growers who produce most of the rest, and have been phasing in other appropriate-tech lifestyle changes as time and funds permit. That's the sanctuary we're building, but it's not a panacea -- there are urban areas well suited to long term sustainability, too, and kudos to you for pursuing that path.

Erik, good point. As for canning, talk to your county extension agent, or the local Grange!

Bunnygirl, getting out of debt and providing one's own health care are real challenges, but for most of us they're not insuperable. I think it's the fear of them, rather than the reality, that keeps most people chained.

Geoff, my take is that the monks had other reasons for doing what they did -- they weren't responding to their society at all, but rather to the teachings of their faith. Much more on this next week.

Loveandlight, the one thing I'd point out in response to the whole neoprimitivist theory is that there's a spectrum of human social complexity. Of course societies of the deindustrial age will be less complex than today's urban-industrial system -- sheer energy limits will see to that -- but more modest urban centers have thrived for thousands of years in suitable environments.

I expect that to continue far into the future, in those bioregions suited to agriculture -- which admittedly are only a small fraction of the earth's surface. As for the impact of climate change, there's a post in the works on this; it's not often recognized that agriculture took over from mixed economies during a time of extreme climate change at the end of the last ice age, precisely because small-scale grain farming is more resilient than most of the alternatives. More on this later.

By The Creek, many thanks -- I'll check it out.

Dan, excellent advice! If you ever decide to do a second blog on such themes, let me know and I'll put out the word in the peak oil community -- it'll be something a lot of people should read.

Eboy, all good points. Yes, I expect rationing and some steep declines in civil liberties in the decades to come.

Kjmclark, one of the things that makes the "lifeboat community" concept, as usually conceived, so problematic is that it doesn't have a destination. It's as though people are thinking in Hollywood terms -- lots of drama, then you get to the end of the movie and nothing comes next. My interest is in the long term, and that requires not a lifeboat, if you will, but an island -- or a continent.

Dopamine, notice how the only alternatives you're considering are at the far ends of the spectrum. Step outside either/or thinking and you'll find many more possibilities opening up.

Steve, many thanks! This is a crucial point -- local community networks, not the fantasy of total self-sufficiency, are the basis for human survival in nonindustrial societies. Mind you, it's a mistake to idealize local community networks -- they have their problems also -- but they're viable in a deindustrial environment, and the alternatives aren't.

Michael, yes, that's the challenge. The motivation needed to tackle it -- now that's the question.

By the Creek, remember that China has a few thousand years more experience with boom and bust than America does. My guess is that when the dust settles, something called China will still be around; I have extreme doubts that anything like America will be intact even a century from now. But we'll see.

4/19/07, 9:33 AM

dragoneyes said...
I think that the idea of Lifeboat Communities is very much part of various Utopian movements and ideals about spiritual communities. Once upon a time, when I was a much younger and much more idealistic (and less grounded) spiritual seeker I fell for a while under the spell of such ideas.

But after attending some preliminary meetings for one such potential community it became clear that everyone had their own ideas of how it would be run and that these ideas were supporting with a certain amount of ideological fanaticism which totally surprised me. Freedom and individuality certainly came second to community ideology. As a self-proclaimed maverick mystic to whom freedom is extremely important this was not acceptable.

I realized that villages, towns and sections of cities and towns are already communities. You just have to decide to "inhabit" and be a part of your neighborhood.

Does anyone here read The Oil Drum? I check in there occasionally and found an essay that fits pretty much with what I had thought would be the best solution to peak oil, etc.

You may want to check out this article on The ELP Plan: Economize; Localize & Produce at

We live in a town adjacent to a city, have access to good public transportation and have a large garden in our back yard. Oh, and we do live under our means and save as much as possible.

4/19/07, 9:37 AM

riverbird said...
>> willingness to embrace poverty <<

Here's your general motivation problem, yoyu hit it on the head; tenfold true for Americans, though maybe human nature??

I am glad to hear a leading commenter speak of monastic lifestyle as a model, a very different model than the commune lifeboats a genration ago. the voluntary willingness to embrace and live out a life of poverty and basic simpleness is really to only level of consumption that may be sustainable, particularly in light of declining energy and growing population circumstances.

I'm not convinced that the religiosity of the monasteries is neccesary, maybe some middle ground between that and the old hippy communes? one reason I have seen the latter models fail is poorly developed personal/ group skills and then they were (ironically) all fighting over money.

Many folks these days do seem locked in to things as they are. With mortgages, et al, it seeems impossible to step out of the 9-5 job routine even if one wanted to. And then step out of it to a life of actual hard work? I don't really see that happning, maybe that's why so many want to keep trying to play the technology card or biofuels.

So, step one for everyone I guess starts where JMG finished, cultivate a "willingness to embrace poverty." I wonder who will step forward?

4/19/07, 9:42 AM

Loveandlight said...
Blogger doesn't do automatic hyperlink conversion anymore, so here's the two articles recommended by posters converted into working hyperlinks:

Pot-in-pot refrigerator

Old MacDonald Had a Farmers' Market

Many Savers, Few Spenders Leave South China Mall Almost Empty

People are a lot more likely to read your recommended articles with a working hyperlink. Here's how to do the magic using the blog's homepage as an example:

[a href=""]Click this link to read an interesting blog![/a]

When you actually do it yourself, just use pointy brackets <> instead of the flat brackets [] I used in my example.

4/19/07, 9:51 AM

jason said...
On the other side of the equation, I’ve been lectured nearly as often about the evils of civilization and the inevitability of a return to hunter-gatherer economies by people whose utter lack of physical conditioning and basic wilderness skills guarantee them a quick and messy death if they ever follow their own advice and take to the wilderness.

Hey now! I admit, I'm a bit overweight now, I'm in a bit of a vicious cycle here. But I also am doing what's needed to break out. We've been learning those skills and practicing them, and the further that goes, the easier it'll be for me to break out of this cycle, and start having more time to take better care of myself. So nyah!

Loveandlight, the one thing I'd point out in response to the whole neoprimitivist theory is that there's a spectrum of human social complexity. Of course societies of the deindustrial age will be less complex than today's urban-industrial system -- sheer energy limits will see to that -- but more modest urban centers have thrived for thousands of years in suitable environments.

Because in the past, the soil wealth provided the energy to support that level of complexity. That soil wealth was used up by the last time we lived like that, so where is the energy coming from this time around, with 85% depleted soils in North America? Even the best continent left in terms of soil wealth, Australia, is 55% depleted (but they face huge salinization problems, as Jared Diamond discussed in Collapse). Look at the drought going on there now. Seems to me we burned that bridge the last time we crossed it.

4/19/07, 12:49 PM

Danby said...
and perhaps others. The idea of living in a no-petroleum world is not a new one. Mankind did it for several thousand years before oil was found in Pennsylvania in the 19th century. Cheap energy has changed so much of how people live that perhaps it's not obvious how a society without petroleum is structured.

Look the world over and you will see that human society, once out of the hunter-gatherer stage, can be divided into 3 levels; village, town and city.

A village is a small group of homes, often farmsteads, clustered amidst the fields and forests. It draws it's resources directly from the land around it. The residents are mostly involved directly in the production of local goods, whether farm produce, fish, wood, salt, or whatever else.

A town is a larger collection of homes and some businesses. Historically, it would provide services and trade to residents of the outlying villages. A typical town would include a church (in Asia a temple), a smithy, a mill, perhaps a baker, usually some sort of governmental authority (hall of the local noble, court or police), and various craftsmen and vendors. (say fish, or manufactured goods). A town is be the location of the market, at which the residents of the outlying villages bring their produce (food and craftswork) for sale to other locals as well as merchants, who will resell the goods elsewhere.

A city, functionally is to the towns what the town is to the villages. It is a seat of local, regional or national government, it houses the cathedral, it's markets feature a great variety of goods from the outlying districts as well as from other regions or countries.

Cities, towns and villages have been the structure of human habitation since before the development of writing. It is only in the last 150 years or so, since the development of the train, that that structure has been altered.

Of course you can live in town and maintain a farm in the country. Before the introduction of the automobile, it was the standard practice in the midwest US for farmers to maintain a separate home in town for residence in the winter. Just make sure it's in walking distance.

4/19/07, 1:00 PM

Maura said...
Another very interesting post John. A lot of comments already - the number seems to be increasing exponentially as time goes by. I now find myself checking your site a couple of times a day to see if the latest installment has been posted!

I noted your comment "It's in that middle ground, it seems to me, that successful responses to the crisis of industrial society are to be found." In the UK, a lot of people are carefully watching the Transition Towns initiative which now encompasses about 10 towns, small regions and cities. Would you classify this as a "lifeboat" of the sort that has no chance of staying afloat, or as a "middle-ground" movement that can adapt and survive if the cyclical decline you predict comes about?

One good thing about this movement, especially in the "lead" town of Totnes is the way in which it integrates itself with current society and commerce in the town, rather than trying to become isolationist. Admittedly, the town itself is an unusual one where shopping malls and chain stores have not destroyed local communities and businesses. The founder of this movement Rob Hopkins, told me that when he moved to UK from Ireland he selected Totnes as a place to live as it was the most peak oil proof place he could find. Even so, I think this is the most promising initiative I've seen in anything related to peak oil.

I await with interest the next post on the role of religion. I must admit I await it also with a small amount of trepidation as UK is a very secular country and any religion which involves behavior different from the norm is readily labeled as a cult whereby the opinions of its followers can be discounted. But I suspect you will have something very thought provoking and rational to say!

4/19/07, 1:13 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Dragoneyes, you get today's gold star (though it's a brisk competition). As you suggest, most of us already live in communities -- we don't need to create new ones, but rather need to reinhabit the ones right around us. And yes, I read The Oil Drum daily -- among the very best sites on peak oil.

Riverbird, yes, that's the 64 million barrel question, isn't it? More on this later.

Loveandlight, many thanks for the tips.

Jason, I didn't particularly have you in mind when I grumbled about neoprimitive cougar bait. It's been my experience, though, that the vast majority of people who espouse the neoprimitive ideology have done exactly nothing to prepare for the extraordinarily difficult challenge of hunter-gatherer living. If your experience has been different, I'm glad to hear it. As for the topsoil issue, expect a discussion of that in a later post.

Dan, this is a good typology. I'm guessing that something close to the preindustrial version of this will also be the postindustrial one.

Maura, the jury's still out on the Transition Town movement, though I have hopes. If they can maintain momentum when the price of oil drops again, they'll be good for the long term. I certainly hope they manage it. As for religion, yes, it's a loaded subject -- as much so in the supposedly Christian US as in supposedly secular Europe -- and I expect to annoy a fair number of readers of all religious and nonreligious stripes with next week's post.

Still, if religion is the branch of human knowledge dealing with ultimate concerns, its bearing on the issues of faith, myth and motivation that have been central to the last few weeks of posts can't be ignored. Stay tuned.

4/19/07, 4:02 PM

LizM said...
Interesting coincidence. Noimpactman just posted a piece about pot-in-pot refrigeration on his blog, which led me to this useful link.

Thanks to those of you who recommended other links and books, which I've been merrily investigating all day. Very helpful indeed, as is this entire discussion.

4/19/07, 5:00 PM

Matt said...
The pot-in-pot idea is an amazing one, and the wikipedia entry on it is certainly educational. This, I think, is a fine example of an appropriate technology that will be very useful in a time of less energy. While many put its origins from the African continent, it seems much more likely to me that it's just one of those good ideas that a lot of people came up with at the same time. Here, for instance, is an appearance in a book of Handy Farm Devices, from 1910, of a very similar device:

Homemade Water Cooler

Really what that is, the book I mean, is a collection of devices that were probably very common before oil showed up on the scene. I think you could compare it to the general knowledge of the seasons and planting schedules and signs of weather that were, at one time, common cultural knowledge but are now as mysterious as a shaman's chants.

Now, I'm sure I don't have a true comprehension of the difficulty in growing enough food to support you and yours, but I do have some comments on that issue, what JMG dismissed as "a little pottering around in garden beds with a copy of a half-read book in one hand" by people like my parents, who were definitely in the whole back to the Earth movement, and have the bookshelf to prove it.

First, please know I am as wary as anyone in these discussions of discussing any prediction on the future as if it were a certainty. I try to keep the possibility (Hope?) in the back of my mind that maybe this whole peak oil, collapse of industrial civiliazation thing will, you know, blow over. Still, I've made my decisions, as the Appropriate Tech grad school acceptance I received now two hours ago attests to. Anyway!

Second, I'd like to point out that if the people who have half-read those books and pottered about were actually facing rising food prices and a hungry stomach, I'm pretty sure they would read the book all the way through, and get up a little earlier in the morning to potter a little harder. Hunger is the great motivator, right? Yes, I know that we're talking about a whole lot of people who need a whole lot of food, but I also know that we here in the United States are blessed with a whole lot of space. When (If, right?) the fan starts getting gummed up with you know what, and your first reaction is to go full throttle with your backyard organic garden and canning operation, it seems to me that the only reasonable, intelligent and humanitarian second reaction is to bring your neighbor over to show him how to do what you're doing.

(That is, of course, for people living in areas where there is some green space, but urban gardening is certainly a possibility -- there are books on it!)

(And an old proverb or something to make the point: The best place to keep excess food is in your neighbor's stomach.)

This, also, is a very suitable reaction to the slow shuffle down the slope of peak oil that many before have spoken about. This is an incremental adjustment where small portions of the local population pick up the slack on food production, and when more people need to join in, there will already be a community support network of knowledge.

Which brings me back to the Handy Farm Devices I mentioned earlier. The entire book is online, by the way, though the construction is detailed less than the principle. James Howard Kunstler, most notably I think, rants against the thinking that some magical technology will come along and save us and our SUVs, and I certainly agree with him to a fault. I do think that technologies, both new and old-but-new-to-most, will come into our lives. There are a lot of well-educated computer scientists and automotive engineers and landscape architechts and all sorts of educated professions that will be out of work, and these are exactly the sorts of people who will be using their evenings under an LED lightbulb in their house figuring out the next step in technological advancement using old car parts and levels of energy efficiency unheard of today.

Last, reading JMG's posts makes me nervous about commenting because my thoughts are automatically less organized and thought out than his. I am in awe over his competence in discussing the physical, cultural, and philosophical sides to these issues. So, please excuse me if I seem less than fluent.

4/19/07, 5:57 PM

Loveandlight said...
As for the topsoil issue, expect a discussion of that in a later post.

That should be interesting. I would expect civilization to continue indefinitely despite its myriad dysfunctions if it were sustainable, simply because the vast majority of currently living humans have such a huge emotional and ego investment in it. But there are myriad reasons why I am dubious about civilization being something we can keep going indefinitely. I won't get all pedantic and bore people with them, but anybody who is interested in those reasons can read The Thirty Theses on Jason's website. But to be certain, the "Big Thing" is making agriculture sustainable.

and I expect to annoy a fair number of readers of all religious and nonreligious stripes with next week's post.

Going to make stroganoff out of all our sacred cows, are you? That also should be interesting. :-D

4/19/07, 8:14 PM

Joel said...
Lizm & Erik: I hear Ball is a predominantly Unitarian shop. Yet another reason to get the Blue Book, I guess.

Lizm & swamp-cooler-fridge fans: the zeer is quite remarkable and deserves more publicity, but it won't work in your basement unless it's exceedingly dry down there. It probably won't work in your kitchen, either. I gave my engineer's 2¢ on getting one to work in a humid environment at Jeff Vail's website.

riverbird: "tenfold true for Americans"? Maybe in the aggregate, but there are a few who reall are willing to embrace poverty, or something like it.

They were compared to monastics in Utne a couple years back, and I've met many of them who've taken up mendicancy and old-school "Mortification of the Flesh" of their own accord, most times without any religious motivation:


And in contrast to hippies, when I meet them, they aren't doctrinaire or holier-than-thou. They're humble, and easy to talk to. And, since you can't see me, know that I can pass for a clean-cut, respectable citizen: I look like "the enemy".

I think I'm with Mr. Greer here if he suggests that these secular ascetics might to well to collect into more ordinary (or, if you're less Occidental about it, hierarchical) groups in order to maintain their independence.

Any volunteers to be the new Sain Benedict? You'd probably sweep a lot of potential terrorists off the streets, as well.

4/19/07, 8:48 PM

Joel said...
Uh, in case that made no sense to you, I meant "really", not "reall"; "Saint", not "Sain". And much of the rest is explained here, here, and here. "Ordinary" and "hierarch" are jargon in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, respectively.

4/19/07, 8:55 PM

bryant said...
I think that there are some important differences between early utopian/commune/modern back-to-the-lander and historic monastic "lifeboats" that have gone unmentioned.

The monastic tradition is generally celibate and new acolytes are self-selected; the monk chooses to follow a highly organized, contemplative (albeit hardworking) and often hierarchical lifestyle.

The utopian communes of the 19th century often failed because the children of the founders wanted a different life...they self-selected out of the "lifeboat".

Likewise, the back-to-the-land movement was often poorly organized and the "enlivening principles" were ill-defined or impractical. What people thought they were choosing was different from reality

It is interesting that Alpha Farm in Deadwood is still successful. I wonder why they succeeded when so many others failed?

4/19/07, 9:22 PM

phadraigin said...
i am one of your newer readers. i originally came here following a link to the first of your three short fiction pieces, and have only today finished making my way from the first entry to this most recent post.

you have so many thoughtful comments already, i almost hesitate to add my own, but i want to thank you for your work.

i only began to read and learn and think about these issues within the past two years, but this is one of the best series i have found so far.

in my own journey, i am probably closest to where LizM is writing from--but i'm still quite tied into the current system, mainly by student loan debt i am trying double-time to pay off, and my job, which i like (i'm a librarian) but which also keeps me living in a medium sized mid-western city.

i am not realistically ready, in any way, to take off for some secluded rural "lifeboat" and i am also not ethically prepared to accept the abandonment of so many others who do not even realize they should be worried yet.

as well, i think my small city may be one that is somewhat well situated to survive in some fashion for a long while yet. so my interests now are in learning skills and discovering ways that i and my neighbors and family can re-integrate in a more sustainable relationship with what remains of the family farming cultures that surround us here in southwestern Pennsylvania--CSA's, farmers markets, that sort of thing.

i believe that whatever happens, we are all going to sink or sail on, more or less together.

two years ago i was living on fast food and vending machines, and now i can make my own bread by hand and crochet small clothing items, among other adjustments, so i know it is possible for anyone to make useful changes, one at a time. i am trying to encourage some around me, in a gentle way, to find their own path.

sorry to go on so long!

4/19/07, 10:09 PM

lususnaturae said...
Sign me up for the New first thought when I realized the ramifications of all this was "save our knowledge" -
that is what I see myself doing, regardless of how bad things get.

The thought of so much wisdom, science and beauty being lost fills me with anguish - and helping to save it would be a far, far worthier undertaking than anything I've ever done.

4/20/07, 12:23 AM

FARfetched said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

4/20/07, 8:08 AM

FARfetched said...
Mrrf. I wish Blogger would let us edit our own comments instead of having to delete & repeat.

Yup, there's a reason we deployed all this technology: it made our lives easier. Physically, anyway. Even a mechanized farm requires a fair amount of physical labor, though… for example, we'll be removing a large oak tree across a fence at the in-laws’ place this weekend. I can't imagine how hard it would be to get that tree cleared away (and cut up for firewood) without chainsaws — and we'll all be pretty stiff from cutting & lifting as it is. BTW, there are likely lifeboat communities out there, but they're likely the survivalist-wacko type & they have no problem with using (or storing large amounts of) fossil fuels.

Erik: look into dehydrating food as well as canning. Tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, and larger fruits (haven't tried berries or grapes) are well-suited for dehydrating — drop a silica gel packet in a jar to absorb any stray moisture, fill it with your dried food, and cap it tightly. Tomatoes keep for months in a zip-lock bag this way; I keep stuff in my cube at work & fix it for lunch sometimes.

My mother-in-law cans on a near-industrial scale; we live in one of the few places where the county still runs a public cannery & she's one of the primary reasons it's still in operation. She keeps enough chow to live on through the winter, although she's getting too old to keep up her "small" 2-acre gardens so she's started winding it down.

4/20/07, 8:12 AM

LizM said...
Matt, thanks for the excellent link. Handy Farm Devices is great!

Joel, I had actually reckoned on the humidity problem -- I'm in Philadelphia, where everything is itself plus humidity. But I know the French were using saltpetre dissolved in water by around 1600 to cool drinks, and I thought with a bit of tinkering and substitution of materials, I might be able to make pot-in-pot work. Basically it's a variation of your brine suggestion.

This discussion demonstrates, as well as anything, why I've decided to stay put, apart from the fact that I love the old place. As JMG, Danby, dragoneyes and others are saying, you have to inhabit an area for a while and really understand its character, both geography and community, to arrive at genuinely sustainable and workable adaptations.

My mother and I just came back from the Reading Terminal Market, where we purchased local produce, dried foods, and soap. And I was reminded that fifty years ago, we were doing EXACTLY THE SAME THING. Only then it wasn't a conscious effort, it was just the way things worked (and I was in a stroller). We didn't have supermarkets and almost everything we ate was produced within fifty miles and came in by train. The old infrastructure still works. And while a vintage 1970s era shopping mall one block to the east is a deteriorating eyesore, the now 114 year old market, which is still beautiful, was packed with people, as it is six days a week, year round.

4/20/07, 10:50 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Lizm and Matt, many thanks for the tips! Not sure if this will be of interest, but the Druid organization I head has launched a forum for sharing ideas and experiences with sustainable living -- you can find it at The Druid Sustainability Forum. No, you don't have to be into Druidry to participate.

Matt, I don't at all mean to put down pottering in the garden -- far from it; if people are going to learn how to feed themselves, that's usually the most viable way to start. My point was simply that you can't make an overnight transition to complete self-sufficiency that way, and the failure to grasp this was one of the things that made most of the communes of the Sixties go under. Many congrats, BTW, on your acceptance to the AT program!

Loveandlight, I have some fairly sharp disagreements with Jason's "Thirty Theses" -- to my mind they're rife with exactly the sort of immanentizing of myth I've spent so many screens critiquing on this blog. But that's a topic for a post all by itself.

Joel, I have to admit that the possibility of a punk monasticism had never occurred to me! It's not impossible; it's precisely on the cultural fringes that the future takes shape. Much more on this in the weeks to come.

Bryant, there are a number of the old communes that made it. Might be worth seeing if they had anything in common, and using that as a guide to future projects.

Phaidraigin, it's exactly the sort of changes you're making in your own life, as I see it, that hold the most hope for bringing something positive out of this mess. Kudos to you!

Lususnaturae, if that's the path that calls you, go for it. Time's short, there's a lot of work to do, and I don't know of anyone who's focusing on the preservation of knowledge yet. A network or informal organization for the purpose might be worth considering.

Farfetched and Lizm, you (and Matt) are onto the most important advantage we've got in the present predicament: the world approaching us is not that different from the world our grandparents grew up in, and a lot of the old, clever, sustainable technologies of the past are among our best options for the future. Has anybody reading these comments, I wonder, ever heard of a haybox aka fireless cooker, for example? That probably also deserves a post on its own.

4/20/07, 12:12 PM

John Michael Greer said...
I'm also noticing that this post has gotten many more comments than anything else I've posted on this blog. Obviously a theme worth further exploration a bit down the road.

4/20/07, 12:13 PM

LizM said...
JMG, Haybox? That's a new one to me. I will have a look at those and the Druid Sustainability Forum. I'm still trying to figure out how the Japanese used portable indoor charcoal fireboxes and hibachis without choking on carbon monoxide . . .

4/20/07, 12:23 PM

Jan said...
As a founder of a nascent "intentional community," I used to put the emphasis on "intentional." We would build our little sustainable world, and people would come flocking to us.

But although our island location was carefully selected for the advantages of community and the ethic of self-sufficiency (albeit delusional), I had no idea how important this was to become.

We're teaching our neighbors to value their biomass, rather than burn it. One neighbor (who heats with propane) gave us several huge downed trees -- probably $500 worth of firewood -- that we only have to cut, haul, split, and cure. Another neighbor suggested we remove a fence between our properties, to better utilize a stream that runs down our side. Another neighbor gave us slash piles from recent logging, that we're berming and chipping to build soil and control erosion. We've hosted potlucks for the local organic farming organization and the Green party.

The point is that we're now in this unintentional community that functions better than our intentional community does! Our IC partners are well-meaning, but have city lives they don't think they can give up and only want to fully join us on the land "when the village is ready."

So if you're interested in a lifeboat, the first thing to do is to look around you. The fellow in #4B across the hall may have the prow; the suburban neighbor with the SUV you hate may actually be holding the stern. And if you're lucky enough to already be rural, one of your neighbors may have the entire boat in some old barn!

You may have more resources available than you think -- even if your neighbors don't feel the same about the future as you do. If you invest in the "human capital" now, you'll be able to harvest the "interest" from that capital when the time is right.

I don't think it will take much for people to come together, but only if the right seeds have been planted. Assuming we have some time on our hands, and assuming coming bad times will become obvious before they're catastrophic, we should all be working toward teaching by example, toward being resources for our existing communities. They'll remember that.

4/20/07, 4:32 PM

riverbird said...
amen! on jan's post. start where you are, know your neighbors, start a local inventory - a great approach

4/20/07, 4:37 PM

Loveandlight said...
I don't suppose everything in The 30 Theses need be considered absolute gospel truth. While very well read and well schooled, Jason is after all only human. But the three that I consider the greatest impediment to civilization becoming truly functional, sustainable, and adaptable are that civilization must always grow, civilization always pursues complexity, and complexity is subject to diminishing returns. So far I have encountered only evasion, denial, fallacy, and hissy-fits in my attempts to get real answers to these assertions, and as a result, I remain highly predisposed towards the primitivist critique. If you were to deal with these ideas in some future post, it would certainly be something I would look forward to reading.

And even if the primitivist crowd is ultimately wrong, the survival skills that the real primitivists are teaching and learning (I myself am little more than an intellectual sympathizer, I readily admit) are going to be good to know in a society that's so full of deeply system-dependent people and that's experiencing "demand destruction" (or "going tits up" as the working-class English say).

4/20/07, 4:49 PM

Erik said...
lizm, danby and farfetched,
Thanks for the excellent suggestions!

I'm afraid I'm in the same boat as lizm when it comes to the P-in-P unit - I live in North Carolina, where it's *hot* and humid a good half of the year.

I have done some dehydrating (I make a mean jerky, if I do say so myself), and plan to do more - I have a *bunch* of hot peppers from last year's CSA crop that I need to dry. I presume a handful of rice would do the job as well as a dessicant pac? I'd like to keep it natural, and I know rice works in salt shakers...

4/20/07, 8:37 PM

Danby said...
Another AMEN! for Jan.
The single most important thing you can do to ease your life in bad times is to get to know your neighbors. One of my local friends raises blueberries. TheY freeze and dry about half of what they grow, and sell the other half. Except, every year, 5 gallons goes to the folks up the road who run a commercial dairy. Nothing asked in return. 3 years ago, the dairy needed a place to get rid of some 20 acre-feet (860,0000 cubic feet) of liquid manure in a hurry, guess who they call. To the dairy, it's a problem, to my friend,it's fertilizer. And he sent 3 tanker truckloads my way. No return asked, it's just how things work.

All the neighbors know that I'll take any spoiled hay they have left at the beginning of summer. To them it's worthless, you can't feed it to anything. To me it's a slow fertilizer. I lay them out side-by side to completely cover a garden bed, cut the strings, and till it in in the spring. It can sure build up organic matter in a hurry.

One of the most important things you have to learn to do is to buy from our neighbors. These are the people you will depend on if things go to hell. Safeway, Walmart, Home Depot, they don't care. They can't care. If you're a regular customer at the local hardware store, or farmer's market, people get to know you They'll do business with you too. And they'll care.

Gotta go. It's april, too much to do. Soon, if you're lucky, I tell how to make a motor-operated fool flail.

4/20/07, 9:17 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Lizm, it'll be in a post sometime soon.

Jan, what an excellent account! This has been my experience also -- the communities we live in are the communities we need, and the ones we need to help build.

Loveandlight, the interesting thing about the three theses you've mentioned is that if the word "civilization" in them means modern industrial civilization, I agree with them wholeheartedly. The myth of progress mandates exactly the sort of self-defeating pursuit of growth and complexity Jason describes, and of course Tainter's logic about the diminishing returns of increasing complexity is faultless.

The weakness in the argument is the claim that the growth-at-all-costs attitude is inherent in civilization as a whole, and historically speaking, this simply isn't true. Just for starters, take a look at imperial China -- the longest continuously functioning civilization in recorded history -- which did it by self-consciously pursuing stability and stasis, not growth. But more on this in a later post.

4/20/07, 9:26 PM

John Michael Greer said...
"if you're lucky, I tell how to make a motor-operated fool flail."

Is that a motor-operated device for flailing fools, or a device for flailing motor-operated fools? Either way, it sounds like a good idea. ;-)

4/20/07, 9:28 PM

Matt said...
Hayboxes, eh? Let me provide:

An Instructable on how to make a haybox cooker

There's some explanation, thar. And the whole Instructables website (Plus its cousins, Make Magazine and Craft Magazine) is an optimistic sign for the future. True, most of the former is made up of people teaching other people how to make weapons out of kid's toys and silly things like that, there are still plenty of people out there putting up homebrew windmills and solar heaters and things like that. How encouraging is that, that people are already teaching other people how to make a difference? Hell, the whole homebrew "movement" thrills me half to death.

Instructables and Make, by the way, is where I found this guy's page, a man who I happen to know reads this very blog. Check out his energy projects for a look at what a motivated person can do. He's a bit beyond my level of technical knowledge, and the website reads like it now and again, but there's plenty of pictures!

The internet, by the way, is amazing. Greatest source of information man has ever assembled, and if there's some way to get the damn thing running at the bottom of the curve, I'm all for it. The communication of exactly the kind of knowledge we're all talking about is important now, but will only become more important as time goes on. How to do it? Super efficient internet-only computers? Who knows what the future will bring. Maybe it'll bring no more internet. Guess we'll see.

4/21/07, 10:55 AM

Danby said...
To make a motor-operated fool flair requires two similar rototillers.

1 Use one until the motor wears out. 2 Buy the second extremely cheaply at a garage sale because it has a broken transmission.
3 Mate the good engine with the good tiller.
4 Find that there is not quite enough room on the frame for the new engine.
5 Remove the pull starter in order to fit the engine.
6 This is the critical step. wrap a rope around the flywheel pulley to start the engine. Make sure it is longer than you need. Also make sure it has a handle at the end.
7 Pull the rope to start the engine. Leave the long end of the rope hanging in close proximity to the flywheel.
8 Get beaten in the face and legs with the handle, driven by the motor, at the end of a three foot rope.
9 Feel like a @#$%^^@#$% fool.

4/21/07, 2:17 PM

Joel said...
"I don't know of anyone who's focusing on the preservation of knowledge yet." -JMG

You haven't heard of the Long Now Foundation? I had assumed you were cribbing your technological goals of transparency and maintainability from their clock project.

Aside from clockwork and binary computers, they're also preserving as much of linguistics as possible. It's their policy to "Ally with competition", so they'll probably try to join any knowledge-preserving institution you start on your own, whether you like it or not.

"...civilization always pursues complexity, and complexity is subject to diminishing returns. So far I have encountered only evasion, denial, fallacy, and hissy-fits in my attempts to get real answers to these assertions..." -loveandlight

It's important to be precise in your definition of complexity. As I define the word, civilization doesn't have a monopoly; quite the opposite. I take the second law of thermodynamics to mean "nature always pursues complexity", if by complexity you mean fluidity, unpredictability, and variety (aka entropy). Trying to simplify society as a whole is a job fit for Maxwell's Demon, since you can almost guarantee that more than one response will be invented for each new constraint imposed.

In the same way, while extinctions may temporarily destroy biodiversity, I think that evolution tends, in the long run, to produce ecosystems that are both increasingly complex (as new species emerge), and increasingly robust (since the veteran survivors are always present, waiting to take over).

As I define complexity, industrial society has been an ill-concieved experiment in biological, economic, and spiritual simplicity, fed by the mantra "that would be too complicated, so don't try it". I say that people who think our current system is complicated have been listening to the mantra too attentively. Real complexity would mean a wider food crop variety, more idiosyncratic businesses, and more worldviews.

4/21/07, 5:50 PM

LizM said...
Matt, thank you! The haybox looks pretty simple. JMG, I'm always happy to have the benefit of your research. Danby, that sounds painful. All possible fellow feeling. If only Rube Goldberg were still alive . . .

Jan, amen encore. I have this conversation with someone at least once a week. While the internet is the world's greatest encyclopedia and how-to resource, and the friends I meet online here and elsewhere are a wonderful catalyst for creative thinking, they're not a substitute for the people next door, or those across the street.

One of the things I've come to appreciate about my community is the social relationships, the ones that don't require dedicated time or constant emotional upkeep, but which nevertheless function as the kind of safety net we hear so much about and which public institutions so often fail to deliver. They form an extended field of consciousness in which participants are aware of each other's comings and goings, wants and needs, talents and interests, and they mysteriously give rise over time to spontaneous mutual benevolence. These relationships are not intimate, but they are almost uniformly pleasant and reassuring. It's one of the great benefits of staying put long enough to be recognized and included.

4/21/07, 5:58 PM

Joel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

4/21/07, 6:04 PM

Joel said...
Sorry, I need to clarify again: I think the effect of listening to the mantra too much is to internalize the value an engineer places on simplicity. This value is proper in the design of a mechanical system, since the intent is for a single agent to control the entire system.

When there are more agents involved, simplifying the system amounts to freezing agents out of the system, to consolidate control. I believe that the presence of multiple agents has prevented software (and some other) engineers from deriving much benefit from the mindset of traditional engineering.

As Bad Religion would say, "it's simple and elegant, but it's cruel and it's synthetic."

4/21/07, 6:08 PM

Hurricane_Gia said...
Haybox cooking is great! You can also do Hay-Bag cooking.

In anyone will be in the Austin area on the 29th, a friend of mine is teaching a Rocket Stove/ Haybox/ Solar cooking class. Come on down!

4/21/07, 6:27 PM

Erik said...
On the topic of knowledge preservation, has anyone read M. K. Wren's post-holocaust novel "A Gift Upon the Shore"?

4/21/07, 7:49 PM

Ares Olympus said...
Being a pretend intellectual I'm a talker more than a doer as much as anyone, but even my talk tells me I'll let the more adventurous ones lead the way.

Lots of fun models for the future, from monestaries behind fortress walls, to Daniel Quinn's "Leavers", to Skinner's Walden II communities, and whatever else.

Most of all for myself I see my place in life as most of all a scavenger. I mean I hold my security in life most by being able to make do with whatever is at hand.

Perhaps mentally I'm flying with Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, but in terms of daily sustanance, I'd imagine Bach's ascended seagull soul, who devoted his energy to flying still needed to eat, and I'm sure Jonny was digging his beak around the dump for food like all the rest of the flock. He just did it in the dark when he couldn't fly anyway.

I've never aspired to the hard work and loneliness of a rural self-sufficient lifestyle, and decided I'll stick around and help transform our cities into gardens or whatever tasks appear most inspiring when needed.

Being part of a "peak oil" meetup a few years ago, I was disturbed by one lady whose dream was to own land outside the city and "hole up" there when TSHTF. Others appreciated her vision and thought perhaps they could join her. My thoughts never left the fact she was in debt into the indefinite future, and ought NOT to depend on economic collapse to erase her mortgage.

I'm not sure what a lifeboat looks like, but I'm content with the term, and I have no faith we can envision where the boat will land. Adaptability is more important.

Mostly I think the "sign" for me will be whenever there's wide unemployment. A good scavenger looks for under utilized resources. So I'd say any "lifeboat" community can be content to talk for now, and prepare for a time where there's more time than money around them and what they'll do about it.

Well, that's my big talk!

4/22/07, 10:59 AM

Danby said...
Well,exhaustion and rototiller-induced beatings have taken their toll, but I am ready to answer John's question. Where are the lifeboat communities? We are all around you.

The reason you don't see us is that you expect a lifeboat community to look like something else. Most of us don't think of ourselves as lifeboats. That's not why we do what we do. Yet, we will be the ones to take up the slack when the society and the economy collapse.
Here are a few examples:

The Amish in the US number about 150,000. They maintain a tradition f going without most modern technology, most especially motor vehicles. Their reason for doing so is twofold, to maintain a separation from the world, and to encourage a tight-knit community. If your asked an old-order Amishman about is community being a lifeboat for western civilization, he would reject the concept outright he would explain to you about obedience and communitarian living. And still, when the oil goes away, the Amish will be uniquely situated to serve as a lifeboat. other religious traditions that can fall into the same category are the Mennonites, the Hutterites, and the Brethren. All told, that could total out at a couple of million worldwide, some significant portion of which already live a fairly petroleum-free life.

Ecologically-minded people have been finding ways to tread lightly for thirty or more years. There are lots of them about, doing what they consider the right thing. Locally we have an outfit that logs with horses. No big operation, no community worthy of the word. Just a couple of blue-collar guys that gave up their commercial logging jobs years ago, and send time in the woods, working with their draft horses. They sell low-impact environmentally friendly thinning and tree management services.

This weekend was the 29th Small Farmer's Journal Draft Horse and Horsedrawn Equipment
auction in Sisters Oregon. I had planned on attending, but sent Saturday retrieving my daughter's broke-down car instead. I'm not sure about this year, but last year over 20,000 attended. These are people directly involved in or interested in horse-powered farming. Small Farmer's Journal has been actively serving the horse-powered farmer for over 30 years. The reasons people want to farm this way are endlessly varied, but some common themes emerge. All love horses. Many are retired or converted conventional farmers who want to farm, rather than drive a tractor for a living. Religious or semi-religious factors are common.

Are SFJ readers a community? In a distributed and loose-knit way, yes. Are they a lifeboat community? In some cases, yes, explicitly. For some, yes, in an indirect and secondary way. For many, the question wouldn't even make sense. Would you even notice this community unless you were specifically plugged into it? Not likely.

Then there are people like me and my family. We moved out into the country almost 20 years ago. The goal was a decent place to raise the kids. The idea of a lifeboat was always there. Not for society, but for my family. I never gave much concern for our society. I think it is broken beyond mending, and will require extensive surgery, without anaesthetic, to fix it. Would you notice us, in your search for lifeboat communities? No. We keep a low profile, intentionally. The modern world doesn't like people who reject it's premises, and tends to interfere with their lives.

And finally, you. You may already be part of the lifeboat you are looking for. A lifeboat doesn't have to look like a commune or an intentional community to do the job, or an essential part of it. As I said in a previous post, the important thing is to be ready. You need to have the knowledge and tools in place to just pick up the pieces if it falls apart.

4/22/07, 11:36 PM

Rabbit said...
danby says, "A lifeboat doesn't have to look like a commune or an intentional community to do the job."

I think that's right. I have run into the notion a lot that "lifeboat community" = eco-commune. Assuming one even has the money to put together such a thing, communal living is a seriously unattractive option for many (possibly most) people, including me.

I would much rather be an autonomous node in a network than "Seven of Nine." Networks are far more resilient than centrally-commanded systems anyway, for a huge variety of reasons. I think any place that has arable soil, clean water, and social capital (or the capacity to uncover it) has a pretty good chance of developing resilient networks as things deteriorate.

I am also inclined to think that farmers markets are the early stages of these resilient networks wherever they thrive. At many farmers markets (at least the ones around here) you can find not just vegetables and fruits, but animal products like meat, milk, and eggs; all kinds of breads; health-care services like massage or reiki; hand-made clothing; and other necessities of life made or grown by local people (as well as non-necessities like arts, crafts, etc., that make life more fun and might be said to contain "cultural knowledge").

A thriving farmers market might just be a lifeboat community for those involved in it. Likewise, the networks that grow up around CSAs might be lifeboat communities as well; local sewing clubs, woodworking clubs, and the like may end up being nodes in the network; on and on.

Anyway, I guess my point is simply to agree with danby -- lifeboat communities don't have to be eco-communes, and it could well be that we don't even recognize them around us because we don't appreciate their post-petroleum survival value. I don't think eco-communes are going to survive, personally -- to me they just look like smaller versions of what's collapsing already.

4/23/07, 7:59 AM

Matt said...
Joel, thank you for the org reference, and, Erik, for your book reference - will check both out.

JMG, my current plan is to be a lifeboat unto myself, as it were...a Librarian of the Apocalypse - tongue firmly in cheek. I'm a loner by nature, and extremely skittish about group anything...much prefer (from experience) to depend on myself.

Perhaps circumstances may change down the line, but for now my instinct tells me to go it alone, aside from some informal networking. Yes, it sounds terrible...unsociable, unrealistic, snobbish, et al.

I'm a bad person. ;)

4/23/07, 11:46 PM

Jan Steinman said...
"...civilization always pursues complexity, and complexity is subject to diminishing returns. So far I have encountered only evasion, denial, fallacy, and hissy-fits in my attempts to get real answers to these assertions..." -loveandlight

It's important to be precise in your definition of complexity. As I define the word, civilization doesn't have a monopoly; quite the opposite. I take the second law of thermodynamics to mean "nature always pursues complexity", if by complexity you mean fluidity, unpredictability, and variety (aka entropy). --Joel

That isn't how I understand entropy! A state of maximal entropy would be a state of maximal simplicity -- "heat death" of the universe. The second law of thermodynamics says that entropy can only be reversed in a local domain, and only to a lesser degree that a corresponding increase in the global domain.

Energy and complexity

David Holmgren asserts that complexity is a direct consequence of energy availability. My work and study in Ecology and Permaculture backs this up.

The most complex biomes are those with the most available energy, like tropical rain forests, whereas the simplest biomes are those with the least energy available, such as arctic or alpine tundra.

I think that by focusing on examples like huge monoculture farms and the domination of English, you are looking at mere artifacts of having greater complexity at higher levels.

The 320-acre wheat farm would not be possible without the higher-level complexity of industrial manufacturing, commodities markets, the financial "industry," land use regulations, taxes, and government.

In fact, this is a perfect example of local complexity versus global entropy: the piles of complexity with which civilization burdens agriculture necessarily requires agriculture to simplify, in order that the overall entropy is preserved.

Restoring appropriate complexity

Another way of looking at it is that either the rapid collapse or slow dismemberment of western civilization as we know it may actually enable restoring biological complexity.

When cross-continental shipping becomes prohibitively expensive, who will have 320 acre monocultures? Freed from the burden of supporting deep hierarchies of bureaucrats and businessmen, agriculture will downsize and diversify, serving the locale, rather than the continent.

As I define complexity, industrial society has been an ill-concieved experiment in biological, economic, and spiritual simplicity, fed by the mantra "that would be too complicated, so don't try it". --Joel

Again, I think this is an artifact -- a symptom, rather than a cause.

Having spent half my life in various engineering disciplines, I've never seen an organization shirk from complicating things!

It takes unusual foresight and courage to take de'Exupery's advice: "You know you have reached perfection of design not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away." I can count on both hands the number of people I've met who can do that! It's something I strive for, but rarely achieve.

Energy, complexity, and lifeboats

But what does all this have to do with "lifeboats?" Simply this: the coming petrocollapse is our friend, not our enemy. A reduction in overall energy necessitates a reduction in overall complexity, which just may mean an appropriate level of complexity can return to small biomes, local communities, even regional dialects becoming new languages.

It's not that I'm some sort of doom-seeker -- I dread the thought of all the living things that are going to be in a real hurt before this all settles out, many generations from now. But I relentlessly pursue the positive as the only rational course when faced with something so huge as "the end of life as we know it."

4/24/07, 2:12 PM

Joel said...
Very odd to hear a monoculture farm described as "entropic". It seems much more reminiscent of a single crystal than a tub of salt water, to me, with the regular spacing, the purity, and the amount of energy required to maintain that predictability/order in the face of outside influences.

And is a city really more complicated than a prairie or a farming village? Or are there fewer types of entities, each one demonstrating fewer behaviors, and showing less adaptability than would otherwise be the case?

I see animals replaced with dumb, nonresponsive, and low-entropy machines. If you think a horse is less entropic than a car, try adding up the joules spent on purification to make each one.

I see a welter of individuals with varying skill sets and work schedules that respond to the outside world replaced with a few stereotyped classes of worker, each of which performs a few nearly mechanical tricks until they are fired or retire. I honestly think that a CEO or factory drone is simpler than an independent farmer...perhaps not according to IQ, but in terms of how easy it would be to predict or to duplicate their behavior. If we want to keep the analogy going, the complexity that gets rejected by this system goes toward wars at the periphery, and criminals and madmen in the interior.

4/24/07, 4:08 PM

Adrynian said...
Joel, be careful of conflating "complex" and "complicated". It might seem trivial, but the word "complex" has a whole host of other connotations associated with it from non-linear dynamics and systems theory.

Consider your typical suburban lawn, or farm monoculture; in and of itself not very complex. However, two points. Firstly, the complexity required to support it is enormous: nothing less than the entire petroleum infrastructure for fertilizers, tractors for tilling, trucks for shipping, etc. Whole hierarchies of organization and systems of production that criss-cross the globe and generate massive amounts of entropy enable its existence. Which brings me to the second point: the lawn or monoculture is a system in disequilibrium with its environment, and as such, requires continuous effort (i.e. energy, thus generating more entropy outiside itself) to be maintained as it is. I should note that not all monocultures need the oil-civilization to exist, but the benefits in such situations often aren't enough to justify the effort and the risks can be enormous (e.g. potato famine).

As for cities... To quote Richard Register on p. 47-48 of "Ecocities":

Appreciation for nature takes many forms among city folk. The average city is a complex botanical garden of trees, bushes, and flowers from all over the world: on streets, in parks and yards, in containers on porches, in lobbies and living rooms, hanging from macrame, attached to chunks of dried peat moss - from tiny lobelia and Johnny-jump-ups to giant sunflowers and towering redwoods, from showy palm trees to bushy ferns loved passionately by their owners. Aquariums, terrariums, and birdcages are perennially popular.

Biodiversity in cities, despite the acreage given over to buildings, barren rooftops, and asphalt streets and parking lots, is very high, surpassing that of many environments where few or no people live. Dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, snakes, geckos, chmeleons, tarantulas, ants, and worms are all living in our homes and schools.

4/25/07, 1:32 PM

Bernd Ohm said...
Great post, as usual. However, you possibly overrate the role of Christian monasteries as "lifeboat communities" for the preserval of ancient knowledge. The early monks only kept some of the pagan philosophical works (usually Neoplatonic) as supplementary tools for their interpretation of the Scriptures, not because they saw ancient and valuable knowledge in danger of being lost. On other occasions, they gladly burned down pagan temples and libraries, destroying many pages and many lives (check out the fate of Hypatia). Aristotle, for example, only became fashionable in Europe in the 12th century. If it hadn't been for the preservation efforts of the Arabs, he would be largely unknown today. The problem of the post-industrial world is rather that there won't be any modern-day equivalent of this thriving parallel culture. We shouldn't fool ourselves in thinking that the urge to preserve knowledge is powerful enough to create a new monastic movement. Higher motivations are called for...

4/26/07, 5:58 AM

sharon said...
We've all been taught to define civilization as a social organization whose main features seem to seem to be the existence of large urban centers--and the availability of the technologies that make large urban centers possible. These technologies would include public works, architecture, manufacturing capabilities, and modes of transportation. Then there's the business of having a strong military to defend the wealth and the trade routes, to acquire the raw materials for manufacture, and to secure the labor force for building and public works projects--usually slave labor, though sometimes the labor of a permanent underclass.

What we've been taught to define as "civilization" is a rigidly stratified class society that usually includes slavery as one of its features, and usually is, or becomes, imperialistic. The wealth and technological marvels of such societies, historically, seem to be dependent on empire, slave labor, and class stratification.

Hence, obviously, the wealth of such societies was never characterized by an improved standard of living for everyone, but by an affluent standard of living for a few, at the expense of a much lower standard of living for the majority of the people within the orbit of the "civilization" and its empire.

We've also been taught to regard any social organization that doesn't follow this model as "barbaric" or "uncivilized."

Since it seems self-evident (to me) that what we've been taught to define as "civilization" is, in reality, probably the most barbaric of all possible social organizations--being simply an organization for the systematic exploitation natural resources and the labor of others--maybe we need a different definition of "civilization."

Perhaps we should define "civilization" as a social organization characterized by civility--one that secures the maximum of personal freedom and security for all its members. Civility implies things like honesty, justice, and generosity in dealings with others, and respect for the individual and individual creativity.

It seems to me that civilizations made up of large urban centers with their monumental architecture and vast public works mostly evolved as the carapace needed to encase what were essentially imperialistic class/slave societies. We've been taught that this is what civilization is, and to reverence the architecture and public works as technological marvels, when they were, in essence, technologies that were developed mainly for the purpose of making imperialistic slave/class societies workable.

Historically, the main focus of technological advance seems to have been to develop the technologies that were most useful from the standpoint of empire-building and and the utilization of mass forced labor.

It hardly seems necessary or inevitable that technologies have to evolve in conformity with this model of "civilization."

If we focused on technologies that made people independent, instead of dependent, it seems probable to me that we could have a relatively high standard of living for all--and a society that is truly "civilized."

6/19/07, 12:50 AM

sharon said...
I've been living out in "the sticks" for over six years now--in a house on a large lot in a very small town--and working towards the somewhat limited degree of self-sufficiency that's possible without having an acreage.

This whole experience has been incredibly rewarding--and has also involved putting up with hardships that few people would tolerate.

After six years, this is the first year I've had a decent-sized vegetable garden--and it still needs much more work to make it really productive.

In the meantime, I've learned to do carpentry, electrical work, and plumbing, and I've learned to make soymilk, tofu, and tempeh--and yourt and soy yogurt. I'm growing a small patch of soybeans (for edamame) this year, and hope to have room for a larger patch next year.

The current project is to set up a rainwater collection system to route the rainwater run-off from the roof into the existing cistern. This project is turning out to be more trouble and expense than I'd bargained for, but I suppose I'll eventually get it done.

The next project will be a modest solar back-up system, to run basic electricity in case of power outages. What I'm looking at--and perhaps Danby or someone else may have some idea about the feasibility of this--is to purchase one of those solar chargers that are used for electrical fencing, and hook it up to an inverter.

Has anyone else tried this, or considered it?

6/19/07, 1:42 AM

Brother Tom said...
I've had a strong urge to respond to your "Lifeboat Communities" post ever since it appeared in April, but I'm an old man, and have trouble focussing my thoughts and expressing them in an orderly way.

There is a wide-spread hunger for a more communal life style; there was a book going around a few decades ago entitled "Living Together in a World Falling Apart." Those of us who are most aware of the falling-apart are perhaps the ones most interested, whether we are Bunyan's "Pilgrim", or part of the environmental movement. The ideal, of course, is that the life-boat is big enough to hold us all. and that the life which is preserved is not only physical survival, but is a life worth living; hopefully more so than most of us experience in the world at present.

I've been a member of a religious communal movement for over 50 years. The movement began in Germany after WWI in great poverty, was forced by the rise of Hitler to relocate first to England, and in 1941 to back-woods Paraguay. No other country would take in a group of mixed nationalities like ours and grant them exemption from military service. In this primitive setting, we had full opportunity of experiencing what a life-boat community is like. Young men used to being clerks and scholars were obliged to learn farming, gardening, and building at a very basic level, with practically no tools or materials beyond what the land provided. The few trained doctors among our members did their best without most of the medicines or equipment they had learned to rely on in Europe.

Not everyone made it: Especially hard was the death of many small children in the first years, due to diseases, poor nutrition, and oppressive climate. But after 15 years of hard effort, when I finally saw their community, they had definitely carved out a viable way of life. Solutions had been found to all the basic problems of food, shelter, transportation, education, and other necessities. Children and elderly were well cared for. Needs were met to the best of our ability. There were outlets for music, art, and recreation on a modest scale.

You are right to raise the issue of religion in this connection. "Intentional communities" have been tried again and again, for idealistic reasons of all flavors, and by very sincere people; but by and large, only the religiously-based ones last. In our experience, the success of such ventures depends much more on the faith and committment of members than upon skills or knowledge. The latter can always be acquired as needed. But lack of unity in the former can be disasterous.

"Religion" can bring up the picture of endless arguments about details of beliefs and forms of worship, but I'm referring to something that can provide a uniting center for people with different backgrounds and opinions. For communal life to flourish, the participants must be united in their convictions about what is important:

What gives life meaning? What makes life worth living?
When push comes to shove, what values will be held onto;
the common good, or short-term individual advantage?
Is there a basis for the humility to listen to one another?
To be willing to be corrected without touchiness?
To apologize when it is fitting?
Where will we look for hope, when everything seems to be falling apart?
What will give us courage to hold on through the very difficult times?

The irony is that already now we need each other, we depend on each other, but we act as if that is not so. We wait for the next disaster to drive us together, but if we can't live well now, work together in mutual support, bear one another's weaknesses, in the present world with all its material advantages, how are we going to become ready after the difficulties of life get still worse?

There is a desperate need for leadership and example here; who is going to provide it?

Once a basis of faith and committment is established, of course, it is easier to pursue alternative energy projects, local food-raising, organic gardening, home-schooling, and all the other desireable projects in a communal setting than it is in an isolated family.

8/20/07, 4:34 AM

tlebihan said...
I am reading your book now, but I am not done yet, then maybe some of what I will say could sound redundant.

I agree at almost 95% with what you wrote above. I however think that slowly more and more people will transit toward this non-industrial life style when time will be more and more propice. Will it be in time? Probably not, but I suspect a change that will take place certainly and probably faster than what we anticipate.

Even globally we can see some of those trends that are changing relatively fast: in the mid1990 up to 2005 (ok very roughly) it was trendy to go shopping outside the city to those huge mall, I think it definitely killed any decent small shop down town and worse it simply killed a lots of downtown activities. But since, we can see more and more activities toward a lots of those downtown cities. Those activities are still mostly toward luxurious product (zillion of shoes and cloth store) but there is more and more those odd and not part of huge Corp store or restaurant.

The organic grown effort: I think in the mid 1990 it was mostly accessible to midclass posh people but now we can see more and more people buying organic food: I am living in Scotland and at the local food store almost 20-30% of all food is organically grown.

Another thing also I observed: there is more and more people interested into old traditional job. Blacksmith is a good example, although I consider it more like an hobbit than a real job for a lots of people, it is a trend now that can have an impact within few years as it is a sort of knowledge acquisition that is shared by more people.

I don’t think that the technology will definitely save us with free energy motor, or electric or hydrogen complicated technology but there is around very simple technology that are not fully used (due probably to the fact that oil is still cheap) like the Stirling motor (external combustion motor), there will be probably more and more valorization of those type of technology developed very long time ago, better steam engine and the zeppelin return just to name fews.

About a potential global future lifestyle, I remember reading in the New Scientist few months ago (between Oct –Dec 2007) where they compared “quality of life” (define in term of education, health system and other basic indicator) in different country versus how many planet will be needed to sustain those people if everybody on earth was acting like this specific country. Ok it is probably not clear let say if all people living on Planet earth was having an American lifestyle, we will need 5-8 planets let say. On the other hand if everybody is having a lifestyle form a country like Sierra Leone or Gambia we will probably need less than 25% of earth ressource but we can suspect a life quality that is not sustainable in term of global development. The only country that has a “decent quality of life” without taking too much a toll on earth was Cuba!

I can imagine that globally we will reach that level of different development. I think it will be a shock for very industrialized country but maybe less for those countries not part of the G7. Maybe we have to rethink the concept of lifeboat as not small enclave within the industrial world but as full country like Cuba.

10/25/08, 8:35 AM

Thomas Mazanec said...
How about the Amish as the seed of the society my Lake Erie part of the country will have in a few centuries?

12/16/14, 4:20 AM