Choosing to fail

The solutions to the problems that humanity and all life on Earth face are complex, and may involve sacrifices in the short to medium term. The rewards for successfully applying those solutions may be a sustainable, humane, and long-lasting society.  However, even if we do implement these solutions this outcome is somewhat uncertain and may not be acheived for a long time, during which the problems are likely to bring about a period of great disruption and loss as our society reorganises itself.


Is it worth our individual effort to work against the forces in our society that resist the potentially difficult changes that are necessary to solve these problems? Should we just ignore the problems and simply deal with the consequences on a personal level as they occur?


As Paul Gilding says in The Great Disruption: "...what do you do? Do you run away and grow your food in some far flung corner of the world; in case we fail, in case humanity can't rise to the occasion?" In some ways that's not a bad idea, perhaps you can imaging yourself forming a peaceful, self-sufficient community in a quiet but fertile part of the county where you and you associates could wait out the collapse – while society gets reorganised. But, as Tim Jackson explains in Prosperity Without Growth: you need to think it through.


If our society fails to deal with the issues that humanity faces, running away for survival may be the only option; but remember: the Earth supports seven billion people now only because of the complexity of our society and because that complexity gives us access to the energy that comes from fossil fuels. Without that energy and complexity the Earth will only be able to support a much smaller number of people, probably no more than two billion, possibly many less. If our society collapses, initially the Earth's human population will be much greater than what it can support, and those excess unsupportable people are going to be desperate and hungry. Even the best of people will not watch their family starve in order to respect your property rights and your rights to the food you have grown or to the resources that you control.


As well as the desperate, as always in the spread of humanity, there will be those who are ruthless for the sake of ruthlessness, people whose method is not becoming independently productive, but simply taking what they need and want from those who are. These are people who are currently constrained (sometimes barely) by our social systems, but who will rise up to take advantage in a collapse: in a collapsing society there will be no one and no system to restrain and contain them as there is now in most developed countries.


So, if you are to run away to some far flung corner of the Earth (and there aren't many of them where you could subsist a living, that aren't already taken up) you are going to need to be able to seriously defend yourself against the desperate and the ruthless. To do this you are probably going to need to be part of a moderately large group of people, and you are going to have to be well armed, because, at least initially, the world will have lots of guns. No doubt, as the desperation of the situation deepens and becomes more apparent, your group will realise that the only way to ensure survival is to pre-emptively strike at other groups that may build to be a threat to you, before they become powerful enough to overwhelm you, and before you run out of ammunition. Because, while your guns may last a long time if you look after them, your ammunition supplies are going to run out without a functioning society to manufacture new ammunition for you.


What happens when your ammunition supply runs out? You will have to resort to making spears and bows and arrows; not just for defence, pre-emptive attacks, and to secure vital resources that you don't otherwise have, but also for hunting if your community relies on wild food for any of its sustenance.


Of course, ammunition won't be the only output of our modern industrial society that you will run out of. You may be able to stockpile enough fuel to run your farm equipment to last you for decades (if you can defend it) but eventually those decades will pass and it must run out. (That's if the tyres, fan belts, lubricants, sparkplugs and the like that you must have also stockpiled don't run out first, ending your use of your machinery.) When you can no longer use your machinery you will have to resort to using manual tools such as hoes, spades, scythes, and hand or animal drawn ploughs (assuming that you have kept a stock of these items during the decades that you still had use of your powered machinery, as well as keeping the necessary draft animals, despite the human and material resources that you would have to apply to keeping them.)


When the manual tools in your stockpile of tools wear out, you will need to replace them. To do this you will need a supply of iron ore, and of the other elements that go into making the steel for these replacements, as well as access the vast amounts of energy that the steel making process takes. People have been making steel for thousands of years, so this is definitely possible if you have been lucky enough (or had enough foresight) to have run away to a place that has these resources (as well as the good land and defensible position that your community requires.)


But it's people that have made steel for those thousands of years, and those people had knowledge and skills. You will have to ensure that your community has those skills and that knowledge, and the skills and knowledge for a myriad of other essential activities that make up a truly self-sufficient community. Even with the best of planning, you won't be able to predict the need for all of those skills, and many of those skills barely exist anymore in the modern industrial word that you are starting from. You will need to make sure that all these skills and knowledge are maintained during the hard work of setting up your community, defending it as the greater community settles down to a balance (if it does), and through all of the decades that you still have your fossil fuel powered farm machinery and your stockpile of hand tools.


If your community doesn't have these skills and resources when they are eventually needed to make these tools, you will have to make do with hard wood, animal bones, or shaped stone for cutting edges.


Shaped stone! Shaped stone, and bows and arrows and spears for defence and hunting: this is it; your community have now worked its way back through a reverse time-line history of human technology and arrived back at the Stone Age! Promoters of the notion of the infallibility of human technology created the expression " The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones "; well that's just as well, because your community that ran away and let our modern society collapse of its own growth and resource overuse rather than trying to redirect and restructure it, is going to need them!


If you really want your community to eventually be able to move forward from where our collapsed modern society left off, you will also need to maintain a level of higher knowledge in such subjects as chemistry, physics, geology, cosmology and history. Without knowledge of these subjects you risk creating a society that, in its need to explain its surrounding and place, returns to the superstition that has dogged humanity for most of its existence. To maintain this knowledge as your community establishes, defends, builds, and feeds itself will require you to support the holders of this knowledge as they take the time to be educated instead of working for the community's direct needs.


So think it through. If you think it will be easier to let our current society collapse while getting away and starting over in your own new community, and you want that community to be resilient, stable, long lived, humane, comfortable, secure, and confident you are going to have to do a lot of preparation and you are going to have to have a lot of people to achieve some of these requirements.


At least in the developed world, our evolved and complex society, which is really an outcome of all of humanity's development and our pre-human evolution before that, gives us unprecedented comfort and security. If things really go badly, we may have no choice other than to let this current society collapse and largely start again; but otherwise, we have a lot more chance of creating a good outcome by trying to fix what we have now.


More information and ideas

For an interesting discussion on the practicalities of surviving a collapse (of course, we must first do everything that we can to avoid a collapse), watch or listen to Chris Martenson's interview with Matthew Stein, called How Prepared Are You? on Chris Martenson's Peak Prosperity website.



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