I have very little time for the survivalist response to peak oil, and on the back of a new article about it, Preparing for a Crash: Nuts and Bolts by Zachary Nowak, posted recently on the ever indispensible Energy Bulletin, perhaps it is time to deconstruct the whole survivalist argument, which is still a strong theme in the peak oil movement.
Imagine you and a number of other people are in a house and the house catches fire. Do you look around the house for other people and help those out that you can, or do you bolt out of the house at the first sniff of smoke? The survivalists are like the latter, like those who were first off the Titanic in the first lifeboats that were launched half empty. I deeply question the morality of responding to a crisis by running in the opposite direction and leaving everyone else to stew. For me, peak oil and climate change, and the challenge that they present, are a call to return to society, to rebuild society, and to engage society in a process that can offer an oil free world as a step forward and an improved quality of life.
According to the survivalist philosophy we are about to witness the inevitable and horrible disintegration of society, where the rising price of oil will lead to us all rushing out and bashing each over the head. In order to avoid this, they argue, we need to get away from everyone else and sort ourselves out in such a way that we will be able to see out these perilous times. We will, they argue, be able to get by, in utter isolation, up a dirt track somewhere, seeing no-one, with no external stimulus, eating borage and 3 year old baked beans, and attempting to be entirely self sufficient, despite having little previous background in the way of gardening, farming and homesteading.
The first question that springs to mind is where exactly are we supposed to go? Where is this rustic utopia? Nowak offers a checklist of what the aspiring survivalist should be looking for in what he calls a “place to retreat to”. It is “relatively isolated, out of view from roads, with large woods and a swamp, land for gardening and an existing structure”. Sounds like exactly the kind of place that many a wealthy suburbanite with the dream to keep a pony is also seeking out as a second home. How many such places remain? How many existing communities in such places are going to be delighted to see the aspiring survivalist? In the US such places might exist, but in the UK, such places are at a premium. Nowak also doesn’t address the issue that financially the buying of a second home and the equipping of it is financially outside the realm of possibility for most of us, who struggle to even afford one home.
Many of the people I have met who push this argument are urban people with no background or experience in self sufficiency. Nowak suggests spending a few thousand dollars on books on everything from canning to waste water treatment. The list of books and publishers he puts forward are excellent, but he doesn’t mention anything about other ways of learning. You might be stuck up in the wilderness with lots of books, but really they are no substitute for learning from other people. I might have John Seymour’s Complete Book of Self Sufficiency, but I couldn’t slaughter a pig with a copy of it open in front of me, or can my own produce just from the book. You need to learn from people who already know how to do things, books are useful as a reference, but are never a substitute for a teacher. The impression the article gives that you could head to your place in the hills as the world starts to collapse, and slip into a self reliant life, with your library at your side is fantasy.
As Adam Fenderson of EB points out in his comments on the article, “Isolationist survivalism, constantly on the guard from marauding hordes, doesn’t sound like an existence most of us would consider worth living. And promoting it, where it takes our energies away from more collective energy descent tactics might actually increase the likelihood of such uncontrolled collapse and desperate marauders.. “ Nowak however does not believe that a powerdown or a localised future is any kind of a possibility. He writes,
I hope that the collapse will be gradual enough that we can shift to an organic agriculture slightly less harmful to the environment, and that this gradual collapse will allow us to develop local currencies and smaller, more understanding communities. I am not, however, planning for this future. I am planning for one with lots and lots of hungry people that are desperate. In that case a small, energy-efficient condo in the suburbs with fluorescent lights (that don’t work), a tiny garden, and a one-week supply of food just doesn’t cut it, rain barrel or not.
What is the point of hoping for something, but then investing absolutely no effort in its realisation? It’s akin to saying “I hope that smoking all these cigarettes won’t give me cancer”. Even if you are planning for a future “with lots and lots of hungry people”, where is the morality of planning a response to that situation which is basically putting as many miles between you and them as possible? How would Martin Luther King or Gandhi have responded to that situation? Where is the compassionate response?
For me, peak oil is our personal and collective call to power. This is the time when we truly find out what we can do when we collectively apply our genius and brilliance. I don’t believe that our collective response to crisis will be violence and disintegration, I believe our collective adaptability, creativity and ingenuity will come to the fore. The irony is that these survivalists who have the insight into the urgency of peak oil and who decide, in response, to head for the hills, are, ironically, most needed in the places where the rest of the people are, sharing their skills and their insights.
It is of course a natural human reaction to panic when faced with a potentially disastrous near future, and to want to preserve oneself above all others. Yet for me, it is an unethical position. There is no certainty about peak oil and climate change and how they will play out. Deffeyes may be right and we’ve already peaked, Skrebowski might be right that we have another 4 years, perhaps the 2015 -2020 folks have got it right. We don’t know how it will play out … will it be a gradual decline of recession, revival, recession, revival, will it be a sudden complete crash, will it be a gentle descent? We have no idea, but to me the survivalist creed is a distinctly antisocial and irresponsible one. It’s natural to panic, but beyond that panic we need a compassionate response, one that actually addresses the problem.
Energy descent planning is an evolving tool for focusing peak oil awareness and concern into practical action. Begun in Kinsale in Ireland, it is now appearing all over the world tucked into the back pockets of community groups who want to begin the process of preparing their town for peak oil (for example this). The first UK town attempting it, through the Transition Town Totnes initiative, is launched this Wednesday. It is not just a question of installing the low energy bulbs and rainwater butts Nowak is so dismissive of, it is a process of engaging the various strands of the community in a positive process of designing a way down from the peak. It will include teaching people many of the skills Nowak refers to, but in the context of a collective response. It is a process of reweaving the connections whose disintegration is partly responsible for the mess we are in now, of rediscovering our neighbours and our surroundings, rebuilding relationships between individuals and groups.
It is a process of building a clear vision of how a low energy relocalised future could be, then setting out how to get there. I can’t guarantee that it will work. I have no idea whether or not it will engage people, although at this early stage the indications are, to me, that it seems to engage peoples imagination in a quite extraordinary way. At the end of the day, I feel that to turn and flee is utterly irresponsible. To stay and try and be of service to a community’s painful yet liberating process of waking up to the degree to which it has been addicted to oil, and of rediscovering the practicalities and joys of a localised and practical lifestyle, is where I would rather be. It may not work, but to have engaged in the process with a good heart feels to me infinitely preferable to sitting in the wilds suspicious of anyone who comes near.
Nowak forgets to mention the ‘g’ word. There he is, sat in his homestead, with his efficient woodstove, his 4 years worth of food, his extensive library and his large supply of firewood, while 2 miles down the road, people in the village are cold and hungry. He may be “not visible from the road”, but rural communities know everything that everyone is doing within their area. Will he sit at the gate with a gun? Will he place his survival above that of his fellow locals, or will he be prepared to shoot people to preserve his survival? This was the question that actually led me to return to a small town to begin trying to initiate an Energy Descent Action Plan. I didn’t feel that the remote living self sufficient dream was actually an ethical response to peak oil. Either we all pull through or none of us do.
Undoubtedly we have big choices to make, but the survivalists miss the point. If a society collapses there is really no place to hide. One family can’t do everything, especially a family who didn’t grow up doing these things. I lived in rural Ireland for years with one other family, grew food, chopped firewood, had a compost loo, built my house and so on, and when I became aware of peak oil, it actually drew me back to communities of people, rather than even further away. In a great article in the Permaculture Activist a few years ago called “A Second Challenge to the Movement”, Eric Stewart wrote that permaculture, and, I would argue, much of the ‘green’ movement, appears to have a built-in flaw. He wrote,
It seems to me that permaculture houses two virtually polar impulses: one involves removal from larger society; the other involves working for the transformation of society. While the case can be made that removal from the larger society represents action that is transformative of society, I believe that there is an imbalance within the cultural manifestation of permaculture that has favoured isolation over interaction. The cultural shift we need depends on increasing interaction to increase the availability of the resources permaculture offers”.
In other words this is a time where the only valid and practical response is to embrace society rather than run away from it. This is the work of now. People are starting to wake up, peak oil is becoming clearly visible, and everything, it feels to me is up for grabs. Energy descent planning has the advantage that it is a response to peak oil that might actually work. Going nuclear, heading for the hills, tar sands, the War on Terror, none of these other responses address all the questions that are being asked of us.
While I can see where Nowak is coming from, I profoundly disagree with his response to the inevitable panic that peak oil awareness can generate. There is however, one thing I do agree with him on. He argues that having read three peak oil books there is little to be gained by reading any more, and that we should instead start reading books about practical things we can do. Indeed. Once we have read Heinberg’s “The Party’s Over”, Mobbs’ “Energy Beyond Oil” and Campbell’s “Oil Crisis”, there is little else we can learn (apart from regular visits to EnergyBulletin.net), and endless ploughing through peak oil books can feed a sense of increasing powerlessness. However, rather than head straight for the survivalist literature, I would recommend Nowak reach for Holmgren’s ‘Permaculture – principles and pathways beyond sustainability”, the best book on practical responses to energy descent. Perhaps Nowak might then undertake a permaculture course and then take a fresh look at his post-peak options.
After a few years in the wilderness, he may begin to yearn for contact with community, culture and companionship, and wish he had stayed at home after all. He may then find, upon returning home, that the most amazing transformation has occurred, that the Great Turning has happened, and he missed it. For me, I would be far more fearful of missing this extraordinary and historic transition than I would of society collapsing.