Wednesday, 24 October 2007

It's not a raft!

I've been reading a bit of discussion on the topic of liferafts and the survivalist approach to Peak Oil. A particularly interesting pair of articles were Why the Survivalists Have Got It Wrong by Rob Hopkins at Transition Culture and Communities, Refuges, and Refuge-Communities by Zachary Nowak at Energy Bulletin. Whilst I found a lot I could agree with in Zachary's piece (and the associated article Preparing For A Crash: Nuts and Bolts) there were also a lot of arguments in Rob's post that struck a chord.

I found myself considering my place in the world, as you do, and what path I was actually on. There is a lot of talk of moving to the country onto some land, and setting it up for self-reliance to insulate and protect from the dark times ahead, setting up a life-raft to use the common term.

Now I'm pretty sure that when I first started thinking about peak oil making such a move seemed like a pretty obvious way to go. The only problem was, we were already on that path for various other reasons. The prospect of peak oil changed the scope of the project to be sure, but it did not alter the basic direction we had chosen for our lives.

But are we survivalists? We want to survive, so that may be a black mark against our names, but we certainly don't fit this description from Rob:
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.
So where do we fit in? Another couple of pieces from Rob's article begin to give me an answer I can be comfortable with:

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.

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.
If I understand it right, our primary failing is that we are not engaging our local community in planning for peak oil, we are letting society down by going our own way and doing our own thing, and that this may lead to our deserving the title of isolationist-survivalists.

Any community tackling peak oil in a head-on fashion must necessarily have some proportion of the population who consider peak oil to be a real and impending threat. Whilst I do believe that one person can make a difference, one person, without being able to convince others, is not going to have an effect on a community, is not going to be able to bring about the kind of changes we see in places implementing plans like Transition Towns.

When considering many rural areas, there just isn't this critical mass to allow the ball to start rolling. Try too hard to convince people and you tend to alienate them. Due to the social structures, alienation from one person usually flows on to alienation from many people, as your “reputation” spreads through the tight knit community. Get too radical and you could swiftly find yourself doing your shopping in the next village over.

The question is, are we being selfish and insular by remaining in our communities in the country and not taking any direct social action?

I think not, and here's why: A “life-raft” can be built up so that it is insulated from the worst that may come to try us as a society. In doing that, the location becomes a storehouse of information, knowledge and experience, as well as, perhaps most importantly, genetic material.

There will come a time when the people in country communities are bitten hard by peak oil, and they will be looking for solutions. As long as you haven't alienated them entirely, you will be in a prime position to support that social network, perhaps not by being able to feed it outright from your stores, but certainly by being able to help it transition through education and provision of materials such as fruit trees, plants and seeds.

If you're like me, you may have amassed a library of books on all sorts of strange and wonderful subjects in preparation. The argument is often used that a person, or family, wouldn't have the time to read, much less learn all the skills in all the books. What if that is not the purpose?

Once the community does begin to pull together and face the problem head on, the number of people available to learn new skills expands. You can pass on the books about electricity to the local electrician, and he can work on getting alternate power supplies running. The local mechanic may be very interested in your books about biodiesel, and with the help of the guy who finished his first year chemistry at university, they can knock up a plant and make the adjustments to the vehicles so some transport is still available, for a time at least.

Whilst this approach is not ideal, it would certainly be better for everyone to be prepared in advance, given the circumstances, it is often the only way. It is a whole lot better to have one family prepared, than no-one in an area being prepared.

As a flow on from this, it is probably better to be the only one prepared in a small community than to be the only one prepared in a big one.

Life-rafts shouldn't be seen as personal escape vehicles, they should be seen as the seeds of the future communities in the country. Be prepared and secure in your knowledge and ready to share it with those around you in their time of need. This is the critical first step as I see it.


Melinda said...

We've thought about this a lot, too, as we just moved to a more rural setting from the city. Our first thought was to stay in the city, but every attempt to become sustainable, create awareness, and, well, be happy, failed. So we moved to a place where we could learn to live more simply and sustainably, in the hopes of teaching others how to do it when the time came. Once we moved here we found other people thinking about peak oil, climate change, and sustainability, but they had already tried and failed to start the ball rolling on community preparations for a different world.

John Michael Greer told me once that "you can't make people wake up; all you can do is hand a cup of coffee to the ones who have already dragged themselves out of bed and are stumbling into the kitchen." After trying to make films and create awareness, and hearing about other's attempts to change their communities, I think he's right.

But I'm finding there are lots of other things that we're doing that are helping in their small ways: gathering information, trading and bartering goods and services (essentially being a good neighbor in the old fashioned sense), supporting local food sources and farmers markets (so they don't go away when we need them!), relearning how to do things "the old way" so that we can teach people later, introducing people to the idea of finite resources (rather than invoking a sense of fear), and living by example - showing that it's easier than it seems.

To use your analogy, I guess we're hoping that we can save a few heirloom seeds (the old ways of our grandparents), nurture a few dying plants (what's left of infrastructure), and plant a few seeds now (get people to grow and make things for the sake of happiness, being green, saving money, whatever it takes)...

Geoff said...

Hi Melinda, thank you for your comments!

We're not all designed for big city living are we, and it's best to be where you're comfortable and happy (or it helps at least)

I love reading Mr Greer's thoughts and that is a great way to think about it.

I think that's what we're aiming for, to be prepared to assist those who do drag themselves out of bed.

Phelan said...

I agree with community. I remind my readers, especially new homesteaders, that you can not do everything on your own. Wonderful post. (follwed a link from Down to Earth)

The Duck Herder said...

I think we have a responsibility to try and live in a way that can be lived in the future as well.

For me, at this point in time, it means trying to live sustainably in an urban setting. BUT, I reckon that if one positive comes out of peak oil, it is that rural Australia will eventually see a rejuvination and repopulation as folks seek to reconnect more deeply with a smaller number of people, live more simply, more intensely and more lightly. And in turn, our cities will become smaller, greener and lovlier.

What better way to create an alternate future than to turn away from the current unsustainable one, and grow the future that you want? The wonderful secret is that in doing so, we rediscover ways of living that are FUN and FULFILLING, and RICH and MEANINGFUL, and we wouldnt swap it for quids!

Peak Oil isnt just about focusing on problems, it is about focusing on solutions, growing opportunities and creating different ways of doing things.

Like a naughty child, we can choose to focus on the bad behaviour, and quickly decide that our child is rotten, unlovable and unredeamable, or we can choose to focus intensely on identifying and growing the bits we love and want to see more of....

thats me- de-lurked!

I enjoy your blog Geoff :o)

Geoff said...

Thanks Phelan! Community is top of the list in responses, and there are vibrant (if quiet) communities in the countryside as well.

I'll have to start paying Rhonda a finder's fee :)

My thoughts exactly Duck Herder, I'm looking forward to the revitalisation of rural Australia, there are currently too many distractions that pull people away to the big towns!