The Long Descent (3): The failure of Lifeboat communities

Third and fourth “book of the week” excerpt “from John Michael Greer’s new book, The Long Descent (New Society Press), which argues that industrial society is about to undergo a “catabolic collapse,” a series of inevitable steps down toward a “deindustrial” future”

Via Reality Sandwich

The third excerpt continues the critical treatment of counter-strategies, faulting the lifeboat community concept. But in the fourth excerpt below, the author focuses on his own proposals to deal with the long crisis.

Excerpt 3:

Failed strategy #3: building lifeboat communities to weather the fall of the modern world

• John Michael Greer:

One of the ironies of the current predicament of industrial society is that many of the people who recognize the problems with each of the previous approaches turn to a third option that combines most of the problems of both. For decades now, one of the most frequently repeated proposals for doing something about the predicament of industrial society has been building lifeboat communities: isolated, self-sufficient settlements stocked with the resources and technology to survive the end of the industrial age. Such 1970s 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 last decade or so.

Now, to some extent, this sort of thinking is simply a variety of Survivalism Lite, with more emphasis on organic gardening than automatic weapons. One of the advantages of survivalism, though, is that it can be pursued on a very modest budget. Probably more than half the adults in North America today can afford to fit themselves out with a few firearms, some outdoor gear, a stock of stored food, and a cabin in the woods that can do double duty as a deer camp during hunting season. Plans for lifeboat communities in circulation these days are on a much more grandiose scale. Vacca’s book, for example, suggests lifeboat communities on the scale of large villages, with multiple buildings, plenty of arable land for food crops, and stockpiles of useful technology. Others resemble nothing so much as an upper middle class suburb tucked incongruously away in some isolated mountain valley.

The historical model Vacca uses for his communities are the monasteries of the Middle Ages. This is potentially a valuable parallel, because monasteries have accomplished something very like Vacca’s prescription in the twilight years of several civilizations. 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 impossible that some similar project could salvage the best of modern civilization as a legacy for future ages.

Yet monasticism accomplished these things because it drew on motivations very different from the ones that drive today’s lifeboat community projects. The Christian monasteries that preserved classical culture through the last set of dark ages were not staffed by people trying to maintain 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, 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’s precisely this willingness to embrace extreme poverty for the sake of higher goals that frees up the time and effort needed for the economically unproductive activities needed to keep the heritage of a civilization alive.

While the monastic model is still often cited in talk about lifeboat communities, a less challenging set of cultural narratives provides the unstated framework for most of these projects. In North America, 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 to prepare for the coming of a new world. A direct line of cultural continuity runs from the Rosicrucian communes of colonial Pennsylvania straight through to the Transcendentalists, the Mormons, and every other band of dreamers who convinced themselves that a better world could be reached by the simple expedient of following Huck Finn’s example of heading out into the Territories and building it themselves.

This model had its most recent workout during the backwash of the 1960s. 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 North America. It was a grand experiment but, on the whole, a failed one, and the root cause of its failure is instructive.

That root cause in most cases was a fundamental lack of recognition that rural life involves a great deal of very hard work. Of the many thousands of young communards who headed back to the land, few understood how much sheer muscular effort it takes to grow one’s own food and provide the other necessities of life; even fewer had the most basic skills needed to tackle that technically complex and demanding task. Subsistence farming is a more than a full-time job; it requires firm command of a range of technical skills most middle-class people these days have never encountered, much less had the opportunity to learn. A little pottering around in garden beds with a copy of a half-read book in one hand doesn’t even begin to do the trick.

The lifeboat community project faces a miniature version of the same social trap that has paralyzed political responses to peak oil. The land, buildings, and equipment needed to launch a lifeboat community of any size cost money — upward of a million dollars would be a good starting budget for such a project — and the people who commit themselves to the project must be willing to give up their careers in today’s world in order to devote their time to building a new society that may not be needed for decades or centuries to come. The costs involved have to be paid up front by the people involved, while the benefits come only later and are shared by all. Thus it’s not surprising that, despite all the talk about lifeboat communities, few of them have gotten past the talking stage.

Excerpt 4: : Surviving Peak Oil through a Middle Way

If reforming the political system, survivalism and lifeboat communities won’t work, what will?

• John Michael Greer:

The core assumption common to all three proposals is that there’s no middle ground between preserving the modern industrial system intact and a rapid descent into primal chaos. Both of the mythic narratives discussed over the last two chapters, the myth of progress just as much as the myth of apocalypse, feed into this assumption. Its popularity, however, doesn’t make it anything like as reasonable as it seems. There’s a wide middle ground between contemporary society and a Road Warrior struggle of all against all. It’s in that middle ground that the most likely futures of the industrial world will take shape, and aiming for a constructive response to the futures of the middle ground is in all probability the best strategy we have.

A metaphor might be useful here. Imagine that you found out today that tomorrow morning you’ll be taken up to 10,000 feet in an airplane and tossed out the cabin door. That’s a real crisis, and it demands serious thought and action. If you believe that the only two options are either staying in midair at 10,000 feet or falling to your death, though, you may just overlook the action that would be most likely to save your life: wearing a parachute.

The metaphor can be extended a little further. The problem with being thrown out of an airplane at 10,000 feet isn’t that you fall; it’s that you fall too fast and land too hard. The same is true of the end of the industrial age. If the transition from industrial society to the deindustrial cultures of the future could be made gradually, with plenty of time to scale back our expectations and replace energy-intensive technologies with simpler ones, our predicament would be so mild it would barely merit the name. At this point, however, so many opportunities have been wasted and so many resources depleted that the transition out of the industrial age will likely be a good deal more disruptive, with close parallels to the breakdowns and dark ages that followed other civilizations in the past. This still leaves plenty of room for strategies that, like the parachute in the metaphor, will slow the descent and minimize the shock of landing.

Thus it’s one thing to try to find some way to power today’s industrial system with renewable sources while leaving intact the structures of everyday life that give our civilization its extravagant appetite for energy. It’s quite another thing, and much closer to the realm of the possible, to use renewable energy to meet the far more modest energy requirements of an agrarian society. Especially in North America, restating the question in this way opens up immense possibilities. Very few people who live on this continent, for instance, have noticed that it’s only our energy-wasting lifestyles that keep us dependent on imported oil — with all the unwelcome economic and political consequences that brings. Even 35 years after its own Hubbert peak, the United States is still one of the largest producers of oil on Earth. If the average American used only as much energy per year as the average European, America would be exporting oil, not importing it. Only our insistence on clinging to the dysfunctional lifestyles of an age that is passing away keeps such an obviously constructive goal off the table in discussions of national energy policy. The same logic can be extended much more broadly. Today’s industrial agriculture, for example, will become utterly unsustainable once the huge fossil fuel inputs that go into farm machinery, agricultural chemicals, worldwide transport networks, and the like stop being economically viable. That doesn’t mean, as some of the more extreme peak oil theorists argue, that once fossil fuels become too scarce and costly to use for agriculture, we’ll all starve. It simply means that the agriculture of the future will have to rely on human and animal muscle, and other locally produced sources, for energy, and turn compost and manure into fertilizer, the way farmers did for millennia before the invention of the tractor. It also means that the sooner we launch the transition back to this more viable way of farming, the better.

There are still people alive today who grew up working horse-drawn combines in the 1920s, when American agriculture was already productive enough to make the Great Plains the world’s breadbasket. Converting back to horse-powered agriculture would be a challenge, but one well within the realm of the possible; relatively simple changes in agricultural, taxation, and land use policy could do much to foster that conversion. With severe depopulation setting in across much of America’s old agricultural heartland, more dramatic steps such as a renewal of the old Homestead Act, coupled with price guarantees for organically grown grain crops (perhaps linked to an expanded ethanol-production program), would make a good deal of sense as well.

If the mythology of progress didn’t blind today’s policymakers to such options, any number of steps could be taken to ease the transition from industrial to deindustrial society. Those steps are likely to remain outside the realm of the politically thinkable for a long time yet, at least on a large scale, but the same logic can be applied on a local and individual scale. Individuals, groups, and communities, just as much as nations and industrial civilization as a whole, face the challenge of managing the descent from Hubbert’s peak. The longer we try to cling to the peak, the harder and faster the fall is going to be, and fewer are the people and cultural resources that are likely to survive it. If we accept that the Long Descent is inevitable and try to make it in a controlled manner, on the other hand, the way is open not only for bare survival, but for surviving in a humane and creative fashion while preserving as much of value as possible for the future.”

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