economic contraction

Responding to Collapse, Part 7: A Team Sport

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on March 18, 2019

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At the end of my first "Preparing for/Responding to Collapse" post , I said that we'd be considering the following subjects in this series:

  • where you want to be—where bad things are less likely to happen
  • who you want to be with—people you know, trust and can work with
  • what you are doing—something that can support you, and allow you to develop the skills and accumulate the resources you will need

 

I think I've given the first one adequate treatment in the last 5 posts (2 to 6 in this series) so now I'm moving on to the second item—who you want to be with.

So, who do you want to be with? The main thing, I think, is that you want to be with people, rather than being alone—to borrow a phrase from Douglas Rushkoff, being human is a team sport. (Here's a podcast with Rushkoff and Naomi Klein that I found interesting. Of course Rushkoff isn't talking about exactly the same thing as me, but it's still good stuff.)

What I am talking about is this: it is in the nature of human beings, and very much to our benefit, to work together in groups. Such groups act as a force multiplier, achieving more than what you would expect from simply adding up the number of people involved. And that's more both in the sense of 1) achieving the group's common goals and 2) enhancing the individual well being of its members. For most of the time that people have existed, we've lived together in small groups (less than Dunbar's number), made decisions largely by consensus, and allocated resources in a sort of "primitive communism"—from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs, if I can be forgiven for quoting Karl Marx.

During the difficult times that lie ahead of us, I think we will need to fall back on this way of living, in order to successfully meet the challenges we face.

But over the last few centuries this sort of thing has gotten a bad name. People have gone from living in small, close knit communities made up of large, extended families to living in isolated nuclear families or as lone individuals, and relating to other people mainly via the formal, money based economy. During the time when this change was happening, the level of affluence in our society continually increased, allowing us to get by just fine more or less on our own. It seems that many people have come to believe that individualism is at least partly responsible for the progress we have experienced, and that our former way of living probably had to be abandoned in order to reap the benefits of that progress.

I would say that such ideas are a long way from reality. So much so that I think we'd better stop here for a closer look at the advantages of living and working together in groups, and follow that up by considering why we have given up on this way of life. Best to be clear on this before going on to the practicalities and pitfalls of forming and working together in groups within your new community.

It's interesting that while today's corporations are intensely capitalistic and competetive, within them people are often organized in teams or crews whose members relate to each other in a very "communistic" way. I'd say that this is a tacit acknowledgement of what actually works best. For much of my career with Hydro One (Ontario's electric transmission and distribution utility) I worked as part of a crew of maintenance electricians. While it is true that there are some jobs that can be done by one person, most of the work we did went much better when done by a small group of people. Once such a crew gets to know each other and the work they are doing, they can organize themselves to do that work more productively and enjoyably than the same number of individuals could do working separately.

Within a crew there is usually a diversity of skills that complement each other, and allow people to focus their efforts on the parts of the job best suited to them. And of course the nature of most work (be it physical or mental) is such that it can be done quicker and more easily if the people doing it help each other.

Teams like this are an excellent learning environment, where you can pick up a great deal from people with more experience or different experience than you. Not just job related learning, but also contributing to your growth as a human being.

Beyond productivity and training, there are many benefits to the members of the crew which are not an intentional part of the situation or necessarily supported by management, but which certainly make for a better work environment— camaraderie, companionship, support (both in times of difficulty, and in growth and accomplishment), and the ability to make the boring parts of the job go quicker with humour, story telling, singing, etc.

As it happened we were also members of a labour union, which did its best to shield us from the worst predations of management. Unions are a pretty clear case of the use of group solidarity in dealing with a situation where the power dynamics would otherwise be completely one sided.

Co-operative efforts of groups of people in organizations like food co-ops and housing co-ops enjoy the benefits of enhanced bargaining power and economies of scale that are not available to nuclear families or single individuals. A group can also provide a safety net for its members in a way that conventional insurance, provided by a company whose main responsibility is to its share holders, can never do.

People working and living together also get to know each other quite well. Because of this the group can effectively discourage its members from shirking their responsibilities and provide them with a strong incentive to contribute to the full extent of their abilities.

And lastly I'll just note that compared to an isolated existence, living in groups with people that care about you and will help when you need it, has considerable psychological benefits.

So, given all these advantages, why have we largely abandoned our extended families and close knit communities?

Certainly, there is some overhead involved in living and working in close knit groups, and you can see why people who have attained a sufficient level of affluence might choose to exercise their independence and strike out on their own.

But the idea that group life is not worth the effort is somewhat of a self fulfilling prophecy. Living as we do these days, with a big emphasis on individualism and little opportunity to practice working in groups or learn it from experience people, we have forgotten many of the interpersonal the skills that make primitive communism work so well. And as long as things are going well there is little incentive to really try to make co-operative efforts succeed. We can do just fine on our own, without the trouble of getting along with others. Those whose lives are the most precarious, for whom individualism really isn't working, have come to simply not trust other people, and would never think of working together for their mutual advantage.

But even allowing for all that, I think we also need to keep in mind that isolated people are a lot easier to control and exploit, and this is very much to the advantage of the people who are running things in our society.

Whenever I see people making choices that clearly run counter to their own best interests, I've found that I only have to look a little further to uncover a great deal of effort that is being expended to make them do so. Effort that is being made by those who do stand to benefit from those poor choices. This is certainly the case practically everywhere in the world today, with most countries ruled by oligarchies who at best give only lip service to democracy, and are not of the people, by the people or for the people.

So, I would like to suggest that what going on here is rather different from the way we are encouraged to perceive it. Maybe, for most people, the growth of individualism was anything but progress. And while it is true that this happened while a lot of progress was happening, you don't want to confuse cause and effect. If you look closely, you can see that much of that progress was basically economic growth, or very closely tied to economic growth, which was largely driven by our switch over to using fossil fuels as our primary source of energy. So I'd say economic growth and the rise of modern capitalism drove the growth of individualism, rather than the other way around.

A excerpt from David Graeber's Debt: the first 5000 years may help clarify:

By the end of World War II, the specter of an imminent working-class uprising that had so haunted the ruling classes of Europe and North America had largely disappeared. This was because class war was suspended by a tacit settlement. To put it crudely: the white working class of North Atlantic countries, from the United States to West Germany were offered a deal. If they agreed to set aside fantasies of fundamentally changing the nature of the system, then they would be allowed to keep their unions, enjoy a wide variety of social benefits (pensions, vacations, health care…), and, perhaps most important through generously funded and ever-expanding public educational institutions, know that their children had a reasonable chance of leaving the working class entirely. One key element in all this was a tacit guarantee that increases in workers' productivity would be met by increases in wages: a guarantee that held good until the late 1970s. Largely as a result, the period saw both rapidly rising productivity and rapidly increasing incomes, laying the basis for the consumer economy of today.

This was the world into which I was born and grew up. Essentially, "setting aside fantasies of fundamentally changing the nature of the system" amounted to abandoning our communities and extended families, in exchange for individual affluence and economic security. Unfortunately, because of 1) a financial system based on interest bearing debt and 2) a growing population, this world required endless economic growth in order to continue fulfilling its promise. In another reality, where planets have infinite resources, this might have been possible, but not here.

After a few paragraphs about how this relates to Keynsian economics, Graeber goes on to say:

When the Keynsian settlement was finally put into effect, after World War II, it was offered to only a relatively small slice of the world's population. As time went on, more and more people wanted in on the deal. Almost all of the popular movements of the period from 1945 to 1975, even perhaps revolutionary movements, could be seen as demands for political equality that assumed equality was meaningless without some level of economic security. This was true not only of movements by minority groups in North Atlantic countries who had first been left out of the deal… but what were then called "national liberation" movements from Algeria to Chile, which represented certain class fragments in what we now call the Global South, or, finally, and perhaps most dramatically, in the late 1960s and 1970s, feminism. At some point in the '70s, things reached a breaking point. It would appear that capitalism, as a system, simply cannot extend such a deal to everyone. Quite possibly it wouldn't even remain viable if all its workers were free wage laborers; certainly it was never be able to provide everyone in the world the sort of life lived by, say, a 1960s auto worker in Michigan or Turin, with his own house, garage, and children in college—and this was true even before so many of those children began demanding less stultifying lives. The result might be termed a crisis of inclusion. But the late 1970s, the existing order was clearly in a state of collapse, plagued simultaneously by financial chaos, food riots, oil shocks, wide spread doomsday prophecies of the end of growth and ecological crisis—all of which, it turned out, proved to be ways of putting the populace on notice that all deals were off.

I would say that the underlying problem causing this failure of capitalism is economic contraction caused by the reduction in the surplus energy available as we've been forced to tap into ever poorer quality and/or less easily accessible fossil fuels. And sadly this is a problem for all economic and political systems. Indeed, it is a problem without a solution, which is bringing about changes that we will just have to adapt to.

I am not certain if Graber agrees with me that the crises we've faced since the 1970s are quite real, but I do agree with him that those in power have certainly used those crises to "put the populace on notice that all deals are off." He is also quite right that this is a "crisis of inclusion"—as the economy contracts the rich and powerful are not about to be excluded, so a great many other people have had to be, in order for the rich to keep a relatively larger slice of a shrinking pie.

But how, you may ask, does this relate to the problem of diminishing community in our modern society? Well, it seems that all the fixes that are available to the excluded majority involve us being separated from our former support systems (family and community in an informal economy) and striving to perform better as competing individuals in the formal economy.

We are told that to secure a good job we need an education, at least a bachelor's degree. This means (in many countries) taking on a significant amount of debt, so that after you graduate, you'll be desperate to get a job and pay off your student loans. This leaves you very little choice in the job you take and little choice about leaving it if it doesn't suit you.

To get that job it is very likely that you'll have to move a long way from where your family currently lives and set up as a lone individual, in a place where you, at least initially, have no support network.

If you meet the love of your life and decide to live together or actually marry, you will both have to go on working to pay off those student loans and make a start on building a family together.

This is a stressful situation, especially since you don't have any sort of support network and I suspect it contributes to marriage breakup. If you do break up you'll be left as a single mother or a lone individual.

Or perhaps instead of seeking higher education, you could go for a job in the trades. As I said earlier, crews of tradesmen are among the best examples of communistic relationships found in today's world. But in most companies there is a strong push to have people working by themselves whenever possible and to have as little contact with their co-workers as possible, lest they organize a union. Unions are in a desperate situation today, with no effort being spared to break them and leave working people completely at the mercy of management.

All this is very convenient for those who are in power. It is easier to exploit people who are not organized, who see each other as competitors rather than comrades. And in the process you can monetize much work that used to be part of the informal economy and make some additional profit out of it, while keeping people conveniently isolated from each other. I'm not saying this is a conspiracy of any sort, just rich people supporting the kind of politicians who will benefit them the most in the short term, and rest of us taking the path of least resistance through our lives.

Even if you are fortunate enough to have a good, secure job, it is pretty easy to look around and see than many other people find themselves with no support from family or community and working for minimum wage with no benefits in a job where their schedule can be adjusted and their hours reduced arbitrarily and they can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. And if they end up jobless and homeless, there is a definite tendency to put the blame for this onto them, rather than a system which sees workers as liabilities rather than assets.

No wonder many people are starting to express doubts about the current world order. As BAU continues to collapse it will become more and more clear that there must be a better way to live. Many would tell you that things are more likely to break down into chaos and violence but a closer study human behaviour in disasters shows that when there is trouble, people feel a strong urge to work together to help each other pull through.

Well, that was a lot of words expended in support of a proposition that I originally thought was obvious. I do think it was worth it, but now this post is just about as long as it should be. So I'll wrap things up here and continue next time with a look at the pitfalls and practicalities of forming and working together in groups within your new community.

The Disaster Mythology is a subject that keeps coming up on this blog, and to save explaining it again and again in various posts, I've finally created a page about the subject: The Disaster Mythology. Check it out.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

 

Coming Soon to a Laptop Near You on Diner YouTube

Just another day on the Farm with FarmGal

 

 

Responding to Collapse, Part 5: finding a small town

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on December 28, 2018

 

 

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In my last post I started talking about moving from the city to a small town as a way to make adapting to collapse easier, and I listed a number of criteria for choosing a small town. Today we'll be looking at some of those criteria in greater detail.

As before, credit goes to Don Hayward, Joe Clarkson from the comment section of this blog, and, new this time, to Category 5, from the Dark Green Mountain blog and the Doomstead Diner.

Looking back on the criteria I laid out last time, I can see that I should have divided them into two sections— picking a town where you can live while BAU is still working and then picking a town that will also be livable after BAU is no longer capable of supporting us. For the next while we will find ourselves living in two worlds—trying to make enough of a success of life in BAU so that we can afford to disentangle ourselves from BAU and get something started to replace it.

So, to get started, just exactly how far from the city do you need to be? I am very much a "shades of gray" guy, so my answer will be in terms of a spectrum rather than a single hard number. Here in rural Canada we tend to talk about distances in terms of driving time. I would guess that an hour amounts to around 50 miles. I live about three hours from Toronto, around two hours from many other cities to the south and east of here, and about an hour and a quarter from the small city to the northeast. I am not considering a move to get farther away, so if pressed for a definite answer I would say somewhere between an hour and two hours is a sufficient minimum distance. To be cautious, err on the long end of that range, and of course I'm not saying you shouldn't be more than 2 hours from a city. On the other hand, you may find you need to be close to a city for a while yet and accordingly place yourself at the lower end of the range, while remaining aware of the greater risk that probably entails.

Many cities are quite close together and there are whole areas where there is nowhere far enough from a city to meet my distance criteria. Moving away from your current city but toward another one clearly won't help.

By the time collapse has progressed far enough for this distance to be a real concern, transportation fuels will be in short supply, either because of genuine shortages, market malfunctions or supply chain breakdowns. Initially they will be "rationed by price" to the point where they are not affordable for most of us, or they will be outright rationed by the authorities. Then there will be intermittent interruptions in the supply. And at some point beyond that these fuels will not be available at any price. So the distance from the city would have to be covered on foot or bicycle, making it, in effect, considerably longer. That two hour drive would be a multi-day walk for most people, if they could manage to do it at all.

There are several reasons for wanting to be this far away:

  • in the city there are limited opportunities for adaptation in the face of infrastructure and supply chain failures—the resources you need are just not available locally. You need to be far enough away from population centres that the local resources can support the local population
  • there will be social unrest and civil disobedience (much of it justified) in many cities—violence that you don't want to get caught up in
  • as conditions worsen in the cities, there will occasionally be waves of refugees fleeing from them. I think the aim of people in small towns like mine should to help those refugees, but if there are too many we won't be able to help them and things will go badly for both them and us. So, we want to be far enough away that the distance acts as a filter and reduces their numbers to something manageable.
  • it seems likely that there will epidemics from time to time, especially as public health systems start to fall apart. It would be good to have some distance between you and any city that is being ravaged by an epidemic. A sort of geographical quarantine.

But the main reason you're moving to a small town is for what's there, not what you are trying to get away from.

What size of small town you should be looking for?

Zero is the wrong answer. As Douglas Ruskhoff says, "being human is a team sport." You can't accomplish much, especially in the long term, as an isolated individual or family. Even a group of a few families will find themselves struggling just to survive. In my opinion, remote, isolated survivalist compounds or even lifeboat eco-villages have little future. More people means a greater range of skills and talents and more redundancy in the support systems you need to set up.

I don't think there is much hope of retreating to the wilderness and surviving by hunting and gathering, either. There is very little wilderness left and what is left is not so completely untouched as it once was. The effect of this is to make hunting and gathering more difficult and it is, in any case, a skilled and demanding lifestyle, especially if you weren't born to it. Learning those skills, when you aren't living in a group where most people already have them, would be very challenging.

What you really need is a community that is viable now, as part of "Business as Usual", and which can adapt as collapse progresses and then still be viable under post collapse conditions.

Now I will agree that for some activities a lone individual is best, and for others 2 to 5 people is ideal. But these are specific, short duration jobs within a larger context.

At this point some of you are probably thinking of "Dunbar's number"—"the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person." That number is somewhere between 100 and 250 people, and there is definitely something to the idea. But I would say that this is more like the lower limit on size for a viable community. Larger communities are made up of smaller, overlapping circles of people who know each other in the "Dunbar" sense.

The upper limit on the size of a viable community is determined by how many people the surrounding geography can support without fossil fuel powered agriculture and shipping. Typically that would be a few thousand people, possibly as many as 10 to 20 thousand in ideal circumstances. A counter example would be Edo (now Tokyo) during the days of the shoguns, which grew to over one million people without the benefit of fossil fuels or modern technology. But these days climate change is reducing the carrying capacity of almost every area, and you must remember that the size of small towns will increase first as former locals return from the city and then again as refugees arrive. Set your upper limit around ten thousand to begin with.

So, distance and size will help narrow things down somewhat, as will the climate change based criteria I mentioned previously. But still, which town to pick?

Probably the most important consideration is connections in the community. If you grew up in a small town, if you still have family there, or even close friends, then that town has to be very high on your list of places to consider. If you have limited resources, those connections may prove vital in making your move possible.

Next, I think you have to be looking for a place where you can find accommodations and earn a living in the short run while "BAU" is still in operation. As Category 5 suggests, once you have found a likely looking small town, it would be a good idea to live there in rental accommodation for a year or two in order to get to know the place better. It takes more than a few brief visits to really size a place up and figure out how to fit in. And for those with limited resources, renting on an ongoing basis may in any case be a better alternative than taking on a mortgage you can't really cope with. In today's uncertain market, it's wise let your landlord take the risk of investing in real estate.

Financial considerations also have to be very high on your list of priorities. Eddie at the Doomstead Diner has written an excellent article entitled "Some Inconvenient Truths About Collapse Economics". He challenges the idea, common among kollapsniks, that the only things worth investing in are preparations, gold, silver and farmland. At some point in the future that may be true, but you have to have a plan for surviving in the meantime, and that will likely involve taking part in an economy that you know has a limited shelf life—even putting some of you money into conventional BAU style investments in the short term.

I'll be going into more detail on this in a future post, but some degree of preparation is a very good idea and you should spend some money on it, but not every cent you have. It is also good to have some ordinary cash on hand, and even some actual physical gold and/or silver carefully hidden where you can get at it if you need it. Farm land, while it is tempting, is currently very expensive per acre and since it comes in large chunks, likely to be out of reach for most people. Remote farms may cost less, but leave you too isolated.

When I talk about "collapse progressing", it may sound like I am envisaging a uniform run downhill, but my regular readers will know this is not the case. Collapse progresses unevenly, unsteadily and unequally. This is good news if you are thinking of moving, because there is likely some place where things are better than where you are now, especially if you are flexible and willing to adapt to a new situation. There are "eddies" in the stream of collapse, places where things occasionally stand still or even improve somewhat for a while.

I think this is very true of both real estate and employment considerations.

A great many cities are experiencing real estate bubbles today. Accommodation costs a lot to buy or rent there and the situation is only getting worse. This is less about the demand for housing and more about malfunctioning markets and people with money trying to find somewhere to invest it at a good rate of return. But since there is no real demand to justify those real estate prices they will eventually decline, and decline precipitously. The trick is to get out with your assets intact before that bubble bursts.

Aside from high prices caused by investment bubbles, there is also often a clear relationship between distance from good employment opportunities and the cost of housing. Housing in small towns away from big employment centers (which are almost always in cities) is very likely to be less expensive. So if you don't mind a longer commute, if you can telecommute, or if you can make the big leap of finding work away from the city, you will likely find housing that costs less.

But I've read that in the United States towns with more affordable housing also offer jobs that pay less, so moving there may not solve your problems. It seems to me that this will be determined by what level the minimum wage is pegged at, if there is one. So states (provinces here in Canada) with a decent minimum wage would be a good place to look for work.

Handymen and skilled tradesmen are most always in demand, as are skilled professionals. Even small towns have a few relatively unskilled jobs in service industries and there will be seasonal work in agriculture and tourism. One of the few justifiable reasons for delaying this move is to find a job to support you in your new location. Just don't make this an excuse for not moving.

I live in a small town that is in an economic eddy, being a bedroom community for a nearby nuclear plant which employs several thousand people. (It's one of the largest nuclear generating developments in the world.) This is "energy sprawl", where lower EROEI energy sources require a lot more infrastructure, and just happen to create jobs building, operating and maintaining that infrastructure in the process. So such opportunities do exist.

How you approach these opportunities will largely depend on your own personal circumstances—your socioeconomic class, in particular.

The Upper Class

If you are a member of the upper class—the "one percent"—you can do as you please, at least for the moment. But in a really serious financial crash, your wealth is likely to evaporate, and you probably don't have the sort of skills that will be needed in the aftermath. For all I care, you can jump out a fortieth floor window and end it all quickly. But if you hope to survive, you'd better be prepared to fit in and keep a low profile, among people who are likely to be resentful of the rich, who they see (correctly) as responsible for the mess the world is in.

No doubt though, you will be focusing on ways of keeping BAU rolling along and maintaining your status within it. Good luck with that.

The Middle Class

Indeed, a willingness to let go of BAU should probably be seen as the distinguishing difference between the middle and upper classes. Though currently, especially in the U.S., many middle class folk mistakenly think that if they support policies that benefit the upper class they will themselves eventually be able to ascend into that class. Of course, the upper class does everything they can to encourage that attitude, with no intention at all of benefitting anyone but themselves.

There are two traps here: one is thinking that you have much chance of joining the upper class and the other is thinking that it would do you any good if you did. If you're currently in the middle class, you likely have enough resources to respond to collapse in a fairly effective fashion. Don't miss the opportunity.

If you already own a home or at least have quite a bit of equity in it, you may well be able to sell it, buy a house in a small town and still have enough cash left over to retire early and invest in preparations. You should do this soon, before the real estate bubble bursts. If you are already retired, you can probably do the same thing and end up in better financial shape than if you'd stayed in the city.

If you are middle class but younger, you are likely working at a job that is keeping you in that class, and this will make the proposition of leaving the city much harder to consider seriously. But perhaps you can commute or even telecommute from a small town. Or find a small town with a local industry that needs people with your skills. If you are renting or have only recently bought a home and don't yet have much equity built up in it, then renting in a small town may cost you substantially less than your current rent or mortgage payments. Don't make the mistake of believing that real estate prices will keep going up forever.

All middle class people should look ahead to days of further economic contraction and consider taking a "deliberate descent" approach to life. That is, learn to live with less, so that when that is all you have left, it won't be so much of a shock. As John Michael Greer has said, "collapse now and avoid the rush." And of course, living frugally will make your resources last longer.

The Lower Class

It can be difficult to see where the line should be drawn between the middle and lower classes, so I am going to simplify things and lump everyone who has a somewhat decent, secure job with benefits, and who owns a home or is renting while saving with a reasonable expectation of being able to buy a home in the foreseeable future, into the middle class. We'll leave other assets and debts as an issue for another day.

Below that is the lower class which for the purposes of this discussion includes, at the upper end, those who have a job and can afford accommodation and a vehicle to drive to work, down through those who have to choose between accommodation and a vehicle, and may end up working but living in a vehicle, through to those who are jobless and homeless. The majority of these people, if they have a job, are members of the "precariat". That is, their job is not in any way secure and does not pay enough to make the rest of their lives secure either. If you are a member of the precariat, you don't need to be told about "deliberate descent"—you're already living it, though I would guess not willingly.

No doubt it is somewhat presumptuous on my part, as a relatively "fat cat" middle class guy, to offer advice to lower class people. Though I did grow up on a small family farm in a family that was just barely middle class at best. And my kids have certainly spent their share (and more) of time in the precariat. But I don't really have a lot of experience at being poor and when I have problems, I am accustomed to using money to solve them. For people in the lower class that’s rarely an option.

Nonetheless, I have a few things to say that I hope may be of help. Lower class people are, I think, farther along the collapse road than the rest of us, and may well be less bothered as things fall further apart—it will all just be more of the same shit to them. Psychologically they are quite resilient but, materially speaking, they have very limited resources to deal with specific problems as they arise, and in that sense they will be harder hit. So, for lower class people, the need to get out of the cities is no less, but the challenge of doing so may be greater.

Many of the problems faced by people in the lower class come from the degree of isolation in which they find themselves. I think there are great possibilities for small groups of disadvantaged people to get together and share housing, food, transportation and so forth. Sadly, we have largely forgotten the skills for getting along in such circumstances, or have been convinced by those who are in power that such skills are worthless. The neo-liberal approach of using money to mediate all relationships between people leaves us at the mercy of those who control the money and that of course is exactly what they want. I think there is a lot of potential in various sorts of co-operative ventures to break out of this trap.

I've been doing a bit of reading at Sharable, a website that "aims to empower people to share for a more resilient, equitable, and joyful world". This is essentially what I am talking about here. It would certainly be a move in the direction of the adaptations we'll have to make down the road in order to succeed in small isolated communities.

Well, I think that's enough for now. Next time we'll continue with this, looking closer at criteria for choosing a small town as place to live as BAU goes further downhill and we can no longer rely on it completely for the necessities of life

Responding to Collapse, Part 4: getting out of the city

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool November 21, 2018

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Responding to Collapse, Part 4: getting out of the city

 
A cold and windy day on Lake Huron

In my last post I talked about the economic contraction that is being caused by declining surplus energy and the collapse which that contraction, combined with the effects of climate change (covered in the post before that), is likely to cause.

My conclusion was that we will have a good bit of adapting to do and it will be much easier to do in rural areas than in the cities. So I advised that, if you currently live in a city, you should be considering a move to the country. But I didn't go into much detail about this moving and adapting and now I intend to remedy that. I should give credit in advance to my friend Don Hayward for sharing with me his thoughts on the subject, and taking part in many good conversations that have allowed me to clarify my own thoughts. Similar credit is due to "Joe", from the comments section of this blog.

It will no doubt be obvious to my readers that I am figuring this out as I go along. Whether I've got it right is, of course, open to discussion. I also reserve the right to change my mind as I learn more.

In a post some months ago I expressed the opinion that the reduction in our impact on the planet following a major financial crash would be mainly a matter of drastically reduced levels of consumption, particularly in the developed world, and that there would not be a major reduction in population at that point. After considerable reflection, I have to say that especially in large cities, the combination of climate change and supply chain interruption following a global financial crash will lead to greater loss of life than I had previously thought. Of course it is hard to predict, but I think this will lead to an actual reduction in population, perhaps by a few billion people.

I still believe that planetary resources will still be sufficient to fuel some sort of recovery as we rebuild the virtual organizational systems lost in the financial crash on a smaller, more local scale. But if we don't learn to live sustainably, that recovery will see us plowing through the remaining resources and there will be another crash, an agricultural one, mainly effecting the more populous areas and reducing the population to a few hundred million. One thing I am pretty sure of is that the predictions of a world population of 9 to 10 billion later this century are not going to pan out.

I am still expecting a slow and irregular collapse. Even without the localized catastrophes that will no doubt happen, the contracting economy will lead to a slow crumbling of industrial civilization.

But now let's return to our scheduled programming, so to speak. The question for today is what sort of adapting am I talking about and why do I think it will be easier in well chosen rural areas?

For most people the hardest thing about collapse is facing up to the end of progress. Adapting to this big change in how we think about the world, and our lives in it, is challenging. But it can be done, and most of the effort takes place inside your head. So it doesn't much matter where you are for that part of the process. It does help if you have a supportive family and community around you, though of course that is true of anything you try to do.

But once you've decided that life is still worth living, you're faced with the many practical issues of staying alive in a collapsing world.

For most of us, staying alive means taking part in the economy—having a job or collecting a pension or the proceeds of investments, so as to have the money needed to procure the necessities of life. Since the economy is contracting fewer jobs are available and many people are unemployed, or "under employed" at best. Pension and investments are under some stress but not doing so badly, though a financial crash would certainly change that.

At the same time, in many locales, housing is getting more expensive and the ranks of the homeless are swelling with the unemployed and even the working poor, many of whom are living out of their vehicles.

That contracting economy also means that less money is being spent on maintaining infrastructure, which is gradually decaying as time passes. And in an effort to keep the economy growing, regulations intended to protect the environment are being repealed and efforts to cut back on the release of greenhouse gases and reduce climate change are being abandoned.

This means that what were once minor inconveniences will grow into catastrophes. Here is a brief and probably not complete list of such events:

  • The degradation of the natural environment due the load placed on it by the human race, mainly manifesting as climate change, ocean acidification and various other pollution related problems, as well as degradation of the environment due to resource use and habitat destruction.
  • Failures of the physical built human environment, mainly infrastructure— water supplies, the power grid, and transportation and communication infrastructure.
  • Failures of the virtual built human environment—economic contraction, financial crashes, failure of the credit systems which make commercial enterprises possible and have largely replaced cash for individuals, breakdown of governments as economic contraction starves them of financial resources, degradation of the fabric of our communities, social unrest, and war.
  • In some sense food is at the intersection of our natural, built and virtual environments, and as such, we can expect there to be problems in production, processing and distribution of food. These will lead to famines in many cases.
  • It also seems likely that there will be an increase in severe epidemics. I am not as well informed as I'd like to be about this, but it seems that hunger, poor sanitation and crowding in slums and refugee camps will be contributing factors.

So, we are going to find ourselves poorer and adapting to getting by with less. Less energy, less stuff and less stimulation, to borrow a phrase from John Michael Greer. This will mean a significant reduction in our level of comfort and convenience but given the high level of consumption in the developed world, there is quite a bit of room for this sort of adaptation. I think there is good reason to believe that many of us will survive, find a livelihood and maintain a sense of self worth even with drastically reduced consumption of energy and material goods.

When it comes right down to it, the bare necessities are energy, food and water. All three are going to be in short supply as collapse progresses over the next few decades, and those shortages will frequently lead to crises. The term "necessities" implies you can't adapt to such shortages, at least not in the long term. All you can do is try to be where they are less severe.

Cities rely on supplies shipped in from other locations. Before fossil fuels, the largest cities had populations of one million or a little more, and that only in ideal circumstances where water transportation made it possible to bring food in from a large enough surrounding area to feed that many people. Cities today rely on complex infrastructure powered by fossil fuels to supply their inhabitants. They will be in deep trouble as collapse progresses.

On the other hand there are many rural locations where:

  • adequate energy can be had locally in the form of firewood, which can be cut by hand if necessary
  • potable water can be accessed from already existing wells that can be converted to hand or wind driven pumps, or surface water that can be used with fairly simple filtration or treatment
  • sufficient food for the local population can be grown on existing farmland within walking distance of town, without fossil fuel powered machinery
  • the population is small enough that organizing such alternate arrangements will not be impossibly difficult to do when it becomes necessary.

This is the essence of why I think we will have a better time adapting to collapse in rural areas. Yes, it will require some degree of advance preparation and a willingness to accept a less affluent lifestyle, but it is all quite doable. As always, what I am recommending here as a viable response to collapse will only work if relatively few people follow my advice. But somehow, I don't think that will be a problem.

The standard trope in discussions of collapse and in collapse fiction is that the most extreme sort of catastrophe happens very quickly, widely and early in the process of collapse. Things break down pretty much completely over a period of days, and people are left thirsty, hungry and freezing in the dark. The sort of perfect storm it would require to have all this happen at once all across even one city, much less a whole country or continent is pretty unlikely in my opinion, though it does make for exciting stories.

After this fast and drastic collapse it is assumed that there will be roving hordes of hungry people leaving the cities to engage in looting and other violence in the countryside, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. But we should bear in mind that, even in the unlikely event of such a collapse, people can't walk far on empty stomachs, especially when they aren't used to walking much at all. Thirst and hunger are debilitating and in a fast collapse most people, caught unawares and unprepared, would not think to head out until they were already in pretty desperate shape. If this really were to happen, what you would end up with is piles of corpses along the sides of the roads, gradually thinning out as you get farther out of the city.

But of course, that is not the way I see it happening at all. Long before things have broken down completely, economic contraction will leave fewer and fewer people with jobs to keep them in the city. At the same time, infrastructure and supply chain failures will become more frequent and more lengthy, providing the nudge that people need to get them moving. First there will first be a trickle of people leaving the cities, mainly those who left the country to find jobs in the city in the recent past. Later on, there will be a wave of refugees leaving the cities following each new disaster.

While governments still have the wherewithall to do so, many of these people will end up in refugee camps. But as economic contraction eventually starves governments to the point where they simply don't have resources to do much of anything, those camps will stop being serviced and people will be left to their own devices, both in the cities and in the camps. And by the time things have broken down completely, there will only be a few people left in the cities.

The actual facts about how people respond to disasters paints a very different picture from what most people expect. There is a deep human need to come together in crises to take care of each other. And contrary to the horrific picture of typical reactions painted by the "disaster mythology" (especially points 2, 3 and 4 in that article), in fact communities often do come together to help themselves in the most extraordinarily positive ways. This works best in communities where people already know each other and where things haven't broken down to the point where there are hostile factions that are basically at war. And of course, it requires at least a minimum of the resources needed to keep people alive (energy, food, water). These resources are far more likely to be available outside the cities.

It has also been suggested, that when the financial sector crashes, the commercial sector must fall apart too for lack of working credit arrangements, and with catastrophic results. I don't agree—even a worldwide financial collapse will hit some areas harder than others and will proceed, as I have said before, unevenly, unsteadily and unequally.p>

From personal experience in agriculture and the power industry I would predict that the people at the workface in critical industries will simply refuse to set down their tools when the results would be disastrous, just because banks are no longer doing their part. Alternate credit arrangements will be set up, involving handshakes, records kept on paper and promises to straighten it all out after the dust settles, rather than let people freeze and starve in the dark if there is any alternative at all.

Make no mistake, I don't mean to suggest that "Business as Usual" can continue on after a major financial collapse using jerry rigged credit arrangements. But there is a vast distance between BAU in all its glory and complete collapse where everything quits working. There is a lot of inertia in the systems which we most need to keep working: the power grid, industrial agriculture, the various systems by which fuels, especially diesel fuel, are distributed, and transportation and communication. This sort of thing will mitigate to a degree situations that would otherwise be thoroughly catastrophic.

So, anyway, you're going to move to the country, to position yourself where surviving collapse is the more doable.

The first thing to decide is when you should make this move. Many people, who live in sheltered circumstances, don't realize that collapse has already been happening for quite a while and that parts of many cities are already nicely along their way in the process of collapse. And it appears that we are in for another financial crash that will make things much worse. You want to leave well before your personal resources have become so depleted that you can't make the move successfully.

So this is more urgent than you might think. Still, I'm not suggesting you leave in a panic today. But do start preparing right away, and leave as soon as you can do so in an orderly fashion with a workable destination already arranged. You don't want to end up in one of those camps. Nor do you want to end up as one of a large wave of refugees arriving in a rural community, especially if that community is unprepared for you arrival, as will likely be the case.

This is more than just a matter of getting out of the cities before things get really miserable there. It's going to take some time to get set up where you are going and to become integrated into your new community. At the moment, people are still leaving small rural towns to find work in the city, but the day will come when that flow reverses. You want to be seen as a relatively old hand in your small town when that happens.

One of the challenges of the slow and uneven collapse that I am predicting, and which has indeed been going on for several decades now, is that there is never going to be a day when you can say at bedtime, "yep, industrial civilization collapsed today." Looking back years later it will be more obvious that collapse has been happening, but still hard to pin down a specific date for when it happened, even in any one location.

If you are at ground zero for one of those catastrophes I listed, there will usually be somewhere else where things are better and you can go as a refugee. But waiting to be a refugee, or worse yet a victim of catastrophe, is exactly what I recommend you don't do. As I have said before, the only real choice you have is to be part of the influx of refugees or to be among of those who are welcoming that influx. I would say that the latter role is very much preferable. A timely move, before things get serious, can put you on the right side of things.

But where to go? In the second post in this series I identified a number of criteria for selecting a new location, based on avoiding the worst effects of climate change:

  • well above sea level
  • not at the top of a bluff overlooking the sea that is being gradually eroded away
  • not situated so as to take the full brunt of tropical storms
  • not in the floodplain of a river
  • not in a desert or semi-desert that relies on water from fossil aquifers that are being depleted faster than they are replenished or rivers fed by melt water from disappearing glaciers
  • not subject to hot season temperatures or heat waves that are not survivable if the power goes out or you can't afford air conditioning
  • receiving enough rain to allow for agriculture largely without irrigation
  • with a growing season and soil that will support agriculture

Now based on the need to get out of the city and find a location where adapting to post-industrial collapse conditions will be easier, we can add a few more criteria:

  • far enough from the city to avoid the worst of what's going to happen there and so that the waves of refugees will be largely spent and small in number when they arrive at your location, and to be isolated from epidemics as well
  • in a small town (a few hundred to a few thousand people) or on a farm near such a town
  • where the surrounding agricultural area can support the local population using low tech, sustainable agricultural methods
  • where there is still some standing timber, mainly for firewood, but also for all the many other things that can be done with wood
  • where the ground water or surface water is potable or can be made that way with simple filtration
  • where you have connections in the community, or where you can make those connections with some work hard
  • where you can initially earn a living or set up to live off your savings/investments/pension

There are a few things that such a community needs to be prepared to do and you should work toward being in a position to encourage that preparation. At some point the trucks are going to stop running. You'll need to get by on local resources.

  • Many small towns have a water treatment plant that relies on chemicals that are shipped in on a "just in time" basis. A stockpile of those chemicals and/or a plan for moving to an alternate source of potable water will be critical.
  • You will need a plan to feed the populace when the grocery store shelves are empty, using local farm products, so that people don't panic and start helping themselves to, and in the process destroying, the stock and crops on local farms.
  • It will only be a matter of time until your connection to the power grid fails. Firewood, wood burning stoves, lanterns and so forth will be in short supply and you'll want to be prepared.
  • While perhaps not quite so urgent, some thought should be given to how welcome refugees. This is on humanitarian grounds, if nothing else. A community that is willing to drive refugees away at gun point, will eventually be willing to treat its own member just as harshly. Your remote location should ensure you won't be overrun, that a manageable number of refugees show up. Your aim should be to treat these folks as well as you treat yourselves and, without abusing them, to turn them into a resource rather than a burden. You will be switching over to a lifestyle where people are needed to replace automation, so that shouldn't be too hard.

It would be excellent if the existing authorities were aware of what's coming and had plans to deal with it, but I should think that is pretty unlikely in most small towns. Better to get to know some of the locals, particularly farmers, well enough to be able to get together with them and organize what's needed when the time comes. If you set a good enough example, others will follow.

More on that, and other practical considerations, next time.

 

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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