first world problems

No Escape

From the keyboard of Dmitry Orlov
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Orlov island

Published at Club Orlov on February 3, 2015

 

Quite a few of those currently inhabiting the belly of the decrepit and senile beast of western industrial civilization are experiencing an extreme sense of unease about what the future is likely to bring. But living with such a sensation is less than pleasant. In some other, perhaps less civilized language, the resolution to this crisis may be expressed as a special way of being, but in the language of civilization, the only possible work-out is through taking action. We must DO SOMETHING!

After all, who would want to not care about things that aren’t important at the moment, not think about objects that are not immediately and tangibly present, not treat depictions or representations as real or valid—but rely exclusively on their own perceptions, and perhaps those they share with those few people who are close to them? A decidedly uncivilized person, by most people’s standards. But we must remain civilized, and to be civilized means to always be driving towards some destination, even if it is an imaginary one. “Stop the world, I want to get off!” some of them exclaim in exasperation. But they are willing prisoners of this metaphor of the world as purposeful action, and their talk of escape is a mental loop (an escapist one) within another mental loop (from which there is no escape).

And so they must DO SOMETHING. But it turns out that they can’t because of another mandatory element of civilized existence, which is to have and to own… stuff. Now, owning something is not exactly an action; it is a state of being, but a rather impersonal one: person X owning a thing is exactly the same as person Y owning that exact same thing. Nevertheless, civilized persons are very much defined by the things that they own, the brands they favor, and the physical setting they demand. So they must do something about their civilized existence, but that civilized existence demands a house with electricity, running hot and cold water, heating and air conditioning, a car, a pile of electronic toys and an even bigger pile of stuff they never actually use, but simply have.

What prompted me to think about this? First-hand observation, actually. I just started a house-sit at an off-grid house on one of the lagoons in the Bocas archipelago in northern Panama. The house is rather well set up: lots of solar panels and battery banks, internet access via a network of wifi repeaters, a rainwater collection system, a dock with two power boats (the nearest town is 30 minutes away at full throttle), a big orchard out back that produces bananas, plantains, mangoes, a cat and a dog… It’s quite an establishment, and it has to be lived in and attended to at all times, to keep entropy at bay. This house is by no means unique: it is part of a constellation of similar houses which dot the surrounding shores, whose residents are quite gregarious, with powerboats crisscrossing the lagoon as they go visiting. It is all quite civilized. Some people here have a survivalist mindset, and feel that, being ensconced in their outposts in the mangroves, they are well situated to ride out the process of the whole world going to hell in a hand-basket.

And then right next door live the local Indios. Two Indio kids show up almost every day, a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, paddling an ancient-looking cayuca carved out of a tree trunk. They hang out next to our dock, which attracts fish, which they catch for their family meal, one fish right after another, using hand lines with unbaited hooks, while their parents are off tending a patch of something or other edible out in the jungle. (The concept of child care is somehow completely missing.) Some older kids show up sporadically, who are of dating age, and since dating now requires having a cell phone, which needs to be charged, they bring us their cell phones, with chargers, in plastic bags so that they don’t get wet while they paddle over, and ask us to charge them.

These Indios inhabit a wild, roadless terrain, half-water, half-jungle (the nearest road is a two-hour hike over a mountain pass), do not avail themselves of any government services, don’t have bank accounts and trade a little or work as day-laborers for the few things they need. They are the happiest, most congenial, most carefree people it has ever been my privilege to encounter. They wear threadbare hand-me-downs (shorts and a t-shirt is almost too much clothing in this climate) and live in little shacks on pilings nailed together out of sticks that they probably salvaged as driftwood. They get around on foot or in cayucas which they carve out of trees. Their goal-directed activities seem limited to finding food and tending their few and humble possessions. They take long mid-day naps in their hamacas and paddle out to the middle of the lagoon in the cool evenings to socialize, where I can hear their laughter until well after sundown.

But we can’t be like them, now, can we? We need all this stuff: solar panels, banks of lead-acid batteries (I need to check the electrolyte levels today), propane appliances for hot water and cooking, demand pump for the water system, wifi repeaters for the internet… Whenever it is left unguarded, the whole compound needs to be locked down tight because otherwise it might get looted (there is a machete under the bed). The stable of speed boats, which are the only way to get in or out, has to be maintained. And to keep it all together somebody somewhere has to fly jet aircraft, perform rhinoplasties, tweak high-frequency trading algorithms or do something or other purposeful and goal-directed, because these things don’t pay for themselves, you know.

I suppose I could do something purposeful and goal-directed like that too, because I did, once upon a time. But I don’t, because, first of all, I don’t want to. Secondly, I have my own purposes, goals and methods. Spending winters in the tropics rent-free is, I believe, a worthy goal. Building an absolutely amazing houseboat that sails is another, and I am ready to put up with having to engage in other, unrelated, purposeful, goal-directed activities in order to raise the money. (Rhinoplasty, anyone?) There are a few more. But I refuse to rush, because that would spoil all the fun. And so I’ll do a bit of blogging, and later on today I’ll go visit a nearby organic cocoa farm. And I have no idea what I’ll be doing tomorrow, and that, I believe, is just fine.

 

 

Dmitry Orlov is a Russian-American engineer and a writer on subjects related to “potential economic, ecological and political decline and collapse in the United States,” something he has called “permanent crisis”. He  has written The Five Stages of Collapse and Reinventing Collapse, continues to write regularly on his “Club Orlov” blog and at EnergyBulletin.Net.

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