Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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4 Sep 2006

Why the Survivalists Have Got It Wrong.

itsI 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.

survAccording 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.

survMany 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.

surv3What 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.

kedapEnergy 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.

survNowak 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

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


8 Mar 8:27pm

Not all survivalist think you should head for the hills alone. Some believe that keeping the community together and pooling the expertise is also important. Get to know and create communities with artisans, doctors, engineers etc. Stock piles of food is for emergency not everyday survival in a small community. I have urged people to learn about the people they live with and decentralize society. So that when problems do arise there is a place to go that is ready for the 1850’s style of living with a lot of 2008 revisions of self sufficient power sources. One thing is for sure though, large cities cannot sustain its people so they will have to leave and make small communities. Since they cant sustain themselves their will be chaos, like Katrina, and people need to know to “head for the hills” or “get out of dodge”. Thats why its best to start making plans for survival that benefits the community and not the lone warrior. He is right in saying we have to maintain communities.

your neighbor
27 May 2:03am

I am glad to see some of the flaws in the isolationist view discussed, as it seems to me that most preparation sites focus on the guns/land/hoarding side of things.

It is interesting to note that in reading these comments, the most aggressive and rude ones seem to come from the isolationist/survivalist side of the spectrum. And despite pointing out the flaws in the article, many seem to miss the point and misrepresent the argument as much or worse than the article does for their side.

The cave-man pictures were a jab and not needed but funny. The kumbaya hand-holding-hippies references are the same.

I believe that the underlying point is that by labeling everyone as “sheeple” and “idiots” and being satisfied to watch them all rot, it increases the chances of that being the case and worsens the situation for everyone. It DOES fan the flames. However by at least trying to envision a new way of life that has room for many and not just the few there is greater possibility for a transition rather than a crash.

If everyone moved to the countryside then it would become just like the cities. If everyone stockpiled food and guns for themselves those things would be scarce quickly and ignite problems faster. If everyone starts by saying “I have a gun back the f**k off” then it doesn’t leave much room for proactive resolutions.

You can’t own enough guns to stop everyone and the better solution is to not have to kill others to save yourself. The burning building and sinking ship analogies have truth even if they have flaws. The point was that if those boats were filled to capacity MORE people would have lived, and if the fires were fought and folks educated then more suffering could be avoided.

The fact is that just as we cannot sustain the population we have in the manner that we are now, we also cannot support a world of tiny fortresses living in siege mode.

It is ironic that there are those who have the resources to buy land and stock food and guns and remove themselves from society and yet they use the inventions and ideas that that society brought (i.e. computers, cars, internet, etc). It is unfair and lopsided. At least the Amish are consistent in that they don’t use the things of this society and shun it at the same time.

To frame this article as condoning a lack of preparation is silly since it clearly says to prepare and help others to do the same. To say that it is simply idealistic dreaming and “suicidal” is to promote an every man for himself world. Which creates crash senarios and condones by-any-means attitudes.

Those who are saying that building strong communities is “suicide” makes it hard to distinguish the survivalists from the marauders. Both groups condone violence and a me-first mentality. Using weapons to procure and protect what the few need at the expense of the many. I don’t believe the 2 are the same, so survivalists need to work to differentiate themselves as more than just doom-saying and calling others “sheeple”, “idiotic”, “naive”, and “suicidal” for desiring to PREVENT as much suffering as possible.

The societies that existed before oil were just that SOCIETIES. The communities (Amish, Morman, etc) who advocate self-reliance are just that COMMUNITIES. So we can drop the inaccurate kumbaya accusations and try to understand the point.

If everyone are really just “sheeple”, then why not be shepherds?

This is the meaning of the article and it is a noble one.

It is both disgusting and frightening to see the amount of comments that seem content to say “we have predicted this all along and will watch as you and all the rest of you idiots die first”. In reaction to an article that advocates saving many rather than few.

One can recall the examples of atomic bomb-shelter paranoia as well as Y2K survival fanatics. If we cry “doom” too often we again make it more likely and act against real observation and warning. Of course those doom-sayers will eventually be right but when will they own up to how many times they have been wrong?

Yes people will die, the question is how many and in what manner?

As an example, lets say that there are 10 people. For the sake of this argument we will say that 2 are informed and prepared and 2 are the criminal type who will only look out for themselves – the rest we will call “sheeple” – able to go in either direction depending. The isolationist/survivalist mentality says the 2 prepared ones should head for the hill with supplies in hand and perhaps an additional 1 or 2 “sheeple” that they convinced of the impending doom. They will wait and defend themselves against the 6 marauders who come to take whats theirs (best case = 4 live).

The mentality presented in this article says that the 2 prepared ones work to educate the 6 “sheeple” and then can be better prepared to save the group and deal with the minority that are criminal (best case = 8 live).

Of course this is an oversimplification but the point is that we may be able to mitigate and margnialize the “crash” BY preparing the many and not just the few.

Several years worth of food, water and guns wont help anyone if tragedy strikes that household. However, those same supplies would continue to aid a community if they were pooled with others and maybe that community would have been able to save that family in the first place. Win-win.

Don’t write off thinking about your fellow man as unrealistic, naive, and idealistic – it is part of practical preparedness and self-preservation. Otherwise we give the marauders more of a motive as well as a target.

There were many factors that contributed to what happened in Katrina. It is an important lesson to remember however it should be noted that part of the problem was when and how those that could leave did. Leaving their neighbors to die in the process. There are just as many stories of crisis in which communites banned together to save as many as possible and make the system work. Lets avoid being too selective in our recollections.

Pro-active = being prepared and preparing others. Reactive = being prepared and waiting to kill those who didn’t do the same. The first option has much greater chances for success.

29 May 10:27am

Interesting article. Have people here paid any intention to Sweden? A country that is already well on the way to making itself oil-free.

Increased self sufficiency is a good thing but I think that a realistic view of the world must take into account the fact that people really can and will work toward avoiding the collapse of society by developing alternative means of power & production.

As for all the comparisons with Katrina… Peak Oil is not going to be a sudden event so comparisons with a natural disaster are invalid. A more reasonable (and negative) comparison would be Easter Island which suffered a slower population collapse after killing all their trees and being unable to build boats.

[…] facut si un film cu Kevin Costner). In principiu, acestea sunt solutii individualiste, comparate aici cu cei care au parasit Titanicul pe cont propriu, cu barcile pe jumatate […]

3 Aug 2:41pm all depends. Really, if you gotta drop everything and get outta dodge, the best hope is that communications work (cell, text, phone) and that you can grab a few belongings and make it to a shelter of some type. If theres Gridlock vis a vis the roads, look out.(think War of the worlds, or the day after). My point is the survival arguments here are rather pointless. Anything you got CAN and WILL be confiscated by authorities. Any luck you will have a cot, water, food rations, and the best security (nat guard, local police) money can buy. For the survivalists ANYWHERE with a fully stocked pantry and a square centinmeter of arable land…guess what? its BIG BROTHERS! You will surrender or die in it, waco style…

happy hunting!!

21 Nov 5:47pm

Did everyone miss the general theory behind the crazy persons perspective? There will be no food. Almost 100% of you people would not last a week without your hunger pains forcing you to do the most terrible things imaginable. The author of this post would probably be one of the first to cannibalize his “community”, or be eaten by them. Do you believe that bread will fall from the sky? Or maybe farmers will tend crops all year for you, then march them right to your door. No, it is you who will be knocking on the doors of the survivalist you mention. Then you will understand what the stockpiles of ammo are for, to put you out of your misery!

22 Nov 10:37pm

I expect you are right, Mr Whatever, in respect of the United States.
In England, there was ‘no food’ or precious little of it, 70 odd years ago, when the Second World War began some years before it gets a mention in US History.
The much mocked and maligned (by the US) State intervention was what saw us through, as rationing – generally voluntarily and graciously complied with – ensured that it was not the survival of the richest , but the greatest good for the greatest number. That was the community spirit of the day.
The gulf between the ‘survivalist’ and the ‘transitionist’ is called the Atlantic Ocean.

‘Ammo’ indeed. Go ahead and shoot each other and do us all a favour.

11 Dec 12:29am

From what your article says you are highlighting a problem that is being exacerbated by a particular economic model and then having a pop at a caricature that you have negative feelings towards. You spend some time trying to justify an unclear position with analogies and some reasoning. You have succeeded in expressing an opinion. Now what.

26 Jan 6:06am

Ok I am a repeated hurricane survivor. I have seen first hand how communities pulled together to help each other loot the community store. So as several people have said lets help each other. In times of crisis I should be able to count on a few readers here to supply my family with water….Ok who here is the candle maker? hhhmm Can at least someone sew me a new shirt??? Well who’s house do I show up to so I can get a few gas cans filled? Since I was counting on the community I don’t have anything but pork and beans to eat. Who here has some roast I can get or a bit of veggies???? Thats what I thought. You have none to give. Oh thanks so much.

Oh yes I have seen how people pull together and thats the reason why my friends and family made it just fine without FEMA, Red Cross, or anybody else for that matter.

Many may call me crazy but those people watching me fill my truck up on the side of the road from a tank in the back sure looked envious. I guess I could do as you suggested and gave everyone a cup full, for the community you know. They did’t ask for any though. Probably my wife watching my back with the AR-15 gave them pause.

For Sue Lyons way up at the top. And I quote “If my only choice was to survive in my little cabin way back in the woods while everyone else starves and freezes to death, I think I would rather go suck on a gas pipe, while there is still some gas left!”
Please do the world a favor and do it now. That statement made me ill.

26 Jan 7:52am

Excuse me. I can sew you a shirt. And also as it happens make candles. However, if I try to help, your wife will shoot me, so you will never know. I guess the poor woman’s stuck with just you for company.
What is your point? You are the only person on the planet with a useful skill? How nice that you will have yourself for company. You are obviously the only person you feel is worth saving.
What a good job you live in a country, where you can all shoot each other. In our dreams.

[…] Hopkins part, when I disagreed with him so vehemently in his September 4, 2006 piece entitled: “Why Survivalists Have Got It All Wrong.” He displayed pictures of pseudo-cavemen, and made reference to selfish survivalists hording […]