2 May 2008
‘Natural Born Survivors’, from today’s Guardian
Natural born survivors. The Guardian. Friday 2nd May. Original here.
Rising oil prices, global food shortages and the economic crisis are proof for many survivalists that society is on the brink of meltdown. But are their predictions all gloom and doom – or a chance to create new communities? Harriet Green reports.
For three years, my husband has talked about taking to the hills. About buying a smallholding on Exmoor where, with our four-year-old daughter, we can safely survive the coming storm – famine, pestilence and a total breakdown of society. I would wait for his lectures to finish, then return to my own interests. I had no time for the end of civilisation. As an editor on a glossy magazine until a few months ago, I was too busy. There was always a new Anya Hindmarch bag to buy, or a George Clooney premiere to attend.
But recently, I’ve wavered. Much of what he has been predicting has come true: global economic meltdown, looming environmental disaster, a sharp rise in oil and food prices that has already led to the rationing of rice in the US, and riots in dozens of countries worldwide.
This week, the details got scarier. The UN warned of a global food crisis, like a “silent tsunami”, while Opec predicts that oil, which broke through $100 (£50) a barrel for the first time a few weeks ago, may soon top $200.
In the course of an idle conversation at work last week, a colleague casually revealed that he keeps a supply of tinned food in his bedroom “just in case”. He has done this, apparently, ever since the July 7 bombings in 2005 and the fear of global pandemics such as Sars and bird flu.
And he’s not alone. On the internet, you’ll find numerous would-be survivalists discussing strategies: where to find a hideout in the UK, what goods to stock up on, and the merits of carrying a 48-hour survival kit. Some are even wondering how to get round the UK’s relatively strict laws on the possession of weapons.
If not stockpiling food, many others are growing their own, with Jamie Oliver urging us to turn our gardens over to food production: sales of vegetable seeds are up 60% on last spring. Others still are moving towards taking their homes “off-grid”, with rainwater harvesting and solar electricity, and withdrawing their money from pensions to invest in precious metals and other time-honoured securities.
I’ve started to worry. Is my family prepared for the worst? I’m reasonably nimble at the computer keyboard, and a whiz with the hairdryer, but otherwise pretty useless. I’ve barely made or mended anything in my life. Thankfully my husband is three years ahead of me, and – with help from the many self-sufficiency manuals he’s collected – has evolved (or regressed) into a creature from the past: he’s got an allotment, has turned our garden into some kind of nursery for innumerable apple trees grown from pips (farewell, ornamental rose) and recently started knitting. He even has plans for a composting loo, in the event that water supplies fail.
This kind of survivalism is not entirely new. In the 70s, with the threat of nuclear war in the air, government leaflets suggested we stock up on food and drink to last 14 days, and advised how to build our own fallout rooms. Some of my cousins left the UK for a nuke-free life in Australia.
Then there was the oil crisis, with associated blackouts and abbreviated working weeks. In 1975, the BBC reflected the forced move towards self-sufficiency and survivalism in two landmarks series: on a lighter note, Tom and Barbara dug up their back garden in the Good Life while, more apocalyptically, the drama series Survivors imagined that 90% of the world’s population had been wiped out by a deadly bacterium in just a few days. The series followed a few disparate survivors as they struggled to form ad-hoc communities, relearning ancient skills in order to survive. The BBC recently announced that it is remaking Survivors to air this autumn. I can’t help thinking it’s horribly timely.
Survivalists have always seemed quintessentially American; scary, bear-like loners in commando jackets, loaded with ammunition. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber, was a survivalist, as were many of the scary characters in Michael Moore’s anti-gun film, Bowling for Columbine, including one, with bulging eyes, who kept a loaded firearm under his pillow. But today survivalists include the likes of Barton M Biggs, former chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley, who warns in his new book, Wealth War and Wisdom, that we should accept the possibility of a breakdown of the civilised infrastructure.
“Your safe haven must be self-sufficient,” he advises, “and capable of growing some kind of food, should be well stocked with seed, fertilizer, canned food, wine, medicine, clothes etc. Think Swiss Family Robinson. Even in America and Europe there could be moments of riot and rebellion when law and order temporarily completely breaks down.”
Aside from climate change, what underpins all this gloom is a belief that we have nearly reached, or already passed, peak oil – the point at which global demand for oil permanently outstrips dwindling supplies, causing prices to shoot up. And not just the price of oil, but the price of virtually everything else too, because our lives depend on ever-increasing amounts of cheap energy and synthetic petroleum byproducts.
Dr Vernon Coleman is a writer and broadcaster who has placed full-page advertisements in national newspapers to promote his new book, Oil Apocalypse. “This isn’t a script for a horror movie,” the terrifying text declares. “The lorry that collects your rubbish won’t be running. Streetlights won’t burn. Hospitals will have to close . . . There won’t be any more television programmes. You won’t be able to charge your mobile telephone. Within a generation, five out of six people on the planet will be dead. I’ll repeat, five out of six people on the planet will be dead.”
Blimey. How long have we got? Well, at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil in Cork last year, the former US energy secretary, Dr James Schlesinger, said that oil industry executives privately conceded that the world faces an “imminent” oil production peak. And last week it emerged that output in Russia – the world’s second-biggest supplier after Saudi Arabia – has peaked already. The Saudis may have peaked, too, but they don’t allow outsiders to audit them, so we won’t know until it is too late. Brazil announced recently a massive new oilfield, but within a week its own government had urged caution, warning that the claims were premature.
“We’ve got to start preparing now,” says Coleman. “The Saudis historically have always increased oil when there is a need, or if the Americans ask them to. This time they haven’t done so. Suddenly they have stopped increasing. All the evidence is there: we’ve reached peak oil.”
Like many others, Coleman suggests that the recent move towards biofuels would not have happened unless conventional oil supplies had become scarce – and that it has been a disaster. “How stupid can you be? If you use land to grow crops that enable Americans to drive 4x4s, of course you’re going to reduce the amount of food that people can eat.”
After a long period of steadily increasing globalisation, Coleman foresees a future in which everything will shrink back to the local. “You must prepare yourself for a different world. A world in which the rich ride horses, the middle classes use bicycles and the poor walk. If you are planning for the long-term – and in this scenario, five years is long-term – don’t buy a house that relies on you having petrol for your car. You want a house in a town with a small garden where you can grow vegetables, and you want to be relatively close to railways, hospitals, shops, and libraries. The government shutting down local post offices is an enormously stupid thing to do.” Coleman believes that many big companies will collapse, taking their pension plans with them, and governments will not be able to step in. He’s switched his own investments to gold and silver.
Another prominent survivalist is Paul Thompson, a graphic designer living in Reading who also happens to be a modern-day prophet of doom. His website, Wolf at the Door, offers a brilliantly argued lecture on peak oil for the beginner and attracts vast numbers of visitors. In person, however, Thompson is low key. “I’m still pretty cautious. People find the idea that society might fall apart nonsense. I wouldn’t bring it up in front of just anyone.”
On his website, he takes reasonable account of conflicting arguments about how peak oil and climate change will play out, but overall he remains gloomy. “I’m 50 this year. I’ve had a good run,” he says. “I want to enjoy the next five or 10 years.” With that in mind, he’s leaving Britain for the Czech Republic, where he will teach English and put into practice the self-sufficiency theory he’s absorbed from books.
“I’m pretty depressed about Britain. I think we won’t cope well. We are overpopulated, we have poor transport links. In the Czech Republic they still have trams. Eastern Europe is better prepared. They were kept back for so many years, they haven’t become so urbanised. It’ll be easier to slip back to a more rural lifestyle. We’ve got to get back to little villages and towns, growing our own food, putting in place micro-generation. You won’t be able to rely on the centralised state any more.
“I’ve got no house, no immediate family. I have tried to make things more flexible in the past few years. I’ve taken money out of stocks and shares, stopped paying into a personal pension, and put all my money into bank accounts where it’s accessible tomorrow if I need it. I’ve got total flexibility.”
Has he put together any kind of emergency kit? “It’s probably a good idea, but the problem is you don’t know what you need. You can have petrol in your garage, food, candles and water. But you don’t know for sure what you’re going to be facing.”
One of the most gloomy websites that you will ever read is Lifeaftertheoilcrash.org. Set up by an American, Matthew Savinar, it presents the bleakest possible outlook. A lawyer by background, Savinar litters his website with ads for freeze-dried food. There’s even a picture of Savinar himself, crouching beside boxes of the stuff in his kitchen. But when asked if the Guardian could reproduce that photo, Savinar declined: “I don’t need the marauding hordes descending on me here as my supplies are quite limited.”
It is presumably this fear that recently led a British member of the international survivalist community to ask for advice on Survivalblog.com (which attracts 82,000 visitors a week). Noting that the British government has banned samurai swords, he wondered what other weapons might be kept handy. American correspondents replied that he should get out of England soon, while the US and New Zealand were still letting in foreigners.
Having no samurai swords at our house, we have little chance of fighting off the hungry masses when they tear lettuces from our window boxes and scale the fence of our allotment. And the truth is that probably few places in Britain are much safer – not even in the most remote parts of the countryside. Which is why we have put our hopes in a saner band of survivalists, who believe the answer is to work together.
The “transition town” movement was started by an Englishman, Rob Hopkins, after a stint working as a teacher in Kinsale, Ireland. After learning about peak oil, Hopkins and his traumatised students spent several months trying to imagine what Kinsale would be like without oil, some years in the future – then worked backwards to create an “energy descent” plan that, on completion, was unanimously endorsed by the local authorities.
Returning to the UK, Hopkins started something similar in Totnes, Devon, which became the first official transition town. There are now more than 35 of these grassroots initiatives up and running, not only in towns but also cities, villages and entire islands – and more than 500 communities, worldwide, are taking steps to join the Transition Network. Even Ambridge, on The Archers, is weighing it up.
Hopkins recently published a manual, The Transition Handbook, a startlingly cheerful book that gives some idea as to how transition initiatives work – from the very early stages, in which groups raise awareness through film screenings and talks, to the later development of local food networks and even the launch of local currencies.
The movement uses 12 steps, rather like Alcoholics Anonymous, to wean us off our dangerous addiction to oil. This includes honouring elders, Hopkins says. “They have the knowledge of how things were done in the past” – when our lives depended so much less on the black stuff. “We have been doing work with people who remember the 30s and 40s, people who say it would have been insane to eat apples from New Zealand. Back then, all the food came from near the town, but we don’t have that resilience any more. In the lorry strike of 2001, we had only three days’ worth of food in Totnes.”
The key to effecting a smooth transition is rebuilding resilience and self-sufficiency at every scale – from the household to the wider community – all at once. To Hopkins and others, Cuba offers a great example of effective community-based survivalism at the national level. Many transition towns have been launched with screenings of The Power of Community, a short documentary showing what happened to Cuba after the breakdown of the Soviet Union led to oil supplies drying up, and the US embargo stopped many other crucial imports.
Faced with potential starvation or capitulation to the US, the Cubans gradually turned from heavy reliance on carbon-intensive agriculture: all kinds of urban spaces were cultivated, from window boxes to wasteland, and oxen were put back into use as there was no fuel to run tractors. The transition took several years, and for a while Cubans had to forgo the equivalent of a meal a day, but eventually even people in cities were producing half their annual fruit and vegetable needs.
It’s films like this that explain why Hopkins remains fundamentally upbeat, and rejects the gloomiest prognoses. “If we didn’t do anything,” he agrees, “there are all sorts of grim scenarios. But I like to think of those as like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future – just one possible scenario.”
Thus, when the price of oil rises, Hopkins cheers. “It’s like a racehorse owner cheering his horse. The things I want to see happen only happen in times of high oil prices. In the 70s, there was the most incredible flowering of creativity. Solar power, permaculture – they all started in the 70s. Then cheap oil came back, and everything went out of the window. High oil prices will stimulate creativity all over again: the knock-on of rising food prices will make it more cost-effective to grow food here; the higher cost of petrol in your car will make you ask if it’s worth making the journey.” The bonus is that, as we burn fewer fossil fuels, emissions will be reduced and climate change might be slowed.
Peak oil can, Hopkins accepts, confirm the widespread belief that people are inherently selfish. But the “head for the hills” response, he says, is more typically North American than British. “I wrote a piece on my website, transitionculture.org, called ‘Why the survivalists have got it wrong’. That elicited more comments than any previous post. Some came from survivalist websites, and included such gems as ‘Which is better, a gun or a club? The answer: You can use a gun as a club but you can’t use a club as a gun.'”
Hopkins does possess survival skills, and he thinks they’re important. “Bushcraft training is very useful. It’s very empowering, learning to eat the things that are around you.” But there are other things we need to learn too. Indeed, a key part of the transition-town process is what he calls the “great reskilling”. “We no longer have many of the basic skills our grandparents took for granted. One of the most useful things a transition initiative can do is to make training widely available in a range of these skills.”
What skills does he have in mind? Bicycle maintenance? Home energy efficiency? Basic food growing? “You need to look at the skills people used to have that might still be appropriate, as well as looking at the skills people have now. Speaking to older people in the area around Totnes, it turns out that, for example, they all knew how to darn their socks. I know very few people my age who know how to do that, and it is a skill that, once we get beyond the throwaway society, we may well need again. Hence the sock-darning workshop we are running.”
Sock darning, eh? It’s not as glamorous as those George Clooney screenings, and it lacks the superficial appeal of a hoard of rice, or gold coins. But I’m pretty sure my husband hasn’t tried it yet, and in the spirit of amiably competitive self-sufficiency that I’m confident will soon become mainstream, I have decided that sock-darning may well be the survival skill for me.