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Future Visions

January 16, 2006

Ran Prieur has bought up the issue of urban v rural survival again and I’m glad because it gives me an excuse to bang on about a few things that have been bugging me lately.Aric McBay from In The Wake has written a critique of an essay by Toby Hemenway about post crash survival in rural v. urban environments. The essay essentially presents a positive vision of survival in a suburban setting. David Holmgren has promoted similar ideas but Toby Hemenway has managed to conjure up a particularly appealing vision, even if he has left himself wide open to criticism in some areas.

Aric didn’t really acknowledge this vision and I think the fact that he was still worried by the essay several months later when he had enough time to prepare a response tells us a lot about his underlying beliefs. I don’t however, want this to be an attack on Aric (who’s manual for post crash survival could be extremely important) I only want to use his comments as a springboard to deal with a few wider issues

Generally speaking; amongst the peak oil community there seems to be a kind of religious belief in the die-off scenario; “There’s going to be a sudden crash and it will be anarchy”, well, chaos really. Like I said Aric’s work is tremendously valuable but I think his need to demolish the essay comes more from a desire to destroy an opposing belief than the need to get to the truth. I say this because he doesn’t acknowledge the central vision on offer but instead snipes around the edges at the details. What I would like to see, would be an attempt to deal with the imperfections and to correct them, thereby strengthening the vision.

All bets are off when it comes to predicting the future of post peak oil society but if we all spend our time getting ready for a dog eat dog, survival of the fittest (or best armed) future then that is probably what we will get. If on the other hand we are prepared to consider other possibilities then a future that involves fully functioning communities (which I presume we all want) becomes much more likely.

Ran is a bit of a voice in the wilderness on this issue but I think he’s right. Other people writing on these topics usually gravitate toward the descent-into-chaos scenario but they are often just repeating a belief that the elites of our society have managed to get us to internalise which is that we can’t survive without ‘the system’. That we, the slaves cannot survive without the master (in actual fact it’s the other way around but that’s another subject).

Just look at the phrases I used above. ‘Dog eat dog’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ are myths of civilised life and odds are they will disappear along with civilisation. Certainly the few chances we have to observe people in post-crash situations suggests this will be the case. Media coverage of Hurricane Katrina tried to convince us that it was chaos in New Orleans but reports from the inside, suggest that the first thing that happened was that people actually started to help each other out.

For further evidence of this idea check out this article and also the comment posted at the end of this Ran Prieur essay which is from a radio interview I did with permaculturist Geoff Lawton about his experiences in Iraq.

Derrick Jensen has written about the culture of death that pervades modern civilisation and I think this is another contributor to the love of the die-off scenario, essentially people just can’t wait for the whole edifice to come crashing down. But people with a love of life want more than to see the end of civilisation, they want more than mere survival too, they want the full-on satisfying life that the end of civilisation will actually make possible.

All this talk of the die-off does is feed into the desires of the neo Malthusians who also think we need less people on the planet. Only problem is they might be arranging for us to be in the die off category while they and their elite mates are left amongst the survivors.

In another interview with Geoff Lawton he talked about the abundant future that small scale permaculture could provide us and told me that with permaculture we would only need 2% of the current arable land to feed the world’s population, It sounds crazy but if you look at the figures that biointensive gardeners are talking about then it provides some support. I’m presuming this is not going to involve large scale industrial agriculture in any way but realistically we’ll never know. What I’m sure of though is that with these sorts of gardening systems a kind of urban ecovillage situation holds great possibilities for a ‘post carbon age’. Consider for the moment the possibilities of a great series of interlocking and overlapping mini communities taking over suburbia – after all thats where all the people and houses already are! Excuse me while I get all utopian for a moment but I’d rather do that than visit the die-off site one more time.

I’ve been a long while getting to the point but the best thing the peak oil community could be doing is to help ‘seed’ permaculture knowledge into the suburbs. A bit of a challenge right now in most suburbs but as time goes on people are going to be more and more receptive to it. I’ve tried talking about this with peak oilers but my suggestions were met with disbelief, outright rejection and plain old confusion, doing something like that just didn’t seem to fit into their world view.

As an experience I found this very draining so in the future I intend to hang out with permaculturists and enjoy their visions of abundance. I don’t mean to ignore the possibilities of a die-off but I don’t want to be in an environment that embraces it either. Our society is in a pretty sad state and this is the result, only the people on the fringes can see past it’s central myths to the possibilities that an alternative might hold. Only the people on the fringes can see the opportunities for community. Everyone else just seems challenged by it.

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2 comments

  1. […] people to survive until the next stage can be worked out. Back to suburbia though, I ranted in my previous post about how it could be adapted to a post-peak lifestyle and again this is a only a step along the […]


  2. […] said this in a previous posting and I’ll say it again: I’ve tried talking about this (permaculture) with peak oilers but my […]



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