How to Survive the Crash and Save the Earth

by Ran Prieur

December 19, 2004

Creative Commons License
[Edited and annotated December 6, 2012. This is a nice rant, and still holds up as motivational writing, but as serious analysis it's full of mistakes and exaggerations. I think it's best to explain them one by one.]

1. Abandon the world. The world is the enemy of the Earth. The "world as we know it" is a deadly parasite on the biosphere. Both cannot survive, nor can the world survive without the Earth. Do the logic: the world is doomed. If you stay on the parasite, you die with it. If you move to the Earth, and it survives in something like its recent form, you can survive with it.

[This is such an obvious mistake that I don't know how it fooled so many smart people for so long. Maybe because we've defined "smart" as seeing stories in the clouds by ignoring what doesn't fit. The story here is that many different features of a society -- geographic size, population, social complexity, technological complexity, political centralization, political repression, ecological destructiveness, economic growth, disconnection from other life, and the meaninglessness of daily life -- are all absolutely tied together into one thing. It's true that we can find correlations among these things, but it's easy to see how they can be separated, how some features of our present society can end while others persist.]

Our little world is doomed because it's built on a foundation of taking from the wider world without giving back. For thousands of years we've been going into debt and calling it "progress," exterminating and calling it "development," stealing and calling it "wealth," shrinking into a world of our own design and calling it "evolution." We're just about done. We're not just running out of cheap oil -- which is used to make and move almost every product, and which gives the average American the energy equivalent of 200 slaves. We're also running out of topsoil, without which we need oil-derived fertilizers to grow food; and forests, which stabilize climate and create rain by transpiring water to refill the clouds; and ground water, such as the Ogallala aquifer under the Great Plains, which could go dry any time now. We're running out of room to dump stuff in the oceans without killing them, and to dump stuff in the atmosphere without wrecking the climate, and to manufacture carcinogens without all of us getting cancer. We're coming to the end of global food stockpiles, and antibiotics that still work, and our own physical health, and our own mental health, and our grip on reality, and our will to keep the whole game going. Why do you think so many Americans are looking forward to "armageddon" or the "rapture"? We hate this shitty world and we want to blow it up.

[We hate the world for many reasons, mostly not related to ecological destruction, but to a culture in which our roles, our guiding stories, our minute-to-minute actions, are too far from our biological nature. And yet we endure and keep muddling on. The Roman Empire fell through resource overshoot and political paralyzation, but it fell so slowly that most people living at the time didn't even notice. Most of the above factors have negative feedback: if there are fewer resources, we will use fewer resources. Not that the magical market will keep us rich -- there will be terrible hardship, but still no reason to expect a sudden or deep collapse.]

In the next five or ten years, the US military will be humiliated, the dollar will collapse, the housing bubble will burst, tens of millions of Americans will be destitute, food, fuel, and manufactured items will get really expensive, and most of us will begin withdrawal from the industrial lifestyle. SUV's will change their function from transportation to shelter. We will not be able to imagine how we ever thought calories were bad. Smart people will stop exterminating the dandelions in their yard and start eating them. Ornamental gardens will go the way of fruit hats and bloomers. In the cities, pigeon populations will decline.

[Well, I was right about the housing bubble. But that's exactly why I moved away from hard crash predictions and "house of cards" metaphors. Because after the 2008 financial collapse, daily life for the average person barely changed. At best, these predictions are true for a slightly larger number of scattered individuals.]

This is not the "doom" scenario. I'm not saying anything about death camps, super-plagues, asteroid impacts, solar flares, nuclear war, an instant ice age, or a runaway greenhouse effect. This is the mildest realistic scenario, the slow crash: energy prices will rise, the middle class will fall into the lower class, economies will collapse, nations will fight desperate wars over resources, in the worst places people will starve, and climate disasters will get worse. Your area might resemble the botched conquest of Iraq, or the depression in Argentina, or the fall of Rome, or even a crusty Ecotopia. My young anarchist friends are already packing themselves into unheated houses and getting around by bicycle, and they're noticeably happier than my friends with full time jobs. We just have to make the mental adjustment. Those who don't, who cling to the world they grew up in, numbing themselves and waiting for it all to blow over, will have a miserable time, and if people die, they will be the first. Save some of them if you can, but don't let them drag you down. The first thing they teach lifeguards is how to break holds.

[Again, this exaggerates the changes in daily life for the average person, though it might be good advice for someone who suffers a personal catastrophe.]

2. Abandon hope. I don't mean that we stop trying, or stop believing that a better world is possible, but that we stop believing that some factor is going to save us even if we do the wrong thing. A few examples:

Jesus is coming. If you believe the Bible, Jesus told us when he was coming back to save us. He said, "This generation shall not pass." That was 2000 years ago. Stop waiting for that bus and get walking.

The Mayan calendar is ending. Some people who scoff at Christian prophecies still manage to believe something equally religious and a lot less specific about what's going to happen. At least Jesus preached peace and enlightenment -- the Mayans were a warlike people who crashed their civilization by cutting down the forests of the Yucatan and exhausting their farmland. That's what we should be studying, not their calendar and its alleged message that a better world is coming very soon and with little effort on our part. Now the Mayan calendar gurus will say that it does take effort and we have a choice to go either way, but go see what they wrote in 1990 about how enlightened we were supposed to be in 2004, and it's obvious that we've already failed.

[Combining the above and the below is a strawman argument. The Mayan apocalypse is just silly, while technological and political adaptations will really happen, and their value is not a question of either/or, but a question of degree, about which there are reasonable disagreements.]

Technology will save us. If it does, it will be something we don't even recognize as "technology" -- permaculture or orgonomy or water vortices or forest gardening or quantum consciousness or the next generation of the tribe. It will not be a new germ killer or resource extractor or power generator or anything to give us what we want while exempting us from being aware and respectful of other life. Anything like that will just dig us deeper in the same hole.

[To survive, like all animals, we only have to be aware and respectful of our personal constraints. While I oppose ecological destruction, it is not incompatible with human survival. Solar, wind, and nuclear power are not coming online fast enough to replace cheap oil, but they will soften our adjustment, and should get most of the tech system through the bottleneck to a future society that will use more renewable resources to continue to do whatever it can get away with.]

The system can be reformed. Ten, twenty, thirty years ago the ecologists said "we have to turn it around now or it will be too late." They were right. And not only didn't we turn it around, we sped it up: more cars with worse efficiency, more toxins, more CO2, more deforestation, more pavement, more lawns, more materialism, more corporate rule, more weapons, more war and love of war, more secrets, more lies, more callousness and cynicism and short-sightedness. Now we're in so deep that politicians right of Nixon are called "liberal" and the Green Party platform is both totally inadequate and politically absurd. Our little system is not going to make it.

[Again, no argument here for a hard crash, only for a painful adjustment. Believe it or not, I always had great fun writing a paragraph like that, but with some distance, I can see that the fun doesn't show through. It sounds like a grumpy old man complaining about everything getting worse. But some things are getting better. Americans are driving fewer miles now, we continue moving to the left on cultural issues, and global violence and birthrate have been declining for decades.]

Also, there's a time lag between smokestacks and acid rain, between radioactivity and cancer, between industrial toxins and birth defects, between atmospheric imbalance and giant storms, between deforestation and drought, between soil depletion and starvation. The disasters we're getting now are from the relatively mild stuff we did years or decades ago, before SUV's and depleted uranium and aspartame and terminator seeds and the latest generation of factory farms. Even if we could turn it around tomorrow, what's coming is much worse.

[Again, this is stuff that makes life crummy, not stuff that causes a global apocalpyse. Even climate change, though it will kill millions and make present highly populated regions uninhabitable, will be slow enough for most individuals and systems to adapt.]

We're not strong enough to destroy nature. Oddly, this argument almost always invokes the word "hubris," as in, "You are showing hubris, or excessive pride, in thinking that by lighting this forest on fire to roast a hot dog, I will burn the forest down. Don't you know humans aren't capable of burning down a forest? Shame on you for your pride."

In fact, we've already almost finished killing the Earth. The deserts of central and southwest Asia were once forests -- ancient empires cut down the trees and let the topsoil wash off into the Indian Ocean. In North America a squirrel could go tree to tree from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, and spawning salmon were so thick in rivers and streams that you couldn't row a boat through them, and the seashores were rich with seals, fishes, birds, clams, lobsters, whales. Now they're deserts populated only by seagulls eating human garbage, and nitrogen fertilizer runoff has made dead zones in the oceans, and atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing oceanic acidity, which may dissolve the shells of the plankton. If the plankton die, it's all over.

[As Charles Mann argues in the book 1491, the biological abundance observed by Europeans in North America was a temporary explosion caused by the dieoff of their alpha predator, American Indians, from European diseases. So we haven't fallen quite that far. The only thing we've almost finished killing is old growth forests, and the more adaptable species will be fine. The worst case scenario would be an anoxic event, which would knock down life on Earth for millions of years, but would still be less catastrophic than previous anoxic events, because more carbon has been locked up in limestone.]

Maybe we can't kill absolutely everything, but we are on the path to cutting life on Earth down to nothing bigger than a cockroach, and we will do so, and all of us will die, unless something crashes our system sooner and only kills most of us.

[This is the most wrong thing I've ever written. We are on a path to a painful redefinition of complex society, and a medium-sized mass extinction in which weedy species like coyotes and crows are going to thrive. Any attempt to intentionally bring down civilization would be an even bigger tactical mistake than moral mistake. For one thing, it would probably just cause an ugly spectacle and turn popular culture against ecological thinking. Nothing short of a full nuclear war could cause a global hard crash, and that would be worse for the biosphere than business as usual. If some new technology appears that can cause a nature-friendly hard crash, we would not settle into ecotopia, because living people would have the knowledge to quickly rebuild a tech system, and the trauma of sudden collapse would make human culture much nastier and more likely to be ecologically destructive.]

3. Drop Out. (See How To Drop Out.) Shifting out of the present dominant system has both a mental and an economic component that go together like your two legs walking. It's a lot of steps! Maybe you notice that you hate your job, and that you have to do it because you need money. So you reduce expenses, reduce your hours, and get more free time, in which you learn more techniques of self-sufficiency and establish a sense of identity not dependent on where you get your money. Then you switch to a low-status low-stress job that gives you even more room to get outside the system mentally. And so on, until you've changed your friends, your values, your whole life.

The point I have to make over and over about this process, and this movement, is that it's not about avoiding guilt, or reducing your ecological footprint, or being righteous. It's not a pissing contest to see who's doing more to save the earth -- although some people will believe that's your motivation, to justify their own inertia. It's not even about reducing your participation in the system, just reducing your submission and dependence: getting free, being yourself, slipping out of a wrestling hold so you can throw an elbow at the Beast.

This world is full of people with the intelligence, knowledge, skills, and energy to make heaven on Earth, but they can't even begin because they would lose their jobs. We're always arguing to change each other's minds, but nobody will change if they think their survival depends on not changing. Every time you hear about a whistleblower or reporter getting fired for honesty and integrity, you can be sure that they already had a support network, or just a sense of their own value, outside of the system they defied. Dropping out is about fighting better. Gandalf has to get off Saruman's tower!

4. You are here to help. In the culture of Empire, we are trained to think of ourselves as here to succeed, to build wealth and status and walls around ourselves, to get what we desire, to win in games where winning is given meaning by others losing. It is a simple and profound shift to think of ourselves instead as here to help -- to serve the greatest good that we can perceive in whatever way is right in front of us.

You don't have to sacrifice yourself for others, or put others above you. Why is it so hard to see each other as equals? And it's OK to have a good time. In fact, having a good time is what most helping comes down to -- the key is that you're focused on the good times of all life everywhere including yourself, instead of getting caught up in egocentric comparison games that aren't even that fun.

Defining yourself as here to help is a prerequisite for doing some of the other things on this list properly. If you're here to win you're not saving anything but your own wretched ass for a few additional years. If you're dropping out to win you're likely to be stepping on other outsiders, instead of throwing a rope to bring more people out alive. And as the system breaks down, people here to win will waste their energy fighting each other for scraps, while people here to help will build self-sufficient communities capable of generating what they need to survive.

[Again, I no longer expect such a severe breakdown that total self-sufficiency is a good idea. The more needs you can meet outside the money economy, the more free you will be, but automated manufacturing will remain highly efficient, and there will be many useful items, and even some foods, where the easiest way to get them is to make some money and buy them.]

In the real world, being here to help is easier and less stressful, because you will frequently be in a situation where you can't win, but you will almost never be in a situation where there's nothing you can do to help. Being here to win only makes sense in an artificial world rigged so you can win all the time. Thousands of years ago only kings were in that position, and they reacted by massacring all enemies and bathing in blood. Now, through a perfect conjunction of Empire and oil energy, we just put the entire American middle class in that position for 50 years. No one should be surprised that we're so stupid, selfish, cowardly, and irresponsible. But younger generations are already getting poorer and smarter.

5. Learn skills. Readers sometimes ask for my advice on surviving the crash -- should they buy guns, canned food, water purifiers, gold? I always tell them to learn skills. You know the saying: get a fish, eat for a day; learn to fish, eat for a lifetime. (Just don't take it too literally -- there might not be any fish left!)

The most obvious useful skills would include improvising shelter from materials at hand, identifying and preparing wild edibles, finding water, making fire, trapping animals, and so on. But I don't think we're going all the way to the stone age. There will also be a need for electrical work, medical diagnosis, surgery, optics, celestial navigation, composting, gardening, tree propagation, food preservation, diplomacy, practical chemistry, metalworking, all kinds of mechanical repair, and all kinds of teaching. As the 15th century had the Renaissance Man, we're going to have the Postapocalypse Man or Woman, someone who can fix a bicycle, tan a hide, set a broken bone, mediate an argument, and teach history.

[Since I've presented only hand-wavy reasons to expect a collapse of information technology, you might want to learn computer programming. Also, economic collapses tend to concentrate more wealth at the top, so there will be lots of jobs doing stuff for rich people -- maybe even teaching them wilderness survival so they have less fear of losing their money.]

Even more important are some things that are not normally called skills, but that make skill-learning and everything else easier: luck, intuition, adaptability, attentiveness, curiosity, physical health, mental health, the ability to surf the flow. Maybe the most fundamental is what they call "being yourself" or "waking up." Most human behavior is based neither on logic nor intuition nor emotion, but habit and conformity. We perceive, think, and act as we've always done, and as we see others do. This works well enough in a controlled environment, but in a chaotic environment it doesn't work at all. If you can just get 10% of yourself free of habit and conformity, people will call you "weird." 20% and they'll call you a genius, 30% and they'll call you a saint, 40% and they'll kill you.

6. Find your tribe. We minions of Empire think of ourselves as individualists, or as members of silly fake groups -- nations, religions, races, followers of political parties and sports teams, loyal inmates of some town that's the same as every other. In fact we're all members of a giant mad tribe, where the relationships are not cooperative and open, but coercive, exploitative, abusive, and invisible. If we could see even one percent of the whole picture, we would have a revolution.

[Exaggerated and unfair. First world culture is not yet as cooperative and democratic as the best primitive tribes, but it's way better than the worst tribes, and we have a broader perspective, and a longer range of empathy, than any previous humans. If we saw the whole picture we would not have a revolution, because we would see that revolutions are stupid, and slow change is better because it's less traumatic.]

You may feel like you want to do it alone, but you have never done it alone. To survive the breakdown of this world and build a better one, you will have to trade your sterile, insulated links of money and law for raw, messy links of friendship and conflict. The big lie of postapocalypse movies is that the survivors will be loners. In the real apocalypse, the survivors will be members of multi-skilled well-balanced cooperative groups.

I think future tribes are already forming, even on the internet, even among people thousands of miles apart. I think the crash will be slow enough that we'll have plenty of time to get together geographically.

7. Get on some land. This might seem more difficult than the others, yet most people who own land have not done any of the other things -- probably because buying land requires money which requires subservience to a system that makes you personally powerless. I suggest extreme frugality, which will give you valuable skills and also allow you to quickly save up money.

[In the depression of the 1930's, Americans did better in the city than in the country. The city depends on the country for food, while the country depends on the city for almost everything else. In a regional catastrophe, which is much more likely than a global collapse, the region in crisis will be helped by other regions, and food will come first to the cities. The size and density of cities allows networks of trade and mutual aid that are impossible in the country. Still, if you already have a place in the city, it can only help to also have a place in the country, ideally within a one day bike ride, with basic shelter and some ability to generate food.]

If you don't make it, it's not the end of the world -- oh wait -- it is the end of the world! But you still might know someone with room on their land, or someone might take you in for your skills, or if you have a tribe one of you will probably come up with a place in the chaos. And if not, there will be a need for survivors and helpers in the cities and suburbs. So don't force it.

If you do get land, the most valuable thing it can have is clean surface water, a spring or stream you can drink from. Acceptable but less convenient would be a well that doesn't require electricity, or dirty surface water, which you can filter and clean through sand and reed beds. At the very least you need the rainfall and skills to catch and store enough rainwater to drink and grow food. Then you'll need a few years to learn and adjust and get everything in order so that your tribe can live there year-round, even with no materials from outside. With luck, it won't come to that.

8. Save part of the earth. When I say "the earth," I mean the life on its surface, the biosphere, as many species and habitats as possible, connected in ways that maximize abundance and complexity -- and not just because humans think it's pretty or useful, but because all life is valuable on its own terms. We like to focus on saving trophy animals -- whales, condors, pandas, salmon, spotted owls -- but most of them aren't going to make it, and we could save a lot more species if we could put that attention into habitats and whole systems.

So how do you save habitats and whole systems? You can try working through governments, but at the moment they're ruled by corporations, which by definition are motivated purely by short term increase-in-exploitation, or "profit." You can try direct physical action against the destroyers, but it has yet to work well, and where control systems are more desperate, more activists will be killed.

My focus is direct positive action for the biosphere: adopting some land, whether by owning or squatting or stealth, and building it into a strong habitat: slowing down the rainwater, composting, mulching, building the topsoil, planting fruit trees and berry bushes, making wetlands -- a little oasis where the tree frogs can hide and migrating birds can rest, where you and a few species can wait out the crash.

["Wait out" is fiction. Time scales will be much longer, especially for ecological recovery. And it's unlikely that your ten acres will be the tipping point that saves a species, but possible!]

Tom Brown mentions in one of his books that the patch of woods where he conducts his wilderness classes, instead of being depleted by all the humans using it for survival, has turned into an Eden, because his students know how to tend it. Some rain forest environments, once thought to be random wilderness, have turned out to be more like the wild gardens of human tribes, orders of magnitude more complex than the soil-killing monoculture fields of our own primitive culture.

Humans have the ability to go beyond sustainability, to live in ways that increase the richness of life on Earth, and help Gaia in ways she cannot help herself. This and only this justifies human survival.

[Well, that's a philosophical issue. Now I think expansion of consciousness justifies human survival.]

It requires a new set of skills. A good place to start is the permaculture movement. Books and classes are expensive, but you can find the books in libraries, and many of the techniques are simple. What it comes down to is seeing whole systems and paying attention and innovating, driven by the knowledge that sustainability is only the middle of the road, and there's no limit to how far we can go beyond it.

9. Save human knowledge. When people of this age think about knowledge worth saving, they usually think about belief in the Cartesian mechanical philosophy, that dead matter is the basis of reality, and about techniques for rebuilding and using machines that dominate and separate us from other life. I'd like that knowledge to die forever, but I don't think it works that way. Humans or any other hyper-malleable animal will always be tempted by the Black Arts, by techniques that trade subtle harm for flashy good and feed back into themselves, seducing us into power, corruption, and blindness.

[It's a cheap shot to project the worst potential of technology on technology in general, which can be used to turn inward or look outward, to contract our consciousness or expand it.]

Our descendants will need the intellectual artifacts to avoid this -- artifacts we have barely started to develop even as the Great Bad Example begins to fall. In 200 years, when they are brushing seeds into baskets with their fingers, and a stranger appears with a new threshing machine that will do the same thing with less time and effort, they will need to say something smarter than "the Gods forbid it" or "that is not our Way." They will need the knowledge to say something like:

[I don't want to be like Carlos Castaneda, presenting metaphor and fiction as serious scholarship. The below paragraph is one of the better things I've written, but it's metaphor and fiction, and I have to ruin it. People with the scientific understanding, the broad perspective, and the military power to resist an ecologically destructive neighboring society, will themselves be at a relatively high level of social and technological complexity.]

"Your machine requires the seed to be planted alone and not interspersed with perennials that maintain nitrogen and mineral balance in the soil. And from where will the metal come, and how many trees must be cut down and burned to melt and shape it? And since we cannot build the machine, shall we be dependent on the machine-builders, and give them a portion of our food, which we now keep all for ourselves? Do you not know, clever stranger, that when any biomass is removed from the land, and not recycled back into it, the soil is weakened? And what could we do with our "saved" time, that would be more valuable and pleasurable than gathering the seed by hand, touching and knowing every stalk and every inch of the land that feeds us? Shall we become allies of cold metal that cuts without feeling, turning our hands and eyes to the study of machines and numbers until, severed from the Earth, we nearly destroy it as our ancestors did, making depleted uranium and polychlorinated biphenyls and cadmium batteries that even now make the old cities unfit for living? Go back to your people, and tell them, if they come to conquer us with their machines, we will fight them in ways the Arawaks and Seminoles and Lakota and Hopi and Nez Perce never imagined, because we understand your world better than you do yourself. Tell your people to come to learn."