Unless you’re 85 years old, a partial or complete collapse within your lifetime is a good possibility. Even if we somehow dodge this outcome, we must still move to a sustainable way-of-living very soon; oil and natural gas are running out, fisheries are collapsing, climate change is happening, and so on. What to do? The possibilities include total self-sufficiency for the individual, joining a lifeboat community, or positioning yourself as best you can within an existing community.
Becoming Jeremiah Johnson or Grizzly Adams is still exceptionally difficult, not very practical, and inhuman in that it ignores the fact that all humans, including you, are social beings.
First, you would need your own shack in the woods or small farm. Next, it would have to be somewhere nobody knew about or was likely to find, because there’s no way you can defend your property and goods indefinitely. And finally, you would need mad survivalist skillz, everything from growing/catching/preparing/preserving your own food, to cabin-building, to medical knowledge, to making your own cloth and clothes, etc, etc.
Yes, you could do it, but do you want to? And you must accept that the risks are very high; if your seeds for next years’ crop get mouldy, for example, then what? Or if marauders, human or animal, decimate your crops? A simple infection or broken leg could be the end of you. And what of human contact, companionship, love?
The Lifeboat Community
This is an appealing idea; form a community of like-minded people with complementary skills and ride out the collapse with some measure of comfort maintained.
John Michael Greer suggests that most such communities are unlikely to survive. Some will be swamped by desperate, unwanted, and forceful newcomers, but the main reason is that Greer sees collapse as a decline punctuated by periods of partial recovery. Everyone is willing to endure the hardships that lifeboat living entails when times are tough, but as soon as it looks like a recovery is underway, people will opt to return to more comfortable ways of living.
Find Your Community
The third possibility is to prepare as best one can within an existing community. A collapse does not mean that the world ends, but Wal-Mart might no longer be open for business and you wouldn’t be able to drive there even if it was. However, there will still be cities and towns and farms. Which of these is best for you, and what should you do within each?
First, large cities are best abandoned. This applies especially to insanities like Phoenix, Arizona (where I once lived), with a metropolitan population of over 4 million people and not a single sustainable farm in sight. Everything has to be shipped in, including drinking water via canal. If you live there, get out now. Most large cities are going to be in large trouble because so much must be shipped in or out, including food, water, energy, and waste.
Towns are a far safer bet, especially those established way back when, as they were likely largely self-reliant for necessities at one time and could be so again. Not nearly as much food is needed and it doesn’t have nearly as far to travel to get to you – or you to it. They also tend to be safer because people know each other, are easier to govern, and you can get around without a car.
Farms are a personal choice; if you like the farming life, go for it. Just keep in mind that there may not be fuel for tractors and pickup trucks, the lack of which makes farming much more work and more isolated. Back in the day, farmers used to come to market once a week or so, by horse. It was a trek; they couldn’t just hop in the truck and zip out to rent a movie or pick up Tampax. As this collapse is likely to be caused by peak oil, meaning oil price spikes and shortages, today’s farmers may be in the same position as yesteryears’.
Wherever you live, you need to be prepared. Remember California’s rolling blackouts? That sort of occurrence is very common post-collapse. In the worst case, power will be off more than on, or even give out completely. I currently live in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, and much of our electricity comes from hydroelectric dams – on the mainland. It arrives via undersea cables. While the dams may continue to operate for years even after an economic breakdown, that long supply line may mean problems for Victoria.
The point here is that many things we currently take for granted, like flipping a switch and a light goes on, or doing laundry whenever we feel like it, deserve some thought. You can install a personal windmill or some other means of generating electricity, and I would encourage everyone to do so, but it’s unlikely to generate enough to run an electric dryer or stove, or possibly even the furnace fan – which burns natural gas that is either no longer available or prohibitively expensive.
To prepare adequately, think necessities first: food, shelter, clothing, knowledge, trade.
If you are in a town that was once self-reliant, the odds are good that farmers will grow food and somehow get it into town. This may not be reliable, and it may be expensive – and cash may not an accepted medium of trade. (I wrote a previous article that alluded frequently to trading the use of one’s body for goods, or prostitution, as something that happens during difficult economic times. I was half-joking and some people didn’t get it, but the fact is that in an economic collapse, cash is not much use. This has happened time-and-again during collapses from pre-WWII Germany to the post-Soviet Union Russia to innumerable developing countries.)
Russian families managed to grow a great deal of their own food in private gardens, as did Americans and the British in Victory Gardens; you should prepare to do the same. As John Michael Greer points out in The Long Descent, you don’t have to grow all your own food right now. What you should be doing is getting over the steepest part of the learning curve now. Start a garden on your own land or in a community garden or wherever and grow an organic garden. It takes some skill to grow food, and then to preserve it so you don’t give yourself botulism, and to save seeds for next year, and so on. Start small now and master the essentials.
Ideally, you want a house that gets most of its heat from passive solar. You can get great strides in this direction by attaching a solar greenhouse to an existing house; even older, leaky houses can get a lot of heat this way. Insulate and weatherstrip to keep that precious heat.
If you can make your own, you’re in good shape. Likely you can recycle existing clothing until someone figures out how to make cloth again, as cheap imports from China will not be available.
Buy books now that will be useful post-collapse. The best gardening, craft, and other books may well disappear rapidly from bookstores and libraries when times start to get tough. My personal policy is to borrow books that are useful now from the library (see the books listed in the previous article), and to buy books that will be useful if the Internet or the electricity become less reliable.
I left this to the end, but you need to think seriously how you will make yourself useful following a collapse. Web designers, retail clerks, insurance salesmen, marketing executives, and all manner of other jobs will cease to be of value. Farmers, obviously, will always have something to trade. What value will you add?
Certain skilled trades will be valuable; if you can make or repair furniture, for example. Or if you know how to build a solar greenhouse, or raise draught horses, or use herbal medicines…these sorts of things will continue to be of value as long as any sort of community exists.
If you don’t have any useful skills, you’ll either be dead or a peasant. Post-collapse, most of us will be either peasants or tradespeople. Most of the professions will be useless, even lawyers and investment bankers. Executives may be worse than useless as they attempt to cling to positions of power and prestige; they will want to remain on top of the heap while others do the real work, but this is unlikely to work out once everyone realises managers add no value.