This series of blog posts offers a preview to a book which is yet to be written. Since it is turning out to be a rather long series, it seems fair to recap, to give you an idea of where we have been and where we are going. We started with a discussion of how the contemporary living arrangement, in the US specifically, but also in various other so-called “developed nations,” has become entirely untenable, because it forces us to rely on a suite of technologies that is unsustainable and catastrophic for the environment. These technologies are forced upon us by a set of political technologies that rob us of our power and will to pick and choose what technologies we use. We have also reviewed another set of political technologies—ones that are used to destroy nations around the world should they prove unwilling to go along with the deranged master plan.
We haven’t yet discussed what political technologies can be used – and are used with an increasing degree of success – to bring this forced death march to a halt. But that’s coming. Instead we took a grand detour, to look at what the best-case scenario looks like if it is, in fact, brought to a halt, if the political technologies that are being used to destroy both society and the biosphere are swept away. And it turns out that the best-case scenario is still pretty bad, because of all the unwelcome developments that are already baked into the cake, such as:
- Ocean levels rising by at least 30m, putting the coastal cities in which two-thirds of the population lives either partially or fully underwater.
- Average temperatures rising by around 17°C, resulting in heat waves in which electric grids, and the air conditioners they power, fail, and major metropolitan areas are depopulated by heat stroke.
- Disappearance of mountain glaciers which feed river systems on which major agricultural areas depend for irrigation, resulting in depopulation due to mass starvation in many countries.
- The oceans becoming too radioactive to fish because of numerous nuclear installations along coasts suffering meltdowns after being inundated with salt water.
The only places left on earth that are likely to remain survivable will be in the boreal forests that fringe the Arctic Circle, particularly along the large north-flowing rivers – Lena, Ob’ and Yenisey in Eurasia. I previously thought that the McKenzie River in North America might offer a similar refuge, but I have since learned that it has been poisoned by the exploitation of the Athabascan tar sands. (The environmental damage is similar to what’s been done to the “fracked” areas within the US; there, the many thousands of “fracked” oil and gas wells that no longer produce and have been superficially “capped” will nevertheless leak toxic and radioactive chemicals into the environment for hundreds of years.) Thus, it seems that the most promising place for humanity to try to make its stand is Siberia.
The scenario presented Part VI outlined how a group of people could survive the winter after landing there, as many people have over hundreds of years now, producing some of the hardiest people on the planet. But there is still plenty of room there for more: there is no shortage of free land, and with the naturelike technology suite we outlined quite a few more incredibly hardy people could live on it sustainably for many generations, gradually migrating closer to the Arctic Circle as the climate warms, practicing an independent, self-reliant lifestyle, as close to nature as it gets, teaching their kids all they need to know with the help of a stack of government-distributed textbooks plus a floating lending library that comes around once a year around summer solstice.
But judging from the readers’ comments so far, there aren’t all that many takers for this exciting new lifestyle. One major problem is age: to make a go of such a transition, you have to start young, while a lot of the readers of this blog are of an age when one stops rushing around and becomes thoughtful. Another is a matter of physical habits: if you grew up assisted by all manner of gadgets, leaving physical labor to the nice friendly Mexicans who hang out near Home Depot, then you might have a problem transitioning to a lifestyle where your best friend is your axe, used for everything from chopping trees to shaving to cleaning fish, to making spare handles for said axe, to swinging at the wolves with while taking a crap in the woods.
And if you have spent most of your life sitting in an office chair, in an office, with the thermostat set somewhere between 21 and 23°C, then you may not possess the layers of vascularized brown fat and the powerful cardiovascular and digestive systems to perform manual labor in -40°C, powered by hot tea and all the animal fat you can get your hands on. Nor would you possess the powerful sweat glands, the quick-tanning skin and the almost complete indifference to biting insects to perform even more manual labor during the short but hot summers. If you find body odor offensive and like air fresheners and potpourri bowls, then it’s hard to imagine you being happy scraping out and dressing a rancid bear skin, naked (because you value your only set of clothes) and smothered head to toe in bear fat to keep warm. Lastly, if you are a gluten-free lactose-intolerant vegan who thinks that fur is a crime, then it may be hard to imagine you being content with cabbage, turnips and rye bread as staples and potatoes as a treat, supplemented by whatever animal you manage to catch or trap.
But I am not concerned about lack of potential cadres for this experiment. For every 10,000 or so people, I figure there must be a couple who would make it, and that’s more than enough. They may be hard to spot at the moment, because selection pressures within contemporary society are based on requirements for success within that society, not for failure of that society and success without it. And so a kid who disappears into the woods in search of something to kill instead of doing his homework is currently considered a problem child, whereas he is actually a solution child—one who will bring in what's for dinner while his “successful” peers whine pathetically over the dead batteries in their highly educational electronic playthings and quiver from withdrawal symptoms due to lack of the refrigerated sugary beverage to which they are addicted. The problem child might even have some superpowers—like being able to see fish through murky water. To be fair, the successful, well-adjusted children have some superpowers too—like remembering exactly what you promised to buy them and when you promised it.
What’s much more concerning is that the candidates will lack any knowledge of the naturelike technologies they will need to survive. There is a huge number of skills involved even in the seemingly simple task of constructing a log cabin. To start with, you need to know how to pick a site that has good enough drainage but is also sheltered, that is shielded from to the prevailing winds in the winter but open to the prevailing winds in the summer, that gets winter sun but is shaded from summer sun, and that isn’t likely to get buried in a snowdrift.
Then you need to know what kinds of trees to harvest, and when to do it (on a full moon, before the sap is up). The logs have to be cut to certain lengths and sit a certain amount of time before they can be used. Bark has to be removed, without using industrial methods such as steaming, but there are other tricks. Then the logs have to be joined, without using any metal fasteners. The quality of the joints has to be such that all water drains out, not in, or the structure will rot. The roof has to be built strong but light, and thatched, and thatching is yet another skill set to be acquired in a hurry. What if you can’t find enough straight, round sticks to use as rafters? There is no milled lumber within a few thousand of miles of you, and you have no time to make your own. And so you produce the lumber you need by starting with a straight-grained log and breaking it up by “chinking.” Never tried chinking a log? Well, learn quick, because winter is coming!
And then there is the stove, which you will need to keep the cabin warm, to cook food, to wash inside of and to sleep on top of. In that climate, the best stoves feature an arched combustion chamber in the back of the flue, with solid fill over the arch and a bed for the whole family over the fill. The arch and the base of the flue have to be built of fire-resistant bricks that resist spalling, so brickmaking must also be part of the curriculum. It is a massive masonry structure, and its thermal mass makes it possible to fire it just twice a day—in the morning and in the evening—to keep the bed at a constant temperature of 25°C even when it’s -40°C outside. The stove needs to have a niche for the all-important samovar, with a flue opening to keep the smoke from the samovar out of the cabin. You will need plenty of hot water to make tea—herb tea, using the herbs you didn’t forget to plant, pick and dry during summer, which will provide you with all the vitamins you’ll need to avoid scurvy and other types of avitaminosis.
The list of naturelike technologies goes on and on, too long to list. And somehow people need to arrive on the land knowing all of this—or their chances of making it dwindle. Yes, it’s possible to impart this knowledge through books, although what one needs to succeed is not a paper book but a talking one, who can also directly show how it’s done. But if someone goes off into the forest and practices for a year or two in a benign environment—equipped with lots of extra, unnaturelike technology, such as a satellite phone with which to call in a helicopter rescue if it comes to that, then that someone stands a good chance of becoming a good talking book. And so there may be a use for older people after all!
This is what it will probably take to survive the future we’ve guaranteed ourselves on any one patch of land. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention an alternative: while there will be a dearth of places that will be survivable year-round, it is likely that many more opportunities will exist where lifestyles that are either nomadic (wandering from place to place) or migratory (with semipermanent seasonal camps) will still be possible. These lifestyles come with their own naturelike technology suites—which are much more challenging than the ones required for a settled lifestyle, simply because a mobile, portable technology is more demanding than a fixed installation.
Doing away with the a fixed abode confers numerous advantages: you become free to move and to flee danger; you are prevented, by your circumstances, by wasting your energies on accumulating possessions beyond those you absolutely need and use all the time; you get a chance to construct your own shelter to suit the situation. These are all practical considerations, but there is more to being nomadic than being practical. Nomadism, you see, is not just a good adaptation for uncertain times. It is also godly and sublime.
Most people, when they hear the biblical phrase “the house of the Lord,” imagine a cathedral or a temple. Their fixed notion of a house is a large, permanent, immobile structure. What a surprise it is, then, to learn that the house of the Lord was, to begin with, most definitely a tent: Ancient Hebrew “beth” or Arabic “beyt” are both words that signify “tent.” The tension between the settled and the nomadic is present throughout the Bible. It is the tension between slavery and freedom, and the biblical account makes it clear that God, or Yahweh—originally a nomad god, the Bedouin god of flocks and herds—always sides with the nomads.
Let's look back at one of the world's great founding myths, the story of Abraham, who gave his name to the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, whose adherents account for more than half of the population of the Earth. In the story, Abraham and Lot, his nephew, leave the city and, with their herds, travel to Canaan and live there as nomads at the edge of the desert. But they quarrel, and Lot departs for Sodom and Gomorrah. Yahweh punishes him for his choice, destroying the cities, and turning his wife into a pillar of salt just for looking at the destruction, while Abraham stays pure and on the move, and his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, live on to create the two great nomad tribes, the Arabs and the Jews.
Although nomadism is the ideal, the tension between the nomadic and the settled is ever-present. Droughts, famines, and political oppression often force nomads to take refuge among the settled. If they stay long enough, they may lose their nomad ways and become stranded. Even Abraham was driven by famine to leave Canaan and take refuge in Egypt for a time, but was quick to escape as soon as conditions improved. Later, another famine forced his descendants back into Egypt and a life of servitude, but here their sojourn lasted long enough for them to lose their nomadic skills, condemning them to slavery. But they managed to produce a visionary—Moses—who married a Bedouin woman. This woman turned out to be the key cultural transplant that allowed the Jews to escape into the wilderness and regain their freedom.
Nomadism is culturally and technologically advanced, involving such elements as portable shelter, a relationship with animals that borders on symbiosis, ability to self-organize in groups large and small, to survive in a harsh and nearly barren terrain and to control and defend a large and ever-changing territory. In all nomadic cultures more than half of this cultural and technological DNA is the explicit domain of women, for it is the women who create and maintain the tent. Men practice animal husbandry, make tools, hunt, fish, fight, make tent poles, but it is the women who spin, weave and stitch. The tent is typically part of the dowry and remains the possession of the woman, hers to keep in case of divorce.
Walk into the tent of any nomad, and you will find the same separation of concerns reflected in the interior layout. To the left of the entrance is the women's side. Here, stacked along the walls you will find everything needed for preparing food, for working with leather and fabric, and for taking care of children. To the right is the men's side. Here, stacked along the walls you will find tools, weapons, saddles and harnesses. In the middle is the hearth; to the back of the hearth is the sacred place, with an altar. Before the altar is the seat of honor. In case of the Arabs, the separation is enforced using a curtain, called the qata, while in the tipi of a North American Indian the separation is implicit, but it is always there—a nomadic cultural universal. This is an evolved trait that makes perfect sense: the life of the nomad is so complex and requires such competence that a separation of concerns between men and women is essential to survival. A lone male can lead a nomadic existence, but for nomadism to exist as a civilization requires a woman-nomad, with woman-nomad knowhow.
Women tend to be more conservative than men (politics aside) in that they tend to pass on their skills to their daughters more or less unchanged. Thus we find, in nomadic architecture, incredible stability of forms. The black tent described in the Bible, under which the Israelites camped in the Canaan, are to be found along a desert belt stretching from Casablanca on the Atlantic coast of Africa all the way to Tibet (where they use belly hair of the yak for the fabric). It is a rectangular piece of goat-hair fabric, stitched together out of wide woven strips and erected using a few poles and stretched using long lines secured to pegs. It keeps the interior cool by blocking sunlight and creating an updraft and pulling air up through its loose weave, but when it rains the goat hair fibers swell up and create a waterproof surface that sheds water.
North of the black tent belt lies the yurt belt. Yurts use a freestanding frame that consists of a barrel-shaped latticework at the base, a tension band at the top of the latticework, a crown, sometimes supported by center poles, and poles which are mortised into the crown and hooked onto the tops of the latticework. Over this frame is pulled a covering of felt, its thickness in proportion to the coldness of the climate. A fair percentage of the population of Mongolia lives in yurts to this day, and yurt-dwelling Mongols once made it as far west as the gates of Vienna. Buckminster Fullers dymaxion house was essentially a yurt—fabricated out of aluminum, which is an unfortunate choice of material, since aluminum doesn't grow on trees or on sheep.
North of the yurt zone and throughout the circumpolar region we find two basic shapes: the cone tent and the dome tent, covered either with skins and hides or with steamed birch bark. Inside, we often find the same layout: hearth in the middle, women to the left, men to the right, altar in the back. The Koryak-Chukchi yaranga is particularly notable. These tribes, which inhabit the very farthest north of Siberia, use a tent within a tent, called polog, to keep warm in spite of temperatures that are often colder than -40 below. The inevitable condensation is dealt with by taking the polog out during the day, allowing the condensation to freeze solid and beating it out with a stick.
Nomadism is an innovation, requiring a great deal of advanced technology and knowhow. It is relatively recent, and in many places its advent coincided with the domestication of various animals. It is the symbiosis with these animals that gave the nomads their speed, range, and ability to sustain themselves in places where a stationary population would quickly perish of hunger and thirst. The desert, black tent nomads rely on the camel and, in the case of Tibet, the yak; the yurt nomads of the plains rely on the horse; the circumpolar tribes rely on the reindeer in Eurasia and its undomesticated cousin the caribou in North America. Prior to the advent of nomadism most of the places where nomads could survive remained uninhabited.
Of course, there are places in the world where not even a nomadic tribe can survive, but, when they see circumstances change, at least they have the option of moving. A settled population relies on a stable climate to be able to bring in crops from the same patch of land season after season. Over the past 11,000 years this was possible in many more places on Earth because during this period of time the climate was particularly stable and benign, but it appears that this period is now over, and the Earth has entered a period of climate upheaval, in which the regular patterns of nature on which agriculture relies can no longer be taken for granted.
Although the cultural preference in many parts of the world has been to disrespect the nomad, it is likely to turn out, for more and more people, that their choice lies between turning nomadic (if they can) or perishing in place. And it bears repeating that being nomadic requires a much higher-level of set technologies than just staying in one place—one that can't be learned in a single generation, and perhaps not even in a single lifetime.