Monday, September 15, 2008

Survival of the Nicest?

Periodically I find myself bombarded with a certain type of query: What is the timing of the collapse? How far along are we? Is it 5 years away, 50, or 500? And no matter how many disclaimers I issue, the queries keep coming.

If you listen to extremist yahoos like Alan Greenspan, we appear to be in the midst of a financial collapse. As it runs its course, the strange idea that endless economic growth on a finite planet is possible, or even desirable, will mercifully fall by the wayside, to be replaced by the much nastier mindset that economics is a zero-sum game: if you are to win, somebody else has to lose. No amount of greenwash or pining after sustainability is likely to stem the tide of nasty people who are determined to make it at your expense.

And so collapse, for you, is likely to turn out to be a deeply personal experience. Furthermore, if you manage to survive it, chances are, you will be none to eager to divulge the details of how you made it, for they will not be edifying. The process of survival is only enjoyable if it is experienced vicariously -- at someone else's expense.

I recently picked up a book about castaways, and was amazed to discover that the introduction to the book spells out this very idea succinctly and in good prose, perhaps better than I could, so I will reproduce a piece of it here:

After a century of enjoying the roller coaster ride of the Industrial Revolution, we face the bleak prospect of it all ending so suddenly that there's no time to don a life jacket, grab a parachute, or find a pack of matches. The fact that most humans are hopelessly unprepared for the ultimate crisis was driven home for me several years ago when a survey of boating accidents on Chesapeake Bay produced a curious detail: most of the male corpses fished out of the bay over the years had their flies open. The inescapable conclusion reached by the authorities was that all these people met their end while blithely peeing over the side. Their last thought, I'm sure, was astonishment. The next most common emotion (for those who do not die immediately) is a deep, sometimes suicidal melancholy, eventually pushed aside by hunger, panic, and -- in many cases -- temporary insanity...

One fascinating aspect... is the dawning awareness that when survivors get back to civilization, they carefully hide much more than they reveal. For the brutal truth, we have to look for clues between the lines. Some of these stories right more true than others, and it is entertaining to see the lengths to which the scoundrels go to paint themselves in noble hues. One comes away with the nagging suspicion that nice people usually do not survive being stranded, and when they do, it is often through freak accident or divine intervention. The real survivors in this world are few and far between. And if they are the fittest to survive, God help us, indeed...

How many of us, unexpectedly tumbled onto an alien shore, would silently give up the ghost rather than face the reality of drinking iguana urine, chewing up grubs, or gagging down raw turtle liver? Lord Byron's grandfather, shipwrecked in the Straits of Magellan, saw his dog killed and eaten by his shipmates... then became so starved himself that he dug up and devoured the dog's paws. We are all far too removed -- even from the rural farms oof our immediate ancestors and the prosaic hardships they faced -- to know what is really put in sausage meat or scrapple, or how to wring a bird's neck. Our soldiers have to be given months of training in jungle survival to prepare them for only a few days of commando operations in rain forests where barefoot people happily raise babies. It is all in your point of view.

Certainly it helps to be marooned with somebody else, for you can commiserate, quarrel, an feud like newlyweds, and when things really get difficult, you can always eat him, or vice versa... When the going gets tough, the tough get eaten. Cannibalism like so many other customs, is merely a state of mind. Over the centuries famine repeatedly drove Europeans and Asians alike to eat everything, including each other. The culinary genius of the French and the Chinese, working with nothing more than a few spices and a bit of garic, turned famine food into such delicacies as snails, sea slugs, and stewed bats, garnished with larvae, pupae, and spawn -- all, like escargot, under more elegant names. And while doughboys in the trenches of World War I were driven insane by body lice and other vermin, political prisoners, POWs, and castaways savor them in their gruel as if they were herbs from Provence. One culture's famine food is another's caviar.

In the case of survival cannibalism, society seasons its judgments with something akin to garlic by conveniently applying certain criteria: Was the main course already dead of natural causes? If not, was a lottery properly conducted before the murder, and are the culprits suitably pious, making analogies to Holy Communion? In this way, the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes could make a group decision to eat some of their number, and walk away heroes. It is only a short distance from the Andes to Soylent Green.

But what is customary is comforting. Cannibalism is a social affair. Solitary survival is not. Solo survivors are a breed apart. Confronted by extreme solitude, by starvation, an by no prospect of rescue, they do not sit around long pining in self-pity but set about urgent practical matters. In some cases this reveals strength of character, tenacity, and the will to live. In others it reveals only animal cunning and stubbornness. Sensitivity and imagination are terrible disadvantages in the crunch. Unusual among these tales because of its painful and pathetic revelations is the diary of a nameless castaway on Ascension Island. Unlike other classical accounts, in which the survivor returns to civilization to enlarge endlessly on his own ingenuity, this victim was much too sensitive for his own good. He kept a diary frankly revealing his misery, his mistakes, his melancholy, his weakness of character, and his hallucinations. The diary is singularly lacking in excuses. Perhaps because he was overly absorbed in his own failings and inadequacies, his struggle failed, and he diary was found beside his bones.

Excerpted from Sterling Seagrave's Foreword to Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls: True Stories of Castaways and Other Survivors by Edward E. Leslie


Chris R. said...


There's no question that a crash will unleash human behavioral characteristics that haven't been seen for quite a while. Nasty, brutish, and short will again define our lives. But as Rob Hopkins noted a week or two ago, civility, may be an important "skill" to hold based on circumstances. Strategically, the ability to use civil behavior to ingratiate yourself in a new group or to calm a rage will be very useful. Of course there will likely be groups formed that will not appreciate the nuance of civility...I would try to avoid them if possible.

Great post...

Chris (

Odysseus Noman said...


I thought you might be wanting to talk about Lehman collapsing.

Instead I am imagining investment bankers eating each other (BOA executives dining on Merryl Lynch staff perhaps?)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. However, can not a strong argument be made that often it is indeed human nature to band together via cooperation if not amicability during rough times? As a species this tends to make sense. Those who do not mix well with others tend to be moved to the outside of society while those who work well struggle together to try and overcome hardships. Shackleton's expedition as an example comes to mind as does many civilian responses to the brutalities of war. I am not discounting the necessity of getting right down to the very basics of what it takes to survive by any means - rather, I feel that individuals tend to survive better when in small groups than as individuals. And in order to band into small groups it usually involves some small measure of 'niceness.'


Jon said...

Maybe eventually the survivors will remember cooperation, the rule of law, civility and all of those made up things we take for granted, but for those who first experience the Scarlet O’Hara under the Magnolia tree moment, the results might be different. As far as civilized groups go, I am reminded of the scene in Doctor Zhivago where the peasants decide to ‘share the wealth’ and move into his obviously underused house. Nice peasants… Put down that sickle, will you…?

Eventually people will reestablish a balance, but not before the current imbalance is corrected. As they say, we are descended from the last catastrophe’s survivors.


Dmitry Orlov said...

Jon -

There's a good Russian term for "people moving in to share your space whether you like it or not": "uplotnenie." Literally, "densification." Think of it as gentrification run in reverse. It happened a lot in post-revolutionary days, and when the densification was involuntary, the person being densified may not have fared so well.

As far as generally being nice and behaving in a well-bred manner, think of the mariners of old, who rarely knew how to swim, and, should any of them fall overboard, were expected to "drown like gentlemen." How many of us are prepared to do the same? Or will we be desperately clawing at the gunwales of already full lifeboats, forcing their passengers to do the unpleasant job of using the oars on our knuckles?

Anonymous said...

Does it count as canibalism if you shoot some murauding shmuck and feed him to the livestock?
I have a friend who was an Army Ranger in 1992 and had to watch starving Somalies sort out who got bags of rice. He says we're all 10 missed meals from total animal barbarism. I concur.
He later got in a big shoot out with them, there was a movie....
Propritor of

Anonymous said...

Troublesome and dark post.

And the roots are here.
Somehow I fail to see the humanity, the civility, the kindness, and the compassion in our society. Look around, overfed and undereducated, greedy and lazy,
stupidly waiting for some "superhero" to save them.

A few will "drown like gentlemen"; the vast majority will fight over whatever is left.

I am glad I'm too old to see it

Anonymous said...


Have you no respect for the dead? Feeding them to your meat-eating livestock, indeed! Now, if the poor schmuck were to say: "Eat of me, this is my body..." and then expire of natural causes, then that would make all the difference, right?

Anonymous said...

Survival of the nicest? Of course! Whoever is willing when necessary to be a charming social chameleon and a ruthless killer depending on the situation should do fine in any collapsed society.

Would eating maggots off a decaying corpse count as cannibalism?

Jon said...

Dmitri, I expect some day to see a lot of MacMansions filled with MacPeasants. Of course it will start out with extended families. A friend of mine recently had to let her daughter's family move into a floor in their house so they wouldn't lose a hundred year old piece of family property.
The next step will no doubt be taking on boarders, with or without meals. Maybe the best peak urbanite strategy is to put in an extra kitchen.


Anonymous said...

I just noticed this morning a new *densification* in our neighborhood.

My mom told us stories of quite the opposite as well. Food was so sparse that kids were outsourced all summer to work just for their keep to whoever was willing and more or less able to take them in. For my mom, the total lack of communication with any family member during these long summer months seemed the hardest to endure.

I will not mention my dad's stories.

Still hoping things will not get that bad.

Anonymous said...

Well I guess collapse could put new meaning to the phrase.'living off the fat of the land'.

So three cheers for the big mac, aka Solyent Green feed.


Seriously though I think most will starve to death eating grass before murdering to eat. Maybe someone drops dead and you eat his leg, but out and out premeditated leg eating, no I don't think so. And I am 50% Russian so don't stick at much. I would watch out for Orlov though!!

Anonymous said...

Mike Ruppert thinks the economic collapse related to Peak Oil is now well under way, and issues these words of hope:


Today I saw some thing I never thought possible. I saw a Rothschild endorse a fundamentally Rockefeller candidate - John McCain. DNC Platform Committee Member Lynn Forester de Rothschild quit her post to endorse McCain as she also ended her longstanding role as a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. The Clintons also have strong Rockefeller "lineage" so I'm guessing that Hillary understands the move perfectly with a wink and a nod.

I'll give you the punch line now, without making you read further.

If Rothschilds and Rockefellers are taking the same side it is because the entire economic paradigm is threatened. There is good reason to believe it. The Dow has lost almost 10% in just two days. The bailouts are lining up at the door before the Fed goes bankrupt; before our government goes bankrupt. Lehman was ten times bigger than Enron. AIG was much bigger than Lehman. Still to come are Washington Mutual, Goldman, J.P. Morgan, the automakers and the airlines, to name a few. Not all are going to be saved.

There is only one run on the bank taking place. This time it's the Federal Reserve and we know who will get screwed. The Fed and our Treasury are being looted at the one moment in time when we most need them to be full.

All of this has everything to do with Peak Oil.


Now is the time when we can break the back of infinite growth and stumble our way to a steady-state economy that we can use to help prepare for Peak Oil. We can do this before the moment in time comes when (as I wrote in "Global Corp") the last CFO of the last corporation, after the last merger, says to himself, 'Hooray we did it!" - as he turns out the last light on all of us.

Today a Rothschild sided with a Rockefeller... They are scared. And John McCain will loot the Fed faster than Barack Obama will. The old paradigm is trying to cash out with our money. Neither candidate will do a damn thing for us. We must do it for ourselves.

Anonymous said...

I always wonder about people who survived concentration and prisoner-of-war camps. What did they have to do to survive? What would I do?

painfulsyntax said...

Have to disagree Mike Rupert (?), the current economic disruption is the reality of a ponzi-scheme rearing its ugly head.

Act II shall be economic decline caused by scarcity of petroleum. Enjoy intermission.

Anonymous said...

I'm an American. I've had the misfortune to experience human behavior during desperate times. Anyone with the slightest advantage in wealth will use it against you. You will be psychologically and physically abused. If it is in someone else's best interest in any degree or manner at all, they will smugly throw you to the wolves. I have not lost my generous nature or civility, but I view other people with newfound eyes. Sad to say. only trust yourself. We are animals at last. Of course, everything I just wrote also applies to general behavior in America, during "normal" times. The person who will rudely cut you off on the roadway(as they're giving you the finger) is the same person who'll kill you for a meal. At least that is what one assumes. Also the person who is civil,meek,weak and generally 'nice' will kill you too, if given the chance. What a world.