Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Communities that Abide—Part II

Byigor Morski
This series of articles is dedicated to the idea that there is much that can be learned from the practices of communities that manage to persist over the long term with their cultures or subcultures remaining largely intact. Such communities can provide everything their members need—housing, nutrition, education, medicine, entertainment, companionship, social security and, perhaps most important of all, a sense of belonging. While their specific practices may be alien to us, their commonalities should not be.
Someone's refusal to consider them simply because they do not accord with maintaining a middle-class lifestyle simply signals someone's refusal to consider doing whatever might be necessary to survive the extinction of that lifestyle—something we might call “voluntary extinction.” This, mind you, is not altogether unhelpful; those who are waiting to drown should be thanked for all the lifeboat seats they free up while they wait. But for those wish to fight extinction tooth and nail, all options should be on the table, even the unpalatable ones.

The challenges we should face up to form a daunting list. First and perhaps most immediately dangerous is the collapse of the highly integrated, globalized forms of finance, commerce and governance that have evolved during the growth phase of industrial economies (and are becoming increasingly maladaptive in the course of its current stagnation phase). First comes the spiral of increasing austerity that starts when gradual resource depletion causes prices of many key industrial inputs, from crude oil to phosphate rock, to creep above a certain threshold: the price the population can continue paying for them. Next come the increasingly frequent shocks triggered by rapidly accelerating climate change: submerged coastlines, summertime temperatures that make many cities non-survivable once air conditioning is gone, killer hurricanes that wipe out coastal infrastructure (right around where most people live) and so on. Then, as the nation-state enters its agony, it turns predatory, and groups that lack an effective form of self-governance run a much higher risk of becoming savaged by it. Then we have to consider what happens when agriculture fails, forcing the survivors to abandon settled lifestyles and revert to nomadism. (Agriculture only appeared during the recently ended period of unusual climatic stability, and even during this period crop failures resulting in periods of starvation have not been uncommon.) The world as a whole now has a very thin reserve of staple cereals, and it will not take too many failed harvests to tip it into starvation. Looking a few decades ahead, there may not be too many rice-eaters or corn-eaters left around. Lastly, consider the fact that rising sea levels will inundate and destroy coastal nuclear installations around the world à la Fukushima Daiichi, flooding the world with carcinogenic radioactive isotopes. Industrial installations and toxic waste dumps will suffer a similar fate, releasing their load of long-lived chemical toxins. Plus, all the plastics produced since mid-20th century will decay—from polymers into very durable, minute monomers—a sort of toxic plastic goo that will pervade the environment for centuries, playing havoc with most living things. The combination will render much of the planet uninhabitable for geologic periods of time. (“Voluntary extinction” may be starting to sound pretty good right around now!)

“Mistakes were made”—largely over the course of the 20th century (which will probably be known as the most shameful 100 years in the history of the planet—unless we manage to make even worse mistakes during the 21st, that is). It was the century during which a species that prided itself on being sentient destroyed its environment, this in spite of having produced a handful of individuals, out of the billions, with enough intelligence and willpower to avoid doing so. The biggest mistakes are: the proliferation nuclear technology and the stockpiling of nuclear waste; fossil fuel extraction and burning; and inundating the world with the persistently toxic fruits of synthetic chemistry. The predicament of living with the legacy of these mistakes seems likely to, in the fullness of time, reduce the human population, if any should survive, to small, roving, semi-feral bands.

But let's not go there just yet! Let's take our inexorable march to perdition in many easy stages, descending this spiral staircase to hell one step at a time rather than taking a sudden headlong plunge to oblivion. That way we will at least be able to bear full witness to the terrible fruits of our folly. Let us make the best of what we still have, setting our sights neither too high nor too low, neither struggling in vain to sustain the unsustainable, nor giving up prematurely on that which still works.

Next week I promise to get into the meat of it: how all the winners in this game of survival are likely to turn out. Their commonalities make it likely that they will be:

  • autonomous, refusing to coalesce into larger groups;
  • separatist, shunning the outsiders (and those of their own number who misbehave), and interacting with the outside world as a group rather than as individuals;
  • anarchic in their patterns of self-governance—neither patriarchal nor matriarchal—with certain individuals granted positions of responsibility, but not positions of authority;
  • having an oral rather than a written code of conduct
  • communist in their patterns of production and consumption, with little use for money or markets;
  • based on a strong central ideology (or faith) which they refuse to analyze, question or debate
  • having lots of children, bringing them up as their replacements, and retiring as young as possible;
  • refusing to “work jobs,” and doing little work beyond what they consider necessary;
  • consciously rejecting much of the culture and quite a lot of the technology of surrounding society;
  • speaking their own languages or dialects, which they jealously preserve and safeguard against outside influences;
  • adhering to a certain protocol for interacting with outsiders, perhaps hiding in plain sight, perhaps through a certain “in your face” disguise that hides who they are behind a more conventional image;
  • pacifist rather than warlike, refusing to carry weapons or take part in military actions of any sort, and fleeing from danger rather than confronting it;
  • nomadic rather than settled, with minimal attachment to any one piece of land beyond its immediate usefulness to them, and willing to relocate as a group in times of danger, hardship or persecution;
  • quite happy and generally content with their lot in life, being resigned to accepting whatever life gives, and relatively unafraid of death, neither fighting it nor seeking it.


AA said...

Seems to me you're taking the gypsies as your model community, Dmitry.

beetleswamp said...

You have me really interested with the inclusion of Pacifism as a survival strategy. We're all taught to go caveman at the first sign of disrespect these days. It's one of the reasons I stopped watching TV.

Anonymous said...

I love the concept, but I don't actually understand it as a way for human beings to survive through hardships.
I understand this set of traits as a way for a particular set of cultural memes to survive through time, by being closely attached to a human self defined group.
We are neither Greek, nor Roman, nor Egyptian, nor Numid,.... The human societies (civilisations) we most of us are coming from, have all collapsed many times.
Nevertheless we all bear this legacy in our current civilization.
Memes would have a will they could choose between those 2 strategies to survive through time:
- intertwine closely with a civilization who jealously preserves
itself ( Jewish or Gypsy style )
- invest in an exponential growth society to spread and mix at large and then survive through the sheer number. When collapse happens, enough human beings bear the meme to ensure some survivors to carry on. In this context, the written form has also its importance in meme dissemination and allows phenomenons like the Renaissance.

From a human perspective, the traits you describe could be the shell to preserve beloved cultural memes by starting a new civilization committed to bear them and jealously protect them.
It could also certainly be a good strategy not to submit and surrender in front of a power gained by simple violence.
When you're invaded by the Romans, you can either submit and collaborate (Gauls, Greeks) or hide and flee(Jews).
Certainly, when our civilization recedes sufficiently, feudal powers will emerge(call them mafias, dictatorships...) Against those, we can submit ( and accept the imposed set of cultural values ) or flee and hide the way you describe to protect the values we love.

Dmitry Orlov said...

AA -

No, I am not taking any one group as a model, and the more groups I look at, the more I see that same set of commonalities.

Del Nogal -

You are confusing cultures, societies, communities and civilizations, and overgeneralize to a point where you can't distinguish cultural survival from biological survival. Surviving as cattle on a mafia-run farm is not what I am interested in here.

Anonymous said...

kollapsnik -
I agree on the confusion, I've rushed it. I'm not interested either in being raised as cattle :-)
What provoked my thoughts in your analysis, is that the traits you describe are common to many of what we would consider "sectarian", "strange", "regressive".
What is interesting, is that those traits are actual working strategies to save one's own beloved values against a dominant power.
As I am not planning to be or breed some warlord, and I am not fond of feudal/fascist societies, your analysis has an undeniable appeal for me :-)

forrest said...

I think that modern Quakers have some of these traits, lack others for better or worse. We're a quirky enough group that a minority might adopt many of them, over time. Not much "strong central faith" and a tendency to debate [almost] everything, but a tacit set of middle-class prejudices that will be hard to shake off... and a nice combination of flexibility plus pig-headedness that might well surprise some of the smart money over the long haul...

How about those various monomers? Vinyl chloride looks like unmitigated disaster, but some monomers might have energy available for any microbe that stumbled on an enzyme to break them down. [Even dilute formaldehyde has critters that need it to grow on...] Any chance?

Dmitry Orlov said...

kleymo -

Your comment got deleted along with some comment spam. Sorry, please try again.

SandWyrm said...

Looking forward to the next article (as always). But special thanks are in order for using that amazing illustration. After a quick search, I think I just found my favorite editorial artist. :)

Terry T said...

"anarchic in their patterns of self-governance—neither patriarchal nor matriarchal—with certain individuals granted positions of responsibility, but not positions of authority;"

I find this one interesting. I agree.

In an authoritarian framework, individuals who are given responsibility but no authority can wind up being both the backbone and the scapegoat of an organization. They wind up demoralized when the the credit goes to the uninvolved and blame goes to those who have no authority.

But with a realistic anarchy, that position of responsibility will be filled by a person of altruism, i.e., one who accepts the difficulties of ensuring shared survival. They can become the future's mythological characters; a group that inspires people to rise above pettiness.

I like it.

Forrest- I prefer to keep vinyl chloride sequestered. In the form of my old jazz LP's.

Anonymous said...

Here I see again a blurring of the distinction between death (one person) and extinction (a whole species). The two are related, but in the case of humans they are separated in scale by 9 orders of magnitude. In no case should individual death be equated to species extinction. The former is sometimes under our individual control; the latter should be considered to be outside individual or collective control or, frankly, concern.

The reason is, anyone hell-bent on either avoiding, or for that matter causing, human extinction will fail, due to the impossibility of the whole species acting as one to adopt or achieve any single goal. So there is no agent to form a goal or perform an action. "_____ decided to avoid extinction" is a sentence for which there exists no subject. So avoiding or welcoming extinction is an impossibility and a meaningless concept.

Not to mention a goal of debatable value. What is the intrinsic good, the inherent value, to the universe, of the continued existence of homo sapiens? But that's another debate.

Yet the species itself will probably survive, in some form and in some place(s), because of favorable conditions, successful adaptations, and many instances of the individual will to survive (i.e. avoid death, not extinction). And whoever decides to cash in their chips, is engaging in voluntary death, not voluntary extinction.

messianicdruid said...

This video about Ireland's tuathas may be of benefit:


Ian said...

These next few weeks promise to be interesting! Are you familiar with the work of James C. Scott? He writes on communities that abide from an anarchist perspective -- seems relevant to your project.

Unknown said...

that what i am thinking these days:
'It is easy to describe all the mathematico-biographical data: born in Russia in the middle of twentieth century, moved to the US twenty years ago, love both coasts and some places between, have one grown son and divorced six years ago.
I like to read Guardian, New yorker, NYT, Kommersant (recommend to look, it is in english, russian paper) and some other stuff, including books. By reading for 52 years all kind of things I came to the conclusion that I have definitely a pattern of living in empires that are falling apart. I ran away from Soviet one and landed in American Empire. I have a strange affinity developed for the past several years – I love British Empire. Actually what is left of it. Perhaps this is association with my own age and decline… anyway, all the great empires have the great time falling apart as evident from Roman, Austrian-Hungarian, French, Russian etc histories. They all fell apart in great style, creating magnificent art and making all kind of noises, starting from brass, drums and trumpets and ending with burps and farts. Out of three modern possibilities I think British Empire is the best , maybe because I do not live in it. I know for sure the grass there is definitely greener.
I am not optimistic at all, neither about my personal future, nor the future of any mentioned empires. I am also not optimistic about the future of the planet Earth. But this is rather a topic for the possible conversations …
During the the times when I was optimistic, more optimistic than not, cautiously optimistic and somewhat optimistic I was politically liberal, left and avid supporter of democracy. Getting old and having discouraging experiences of two failed empires under my belt, corrupted and weak governments in different settings and extreme displays of pathological narcissism on behalf of elected officials I more and more inclined to be a monarchist. Can you imagine a monarch who selling own national resources to China? Of course you can give me numerous examples when monarchy was not the best type of ruling for the particular nation at the particular time. Yet somehow the bad monarch always managed to get replaced by the good one. in case of a madness or total unfit for the throne they could be poisoned, suffocated, stubbed, shot or abdicated. Plus modern monarch should be well educated and careful. Most of all, they raised to be a ruler, so they HAVE to, not that they WANT to rule and that makes a great difference. Being a king or tzar is a way of existence, not a great job where you can steal stuff such as pencils, stamps or oil. what person in a right mind will steal from himself? only temporarily elected official will, as he/she knows deep down in his/her rotten soul that the job is given and can be taken. So naturally the elected official have to steal to fill out the void.... In the royal existence most responsibilities and benefits are relative if not questionable. Perhaps I am talking about utopian monarchy after all…'
glad to find your blog.

sidd said...

fascism followed by feudalism about sums up the future. quakers, jews and gypsys are going to have a very tough time. i vote for heavely armed quakers.

pansceptic said...

It seems that Dmitry has settled on lifelong membership in an insular cultural and/or nomadic group as the model most likely to succeed in the long emergency. But I am middle-aged and not inculturated in any of either groups, so I would like to roll out my current thinking for critique.

I grew up in a dirt poor Southern US state. In the early 60s these states were a third world country - a place where midwest and New England piecework jobs were 'offshored' for cheaper labor. My father was a overseer (oops, I meant to say Industrial Engineer) at one of those sweatshops. As oil gets impossibly expensive, they will return to third world status.

I still have family there, some of whom are members of the Guard (the local "well-regulated militia"). Further, the soil is mostly worn-out and the roads are mostly paved horse paths: they strenuously avoid the rolling hills and so are as sinuous as a snake undergoing shock therapy. While I'm aware that the dying military/corporate/government organization will seize any remaining petroleum to drive and fly about, I'll suggest that small isolated plots quickly won't be worth the fossil fuel to harrass.

Oh, and did I mention that I was 12 years old before I realized that "damned yankee" wasn't one word? They have NO love of central government.

So, what's the thinking on cultivating community in a small rural village in the US South?

Dr. Doom said...

@ Roille,

Extinction is not negotiable. Neither is climate change. I doubt climate change can be stopped now, if it ever could have been, let alone reversed. Too much natural and manmade enertia.

We live in an age of limits, and we should realize our limitations.

It's nice to discuss and plan alternatives to empire. It may buy some time, or at least make the time left more reasonable (dare I say enjoyable?) to those aware of the circumstances, and trapped within it.

I salute Dmitry for the effort.

stevelaudig@gmail.com said...

The Great Triage.

stevelaudig@gmail.com said...

Warning: bad pun ahead.... "leave it Orlov[e] it"

Martin said...

Your list in many ways brings to mind the 'tribes' included in the Haida, Tlinget, Kwakiutl and to some extent, the Chinookian language groups that inhabited the Pacific Northwest Coast and several islands offshore of North America for hundreds, if not thousands of years - and did very well, thank you.


DeVaul said...

I was wondering when someone would get to the topic of the 500 plus nuclear reactors and the untold hundreds of thousands of tons of nuclear fuel waste we have dumped here and there over the last 80 years.

The Archdruid Report kind of glosses over the topic, but not entirely. He may address it head on someday in one of his articles, but for me, it is one huge, glowing question mark that stands on the horizen just over the edge of collapse. So far, I have not seen or read any solution to this future problem, which is not theoretical.

I know of no prior period in human history where our species had to deal with a radioactive environment, but I could be wrong about that. It would be comforting to know that our distant ancestors did indeed survive some kind of radioactive bombardment of earth, yet I have never read of such a time period in our history.

Perhaps the creation of nuclear power was the the high point of our civilization's "point of diminishing returns", and there is no way to get rid of the stuff short of shooting towards the sun on giant rockets.

I don't believe NASA has any plans drawn up on that yet. They're still dreaming about colonizing Mars.

void_genesis said...

One thought is that a common culture is in some ways merely an indicator of the group that an individual belongs to in terms of loyalties. Christians congregate around the badge of christianity only partly due to the specific advantages of its tenets. Mostly culture, language or religion are as simple as the colour of a jersey for a sporting team. The benefit of complexity then in culture is that it makes it difficult for outsiders to pretend to be part of a group, helping to cement cultural boundaries and protect groups from each other.

The difficulty with our industrial society is that culture has been commodified and homogenised across space and time, and optimised for individual demographic groups. Culture no longer clearly defines groups of people with a common interest in each others well being. Instead it merely groups consumers that have no stake in each others survival.

How this western cultural base will respond when individuals experience threats to their well being and survival will be interesting to observe. I expect people will break up into groups along the most practical lines (responding to geography and language first). It shouldnt be practical for people to organise along consumer cultural lines since those forms of culture consumption were usually optimised for specific demographic groups, while a functioning human society requires different demographic groups to cooperate.

tehleel.aeryn said...

The message of this blog is a bit too extreme.

I can accept joining up with my ethnic group and living seperate from society for some time. I see it as a biologically and historically proven method of survival (as we take examples of the Roma, Jews, Eastern European Turks, etc.) over thousands of years.

I just cannot say goodbye forever to advances in science & medicine, art, education, culture, cooperation, and all the other advances that nation state have made after 1000 years of dark ages in the last 500 years.

I can accept living in small communities as a means of survival (perhaps for a generation or a few) but not a preferred method.

If you look at history, India, China, Arabia, Mongolia, Rome, etc. all prospered under a unifying central government. Before then, they were feudal societies where about 10% were feudal landlords and the other 90% were starving.

I come from a society which is very low level, and it is extremely feudal. Children, women and peasants have absolutely no rights whatsoever in society. They do as they are told or they are tortured or horrifically killed.

There is a tendency of small low scale societies towards feudalism/feudalistic behavior. You can see arranged marriages in isolationist Christian societies, you can see child abuse among Amish, you can see sexual abuse among Mormons, you can see forced marriages by chiefs in Gypsy Romania, etc. In low level, small population there are usually stronger/larger and weaker/smaller tribes. One usually ends up dominating the means of production and the others end up as peasants or slaves. I don't see why we should encourage such mentalities which is exactly what we have been working against since about the last 200 years.

I can accept lower level, localistic culture as there is no alternative with decreasing energy supplies, decreasing agricultural output and wars across much of the old world. However, I see it as a requirement forced upon us and not an ideal.

Yes, Greece, Rome, Gupta India, Qen China, Mohammadan Arabia, Khanite Mongolia all collapsed, but there were centuries of technological progress, knowledge, medicine that we are still using today.

Look at the least centralized parts of the world - namely Africa, parts of Indonesia, religious minority provinces in India, Balkans, Central America, Papua New Guinea, DR of Congo, etc. These places are rife with conflict, filled with corruption, unstable and undemocratic. They are ruled by warlords and chiefs and fight each other for resources and slaves. Is lower level civilization really what we want?

Is the utopia you describe of lower level clans even possible? Historically, hasn't one tribe or race or religion went out and dominated weaker ones? Would the lower level clans and small cultures even be able to maintain themselves?

It took Europe 1000 years of dark ages to rise from the collapse of Rome to the Renaissance. What I suggest is learn to how collapse gracefully so that instead of 100s or 1000s of years, it takes only decades to get back on our feet as civilizations by learning how to fall gracefully (provide the basics for everyone and then rebuild again).

I hope you respect a dissenting opinion and will allow this to be posted.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Doom -- I can't figure out why that comment is addressed to me. Did you think I was trying to negotiate?

forrest said...

Typically the ugliness of peripheral societies is promoted & intensified by their larger, more centralized neighbors -- via snatching their resources, dragging them into 'trade deals they can't refuse, pitting one group against others in profitable arms races and 'alliances', setting up client regimes to keep weaker nations wretched & subservient.

Dr. Doom said...

Hi Roille,

In a word: yes.

See also: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/07/130709175747.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily%2Fearth_climate+%28ScienceDaily%3A+Earth+%26+Climate+News%29

Per the article, species (including adaptable humams) would have to evolve 10,000 times faster than present rates to keep up with rapid climate change. Not to mention any sustaining civilizations, which are even more fragile to change.

Anonymous said...

Dimitri, you might be interested in the blog post I just wrote concerning the feminist response to Communities that Abide: http://thetinfoilhatsociety.com/2013/07/12/feminists-and-the-kerfuffle-over-communities-that-abide/

Feel free to read and rip it apart - Susan

Anonymous said...

Doom - My comment was not about what you're talking about. And now you've included a link that undermines the point you're trying to make.

"Species can respond to climate change by acclimating without evolutionary change or by moving over space to track their preferred climate. For example, some species might be able to move to higher latitudes or higher elevation to remain in suitable conditions as the climate warms. In addition, many species could lose many populations due to climate change but might still be able to persist as a species if some of their populations survive."

Hmm, sounds like a lengthier version of my last paragraph.

Gaia's sister said...

From the look of this list, the foragers I knew in Africa are perfectly adapted to survival of any collapse as long as their essential wild ecosystem is not too badly damaged.

Sergio I. Solórzano said...

I really enjoyed your new book. I'll put my bet on a transition initiative, if it gets this gnarly so be it.