Tuesday, February 03, 2015

No escape

Quite a few of those currently inhabiting the belly of the decrepit and senile beast of western industrial civilization are experiencing an extreme sense of unease about what the future is likely to bring. But living with such a sensation is less than pleasant. In some other, perhaps less civilized language, the resolution to this crisis may be expressed as a special way of being, but in the language of civilization, the only possible work-out is through taking action. We must DO SOMETHING!

After all, who would want to not care about things that aren't important at the moment, not think about objects that are not immediately and tangibly present, not treat depictions or representations as real or valid—but rely exclusively on their own perceptions, and perhaps those they share with those few people who are close to them? A decidedly uncivilized person, by most people's standards. But we must remain civilized, and to be civilized means to always be driving towards some destination, even if it is an imaginary one. “Stop the world, I want to get off!” some of them exclaim in exasperation. But they are willing prisoners of this metaphor of the world as purposeful action, and their talk of escape is a mental loop (an escapist one) within another mental loop (from which there is no escape).

And so they must DO SOMETHING. But it turns out that they can't because of another mandatory element of civilized existence, which is to have and to own... stuff. Now, owning something is not exactly an action; it is a state of being, but a rather impersonal one: person X owning a thing is exactly the same as person Y owning that exact same thing. Nevertheless, civilized persons are very much defined by the things that they own, the brands they favor, and the physical setting they demand. So they must do something about their civilized existence, but that civilized existence demands a house with electricity, running hot and cold water, heating and air conditioning, a car, a pile of electronic toys and an even bigger pile of stuff they never actually use, but simply have.

What prompted me to think about this? First-hand observation, actually. I just started a house-sit at an off-grid house on one of the lagoons in the Bocas archipelago in northern Panama. The house is rather well set up: lots of solar panels and battery banks, internet access via a network of wifi repeaters, a rainwater collection system, a dock with two power boats (the nearest town is 30 minutes away at full throttle), a big orchard out back that produces bananas, plantains, mangoes, a cat and a dog... It's quite an establishment, and it has to be lived in and attended to at all times, to keep entropy at bay. This house is by no means unique: it is part of a constellation of similar houses which dot the surrounding shores, whose residents are quite gregarious, with powerboats crisscrossing the lagoon as they go visiting. It is all quite civilized. Some people here have a survivalist mindset, and feel that, being ensconced in their outposts in the mangroves, they are well situated to ride out the process of the whole world going to hell in a hand-basket.

And then right next door live the local Indios. Two Indio kids show up almost every day, a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, paddling an ancient-looking cayuca carved out of a tree trunk. They hang out next to our dock, which attracts fish, which they catch for their family meal, one fish right after another, using hand lines with unbaited hooks, while their parents are off tending a patch of something or other edible out in the jungle. (The concept of child care is somehow completely missing.) Some older kids show up sporadically, who are of dating age, and since dating now requires having a cell phone, which needs to be charged, they bring us their cell phones, with chargers, in plastic bags so that they don't get wet while they paddle over, and ask us to charge them.

These Indios inhabit a wild, roadless terrain, half-water, half-jungle (the nearest road is a two-hour hike over a mountain pass), do not avail themselves of any government services, don't have bank accounts and trade a little or work as day-laborers for the few things they need. They are the happiest, most congenial, most carefree people it has ever been my privilege to encounter. They wear threadbare hand-me-downs (shorts and a t-shirt is almost too much clothing in this climate) and live in little shacks on pilings nailed together out of sticks that they probably salvaged as driftwood. They get around on foot or in cayucas which they carve out of trees. Their goal-directed activities seem limited to finding food and tending their few and humble possessions. They take long mid-day naps in their hamacas and paddle out to the middle of the lagoon in the cool evenings to socialize, where I can hear their laughter until well after sundown.

But we can't be like them, now, can we? We need all this stuff: solar panels, banks of lead-acid batteries (I need to check the electrolyte levels today), propane appliances for hot water and cooking, demand pump for the water system, wifi repeaters for the internet... Whenever it is left unguarded, the whole compound needs to be locked down tight because otherwise it might get looted (there is a machete under the bed). The stable of speed boats, which are the only way to get in or out, has to be maintained. And to keep it all together somebody somewhere has to fly jet aircraft, perform rhinoplasties, tweak high-frequency trading algorithms or do something or other purposeful and goal-directed, because these things don't pay for themselves, you know.

I suppose I could do something purposeful and goal-directed like that too, because I did, once upon a time. But I don't, because, first of all, I don't want to. Secondly, I have my own purposes, goals and methods. Spending winters in the tropics rent-free is, I believe, a worthy goal. Building an absolutely amazing houseboat that sails is another, and I am ready to put up with having to engage in other, unrelated, purposeful, goal-directed activities in order to raise the money. (Rhinoplasty, anyone?) There are a few more. But I refuse to rush, because that would spoil all the fun. And so I'll do a bit of blogging, and later on today I'll go visit a nearby organic cocoa farm. And I have no idea what I'll be doing tomorrow, and that, I believe, is just fine.


Josh said...


Glenn in Maine said...

Reminds me of the Andrews Sisters song, "Civilization":

Each morning, a missionary advertises neon sign
He tells the native population that civilization is fine
And three educated savages holler from a bamboo tree
That civilization is a thing for me to see

So bongo, bongo, bongo, I don't wanna leave the Congo, oh no no no no no
Bingo, bangle, bungle, I'm so happy in the jungle, I refuse to go
Don't want no bright lights, false teeth, doorbells, landlords, I make it clear
That no matter how they coax him, I'll stay right here

I looked through a magazine the missionary's wife concealed (Magazine? What happens?)
I see how people who are civilized bung you with automobile (You know you can get hurt that way Dani
At the movies they have got to pay many coconuts to see (What do they see, Darling?)
Uncivilized pictures that the newsreel takes of me

So bongo, bongo, bongo, he don't wanna leave the Congo, oh no no no no no
Bingo, bangle, bungle, he's so happy in the jungle, he refuse to go
Don't want no penthouse, bathtub, streetcars, taxis, noise in my ear
So, no matter how they coax him, I'll stay right here

They hurry like savages to get aboard an iron train
And though it's smokey and it's crowded, they're too civilized to complain
When they've got two weeks vacation, they hurry to vacation ground (What do they do, Darling?)
They swim and they fish, but that's what I do all year round

So bongo, bongo, bongo, I don't wanna leave the Congo, oh no no no no no
Bingo, bangle, bungle, I'm so happy in the jungle, I refuse to go
Don't want no jailhouse, shotgun, fish-hooks, golf clubs, I got my spears
So, no matter how they coax him, I'll stay right here

They have things like the atom bomb, so I think I'll stay where I am
Civilization, I'll stay right here


Anonymous said...

I have lived most of my life in the goal oriented propertied world you describe but I have also lived, albeit briefly, homeless in a large city and for a longer period homeless on public land in the National Forests on the U.S. west coast. In addition I have lived in communal arrangements. My current social commitments, family and otherwise, make it quite likely that I will continue to live the way I do because of course it is convenient and socially acceptable to people I love. Given a chance to do the whole thing over, not something I would want to do but if a malicious deity required it say, then I would choose to live more like the native people you describe going, as I did in my youth, from the mountains in the summer to the coast in winter and spending my days in search of food and temporary shelter and enjoying the diversity of experience that comes from movement and not being entirely dependent on social structures beyond your control. Having said that I will say that I never once met anyone who wanted to join me for any serious length of time with and although I did escape social structures I did not escape the occasional wrath of nature which can, without warning, deprive you of days of food at a time the provide the most inconvenient weather and unseasonable temperatures imaginable. Nature also never provided much more than a modest, read very limited, diet that required the greater part of every day to gather, fish, hunt and accumulate. My occasional discussion of these experiments with otherwise moderate and amiable friends and family has met with a surprising amount displeasure and even hostility. The very idea that someone could aspire to essentially nothing and somehow manage to survive, we are always told this sort of life is impossibly difficult, seems to unsettle almost everyone including lots of semi-professional outdoorspeople and primitivists who I assumed would be supportive but who clearly believe that an immense body of obscure knowledge is necessary. My own experience suggests that if you choose the right geography and climate no such body of knowledge is required. I spent glorious amounts of time in every season doing next to nothing,

Robo said...

Stuff makes for the difference between civilization and civility.

Unknown said...

Nice post, Dmitri. I have experienced a similar feeling visiting rural areas of the Caribbean, where local folks seem to be happier (in general), having a lot less stuff and using a lot less energy than we middle-class Americans. The thought of just picking up and moving there has crossed my mind...

But let's talk practicality for a bit, shall we? Assume I'm a "normal" upper-middle-class American having a family, job, house, car, etc. First issue is, I'd have to get my family to agree to such a radical change in lifestyle. OK, let's say I get past that barrier. And let's say we make such a move. Now, like your "Indios" in Panama, there we are, living in a little shack in the tropics, growing our own food, catching fish, living a low-carbon-footprint life. Not contributing to the destruction of the planet. OK, great.

But there remain some issues and some questions. For example: The planet's environment and climate are still being destroyed by the billions of people that did *not* make that decision to exit their high-consumption lifestyle. Is that OK? Is it morally sufficient that *I* am not participating in the destruction of the planet? Or is there a moral imperative for me to do more than just, basically, drop out?

And here's another paradox for you. Every time I visit the rural Caribbean and think, "these people seem happy, maybe I should move here", I am struck by the fact that almost every single one of those people actually living there would trade places in a heartbeat - i.e., *they* want to move *here*. *They* want all that stuff - the air-conditioned house, the car, the washing machine, the whole kit and caboodle - that I'd just as soon get rid of. That's a little weird. Is my desire for a "simpler" life just a yuppy indulgence? Maybe they know things I don't. Maybe that simpler life isn't the paradise it appears to be to a temporary visitor just passing through? Stuff to ponder...

And while we're on practicalities, let's talk about another one. Sooner or later, we all get old. And eventually we get sick. And, well, I'd like of like to live in a place where health care is available. If I were to "drop out" of civilization and move to this rural Caribbean area of which I speak, I'd be moving to a country where modern medicine is basically unavailable. For example, I happen to know there does not exist a single CT scan or MRI machine in that entire country. ('cause I happened to fall and hit my head once while visiting, and fortunately I turned out to be OK, but if there had been actual damage I would have been f***ed).

Ultimately, I did not drop out of civilization. I still live in the USA. I try to be environmentally conscious, but it is basically impossible to live in the USA and have the low carbon footprint of someone living off the land in the rural tropics.

Anyway, enjoyed your post.

shaurz said...

It's a different of culture and climate. Living without heating, cooking, lighting in a cold and miserable European winter is worlds away to doing that in a climate that is warm and sunny all year round and plentiful food is everywhere that it almost jumps into your mouth... but we do perhaps take it too far sometimes.

ivar laegreid said...


Jim R said...

But you see, Dmitry, by trading your knockabout for a bigger sailing houseboat, you are in fact acquiring more 'stuff'. ... :trollface:

New South Blogger said...

Well, I think there's a place for "civilized" activity, based on what God has called you to do and accomplish.

But I'm guessing most of the time it's not so high-minded, but rather "chasing after these things" like Jesus talks about.

Enjoy the boat.

sjoh said...

Nice first hand account; brings to mind a passage of Rousseau: "I see him eating his fill under an oak tree, quenching his thirst at the first stream, making his bed at the base of the same tree that supplied his meal, and, behold, his needs are met."

It seems 'civilized' man has found it perennially enticing, though difficult, to imagine 'going back' to less complexity. We certainly have a lot to learn or rediscover - but rather than 'going back' to (in Hegelian terms) the 'thesis' of premodernity, it seems a valid trajectory for a community to pass through the 'antithesis' (of stressed modernity) to reach a kind of 'synthesis'. Such a development, displacing the 'dominant paradigm', may still be 300 years away (if things hold together that long), or may not be reached at all. But, the long-term continuance of the human species seems to depend on such a development becoming more broadly accepted.

So, rather than Doing Something 'productive', today, inspired by Dmitry, I will spend much of the day gardening, reading some literature, and just walking around. Would, that more of us could say with Thoreau at the end of a day: "it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished." Or, alternatively, that the 'memorable' included more 'authentic' projects, like making a boat, and less activity over which one does not feel a sense of ownership. While not 'going back' to the jungle literally, perhaps 'dropping out' as much as possible of the regular economy and doing one's own thing is the 'synthesis'?

Cheers from down under!

andreas said...

Wasn't there a study done once that showed that the people who survived crises the best were the relaxed ones who didn't take the passing craziness too seriously, networked together with friends and family and kept out of trouble by spending a lot of time at the beach or river fishing?

Tomuru said...

It is a question of defining what simplicity is for a person. The more stuff you want, the less time you will have. Whenever the fancy lights of new technology attract me, I wind up with less time. Even sailboats need a safe harbor and maintenance. There was once fish in the seas that were safe to eat. Is that true now? What wastes for your higher technology living enter the lagoon and are consumed by those children. How much stuff is enough? How much stuff is sustainable? John Michael Greer wrote recently about going back to a 1950's level of technology. That may be a stop along the way to sustainability but it will likely not be the landing spot. Maybe 1890's will be the landing spot. Another way to think of things is the more stuff you need the harder your landing will be. What do you choose a soft landing or a hard one? Did you get to Panama with a sextent and maps or a GPS unit?

dale said...

Reminds me of this book I was reading where this guy Adam is living in this perfect garden, like the indios. He eats this apple his girlfriend gives him. It turns out the apple was from the tree of knowledge. They knew what they were doing, instead of just being happy where they were, they wanted to be Gods themselves--pure hubris--that's why they ate it. All they and all their descendants too, got out of it was pure misery.

I keep trying to finish that book, to see how it turns out, but I keep distracted by all the crap on the internets--At least this Orlov stuff is worth reading.

Anonymous said...

Say hello to the Blakers (from Texas) if you run into them....

Greg Maybury said...


I'm in a similar space myself, like yourself sans the trappings. Feels good. Does not meet with unanimous approval from everyone of my acquaintance, so I have 'un-acquainted' myself with those whose approval I never really sought anyway. That feels even better! Love your work man. Keep the aspidistra flying.

Greg Maybury

Roberto said...

We could have gone from our house sitting gig on Corn island (Nica)this past summer, laid out here in the mex highlands, then on to sitting on a high end Bocas property. A bit beyond our capacity as it required paying his local gardener so we bagged it. Yeah, a tough life, housesitting.... but someone has to do it. Same happy people on Corn island too: poor, ragged out, and beautiful smiles everywhere!

NowhereMan said...

Love the pastoral picture you paint down there in the tropics, but you do realize the irony of appreciating all that, happily ensconced in the creature comforts of industrial capitalism on the behalf of some of its wealthiest practitioners, don't you? I appreciate the message nonetheless. Not that any of that is actually going to be or even can be practiced by most of the rest us 7B+ people caught up in the proverbial rat race to keep too many of ourselves alive. Cheers!


Charles Fasola said...

And if you had been seriously hurt, f!#ked as you put it, everthing, the earth, the universe, almost all other humans on this forsaken planet would not have noticed. Everything would continue exactly as it would have.

My donkey said...

"I have no idea what I'll be doing tomorrow, and that, I believe, is just fine."

Doing nothing is always an option when visiting a tropical country (and most tourists who stay at resorts manage to accomplish that with regularity) but for those hankering for an activity, here's a suggestion: get to know the local flora & fauna!

They're guaranteed to be different and much more diverse than the plants and animals that live around home. Species richness in the tropics is astounding.

For example, Panama, with an area of almost 30,000 square miles, has about 2,300 native species of trees, whereas Maine, which is slightly larger than Panama, has fewer than 100 tree species, and Florida, which is more than twice the size of Panama, has fewer than 300 species of native trees.

Other groups of organisms (birds, fish, insects, fungi, etc.) in the tropics are simmilarly represented by orders-of-magnitude more species than are found in North America.

The first step in getting to know any organism is finding out what it looks like, and the next step is "putting a name to the face". These two steps together would give us a ready answer to the question "What new things did you see on your vacation?" but recognition and identification is just the beginning. Maybe if we had a better understanding of our fellow travellers on spaceship Earth, we might be less cavalier about exterminating them.

There could be other benefits as well. Who knows, learning more about some of the world's inhabitants might make us better conversationalists at parties, and possibly turn us into specimens even more interesting than we already are.

Starry*Gordon said...

Like rsuusa, I have spent some time living in the wilderness, and also in cities as a homeless person (more or less voluntarily, though). I also did some subsistence farming. These styles of life proved to be a lot of work, and as noted by rsuusa, food and protection from the weather can be pretty chancy.

My experience of the
Caribbean was that, among the indigenes, there is a lot of social control not immediately visible to the tourist or visitor, although maybe not about the same things one is controlled about in industrial life.

Life would be easier off the grid if people combined in communes, but apparently this is very difficult to do long-term unless the members belong to some kind of religious community, for example the Dukhobortsi (now mostly broken up by deliberate state repression as far as I know; but they did it for several generations).

peakaustria said...

thx for your book and this story about communities that abide a blueprint for preppers...just finding similar minded people here in the fascho world of eu is difficult so get seperated from mainstreamed governized cooperated and found a communist downpowered coop...

Unknown said...

I often wonder who really controls this mad advance into the future that pulls us all along. And what do they gain by extracting most of the to topsoil from our souls.

Our technology is failing BIG time. And now there is nowhere on this planet to hide, to be truly alone, to live in peace and silence.

The messages are all lies, BIG BLACK lies. But we cant seem to shut them out. The are always there in the ether.

When in NE Thailand this years I spent time in the old country, where old people sit on mats on the floor and talk, and pick at communal plates of fruit and other things. There in the shade of the banana groves Samsung and Apple seem to be shut out. But not long and her comes a young one with a windows into the that great internet world beyond.

Yes simple is better. But this must begin in your soul, not by taking your shoes and watch off.

We can indeed go back, but I am not sure it is the "back" that Mr. Orlov describes. Or maybe for some it is.

It starts by doing something, taking action, and yes maybe this means checking out of this modern circus.

What he is saying is that we must follow the internal compass that demands we live this life, not just tolerate or accept it.

And yes, my plans is to retire in NE Thailand, there among ageless trees and shadows where the big around is held at bay.

Marc L Bernstein said...

Let the illusions of the past drift away and look forward to the mystery that is your future.

Unknown said...

Señor Orlov, you are always welcome to sail down to Terra Nova, in Ecuador. We are about as primitive as a "survival outpost," comes!

SMJ said...

You're sounding slightly like John Michael Greer here, Dmitry. Are you also starting to grow a beard?

Anonymous said...

"Primitive" man is authentic man, so long as they do not degenerate. Some of the North American Indian tribes were among the finest and most noble cultures that could be. Many white men readily acknowledged their moral and spiritual superiority. But they had no guns. The African bushmen, celebrated by Laurens van der Post were also superbly united to their difficult environment. (BTW, the movie "The Gods Must be Crazy" is a must see).The Kuna Indians, where Dmitri is staying are among the few fortunate remaining indigenous peoples in the Americas who are protected and allowed to live as their ancestors did. The North American European transplants were the real savages in their utterly disgraceful and shameful treatment of the indigenous peoples; and of course, the Spaniards and Portuguese were no better in most of Central and South America. As Gandhi once said, when asked what he thought of modern Western "civilization": "I think it is a good idea."
Authentic Christian civilization vanished centuries ago, except for sacred enclaves like Mount Athos.

Unknown said...

Enjoyed our chat yesterday. Yes we've lived the simple ways for many years now. Past relationships from time to time still attempt to remind us that it simply cannot be done. After over thirty years I've given up and just agree with them. They're correct for them it simply can't be done. We understand where you're coming from. Most can't survive without their imported simulated rubber dog shit for more than a couple of evenings without going through some sort of withdrawal that can only be temporarily satisfied by another tasty morsel of the very substance mentioned three lines above. We'll stay in touch.
Barry in DR

Unknown said...

How does one get a house-sitting gig, anyway?
It sounds perfect. Does your book contain ways to FIND a community that abides? Or how to start one?

B Dev said...

Hola Dmitri,
If you've got the time and are in the mood for it, check out this book by Zoltan Istvan: "Transhumanist Wager."

As far as "Doing Something," I think this book lays out a strategy that, in my thinking, is one of the very few options that is actually do-able.

Every now and then humanity needs to be forced forward. We've been dragged backward long enough now.

Larkin said...

I will preface this by saying that if anyone can do it, Dmitry can but seeking refuge and safety in a remote tropical paradise does not come without hazards and pitfalls.

An interesting story and example of what can go wrong is depicted in the story and documentary film about a group of German settlers to the Galapagos during the 1930's.

I was going to link the film but they have since attached all sorts of pay mechanisms to it. It is full of intrigue and dashed hopes. "The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden"

Here is a short article:

My point is not to discourage or discredit the possibilities of going remote and native. I am positive that there are many people considering this option. The problems that arose among the German settlers were interpersonal and exaggerated by their own eccentricities and lack of formal social structures that made problem resolution almost impossible.

This not to say that it cannot be done but the idyllic dream of paradise is not a guarantee and it may take skillful work to survive. If you can't just sail away, you would find yourself trapped with no other options.

The high-end Caribbean resort islands will not be immune to an economic crash. There will come a day and it will be soon, when the only way to get there will by boat. Posh homeowners may expect their servants to still be on call but they will now want reciprocation and not dollars

Dmitry, did you take your craft through the Panama Canal?

TH in SoC said...

Now that's funny, that link to "the Galapagos Affair". Just goes to show what happens when a bunch of spoiled, narcissistic people are thrown together. I expect a similar decompensation to happen throughout much of the United States over the next few years - indeed, it's already happening.

Laureli said...

We're starting over at 50-ish, with basically nothing after fighting for 4years to keep our house (a loosing battle because we didn't realize the game rules had all changed). It's a daydream to muse on escaping. We have kids, grand babies... And have been trying our hand at homestead life while renting (very hard), hoping to become more self-sustainable.
One thing to think about is that no matter where you relocate or how carefree your life, is it looks like the IMF/central banks/military complex/capitalist international companies, et al, WILL invade/entrap/indebt/pollute or buy up whatever hideaway you find.
Sure, we can't take 'it' with us, so why get bogged down or trapped by stuff, but I'm not so sure such a carefree, easy freedom is assured either.