Personal survival skills at the twilight of Empire

People keep asking the obvious questions: Are you insane? [Yes, by any measure] What are you doing to prepare? [Launching a lifeboat, as described in a prior post] How can I save my own ass?


The number of people asking the latter question is rising nearly as fast as the rate of inflation (the real rate, not the one reported by the federal government). I spend many hours each day discussing options available to individuals. And that, you surely understand, is the big issue: Each individual’s options are different. I cannot guide you along a path unless I understand something about you, like where you’re coming from and where you’re hoping to go. Ergo, my days are filled with meetings to discuss the individual circumstances, and therefore the individual options, of an extraordinary number of individuals.
First, let’s get one thing straight: Civilization is hopeless, and it’s been irredeemable from the beginning. What does that leave? Individual options, in the face of an ambiguous future. How you respond to the twin crises of declining energy supplies and global climate change will determine how long, and how happily, you live.
At student request, I’m teaching a class this semester: Personal Survival Skills at the Twilight of Empire. The students are preparing a template for post-carbon living. Their report will be ready in a couple weeks, coincident with the end of the semester. It will be biased toward the American Southwest, and it will be a brief, incomplete guide. But it’s still better than anything else I’ve seen. I’ll post it on this blog as soon as it’s ready.
Until then, I offer a few thoughts about post-carbon living, with the goal of extending the lives of a few thoughtful people. My first recommendation: Get out of the United States.
I prefer tropical locales, where starving to death poses a challenge because of abundant native fruits. Living near the sea is a good idea because fish are damned good for your health. Don’t live on the beach, of course: ongoing sea-level rise should not be taken lightly. The (global) South will rise again, as surely as the U.S. is going down in flames. Small towns filled with locally grown produce and locally crafted tools, characterized by on-again, off-again electrical service, will be good places to live, relative to the land of hyper-indulgence and the Second Amendment.
My second recommendation, if you choose to stay in the land of hyper-indulgence and the Second Amendment: Keep moving. As one of my “fans” pointed out in response to my recent article in the Arizona Republic: “Your little life boat will be under constant attack from people much stronger, more violent and desperate. So I hope that thought provides you the same pleasant dreams your trash article provided my children.” Believe me, Bill1277, my nightmares are filled with such scenarios. But only on the rare nights I sleep.
If you ignore my two leading recommendations, I don’t think you’ll live long. If you choose this tenuous route, you’ll need to secure water, food, and shelter. There are surprisingly many places where groundwater is sufficiently shallow to be pulled up with a hand pump, where soils allow abundant gardens, where the temperature is neither life-threateningly cold nor life-threateningly hot, and where fish or game can be harvested, at least for the foreseeable future. Then there’s the important attribute of post-carbon living so frequently ignored: securing community. It’s the rare bird who can survive as a hermit.
Today’s cities are tomorrow’s deathtraps. Finding a rural area, where the marauders don’t show up regularly to steal your food or your life, poses a monumental challenge to anybody building a lifeboat. Personally, I have not yet determined how far I will go to further my life, and the lives of my neighbors and loved ones.
What will I do when I have a fellow human being in the cross hairs of the scope on my rifle? Thankfully, I have not yet answered that question. Although I am certain the moment will come within the next few years, I remain completely uncertain about my response.
What do you think, dear reader? What are your post-carbon plans? How are you choosing to live simultaneously in the two worlds we inhabit, the culture of make believe and the real world of economic collapse?

Comments 29

  • Thank you Professor McPherson.
    Before I met you there was,
    to paraphrase Nietzsche,”no
    one I could talk to”. Of course civilization is hopeless, and it started from the very beginning with the development of agriculture, which allowed the division of labor.But at first a person would have some proximity to the person who was growing his food–no more–now we have the absurdity of your 3,000
    mile Caesar salad.
    I’m 76 years old and live in an old, humble house,but I believe that a house needs only to serve the function of shelter, nothing more.I’m in the beautiful Sonoran desert in Sun City, Arizona. I drive a 12 year old car only when I need to go somewhere that is too far to walk.A car needs only to
    serve the function of transportation, nothing more.
    My comfort, and the work most central to my life is “The Revolt Of The Masses”, by Jose Ortega.
    All the problems of the world that you ,and the others who contribute here,
    speak of are the fault of the Mass Man. All understanding of the modern world begins with Ortega. We are not part of the Mass, and we are not alone. “Revolt Of The Masses” was written in 1929, at the start of the Great Depression, and that is not a coincident.And you can go to almost any bookstore in the world today and find a copy written in the local language.So there are others who also get it.
    Finally I’m reminded of a scene from the denouement of Ayn Rand’s, “Atlas Shrugged”, when a giant banner is unfurled suspended between two Manhattan skyscrapers that
    read “Brother You Asked For It.

  • One of the first writers who brought my attention to peak oil and a whole lot more was Mike Ruppert of fromthewilderness.com. In what certainly appears to be his final post he delves into the “what am I going to do?” question. His answer, I’m going to die and I’m at peace with that. In addition, I might add, I’m going to help my fellow sufferers as much as possible and practice non violence. Who knows. Like that four car pile up I was in two weeks ago in Tucson, the shit might just swirl around and miss me. But, of course, luck favors the prepared.

  • Guy
    thanks again for your post,
    always look forward to it. (it does not come soon enough for me)
    my preparation –
    my wife is sick of hearing about peak oil, so I am re framing it as ‘oil depletion’. These days I dont mention it. Anyway quick bio – I am 39 year old landscape architect.
    I own my own home, I have no debt, my wife and I both work partime, I ride my bike to work and we own one car. I have 2 kids ages 8 and 12.
    I have planted about 15 fruit trees and a vegetable
    garden. The planting of a food garden is a bit silly if the populace are 4 meals away from anarchy. I dont own a gun, not many people do in Oz. No point having surplus food if people are starving around you. You either share or you perish, either way you perish. I have 50kg of rice stored, two rain water tanks. I have taken up an interest in trad bow making. (truly fascinating technology)I am an ex wood work teacher, hence the interest and it may come in handy to hunt the local wild life. I live in a rural fringe suburb, with a railway station and shops 1km away. The soils are poor, the rainfall about 600mm a year. The community is quite good – artistic, a lot of volunteering, homogenous,
    white middle class, highly educated, community minded. I am dumb struct on my way to work (by bike)
    how little food is grown in the suburbs. Where does our food come from? We are very vulnerable to a collapse in the food infrastructure. What makes it all a bit frightening is that it quite difficult to grow food successfully. The soils get leached of their nutrients quite quickly particularly with vegetatbles. Our trees are generally protected, so they create shade and competition issues for food plants. The temperatures would range from a low of 2 celsius to 40. You could easily get by with no heating in winter. (mediterranean climate) I have read nearly everything there is on peak oil, enviro woe etc. The oldavai theory scares the bejesus out of me. Apparently 2008 is the start of the transistion period. I dont think about any sort of energy as an option in the future. The sun/wind is the only energy source. Our ‘economy’ideally should only ‘grow’ as fast as a tree does and/or as our soils become replenished. – Entropic equilibrium. This is truly a sustainable future. Having said this, clearly there are too many people
    on the planet for a post carbon world. There are only two places on earth where there is spare caring capacity – Tasmania and New Zealand.
    besides the intellectual, I am intuitively very concerned about the very near future
    no philosophical quotes here from me,
    just a ramble from Oz
    you are a brave man Guy,
    more power to you,
    best wishes
    Matt, Melbourne

  • I live as a renter on a commercial sheep farm and egg farm in Sonoma County, CA. The climate is temperate and the owner is a life-long resident of the community with family and many friends in the area. I think the place might be defendable, if necessary. And it should be possible to grow food here in other than the present commercial setting. The biggest likely threat would come from the several million people living in cities within 100 miles of here. Another worry is that the landlord might develop a slaveholder mentality in exchange for allowing me to continue to live here with essentially no financial savings and no paid work when the system crashes. I will not take well to being treated as a work slave in exchange for anything. However, there is presently a spirit of community among the residents here and I am inclined to stay put unless or until circumstances tell me otherwise. I might find a way to suggest to the landlord it might be a good idea to get a horse or two or mule or two for work animals and transport once the fuel supply gets dicey and it might be a good idea to put up a wind turbine as electricity generator or perhaps a solar collector.
    One typical question in my mind down the road will be — what will I do for clothes and shoes when mine start to wear out? I’ll probably have to learn to sew repairs of some sort…
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • I live on the central Oregon coast having made a purposeful exit from San Jose, CA to just this locale I chose with Peak Oil in mind. I’m former US Army, know how to organize a defense and train people. I’m in the process of establishing a food/energy farm situated amongst neighbors with like pursuits and interests. I have also been joined by a few close, longtime friends who share my future vision. The local community ethos is one of cooperation bodering on socialism. I know of no one with any love for the US Empire, although some are admittedly recent converts to that position.
    My analysis of the future is based on my knowledge of the past. After a career in reastaurant and food services management, I retuned to college and became a student of the US Empire and ESL teacher. I no longer pursue the latter. I am lucky enough to have a modicum of affluence, which is being transfered to assets that will have real value longterm and remain within reach. I have invested in a library of reference works that detail how things were done prior to the oil age. One asset in particular is the skill set possessed by the community, which is very extensive and I would say priceless.
    Like natural systems, the Empire/BAU has a lot of inertia that will make its unwinding/decline slow. I do not expect a sudden, off the cliff-like collapse; rather, I expect a slow, TB-like wasting away punctuated by the occasional violent event, especially on the East coast where the great majority live in the US and the worst initial privations will occur. At 52, I expect to be dead by the time the worst of climate change takes hold. As a historian, I know there are a multitude of variables and potential scenarios, and that the greatest assets anyone can have is knowledge, wisdom and a useful skill set (sort of like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island). For those wanting to escape the USA, I would suggest finding work in the offshore oil patch, as the pursuit of oil extraction will continue unless there’s a nuclear war, and that industry is woefully short of experienced personell. My other piece of advice is to avoid having children of your own; there are already too many who are unwanted needing adoption if one really yearns to be a parent.

  • Your first paragraph makes me laugh out loud Guy. I just wanted to post for all to know that I talked to my dad about the end of the world as we know it and came to the conclusion that we are really amazing people and I just want to acknowledge that. We are dedicated to creating a future we actually want to live in, fighting for what we believe is important, and fighting until the end. And we have incredible friends which help us no matter how dark the times may seem. We are just awesome.
    Anyhow, just wanted you to know that.
    BAU = Business as Usual?

  • More Things to Think About
    A few comments on Guy’s two recommendations:
    1. Get out of Dodge (the U.S.)
    In stressful times you’ll want your close friends and relatives nearby. That’s just the way monkeys are. If you leave Dodge by yourself you will be an outsider amongst other clans. Maybe you could marry in or something. If you leave Dodge with your whole clan you will run into conflict with existing clans already on the land. There’s really no more open land left anywhere that’s habitable.
    2. Keep moving.
    Unfortunately, transportation is what’s about to become most problematic. You won’t be moving around in your motorhome or even in your old chevy. Most likely you’ll be on foot or riding the rails. In another time there were lots of vagabonds and bums. In the future there will be even more. Do you want to be one of them?
    I fully expect there to be lots of moving clans and vagabonds in the future. Refugees is another term. For the hoarders like matt and I, these folks will be the marauding hordes.
    Read Orlov’s latest work http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2008/04/keeping-fed.html
    and get busy on that garden. In the end the hordes won’t be that much worse than grasshoppers (and more meat if you get one).

  • There are many variables about what shape the future may take, including actual warfare between nations. One common outcome I see is ultimate failure of the power grid. Richard Duncan predicts that we will fall “off the (Olduvai) Cliff” beginning in 2008, resulting in increasing brownouts and blackouts in various parts of the world until by 2030 the worldwide power grid will be gone forever, never to rise again as we have known it. If international warfare breaks out, military hackers in China or elsewhere will surely be determined to bring down the U.S. power grid/infrastructure through electronic/internet warfare.
    I saw a media report this week that Southern California might expect increasing power outages this summer because supply has not keep up with growth in demand for electrical energy and distribution, giving a taste of what to expect as the future progresses.
    Ultimately, when grids fail cities will have no water, no sewage disposal, no gasoline pumped from storage tanks, no refrigeration to keep food fresh, no elevators, no air conditioning, no fans to blow heat in winter, etc. Cities will become centers of anarchy and death traps eventually. Desperate people will be hungry and anxious and fearful and probably violent. Atrocities will occur with increasing frequency. I think ultimately we will be living in a long-time war zone and every stranger will be perceived as a threat.
    The pace of unraveling will probably vary regionally and locally, but the issue will become survival and not comfort or luxury. Many people will have to decide whether they are willing and able to kill other humans if necessary to survive, aside from skills of living off the land.
    On the other hand, if global climate change does not alter the ecology in good survival locations, nature will probably begin to recover pretty quickly from man-caused degradation. Game may become much more abundant without industrial agriculture and timber practices. People and communities may find new or longtime forgotten forms of pleasure in connection with wild nature and reestablish interhuman connections and practices that were interrupted by television and computers and manic materialistic lifestyles.
    People may begin to recite poetry, tell stories, play music, sing together, watch the stars, identify plants and birds, and many other things that have been ignored.
    The rough and tough and the dangerous will eventually become balanced with the sweet and the fresh and the natural. For the relative few…

  • Not much to add. I’m a new mom, so survival means a lot more to me now. My child’s survival depends on mine. So I’ve been thinking specifically towards this.
    1) Use cloth diapers. If you use a disposable diaper, that’s it. Cloth can be washed and used several times.
    2) Ditch the darn stroller. Learn to carry your child, much more ideal in a “I need to flee” scenario. Best place to learn, wearyourbaby.com
    3) Breastfeed, dangit. There won’t be anymore formula, or bottles for that matter. It also protects your child from a lot of stuff. If you need to run, you have your baby’s food with you. You can also exclusively breastfeed for a year if needed, saving overall calories for those that really need solid food.
    Well, that’s all for today. Just thought I would put a baby spin on things.

  • Dr Guy and fellow bloggers. Military or Market-Driven Empire Building: 1950-2008 by James Petras is one of the better analyses of the US Empire written recently. It describes well what Business as Usual (BAU) now consists of for the US Empire.

  • A very interesting and relevant book review of JH Kunstler’s “World Made By Hand” can be found on the EnergyBulletin.net website today. I think the direct link is:
    http://www.energybulletin.net/43632.html
    The reviewer is a woman who claims (and seems to document) to have lived a life similar to that described by Kunstler. But she sees things differently, and particularly from a woman’s perspective, which is very interesting. And from a practical perspective, she sees some likely errors in Kunstler’s view of a post-apocalyptic world.
    I think the review offers some real astuteness and reminds me of my own mentor, the late Dr. Frances Hamerstrom, who was born in luxury in Brahmin Boston, but who early on formed a love of wild nature. She married a Harvard English major and they went on to become very famous wildlife biologists living in rural Wisconsin and were graduate students of the famous ecologist/conservationist Aldo Leopold. Fran Hamerstrom was undaunted by frigid winter temperatures in Wisconsin, wrote a wild food cookbook that included information on cooking animals that she had procured as road kills, and who made her famous pie crusts using bear lard.
    She proved that women can be tough survivors and highly civilized at the same time. When I did raptor work for her in the mid-1990’s after her husband had died, she still lived in a house with no running water and still used an outhouse because she had no toilet at home. But she had a magnificent library and she told me “We have all of the luxuries and none of the necessities!” and she raised two children in that environment with her husband.
    So, we can be civilized and happy without running water and living off the land if we have the right mindset.
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA

  • I read the article Stan mentions. The author makes many valid points, but she seems to assume that life for post-crash survivors will be like life is for her now–as if survival will merely be a matter of passing down the lost skills and returning to the land. But to what land? What will be there? Whom will you have to contend with? Even if you get a bona fide life-sustaining garden or farm up and running, how will you protect it from the hordes? She doesn’t have to worry about that now, because her skills, property, and food are not in demand, most people preferring modern conveniences (as I do). But what about when they are? For example, I don’t think her beloved dogs, fiercely loyal though they may be, will stand much chance against a rival’s bullet. I am just beginning to reach a *preliminary* understanding of the crisis, but even I can see that being hidden and well-supplied will be paramount as we move forward, and I don’t see how this lady has accomplished either of these things. I see a free spirit who has a romantic attachment to “the old ways,” but doesn’t seem to grasp what is really upon us, how brutally violent and harsh post-crash life will be. What will she do if and when she encounters those who don’t share her love of nature and haven’t reached her impressive level of self-actualization and consciousness, but just want her livestock? How do you hide an ox? Certainly she is correct that women were leaders in the westward pioneering movement, but they could get away with that because normal people, being less pioneering by nature, stayed back east and let the pioneers do what they wanted, unchallenged. And of course there was the option for the pioneers to simply go home, and return to civilized society, but what happens when that option disappears? As far as I can tell, you’re faced with a cutthroat world of limited resources, high attrition, and perpetual risk to life and limb. I’m beginning to think the only hope of a glimmer of a chance of survival is to crawl in a hole in rural Canada with a ton (literally) of rice and beans and hope no one finds you. I’d love to be wrong, both about her, and the future. More than anything I want desperately to be wrong. Point me in the right diection.

  • Jeremy,
    A couple thoughts.
    The violence will be strongly heterogeneous, i.e. the people who want to fight will find other people who also want to fight. Even though the conflict may be widespread and go on for some time the actual battles will be localized, short, and episodic. If so, this suggests a good plan is avoidance. A hole in Canada might be one place but another might be a rural community of friends, relatives, and like-minded folks. My guess is that most of the violence will be concentrated where humanity is densest — in cities. Transportation will be difficult so the hordes will have to walk out of the cities. Remember Katrina and that long walk across the bridge. Anyone who lived a few miles farther never saw any hordes until the buses came.
    Second: the survivors, and there will be survivors, will need to rebuild. I think Elaine is pointing in that direction.

  • Maybe my assessment was a little too bleak. I suppose we have to make a distinction between crash and post-crash; she’s very good on the second. But even then we are looking at a very different world, one that I find frightening at least for now. An oil-based society is all I know.

  • Regarding cities, most only have a few days worth of foodstuffs, and the US East Coast Megalopolis has few remaining farming areas within it, although food producing outliers still remain, but not enough to supply the region’s populace. When/if armed conflict arises over those scarce resources, I would expect combat to be quite short bacause as Napoleon noted, an Army travels (and fights) on its stomach. Furthermore, such combat will also impede other vital logistical chains and operations, particularly enegry. All one need do to see the effects of combat in a modern urban area is to look at Baghdad; and I would expect the effects on the Northeastern populace to be much worse as they are quite soft by comparison to Baghdadis.
    Will conditions deteriorate to the point where urban combat erupts? Will anomie set in to a large enough segement of the populace that is armed? Remember, in the civil rights riots of the 1960s, the black populaces were armed mostly with molotov cocktails, not guns, and their targets were mostly structural objects, not other people. Or perhaps there will be some catalytic event that provides the spark. Or perhaps people will just adapt to their fate as was mostly the case during the Great Depression. Perhaps the long declining spiral won’t provide the necessary grounds for combat until a decade or two have elapsed.
    As I said above, there are too many variables to provide any sound prediction of future events beyond that of trends. The best anyone can do is Be Prepared for as many contingencies as possible. That is my plan.

  • In addition, you may have read about the rising levels of theft of finished commodities like copper wire. This story about grease theft is germane to my musings about when combat might breakout in urban areas. We’ve all seen enough crime shows and movies enabling us to visuailize a shootout between the grease gangs and police SWAT teams. If grease is a commodity with a value high enough to be fought over, how soon will “real” food become so?

  • What do you think of a fellow by the name of Daniel Estulin?
    Just curious.
    It is a weird world out there these days for anyone watching.

  • Estulin is an investigator of the Bilderberg Group who’s published two books in Spanish on the subject, one of which was translated to English and was awarded a prize by a Canadian group. I have not read his work, but do know of his target. Last Sunday’s WaPost ran an article that mentions some of its potential members without mentioning the Group’s name. That such a Group exists doesn’t surprise me; we have Chambers of Commerce, and other such organizations built around the need to promote shared interests. For example, every year for some time now, the World Economic Forum has met in Davos, Switzerland in a somewhat transparent manner. The World Social Forum was formed to act as its countervailing force. If you’re really asking if his conclusions about the Group are valid–that the Group has evil designs–I would say yes, while also saying that any organization that hopes to further its own interests at the expense of others is evil a priori, and that would include the USG.

  • After posting “any organization that hopes to further its own interests at the expense of others is evil a priori,” I uttered “oops, that’s how natural systems work–everything exploits something else in order to live–and formed the basis for Social Darwinism, and also forms the rationale for “Nature Bats Last.” I’ve mused on this subject before and believe it forms the basis for the concept of Original Sin. Are individuals that form groups to better their odds at successful exploitation evil? It’s a subject debated for thousands of years and always causes consternation as my need to revisit my words reveals.

  • Thanks karlof1 for the link to the article.
    I remember, when I read *Ideas and Opinions* a recurring theme from Einstein that true “good” and religion (in the good sense of the term) was the move toward helping others and transcending the self.
    Valuing selflessness is probably the only way humanity will survive in the long term…which probably means we’re doomed.
    On the topic of that group Estulin talks about I wonder how much the lack of awareness and lack of planning fits in with their hopes for the future. It has me feeling sheeple-ish.
    Not that it matters, I guess. Building a lifeboat, Professor McPherson has said, makes more sense now.

  • Charlene,
    Back in the 1990s, I used to have a signature for my emails and list-serv stating:
    Knowledge is Power
    Logos=Gnosos
    If you closely watched The Matrix, you understand what it means to take the Red Pill, and that once taken you can never return. You already know a lot and continue to explore, which makes you quite different from a sheeple. The most difficult aspect, IMO, is finding/having someone you can trust, be intimate with, and knows what you know, relatively. And don’t forget to have fun, and to laugh. I find it helpful to read Richard Heinberg’s Muse Letters as he’s far more involved and knowlegeable about our dilemma than I. His current Muse Letter can be found here, and at the top of that page there’s a dropdown menu where they’re archived and can subscribe. I’m sure we’ll converse some more.

  • I prefer tropical locales, where starving to death poses a challenge because of abundant native fruits. Living near the sea is a good idea because fish are damned good for your health. Don’t live on the beach, of course: ongoing sea-level rise should not be taken lightly. The (global) South will rise again, as surely as the U.S. is going down in flames. Small towns filled with locally grown produce and locally crafted tools, characterized by on-again, off-again electrical service, will be good places to live, relative to the land of hyper-indulgence and the Second Amendment.
    Precisely.
    I have my own fishing spot
    located on a secluded beach
    far from crowds.
    Now I’ll have to learn net
    fishing.
    If it appeals to you, do the same.

  • I agree with assertion #1 wholeheartedly but it is much easier said than done. My dream is to buy a sailboat and find safe harbor (figuratively and literally) but like millions of others I am currently in survival mode tryin gto pay my rent, put gas in the car, etc. It is sad that the prophecies you suggest have so much truth behind them and sadder still that many of those in power yearn for the day in which they come to be.

  • Just realized I could also get a link along with my first amendment soapbox 🙂

  • Hello McPherson,
    It is an amazing article. This is an excellent step by step process and its great to see so many people turning their attention about this topic.
    Thanks,
    Peter Parker
    Industrial Product Design

  • I totally agree with you. Just a small suggestion. I seriously thing people should get the REAL facts and figures. Had enough of what the government wants us to know. Let us now drill down to the bottom of all the problems we are facing today. Living in US is becoming so difficult these days. 10% unemployment ratio, 2700% increase in sales of arms in 2008 compared to 2007, financial bail outs for banks, depreciating values of our homes, $35000 per adult as average debt ratio. We really need to stop spending on wars and do something about our economy.
    Jason,
    If you need a sailor, let me know. I wont mind sailing with you, anything to be safe. 🙂

  • I have to agree that this is an amazing article. Thanks a lot for sharing.

  • Many conversations have evolved through the years among friends as to how to deal with “a community” in light of such a scenario. How “specialized” or how “generalized” does an individual, or family or small community become? It hearkens back to the days of the old west. You did it all for yourselves. Trusted no one. Is that any way to live? Not looking forward to such a possibility. In this case there may be an argument for communism here, just in order to survive.