Communities that Abide

SUBHEAD: Part of Part 2 of a three part series on communities that manage to persist over the long term.

By Dmitry Orlov on 9 July 2013 for Club Orlov -

Image above: French gypsies camped along a highway in 2010 as President Sarkozy targeted Roma for expulsion. From (

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:

[IB Publisher: visit to see the list of traits needed to abide the future.]


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