How to Survive the Collapse of Civilization

Article first appeared in Alan Moore’s Dodgem Logic #5.

The first thing to know about surviving the apocalypse is this: you’re not going to survive the apocalypse. You’re not special. If everyone dies? That includes you. If the ecological crisis that triggers the collapse (my money is on runaway global warming, personally) doesn’t get you, then the further militarization of our society probably will.

If you want to survive, and I cannot express this strongly enough, you should not go run and hide in your little isolated cabin somewhere by yourself or with five of your friends! (Unless there are zombies.) If you simply retreat and wait for the world to right itself, you’re a coward and not even a very bright one; if you leave all of the work to other people, things aren’t going to come out so pretty. It is this sort of cowardice, this individualistic gusto, that arguably got us into this trouble in the first place. If you stand idly by and watch a fascistic army take control, you will, in the end, die. If you don’t try to organize with people to kickstart a permacultured agriculture to feed people, you will, in the end, die. If you live with two other people and never see another living soul again in your life? You might survive, but you might very well wish you hadn’t. When your appendix ruptures and whoops you forgot that your brother isn’t a surgeon? You will die.

Like it or not, humans are social animals. Our best hope to stay alive, and furthermore, to thrive, after an apocalyptic event is to discover social solutions.

Staying in settled areas can be dangerous too, of course. Hunger does monstrous things to people. But in most apocalyptic literature there’s this assumption that everyone else will join “roving gangs” that pillage the survivors. This will only happen if we let it. We’ve been told by civilization, with its specialized class of rulers and politicians, that we can’t organize ourselves. This is nonsense. Organization isn’t something that we simply get placed into without willing it. Power isn’t something that simply gets used against us. Power is something that we all have, as individuals and most importantly as groups. For example, there’s no reason we can’t form roving gangs that travel around and teach permaculture, medical, and post-civilization organization the survivors instead.

There’s no reason we can’t organize with our neighbors, pool what resources we’re willing to share, and begin immediately to grow food, develop a shared culture, and defend ourselves against the people who try to take it away from us.

And who knows? Maybe industrial civilization will collapse before we hit chain-reaction levels of carbon release. Maybe peak oil will save us from obliterating most all life on earth. Or maybe enough people will wisen up and begin to actively dismantle the industrial civilization that is killing us as surely as an axe might. What then?

Two things: rewilding and community rescue.

Rewilding

Rewilding is the process of turning what is domesticated back into something that is wild. The first thing, the very first thing that honestly we should be doing right now, regardless of law, is tearing up pavement and helping the forest return. Some road infrastructure might come in handy, of course, but there is plenty of space that quite obviously—to the post-civilized—would be better left feral. And every road carved through the forest in essence cuts the forest into two distinct areas. This is most easily observed by getting out of your car and walking a few meters into the trees; only the outside of a healthy forest is a tangled thicket. The inside is quite roomy.

Nature will reclaim territory at its own pace, but in some areas it makes sense to help it along. Desertification is real and it’s scary and it’s something that humanity has been doing for millennia before the industrial revolution. Even with careful replanting, tree farms often last only a few cycles before the soil is too depleted to sustain life. The more that science learns about forest ecology, the more we learn that we’re better off leaving forests to fend for themselves.

I would argue, and I’m not alone, that global reforestation at a rapid pace is one of the only chances we have of preventing our climate from going completely out control. But mostly, we need to let the wilderness encroach back towards us for its own sake. Anthropocentric ideas—that is, ideas that take humanity and its “needs” as an absolute priority—are another of the many elements that led us down this foolish road we’ve called civilization.

It’s astounding, this haughtiness that has allowed humanity to see nature as so inconsequential that we permit coal companies to literally level entire mountain ranges (see mountaintop removal coal-mining in the Appalachian mountains). The fact that we don’t rise in anger against such monstrous acts shows just how domesticated, how tame we’ve become.

As much as we need to rewild huge tracts of the earth, we need to rewild most everything within ourselves.

Community Rescue

After the collapse, much of the infrastructure of our global society will of course have fallen. And those in power will try their hardest to stay in power. But if we organize for ourselves and our communities, the existing governmental and corporate structures may be simply rendered obsolete.

Humans, by nature (yes, yes, we can argue forever about what is and isn’t human nature, but this is my column) work together in times of crisis. When things go wrong, the status quo of isolation is suspended. This is easily observed by waiting for the bus: you stand and wait and no one speaks with anyone else. But as soon as the bus is ten minutes late, everyone is friends.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, people organized collectively to loot food. The government showed up a few days later and started shooting people. And the bureaucratic aid organizations were so bloated and inefficient that some members of the National Guard, their humanity showing through their uniform, smuggled supplies to the anarchist Common Ground Collective. They did it because they knew that the anarchists would actually get medicine to where it was needed.

People always talk about how without the government we’d all just kill one another, but most often the only killing that happens in a crisis is done by the government as it aims to maintain law and order, the civilized status quo, at all costs. (The next bogeyman strawman that anti-anarchists will pull out is Somalia, but Somalia doesn’t lack for governments; it’s full of warlords.)

So our role is simply to help these organic communities foster, the same as we might help forests retake Walmart parking lots. We need to organize in our local areas to meet people’s needs: food, water, shelter, medical care, and culture. And we’ll need to fight against the remnants of civilization as it tries to reassert its might.

Most survival guides focus on the nuts and bolts of individual survival: how to filter your water, how to store food, how to construct shelters out of whatever one might find. These books are useful, and it’s worth keeping a few around.

A lot of my friends keep what some people call “oh shit gear,” or OSG for short. Water purification systems, canned food, topographic maps of the area. Medical kits, with an emphasis on antibiotics and any prescription medicines one might need. Spare eyeglasses. Gas masks and air filters. Protective clothing. These things are worth having around.

At least one group, the Aftershock Action Alliance of New York City, is doing community, grassroots disaster preparedness. They work with their neighbors to develop plans of how the neighborhood can work together to survive catastrophe. They teach workshops on community rescue.

It’s only on the social scale that we can defend ourselves from famine, illness, and warlords. And it’s there that we need to focus.

4 thoughts on “How to Survive the Collapse of Civilization”

  1. The leaders of the world have always and will always be puppets that like the feeling of power and importance controlled by the rich and greedy behind the scenes… It is the peoples actions as a whole that can save man kind through knowledge and forsight involving all our actions. While fools and greedy self rightious scum rule the world we will fail and not too far from now i believe. Failure is often the best lesson
    it seems and to perhaps learn from this mistake we will have to take this one. The worlds population cannot be sustained and is still rising rapidly i see no way out of this problem but to fall first. And big time! Simply and sadly human life is now worthless as our numbers are so extreme as to be to the detriment of all life on earth. This planet is our home but it’s not ours or ours alone.Finaly it is something i will be glad to see the whole world of man fall so hard as never to forget we are at natures mercy not the other way round. Man will cease to exsist i’m sure but Earth our mother and home which we’ve shit on will keep rotating around the sun untill it burns it up. Man won’t even last .00001% of that time i’m sure. Nor do we by any means deserve to!!!!!

  2. Quite right NickG the only thing wrong with the world is that we have over populated it.
    No gov. will ever try (in the western world) to stop the population growing because it it is bad for the economy.
    And lets face it all govs. in the western world are only really interested in staying in power.
    Which sadly is the case 99% of the other govs. in the world as well.

Leave a Reply