What Would It Take to Live Sustainably?

a forest garden in Barbados, via buckettripper.com

I‘m a believer in experiments. Try things out, learn from the mistakes. Prototype. Converse. Explore. Discover. That’s why, although I am convinced our civilization will collapse over the course of this century, I’m a big fan of intentional communities, the gift economy, polyamory and other alternative ways of relating, permaculture, health self-management, unschooling, and other ‘uncivilized’ ways of doing things.

None of these experiments has succeeded on any kind of scale, most likely because they aren’t meant to scale — they are unique to place. What works in one place won’t work in another because the local resources are different, the culture is different, the soils and land are different. But that’s OK. Whenever humans have tried to scale things, they have made them more unwieldy, less responsive, and dysfunctional. That’s the great failure of globalization and both neoliberalism and neoconservatism — acting on the belief that there’s one right answer, one best practice, for everyone.

The point of experimenting is just to learn, to appreciate what works, which adaptations to this particular place at this particular time are effective and functional, and which are not. Civilization culture is now in full collapse; you can see it everywhere — our political, economic, financial, monetary and credit, social, health, education, transportation, legal and law enforcement, energy, food and water, information and other systems are failing spectacularly, no longer just in struggling nations and inner cities. The overbuilt, ragged, rusty and decrepit flywheel of civilization, as David Ehrenfeld describes it, is coming apart.

It’s a challenge, seeing this happening, just keeping out of the way of the parts of this flywheel as they come flying off in all directions. What do you do to stay healthy when the health system, an unmanageable bloated incompetent bureaucracy corrupted by corporate greed, is imploding? How do you raise your children when you’re already working furiously and the education system is devolving into an expensive and farcical baby-sitting service? Where do you find healthy local food when almost nothing grows any longer within a thousand miles of where you live without the massive intervention of chemicals and irrigation?

Those of us fortunate enough to live in the right place in the right demographic can still make do, for now. And most of us don’t have the time to do more than just make do — the time to experiment with better, sustainable ways of living while trying to avoid the flying shrapnel of a crumbling civilization.

So it might be worthwhile looking at what kinds of experiments might actually be most fruitful, if not for us, then for the benefit of those who will be left, in a few decades after civilization has gasped its last.

If we had to live without any of the ‘benefits’ of civilization — imported food, clothing and other goods, centralized power, water and heating, mass production, gasoline, plastics and other cheap petroleum products, specialized pharmaceuticals, the internet etc — how might we do so sustainably? And what could we do now to experiment with doing so?

This is not about recycling and buying organic at the grocery store. This is a much more radical experiment than that. What do we actually need to live comfortably and joyously? Ancient tribal cultures spent most of their lives in leisure — sleeping and playing (“playing” in the broader sense including music, art and sex) — with an hour a day spent harvesting nature’s bountiful food and water (hardly “work”), except when children were born when some substantial extra energy was spent weaning them. Wild creatures live similarly. But once humans moved away from areas of natural bounty, hunting, agricultural work, and making clothing and shelter for less hospitable climates was needed. This was perhaps our species’ biggest mistake (not staying in climates we were naturally suited to, where we didn’t have to do any work), but that Pandora’s Box can no longer be closed.

So this is what we will need in a low-tech, low-population, post civilization culture: healthy local food and medicines, clothing and shelter for warmth or cooling, a comfortable place to sleep, a social contract for our community, and some simple tools and playthings for artistic and leisure time.

What kinds of experiments could we undertake to provide these, in the context of a small community, now?

I am a big fan of the idea of edible forest gardens — a perennial forest polyculture that, while it requires a generation of nurturing, and a profound understanding of local ecology to establish, thereafter requires almost no maintenance of any kind. This is an ancient practice that has been used successfully to provide ample and varied food to whole communities for centuries in tropical climates and has recently been introduced to temperate climates. I especially love that these ‘food forests’ belong to no one (since in the long term they require no ‘work’, they need be no one’s ‘property’).

Tribal cultures have, of necessity, always found local plants that provide medicines to relieve pain, inflammation and infection. Any successful post-civilization culture will need to rediscover at least these three essential medicines. Hemp might well be a plant of choice, since it can be used as a medicine, a clothing fabric, a building material, and, of course, for recreation. Post-civ cultures might even be clever enough to create foot-powered machines that can spin and weave cloth while also powering lights at night.

We might, then, start to identify the ‘essential’ machines for a post-civilization future, whose underlying technologies we’d want to sustain (and as much as possible locally source materials for). They might include spinning and weaving machines, pumps, furnaces, LEDs, and perhaps even microwave ovens.

A big question is what we can learn from modern building that might be sustained in a low-tech future. We would want the innovations of the best of today’s tiny houses (reconfigurability and optimal use of space), and the energy efficiency of passive houses and radiant heat — but is that possible without using rare materials and complex, petroleum-based technologies? We might want to adapt the clothing designs of Arctic peoples (the ‘perfect house‘), using some modern light-weight, low-care fabrics like Gore-Tex (but again, only if we can figure out how to manufacture them without today’s reliance on mass-production, imported materials and petrochemicals). And is there a way to light our homes and pathways with LED-style highly efficient fixtures that don’t require rare materials, complex construction and a power grid?

What might the ideal, sustainable, locally-sourced, comfortable bedding material be? Natural rubber air beds? Moss? Dandelion latex?

What can we learn from the most successful Intentional Communities about the best forms of community social contract in different situations? Are the failures of representative democracy and all forms of totalitarian political structures inherent, or problems of scale? Might a mix of anarchism and consensus decision-making (not unlike how some indigenous communities operate) be the optimal form of small-community organization?

And how might we relearn to construct musical instruments and art materials from natural sources?

We don’t want post-civilization communities to struggle — few of us long for a return to a hardscrabble impoverished life or dream of a post-apocalyptic neoprimitivism (and if we continue to collapse our ecosystems, hunting and animal domestication won’t likely be viable options) — but we’re going to have to be very smart to mix the important skills of the past and the most valuable, sustainable scientific and technological advances of the civilization era to create societies that are healthy, abundant, leisurely and joyful.

Small-scale, local experiments (that can be replicated, not scaled) would seem to be the best way to develop some kind of handbook for post-civ societies, to enable them to embrace the logic of sufficiency, and to thrive without exhausting resources, and without the need for ruinous industry, hierarchy, growth or exploitation, in concert with all-life-on-Earth.


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5 Responses to What Would It Take to Live Sustainably?

  1. Scott says:

    I’m curious, Dave, to know what your take on Bitcoin and Blockchain technologies is. I understand, of course, that if/when civilization goes down, the internet (and by default) and its associated technologies would go away, but in the meantime, do you see these as good, bad, or just something that will mean nothing in the end?

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Hi Scott. I think Bitcoin and Blockchain are useful and interesting experiments. I think it’s too early to say whether they will have any lasting value, either directly or indirectly. Much depends on what gets destroyed (deliberately or accidentally) in the turmoil of civilization’s end, and how much credence post-civ societies are willing to put in the stories and ideas of civilization culture’s final years.

  3. Lone Raven says:

    Great post and crucial thoughts! :)

    I could write forever about this question, but instead I’ll zero in on one sentence:

    “…using some modern light-weight, low-care fabrics like Gore-Tex (but again, only if we can figure out how to manufacture them without today’s reliance on mass-production, imported materials and petrochemicals)…”

    The thing is about all modern technologies is that they are bound to systems that preclude sustainability in any meaningful sense. Division of labor leads to drudgery and alienation, inequality, heteronomous politics, and environmental degradation. We will, as John Zerzan has written about at length, need to find lifeways that are basically primitive, in order to not fall back into the same traps of civilisation.

    Another way of putting this is: who’s gonna volunteer to get down in the mine, or do the smelting, or even work the loom?

  4. Omkari says:

    Hi Dave,

    I have enjoyed reading your many musings. I am living your idea of the small scale experiments. We live in a rural area, on acreage in a temperate rain forest. My experiences range from integrating livestock into food forests, unschooling my daughter (she has a love for math and science and going to university next year), using herbs as food and medicine (hemp is great but there are so many lovely herbs around that don’t require tending) and developing other earth based skills. I am questioning this idea of leisure time and drudgery. When you are doing something that interests you, it doesn’t feel like work. Different folks have different talents and people will always find way to create art and music. If one looks at weaving cloth as drudgery and not a way to bond socially then intentional community is lost. I know many people work in jobs they hate and relate any ideas of “work” to this same feeling. Living takes a degree of work and creating sustainability or an intentional community takes energy and hopefully happy energy. @ Lone Raven-I would volunteer to work the loom, dig the garden and make clean and beautiful spaces; there is fulfillment and pleasure in being close to and honoring the earth. Creating successful sustainable communities have much more to do with letting go of patterns of thinking and ways of being. Collapse happens in uneven and unpredictable ways. If one has to turn to a handbook to figure out how to live I’m afraid the lessons will come much harder.

  5. Sadly Chris says:

    Our locally-sourced microwave comes from Tesco, lol. It’s only four miles up the road…

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