How (Not to) to Organize a Community

October 31, 2010

by Dmitry Orlov

Just in time for Halloween comes a fascinating thought piece about some real-life horror: one vision of how some of today’s most positive community-building activities to could turn on us in the face of declining access to oil. Avoiding this future is another strong reason to do the peace visioning Oregon PeaceWorks has been calling for and facilitating. People who do not want to live in the world Orlov posits must take up the challenge of strategizing ways to avoid it. – Editor

Victims of Our Own Success?

Dire predictions made by authoritative figures can provide the impetus to attempt great things: establish community gardens and farmer’s markets, lobby for improved public transportation, bike lanes and sidewalks, promote ride-sharing initiatives, weatherize existing homes and impose more stringent construction standards for new ones, construct of windmill farms and install solar panels on public buildings, promote the use of composting toilets and high-efficiency lighting and so on. In the midst of all this organizational activity, neighbors get a chance to meet, perhaps for the first time, and discover a commonality of interests that leads them to form acquaintances and perhaps even friendships. As neighbors get to know each other, they start looking out for each other, improving safety and reducing crime. As the community becomes more tight-knit, it changes in atmosphere and appearance, becoming more fashionable and desirable, attracting better-educated and more prosperous residents while pricing out the undesirable element. News of these vast improvements spreads far and wide, and the community becomes a tourist mecca, complete with food festivals, swank boutiques and pricy bric-à-brac shops and restaurants.

The undesirable element is forced to decamp to a less desirable neighborhood nearby. There, it has no choice but to suffer with high levels of crime, but is typically afraid to ask the police for help, having learned from experience that the police are more likely to harass them then to help them, to arrest them for minor offenses and to round them up and deport them if they happen to be illegal immigrants. They also learn to be careful around members of local gangs and drug dealers. Since official jobs in the neighborhood are scarce, they seek informal, cash-based employment, contributing to an underground economy. Seeking safety in numbers, they self-organize along racial and ethnic lines, and, to promote their common interests, form ethnic mafias that strive to dominate one or more forms of illegal or semi-legal activity. Growing up in a dangerous, violent environment, their children become tough at a young age, and, those that survive, develop excellent situational awareness that allows them to steer clear of dangerous situations and to know when to resort to violence.

What Happens When Fossil Fuels Disappear?

When the fossil fuel-based national economy shuts down due to the increasingly well understood local ramifications of the global phenomenon of Peak Oil, both of these communities are harmed, but to different extents and in different ways. Other countries may continue to function for another decade or even longer: these are the countries that have enough oil of their own, as well as those that were far-sighted enough to enter into long-term barter agreements with the few remaining oil producers that still have a surplus of oil for export. But suppose that our two communities are in an English-speaking country, which is likely to be afflicted with the irrational belief that the free market can solve all problems on its own, even problems with the availability of critical supplies such as oil. Just as one would expect, the invisible hand of the market fails to make itself visible, but it is plain to see that fuel is no longer delivered to either of these communities, although in the second one some fuel is likely to still be available on the black market, at prices that very few people can afford. Sooner or later, due to lack of supplies and maintenance at every level, electricity shuts off, water pumping stations cease to function, sewage backs up making bathrooms unusable, garbage trucks no longer collect the garbage, which piles up, breading rats, flies and cockroaches. As sanitary conditions deteriorate, diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid reappear and spread. The medical system requires fuel for the ambulances and running water, electricity and oil-based pharmaceuticals and disposable supplies for the hospitals and clinics to operate. When these are no longer available, the surviving residents are left to care for each other as best they can and, when they fail, to bury their own dead. Along with the other municipal and government services, police departments cease to function. Particularly important installations are guarded by soldiers or by private security, while the population is left to fend for itself.

The effect on the two communities is markedly different. The first community is superficially better prepared, being better equipped for emergencies and perhaps even having laid in emergency supplies of food and water. But being more prosperous at the outset makes a sudden transition to squalor, destitution and chaos much more of a shock. It also makes it a much more desirable target for looters. Used to living in safety and enjoying the protection of a benign and cooperative police department, the residents are not acculturated to the idea of countering violence with violence. Their response is more likely to take the form of a fruitless policy discussion rather than a spontaneous decision to go out and prophylactically bash some heads, causing the remaining heads to think twice. Unaccustomed to operating outside the law and having few connections with the criminal underworld, they are slow to penetrate the black market, which now offers the only way to obtain many necessary items, such as food, cooking fuel and medicines, including the items that had been previously looted from their own stockpiles. Worse yet, they once again become estranged from one another: their acquaintances and friendships were formed within a peaceful, civilized, law-abiding mode of social behavior. When they are forced to turn to scavenging, outright theft and looting, prostitution, black market dealing and consorting with criminals, they can no longer recognize in each other the people they knew before, and the laboriously synthesized community again dissolves into nuclear families. Where neighbors continue to work together, their ties are likely to be weak, based on altruistic conceptions of decency, mutual benefit and on personal sympathies—a far cry from the clear do-or-die imperatives of blood ties or clan or gang allegiance.

The second community is already accustomed to hardship and, not having quite so far to fall, can take the transition to mayhem, destitution and squalor in stride. The prevalence of illegal activity prior to collapse smooths the transition to a black market economy. Already resistant to the idea of relying on police protection, the residents are relieved when the police disappear from the streets, and a great deal of unofficial and illegal activity that previously had to be conducted in secret bursts out into the open. With the police no longer stirring the pot with their invasive arrests and confiscations, local criminal gangs now find themselves operating in a more stable environment and are able to carve up the neighborhood into universally recognized zones of influence, avoiding unnecessary bloodshed. The children, who are already in the habit of roaming the streets in gangs and harassing and mugging strangers, now come to serve as the community’s early warning system in case of an organized incursion. (Not that too many people would want to venture into this area in any case, given its fearsome reputation.) Lastly, the prevalence of illegal drug dealing means that it already has a trained cadre of black market dealers who, now that official commerce has collapsed, can diversify away from drugs and branch out into every other kind of commerce. Their connections with the international narcomafia, whose representatives tend to be well organized and heavily armed, may turn out to provide certain benefits, such as an enhanced ability to move people and contraband through the now highly porous national borders. If the narcomafia ties are sufficiently strong, a narcobaron may take the community under his cartel’s explicit protection, founding a new aristocracy to replace the now disgraced and powerless former ruling class.

Collapse – Like Nuclear War – Must Never Happen

Community organizing is quite wonderful, and can provide some of us with a perfectly pleasant way to while away our remaining happy days. As a useful side effect, it can provide individuals with valuable training, but it does next to nothing to prepare the community for collapse. A safe and congenial environment for you and your children is obviously very nice, much better than trying to survive among social predators. But humanity is not immune to the laws of nature, and in nature one can usually observe that the fewer are the wolves, the lamer, fatter and more numerous are the sheep. The central problem with community organizing is that the sort of community that stands a chance post-collapse is simply unacceptable pre-collapse: it is illegal, it is uncomfortable, and it is unsafe. No reasonable person would want any part of it. Perhaps the best one can do is to gather all the unreasonable people together: the outcasts, misfits, eccentrics and sketchy characters with checkered pasts and nothing better to do. Give them the resources to provide for their own welfare and keep them entertained. Keep the operation low-key and under the radar, and put up some plausible and benign public façade, or your nascent community will be discovered, shut down and dispersed by the pre-collapse officialdom. And if through some indescribable process all of these undesirable, unreasonable people manage to amalgamate and self-organize into some sort of improvised community, then you win. Or maybe they win and you lose. Either way, you would deserve credit for attempting to do something unusual: something that might have actually worked.

There may be a few people who would be willing to tackle such an assignment. If they are serious about it, they will stay well hidden, and we will never know how many of them have succeeded, because we will only learn of their existence when they fail. As for the rest of us, who are itching to do something useful within the confines of existing legal framework and economic reality, there is just one path: the path of emergency preparation, with the added twist that the emergency in question has to be accepted as permanent. Community emergency preparation is about the only type of officially sanctioned activity that may allow us to prepare for collapse.

The first and obvious part of preparing for the permanent emergency is to construct systems that will allow some, ideally most, of the population to survive in the long run without access to transportation fuels, or to any of the technology that comes to a standstill when starved of transportation fuels. The second, equally important part involves laying in sufficient emergency supplies of food, medicine, cooking fuel, temporary shelter for displaced persons, and so on, to allow some, ideally most, of the population to survive in the short run, while the transition to non-fossil-fuel-based existence is taking place. Yet another task is to organize streamlined, military-style control structures that can step in to maintain order and to provide security.

New Rules and Strategies – the Old Won’t Work

But the most important element of preparing for the permanent emergency is to devise a plan to force through a swift and thorough change of the rules by which society operates. Under emergency conditions, the current rules, laws and regulations will amount to an essentially lethal set of unachievable mandates and unreasonable restrictions, and attempting to comply with them or to enforce them is bound to lead to an appalling spike in mortality. The current way of changing the rules involves lobbying, deliberation, legislation and litigation—time-consuming, expensive activities for which there will be neither the time nor the resources. There are no non-destructive ways to decomplexify complex systems, and while systems that have physical parts fall apart by themselves, the legal framework is a system that, even in an undead state, can perpetuate itself by enslaving minds with false expectations and hopes. By default, the procedure for those who wish to survive will be to universally ignore the old rules, but this is bound to cause mayhem and much loss of life. The best case scenario is that the old rules are consigned to oblivion quickly and decisively. The public at large will not be the major impediment to making the necessary changes. Rather, it will be the vested interests at every level—the political class, the financial elite, professional associations, property and business owners and, last but not least, the lawyers—who will try to block them at every turn. They will not release their grip on society voluntarily. There is just one institution with enough power to oppose them, and that is the U.S. military. It would be most helpful if enough high-caliber military types with lots of stars on their epaulets could step up and lay down the new law: henceforth anyone who wants to litigate their orders will do so before a military tribunal. It is heartening to see that many of the world’s militaries, the Pentagon included, have recently woken up to the reality of Peak Oil, and are taking steps to prepare for it, while our craven and feckless politicians and businessmen continue to wallow in denial. Clearly, many Americans would rather not live under military rule, but then beggars can’t be choosers, and, in any case, the alternative is bound to be even worse. The United States has not been invaded since 1812, but in its short history it has managed to invade other countries over 30 times. It should not come as a surprise, then, if the United States wraps up its existence by invading itself.

When taking part in community organizing activities, if your envisioned community is to survive the transition to a non-fossil-fuel-based existence, it is important to keep in mind a vital distinction: is this community going to operate under the old rules or under the new rules. The old rules will not work, but the new ones might, depending on what they are. You might want to give the new rules some thought ahead of time, perhaps even test them out, as part of your community’s permanent emergency preparation program.  Φ

Dmitry Orlov is an engineer and author. His book Reinventing Collapse:The Soviet Example and American Prospects, published in 2008, further details his views. He blogs at Club Orlov.

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3 Responses to “ How (Not to) to Organize a Community ”

  1. VernonHuffman on November 15, 2010 at 11:30 am

    Your point is well taken, to the extent that your stereotypes hold water. Having spent some time in communities of Africa where there has never been much of a government, I think you underestimate the essential kindness of people. Smart folk know that it’s wisest not to make an enemy if you can make a friend.

    I don’t anticipate the Mad Max scenario when the oil runs out. Yes, some who have weakened through dependence on cars will die at home instead of in hospitals. But those who can bicycle to their food sources will be healthier in the long run. Our ancestors lived without oil and we have better technology.

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