Where are the Lifeboat Communities?

Since the first serious doubts about the long-term survival of industrial society began to surface in the second half of the twentieth century, one of the most frequently repeated proposals for doing something about the situation has been the building of lifeboat communities: isolated, self-sufficient settlements stocked with the resources and technology to survive the end of the industrial age. Such Seventies classics as Roberto Vacca’s The Coming Dark Age discuss such communities in detail, and these discussions have been picked up and expanded substantially over the half-decade or so since the limits to growth have come back into sight in the form of peak oil.

It’s a plausible notion, and it has the advantage of a solid historical parallel to back up its claim to viability. During and long after the fall of the Roman Empire, Christian monasteries served as living time capsules in which many of the treasures of classical culture stayed safe through the centuries. Buddhist monasteries filled the same function in Japan’s feudal age, and Buddhist and Taoist monasteries took turns doing the same thing through China’s repeated cycles of imperial boom and bust. It’s by no means implausible that some similar project could salvage the best of modern civilization as a legacy to future ages.

Yet it’s curious to notice that all the current talk about lifeboat communities has yet to result in much in the way of action. I know of several groups that are seriously trying to put together the money, people, and other resources to make such a project happen, and doubtless there are others canny enough to pursue such a project without informing archdruids or anyone else about it. For the vast majority of people who talk about lifeboat communities, though, talk is as far as it goes. It would be easy enough to dismiss this as just another example of the common human habit of saying one thing while doing something much less impressive, and doubtless that has a good deal to do with it, but I’m convinced there’s more going on here.

Partly, of course, it’s that the same sort of disconnect between talk and action pervades every cranny of the question of industrial society’s future. In discussions about peak oil or any other aspect of the crisis of industrial society you care to name, people routinely bring up abstract possibilities as though the mere invocation of their names is enough to banish our problems. Solar power, or biofuels, or nuclear fusion, or breeder reactors, or, gods help us, “free energy devices” (the current incarnation of perpetual motion) will take care of the problem, I’ve been told time and again by people who are doing nothing whatsoever to make any of these things happen. On the other side of the equation, I’ve been lectured nearly as often about the evils of civilization and the inevitability of a return to hunter-gatherer economies by people whose utter lack of physical conditioning and basic wilderness skills guarantee them a quick and messy death if they ever follow their own advice and take to the wilderness.

Wish-fulfillment fantasy plays a much greater role in today’s debates about the survival of industrial society than most participants in those debates may want to admit, and the lifeboat community concept is no exception. How many science fiction novels, movies, and TV programs over the last fifty years have centered on some isolated community of survivors heroically rebuilding the world in the aftermath of some global catastrophe? Like it or not, all of us have such images moving through the crawlspaces of our minds, and it’s important to keep an eye on their potent gravitational attraction as we try to sort out fantasies from realities about the future.

This is particularly true in the present case, because the lifeboat community concept has extraordinarily deep roots in American culture. From colonial times on, groups of disaffected people from all corners of the religious, political, and intellectual continuum have set out to build communities in the wilderness, and very often a core element of their motivation was a conviction that apocalypse was close at hand. A direct line of cultural continuity runs from the Rosicrucian communes of colonial Pennsylvania straight through the Transcendentalists, the Mormons, the Sixties counterculture, and every other band of American dreamers who convinced themselves that a better world could be reached by the simple expedient of heading out into the Territories like Huck Finn and building it themselves.

From this perspective, peak oil – and indeed the whole contemporary crisis of industrial civilization – is simply one more excuse for disaffected Americans to dream about doing what their equivalents have dreamed about doing for the last three centuries or so. That the dream so rarely translates into attempts to make it a reality, though, has a tolerably simple explanation, and its name is the Sixties. Many people alive today remember what happened when large numbers of white, middle-class young people left the urban centers where the counterculture had its roots and tried to build a new society in communes scattered across rural America.

It was a grand experiment but, on the whole, a failed one, and the root cause of its failure is instructive. Of the many thousands of young communards who headed back to the land, vanishingly few of them had the least idea how much sheer hard work it takes to grow one’s own food and provide the other necessities of life by one’s own efforts, and not many more had even the most basic skills needed to tackle that technically complex and demanding task. A little pottering around in garden beds with a copy of a half-read book in one hand won’t do the trick. Idyllic fantasies of living the good life in the lap of nature thus collided head on with the hard reality that life in a fossil-fueled industrial economy really is much easier than subsistence farming in Third World conditions. Caught in this collision, most of the communes of the Sixties either figured out how to batten off the larger society through welfare, drug dealing, or some other sideline, or simply let out a few bubbles and sank once the first bright rush of idealistic enthusiasm wore off.

The same challenge faces potential lifeboat communities in a world perched unsteadily on the brink of peak oil. Anyone who wants to pursue rural self-sufficiency needs to check their desire for a modern American lifestyle at the door, and embrace a standard of living fairly close to that of a Third World peasant. Given competent training, rigorous practice, and a high tolerance for hard physical labor day in and day out, a group of healthy adults can keep themselves and their dependents adequately fed, clothed, housed, and equipped with necessary tools, with a little left over for barter or sale; for thousands of years this has been the standard human lifestyle over most of the world, and once the brief era of fossil-fueled extravagance we call modern industrial civilization is over, it will likely be the standard human lifestyle once again. Compared to the relative ease, comfort, opportunity and abundance of a modern middle-class lifestyle, though, the lot of a subsistence farmer is fairly hard going.

If the industrial world faced the sort of quick linear decline imagined by so many pundits of the Seventies and the present day, the transition from a modern lifestyle to a sustainable one would be much easier. Faced with the certain loss of familiar comforts and a future getting steadily worse than the present, many people could come to terms with the difficulties of subsistence farming and learn to enjoy the acquired taste of its pleasures. As I suggested in last week’s post and elsewhere, though, this luxury isn’t one we can count on.

Instead, the most likely course for the decline and fall of industrial civilization is a cyclic process, in which periods of respite and partial recovery punctuate the downward curve that leads into the dark ages of the deindustrial future. The cycles of sustainability outlined in last week’s post pose a daunting challenge for potential lifeboat communities. How many people could maintain their commitment to the hard labor and sparse rewards of a subsistence lifestyle in a period like the Eighties, when energy prices are dropping, supplies seem abundant, and the lessons of the previous energy crisis become at least temporarily irrelevant? If the arrival of significant declines in world petroleum production triggers economic contraction, and thus undercuts the demand for petroleum, another interval like the Eighties is among the most likely outcomes.

What all this suggests is that the central problem that proposed lifeboat communities must tackle is one of motivation. This same suggestion might have been drawn from the historical parallel that undergirds the entire project. The Christian monasteries that preserved classical culture through the last set of dark ages, after all, were not staffed by people trying to preserve some semblance of a middle-class Roman lifestyle while the world fell apart around them. Quite the opposite—the monks and nuns who copied old texts, taught at abbey schools, and kept the lamps of Western civilization burning when they were at their lowest ebb since Mycenae’s fall voluntarily embraced a lifestyle even more impoverished and restricted than that of the peasants among whom they lived. The same point is equally true of the Buddhist and Taoist monastics who accomplished the same vital task in other places and times. Arguably, it was precisely this willingness to embrace extreme poverty that freed up the time and effort needed for the economically unproductive activities needed to keep the heritage of a civilization alive.

The motivating factors that guided the followers of Benedict of Nursia, Kobo Daishi, and Chang Daoling, then, may be among the crucial missing pieces in current debates about lifeboat communities, and indeed the entire contemporary crisis of industrial civilization. To explore this possibility, we’re going to have to take a hard look at one of the least understood and, admittedly, most dysfunctional aspects of modern culture, and talk about the place of religion in a response to peak oil.