Gentle Decline 1/19: Community & Carrier Bags
Hello. This issue comes hot on the heels of the last because a chunk of it was written at the end of the last, and then removed for being a tangent. Tangents also make for good new directions, of course. So: one of the things I wanted to do when I set out to write this newsletter was to pick out some overall themes. Possibly, as Venkatesh Rao puts it, aphorisms (dude's been at that longer than I thought; that post is dated 2013). One of these has surfaced as "move inland". Another hasn't quite been pinned down yet, but is circling around "develop useful skills". There's a third, which has been visible here and there in various issues, which I'd like to draw out a bit: concepts around community and sharing resources. I've talked around this at a practical level with respect to housing in Issue 16, but I want to look at it from some other angles now.
In particular here, I want to look at the traditional (for certain values of traditional) forms of disaster preparation, and how they're flawed. My overall thinking about this got solidly forestalled by Cory Doctorow, who wrote a novella about it called "Masque of the Red Death", which is in his recent collection, Radicalized. Some spoilers follow; skip the next paragraph if you're sensitive about such things.
Basically, a finance techbro builds a bunker against the end of the world as we know it, and invites some people to go there with him when things go bad. The people are not friends, per se; he's picked them for resources, for attractiveness, and so on. They hunker down in his mountain fortress, live on preserved food for a while, and then, slowly, discover that the world outside did not in fact come to a grinding halt, and that people in a nearby village are living and farming and eating fresh food and generally having a much more pleasant time than the rich folks crouching in a cut-rate Batcave. One by one, the rich bunker-people come to unpleasant ends, and life continues without them. It's essentially a parable, although short on the traditional metaphor aspect.
The stereotypical view of the doomsday prepper is someone who is collecting up stashes - not really hoards, since nobody else is looking for the goods - of what they think are essentials, in some well-defended bolthole (literally, in some cases; many of these people are American gun-worshippers), into which they can vanish if things go badly, close the steel vault door behind them, and ride out the apocalypse. Some of them even go so far as to fantasise about emerging afterward into a world where they can live as kings.
I'm pretty sure that there aren't too many people taking things seriously who adhere to the stereotype, to be honest. For a start, anyone who actually thinks about this stuff will realise the impracticalities of isolation - unless you have a truly prodigious amount of money to spend, your bunker can't be sealed away from the outside world, and that becomes evident almost as soon as you try to spend one night in it. But there are lots of people who are casually thinking this way, as a someday-maybe kind of thing, if things get bad, etc. These are the people who, in Australia, have heard of the COVID-19 outbreaks and responded by buying up all the toilet paper, or those in the UK who've bought all the antibacterial hand-sanitiser available, or soap. In the same area, though slightly more forgivable, are the people in some parts of Western Europe who were issued a list of things to stock up on in case of quarantine, and who thereby bought up all the pasta in the supermarkets, leaving entirely ordinary levels of rice on the next shelf over, because pasta was on the list, and rice wasn't.
The contrast to all of this individual hoarding and bunkering is community effort, and it works much, much better. Ironically, this is directly true in the case of COVID-19 handling; hoarding all the soap has a negative impact, because what you need is for everyone around you to also use soap and wash their hands frequently. So unless you're going to walk around with a trolley filled with soap and a hot-water tank (although that's not actually a terrible idea for schools or colleges or the like), you benefit more from leaving it on the shelf than otherwise.
But in the medium and longer term, you are far better making sensible preparations, and putting yourself in a situation wherein you're not as dependent on supply chains from distant places. This applies as much to the possible closure of borders for pandemics as it does to anything else I've discussed here. And this works far better if you do it with other people who are reasonably local to you. If you've dedicated your entire back garden to potatoes (and come to think of it, it's March; I need to start getting mine in the ground), then if your neighbour keeps chickens, you can trade potatoes for eggs. If you can clean chimneys, you can trade that for firewood from the guy who has an acre of coppiced ash. And this isn't specifically about building a local barter network which covers all necessities - although that would be a fantastic thing to have - but more about the concept of not isolating yourself, and exchanging resources and help with other people.
Particularly for those of us who can't throw money at solving issues when we have a crisis, a network of people who will help in some way is essential. Even if all they're doing is minding the kids while you move the essential stuff off the ground floor in a flood, that is going to make your work twice or three or six times as efficient. In a quarantine situation, having someone who will check in on you every day - by phone, or knocking on the window, or whatever - and who can alert authorities if you don't reply, is pretty necessary. And knowing someone who has a tractor or a four-wheel drive vehicle or a chainsaw, and can come and use it on your behalf can change a situation from an utter disaster into a short delay.
None of this can be achieved if you're in a bunker, literally or figuratively. And you need to establish these connections before such time as things go wrong, because while there are plenty of people who will help a stranger if they can, the actual ability to do so decreases in times of crisis.
However, this is a good point at which to address the concept of kindness: at the same time, I would strongly advise helping strangers if they turn up and you can do so. First and foremost, I feel there's an actual duty to do so. Your mileage, depending on your upbringing, religion, or beliefs, may vary; that's your own business. Second, it's useful to make new friends; you don't know on first meeting them what skills or resources they have outside of the immediate situation. Third, people you help experience gratitude, and people who you refuse to help don't, and might feel they're entitled to be unpleasant to you in whatever way, up and including stealing your stuff or hurting you. I'm not saying "help people or they'll kill you", but applying common sense and game theory ("always generous") here is a good plan.
Establishing what we can call resilient communities is not a formal process. You probably already have some semblance of one just from friends and relatives. There are things you can do to make your network more resilient, though.
Talk about crises and mitigation strategies. I'm not saying to call a town hall meeting and form a ninety-five-point emergency plan, although if that works for you, go for it. I'm thinking more in the lines of saying "hey, if your place floods again, come up to ours, we can put you up for a few nights" or "my landlord won't let me dig up the back garden - could I plant some vegetables in yours?". Or even "do you know anyone who owns a generator? No? Lidl have them this week, want to go halves on one?". Mentioning over coffee that you're worried about the shed roof coming off if there's another storm, and finding that your tablemate's sister-in-law can make it secure is really useful. And so on. If you want, you can ramp up gradually to the ninety-five-point plan. And at the most fundamental level of human psychology, finding that someone else shares your concerns is comforting.
Look at the skills your network, informal as it may be, has. If you don't know anyone who knows how to make bread, either learn yourself or suggest it to someone else. Similarly, knowing a knitter is good, and you can learn knitting if you need to. Someone who can lift heavy things is invaluable. If you have one friend whose superpower is making phone calls, that saves the rest of you from doing that terrible thing. And so on. You can add skills to the network by adding people, or by someone already in there learning a new thing; both are valuable.
Physical resources can also be spread around. One person owns a generator. Someone else has a workshop. Another has storage space for a bunch of camp beds. Yet another has a cellar. Very few people use all the tools and spaces they have all the time, and sharing is useful.
None of this is new, mind. This is how extended families and groups of neighbours have worked through most of human history; our new habits of living on our own or at most in nuclear families where we're distanced from other people are an outcome of industrialisation and globalisation and other very late-20th-century processes. When I was a kid, my parents took part in a local butchery co-op. Someone kept chickens, someone else kept a couple of pigs, and so on. When the animals were slaughtered, everyone got some. There were about six or eight families in the immediate neighbourhood who took part, and everyone benefited. There were small networks like that all over Ireland in the 70s and 80s; they seem to have largely disappeared since.
And bringing this back to the abstract: the bunker mentality, whether it really exists or not, is what people think of when the words "disaster preparation" come up. That's honestly damaging; we need to have the community approach, the network, be the thing that people think of. Because otherwise all the people who aren't prepared for decline will end up going for what they think is the thing to do, and getting it wrong.
How to establish a narrative of handling anthropogenic disaster as a community is another question entirely, and not one I really have much direction on yet. I'm sort of grimly amused that my approach to history - gradualist and populationist - is exactly what I feel is needed here, and is also just as unlikely to take off strongly, because sudden change and great men make for shinier, more explosive storytelling. Ursula K Le Guin's Carrier Bag Theory of Narrative has a bearing here too. There's a certain urgency about this, though; there are only a few decades at most in which this narrative can be expressed before we're talking about current affairs and recent history rather than a near future scenario.
This issue brought to you by relatively sudden inspiration, wet and windy weather, and most appropriately, time spent with a most excellent household, online and off.
If you feel that Gentle Decline would be useful to someone else in your life, please forward it on and/or show them the subscription link at https://tinyletter.com/gentledecline - and there's also an intermittently updated Twitter feed at @gentledecline. I'd love to have more people reading this and being, in some sense, better prepared for what's slowly coming.