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Surviving The Oil Crash:
Leadership And Social Structure

By Peter Goodchild

22 September, 2006
Countercurrents.org

The biggest news story of modern times rarely appears in the conventional news media, or it appears only in distorted forms. Ironically, the modern world is plagued by a lack of serious information. Today's news item is usually forgotten by tomorrow. The television viewer has the vague impression that something happened somewhere, but one could change channels all day without finding anything below the surface. But television is only the start of the enigma. What is most apparent is the larger problem that there is no leadership, no sense of organization, for dealing with peak-oil issues.

One might consider as an analogy the Great Depression. During those ten years, everyone lived on his own little island, lost, alone, and afraid. It was a "shame" to be poor, so one could not even discuss it with one's neighbors. The press and the politicians largely denied that the Depression existed, so there was little help from them. In general, it was just each nuclear family on its own - for those who were lucky enough to have a family. Barry Broadfoot, in Ten Lost Years (p.353), records the memories of one Depression survivor:

"Every newspaper across Canada and in the United States always played up the silver lining. . . . There were no such things as starvation, hunger marches, store front windows being kicked in. Yes, they were reported, but always these were called incidents and incited by 'highly-paid professional agitators.'"

A related problem is the lack of ideological unity. While one person has a sort of Armageddon-like vision, stocking up ammunition for the Last Battle, someone else is busy on the Internet asking for ideas on how to make a still for the dozen corn plants he intends to grow. There is a complete lack of agreement on first principles.

Part of the reason for these problems is that many modern societies, including that of the United States, are "individualist" rather than "collectivist." There is a sort of Daniel-Boone frontier mentality that pervades much of modern life. In many ways, this has been beneficial: freedom from tradition, freedom from onerous family duties, and freedom from manorial obligations have perhaps provided much of the motivation for those who came to what was seen as the "New World." That spirit of self-sufficiency made it possible for pioneers to thrive in the isolation of the wilderness.

Yet we must not forget the truism that there is strength and safety in numbers. Individualism might be more beneficial in good times than in bad; Americans seem to adjust poorly to crises. The defects of individualism can seen right within what is mistakenly called the democratic process: political leaders can tell the most blatant lies about economic trends, about warfare, or about transgressions of civil liberties, and the response is a numbed, silent obedience which is puzzling only until one realizes that the individual has little means of behaving otherwise. He is generally lacking in family or friends with whom he can share information or compare ideas, and he is therefore entirely dependent on the news media for mental sustenance. The television set in the living room is an altar on which the average American sacrifices his common sense.

Faced with such challenges, one would at first be lucky to produce a "post-oil community" much larger than one's own nuclear family, before sheer destitution forces people to take a more serious attitude to survival. Fair-sized groups, however, would eventually develop. The society of the future has never been described, but at least a number is available. Scholars in various disciplines have found that a "tribe" of about 100 people seems best. That is roughly the size of the "working group" to be found in most foraging or agrarian societies, as well as in many of the more advance types of society, although there is so much variety among human cultures that such a number is hardly verifiable empirically. Hutterite communities, for example, have between 60 and 160 members. (Much can be learned from Anabaptist organization in general.)

In any case, the question of the ideal political system is essentially not a political matter but a psychological one. Homo sapiens and his ancestors spent several million years living in small groups, hunting and gathering. The group was small enough so that each person knew every other person. Democracy could work because both the "voters" and the "politicians" were visible. It has only been in a tiny fraction of the life span of humanity that political units have been created that are far too large for people to know one another except as abstractions. Small groups have their problems, but in terms of providing happiness for the average person, the band or village is more efficient than the empire.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Chicago Review Press has published Peter Goodchild's _Survival Skills of the North American Indians_, _Raven Tales_, and _The Spark in the Stone_. He has an M.A. in English from the University of Toronto. For ten years he was a teacher in both English as a second language and computer skills; two of those years were spent in Japan. He now owns and manages a market garden in Irondale, Ontario, where he is involved in issues of self-sufficiency and localized economy. He can be reached at: peter.goodchild@sympatico.ca

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