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Beyond Chaos

By Peter Goodchild

10 November, 2010

We need to keep in mind the big picture: the imminent collapse of industrial civilization. Without keeping the major issues in mind, there is no means of getting a clear idea of the subsidiary ones. There even seems to be an element of psychological displacement here: avoiding the fearful by looking at the trivial. We debate whether peak oil is 2008 or 2009, when in reality it’s a question hardly worth asking, compared to certain others. For example, it seems there will be a famine much greater, in terms of annual deaths, than ever before in history: the famine of China’s Great Leap Forward was 10 million a year, whereas the future famine may be 60 million a year.

I’m not saying such things callously. If I described my calculations with an expression of great sorrow, though, it would be nothing more than phoniness. The truth is that I cannot internalize such things. They will be happening in the future, and they will probably be happening mostly in poor countries, not wherever I myself happen to be living. I don’t plunge myself into grief every time I read a news item nowadays that says several hundred people died in an earthquake or storm, and it would be hypocritical to say I am plunged into grief because my use of a calculator indicates that there will be a horrendous imbalance one day between population and food supply. Or is my self-centeredness an example of the aberrant behavior that often marks traumatic events? Perhaps.

Many debates about the future are “six of one, half a dozen of the other.” In terms of economics, a clear if rather minor example would be the question of mortgages. When I sent out a questionnaire on the subject, I got an astonishing variety of responses, but I suppose they were about evenly divided in terms of positive and negative. At the risk of gross oversimplification, I might say that the “positive” amounted to, “Mortgages are great, because they allow you to live in a house without waiting 30 years to accumulate the money.” The “negative” amounted to, “Mortgages are terrible, because you work for 30 years paying off what amounts to nothing more than a few truckloads of 2x4s and wallboard.” Which of the two viewpoints is correct? Both or neither. It just depends on which you prefer.

Some people seem to think the upcoming events are a sort of trial through which humanity will emerge with civilization intact, whereas I feel that civilization will not survive. I would add that ultimately (I stress, “ultimately”) it will be for the best. What is needed is something “beyond civilization,” although that sounds like mystical hocus-pocus, since I’m not entirely sure of what that would be. A strange thought that has often gone through my head is that we will be like the Australian aborigines, naked on the outside but with a rich interior life.

My own focus right now is on getting back to Canada in June. I’ve pushed my luck here in the Middle East about as far as I can push it. The USD has been falling for months, and I may have had a fair amount of my savings go up in smoke because of the worsening exchange rate of USD and Canadian dollars. (The Omani Rial is officially tied to the USD, and I’ve had to keep most of my money here in Oman.) I’ve now solved that problem, more or less. But even driving a car in this land of terrible highway statistics often bothers me. I’ve got to get out of here while I have the remnants of “a healthy mind in a healthy body,” as Juvenal would say.

How much of my savings actually went up in smoke depends on how I juggle the figures. Nevertheless, it’s an edifying example of events in modern life. It fits into my general impressions of inflation and so on, and my general feeling that things are going to the dogs, and my even more general feeling that one should do anything it takes to put some cash together in the next few years, with the full understanding, like that of a trader in the Middle Ages, that half the profits might be lost to shipwrecks and robbers. Of course, the next step would be to determine the best time for exchanging that cash for practical material goods.

A final point about future events is that many people have serious doubts about the practicality of “going back to Nature,” “heading for the woods,” that sort of thing. They envisage the forests filled with traumatized executives trying to kill anything that moves in order to provide lunch. I think such comments are quite valid. However, I would not put forward the usual statement that “in order to survive, humanity as a whole must return to Nature, go back to the land,” or whatever. I think it extremely unlikely that “humanity” as a whole will survive, whatever decisions are made.

I have several slogans that I like to apply here. One is: “It’s impossible for one person to save seven billion people; it may be possible for one person to save seven people.” Another is: “Instead of dreaming of ways to reduce a population of several billion to a reasonable number overnight, it might be more sensible to think in terms of the medical system of triage: let us save those who can be saved.”

Yes, we have to “go back to Nature,” but there will be so few people who are planning or prepared for such an event that I doubt that there will be any overcrowding. If people have so little knowledge of Mother Nature that they can’t even tell the difference between one species of tree and another, I don’t think they’re likely to survive the first couple of storms they try to sleep through. Most westerners have been utterly divorced from Nature for several generations. They make no effort to re-establish that connection, and they don’t have a clue about how to stay alive in the woods -- which begins with the fact that only a city dweller would think “the woods” are a better source of food than un-wooded areas.

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is odonatus {at} live.com.