How to Survive Climate Collapse (part 1)

Image credit: Truthout / Lance Page

by Liam Campbell

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” ― Carl Sagan

David Spratt, research director of the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration in Australia, recently warned us that “no political, social, or military system can cope” with the outcomes of climate collapse. The consequences are almost too extreme to process: global crop failures, water shortages, extreme natural disasters, dying ecosystems, and unstoppable climate feedback systems. These increasingly chaotic variables can lead to crippling uncertainty; should you dedicate all of your energy to fighting against greenhouse gas emissions and ecological destruction? Should you balance your time between resistance and preparing for adaptation? What are the skills and resources needed to survive? This article is the first in a series designed to help frame and answer those questions.

I grew up in the wilderness and was a stranger to civilization until my mid teens. Outside my childhood home I could have walked for weeks or months without encountering another human, and I often spent extended periods of time doing just that. It was a difficult environment to survive in because the summers were searing hot, the winters were far below freezing, there was little water, and vegetation was sprase. My classroom was the natural world, my teachers were the native species, and some of my tests were high stakes.  I learned how to quickly build shelters, how to find clean water from miles away, and how to find enough food to survive. It was a perfect childhood, despite many challenges and hardships.

When I moved into the town I was around 14 years old. I found the endless, often arbitrary, rules perplexing and frequently amusing. The “city people” were alien to me. I was utterly convinced that they would die of dehydration if they couldn’t get water from a tap, and that if they were told to walk off a cliff by someone wearing an adequately authoritative costume, they would do so. My amusement with this alternative reality soon turned into frustration. City cultures were full of people whose minds had been filled with often useless information by school curricula that insisted knowing the names and birthdays of bygone presidents was more important that knowing how to grow your own food, purify your own water, or build your own home. I was disturbed by this culture which had stripped people of their ancestral knowledge, of their independence.

Several decades later, my frustration has given way to activism. The brutal reality is that most of us, at least among the English speakers, have no clue how to survive without industrial civilization; which makes us the slaves and victims of that dominant culture. With climate collapse rapidly approaching, one of the most radical things we can do is restore our ancestral knowledge and rebuild the self sufficiency of our families and immediate communities.

Food and Water Security

Fast moving water is generally cleaner than slow or still water. Morning dew is often abundant. Conserving water is as important as collecting it. Sand, rocks, and charcoal purify still water. Trees and bushes transpire. Beaches produce freshwater. These are the lessons we used to learn as children and they provide us with security; indigenous cultures knew thousands of these variations, and specialized them for their local ecosystems over millennia. We need to restore this knowledge and disseminate it widely among our communities, both for our own individual security and also to maintain as much social stability as possible in the midst of collapse. There will be a day when your community attempts to turn on the tap for a glass of water to discover that it’s no longer working, and the ratio of infrastructure downtime will increase until we’re left to fend for ourselves. Communities with better developed skills will be better equipped to avoid desperation and violence.

Likewise, our food security needs to be addressed. Some ecosystems will soon become completely uninhabitable, others may remain habitable but become chaotic and prone to extreme weather events. Most of the food we eat today comes from industrial scale farming, which is entirely reliant on fossil fuels for pesticides, fertilizers, heavy equipment, refrigeration, and shipping. There will come a day, sooner than most people realize, when none of that infrastructure will work. This poses an immense challenge for communities whose farmers have forgotten how to produce crops without tractors and pesticides. Likewise, the average person has no idea how to grow or store their own food, and when the grocery store shelves go empty they’re going to become extremely desperate.

This is why we must prioritize local food and water security, which involves upskilling our communities and also leading efforts to build sustainable local systems. Every child needs to know the basic principles of permaculture, they need to know how to blend perennials and seasonals in regenerative rotations, they need to understand soil balance and which plants produce nitrogen, and they need to learn these things very quickly. Additionally, we need to replace lawns with gardens, ornamental plants with edibles for ourselves and pollinators, and we need to urgently protect the habitats of interdependent species and ecosystems. This starts by forming a group, knocking on your neighbours’ doors, and helping them build their first small garden.

Community Stability

Whether we like it or not, most of us are surrounded by larger communities of people. When people become too thirsty or too hungry their desperations leads to violence, which often ends up exacerbating their condition in a vicious cycle. For this reason, I think the worst possible place to be during climate collapse are cities. By nature of their design, city cultures are largely anonymous, callous, and unsustainable. The only way to feed the inhabitants of a city is to take food and other resources from the surrounding region, which will become increasingly difficult. Scarcity with lead cities to experience worsening class stratification, xenophobia, and misogyny; fear and poverty will also lead to reactionary movements and fascism, as it always does.

Communities will fare better when they’re small enough for the inhabitants to either know each other or recognize each other based on shared relations. I personally think populations between 2,000 and 5,000 are ideal because they’re large enough to significantly share resources and protect themselves, but small enough to be deeply integrated. In sufficiently rural or wilderness settings I would be inclined to live in even smaller populations.

The single most important thing you can do to maintain or prolong local stability is forge strong bonds with your neighbours, and to intentionally do so across preexisting divisions like class, race, and tribe. It’s important to foster a shared identity. One of the best ways to establish these bonds is to lead local permaculture, ecological, and economic adaptation efforts. If it can be at all avoided, never blame individuals in your local community for climate collapse or the worsening state of the world; even if it’s true, you’re now all in this together and those petty divisions can fester into dangerous conflicts as external tension builds.

Also focus on preparing today’s children. The next 10-20 years will be very difficult, but the following 50 years will be inconceivably difficult and we need to provide intensive training for the generation that will be attempting to survive it. Today’s 10 year old will probably be 25-30 years old when civilization as we know it collapses, those of us who are still alive will be relying on them to maintain order and potentially to help care for us as we age, experience illness, or become less independently capable. We will have great regrets if we fail to adequately prepare the next generation for what lies ahead.

Healthcare Essentials

Collapse will be most immediately horrific for people with serious health conditions. I relate deeply to this issue because my own medical condition, if left untreated, will probably significantly shorten my life and result in an unpleasant demise. It will be worse for people with conditions like kidney failure, who will be unable to receive dialysis treatments, or for cancer patients who will be unable to receive chemo therapy. Childbirth will also become increasingly dangerous. The good news is that we can mitigate some of these effects by connecting the dots between modern medical research and the active compounds found in various plants and fungi. Most of the world’s pharmaceuticals were initially derived from medicinal plants and fungi, and indigenous peoples have used those plants (often effectively) for countless generations. There will be increasing demand for local sources of medicine to treat things like infections, chronic pain, epilepsy, and even certain cancers. We need healthcare leaders in the future who are able to connect scientific medical research to processes which employ local plants and fungi.

We also need to improve our relationship with death because, unfortunately, there’s going to be a great deal more of it in the world. Most of our cultures have exacerbated our fear of death, in part because we have become so removed from it. For example, almost everyone eats meat, which obviously involves death, but how many people have slaughtered the animals themselves and processed through those complex emotions? Many of us have had loved ones die, but how many of us have been one of the primary caregivers, washed their body, and cremated/buried them ourselves? We have build entire economies around cultural desires to hide death behind layers of abstraction, and very few of us have learned to deal with it in healthy ways. The dominant culture prefers to pretend that death doesn’t exist; sometimes by ignoring our own mortality until the last minute, and sometimes even by denying mortality at all by propagating superstitions about eternal afterlife.

How we deal with death relates, in many ways, with my final point about healthcare: mental health. Our current frameworks for understanding and addressing mental health are deeply inadequate in the context of climate collapse. As our global and local situations progressively worsen, and as people realize that it will never return to their understanding of “normal” it will cause significant psychological trauma, persistent anxiety, and spiraling depression. I predict that suicide rates will increase dramatically, and I can’t blame those people. Likewise, it will become inceasingly difficult to deal with individuals whose mental health conditions may be significantly disruptive or even dangerous for other members of their communities. We will reach a point where we’re no longer able to access antipsychotic, antidepressant, antianxiety, bipolar, or any number of other mental health medications; this, combined with the intense psychological pressures of collapse will create great volatility among some of the most at risk members of our communities.

Part 1 Summary

This is first article is an overview of the scale of our challenges and some of the most essential priorities (food, water, community, and healthcare). As you can see, we have immense challenges ahead of us and it’s going to be a difficult road even for those of us living in the most temperature ecosystems. In the next article I’ll delve deeper into specific food and water systems, and provide detailed processes for organizing our communities toward those objectives. From a resistance perspective, it’s critical that we begin to address the details of how to resolve these issues. Our communities will be much more supportive of radical, direct action toward preventing global extinction if they feel like their most essential needs can be met in a post-collapse world. If we cannot provide and implement clear strategies for addressing these needs, people will retreat into denialism and delusions, eventually responding violently toward any group or information which threatens their fantasies. This is why we must take urgent action.

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