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How (not to) to Organize a Community

How (not to) to Organize a Community thumbnail
Dire predictions made byauthoritative figures can provide the impetus to attempt greatthings: establish community gardens and farmer’s markets, lobby forimproved public transportation, bike lanes and sidewalks, promoteride-sharing initiatives, weatherize existing homes and impose morestringent construction standards for new ones, construct of windmillfarms and install solar panels on public buildings, promote the useof composting toilets and high-efficiency lighting and so on. In themidst of all this organizational activity neighbors get a chance tomeet, perhaps for the first time, and discover a commonality ofinterests that leads them to form acquaintances and perhaps evenfriendships. As neighbors get to know each other, they start lookingout for each other, improving safety and reducing crime. As thecommunity becomes more tight-knit, it changes in atmosphere andappearance, becoming more fashionable and desirable, attractingbetter-educated and more prosperous residents while pricing out theundesirable element. News of these vast improvements spreads far andwide, and the community becomes a tourist mecca, complete with food festivals, swankboutiques and pricy bric-à-brac shops and restaurants.
The undesirable elementis forced to decamp to a less desirable neighborhood nearby. There, it has no choice but to suffer with high levels of crime, but is typically afraid to ask the police for help, having learned fromexperience that the police are more likely to harass them then tohelp them, to arrest them for minor offenses and to round them up anddeport them if they happen to be illegal immigrants. They also learnto be careful around members of local gangs and drug dealers. Sinceofficial jobs in the neighborhood are scarce, they seek informal,cash-based employment, contributing to an underground economy.Seeking safety in numbers, they self-organize along racial and ethniclines, and, to promote their common interests, form ethnic mafiasthat strive to dominate one or more forms of illegal or semi-legalactivity. Growing up in a dangerous, violent environment, theirchildren become tough at a young age, and, those that survive,develop excellent situational awareness that allows them to steerclear of dangerous situations and to know when to resort to violence.
When the fossilfuel-based national economy shuts down due to the increasingly wellunderstood local ramifications of the global phenomenon of Peak Oil,both of these communities are harmed, but to different extents andin different ways. Other countries may continue to function foranother decade or even longer: these are the countries that haveenough oil of their own, as well as those that were far-sightedenough to enter into long-term barter agreements with the fewremaining oil producers that still have a surplus of oil for export.But suppose that our two communities are in an English-speakingcountry, which is likely to be afflicted with the irrational beliefthat the free market can solve all problems on its own, even problemswith the availability of critical supplies such as oil. Just as onewould expect, the invisible hand of the market fails to make itselfvisible, but it is plain to see that fuel is no longer delivered toeither of these communities, although in the second one some fuel islikely to still be available on the black market, at prices that veryfew people can afford. Sooner or later, due to lack of supplies andmaintenance at every level, electricity shuts off, water pumpingstations cease to function, sewage backs up making bathroomsunusable, garbage trucks no longer collect the garbage, which pilesup, breading rats, flies and cockroaches. As sanitary conditionsdeteriorate, diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid reappearand spread. The medical system requires fuel for the ambulances andrunning water, electricity and oil-based pharmaceuticals anddisposable supplies for the hospitals and clinics to operate. Whenthese are no longer available, the surviving residents are left tocare for each other as best they can and, when they fail, to burytheir own dead. Along with the other municipal and governmentservices, police departments cease to function. Particularlyimportant installations are guarded by soldiers or by privatesecurity, while the population is left to fend for itself.
The effect on the twocommunities is markedly different. The first community issuperficially better prepared, being better equipped for emergenciesand perhaps even having laid in emergency supplies of food and water.But being more prosperous at the outset makes a sudden transition tosqualor, destitution and chaos much more of a shock. It also makes ita much more desirable target for looters. Used to living in safetyand enjoying the protection of a benign and cooperative policedepartment, the residents are not acculturated to the idea ofcountering violence with violence. Their response is more likely totake the form of a fruitless policy discussion rather than aspontaneous decision to go out and prophylactically bash some heads,causing the remaining heads to think twice. Unaccustomed to operatingoutside the law and having few connections with the criminalunderworld, they are slow to penetrate the black market, which nowoffers the only way to obtain many necessary items, such as food,cooking fuel and medicines, including the items that had beenpreviously looted from their own stockpiles. Worse yet, they onceagain become estranged from one another: their acquaintances andfriendships were formed within a peaceful, civilized, law-abidingmode of social behavior. When they are forced to turn to scavenging,outright theft and looting, prostitution, black market dealing andconsorting with criminals, they can no longer recognize in each otherthe people they knew before, and the laboriously synthesizedcommunity again dissolves into nuclear families. Where neighborscontinue to work together, their ties are likely to be weak, based onaltruistic conceptions of decency, mutual benefit and on personalsympathies—a far cry from the clear do-or-die imperatives of bloodties or clan or gang allegiance.
The second community isalready accustomed to hardship and, not having quite so far to fall,can take the transition to mayhem, destitution and squalor in stride.The prevalence of illegal activity prior to collapse smooths thetransition to a black market economy. Already resistant to the ideaof relying on police protection, the residents are relieved when thepolice disappear from the streets, and a great deal of unofficial andillegal activity that previously had to be conducted in secret burstsout into the open. With the police no longer stirring the pot withtheir invasive arrests and confiscations, local criminal gangs nowfind themselves operating in a more stable environment and are ableto carve up the neighborhood into universally recognized zones ofinfluence, avoiding unnecessary bloodshed. The children, who arealready in the habit of roaming the streets in gangs and harassingand mugging strangers, now come to serve as the community’s earlywarning system in case of an organized incursion. (Not that too manypeople would want to venture into this area in any case, given itsfearsome reputation.) Lastly, the prevalence of illegal drug dealingmeans that it already has a trained cadre of black market dealerswho, now that official commerce has collapsed, can diversify awayfrom drugs and branch out into every other kind of commerce. Theirconnections with the international narcomafia, whose representativestend to be well organized and heavily armed, may turn out to providecertain benefits, such as an enhanced ability to move people andcontraband through the now highly porous national borders. If thenarcomafia ties are sufficiently strong, a narcobaron may take thecommunity under his cartel’s explicit protection, founding a newaristocracy to replace the now disgraced and powerless former rulingclass.
Community organizing isquite wonderful, and can provide some of us with a perfectly pleasantway to while away our remaining happy days. As a useful side effect,it can provide individuals with valuable training, but it does nextto nothing to prepare the community for collapse. A safe andcongenial environment for you and your children is obviously verynice, much better than trying to survive among social predators. Buthumanity is not immune to the laws of nature, and in nature one canusually observe that the fewer are the wolves, the lamer, fatter andmore numerous are the sheep. The central problem with communityorganizing is that the sort of community that stands a chancepost-collapse is simply unacceptable pre-collapse: it is illegal, itis uncomfortable, and it is unsafe. No reasonable person would wantany part of it. Perhaps the best one can do is to gather all theunreasonable people together: the outcasts, misfits, eccentrics andsketchy characters with checkered pasts and nothing better to do.Give them the resources to provide for their own welfare and keepthem entertained. Keep the operation low-key and under the radar, andput up some plausible and benign public façade, or your nascentcommunity will be discovered, shut down and dispersed by thepre-collapse officialdom. And if through some indescribable processall of these undesirable, unreasonable people manage to amalgamateand self-organize into some sort of improvised community, then youwin. Or maybe they win and you lose. Either way, you would deservecredit for attempting to do something unusual: something that mighthave actually worked.
There may be a few peoplewho would be willing to tackle such an assignment. If they areserious about it, they will stay well hidden, and we will never knowhow many of them have succeeded, because we will only learn of theirexistence when they fail. As for the rest of us, who are itching todo something useful within the confines of existing legal frameworkand economic reality, there is just one path: the path of emergencypreparation, with the added twist that the emergency in question hasto be accepted as permanent. Community emergency preparation is aboutthe only type of officially sanctioned activity that may allow us toprepare for collapse.
The first and obviouspart of preparing for the permanent emergency is to construct systemsthat will allow some, ideally most, of the population to survive inthe long run without access to transportation fuels, or to any of thetechnology that comes to a standstill when starved of transportationfuels. The second, equally important part involves laying insufficient emergency supplies of food, medicine, cooking fuel,temporary shelter for displaced persons, and so on, to allow some,ideally most, of the population to survive in the short run, whilethe transition to non-fossil-fuel-based existence is taking place. Yetanother task is to organize streamlined, military-style controlstructures that can step in to maintain order and to providesecurity.
But the most importantelement of preparing for the permanent emergency is to devise a planto force through a swift and thorough change of the rules by whichsociety operates. Under emergency conditions, the current rules, lawsand regulations will amount to an essentially lethal set ofunachievable mandates and unreasonable restrictions, and attemptingto comply with them or to enforce them is bound to lead to anappalling spike in mortality. The current way of changing the rulesinvolves lobbying, deliberation, legislation andlitigation—time-consuming, expensive activities for which therewill be neither the time nor the resources. There are nonon-destructive ways to decomplexify complex systems, and whilesystems that have physical parts fall apart by themselves, the legalframework is a system that, even in an undead state, can perpetuateitself by enslaving minds with false expectations and hopes. Bydefault, the procedure for those who wish to survive will be touniversally ignore the old rules, but this is bound to cause mayhemand much loss of life. The best case scenario is that the old rulesare consigned to oblivion quickly and decisively. The public at largewill not be the major impediment to making the necessary changes.Rather, it will be the vested interests at every level—thepolitical class, the financial elite, professional associations,property and business owners and, last but not least, the lawyers—whowill try to block them at every turn. They will not release theirgrip on society voluntarily. There is just one institution withenough power to oppose them, and that is the US military. It would bemost helpful if enough high-caliber military types with lots of starson their epaulets could step up and lay down the new law: henceforthanyone who wants to litigate their orders will do so before amilitary tribunal. It is heartening to see that many of the world’smilitaries, the Pentagon included, have recently woken up to thereality of Peak Oil, and are taking steps to prepare for it, whileour craven and feckless politicians and businessmen continue towallow in denial. Clearly, many Americans would rather not live undermilitary rule, but then beggars can’t be choosers, and, in any case,the alternative is bound to be even worse. The United States has notbeen invaded since 1812, but in its short history it has managed toinvade other countries over 30 times. It should not come as asurprise, then, if the United States wraps up its existence byinvading itself.
When taking part incommunity organizing activities, if your envisioned community is tosurvive the transition to a non-fossil-fuel-based existence, it isimportant to keep in mind a vital distinction: is this communitygoing to operate under the old rules or under the new rules. The oldrules will not work, but the new ones might, depending on what theyare. You might want to give the new rules some thought ahead of time,perhaps even test them out, as part of your community’s permanentemergency preparation program.

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