Chapter 17

Being Ourselves


Find a patch of sunshine or a place where it is warm and still; sit or stand, whichever is most comfortable. You’ll need to put the book down in a moment because I want you to shut your eyes and imagine what it will be like after civilization has gone. If you have ever been somewhere truly wild, even just for a camping trip or a long walk, then that will help your imagination. If you already live somewhere truly wild then this will be an easy exercise; if you are dependent upon Industrial Civilization to provide you with everything then it will be hard, maybe impossible. Imagine no cities, no paved roads, no pylons, no offices or factories – imagine having to grow everything, make everything, do everything for yourself.

Now close your eyes and go there for a while…

*   *   *

Mixed feelings. Loss, emptiness, a sense of solitary isolation. Tough work, endless toil, dirt, disease and death. Rubble, dust, twisted metal and poisoned water; constant battles, tribal rivalries and insectile hostility. Distance; a depraved past and a promising future. Cleanliness, fresh air, fresh water, open to the elements and a feeling of raw, real living. Richness, fulfilment, connection, freedom.

Most of us are not mentally or physically ready to cope with the loss of something we have been made to believe is so important to us. Take away civilization tomorrow and we could fall too far to save ourselves. We have to start thinking like survivors because, one way or another – suddenly, through this culture’s self-destructive behaviour, or more gradually, by our own caring hands – that is the world we will be seeing in two or three generations, possibly only one.

If you are prepared for it then the journey, and the eventual destination can show you what it is really like to be human. Prepare, and your existence outside of civilization can be something that you can only find outside of civilization: something real and truly good.



Civilization has taught us that there is only one way to go, and that’s forwards in a straight line – always increasing, always renewing, always disposing of the past and reaching for something “more”. We rush headlong into the future with overwound enthusiasm, trusting our survival to the blind faith that keeps us moving forwards with the current, getting faster and faster, pulling us towards a place that has not been made, yet one that we are told is the only place to go. We are stuck in a rip current of our own making; sucking us into the open sea, out of control.

It’s surprisingly easy to get out of a rip current: just swim sideways.

We rightly look to the past as a way of understanding how we got here, and also so we can learn lessons about the right and the wrong way to do things; but remember what we talked about in Part Two, about the way we are bound to our temporal life – we have to live for the future, rather than the past: it’s just that there is more than one future. As a good friend of mine wrote: “What we do in the future is what counts. And I think we need to become something new, not return to some earlier state.  Now we have to use our brains and our knowledge to change ourselves in deliberate ways.”[i] Step out of the rip current and step into something else: a more docile, less urgent flow of time, one that understands how we relate to the natural processes of the world, that allows us to grab hold of a branch or a piece of weed as it drifts into our path and see what it has to offer.

Obviously, we cannot turn back the clock. But we are at a point in history where we not only can, but must pick and choose among all the present and past elements of human culture to find those that are most humane and sustainable. While the new culture we will create by doing so will not likely represent simply an immediate return to wild food gathering, it could restore much of the freedom, naturalness, and spontaneity that we have traded for civilization's artifices…We need not slavishly imitate the past; we might, rather, be inspired by the best examples of human adaptation, past and present. Instead of “going back,” we should think of this process as “getting back on track.”[ii]

“Getting back on track.” I like that. Industrial Civilization is a blink in human history; a rapid, artificial cataract on our many and varied courses downstream. Grab hold of something if you can, or step sideways and join a flow that you can control. Here’s how to build your own boat, with its own sail.[iii]

*   *   *

Quite a few pages back now, was a section called “Ways To Live”. Did you notice some things missing from it? I purposefully avoided suggesting technological “solutions” and ways of living that depend upon the system rather than your own free will. Every way of living written there runs counter to the needs of civilization; every change that I laid down is a change that pulls you out of the uncontrollable flowing water. Take Consuming, for example: I talked about reducing, repairing, bartering and donating – all anathema to the Culture of Maximum Harm. What about Travelling: there was no energy efficient technology or government sponsored travel plans; we need to remove our dependence on motorised transport, and the speed we travel, and the distance. The same with Working: no “switching off computers in the office”, no telecommuting, no corporate carbon offsetting – just the simple message to stop living as part of the growth economy.

By following “Ways To Live” you are preparing yourself for a life without civilization; you are distancing yourself, drawing yourself away from the culture that you feel so attached to. The Level One solutions are about far more than reducing our impact on the natural environment – they are ways of stopping the system in its tracks and helping you prepare for when the inevitable happens. When civilization collapses, starting with the inner cities, but rapidly progressing to the infrastructure-dependent suburbs and the smaller towns that have stopped being self-sufficient, then the survivors (I mean those who are really living, not those scrabbling around in a post-apocalyptic swill) will be those who have loosened enough ties with civilization to be able to get on without it. Dmitry Orlov writes:

If the economy, and your place within it, is really important to you, you will be really hurt when it goes away. You can cultivate an attitude of studied indifference, but it has to be more than just a conceit. You have to develop the lifestyle and the habits and the physical stamina to back it up.[iv]

Now we’re starting to discover a few more needs. Physical stamina and strength are necessary: you can’t saw and cut logs, dig half an acre of land or even cycle a few miles to do some errands if you spend your life slumped in front of a computer screen; although it’s surprising how quickly the fat drops off and the muscle builds up once you decide the best use for your hands is something other than pressing the remote control or hitting the indicator lever. Mental strength is equally important – probably more so. Firstly, because unless you have the willingness to keep at it, you can quickly find yourself slipping back towards the “easy” consumer life; secondly, because, however good and complete the living is, adjusting to a life that is fundamentally different to what you have become used to is never easy. Attitude is vital: primarily a positive attitude that, if you are doing something for the right reason, is not really that hard to start off with. To maintain it, though, is something you have to work at. Brent Ladd went headlong into a subsistence way of life that he wasn’t adequately prepared for, so had a tough time dealing with things as they happened. His attitude helped him tremendously:

It is important to know skills like fire making inside and out, but if you're caught in a rainstorm or blizzard or whatever, and you let the weather get to you psychologically – it could mean hypothermia. I am learning that I need a sense of confidence and courage to live the way I have in the past two years. Many doubts have entered my mind about what I am doing. I have had to suck it up and get past the fears and let myself know I can do it. If I fail, I try again.

A sense of humor is a big part of the right attitude. Being able to laugh at myself (I do it often) helps a great deal. When things don't go just the way I've planned, I can either get down on myself, blame someone else, or laugh at myself or the situation. Having been through what I have, I can say that laughter is indeed the best medicine. When I began to live a free lifestyle, my personality also became more free.[v]

Learning to live outside of civilization is possible on your own, if you are uniquely able to deal with everything wild nature can throw at you – but let’s be honest, most of us have no idea what nature is really like close up. In reality, you are not going to be going about this on your own, even as just a family group: you will need others on the boat with you.

You may feel like you want to do it alone, but you have never done it alone. To survive the breakdown of this world and build a better one, you will have to trade your sterile, insulated links of money and law for raw, messy links of friendship and conflict. The big lie of post-apocalypse movies like Omegaman and Mad Max is that the survivors will be loners. In the real apocalypse, the survivors will be members of multi-skilled well-balanced cooperative groups.[vi]

Apocalypse, fallen by the wayside or managed, intentional defection; whatever the reason for living without civilization, community is where you will have to end up living. Looking at the two metre panel fences and brick walls surrounding the homes of the civilized I can see there is a huge difference between the way we are now, the way we were and the way we need to be. I have some photographs of gardens from the 1930s and 1940s in Britain: there are no solid fences, no impenetrable barriers – just a bit of chicken mesh, often to stop rabbits and chickens from getting into the next garden. This was not some halcyon age of evergreen landscapes; the skies were often full of coal smoke, although the amount of carbon dioxide in the air was some twenty percent less than it is now (low enough to keep the Arctic ice frozen) – but people talked to each other. The endless tittle-tattle across the flimsy dividers often crossed many gardens; people would chat in the street, walk along together rather than jump in their cars and drive anonymously from one place to another; people really did leave their doors unlocked because they knew someone would always be watching out for them. What happened? We became so enmeshed in our drive to become economically successful that we segregated ourselves from those that mattered: families have become subdivided by a perceived lack of time and shattered by financial pressures; the age of the three generation household is gone[vii] – the elderly are packed away to “care” homes to live out their remaining years in virtual isolation; children and parents have forgotten how to talk to each other. The segregated society may benefit the economic dream where people compete to materially outdo each other, but as a place for survivors, the segregated society is a hopeless case.

We need people to discuss plans and ideas with, to help us get things off our chests, to laugh and enjoy things together, to just be there when we are feeling low: we need people because humans are social animals. It’s not just a psychological need, though: however multi-skilled we may be, there will always be someone else who knows more than us about something and can teach us; who can lend a hand when a job gets too tough, or we are not feeling well enough to complete it; who is part of a team that has a variety of different roles, all essential, all as valuable as one another. Barn-raising, once so common in rural America but now limited to Amish and other more traditional communities, was – until the advent of building contractors – impossible without the help of a sizeable number of willing workers, all focussed on a single task for the longer-term benefit of the community. A substantial barn could be raised in less than a week[viii] using the combined labour of all those who had the necessary strength and stamina – which, in a self-sufficient community, was almost everyone. But the work wasn’t just about getting something done as quickly as possible: it was a chance to eat, talk, sing, and (except for the Amish) drink together; it was a demonstration of peoples’ confidence in each other. A community or tribe[ix] – for that is where we need to be headed – that cannot rely on its own people is bound to fail: a tribe that draws together, recognises the importance of the individuals within it, and whose individuals recognise the importance of the tribe as a functional whole, can thrive indefinitely.[x]

We all have our own specialities as individuals: many, but by no means all of them, are required in the community and, over time, the tribe. Many of the skills we have learnt in civilization may be transferable, particularly for those who work closely with the land, with people and with materials – artistic skills can also be important for morale. Equally, many of the skills we have picked up in civilization are irrelevant to sustainable living outside of civilization and could be dangerous, for they may be intrinsically linked to the continuation of civilization: make no mistake, there is a trade to be made.

The following list is gathered from a number of different sources[xi], as well as the personal experiences of people I have the privilege to know. It doesn’t contain every skill you may need, for that would imply I could predict everything that could possibly happen to you; but it does provide a starting point over a number of timescales. If the list were any more specific, it would imply that each tribe and group of people working to become self-sufficient is going to be the same: of course it will not. Remember that there is no one right way to live.

Key Skills for Going Beyond Civilization

Short-Term / Emergency (surviving for a few days or weeks)

·        Water discovery / capture, purification and storage

·        Fire making

·        Shelter building

·        Wild food identification and discovery; food preparation and cooking

·        Friendship and community spirit

·        Basic first aid

Medium-Term (surviving for a few months or years)

·        People skills[xii]: conflict resolution; entertaining; consensus decision-making; objective setting and planning; counselling and psychology

·        Sustainable food gathering and trapping

·        Food production (Permaculture)[xiii]: land and soil management; food growing; preparation, storage and preservation; cooking

·        Sanitation and waste management

·        Baby and child care: birthing, feeding, caring, educating

·        Medical skills: first aid, herbology and anatomy

·        Local knowledge: plant and animal lore; meteorology; physical geography

·        Home economics (domestic management of resources – not finance)

·        Building construction and maintenance

·        Mechanics, electricals, chemistry and other useful scientific skills

Long-Term (surviving forever)

This is not so much a list of needs as an idea of some of the key skills you should develop or retain for improving your chances. Notice that none of them are practical – by this stage you will have identified all of the practical skill you will ever need.

·        Sociology and political analysis: to map out options for the society / community / tribe you are evolving

·        Teaching, learning skills and adaptation: to pass on skills and knowledge, and encourage their acquisition

·        History and folklore: to learn from the past and protect the future

·        The willingness to learn

Over the time I have been writing, blogging and make a general nuisance of myself, people have sent me notes explaining how they are preparing themselves for the future in all sorts of ways – going “off grid”; becoming self-sufficient in food; building their own homes away from the dangers of civilization (as far as that is possible); learning about everything they possibly can. Some people who have seen these notes have suggested they are simply dropping out of life and making a move that is the preserve of the affluent few: if you can afford to do it then that’s ok, but what about the rest of us? To me that’s missing the point entirely: we simply cannot afford not to make the change. I applaud the brave few who have taken the plunge. Where they lead, others have to follow.

*   *   *

In the section called Reproducing, I mentioned there was a fourth reason to have fewer children; I can now explain. Civilization needs a continuous supply of workers in order to feed the growing economy, and this feedstock has to be produced for generation after generation. Sometimes “problems” occur, such as with unexpected immigration, which can cause a shortage in the supply of houses, school places, workplaces, prison places and so on – but these are temporary aberrations: civilization is very good at consuming more resources in order to produce more of what it needs as required. As we know, the resources Industrial Civilization depends upon are finite – both the ones that it removes from the Earth, and the ones into which it throws all the crap we don’t need any more – and Industrial Civilization is hitting all sorts of resource limitations which will, in combination, lead to its downfall.

We have to take these lessons very seriously: like all species on Earth, humans have to observe the natural limits we are provided with. When we live a connected life that doesn’t let us ignore these limits, we have to adjust as conditions change, and – if we aren’t able to glean out more from less – one of the fundamental adjustments we have to make is to the number of people living in a particular geographical area. That is why ensuring that populations are kept below the level that can be comfortably supported is critical. Balance is the key: between the number of people you need to maintain a successful community; the number of people that can be comfortably supported; and also the wider world in which you live, so you have no need to intrude on other communities, how ever much the grass may seem greener on their side.

I need to finish this section on a contentious note. A factor that keeps rearing its head in discussions about leaving civilization behind is healthcare: the fear that the moment we step outside of the comfortable arms of modern living we will be subjected to all sorts of medical horrors that will strike us down, and which we will have no defence against. To this there are four things that need to be said: first, the kind of healthcare that has made eternal preservation a distinct possibility is restricted to a very privileged few in Industrial Civilization. Even a nation like the USA which spends more on healthcare per person than any other civilized nation on Earth[xiv] has dramatic health inequalities – if you don’t have health insurance, you only get treated as a last resort. Second, Industrial Civilization may have produced new and innovative ways of fighting human disease, but at the expense of tens of millions of other animals each year[xv], and the release of unknown quantities of synthetic antibiotics and other substances into the natural environment. Third, probably the single biggest killer of newly exposed tribal peoples is the introduction of foreign pathogens to which they have no immunity[xvi] Building immunity from scratch takes time, but in the absence of a glut of antibiotics, most humans are able to increase their levels of immunity to common pathogens quickly; after only a single exposure in the case of viruses. This is not to say that people will not die from disease – that happens regardless of healthcare provision – but medicine doesn’t need to be synthetic, we just need to learn how to find the metaphorical dock-leaf; a skill we have lost in the cosseted world of hospitals and over-the-counter remedies.

Finally, civilization itself is the worst disease of all; not only because of the raft of cancers, diet and habit related diseases and mental conditions unique to the Culture of Maximum Harm; not only because it has turned largely benign, isolated organisms into global killing machines[xvii]; not only because of the complete failure of civilization to equip us with the basic tools to look after ourselves; but also, and primarily, because of the catastrophe that is edging towards us in the form of irreversible climatic and environmental change – all civilization’s doing. Losing your cabinet of synthetic pharmaceuticals and your ambulance service may be one kind of loss; but in the big scheme of things, it’s a loss that has so many gains attached to it.


Giving The Earth A Future

Early in 2006, I started to write on a small and insignificant web site called The Earth Blog. From the beginning it was subtitled, “Giving The Earth A Future”, and people had often said to me things like: “But, the Earth has got a future, it’s just that we might not be a part of it.” That’s what got me thinking, about many things that culminated in the writing of this book: it forced me to get a grip on the complexity of the change that was taking place, which seemed to have no beginning and no end, and which no one seemed to have made any sense of, and it made me realise how far we had lost contact with the real world, and to understand how this could have happened beneath our very noses. Most unexpectedly – I think it was while taking a shower of all things – it brought me to the conclusion that, despite the harm that many humans have inflicted on the Earth, and despite our insignificance as just one of millions of species; to us, we really are the most important things on the entire planet. If we snuff ourselves out then nothing that happens after can possibly matter.

I also have one slightly more pragmatic response to those who doubt that we have a duty to give the Earth a future: if, through the activities of Industrial Civilization, humanity ceases to exist, it will undoubtedly leave a legacy of turmoil. Climatic systems that will take eons to readjust; rivers, soil, oceans and animals full of the toxic by-products of our industrial past; and probably worst of all, at least 70 percent of all species on Earth wiped off the face of the planet in a synthetic replay of the great Permian extinction event that occurred around 250 million years ago – one that was accompanied by the kinds of climatic conditions that we are bringing the Earth towards at an ever increasing rate.

We can look at the results of the experiment called civilization and feel helpless, or we can look at what we have in ourselves, and what remains undamaged on the Earth, and think, “We can do better.” The future is still ours if we have the determination to survive it and, whether you like it or not, the future will be determined by the decisions you make. “Giving The Earth A Future” seems about right in these circumstances, and we have just the solution at our fingertips: all we have to do is wave goodbye to the Culture of Maximum Harm, and learn once again to be ourselves.  


That would have been a good place to finish, but some people are never satisfied. I can’t predict where we are going to end up, but I can predict what some people are going to think upon finishing this book: “What about the long-term future? What about the next 100,000 years, when we might be wiped out by an asteroid; or what about the next five billion years, when the Earth will cease to exist – why are you so concerned about the short term? Why do you want to stop civilization in its tracks and prevent any hope of us stopping the asteroid or hopping from planet to planet in search of other habitable worlds?”

My simple answer is this: if we don’t deal with the next one hundred years, then what happens a hundred thousand years or five billion years in the future doesn’t matter at all. I can offer you a few decades, maybe a bit longer – enough for two or three more generations, but at least a starting point for what comes after. When we have managed to survive the next few decades in one piece then maybe our grandchildren can talk about the distant future; sitting by the sparkling, clean river; breathing in the fresh air; surrounded by an abundance of life.

Does that sound like a plan?

Picture by Sophie Farnish



[i] My good friend is Joyce Emery, also known as Green Granny. You can read more of her wise words at

[ii] Richard Heinberg, “The Primitivist Critique of Civilization”, paper presented at the 24th annual meeting of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations at Wright State University, Ohio, 1995, (accessed 9 June, 2008).

[iii] Metaphor shamelessly taken from Lemony Snicket, “The Wide Window”, Egmont Books, 2003. Children’s literature is awash with allegory and metaphor – my favourite allegory for our controlled, disconnected state is in Harry Potter and the Order Of The Phoenix (J. K. Rowling, Bloomsbury, 2003): read and enjoy!

[iv] Dmitry Orlov, “Closing the 'Collapse Gap': the USSR was better prepared for collapse than the US”, Energy Bulletin, 2006, (accessed 9 June, 2008).

[v] Brent Ladd, “Realities of Going Primitive”, Wilderness Way (2), (accessed 9 June, 2008).

[vi] Ran Prieur, “How to Survive the Crash and Save the Earth”, 2004, (accessed 9 June, 2008). I would recommend Ran Prieur’s essay above all others as an accompaniment to this chapter – it is a mine of useful information in a small space.

[vii] Between 1940 and 2000, the average household size in the USA dropped from 3.68 to 2.59 ( – accessed 10 June, 2008) even as population growth remained steady – in fact the population grew at its fastest rate ever in 1990-2000, during which time the household size continued to shrink. In Scotland it is projected that the average household size will fall to below 2 persons by 2024 ( – accessed 10 June, 2008).

[viii] The circumstances determine the speed of the barn-raising in Amish communities, but as many as 300-400 men could be directly involved in the building effort following a “tragedy” (when a barn is destroyed by fire). Information from Randy Leffingwell, “The American Barn”, MBI Publishing Company, 2003.

[ix] Tribalism is the long-term view of community: a community can exist for a short period of time; a tribe cannot because a tribe has existed long enough to develop its own identity. Specifically, when I talk about Communities, I am talking about groups of interdependent people; when I talk about Tribes I am talking about groups of interdependent people who are no longer dependent upon other communities (although interaction is not ruled out) due to their highly-developed ability to operate as a self-sufficient group. Religious or mystical ideas are not mandatory in tribal living, despite what some purists may think; but sustainability is mandatory, otherwise the tribe will cease to function.

[x] The Transition Town idea provides a useful starting point on the journey towards the independent tribal community: the clue (intentional or not) is in the name. Information can be found at (accessed 1 July, 2008). Beware, though, as some so-called Transition Towns are nothing of the sort, having embraced many of the facets of Industrial Civilization that need to be removed. As I said, this is just a starting point

[xi] One notable reference for the shorter-term skills is Ran Prieur, “How to Survive the Crash and Save the Earth”, (accessed 11 June, 2008).

[xii] Survivalist authors and many others promoting major societal change on environmental grounds tend to demote the importance of people skills, preferring to concentrate on practical efforts, perhaps hoping that the community – whatever it looks like – will turn out fine. It will not turn out fine if you are not prepared to work at relationships and the way communities operate – that is what civilization has assumed; that it will take care of everything and abuse individuals’ reliance on the imposed social structures. Seeds for Change (see are a group that provide training and advice in a number of key areas related to cooperative living.

[xiii] Permaculture is about more than just food production, but is centred on producing the basic energy units required to sustain a community of people. Permaculture principles should be applied wherever possible: advice is available from the Permaculture Institute (, Permaculture Activist ( and any book by Bill Mollison, particularly “Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future”, Island Press, 1990.

[xiv] World Health Organization Statistical Information System (WHOSIS), (accessed 11 June, 2008).

[xv] Approximately 10 million vertebrates are used for medical experimentation each year in the EU, Japan and the USA combined according to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, “The ethics of research

involving animals”, 2005, (accessed 11 June, 2008).

[xvi] According to Survival International “Following first contact, it is common for more than 50% of a tribe to die.” (accessed 11 June, 2008).

[xvii] Bubonic plague would also not have occurred on anything like the scale it did, over three centuries had it not been for trading ships and the exploitation of foreign resources. See Chapters One and Two for lots of other examples.


A Matter Of Scale by Keith Farnish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License.

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