How to prepare for “Collapse”

Picture belongs to, visit them to take either the free or the paid permculture course!

Maybe one of the first things to think about before starting a resilience plan is to understand the difference between “disaster” or “emergency” and “collapse”.

Disasters are usually unique events that may become complex by factors that are already present in a given location and time. A disaster in a wealthy place will hit very differently than a disaster in a slum of the same city; a disaster doesn’t create the same challenges for a healthy, fit and middle class person than for a chronically ill and unfit one; a migrant who is already experiencing challenges or differently abled person.

A disaster, however, usually gets things back to normal or bounces forward towards a new normal that may or may not have been “designed”.

A disaster, same as an emergency, breaks the usual flow of resources and processes that are part of a bigger system and may affect many smaller “systems”. Depending on the type of disaster, it may affect food, water, transportation, communication, financial and health systems, just to name a few.

Societies have always experienced some kind of disaster in the form of natural (floods, earthquakes, storms, etc.), human-induced (terrorist attacks, plain crashes, fires, etc.) and have always rebuilt and continue.

Collapse or breakdown are different: they usually are made of many cracks and erosions to systems that we take for granted: from the grid/centralized systems of water, electricity, food, transportation, health, etc. to the more subtle but necessary ones: collapses break the very fabric of our inner (psychological and spiritual) and outer (social) resilience. They influence the rate, risk and impact of disasters and emergencies, because a broken and corrupt system may prevent governments and businesses to do the right maintenance of the grid; may provide an excuse to steal or hoard resources and to not provide enough stability and safety to the population they are suppose to serve.

Humanity has also experienced collapses: many empires and kingdoms, businesses and groups have collapsed: they lost “resilience” because of complexity and inequality and because of overuse of resources, overpopulation, etc.

The collapse we face ahead is very different from that of the Roman or Mayan empires: while it took 800 years for the Roman Empire to fully disappear, it took only 100 for the Mayan to be gone. But they had something in common: they were restricted to a region (even when big) and they were dealing with lower complexity than the one we have today.

Ours (disaster) is a convergence of crises and is happening not in one region, but all over the world. Overpopulation, overconsumption of resources; abuse of ecosystems and other than humans beings; inequality among peoples and hard-to-die systems of power and oppression; deforestation; pollution; destruction of the soils and the huge effect on the climate systems at all levels…there is no escape or easy answer nor solution. There are actually no solutions no matter how beautifully packaged they sold: there is no way to scale up the so called “solutions” and no way to implement them on time or without causing even more harm.

The way out of a disaster and/or emergency is clear and has a few proven formulas that have worked for many of us specialized in disaster planning/emergency preparedness: 1) assess/audit, 2) plan and assign clear roles, 3) train and prepare, 4) implement plans when the disaster hits, 5) implement recover plans and 6) re-assess.

People experiencing disasters or emergencies can almost always count on external help and, if needed, relocate, rebuild and re-start life as it was or very close to it. Disasters destroy stuff and displace people, but they are localized and have an end. We can plan, we can respond, we can prepare. There are plenty of solutions and fixes for disasters, including prevention and mitigation which can be designed using different approaches (permaculture included).

The way out from a collapse – on the other hand, has no formula and no clear path. There is actually no way out but different ways through. There may not be a way to avoid suffering and losses (only mitigate them), and the world that emerges during and after a collapse of a community, country or civilization may be completely different from the one before the collapse started. It may even be an unlivable and unbearable world. To that reality, the only possible preparation and response are “adaptation”.

There are many reasons why there is no real or one-size-fits-all way to prepare for a collapse:

  • Collapses look different in different places and for different groups and individuals, it all depends on what was there before (skills, identity, wealth, access, structures, etc.) and what actually started or fed the collapse (social, political, financial, environmental, resource-wise, or all of it in different grades).
  • Collapses may start with one or two systems and spread through the network: it may be the power grid, the water system, the food system and so on…
  • Collapses usually makes those in power and those holding different grades of privilege to become defensive and authoritarian, hoard resources and cut benefits. That is why collapses usually bring riots and civil wars, even wars. And that also explain why certaing extremist groups and regimes tend to be common before or during a collapse. People look for security and accept things they wouldn’t accept in a time of abundance and peace.
  • Because collapses divide people and create more inequality, they tend to bring further disconnection, competition, abuse, oppression and aggression. In times of collapse abuse and power-over become normalized. People tend to look to the other side. Fear and scarcity become the norm in people’s minds.
  • Collapses are not only collapses of physical systems such as water, food, etc., they are also collapses of values, trust and relationships. During collapses, groups fight against each other for resources, access, power and also about values and beliefs. The easier way is to find scapegoats in “the others”. Suddenly things that were “tolerated” become a reason to betray a neighbour or even denunciate her to the “authorities”.
  • Collapses usually create displacement. People move because the place where they live becomes unsafe, lacks resources or the environment becomes unbearable. Building during collapse is challenging, because what we build may need to be left behind.
  • It is easy to lose sight of any type of hope during collapses, which increases the existent suffering.

Finally, there has been research showing that people react in mostly altruistic ways when a disaster or emergency strikes a place. This is very different during collapses: in general, people tend to become too stressed out and concern with their own wellbeing and that of their loved ones to be altruistic. It is very different sharing and supporting when there is an end in sight and we know external help may come, than when things deteriorate and erode to the point where you cannot trust others. Because collapses work in a long term, and because this one is so complex and global, there is not real place to escape to: eventually the peaceful places to live and work start deteriorating quickly, and fall under the burden of millions of displaced and desperate peoples.

The above is not written to make anyone depressed or hopeless, even if that may happen the first time you read this. It is only when we speak honestly and face reality that we have a chance to do something about it.

Is there any hope during collapse? Is there any way to “prepare” for it?

Well, the “good news” is that probably the majority of the population are already familiar with some type of collapse. Even if it is at the personal (individual or family) level. There is a huge majority living with collapse everyday right now: no need to dig into history and the collapse caused by the genocide and slavery of indigenous peoples in what we now call the Americas, Africa and Oceania, just to name some. Those collapses have just translated into something more subtle: direct and open genocide has translated into the drug, malnutrition, chronic illnesses, depression, addictions and suicide epidemics and the veryday’s violence that kills and disable so many. Slavery has become a different type of slavery: from debt, abusive jobs, a disconnected and uncaring world that robs the freedom from everyone: corporations and governments own lands, seeds, water sources, money, education, and decide who deserves and who doesnt. And the old empires who used to colonize, steal resources and smash all what was different or “not useful” for them, have translated into a new way of colonization and landgrabs, stealing of resources and peoples’ livelihoods.

There is an ongoing collapse in many African, Latin American, Asian and Middle East countries, where water scarcity, power outages, debt, poor access to food, transportation and communication, high unemployment, growing levels of poverty and overcrowding, human trafficking, crime, terrorism and drug cartels that kill more than any war, despotism from governments and those in power, lack of adequate housing and health care and so on are more than enough to say these places and systems are “collapsing” or have already collapsed…(if you have any doubt, watch the movie Capernaum) or take a trip to the slums of Lebanon, Buenos Aires, Caracas or almost any big city in the world, including “first world” places like Vancouver and Victoria (here in BC, Canada).

Obviously, calling  the above “good news” has a double intention. One of them is to make it easier for the middle classes and other elites to digest the concept: if other fellow human beings, and the countless species we are forcing to collapse can take it, why wouldn’t they? The same resilience seed is inside all of us, it is a matter of feeding it well and sharing. The other one has a different intention: understanding that collapse is already happening may put things in perspective and let many of those who hold more privilege think on different terms: it is not about how “you” or “I’ prepare, it is about how we all support each other so the fall isn’t that hard on the most vulnerable.

When I started working on resilience, years ago, I started as everyone else from the more “physical” aspects: water, food, transportation, communication, shelter and so on…but with the years of learning, practicing and teaching or sharing permaculture, ecovillage design, disaster management, emergency preparedness, regenerative livelihoods and food sovereignty, I realized that the most important factor when we are in the middle of chaos is not managing any of the physical systems above (water, food, etc.)…I started watching documentaries, reading books, asking people I work with (refugees and migrants) and even digging into my own past when I lived trough collapses in two different countries…the response started to emerge: resilience is something we carry inside. The worst the scenario is, the more important this skill becomes.

Resilience is what keeps us alive against all odds, it is what makes us helpful and supportive when someone else is in deep suffering or dying, when we are suffering or at risk of dying.

We can learn (and we should learn) other skills too: from wilderness first aid to how to make water safe from almost any source; how to build a shelter, forage or hunt for food, how to communicate without the current technology, start a fire without matches and so on…but we also need to learn how to work with others, navigate conflicts, offer support in the most difficult of circumstances, cheer a child when the walls are falling, make someone happy and grateful as they are dying, accept death and suffering ourselves, accept discomfort, boredom, conflict, risks, unbearable smells, noises and sights…and preserve our grace through all this.

The best way to “prepare” is exposing ourselves now, when we are still “safe” and have the privilege to “try”, to develop practices that keep us strong internally as well as externally. To practice with others, to start sharing our privileges with others now that we still can: share our land, our buildings, our stuff, our books, our skills, our time and energy…

The best way to prepare is to do so with gratitude in our hearts for what we have lived and with the certainty that the future is uncertain and unknown.

4 Comments on “How to prepare for “Collapse”

  1. We humans have been evolving through shared cognitive adaptations for some time already (rather than through biophysical changes) . Now we face an existential crisis whose root causes lie in willful blindness of the errors of our shared cognition. Some of us are not blind… may we have fortitude to continue to give voice to the attitudes and behaviours that will be the foundation of a “true earthling” culture.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting! I wonder if you could share some links to the research about altruism during collapses, the things you write about here: “This is very different during collapses: in general, people tend to become too stressed out and concern with their own wellbeing and that of their loved ones to be altruistic. ” Best regards/J


  3. Very interesting! I wonder if you could share some links to the research about altruism during collapses, the things you write about here: “This is very different during collapses: in general, people tend to become too stressed out and concern with their own wellbeing and that of their loved ones to be altruistic.” Best Regards/J


    • Reserch, as with anything that involves people and more in this case where we are dealing with unprecedent pressures and global collapse (just unevenly distributed), doesn’t help much. I can tell from two collapses: Argentina, a country that has been collapsing for decades and Venezuela, who started its collapse 10~ years ago. Here is something that might help, from other authors and researchers: ““In general,” Knowles wrote, “there is an agreement that people are pro-social” (in other words, they will try to form alliances with each other and help out, just as the commenter argues). “But of course, that has limits based on the perception of government care and assistance, the actions of law enforcement, wealth of the community, stability of communities and families, and age.”, there are many papers, but you can start checking here (an article):


%d bloggers like this: