Loaves and fishes, Transition and survivalism

August 05, 2011
Erik Curren
Publication: 
Transition Voices

As stock markets around the world gyrate and froth at the mouth, the ranks are sure to grow of concerned citizens who aren’t waiting around for the government or the rich to fix things, but have instead taken matters into their own hands.

Pessimists who foresee a quick and nasty collapse of society coming soon and have little faith in their neighbors are working to protect their families. This is the path of survivalism.

Others, who fear that trying to make their household into a castle won’t be enough are outfitting their urban homesteads but are also working with their neighbors to prepare their whole communities, whether that’s their neighborhood or a whole city. This is the path of Transition.

Like many people who fear the effects of peak oil, climate change and economic decline, and who think that anything governments do will be too little, too late, I waver between the two options. Survivalism or Transition?

I Walk the Dark Emmaus Road

When I despair that my neighbors are too absorbed in Dancing with The Stars to know what’s coming and too stoked about their timeshare at Nags Head to care, then survivalism starts to look pretty good.

“We can’t count on FEMA or the National Guard or City Hall when things really go wrong. Good thing we got that rain barrel. Now, with things going to hell so quickly, it’s just not going to be enough to keep buying $10 worth of cans for the basement every week. We need to up it to $20,” so my thinking goes. “And we can’t count on anybody else around here either. If anything, the neighbors are going to freak out when the shit hits the fan. So I can’t just let that .12-gauge gather dust in the closet. We need to practice some shooting this summer.”

But then doubts set in. My family and I live downtown, not out in a self-sufficient compound in the mountains behind a perimeter of razor wire. How could we ever defend ourselves against ravaging mobs, methed-up street gangs or bands of zombie marauders? Besides, our couple of plots at the community garden are sure to be stripped bare long before our cans run out.

Even if we could afford to move out of town right now, wouldn’t it be selfish and cowardly to leave all our friends and neighbors to the tender mercies of the peak-ocalypse if there was something that could still be done right here?

That’s when Transition starts to sound better. Not just more compassionate but safer too.

That’s when I think, if it’s possible, wouldn’t it be better to help our neighbors and the rest of the community to prepare? Then we can help each other out with food. We can form our own neighborhood watch. We can even try to get our city manager and council to understand just how fragile today’s system is and then work with City Hall to evolve everything from emergency planning to the school system to water and power, all for a much lower-energy future.

But I still have doubts and I go back and forth. Catch me on any given week and I could either be for survivalism or Transition.

This week, I’m more for Transition. And this time, it’s all because of Jesus.

A Mighty Fortress

No, I haven’t been born again and I don’t expect to be raptured anytime before the Conference Board releases its August consumer confidence numbers. With apologies to my non-churchgoing friends, I just want to draw on a famous Bible story for a lesson about scarcity and abundance.

A couple Sundays ago our minister, Paul Nancarrow of Trinity Church in Staunton, VA, preached on that day’s Gospel lesson, the Miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves. Of course, I’d heard the Bible passage about bread and fish a dozen times before. But this time, with economic collapse on my mind, the story hit me in a new way.

And this is what I came to: To choose Transition over survivalism, you have to have faith.

I don’t mean you need to be a Christian or follow any kind of religious path, though for me it has been helpful (I also do Buddhist meditation).

What I do mean is that you have to make a mental leap from fear that there’s not going to be enough to go around to faith that, working together, we can create enough for all — even if we don’t really understand how we did it.

Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore

You know the story.

Jesus and his disciples have boated across the Sea of Galilee to get a little peace and quiet after some busy days of teaching. But the crowd can’t get enough, and they follow Jesus and his crew around the lake to meet them at the other shore. Bummer for the disciples.

But Jesus goes with the flow and gives teachings all day. Afterwards, when it’s dinner time, the now-really-tired disciples urge Jesus to send the crowd into town to get their own food. But Jesus refuses, fearing that people might faint from hunger on the road.  So, he orders the disciples to feed the crowd themselves. Then, according to Matthew:

The disciples said to Him, “Where would we get so many loaves in this desolate place to satisfy such a large crowd?” And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” And they said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” And He directed the people to sit down on the ground; and He took the seven loaves and the fish; and giving thanks, He broke them and started giving them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. And they all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, seven large baskets full. And those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children.

Rev. Nancarrow went on to say that the multiplication of the food wasn’t necessary miraculous. It may have just been that, once everybody got together, they realized that each family had brought enough food with them to share with all the others. But even if there was magic in those loaves, the miracle didn’t come from Jesus alone — it came from his working together with the disciples, multiplying the loaves and fishes by the very act of giving them out to the crowd.

That is, a group of people with faith made limited resources go further than the rational mind thought possible.

I Fix My Thoughts on You

If you can work out the kinks of defending your group — and I know that’s at the top of most survivalists’ planning — then survivalism is a rational path to make it in a world where disaster has quickly made food, water and the other needs of life scarce.

Transition, on the other hand, requires faith. The faith to believe that your neighbors and your local government are not hopelessly deluded and completely closed to persuasion. The faith to believe that you and a few believers can succeed at opening minds and inspiring action in others. And the faith to believe that we all haven’t yet run out of time.

If the people of your community are eco-sinners beyond all redemption, then save yourself while you can. High tail it out of Sodom and Gomorrah ASAP. And please, please don’t look back.

Otherwise, you might enjoy these words of Gandhi that I’ve written on a Post-it Note over my desk: “Faith is not something to grasp. It is a state to grow into.”

Then, start giving out those loaves and fishes.

– Erik Curren

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