Interview with Ran Prieur
May 25, 2006
RP: I've never read any Thom Hartmann, although I do think "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight" is the best book title ever. And I've only read the condensed version of The Long Emergency in Rolling Stone, and that was after I wrote The Slow Crash. I think the crash is going to be slow because when you look at history you see collapses that take decades or centuries. The place you see overnight crashes is in fiction.
Probably my biggest influence in the social/political area is Ivan Illich. Reading Ivan Illich is like looking at the sun -- he's so smart you can only take a couple sentences and then you have to look away and think. Tools for Conviviality is a good one to start with. He's not anti-civilization, but his critiques of industrialization and modernity are much deeper than just "we'll use up all the energy." When you've digested some Illich, or even Daniel Quinn, the whole peak oil movement seems only accidentally relevant. They're focused on one tiny aspect of the unsustainability of Empire, that it runs out of energy -- as if with infinite energy it could keep going forever. I've come to believe it's unsustainable on a metaphysical level. The one idea that's influenced me most is in Jerry Mander's book In The Absence of the Sacred: that the correct biological metaphor for "progress" is not evolution, but inbreeding! We replace what we find with what we make, so we're just burrowing deeper into a world of our own creation.
As for how influential I am, I have several thousand regular readers, but what you want to know is how many people actually do something different because of what they've read. That's hard to measure! It's nice when someone tells me they've been inspired to change their life because of my writing.
BTF: You're a huge proponent of unstructured time. With so much spare time on your hands, what kinds of activities fill your typical day?
RP: Make food, eat, get online, repeat. I answer lots of emails and have several continuing projects on my website. I go up to my land about once a week. And when I'm housesitting I have to do stuff like mow the lawn and get the mail. For fun I play computer games, mostly mid-90's strategy games and Zelda. I never feel like I have too much time, or even enough!
BTF: To "Learn Skills," you suggest, is one of the best ways to prepare for the crash. Everything from food preservation to mechanical repair can be found on your list of practical talents. What sources can you recommend for acquiring this kind of knowledge. What books or classes have you found particularly beneficial?
RP: Everyone's path is different. You've got to start with what you like to do. Even with things you need to do, like learning to make meals from scratch, the way to learn is to make what you like to eat. Then, when you come to something you don't know, you'll be motivated to find a source for that information, or innovate. This is the way humans naturally get good at things. But because we've all been broken by the schooling system, we start with what we think we're supposed to learn, and then go looking for the "teacher," someone or something to fill our heads while we sit passively. That will get you there, but you're much stronger if you make your own path.
BTF: There are many, including most ecologists, who share in your belief that our modern world is a "deadly parasite on the biosphere." A portion of that group seems eager to begin the process of transitioning from our current paradigm to one based on sustainability. After all, the longer our present system is allowed to operate, the more damage it will do. You even include yourself in the group of Americans who "hate this shitty world" and "want to blow it up." Obviously being aware of the unprecedented chaos, suffering and misery that permanent global economic contraction would bring about, how do you rationalize your enthusiasm for such an event? Does a hypothetical end really justify the concrete realities of the means in this case?
RP: That question includes three or four different things. When I say "We hate this shitty world and we want to blow it up," I'm just being honest about what I feel, and what a lot of people feel. There's no such thing as a wrong feeling, and it's generally good to be honest about it. Now another thing is to advocate crashing the system, which is just intellectual masturbation unless you're a leader of a group that can do that. The internet is full of people saying "We should do this or that," and it's mostly shouting into the wind. So I try to avoid that. Another thing is direct action, and personally I don't blow stuff up because I don't feel qualified to force my values on other people like that. My action is to create a positive vision of a different future. What I'm trying to do, in showing enthusiasm for the collapse, is get people in the habit of seeing it as an opportunity and not a loss, looking at the doors that are opening and not the doors that are closing.
BTF: In addition to being a survival mechanism, you imply that "dropping out" is a path to greater happiness. Selections like, "some of the happiest people I know " and "noticeably happier" support this assertion. "To drop out is to become who you are," skirts dangerously close to self-help. What distinguishes your methods from others that promise a less stressful and more fulfilling life?
RP: I don't think there's anything wrong with self-help in general. It's good to write stuff that motivates people to change their lives. The problem is there's a huge temptation to cheat by giving people false expectations. When you say "self-help," you're talking about bad self-help, which I would define as making money from telling people that improving their lives is easier and quicker than it really is. I don't charge money, and I hope I'm realistic about how difficult it is and how long it takes. I've actually just added a new introduction to "How To Drop Out," because I get emails from young people who are overexcited and want to drop out right now, and I have to talk them down, and explain that it's not like walking through a magic doorway. It's like growing a tree.
BTF: "Humans have the ability to go beyond sustainability, to live in ways that increase the richness of life on Earth, and help Gaia in ways she cannot help herself. This and only this justifies human survival."
I found this passage particularly memorable and was hoping you could shed some light on the thought process that brought you to such a conclusion.
RP: Well, there are two ideas there. One is that sustainability is just the middle of the road, and you can go beyond it. That idea comes from permaculture, which is basically a rediscovery and improvement of ideas and techniques of some of our indigenous ancestors, that we can make nature more abundant than it would be without us. Anthropologists are gradually discovering that the most eden-like environments were not the ones where humans left nature alone, but where they actively tended it. Nancy Turner has a great new book about it called Keeping It Living.
The other idea is that the value of humans is in that role. And that's an extrapolation from the personal value system I've developed, which is that we should serve the widest good that we can perceive. It seems obvious, but most people are not living that way. We're trained to serve extremely narrow goods, like how big the numbers are in your bank account. Humans destroy their own bodies to get bigger numbers. That's so narrow it's not even selfish! I'm trying to go the other direction, and serve bigger and bigger goods. And the biggest thing we know, before we leave our senses and move into speculation, is biological life on Earth.
BTF: It's not entirely clear at whom your recommendations on dropping out are aimed. It's been suggested that they include some specifics that might be particularly difficult or even dangerous for women. Certainly you don't expect the elderly to dig through dumpsters and make all their own meals from scratch. And what about the talented, motivated individuals that should be doctors or engineers? Should they forgo the excitement of medical school to wait tables until their brains atrophy from a lack of stimulation? Please indicate potential dropouts that don't include mediocre twenty-something artists and aspiring musicians.
RP: "Mediocre twenty-something artists" is the right wing fairy tale about dropouts, not the reality and not what I write about. The people who email me with success stories are mostly over 35. And I've seen a lot of elderly Asian people picking from dumpsters! If you're fit enough to climb stairs, you're fit enough to walk to a bin and lift the lid and pull stuff out. The reason so much good stuff goes to landfills is not that people are physically unfit, but that they're mentally unfit -- they think it's gross or low-status. I'm trying to help people build that mental fitness, and I try to make my writing as broadly helpful as possible. It's not going to perfectly fit anyone but me, but people are smart enough to take what they can use and ignore the rest.
As for high-status technical careers, when people choose those out of passion, and not out of social pressure, they often get in trouble. My dad was a scientist and he would come home and complain about "politics." Years later I understood what he meant: that you're only allowed to do research that makes the big money bigger, that reinforces the control systems. When that happens, you have a choice. You can abandon your passion and keep your respectable career, or you can stay with your passion and go to the fringe, be an anti-mercury dentist or an alternative cancer treatment doctor or a fringe scientist like Wilhelm Reich. That's a form of dropping out -- you can't do it unless you're already somewhat free, mentally and financially. I want people to be healers and inventors, but do it on their own terms.
BTF: You suggest that individuals will never change their behavior if they believe their continued survival depends on not changing. How does one go about illustrating to the average citizen (entrenched in habit and conformity) that not only their personal survival but the survival of the biosphere rests on them making specific changes to the ways in which they live and behave?
RP: Toby Hemenway has called humans a "just-in-time species." People are going to change when their backs are to the wall. When they're starving, they're going to start eating dandelions instead of poisoning them. Some people won't change even then. I'm not trying to enlighten the average citizen. I think it's a strategic mistake to try to change anyone's mind. No one has ever told me I changed their mind. What they tell me, over and over, is that they already agreed with me, but I put into words what they could not put into words, and now they know they're not crazy.