May 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Bugging out

By Richard Cooke
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Simon Beer has spent the past five years trying to convince himself that the Apocalypse will be fun. Not that he calls it the Apocalypse. His fellow survivalists call it TEOFTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It) or the Long Emergency, the Collapse, the Shift or the Event, as in, “There may be marauding bands of cannibals post-Event.” But Simon doesn’t call it anything at all. “I guess I’d call it ‘When the oil runs out’,” he says. “I don’t really have a name for it.” So far this nameless thing has been far from fun: it has cost him his job, his relationship and his health, and it hasn’t even started yet.

In the back garden of a modest Blue Mountains home sit the remains of Simon’s meagre preparations for the Event. Even before he became seriously weakened by fibromyalgia, a condition with symptoms that include whole-body pain, he was never the kind of survivalist interested in having a bunker full of tinned food and weaponry. “Those can just be taken from you by force,” he says. “Skills, primitive skills, on the other hand, will be more valuable. If your value is in your head, they can’t take it from you – and they can’t kill you, because you’re too valuable.”

In the moist dirt is a collection of sticks and cord, half-buried. This is what’s left of a broken-down ‘mangle’ trap. Post-Event, it would be baited with meat and an animal hapless enough to pull at it would be crushed under a toppling log. (Today a recycling bin takes the place of the log.) Simon has never caught an animal. “I’ve never even made friction fire,” he says, picking at a muddied stick. “There were so many things I was starting to teach myself, before I got sick.” He does know which weeds are edible, though, and we eat some dandelions and an acrid-tasting sheep’s sorrel leaf before going back inside.

Simon taught himself to read at the age of two. At ten, he could explain the sub-atomic workings of a semi-conductor. Later, his work in physics won him a university medal: “I discovered two new star nebulae. Very minor ones.” But he was already disillusioned by the academy, because “a scientist is someone who finds out more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.” After September 11, he began to read about the theory of peak oil. He was compelled by the idea that vast population growth has relied on cheap oil and that vast populations will use all the oil, or at least make it very expensive, resulting in massive, rapid population decline. After a great deal of reading and thought, he could find no way around this impasse.

“The attraction of civilisation fits so many of the characteristics of addiction,” he says. “It has appeal. It has immediate benefit and gratification. It has hidden costs. My mistake was trying to quit civilisation cold turkey.” For a time he tried to spread the word about peak oil, but soon realised that an end-of-the-world evangelist was just another Jeremiah. He moved back to his mother’s place in the Blue Mountains and started to learn the forgotten skills necessary to survive in the wild: cordage and fire-starting, bush tucker and shelter, trapping and tracking. “I really thought that unless I learned these skills I would die,” he says. “I wouldn’t recommend that others embrace the idea with the same intensity I did.”

Some survivalists arrive at their conclusions through rational thought alone. Some want to renounce society in the manner of a hermit or a religious ascetic. Some are driven by misanthropy, latent or fully expressed. (Analogies between humans and vermin, humans and viruses, are common currency, often buoyed by a quote from Gore Vidal: “Think of the Earth as a living organism that is being attacked by billions of bacteria whose numbers double every forty years. Either the host dies, or the [parasite] dies, or both die.”) There are clues to what primed Simon for his conversion: his mother threw herself into rapture-heavy Pentecostalism; his recalcitrant father built the family house.

But what finally sealed Simon’s conviction was the fact that his beliefs seemed to trigger a personal cataclysm. Soon after he found out about peak-oil theory, he collapsed at a local swimming pool. He collapsed again at his computer. A terrible, gnawing pain took hold of his gut; he lost 20 kilograms in three weeks; his right hand swelled so much that he had to learn to write with his left, one of the few skills he was able to learn after the onset of the illness. Simon was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which is thought to be psychogenic, perhaps a demonstration of the mind’s awesome ability to wreak havoc on the body. Exercise has put the lost weight back on, but he has a prison pallor and throughout the many hours of our discussion he must stay standing, because of the pain.

Some survivalists carry a ‘bug-out bag’, a pack full of vital goods. Simon’s bug-out bag (contents: 1 x small knife, 2 x fire-starters, 1 x roll of parachute cord) was a work in progress when he developed fibromyalgia. He now has a new bug-out bag of sorts, which contains the medicines required if his muscles spasm when he is out of the house.

“Most people can’t prepare, because they don’t know about peak oil and what it means,” Simon explains. “I know, but I can’t prepare.” What about telling others? “Most people don’t want to know, or can’t really deal with it. Besides, if everyone became convinced, the markets would collapse and the process would just happen more quickly.” He smiles serenely at this salient point. Occasionally he will pass on material to a curious friend: “One guy had just bought a brand new Subaru WRX, and the first CD he listened to [in it] was one I gave him, an interview with a peak-oil expert. Not long after, he bought some acreage in Tasmania. Tasmania fares well in climate-change models.”

The only real form of preparation left for Simon is mental preparation. “I’d almost like to become the survivalist version of [the self-help guru] Anthony Robbins: someone who can talk to people about these terrible things that will happen, but make them seem positive.” He has stripped all the pessimism from his webpage, focusing instead on the rewarding skill set of the hunter-gatherer. He makes it sound like an endless camping trip. “I know I might have romanticised it,” he admits. “But I need to. It’s going to happen; I have to make the change seem positive. Happiness is all about the perception of growth, of going forward. So if our current use of resources is imbalanced, then getting that balance back will be an improvement.”

Would Simon be disappointed if the Event didn’t happen in his lifetime, after all the sacrifices he has made? “That’s a difficult question. No civilisation survives forever. It’s a question of if, not when. Things the way they are now, I’d be happy if society managed five good years. Ten, at the most. It’s difficult for me to imagine 30 years.” And if the Event happens now, with him in this state of ill-preparedness? “Oh, I’ll die of course. But then, almost everyone will die.”

For all his careful reflection, there seems to be one factor left out of Simon’s consideration of post-Event life. The first generation of the new human race will be drawn exclusively from a gene pool of survivalists.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 

@rgcooke

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