Interview: Ran Prieur

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Ran Prieur is a writer and permaculturist

Avi Solomon: Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Ran Prieur: I am known on the Internet as somebody who writes about dropping out of society, the critique of civilization, sustainability and the collapse. I'm a softcore doomer. I write about why this entire society is unbalanced and a large mistake and why the mistake is ending and how you can, how we can get out of it. How we can live better.

Avi: Who has influenced you the most?

Ran: I always tell people my two biggest influences are Ivan Illich and Charles Fort. Everything I write can be derived from those two guys. Ivan Illich wrote his most famous stuff in the early 70s. He was a big critic of industrialization and centralization and certain kinds of technology.

Ivan Illich was not a primitivist. He thinks that technology can be used very well and can be used to live much better than primitive people but it mostly has not yet been used that way. Ivan Illich was so smart and wrote so clearly that reading him is like looking at the sun. You just read a couple of sentences and then you're like, "Wow! I have to look away, that's too much", and you kind of process those sentences and you go back and read a little more.

I like to think maybe in 10,000 years, humans will be so smart that everything Ivan Illich wrote will seem completely obvious and self-evident. But for now, since he only wrote like 10, 20, 30 years ago, it still seems totally brilliant.

My other big influence, Charles Fort, wrote about paranormal phenomena. He was like the grandfather of paranormal researchers in the early 20th century. In the 1920s he wrote several books where he would go through old scientific journals and pick out anomalies that dominant science ignored and he'd put these anomalies together into a lot of satirical science and satirical theories.

But he also had a very serious side. The key to understanding Charles Fort is the first chapter of his first book, The Book of the Damned, where he's completely serious. After that, he's mostly joking. But what he's completely serious about is a philosophy in which it doesn't make sense to break up the universe. It's a single unified whole and if you break it up into parts and categories, it's like drawing lines on the waves of the ocean. All our systems of thought try to impose, at least our systems of rational thought, a certain kind of artificial order on this undifferentiated whole.

And Charles Fort had this concept called the "old dominant" and the "new dominant," which kind of anticipated Thomas Kuhn's theory of paradigm shifts, where you use a bunch of ideas, and then you get all these anomalies at the end that are excluded because they don't fit. And then finally you get a new story, this might be going a little bit into what Kuhn said, but finally you get an adaptation. You get a new theory that includes all the anomalies and that's the new dominant.

But Fort understood that there's never a final theory. Only the universal can really exist. So no matter what kind of theory you have, you are always going to find anomalies at the edges until you get all the way out to the entire universe, which might be much bigger than we imagine.

Somehow between Ivan Illich and Charles Fort, you can derive most of what I've written.

Avi: You seem to be an underground hero of sorts.

Ran: Well, I don't know if I like to be a hero. I think it was Nietzsche who said that nobody who understands fame wants to be famous. So fame is like a mental illness in the followers of the famous people. I don't think I want to be a hero. I want everyone to try to be their own hero as best they can. I guess I like the underground part of it. It's certainly better to be an underground hero than to be a giant star.

Avi: Who's your audience?

Ran: My audience is a wide variety of people. I've got Anarchists and Libertarians, I've got Christians, I've got... my audience is mostly on the fringe though. I've had emails from people who live in vans, people who have vast amounts of wealth, more than they want to say. So my audience is people who read my website and like the way I think. It's hard to make any generalizations about them except that they're at least mentally a little bit outside the mainstream.

Avi: Why is your 'How to Drop Out' essay so popular?

Ran: That's easy. It's popular because people want to drop out of society. That's the number one way that people find my website. They go on to Google and type "how to drop out of society" and my "How to Drop Out" essay is the top hit on there.

And they come there and they read it. Then, I suppose people like it because I'm not dogmatic about it. I don't know if anybody's read the CrimethInc books. The CrimethInc books are purely motivational books. They're like "Woohoo it's so exciting and drop out and live like an anarchist in the streets and hop a freight train to Bolivia" and "Woohoo quit your job now. Drop out now". All motivational writing is lies. If you take it seriously, if you take it at face value, it's all lies. It's always harder than that. But I still admire the CrimethInc people for inspiring people. It's very inspiring if you read it to motivate yourself, so long as you don't take it too seriously. I try to give more serious answers and explain how difficult and painful it is to live outside the system.

The term "drop out" is problematic but using it for now, people think that it's a fun, easy escape. Like, "Oh we have to do all this dreary stuff in the dominant society and have this job. And if we can just suddenly drop out, it becomes easy". Then they crash and burn. They get drug addicted. They're not able to motivate themselves. It's actually much more difficult to live outside the dominant system than to live inside it. Otherwise, the system would not be so successful.

Given how everybody uses the phrase "the rat race," it's popularly understood that the dominant society is not the best way we can live. And people want to live differently and it's damn hard, that's why so few people do it.

I kind of emphasize that in my essay. One of the points I make that people really seem to resonate with is that you get depressed for a few years if you're in a highly regulated system, highly regularized from the first time we started school. From kindergarten on, we're in this rigid structure where every minute is regulated, especially with the younger kids. When I was a kid, we still had unstructured time, play time in the afternoons. And now, people have everything planned for them.

When you quit that, and you have these vast blocks of time where there's nothing you're supposed to be doing, people get depressed. Even I got depressed, and I like unstructured time. What you're doing during that time is you're learning to self motivate. And it's not easy, you have to, it takes some time and you have to kind of go through a difficult time and almost hit bottom. I don't know why you say "you hit bottom." That's not a good phrase. But yes, you get depressed for a few years when the structure is removed and you have to learn to regulate yourself and motivate yourself in a life inside yourself.

You don't have a life inside yourself because it's been crushed out of you. So over several years you have to grow that life inside of you to the point that it can motivate you to do things. If you persist, you'll get there.

Avi: What does self sufficiency mean to you?

Ran: Well, I'm a little wary of the term "self sufficiency" if you take it in a strict sense, self sufficiency is a lie. Our ancestors have no history of individual self sufficiency. We lived in cities and towns and villages and tribes. They're always, you're always dependent on other people historically. That's the way we've always lived.

There's the ideal of self sufficiency. Bill McKibben wrote a great essay, it's called "Old MacDonald Had A Farmers' Market: total self-sufficiency is a noble, misguided ideal". He starts off talking about how Thoreau was not self sufficient. He would go into town every night to his mom's house for a big dinner. He had friends come and help him out. He was not a mountain man in any way. He was interconnected to other people and people think, "Oh he's cheating. Thoreau didn't do it right. I'm going to do it without cheating." But there's really very few people in history who've been completely self sufficient.

I guess I've here defined self sufficiency differently so that it's a good thing. It just means that you're not over a barrel. It means that nobody's got you in a position where you have to do what they tell you to, or something bad will happen. Especially no faceless institution has you in that position. I suppose arguably you could be dependent on another person where you have to do what they say. I don't know. I don't think so.

I think really, in the ideal society, the ideal system, everybody has the absolute right to say no. The ideal, the root of all freedom is the freedom to say no. Before you can be free to do what you want, you first have to have the freedom to do nothing, which means, you're never in a position where you have to do what somebody says.

So, that's the root of self sufficiency. The trick is to get in that situation where you never have to do anything alone, you have to do it through connections. It's too difficult to do it through mythical mountain man self sufficiency. You have to do it through connections with other people so you have to build communities or find communities around you that will trust you and give you slack to eventually contribute.

Well, that's getting into all kinds of other subjects about community building and how people are depressed. You have to go through a period of depression to get between regulated and free. What happens if you have a whole bunch of people that are going through that period of depression at the same time, who takes care of them? These are difficult questions.

Avi: What's your take on permaculture?

Ran: I'm careful to define permaculture. People have all these definitions of permaculture as this or that. First of all I should say I am a permaculturist. I've got the permaculture certification. I've taken a design course. I went to the convergence last fall. I'm going to go to another event in Spokane, maybe even another event in Seattle. I love the permaculture movement.

But the word "permaculture", I always carefully define it as a brand. Permaculture is a brand like Nike or something. You know, Nike has the symbol. That's all they own, that wave symbol, and they use that wave symbol to subcontract the making of the shoes, and the advertising, and everything.

And of course permaculture is noncommercial, but it's still a brand in the sense that they take this word and they bring all this stuff in under the umbrella of that word. Whenever there's a word that points to something good, inevitably people kind of veer off from reality. They start using that shortcut.

They say, "Oh permaculture is good". And then, things that aren't so good can get in. We're seeing it happening right now with the word "organic" and with the word "sustainable". There's some marginal stuff. There's some dodgy stuff that's getting in there. So sustainability now means "let's continue the Western industrial lifestyle without making any sacrifices". That's a silly definition. And but that's kind of wormed its way into the definition of sustainability.

Eventually, permaculture might point to some stuff that I don't agree with but for now, I like everything that the word "permaculture" points to. I like that it's focused on rebuilding the top soil and growing perennials and growing food and transforming yards into useful spaces, making everything have multiple functions.

There's lots of permaculturists who're into lots of stuff about building. They're pioneering the rocket mass heater which is a great new technology that can greatly reduce the amount of wood we have to burn to heat a small place. So permaculture combines very ancient technologies with brand new ones.

Avi: What has being a caretaker of your land taught you?

Ran: Well, being a caretaker is not that hard. If you've got primitive land that gets decent rainfall you just have to not kill stuff. Mostly, I just let Nature go up there. That hasn't taught me that much.

But what I've learned from is trying to actively do things up there, like build a cabin and plant fruit trees. I've learned that you can't just stick a plant in the ground, unless it's a native plant. I've learned that you can't just stick a plant in the ground and expect it to thrive unless it's a native or invasive. I've planted a lot of plants up there that have died and the ones that survived, a lot of them are just squeaking by. So it's difficult to grow fruit trees and nut trees and berry bushes.

And it's very, very difficult to build a cabin. I bought it in 2004 and I thought, "Oh, I'll go up there next summer and build a cabin". And now, like more than six years later, I've built a 45 square foot cobwood hut. It's going to be maybe two or three more years before I build a cabin. It's a huge job.

So, the land has taught me that it's easy to idealize about all these things you're going to do when you get land, but a lot of these things are very difficult. Another thing it's taught me is to not idealize the whole back to the land thing so much. I go up there for a six day stay, and I go a little nutty in the head. And I'm an introvert. What would happen to an extrovert if they go up there, right? I don't really don't want to spend more than a week up there alone. I want to go back to the city and hang out with other people and get back on the Internet.

I suppose maybe if I had a community of like 50 people up there, that might be enough to keep me from going nutty. But I've given up on the whole isolated, back to the woods kind of thing. Now I'm not thinking of my land as a homestead. I use the Russian term "Dacha". Dacha is like you have a place in the city and then you have a little piece of land in the country with a little cabin on it where you grow some extra food and you can go there to stay. I'm calling it a dacha now rather than a homestead.

Avi: How do you conceive of collapse?

Ran: I call myself a softcore doomer. Maybe 10, 12 years ago I was more a hardcore doomer and I expected big, sudden, global catastrophe. And then year after year, I see people predict that and they're wrong. The system just keeps muddling along.

I had a shift in my thinking after Katrina because I thought, OK, suppose you'd asked all the doomers "What would happen if New Orleans, America's largest port city, got completely flooded and no economic activity in there at all for months?" And they said, "Oh that would be the first domino in the chain. That would knock down the whole house of cards". And then, unless you actually lived in New Orleans, it was a mild disaster. Gas prices went up a bit and life went on about the same. That was part of what turned me into a softcore doomer. Now, I do not believe there's going to be a fast, global collapse. There's going to be, there will be local hard crashes, and globally, it's just going to muddle along and decline. There are going to be some regions that do really bad, and other regions that thrive. I don't think the human population can continue to be as high, and it's going to get really ugly in a lot of places.

Hopefully I'll try to be in a place that's pretty good to go through the ongoing collapse. I call it the ongoing collapse. It's not something in the future. I like what John Michael Greer of the Archdruid Report said. He said the collapse we're now in started in the mid-70s when American oil peaked.

Ever since then we've been in like a stair step decline where things get a little bit worse, then a little bit better, then a little bit worse, then a little bit better, then over the long term, worse. But worse isn't just that the money economy is getting worse, worse is that the big systems are cracking. Every collapse is an opportunity for something else. Every time a door closes, another door opens. And the metaphor I like is grass growing through pavement.

How does pavement turn into grass? The pavement does not physically transform into grass. The pavement cracks and grass comes up through it. That's what I see happening throughout my lifetime and throughout this century.

Avi: Does history keep on repeating in cycles?

Ran: Yes. It has kept on repeating in cycles and I think we're entering towards the end of a pretty big cycle now. The cycle is driven by oil but I do not think this is the last collapse.

People always want to think they're at the end of history. Like, "this is it". That everything is coming to a head right now, and after we're through this great crisis, it's just going to be smooth forever.

Even the most pessimistic people think it's going to be smooth forever because it's all going to be extinct. And then the optimists think we're going to be in eternal utopia. But I think it's going to keep on repeating in cycles maybe forever. At least for a long time. I often say that it's going to take humans 10,000 years to figure out how to live.

I want to be careful with the word "evolution". If you use evolution to mean progress in an absolute sense, you're using it in the wrong sense, in an unscientific sense. But the correct way to use "evolution" is "adaptation."

But, adaptation doesn't necessarily mean we can't get better. There has to be something you're adapting to, and what we're adapting to, what we're not yet finished adapting to I think, is our own human intelligence.

At some point 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, we got so smart that we were able to make these huge mistakes with our intelligence. We can see all the technologies that are coming out right now. Many of them are going to turn out to be tragic mistakes.

The way that our civilizations have destroyed nature and made all these short sighted decisions, we have not yet evolved to use our own intelligence and power wisely. And I don't think we're going to do that in another 30 years if we've only come this far in 10,000 years.

We're still making many of the same mistakes that the ancient civilizations made. So, I think it's going to be a long time before we figure that out, how to use our power wisely. By then, we might have developed even new powers that we have not yet even imagined.

Avi: What advice would you give to a smart kid in high school right now?

Ran: My first advice would be: Whatever you do, don't go into debt for college. This is a point about college that some people don't understand. And that is, the main thing you learn in college is how to think and act like an educated person.

If your parents both went to college, then they raised you, then you already know how to think and act like an educated person. You don't need to go to college to learn that. If you come from a lower class family and your parents did not go to college, then college is much more beneficial to you.

People who've been to college and learn to think and act that way get a lot more respect in the dominant society. Just the way you say words, the way you carry yourself. So that's a big benefit of college. You don't necessarily have to pay tuition to do that. You could learn that by osmosis. Hanging out in a college campus.

When I was in high school, I was completely unmotivated. I did not know how to motivate myself at all. I was just going through the motions. So I went to college because college was the thing to do. It was a lot cheaper back then in the late 80's when I went to college. My parents had some money saved up so I didn't have to go on debt for college.

But, boy, I would not want to be a smart kid in high school right now because unless you're tremendously good at self motivating, it can be hard for you to quit high school and not go to college and find something to do and not just crash and burn.

Maybe I would say go to community college to get your basic stuff out of the way or hang out at a college campus. If you could get a staff job at a college campus, then you can kind of get the college experience, and even take a few classes.

I don't know. I would not want to be a kid in high school right now. The generation that is coming up now is going to have a really tough time. Be adaptable, that's the advice I'd give.

"How to Drop Out," read by Ran Prieur:

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