Foraging for the Apocalypse
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And I looked, and beheld a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
What is the Apocalypse?
If we’re going to talk about foraging for the apocalypse, we first need to talk about the meaning of the word. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “apocalypse” is defined as “one of the Jewish and Christian writings of 200 b.c. to a.d. 150 marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom.” Further definitions include “something viewed as a prophetic revelation” and “a great disaster.”
When I hear the word “apocalypse,” I don’t personally think of a biblical epic of God smiting the wicked, and I would argue that most people these days don’t think of it that way, either. Most often I hear the term used in the context of “zombie apocalypse,” which of course has a lot to do with our popular culture. However, “zombie apocalypse” has also become a colloquial euphemism for things going very badly in the world, things that have nothing to do with zombies, such as imminent catastrophe due to uncontrolled climate change, or the threat of fascism with the rise of the militant far right.
So what do I mean when I use the term? I mean, basically, “a great disaster;” one with far-reaching effects across countries, continents, or the world; and, importantly, one with no foreseeable return to normality. This stands in contrast to small-scale, short-term survival situations, such as being lost in the wilderness; or large-scale, short-term disasters such as wars, floods, or famines. An example of an apocalyptic scenario, under this definition, would be widespread nuclear war and a resulting nuclear winter.
The Myth of the Lone Survivalist
Our modern culture, with its emphasis on the individual, has built up a certain myth around survival. The popular idea is that it is best accomplished by macho woodsmen with giant knives and hoards of guns and ammo, who make it through based solely on their sheer strength and intelligence. This idea can be attributed to “reality” TV shows like Survivorman and Man vs. Wild, as well as fictional accounts, like the actual zombie movie World War Z. Even when the protagonist is a woman, it’s still the same story of guns, grit, and survival of the fittest. The ideals of rugged individualism and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” are pervasive in this culture, especially in the United States. I’ve often come across the belief that the best way to survive a post-apocalyptic hellscape is to isolate yourself in the woods with piles of guns, ammo, and provisions.
I beg to differ.
Maybe that’s a relevant strategy in a short-term survival situation for some people. But remember, we’re talking about the apocalypse. We’re talking about never having access to modern amenities ever again. We’re talking about millions or billions of people desperately clinging to life and continuously searching out ways to prolong their existence, which includes stealing from your convenient stash of vital supplies. Realistically, does one isolated person withstand those odds indefinitely? The movies would tell you that if that individual has enough determination, then yes; but I say no. I would argue that even a couple or a small family doesn’t stand a chance against those odds. Because what we actually need is community.
There’s a reason humans didn’t evolve as solitary hunters like mountain lions or bears. It’s because we need community to meet all of our needs. This includes not just physical needs like water, food, clothing, and shelter, but emotional and spiritual needs. A nuclear family can’t sustain those things indefinitely without the help of a greater civilization. And if we’re talking about a truly apocalyptic scenario, then civilization is either destroyed, seriously compromised, or unreachable.
While there are instances of individuals or small families surviving in the woods alone— see for example, the story of the North Pond Hermit— these situations are rare; furthermore, many don’t take place in the context of a greater catastrophe in which everyone around them is vying for the same resources. Even in instances that occur during a war or genocide, those disasters have a foreseeable end, which means the person doesn’t have to survive indefinitely on their own. Moreover, it’s an issue of odds; the odds of survival are simply greater when people stick together.
Will Foraging Save Us?
If you’re at all knowledgable about foraging, you’ve probably been told something along the lines of “I’m sticking with you if stuff hits the fan!” But is knowledge of foraging enough to ensure survival? Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that foraging is somehow able to feed everyone. Then there’s still the issue of getting clean water, shelter, fuel, medicine, clothing, and everything else we need to live. Keep in mind that people are diverse and have diverse needs. For example, I’m a type one diabetic, so without regular injections of insulin I’ll die. Many other people who are chronically ill, disabled, or otherwise dependent on modern technology would face the same fate. So for us, obviously, survival is more complicated. In a post-apocalyptic scenario, modern inventions would likely still be around for quite a while. Houses, cars, factory-produced clothing, pharmaceuticals, food supplies, etc. wouldn’t disappear overnight. However, their use might be limited if there’s no electricity or if massive damage to infrastructure occurred. For example, I could stockpile all the insulin I can get my hands on, but without refrigeration it wouldn’t last more than 30 days. Furthermore, those modern inventions would suddenly become limited resources, with everyone scrambling to secure their own supply.
Despite all this, foraging would probably still be useful for long-term survival. And by “long-term,” I mean not only a full lifetime, but the lifetimes of future generations. Other important skills may include hunting, trapping, farming, permaculture, carpentry, mechanics, medicine-making, sewing, fiber arts, scouting, self defense, and many others. Also important is knowledge of the surrounding land— location of water sources, rich soil, hiding places; what other living things inhabit the land; how much harvesting is sustainable into perpetuity. Not often mentioned, but also important, are emotional and spiritual skills. With everyone living together in an intensely stressful environment, conflicts are bound to arise— a lot. Having someone (or several people) who can soothe frayed emotions and bring unity of purpose to a group is important to keeping things running as smoothly as possible.
This why community is vital to survival! A single person can’t be proficient in all these skills or hold all this knowledge. Furthermore, community is necessary for aiding vulnerable members of our society, such as children, the elderly, people with chronic illness, and disabled people. Survival isn’t solely for tough-as-nails macho men with expert marksmanship. Everybody has a chance at living, regardless of how many skills they’ve amassed or how valuable those skills are deemed.
How Foraging Can Help
I would argue that foraging is actually more useful when practiced and integrated into society before the apocalypse, to ease the transition into a post-apocalyptic world. This is because:
Foraging diversifies the food supply. Right now, only thirty species of plants produce 95% of human calories and protein. Half of our food comes from only four species: rice, maize, wheat, and potato. This, despite there being an estimated 80,000 edible plant species on the planet. (source) It’s easy to see just how fragile this food system is. In the event of a blight, or if climatic conditions become adverse to our current crops, a huge portion of our food supply would be wiped out. Foraging can help with this by building dependence on a variety of plants, increasing the odds that some will withstand droughts, floods, diseases, pests, and other natural disasters.
Foraging localizes the food supply. We can look to WW1 and WW2 for examples of how large-scale disasters disrupt the supply chain and necessitate food rationing. An apocalypse would, of course, disrupt or obliterate modern distribution methods, making it necessary to depend on local supplies. Foraging can be done right where you are— no dependence on modern systems of transportation required.
Foraging builds community. Food in general has the ability to bring people together, and foraging in particular creates intentional spaces. Asking people for permission to pick from their property, harvesting and eating together, discovering bountiful populations of wild edibles as a group, and teaching others about wild foods all establish connections and build relationships. As previously discussed, community is crucial to promoting survival in a post-apocalyptic environment.
The plants that would be most useful in a post-apocalyptic scenario would be the ones that are around— meaning the weedy, prolific plants that many people disparage these days. This includes food plants, medicinal plants, nutrient-dense plants, and plants that can produce safe drinking water in the form of sap. See my previous blog post about the top ten common edible plants of cities as a starting point.
Are We in the Apocalypse?
Everything discussed thus far assumes the apocalypse as a cataclysmic, single event or series of events that brings about an abrupt disintegration of life as we currently know it. But what about the apocalypse as a slow decline in which conditions steadily worsen and there is no foreseeable return to normality? After all, Rome didn’t fall in a day. Why would we assume that apocalyptic conditions would develop suddenly overnight?
I would argue that we are currently living through steadily worsening conditions with no foreseeable end, specifically the disastrous effects of climate change. We’re already seeing melting glaciers, rising sea levels, increasing instances of extreme weather, and millions of climate refugees. There are even links between climate change and political instability, notably the Syrian civil war. And this is only the beginning of climate change.
The world is currently 1C warmer than preindustrial levels. Following devastating hurricanes in the US, record droughts in Cape Town and forest fires in the Arctic, the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] makes clear that climate change is already happening, upgraded its risk warning from previous reports, and warned that every fraction of additional warming would worsen the impact.
Rapid political action is required to slow warming and avoid the most catastrophic consequences. As this New York Times article notes, “Avoiding the most serious damage requires transforming the world economy within just a few years.... [W]hile it is technically possible to achieve the rapid changes required to avoid 2.7 degrees of warming… it may be politically unlikely.” I would say that, at this point in time, it’s very politically unlikely. But things can change.
Governments can be pressured into taking action by popular movements. So if you’re interested in foraging mainly as a survival tool, I would first and foremost encourage that you to divert at least some of that energy into demanding intergovernmental policies to stop global warming. The more we can curb the level of warming, the less disastrous its effects and the greater our chances of long-term survival will be. Thereafter I would recommend preparing yourself and your community for the effects of climate change, and doing what you can to make your locality resilient to extreme weather, food shortages, and political instability. I’m not going to give any credence to consumer-based actions like driving fuel-efficient cars and using energy-efficient lightbulbs, because not only are they too little too late, but individual responses to a collective problem simply won’t solve anything.
Our modern Western culture overemphasizes the importance of the individual and individual actions, not only when it comes to the concept of survival, but also that of self-care, health, employment, and really probably most everything. But the key to survival is community resilience and collective action. So if you can, use your foraging (and other vital skills) as a tool to build relationships and empower others. Plant a seed and watch it grow!
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