Ran Prieur is what I would call a modern day counter-cultural hero. He's an author and thinker who uses apocalyptic imagery to explore deep issues of meaning and value in modern life. His work deals extensively with getting off the grid and escaping from artificial social control mechanisms, and there's some really fascinating and inspiring stuff to read and consider on his site. Ran was nice enough to put together this interview with me exploring his work, ideas and life.
[Note about formatting: My questions are in bold. Ran's answers are in plain text.]
I first found your website a couple years back while researching a possible pieces comparing 9/11 to movies like Star Wars. Except I was going to talk about how we were the Death Star, and they were the band of rebels from a desert planet. I was delighted to find your article on the subject. Really, it's a very deeply ingrained myth in our culture – the underdog who wins against incredible odds - David & Goliath. Never mind all the movies we have about it, that story is even built right into our national history. Why do you think so few people pick up on what seems like such an obvious cultural parallel? If Al Qaeda were a down-on-their-luck baseball team with a heart of gold, wouldn't we all be rooting for them like crazy?
I totally agree. I think the film Independence Day had even more uncanny parallels with the 9/11 operation, and people still missed it. It's hard for me to understand how they do it. I guess people are just really good at compartmentalizing their thinking, at putting walls up so the blow-up-the-Death-Star myth doesn't bleed over into their view of 9/11, or vice versa. The funny thing is that when I saw Star Wars I felt bad for all the people on the Death Star who got killed, at the same time that I thought it was cool that it blew up. And I felt the same way about 9/11. For some reason, most people don't have the mental tools to do that, to deal with ambiguity or contradiction. I like to think we all could do that but we've been made stupid by our culture.
Since we're on the topic of 9/11, could you share with us your personal reaction to it, and how it changed your life?
Basically it just accelerated my motion out of the system. I'd been working temp jobs, and suddenly all that stuff seemed trivial. If things can blow up like that at any moment, then I could die any day, and I don't want to waste my life doing stuff I hate for money. It was like a near-death experience that made me less afraid. So I started taking my temp jobs less seriously, not kissing ass, not being afraid of getting fired, and pretty soon I got fired.
You have pretty radical views, to say the least. What's great is that you're totally open with them and share them freely, inspiring people to explore new ways of thinking and living for themselves. The things you're saying can't be popular with people in power, though. Do you ever worry that you're on some domestic terrorist list somewhere?
I'm sure they have a file on me, but I'm not worried. My threat to them is too indirect — I don't write about doing sabotage, I don't try to expose particular crimes, and my audience is pretty small. If any of the elite understand me, they probably agree with me — that industrial civilization is not good for humans or the Earth.
In your essay, "How to Drop Out", you said something that's always stuck with me. You wrote: "In Eastern tradition I could be respected as some kind of monk or holy man..." Is that how you picture yourself, as a sort of holy man or prophet? On what grounds do you make that comparison?
I don't see myself as holy. I don't even know what "holy" means. I was making the comparison because what I do is roughly what "monks" do in the east — I live outside the system and think about deep stuff all day. And it would be easier if this culture had a tradition of respecting that. But actually, after I wrote that, it occurred to me that it's better this way. If people could look at what I'm doing and just say, "Oh, he's a monk," if they had a box they could put me in, then they wouldn't have to think, and I wouldn't have to explain myself. The lack of an easy label forces us all to be smarter.
If you're a holy man, then what's your religion? Can you summarize for us what the essence of your message is, and why people should be listening to it?
The best I can explain it is that I see the world as a conflict between the grass and the pavement, and I work toward siding with the grass, or being the grass. On the physical level that's about "dropping out," finding a way to meet my basic needs and still have plenty of free time. And then my writing is about the mental levels. Part of it is breaking people out of the mental prison of seeing this society on its own terms. Things we take for granted, like the existence of police, or having to pay for water, or not being permitted to sleep in public, or being dependent for survival on wage labor, or having your entire day structured by the clock, would look like a dystopian nightmare from any other time in history, especially prehistory.
Then the prison has metaphysical levels, like the assumption that dead matter is the root of mind, which is a very recent and radical idea, and totally absurd if you can see it from the outside. Almost the entire "new age" movement is just an attempt to make money from the shift back to seeing mind as the root of matter, but once the shift is done, they can't make money, so they draw it out and put lots of clutter around it. I want to get it done!
Also I'm a big follower of Charles Fort, not just his interest in strange phenomena, but his whole philosophy. Roughly his idea is that only the universe as a whole really exists, and everything else just seems to exist by inventing false boundaries. All our "truths" come unraveled at the edges, and by exploring the edges we find new "truths," and it just keeps going. In Fortean science, there is no closure, and you can have many explanation systems all peacefully co-existing. Some people are only into the political angle of my writing and cringe at the metaphysical stuff, but there are tremendous political implications to a metaphysical system with no firm ground and no guiding principle except always looking beyond.
You have a section of your site called "Landblog" where you chronicle your purchase of a plot of land, and your subsequent attempts to establish a new life for yourself there. What exactly are you trying to do with this land, and why? What are your long term plans for it?
I'm trying to build what William Kötke, in his book The Final Empire, calls a "seed community," a group of people with the desire and the ability to live in balance with other life, who will survive the collapse of civilization and begin to restore nature and build a better human culture. There's a lot of talk about "sustainability" now, and most of it is just stuff that's not quite as unsustainable as full-on industrial civilization. But even true sustainability is just the middle of the road, and I think we can go way beyond it, and take care of our own needs while increasing topsoil and species diversity faster than nature could do it on its own. My plan is to make a "forest garden," which means you get your food from fruit trees and nut trees and berry bushes and stuff that propagates itself, like wild onions or cattails. You don't disturb the soil and it takes very little effort. You can go away for five years and come back and it will still be there. That's what I want to do, and also stay off the grid, so I'm not dependent on outside energy, and build some cabins out of indigenous materials, and invite some people to come live there.
I've seen you suggest a few times that you'd like to develop some kind of small community. I don't know what the right word for it would be, commune? Cult? Circle of friends? Can you describe what your ideal vision for that entails? What rules would you ask people to live by and how would you avoid the problems found in so many other communities? Am I right in assuming you'd want to have some kind of leadership role in this community?
I don't find it helpful to have a word. My plan for avoiding the usual problems is to pick the community members very carefully, and also I'll be the leader, but I want to do it like most tribal people, where the "chief" is more like a catalyst or moderator instead of having coercive power. Eventually I plan to shift ownership of the land over to the group.
You manage to live on something like less than $2500 a year, correct? How are you able to do that? How do you acquire the money that you do live on in a year? What do you spend it on?
It took me a few years, but I've managed to set up a network of people I housesit for, and people who let me crash on their couches, so I don't have to pay rent. Also I usually get paid for housesitting, and my main gig is at my mom's house in Spokane, because they travel about five months a year. It works out well for all of us. So between that, and some money from my writing, it's not hard to come up with two or three thousand a year.
I've got no rent, no car, and no health insurance, which on the average costs more than paying out of pocket, or there wouldn't be a profit in it. The main thing left is food, and I make all my own meals from scratch, or get really cheap stuff from grocery outlet stores. When I'm in Seattle I can get produce out of dumpsters. Now that I have land I'm also spending money on tools and seedlings.
A lot of people aren't going to grasp what you're doing unless we give it a label. Would you consider yourself a communist, anti-capitalist, or something else entirely?
If they need a label to grasp it, they need to become more intelligent. A label is like a propaganda button in people's heads. It makes it possible to talk about something without understanding it. As soon as something gets an easy label, it gets dumbed down and misunderstood. That's why I don't identify as a green anarchist, even though my thinking is pretty much the same as theirs. If you don't have a label to lean on, it forces you to really figure things out and explain things.
I don't want to pry (too much) into your personal life, but do you feel like your upbringing had much to do with the life you've carved out for yourself now? I mean, not everybody becomes voluntarily homeless or prematurely retired, raging against civilization. Aside from events like 9/11, how did you manage to become the way you are?
Do people really think I'm "raging"? I see myself like the three musketeers, fighting with all my skill, with a big smile, having a great time. As for my upbringing, I read a quote, I think it was George Clinton, who credited his success to his parents "keeping his feet off the ground." My mom gave me a lot of slack to figure out who I was without having to fit into anything. Also she restricted my TV!
The weird thing is, until I was about 25 I was totally obedient to the system. I got good grades, and in some ways I was conservative. I had friends in high school who were way ahead of me, not just in terms of rebellion, but intelligence, attitude, culture. And almost all of them got beaten down in their twenties. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's like the tortoise and the hare, where they got tired and I just kept slowly persisting. To me, getting more free of the system as I get older seems as natural as a tree getting bigger.
Maybe I've just developed the appropriate lifestyle for who I am — I thrive in unstructured time, in long blocks of time when there's nothing I'm supposed to be doing, and I'm frugal and disciplined. I see life as a big strategy game, where I'm managing resources to maximize freedom.
Do you hope to begin a family of your own someday? If so, how do you expect to do that given your current rather unusual living situation?
How it happens is not my business. I'd like to have kids, and I put some energy out there, some intention that that's something I'd like to do, and if it happens, or doesn't happen, that's fine. I've always found that if I set a goal, and strive for it, I hit a wall, but if I live in more of a "surfing" mode, with a rough idea of where I'm going, and paying close attention, things work out.
Have you ever wondered if you had a family of your own or were involved in a committed loving relationship that you might not be quite so keen on the whole "world ending" thing? Wouldn't that likely soften your politics and critical outlook towards everything? In other words, where should interested candidates send their applications?
I totally disagree! Derrick Jensen mentioned getting similar questions when he got a girlfriend, as if it was going to soften his resolve to fight civilization. If anything, it would increase my resolve, since there would be one more person I really cared about who was being crushed down by this world. And it would be much easier to have kids if I didn't have to deal with social security numbers and vaccinations and the school system and CPS taking them away for an unconventional lifestyle. When I think about the "world ending" I'm not thinking about crawling through ashes eating dead bodies. I'm thinking about the control systems breaking down. I'm thinking about tearing up the pavement to plant gardens.
Considering how excited you seem about the end of civilization occurring, don't you think it's kind of ironic that one of your favorite computer games of all time is Civilization II?
Yes, it's like the two sides of the coin. My favorite kind of computer game, by far, is what they call the "4X" game, which stands for "exploration, expansion, exploitation, extermination," basically playing out the behavior of my enemy. I think the common denominator is that I really resonate with the culture of empire, so as a gamer, I like to play it, and as a human in the real world, I understand how and why to oppose it. Nice liberals would understand their opponents a lot better if they played some empire-building games and paid attention to how it made them feel.
I tell friends about what you're doing with your land, and how you're trying to live off the grid, and they always end up laughing when I tell them that you also run a website. Do you catch a lot of flak for that apparent dichotomy? How can you hate certain things about civilization but actively utilize many others?
In general I catch little flak, because I write in a way that limits my audience to people who get it. Occasionally I see that criticism, and your friends are indulging in simple-mindedness. A lot of people, especially middle class liberals, think that opposing something consists of avoiding guilt, being pure, keeping your hands clean. To me, opposing is simply about fighting well. I want to get off the grid because I can fight more effectively if I'm not dependent on the system for energy and food. Also, fighting aside, I would just feel a lot more free and grounded if I had a self-sufficient homestead. But the internet is an extremely powerful tool for building new ways of thinking and changing human consciousness, and just for taking care of practical needs, so I'm going to use it.
During the Seattle WTO uprising, there was a much-circulated photo of a kid with a Nike shoe kicking in the Niketown window. The affluent puritans saw this as hypocrisy, but if you think through the logic, they're saying that the substance of resistance is refusing to wear a shoe with a certain symbol, and kicking in a fucking window is just pretention. They've got it backwards! The way I see it is, he was using the enemy's own artifact against it. Imagine if all Nike shoes were put on feet and used to break Nike windows! My position is, not only is it OK to use the resources of this system to break it down and build something better, ideally all the resources of this system would be used that way.
Can civilization really be all that bad if it created the computer and the internet and brought all of us together to share ideas and experiences?
Yes! A very bad thing can have good aspects. Also, what we're doing on computers does not rise out of civilization — it rises out of human aliveness, and is filtered or shaped by civilization. Take away computers, and we'd come together and share in different ways. That criticism is like saying, "Can pavement be all that bad if the grass breaks through it in such pretty ways?"
I was really surprised recently when you said on your site that you thought cloning and genetic engineering was a positive thing. We don't really have any idea of what kind of havoc genetically modified crops and species could wreak on the biosphere. It could be completely devastating – perhaps far more catastrophic than any of the crimes civilization has caused up until this point, at least according to certain apocalyptic predictions. How could advocacy of genetic tampering possibly fit into your larger message of sustainable usages of technology?
Well, I didn't say it was objectively "positive," just that I feel excited about it. And my larger message is not sustainable technology, but aliveness and chaos. My message on technology is that our whole technological system, with some exceptions, serves deadness and domination. Genetic experimentation has the potential to be an exception. Some techie anarchists think machines could be an exception, that they could come alive and go wild, but I think that's a dangerous speculation. Metaphysically, we don't know what machines are. You can call it being "alive" or having a "soul" or being tapped into the Great Spirit or the Logos — we don't know if machines can ever have that, but we know animals do. So I've got this vision of renegade genetic engineering repopulating the Earth with all kinds of amazing life. It's not likely, but I want to put that vision out there. As for devastating the biosphere, that havoc has been wreaked. With the exception of the most adaptable species, nature is already dead. A lot of the species we see are just lingering a few more years in habitats that can't support them. There's a good essay about that, End of the Wild. Of course, we should save whatever we can, but we're getting to the point where there will be more to gain than to lose by releasing crazy new species.
You talk a lot about how "rent is theft and slavery, and mortgage is just as bad". Meanwhile, most of your time seems to be spent house-sitting or couch-surfing with people who pay rent or mortgage. You might not be paying to play, but aren't you still essentially taking advantage of the system of economic domination that you rail so much against?
As I said above, not only is it OK to take advantage of the system, ideally all the resources of the present system would be used to grow a preferable system to replace it. It's true I have advantages that many people don't have, but this isn't a competition –- we're all in this together, and I'm channeling my advantages into getting more people free, so it's good for everyone if I accept all the help I can get.
Another version of this criticism is, "If all your friends lived the way you do, you wouldn't have any place to live." But I think I'd be in an even better position, because then I'd be part of a whole dropout tribe, and we could pool our skills and resources and totally thrive. By living on the couches of mortgage-payers, I'm making the best of a non-ideal situation. Another metaphor I use is the bird who lives in the woods, and then they cut the woods down and build a barn. You want the woods back, but in the meantime you're going to live in the barn. It would be ridiculous to refuse to live in the barn out of some idea of purity.
What advice do you have for people who are inspired by how you live, but don't want to quite go to the extremes that you go to - dumpster diving, no permanent residence, etc? How does somebody get started pulling themselves out of the mental and social traps set by society? What can they look forward to by coming over to y/our side?
My How To Drop Out essay covers a wide range of options. Also, I haven't read it, but I'm told that Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez is an excellent book for beginners. My recommendation is first to stop identifying your life with your job. This is easier on the west coast. On the east coast the first thing someone asks you is "What do you do?" which implies that your wage labor assignment is who you are. It's not! Get a job that's really easy, low responsibility, probably low status, and pays OK. If possible switch to part time. Then start using that mental energy that previously went into your job, and put it into your non-job self. Learn skills that reduce expenses and make you more self-sufficient and adaptable, like improvising meals from scratch, or getting rid of your car and riding a bicycle. Look around at all your stuff and imagine how you could be happy without it. One book can make you as happy as a thousand. Pay off your debts and build up savings. One of the keys to living as cheaply as I do is that I never push payment into the future, because that's just putting chains on my future self, and I empathize with my future self. If I can't afford to pay for something up front I don't buy it. When you get your expenses down, you discover that needing less money makes you more powerful.
Do people ever give you shit about not having a job, or about being lazy or whatever?
Not any more! I discovered that once you get to 35, they give up on you.
How do you respond to those types of criticisms? In some ways myself, I'm starting to realize that it's almost more of a challenge for me to live successfully and happily inside the system, rather than outside of it. I'm not saying it's better necessarily to rise to meet that challenge, but have you given this dilemma much thought? What if people feel like they are quitting or somehow giving up by dropping out of society? What about that old saying that it's better to change the system from the inside?
No one has ever told me they felt like they were giving up by dropping out. People tell me they feel like they gave up by staying in. I get emails all the time from people who feel really deeply stuck and not sure what to do about it. Definitely, there's lots of helpful stuff to do from the inside. I mean, I'm working inside the system by having a web site. But all the effective work is about growing the roots of the system that will replace this one — none of it is about changing this system. The way to turn pavement into grass is to replace it — pavement is not going to turn green and put down roots.
I know this might be kind of morbid to some, but what's your current favorite end of the world scenario, and what do you think is the most likely? What do you hope will happen after civilization crashes?
The thing that excites me about the end of civilization is the breakdown of central control. I'm not happy with any of the popular scenarios because they emphasize the walls coming down and not the light coming through when the walls come down. When I was in high school I had elaborate fantasies of me and my friends surviving a nuclear war and driving around on the empty highways having adventures. I wasn't thinking about what we would eat, or radioactivity, or why we survived when everyone else died. Now I'm trying to think of more realistic scenarios with the same sense of freedom. I'm hoping the big systems just kind of atrophy, like they did in the decline of Rome, leaving lots of territory where people can build networks of free communities.
Have you ever considered self-publishing anthologies of your essays through somewhere like Lulu.com? Aside from making additional money to support your lifestyle, you'd also be providing actual physical artifacts people could take with them when they're away from their computers. Does this appeal to you at all?
I'll probably get around to it. I'm thinking, why go to all that trouble to make people pay when they can already read it free? The main reason I'd do it would be to save my writing through an internet crash.
For people new to your work, can you recommend a simple reading plan to get them up to speed on what you're all about?
I tell people to start with my Best of Zines page. Before I had a web site I wrote paper zines, handwritten straight to final draft, which by the way is a really interesting way to write. Some of it is the best stuff I ever wrote, and some of it is choppy, but I compiled all my favorite stuff on one page. I think after that I'll recommend this interview!
Your site has a lot of serious stuff on it and gives people real food for thought. What I want to know is, what's the fun side of Ran Prieur like when he's not philosophizing about the end of the world as we know it?
What, the end of the world isn't fun? I have my shallow pleasures, my computer games and music and even a few TV shows. I love cooking and eating, especially sourdough waffles and apple pies. But to crack this world open is fun on a deeper level.