I started writing this one a few month ago (prior to travelling long distance) and then forgot about it, but thought maybe I should finish it.
For quite some time in American there has been a survivalist movement, which grew out of fears of the aftermath of a nuclear attack during the cold war. “Preppers” believe than in the event of some major calamity of some kind they must be ready to “bug out” if things go south. Preppers come from a wide variety of different political backgrounds. Certainly thought some of the more oddball right wing elements tend to be the most vocal. Oddly enough many of these are keen Trump supporters (so there’s a certain element of a self fulfilling prophecy as a result!).However there are some fundamental flaws in many preppers (particularly the right wing ones) line of reasoning. Indeed their strategies would most likely fail and the likely course of events will be the opposite of what they assume.
First off, I’d point out that while its possible that events like climate change or peak oil could cause civilisation to collapse completely, this is very much the worst case scenario. And its not likely to get to that stage for quite sometime to come (taking into account recent election results we might have to revise that estimate!). In most cases we are are looking more at a slowly escalating crisis where things will get gradually worse and worse over a very long time period. Its more probable, we’ll just adapt to those changes and make do. It won’t be like the movie the Day After Tomorrow, where we go from New York being flooded to an Ice Age in five days. This old ABC documentary Earth 2100, which I reviewed a few years back would be a good example of how such a crisis could play out.
This begs the question, exactly when do the preppers propose to “bug out”? One could argue they should have done so along time ago, or you could argue it would never get to that stage any ways. Even with more short term or an immediate crisis, e.g. in the event of a nuclear attack when do you bug out? Do you honestly think the government is going to give you a heads up that the missiles are on their way (they’ll be too busy either crapping their pants or hauling ass to some undisclosed location to bother with any sort of press statement). Granted, back in the day, when the two super powers had only a handful of ICBM’s and most warheads would be delivered by aircraft (particularly the larger warheads aimed at cities) it was plausible that you could flee a city in good time after the first wave of strikes, but these days I’m doubting it.
One man and his gun
One of the reasons given by some Americans for owning a gun is, well what if the apocalypse happens? You’ll want a gun then won’t you? I’ll admit it could be useful. Unfortunately numerous studies have shown (e.g. the UK’s Square leg) that in the event of some sort of catastrophe (e.g. nuclear war, a massive disease outbreak, environmental collapse, meteor strike, etc.) the leading cause of death will be malnutrition and water or food borne diseases. So unless you can shoot bacteria with your gun or use it purify water, its not much use. Disease or hunger will kill you long before the biker gangs get anywhere near you.
Some survivalists stockpile vast amounts of food in cabins. But unless you’ve got literally a life time supply (and cans have limited lifespan), sooner or later you’ll run out and have to take your chances. Then what are you going to do, eat your gun? Now gun nuts will then likely say, but I can use my gun to hunt for food. Okay, so your in your bunker/basement to escape the fallout/zombie plague/pollution, but the animals, who don’t know any better, are prancing around outside through said fallout/T-virus/toxic poison. And you are proposing to go out in the fallout and then shoot and eat them….you haven’t really thought that one through, have you?
Also wild animals in the woods are not like daisy the cow, carefully cared for by the farmer, pumped full of antibiotics and largely disease free. Real wild animals are ridden with tape worms, ticks, lice, infections, etc. Inevitably hunting them involves some level of risk, notably that of picking up something during the hunt or afterwards from slaughtering and then eating the meat. Prior to the availability of modern medicine people got sick more often and whether you survived largely depended on how fit and healthy you were. And your age was important. Older people were much less likely to survive getting sick than young people.
Indeed of those post-apocalypse casualties I mentioned, the children and the old would make up a very high proportion of those casualties. So high in fact that anyone over 60 has an extremely low probability of survival for any length of time in a post-apocalyptic world. A point I bring up given the tendency for people in this age group to reject action on climate change. The fact is that anyone in this age group, particularly if you actually do care about your grandkids, should have a much higher motivation to avoid any collapse in civilisation, compared to young millennial’s. And your gun will not save you.
Farming v’s the rugged individual
Also there is a fundamental flaw in the “rugged individualism” that permeates some preppers. In essence they are talking about regressing back to hunter gather tactics, ignoring the fact that this was largely superseded by farming for very good practical reasons. Even ignoring the after effects from any apocalypse, running around a wood hunting is by its very nature hazardous (sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you!) and involves expending a lot more energy, compared to animal husbandry or cultivating crops (i.e. the EROI pay off isn’t as good). And a hunter gatherer’s food supply is much more prone to sudden interruptions and collapse, e.g. heavy winter snow stops them hunting, they kill too many of the preferred prey species and the population collapses, a disease (or a hard winter) takes down many of the animals they hunt, etc. This is why farming based cultures largely superseded those dependant on hunter gather tactics. In a post-collapse world, the same logic will play out again.
Also one has to question the wisdom that moving to rural areas is that good an idea. Experience in other countries which have gone through some sort of economic collapse, been effected by war or suffered from some extreme natural catastrophe, shows that it tends to be the cities where power, water and emergency services are restored first. Those in the countryside have to wait a good deal longer. Co-operation and communities coming together was often a key driver to success. In Argentina for example, when its economy collapsed it was local communities that organised who withstood the worst of it. The chaos in Argentina was temporary, order was quickly restored. And, as noted, this occurred in the urban areas first. By contrast in rural areas it took a lot longer for order to be restored. Indeed they actually later found the compounds of some survivalist types in rural areas which had been looted by gangs with the owners found dead inside.
Something similar played out in Cuba after the fall of communism in Europe (which wrecked the Cuban economy and cut off their main source of oil). In another example, a libertarian orientated bolt hole for preppers in Chile, essentially turned out to be little more than a ponzi scheme and a proof of why its important you have big government to protect gullible fools from con artists.
About the only scenario where retreating from the cities makes sense is in the event of nuclear weapons being used against cities, or in the event of a mega-tsunami effecting low lying areas. However these will present a temporary problem….and as noted the immediate “temporary problem” will be getting the fu%k out of dodge in time (evacuating an entire city ain’t easy, so perhaps one issue to focus on is having an efficient set of city sized evacuation plans to deal with such a crisis). But the water levels will recede, cities can be rebuilt.
And even then the destruction will not be even. For example, in the event of a nuclear exchange, the main targets will be missile bases, airbases, command and control facilities and military industrial facilities. Where these overlap with population centres is where the bulk of the casualties will occur. Other cities will take a hot dose of radiation, but others will likely be untouched. A Prepper who travels from New York or Portland Oregon to Wyoming to “bug out” would actually be travelling from a place of relative safety to a place of heavy fallout.
The American Redoubt
This foolishness is perhaps best emphasised by the belief in a post-apocalyptic “American Redoubt” in the Rocky Mountain region of the USA, notably in Northern Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Western Montana. Many far right survivalists see this as a potential bastion where they can “do a galt” and then ride out the coming storm. Well actually, one could scarcely think of a worse place to retreat to than the Mountain region of the American Northwest.
This part of America has a particularly harsh and unpredictable climate. There is very little in the way of good arable farmland. There’s some grazing land, but that’s about it. Large parts of this region are technically classified as an arid climate, due to sporadic rainfall patterns and a very short growing season. Even those parts that get a bit more precipitation, it tends to come in sudden bursts (often in the form of winter snows) with large gaps in between. In short, there’s a reason why the population of this region was so small before Europeans showed up.
And then there’s those harsh winters. How do they plan on keeping warm? Can you’re gun light fires? Now if you have a well insulated home and a solar thermal collector system, this shouldn’t be a problem. This part of the world actually does get some half descent levels of sunshine. Indeed there’s a whole sub-culture of people building “earthships” in the Western US, dwellings designed to be build from locally sourced materials and heated by solar energy. But let’s assume your the Alt-right type who thinks global warming is a hoax, created by liberals and china and that real men don’t use solar panels. How are you going to heat your home without fossil fuels?
Cut down trees for firewood? Not a bad idea, but you do know that’s a lot of hard work? No chain saws will be available (they run on oil remember) so you’ll be using an axe. My advice, go try and cut a tree down with an axe, saw and chop it all up into logs suitably sized for a fire, cart the wood over a couple of km’s of rough mountain terrain back to your hut and then imagine doing that at least 2-4 times a month while up to your knees in freezing snow. Then let me know when you think solar power suddenly doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.
Also one of the other potential triggers for a global catastrophe is a supervolcano. And where is one of the most likely candidates? Yep you guessed it, Yellowstone national park, right bang under this “Redoubt”. So some preppers are literally proposing to build their shelter right on top of the likely cause of the thing they are seeking to prepare against!
By contrast those along the east or western coast of the USA, or in the great plains, will be in a much better position. Granted they will have problems, sea level rise may drown low lying cities like New York or New Orleans (or much of Florida). Certain US cities like Atlanta or LA will become very impractical places to live without oil to power cars. Parts of California will suffer from water shortages. However given the right government policy and the public will, these are solvable problems. There’s plenty of room further inland to relocate people, cities can be rebuilt on a smaller more walkable footprint. Irrigation can be used to minimise water use. And switching away from cash crops, using farming methods less dependant on fossil fuels and curbing meat production (40% of world grain production is currently fed to cattle!) could provide an adequate food supply for any survivors.
Similarly in Britain parts of the country would suffer worse than others. England would have all sorts of problems. Its not that “Britain is full” or anything like that (keeping in mind migrants are only 10% of the UK’s population anyway). Is just Britain, and in particular England, is a very small place in the grand scheme of things. It won’t take the loss of a large amount of land due to sea level rise, drought or nuclear weapons strikes to create a major crisis. You would probably need to relocate people (perhaps only on a temporary basis) to neighbouring Scotland or Ireland (who had much higher populations in the past, prior to the clearances and potato famine) or to mainland Europe (eastern Europe in particular). Of course this means voting for brexit and instituting xenophobic policies is probably not a good idea. The English, in the event of such a calamity, could well find the same racist arguments they are now making about Polish people spat back at them.
The return of big government
And finally perhaps the biggest flaw in the survivalists logic is that it will mean the end of big government. Some of those who subscribe to libertarianism (or more specifically so called “third position-ism”) even see the sliver lining of such a collapse as they assume their particular brand of politics will come to the fore. Actually the opposite is likely to be true.
On at least one level the survivalists are right – the government will initially be paralysed if the balloon ever goes up, with ministers and civil servants likely running around with their hair on fire screaming OMG (as we will witness in a few weeks time with the UK government over brexit). Anyone who is expecting the government to come to their rescue or that the government knows what they are doing, you are a very naive person who is in for a rude awakening. Hence why taking some reasonable precautions isn’t necessarily a bad idea (e.g. I always argue you should have at least two weeks food supply in the house, after all what if a winter storm comes along and forces you to remain house bound for several days in a row).
However this paralysis will be temporary, as it has been in other countries that have undergone some sort of collapse. And given that a successful reconstruction programme will require greater co-operation and central planning (as noted earlier), its more likely that any such governments will shift more to towards the authoritarian left, than the liberal right. Now I’m not saying this would be good thing. Indeed the whole argument of green groups (who tend to be liberal lefties) is that by adopting certain longer term policies now, we can avoid this scenario in the first place. But chances are, if we follow through what current right wing neo-liberal parties propose, to the inevitable train wreck that follows, then a lurch towards more authoritarianism is very likely to be the end state. Its exactly what happened in Russia after the collapse of the Yelstin regime and the rise of Putin.
And if a slow recovery from an economic crash and a couple of Syrian refugees is enough to push some to vote for Trump or brexit, one has to wonder how democracy will survive when millions of climate refugees start showing up on an annual basis, or fossil fuel shortages wipes out large sectors of the economy altogether.
The bottom line for survivalists is that they need to realise they have nowhere to run too. This project we call civilisation is a collective enterprise. A “rugged individualism” policy amounts to wanting to becoming one of those very armed biker gangs who’d kill a neighbour for a bag of flour, which is a one way ticket to either starvation….or execution by the Army for looting. If you do worry about the risk of our civilisation collapsing a more effective strategy might be to try and do something to prevent it happening. And voting for likes of Trump or brexit isn’t exactly helping.