I was recently involved in a conversation about rebooting civilization after a massive collapse. I wanted to pick apart a few things from that conversation and paint a picture of what I think is a more realistic take on how such an event might play out. If you want to skip to my recommendations at a government level, see four things we should do.
The Threat Model
- Solar flare that kills many/all power/communications services
- Pandemic flu / smallpox / bioweapon that kills 1 billion people
- Nuclear exchange taking out a few countries and shattering the peace
- Global financial collapse
All of these threats are scientifically possible. One of them is currently ongoing. The Carrington Flare of 1859 fried steel-and-bailing-wire telegraph equipment all over the world. Smallpox killed 1/3 of Iceland in 1707. Nukes we all know about. The cycle of devastating cyclical depressions – 1929 was the last – is well understood, although how globalization affects that cycle is not well understood.
Conclusion: there are real risks. They are very irregular – solar flares kill machines but people are unharmed. Flus kill people but do not harm machines. Nukes cause local damage but have few global effects. Financial collapses are behavioral patterns in human societies, and nothing more.
These are just a sample of the known risks, by the way. There are other known risks, and unknown risks. I was just picking some examples.
Human biology doesn’t change much. People die before their time in six basic ways: too hot, too cold, hunger, thirst, illness and injury. Most illness is either plagues or water-borne disease. Most injury is violence. Hunger is famines which are generally caused by command economy market failures.
In a megadisaster, there are likely to be two substantial killers beyond anybody killed by the disaster itself. They are:
- People who die because national power grids fail – cities in cold climates plus a few unlucky others.
- People who die because supply chains fail – food into cities plus a few people who are dependent on medicines like insulin
You may also see epidemics of water-borne disease in urban areas. These basic patterns are substantially independent of whatever the megadisaster is because they are inherent in human biology and our social structures. Things get rough, this is what happens.
Here’s a doc which goes through this model in a ton of detail. There’s also a presentation I did for Arup which looks at grid and infrastructure threat models.
Below the doc: Mad Max!
Mad Max is the fantasy of persistent stable violent chaos. It almost never happens, and when it does happen, usually stable powers outside of the chaotic area are pumping weapons and money into the chaotic area to keep the war going.
One side wins and order, however bloody, is restored.
If that isn’t happening, something is preventing it – and a perfect balance between two sides resulting in endless war just doesn’t happen. Outside agencies, sometimes even those trying to help, cause the prolonged violence.
The Emergency Food Buffer
There’s about 4.5 months of food on the hoof in America, South America, Europe and Africa. Actually slaughtering and eating all the cattle is a mammoth undertaking, but the calories are there. America, for example, has about 100 million head of cattle. Each gives about 500 pounds of beef at 1200 calories per pound. This meat, plus the grain that would otherwise be used to feed these cattle, gives an emergency food supply of over four months. Transport to cities and slaughtering arrangements are complex but entirely practical in a real emergency. If an emergency large enough to suspend normal property rights came, eating this living food reserve is entirely practicable. See quarantined supply chains for some brief notes on this.
Municipal Administration of Cities in Crisis
MACC is a project I’m trying to get off the ground. The basic notion is that in any substantial crisis, municipal authorities will bear the brunt of the load. In a local (“point”) crisis, national agencies can come to the assistance of the troubled region. In a “systemic” crisis, national agencies may hit a few trouble spots, but will be generally ineffective. However, the mayor and the fire department and the chief of police are going to be right there, on site, weathering the storm or failing to do so.
Therefore any planning for really severe scenarios needs to focus on the individual at home, and the mayor’s office / local council. There’s no central government support, they’re spread too thin. And, generally speaking, there’s only a limited amount of utility in planning for specific scenarios – too much could happen. The trick is not planning for disasters, it’s planning to keep people fed and watered and on their medicines afterwards. The real dieoff is usually not the event, it’s the aftermath.
The world is fragile. The billion dollars it costs to develop a new drug is spent expecting a long period in which the costs can be recouped. Dozens of people with PhDs, 10 years of higher education each, at a hundred thousand dollars a year. Hundreds of support staff. Technical and industrial supply chains. Lab machinery. Computers. Throw in substantial global chaos and almost all of this stops. Or goes into some sort of Bruce Sterling Islands in the Net underground pharma industry.
The main supply chain stuff works a little differently. A car has, say, 1000 components. If 5% of these components become intermittently unavailable, stockpiling may help. If 50% of them become intermittently unavailable, with massive price competition when they are available, many people stop producing cars. There’ll likely always be one car company, but the profusion is a product of stability.
This is a key concept: we live in The Profusion. Huge industrial supply chains with catalogs of tens of thousands of products. Chemical supply houses – you need some sulfur hexafluoride or a bunch of 99.995% amino acids and it’s one phone call and three day delivery away. And it’s cheap. This profusion is a result of itself – cheap bolts mean cheap machines mean cheap bolts, but multiplied by hundreds of thousands of interlocking systems. I don’t think there are even maps of this. Maybe the military has them.
Maybe the military should.
NEARLY EVERYTHING PRODUCED BY THE PROFUSION IS WASTED
This is the good news. You don’t need any of that crap to stay alive, not color TVs, not iPods, not artificial heart valves. Ok, maybe you needed the heart valves, but most people don’t. You die a little earlier, but “civilization” continues to function because very, very little of The Profusion is used on things people need to stay alive, stay healthy and function. Most of it is spent making cheap consumer gimmicks and padding out empty lives with retail therapy and island adventures in unspoiled wildernesses.
This is why we can take the hit: we could get 90% poorer in real terms and want for very little as long as we organized for food, shelter, water, sanitation and medical/dental care. We can lose The Profusion, or have it severely curtailed for decades, and lose little of our population.
That’s not true in Ethiopia. That’s not true in the Congo. It’s not true in the Sudan. Those are places with real issues because they do not have the ability to absorb a rapid drop in their standard of living. They might have an arbitrarily large amount of gutter resilience, though. Hard to tell, hard to know. Your guess is as good as mine.
Organizing for The Crash
The general fear is “you can’t start a black grid.” What this means is that it’s allegedly very, very hard to restart the national grid after a complete failure because you start up one bit and the area around it overloads it and shuts it down again. Or power stations need energy to start them. I’m sure that stuff is real, and I’m sure it’s nasty, but I’m also sure we’d figure it out. Start with the nuke plants, say.
Similarly, although it could take a couple of decades to get back to making iPods for $89 each, I think that people seriously underestimate how much fixable gear is kicking around, how much university technicians know, how much diesel truck mechanics can expand their operations given the need. Nothing can compete with The Profusion, but if The Profusion was gone, I think you would be completely amazed at the amount of light industrial manufacturing capacity tucked away in garages and workshops all over the world.
The key is governance, which I will get to in a moment.
- Figure out the logistics for mass transport, consumption and slaughter of our on-the-hoof food reserve, globally.
- Put a ton of additional servers with cached copies of the internet and collaboration tools, plus a lot of over-capacity, at the head-end of various satellite communications outfits. These places will stay up in most scenarios, but pre-positioning while we have the bandwidth is key. Think banks of empty servers designed to host bolted-together ad-hoc solutions in a crisis, pre-positioned in the telecom buildings where the satellite communications networks connect to the internet.
- Solve the problem of pharmaceutical stockpiling. Getting individuals to pre-stock and store their prescriptions seems nigh-on impossible, so I suspect the local pharmacy is the correct level to cache the needed drugs and equipment.
- Plan to evacuate population centers in grid dependent areas – the far north of America and bits of Canada, and water dependent areas like Las Vegas. This may mean hexayurt mass evacuation plus ferrocement toilets and biosand water filters. Very cheap, massively scalable shelter and basic utilities, basically. Fast start agriculture / emergency permaculture may be part of this picture, of course.
These things are not inherently hard. The basic understanding of “there are big risks, and if you roll with the punches you can actually get a lot done early without vast investment” is not hard to communicate. Politicians might even take notice.
What locks civilizations into cold-and-dark negative equilibria is bad governance. The engineers did not forget how to build viaducts but once the Church had decided how Europe was going to look, that was the end of it for a certain kind of progress.
Informal trade networks – black markets – and local industriousness are what will keep the wheels turning. The only thing with the power to interfere with that natural rebooting process is government.
And this is my core message: if something big breaks, the best thing that government can do is focus on bulk logistics and the grid, and waste no energy whatsoever in policing or enforcement of trade or technology regulation.
There’s enough gear and ingenuity to keep the show going as long as you can put a rickshaw together and on the road, and not have some dumb cop tell you no.
The attempt to maintain the current status quo in a time of crisis is what produces absolute systems failure. To survive, governance must soften, much like a stunt man taking a fall. Getting out of the way of messy local rebuilding efforts and focusing on the macro-scale supply chain and security issues is the key.
An example of this phenomenon is the bloody inability of people to rehouse themselves in Haiti because the government continues to enforce conventional land tenure and use laws resulting in less than 10,000 transitional shelters being built – out of an estimated need of 200,000 units – six months after the earthquake. Hurricane Katrina saw similar shambling as police protected rich neighborhoods from fleeing poor people by blocking bridges and shooting people who were self-evacuating. There are plenty of other examples.
This is not to say that government has no role in disasters – rather, its role must be to do bulk logistics and broad security concerns, and all and any energy devoted to enforcing pre-disaster norms in property and common practice is time wasted and innovation trampled.
If the shit hits the fan, get out of the way of the people.