Like any good geek I was raised on a diet of post-apocalypse fiction. Books, movies and TV featured endless scenarios of how civilization would collapse and the sheer breadth and novelty of the scenarios presented was stunning. Sure, you had plenty of nuclear war (these were the 70’s and 80’s after all) but also plagues from meteorites, alien invasion, “rouge planets” coming too close to Earth’s orbit, carnivorous plants called “triffods” and apes. Can’t forget the apes.
In the 90’s and beyond we added rogue artificial intelligence, nanotechnology run amok, global climate change and eventually a bunch of writers who just went “fuck it” and wrote post-apocalypse stories without even telling you how the “post” part actually goes down. It’s that common an idea now, like vampires and love at first sight: things that never happen in the real word but we just accept in stories because they hold slots in our collective imagination.
It’s a great storytelling convenience, having society fail. You get to test the characters, bringing out their worst and best qualities, satirize specific elements of the culture and if you get to film or videogames there are all kinds of cool visual elements. Nothing says “Apocalypse” like filthy children huddling under a Taylor Swift concert marquee sign eating roasted rats on a skewer. SOCIAL COMMENTARY EVERYBODS!!!
Sorry, folks. Society won’t collapse
As much as I love this trope and have written a few stories in it myself, I’m here to tell you it ain’t gonna happen. Not in that way. And our addiction to what is only a storytelling convention is making it harder for us to actually prepare for the likely outcomes we’re going to face in the next few years.
Instead of armed gorillas (yes, spelled correctly) and dudes in leather stealing gasoline, what we’re going to face is not the wholesale disruption of our society with a massive collapse of the government and national/global social support infrastructure. Instead we’re going to be looking at occasional interruptions of key systems for up to weeks at a time. It’s going to make it inconvenient and sometimes dangerous to live as we’re forced to put up wave after wave of breaks in things like commerce, both our private and larger economy (LOTs of people are not getting paid right now), education and just daily life making it hard to get shit done. It will be especially challenging to meet metrics accounting for the fact that the measured region was managing some kind of localized collapse of a key system or systems. Example: How does a school district closed for a week explain their reduced scores on national standardized tests?
We have to get used to this and prepare for it, but not like the “buy gold and survival seeds” idiots want us to. First, though, let’s take as sec to Clamsplain why we’re particularly vulnerable right now:
We’ve done some stupid shit
Our use of fossil fuels has basically given a double-cappuccino with a Redbull chaser to the climate. There is no debate about global climate change, temperatures are rising globally. Simple measurements tell us this. The problem is people think heat translates to “hotness.” No. Not always. “Heat” is actually a crappy term, what we’re getting from the sun is energy which can mean rising temperatures, but not always. Think of it as fuel to existing systems first and you better see how it powers whatever climactic conditions are going down at the time. It’s a strong possibility the outsized storms we’re seeing lately are a result of unusual amounts of energy from the warmer ocean, but there have been no peer-reviewed papers proving this yet. No doubt though, climate change is powering climactic extremes all over the globe.
This is especially crappy now because since the Second World War we’ve been terrible about updating our infrastructure. It’s much easier to be the politician who brought a new subway station to Sommerville, an obviously real thing people can see and stand at and makes their lives easier in a tangible way, rather than being the one who proposed the bill sinking 300 million into infrastructure improvements to just keep it running as is. My contractor friends call this “hate checks.” Homeowners despise paying for roofs, sills and upgrading electrical systems but they love a bathroom a deck or a kitchen. But somebody’s gotta drop the cash to keep the house standing.
We automated everything. Where there were once big, metal, steampunky valve wheels and big-ass steel flow control systems run by human beings now there are electric pumps run by remote control systems. I’m not one to complain, I’ve made a good living at various times installing these systems, but it’s shocking how many critical operations are now run by computers. It’s not just water and sewer, it’s electricity itself, data and phone, refrigeration systems even vehicles, medical, retail and banking. The big metal wheels are gone, the one’s you could just climb down a hatch and turn if things got bad.
But it all won’t crash everywhere and at the same time
And this is the important part. It’s not all going down at once and certainly not permanently. We might lose roads and not power, or water but not Internet. We might lose cell networks to hackers but nothing else. All that interconnectedness will cause weird problems too. Did you know ATMs won’t work without GPS? That modern cars can be remotely hacked? That your prescriptions live in the cloud and not on a server at CVS? It’s not going to be simple or even possible to plan for.
But, again, it’s not all going down at once and certainly not everywhere. There are things that will work, but we’ve got to learn to become flexible and creative and to rely on each other more. We’ve got to get better at getting the same outcome a bunch of different ways. We can’t forget the old techniques and we’ve got to prep.
Oh Lordy, those preppers…
Those prepping shows display the worst kinds of idiots. They are so getting ready for the wrong stuff and all of them are doing the one thing that is certain to spell their doom: isolating themselves from other people who can help. And they are collecting all the wrong gear. Here is a short list of things you don’t need when the smallpocalypse comes:
- Survival seeds- We’re talking about a couple of weeks here. Good luck growing sorgum in that amount of time
- Dehydrated food- Military rations? Really? You heard of Ramen?
- Huge knives- All these idiots carry huge fucking knives and companies sell them as “survival knives” even though I have one of those Leatherman tools with about 60 more “survival” functions, most importantly opening beers.
- Guns, crossbows, etc.- You know what will happen if you break out the guns when the power goes out? The police, though strained at the moment, will eventually come arrest you and take you to jail. Guns are the worst kinds of stupidity at times of real crisis. They do nothing but make the paranoid more so and normal citizens, many with key skills like medical training, get away from the nuts with guns and refuse to engage with them.
- Gold- What the fuck is the deal with gold? Like, in a mild interruption like the one we’re talking about normal money still works, in a big collapse it’s useless unless you can suddenly eat bullion.
What you do need:
Here are the real things we should all have to face the coming interruptions:
- Friends and family- The likelihood you will survive something difficult, from an illness to the apocalypse, is directly proportional to how many people there are out there who will willingly take care of you. Not being an asshole really matters when the chips are down so don’t be one.
- A self-reliant attitude- Locales where they know how to make shit work even under difficult conditions are going to do better than places where people just call up dudes with trucks for all their mechanical needs. Know how to tie knots, make fires, cook outdoors and make basic repairs.
- Redundant systems- have more than one way to heat your place, communicate, get information and transport yourself. SIDE NOTE: Gasoline powered generators suck. Don’t bother. You become a slave to sourcing gasoline at that point. If you have a car, just charge up your phones and things in there, or get a converter to power a light or charge a few batteries.
- A weeks worth of food, medicine and other supplies- don’t forget the pets
- Bleach- You can do amazing things with bleach. You can purify water, clean wounds (highly dilute wash), sterilize dishes and cutlery and keep your oxfords sparkling for that denying-the-apocalypse crispness ensuring your neighbors will put you in charge of the food rationing committee.
I have a lot of data on this, back in a hard drive somewhere I have the outline for a book called “The Lazy Man’s Guide to the Apocalypse” which I may dig back out and put some more flesh on this summer, given my work schedule doesn’t continue to be upended by hurrizards.
But the thing I want to keep hammering on is that the very most important resource is people. We can get through anything together, we’re smarter and far more highly resourced as a group than we ever can be as individuals or small bands of camo-clad paranoiacs.
Unless it’s zombies. Then it’s every man for himself.