Tuesday, November 1, 2016

G is for Get the Fuck out of Dodge...?

Homelessness is already spiking in cities across the USA

Should disaster strike, being located in a large city is likely to present a number of problems specific to the urban denizen. Due to their concentrated nature, any large scale and ongoing outage in electricity and/or fuel is likely to put the city dweller at a considerable disadvantage to those living in less heavily populated areas. Urbanites often say they feel safer in cities. It's what they know, and often it is where they grew up. And to a certain extent they may be correct: relief efforts during the initial stages of a cataclysm are usually focused on large metropolitan areas where the largest number of people can be serviced via centrally-located distribution points. The shops may all be empty as just-in-time distribution systems enter a state of paralysis but it's a reasonable expectation that there will be an aid agency on hand to give out some food and bottled water to anyone willing to queue up for hours or days. What's more, cities contain much of the most valuable infrastructure in the country, including government offices and centres of finance, so it is likely that much of this will be secured from chaotic elements by the Army.

That was the good news.

The bad news is that due to the concentrated and hyperconnected nature of cities a crucible effect will take place and collapse will be a lot speedier and lethal than in non-urban settings. In a recent report the Pentagon states that by 2030 the world's megacities will be ungovernable hothouses of urban decay filled with rioting youths, collapsing infrastructure and chronic levels of crime. Here's a quote from OffGuardian (link):

"According to a startling Pentagon video obtained by The Intercept, the future of global cities will be an amalgam of the settings of “Escape from New York” and “Robocop” — with dashes of the “Warriors” and “Divergent” thrown in. It will be a world of Robert Kaplan-esque urban hellscapes — brutal and anarchic supercities filled with gangs of youth-gone-wild, a restive underclass, criminal syndicates, and bands of malicious hackers."

In large cities, rich and poor live cheek by jowl, meaning the wealthy and even the reasonably well-off are likely to be easy targets for gangs of looters. Should an economic collapse occur at the same time it is likely that the police, ambulance and fire services will not be paid, meaning they will be less willing to risk their lives by entering 'no go' areas—if they even bother to turn up to work at all. Forced acquisition of housing will also likely occur in this scenario as squatters and the dispossessed exploit the lack of law and order.

Even on a very basic level, surviving in a large city in which the power has been shut down is likely to be very difficult—if not impossible—for most. Without access to land to grow or catch food, city dwellers will find themselves unable to feed themselves in short order. Climate will also be an exacerbating factor, with apartment dwellers in cold regions finding it impossible to heat their living spaces, and those living in very hot regions unable to use air conditioning. Without power, water will not run from taps, and toilets will not flush. Backed up sewage systems will spread disease, as will the exploding rodent population feeding off the mounds of uncollected garbage and unburied bodies. People who have not prepared for such eventualities by gathering food and equipment to help them through such a period of turmoil will be at a considerable disadvantage and may find the psychological pressure alone too much to bear under the circumstances. 

With urban dwellers having invested in very little in social capital it's likely to be a case of 'every man for himself' within a matter of days of disaster striking. And disaster could strike in the form of a natural cataclysm, such as a tornado or a flood, or it could be man-made, such as a grid outage caused by computer hackers, or a nuclear or chemical strike. It could even be something as mundane as a sudden currency devaluation, sending the economy into a tailspin. Furthermore, it is worth bearing in mind that large cities present easy targets for state and non-state terrorists.

Of course, escaping to the countryside will also present its own set of challenges, and it would be wishful thinking to assume that the majority of the urban population could easily move out to grow vegetables and raise chickens. A potential half-way house might be the sprawling suburbs that surround many cities (especially in America). It is not beyond the scope of our imagination to see that many of the houses could be retrofitted to provide better protection against the elements, and the extensive lawns surrounding them turned into food producing spaces. Due to their large size many so-called McMansions could house several families at a time, assuming the materials they are made from hold together, and new localities would form in this way.


  1. Good one. Yeah, cities are not good places to be when the electric grid goes out or the earth shakes or whatever else stops the fragile enterprise. But I would say that some cites are better places to be than others. For instance, cities that have rivers going through them provide water to drink, even if you wouldn't want to drink the water if you didn't have to. You die of thirst faster than of hunger. Take LA, or don't. Even Las Vegas is better off, having a river within walking distance. Getting food to eat is another matter. If you're lucky, you live withing a few day's walk of farms and the disaster strikes when the farms actually have food out in the fields. Speaking of social capital, you won't likely have any you can spend with the farmer and he is likely to have a shotgun or several and you not. I have studies edible plant books. I even eat plants most of the time, stuff like mustard greens, kale, etc. What the edible plant books never tell you is that unless you have some salad oil to pour on the greens, they fill you up without providing all that many calories. Still they're better than eating newspaper as one woman from Poland told me they did during WWII. If disaster hits in February, say, forget about foraging in most places. You could go fishing providing you know how to and providing there are fish in the waters where you live. You can also eat rats and other urban fauna, like your neighbors' pets, though you don't want to do that till week two when you're really hungry. Hunger, they say is the best sauce. Cat food is a good bait for traps. I speak from experience here, having inadvertently trapped a number of neighborhood cats when going after a raccoon that was coming into the cat door to eat our cat's cat food. Not being sufficiently hungry at the time I let the cats go, and humanely relocating the raccoon out of our neighborhood. I would also like to add that humans under duress often stop acting humanely assuming they even acted humanely when not under duress.
    One more anecdote from WWII. The aunt of a friend told of a baker who would only sell bread to people he knew. When the war was over, she always looked for a place to live that was within walking distance of food purveyors whom she could get to know on a personal level.
    Of all the things you can stockpile in anticipation of disaster, I would rate social capital as the most valuable.

    1. Good points. If I lived in, say, London, I'm not sure I'd be able to find a farm with actual food growing on it. Most of the fields seem to be growing rape (canola) these days, which is used as a biofuel. And even then they are mostly managed as industrial concerns and you'd have a job finding 'the farmer'.

      Thanks for the WWII anecdotes. I remember reading that in Germany, after we had firebombed their cities, pregnant women were reduced to eating the plaster from walls and ceilings. It turns out that when we are starving the body at least has some idea of where we can get the nutrients it needs. Apparently people also become desperate for fish eyes when they find themselves starving at sea ... not sure why.

      I hope I'm not reduced to eating either my own or my neighbour's pets, although this is what people in Venezuela are doing right now. Learning about the siege of Stalingrad is instructive in terms of urban survival - although you could argue that they were at an 'advantage' in that they had a common enemy and had to stick together, which is probably why cannibalism was frowned upon.

      Good point about eating greens. I would want to have a stockpile of cooking oil on hand to give it a calorific punch. If people end up spending more energy foraging than they get from eating what they find then that's one sure way to starve to death.

    2. Hey Wolfgang! Chwee here... back in Singapore. I've decided to 'make my bed' here given that we get loads of rain (about 2+metre's worth annually) which will enable crops to grow and still have enough water for personal consumption. One thing I've noticed in the past year is that there are a lot of free range chickens running around, especially near housing estates where people have ground level units and common garden/green space areas. That smacks of 'collapsing in place' (hattip archdruid) where folks are figuring out ways to survive given the cards that they've been dealt. When I mention that to 'intelectual' types in Sg, they pooh pooh the idea and said that those people are keeping the chickens for their colours and to keep as pets. Yup... edible pets. Can't see the forest for the trees.

  2. Hi Jason,

    Your quote: "the majority of the urban population could easily move out to grow vegetables and raise chickens".

    Mate, understanding this place and how to get produce out of it is one of the most complex things that I have ever undertaken and it has taken years to learn. And then you have to come to grips with the fact that the local population won’t necessarily want a lot of starvelings up this way and it would be oh so easy to close the roads off.

    Accounts of people during The Great Depression read very differently to your essay. There are truths within your essay, but there are also differences and people are really reluctant to give up what they know both from what I have seen and heard. Seriously, plenty of urban people have told me that they are scared of the forest up here, which I find to be a vaguely bizarre concept, but there you go.

    Hey what happened to H? I'd even lined up an obscure Australian band too.



    1. Hi Chris - I think you might be a little upside down in your understanding today ;-) What I wrote was that the majority of the urban population could NOT easily move out to grow vegetables and raise chickens. Maybe it was my admittedly sarcastic phrasing of it, in which case I do apologise.

      Most people I have encountered in my years of city dwelling actually take pride in not knowing how to do basic things, such as growing plants or fixing things. Have you ever come across people saying "I kill all my houseplants" and then laughing out loud? I have met plenty of these people. It has become quite the fashion to brag about how useless you are.

      I've read some stuff on the great depression ('Hard Times' is a good book) - useful stuff, but really what I wanted to address here was a sudden breakdown of technological complexity in a major urban area. I would seriously recommend reading Lionel Shriver's new book 'The Mandibles' which features a family trying to survive in New York following a sudden economic shock - she has a very vivid imagination and it is highly believable.

      As for H, er, G comes before H ;-)



  3. Chris - I bought the book about how Edo was able to sustain a 1 million head population when Japan was cut off from the world, and how it's culture and commerce flourished nonetheless. Then I did some research on how things were in Singapore during WWII during the Japanese occupation, when trade links were pretty much cutoff and people had to survive on their own. Did you know that the population of Singapore kept on increasing during the war years? reaching about 800,000+ people on this tiny strip of land and was pretty much self-sufficient? No one was eating 3 meals a day, of course.. but people weren't starving. Folks would move back to their home villages (which were still pretty common here - called kampungs) and grow sweet potatoes, which is calorie and nutrient dense. Ultimately for a 'sustainable' society, you need water + food, which is just a different manifestation of our sun's energy. Precipitation (resulting in filtered and clean water for our use).... and the ability to grow plants / feed animals etc. Just by being closer to the sun all year round, the tropics can sustain the highest population density... just a fwiw.


  4. A couple of years ago, I was stuck in a coach on the Hammersmith Flyover, gazing directly into a glass-walled block of flats where people are evidently living an "aspirational" lifestyle. Big living rooms with a huge sofa, a huge wall-mounted TV and a couple of artfully-placed chairs & expensive rugs. Shiny black or red kitchens just big enough to defrost a microwave meal or unwrap a take-away. Bedrooms with wardrobe walls and pallet-style beds, not a sock out of place; bathrooms evidently shut away somewhere in the interior. The inhabitants were spilling out onto the road, dressed in Lycra, with their weighted wristbands & headphones on, off for their evening run in the smog, completely inside their own heads, acknowledging no other soul.

    What happens in a building like that if the power goes off? That great glass wall is either going to fry you or freeze you, depending on conditions outside, even if it's triple-glazed. Your plumbing won't work & there's no way you can even boil a kettle if you have no ventilation. I saw no evidence that you'd be able to open a window anywhere; great sheets of glass don't move easily, and it was a good 16 storeys high, so I'm assuming they rely on air-conditioning. Others might see a great lifestyle and a ground-breaking design of a building; I saw a death-trap. Literally a lifestyle to die for...

    1. When I lived in Copenhagen this is how I saw most people living. They now even build miniature supermarkets (usually Netto) into the apartment blocks so that people don't need food storage but can just nip downstairs to buy their groceries on a meal-by-meal basis.

      It all works fine, as long as it all works fine.

  5. You could grow enough food with potato towers and hydroponics, but food isn't the main problem for the true collapse scenario, it's lack of water. When the water stops running through the city pipes, it's game over.

    You also have the problem that you pretty much lose all the living space 6 stories up and higher. No electricity, no elevators (lifts for you Brits :)

    Now, in terms of outlasting a shorter term disruption than permanent, how long could you stay holed up in a 1 bedroom apartment with preps?

    For myself, I could probably last a year as long as I got a little advance warning and topped off all my water containers. Normally I only keep around 30 Gallons, for a full year I estimate I need around 90 gallons. I have enough kerosene for my kero space heater for a full winter, and enough propane to cook with. I can generate enough electricity to keep my diode lights and my cell phone running.

    Of course, anything longer than about a month and I probably will get killed in a Home Invasion by Zombies. lol.

    1. Lack of water is one thing I mention in my - ahem - forthcoming novel (in time for Christmas!) as being the major killer in the early days of the grid going down. In such situations people will drink anything as long as it's wet - lakes, canals, radiator water etc. Of course, it *is* possible to make water filters easy enough using plastic bottles, sand and a bag of barbecue charcoal, but I doubt many people would know how to do such a thing.

      As for apartment blocks, I think they will end up with the fitter people living at the top of them. I had a friend once who lived on the 20th floor of a block - and he used to run up and down the stairs 10 times a days as part of a training routine. He was a bit mad though.

      I watched "Into the Wild" with my eldest daughter the other day. When it started she said "I want to go into the wild in Alaska" and live like him, but by the end she had changed her mind, to put it mildly.

  6. Yet one more use for bamboo...charcoal. It's a bit more complicated than making wood charcoal, but it's a skill that I will hopefully be taught in the near future.

    I think rural and prepared is the best chance for survival in a shtf scenario. The smaller the population density the better. After all, people are the main threat to worry about wtshtf. If only society would take permaculture seriously now instead of forcing it to remain a fringe movement with no hope of fixing anything except perhaps for those with land who are already practicing it.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.