Letter Re: Just How Bad Can it Get?

I will preface by saying that I have a much different opinion on the aftermath of a significant long-term or permanent collapse of the economy and the power grid leading to a collapse of the social structure.   I have read numerous studies that indicated that, in any long-term absence of modern technology, the sort of defended retreat with family and friends, not to mention the exposure you will get bartering and dispensing charity with third parties, will be only the initial phase of a total breakdown of a functioning society.  Some say the further degradation of what we now hold as essential human standards of morality and ethics will result in everybody not in your nuclear family being reduced to predators, suppressing any capacity for compassion, morality, community, and even basic identification with or empathy toward others.  In effect, they will inevitably adopt most of the characteristics of a classical psychopath, willing to commit the most brutal acts to protect their immediate nuclear family (spouse and minor children) and to maximize their and their family’s ability to continue to survive.  The person you barter with one day may well be your deadly enemy a week later, determined to destroy your family and loot all of your carefully accumulated survival resources.  Your book envisions that, in a total collapse, you can hunker down in a retreat that is well hidden and well defended long enough for the chaos to dissipate, at which time you basically live a pioneer-style life, planting your own crops and raising your own livestock.   

From my readings, many experts in social interaction, psychology, sociology, and other fields seem to accept the view that, should governments and economies collapse, the period of chaos is expected to last at least a century and to get worse, not better, over ours and our children’s lifetimes.   In fact, the very act of planting gardens and raising livestock will be a public tell to roving gangs living off of plunder, some of which will virtually be small armies heavily armed by looting National Guard armories and other sources of combat-designed weaponry.  Even the best equipped retreat can end up being a box canyon, and even the people living within the retreat can end up turning on each other as supplies wane.

William Forstchen, who co-authors (and, I suspect, completely ghost writes) Newt Gingrich’s books has a thought-provoking new fiction book on his own, called “One Second After.”  It begins with the protagonist losing his electricity.  At first, he thinks that this is an ordinary power outage and power will soon be restored.  Then he begins to notice that battery-operated devices, like his watch, and all of the cars on the nearby freeway, have also stopped working.  It turns out that some unknown enemy has attacked the United States by setting off three nuclear explosions high in the stratosphere and created a massive EMP that fried just about all of the country’s electric systems (only a few older cars still work).  He and his neighbors all join forces to share their resources and also to provide security against looter gangs.  Soon they are under growing assaults by significantly large bands of military-style criminals and extremists, while, at the same time, some of the people on the block are turning against each other as they begin to realize that equal sharing of resources will benefit some at the expense of others.  Personal survival increasingly trumps any remaining vestiges of human and humane values.  It is a fascinating read.

There are extreme survival strategies that not only require dispensing with almost all of the preparations we would make to create and defend a retreat, but are dependent on us having developed skills that allow us to “live off the land,” possibly for the remainder of our lives, using only the equipment we can carry in a backpack (expect 50 to 60 lbs max for a young, in-shape male, and proportionally less for spouse and young children).  It is, in effect, a return to the hunter-gatherer life (with certain modern tools that I would consider essentials in my backpack and will cover in future posts). 

One advantage of developing these skills augmented by the most useful tools that can be backpacked and depend solely on sweat equity, shanks mares, and solar power is that, while hunkering down in an urban retreat is okay for a case where the services are down for a few days, and creating the fully-functional well-stocked retreat, capable of being defended (given relatively small numbers of bad guys in a looting pack and not escalating daily assaults) over a somewhat longer period, but still not suited to the more extreme breakdown scenarios that are very possible, the ability to live off the land, either alone or with your family, covers all levels of breakdown. 

It might not be nearly as ‘comfortable’ as a well-stocked retreat, but it is a successful strategy for surviving anything from a temporary loss of the grid to a total meltdown of the world economy and world governments.  Given that very few people, even among serious survivalists, have the skills and knowledge to maximize their ability to survive in the most remote environments, the ability to survive reasonably comfortably in extreme wilderness means that you are very unlikely to cross paths with a potential ‘bad guy.’  Certainly no bands of roving looters are going to make it a practice of combing extreme wilderness on the unlikely possibility they will find a single backpacker with only tools and resources that facilitate backpacking – in a risk/reward or cost/benefit analysis, it would be self-defeating for a group of people not trained in wilderness survival to spend perhaps hundreds of man-hours on the off-chance of finding one person who is not carrying anything that would contribute to the gang’s survival.

In future posts, I intend to talk about some of my own experiences living off the land (remote backpacking was merely a form of recreation when I first started doing it in my teens, but I have now been doing regularly for over 45 years, with increasing concentration on being totally self-sufficient).  I will also cover some of the equipment I have been using on multi-month solo backpacking trips in mountain and forest wilderness that permits me to maintain worldwide communication and carry literally tens of thousands of books on every conceivable subject.  Almost all are inexpensive, and all are massive ‘force multipliers’ of both knowledge and communications. – Blue Sun

JWR Replies: Given the historic short life expectancy of hunter-gatherers, I’ve opted for a well-defended Deep Larder approach. Your mileage may vary.