Friday, March 16, 2012

Panic in the Cities

It is a common trope of the modern survivalist movement, that when the collapse comes, all the people in the cities are going to all get it in their head that they need to head for the hills, and make for the countryside.

For myself, I have always taken this to be a logical outgrowth of modern survivalisms predecessor's (retreatism as it was then referred to) concern about nuclear bombs being dropped from bombers and relatively unsophisticated ballistic missiles onto our large cities.  It was the modernized version of the WW2 bombing campaigns- with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs being viewed as the both the ultimate culmination of a trend, and the start of a new one.

There are others who doubt this possibility, though for different reasons:

Fascism, Feudalism, and the Future
John Michael Greer, Arch Druid Report, 14 November 2007.

One classic example [of collapse motifs]  is the image of mindless, marauding hordes spilling out of the dying cities and ravaging everything in their path. This one has been a recurring cultural nightmare in the western world for a couple of centuries now, since the cities of the industrial world disconnected themselves socially from their agricultural hinterlands and began filling up with immigrant populations. Read such classic fictional treatments of the theme as Newton Thornburg’s Valhalla (1980) and it’s clear that on this side of the Atlantic, at least, it roots into the enduring emotional legacy of American racism, the terror of the dark Other on which the shadow of white America’s unacknowledged desires has long been projected.
You can look through history books in vain for examples of urban populations invading the countryside en masse in the twilight years of civilizations, but the motif remains stuck firmly in place. The inhabitants of Willits, one of the few American towns that have taken the imminence of peak oil seriously, have apparently laid plans to blow up highway bridges leading into town from the south, to keep those imaginary mobs at bay. Willits is in liberal northern California, but it’s embraced the same fantasy that leads survivalists on the opposite end of the political spectrum to indulge in wet dreams about automatic weapons blazing away at marauding hordes.

Although I have not brought up the racial fear theme, I have also complained about this assumption way back when I reference the specific example of  One Second After.  My complaint was on slightly different grounds.  Quoting Myself:

Don't Want to Live Like a Refugee
Russell1200, reflexiones finales,

I have notice in a number of books involving a societal break down within the United States, that at some point large masses of people move out of the cities into the countryside in a mass exodus. In the case of “One Second After” a large number of people walk all the way from Charlotte North Carolina up into the mountainous Asheville North Carolina with no apparent connection to the area or solid plan in mind.

In the case of refugees, they are generally single mass movements that force a block of people to move as one: the impetus is generally fear and poverty. However, in most of the scenarios postulated, there is no great impetus of fear. Conditions are bad, but there is no difference between the area that people are in and some other place. If there was an increase in violent racism as an example, than certain groups might indeed pick up and move. But they are likely to be individual groups with a common purpose, not the ad hoc hordes generally described. link (hit the pdf button in middle of box)
Note that the modern idea for a flight from the cities clearly came as a combined response to the bombing of cities in World War 2, and the advent of nuclear warfare.  For a historical presidense, you could look at the flight of the wealthy from cities undergoing a pandemic attack. 

The reason I brought this up, is because I saw another reasonably cogent argument on the other side, that I don't think would be viewed as fear mongering, and I wanted to bring it up.
Humanity has already had four major ecological collapses: how can we avoid a fifth?
Tom Levitt interviewing Theologian Martin Palmer, Ecologist, 27 February 2012 (hat tip: Cynical Tendency).
You mention the abandonment of London in past crises, do you think cities are particularly at risk?
One of the trends that most alarms me about contemporary thinking, say within the United Nations, is this drive to speed up the movement of people from the countryside into the cities so that you can industrialise the countryside. If you've got the people in the cities, the theory goes that it's much easier to supply them with food, warmth and energy, and you industrialise nature.
But cities live off the countryside, not the other way round. Think of all the great disaster movies: they're right. What will happen in a crisis is everybody will try and escape to the countryside. We are almost wired to relate survival and sustainability with not being in cities. Building the mega-cities where you rely upon transport to get you 30 miles from your suburb into the middle of Shanghai, or where you rely on airplanes bringing you orange juice from Kenya into central London, nice, but not sustainable. It's so fragile, we saw that with the Volcanic ash incident two years ago, in one week we had people in complete panic.
If you get a collapse in nature, and the only communities you've got are huge and entirely reliant upon a tiny group of workers to provide food, clean water and energy, if those groups are affected, if there is a collapse, if you can no longer transport food, no longer grow the food, if the soil is eroded, if the Sun's gone because of volcanic ash or even our own activities and disasters, then those communities have no ability to actually eat anything on the land. And if you look at all the great collapses of civilisations, it's the cities that go first. There was a very famous statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Second World War, William Temple, and I think it sums it up, 'we are only 3 meals away from anarchy.' if you're heading towards your third missed meal and there's nothing in the local Tesco express, what do you do?
 This of course is the obvious point.  His note that the cities always go first is a bit dubious.  But I suppose if you only define the collapse as only having occured when the great city collapsed that would have to be true by definition.

The problem with this obvious point, is that most of the population do not have the same obvious way of thinking about how to go about getting more food.   They have absolutely no idea about how to get food in the wilderness.  After they get a few miles out of the city and don't see any bananas hanging from the trees, or deer to shoot with their Glock 17 (9 mm pistol) the vast majority are going to take some other course of action.

The most likely dangerous group are the smaller number of people who have relatives in (and familiarity with) the countryside.  Another group would be the current set of hoodlums who already prey on the countryside

This would be a very dangerous group.  But it would not entail 200,000 people streaming into Cumberland Maryland.

This strikes me as an odd understanding of how people choose to move in migratory, and refugee situations...


PioneerPreppy said...

I think you need to define the amounts included in the refugees. Like you I disagree with the "One Second After" movements but smaller groups will indeed take to the roads I imagine like you pointed out.

If enough order can be maintained though eventually the cities will have to begin sending out foragers under whatever name they call them. Those foragers will be the real problem I think.

Degringolade said...

The dark other is a great way to describe the issue. Fear of others taking their "stuff" is the bread and butter of modern survivalist literature.

What is funny is how people will try seriously to ignore the historical record to gin up some situation where someone will come and take their stuff.

I agree with John Michael. But the market in survival porn will not take a beating by any inroads of rational thought.

That is not its demographic.

Anonymous said...

The horde scenario makes sense in a rapid collapse/disaster scenario. Nuclear war, hurricane etc. In those cases, it will be obvious to large groups of people that they cannot survive where they are.

In almost every other scenario, the inclination will be for people to stay where they are because it is home and they know the area. Generally, they will stay until it is too late to get very far.

If they wait, gasoline is likely to be gone or unavailable and the area will be stripped of food. Particularly as the inclination will be to move along major highways. They also will not move quickly as they will be faced with the choice of searching intact, but probably looted properties, or passing them and going hungry as they look for better prospects. Then there are the weather and water factors. The longer they take the less distance they can cover.

Under any scenario, dependent people, whether welfare or aged or from some other cause will likely wait for someone to take care of them until it is too late.

All that being said, there are several scenarios that would indicate the possibility if not the likelihood of mass movements.

dennis said...

There is an very good argument for the mass exodus. Simply the "that's what I would do argument". We also have such a strong "myth" of the zombie hoards it is imprinted in peoples minds.

russell1200 said...

PP: We are in agreement. The paragraph near the bottom that starts: The most likely dangerous group – I think is key. I probably should have emphasized it more. The most likely group to take your stuff are the locals who know that you are there (wherever that may be) and that you have something worth taking. Foraging will of course depend a lot on the scenario. But if it has become that bad, you are going to have small unit situations with very light arms, not the Golden Horde.

D: Don’t take my stuff! LOL I often agree with John Michael, and mostly do here, but I also often find him to be overconfident in his knowledge. He was too categorical in his statement, there are exceptions.

Anon: Very good points. Weather and water never seem to bother the fictional hordes. Also the amount of lootable goods is much higher in an urban setting, and at least city folks know what a can of corn looks like.

D: There is a point to what you say. But I am not sure that that idea is internalized by the general population. Even when it makes it into forms (television, movies) that the non- literary crowd will access, there are still an awful lot of competing product (sports, singing contests, etc) to distract them from the message. Plus I am not sure what the twilight-vampire crowd is learning. Similarly, the occasional mass coastal exodus from Hurricanes also only affects a limited number of people. Although that exodus may very well be a model that people take to heart if a really large type of natural disaster (Yellowstone blowing up) were to occur.

Erisian ( said...

I think that this is getting more common for people to think about.

With zombie culture being at it's height, everyone has an escape plan, even if they are not discussing it for fear of being ridiculed.

essentially it is the same as the survivalists though.. just driven by an even more unlikely culprit

Bustednuckles said...

With most pe3ple having less than a quarter tank of gas in their vehicle, zero preps and a sense of panic they have never felt in their entire lives, the minute they hit the bottle necks around here on the freeways, I can see the smoke clouds from ten miles away.

My only condolence is that I am not going towards them.

russell1200 said...

E: Some of the zombie stuff is clearly a way to disguise other concerns. What percentage, I have now idea.

BN: By design your typical passenger vehicle has about a 300 mile range. Clear sailing on the highway maybe a little more. If the panic from the cities scenario occurs, I am guessing that most of the 1/4-tankers will wind up clustered around city outer-belt gas stations.

I have more oddly mixed relevant scraps to relay on the subject, but I haven't figured out how to put them together.