BE PREPARED, A discussion of “doomsday” scenarios and the need to anticipate them.

Posted: August 10, 2014 in Current Events, Environment, Personal Whining, Philosophical Debris, Survival Skills

I don’t really consider myself a Survivalist or Prepper or someone who dwells on doom and gloom predictions, although not everyone acquainted with me would probably agree. I don’t subscribe to any popular scripts about Armageddon. I was a little cautious around 2012, but that was more because of the work of Graham Hancock (who inspired the movie 2012) rather than it was any Mayan prophesies. (Like many similar studies, while it probably has a lot of wrong conclusions in it, Hancock’s book, Fingerprints of the Gods, asks a lot of very fascinating questions.) The individual who taught me most of my survival skills over the past three decades has taken to some very gloomy predictions and warnings on his site in the past two years and, while I respect what he’s trying to do, I have a hard time buying into his message of fear.

And yet the central focus of what I teach my youth groups is wilderness survival. Not only is it an excellent catalyst for teaching self reliance and awareness, but I do truly believe that it could be valuable information. While I’m still making plans for my own future, one year or ten years from now, confident that I’ll be able to enact them, I also believe that it is prudent and wise to see the current state of the Earth as being “at risk” and fragile, and that to not prepare for possible and, in some cases, probable eventualities would amount to hiding one’s head in the sand. The fragile situation in which the Earth finds itself is accelerating and there are some undeniable problems that will challenge the immediate and long term future.

When I say accelerating, I’m often confronted by people who claim that things are no worse off now than they’ve always been. The fault, they often say, is that of the media, hyping world problems and shedding more light on things that have always been there. I don’t agree. I think the most obvious example of the falsehood of this argument can be seen in Climate Change, where this argument is often inaccurately used. Climate Change deniers are fond of saying that the fluctuations that we are seeing in carbon dioxide levels and subsequent warming have been evident throughout history and are nothing new. That has been soundly disproven, and it is now commonly held by scientists that the changes we are seeing as a result of carbon dioxide emissions is not only worse than historical fluctuations, but are likely going to get much more serious.

And it is not only Climate Change. Increased population, and both its demands on the environment and the increased density of people, has an undeniable impact on many challenges we are facing. The threat of a pandemic is one that is increasing due to population and greater facility in travel. Pollution is definitely not on the decrease, and is a cumulative problem, especially if you include more serious types of pollution such as the Fukushima disaster. Like errors in a computer operating system, so many of the problems we’re currently facing are cumulative, going undetected and progressing towards a possible system crash. It could happen today; it could happen in 20 years; with any luck our scientific achievements and our development as a species will continue to outpace disaster and it could never happen.

Some of the world’s current greatest thinkers see it as a race between the triumph of our technology and social progress, and an event or series of events that will cripple us. Noam Chomsky is not the most optimistic person about our future survival. Ray Kurzweil says that our future is going to be amazing, assuming that we don’t destroy or cripple ourselves in the next 20 years. Ken Wilber often points to the fact that most futurists strongly believe that there will be a terrorist nuclear attack on North American soil some time in the next decade.  David Suzuki has basically thrown in the towel.

So what are the most likely events that could put us in a survival position?

#1) The most likely threat to our social integrity is not any particular even, but rather the consequences of one of many events. It would not take much to destabilize our social services, again, very much because of its fragility. Any interruption of services, electrical, medical, police and firefighters, would be disastrous, -especially in urban areas. And then those urban areas would fan out to the suburban areas and cause chaos. Whether it be caused by a pandemic or an EMP, if the social structure were to break down, if we were to be thrown into a major recession or depression, if gasoline became unavailable and food was not delivered to the supermarkets, we’d be in deep trouble. Hopefully something like that would only last a short time, but it could feasibly last for months and even years.

#2) A pandemic is a contagious disease which spreads throughout the world and has significant medical consequences. The last one was in 1918, the Spanish Flu, which infected 500 million people and had a 10% – 20% fatality rate. This was, by the way, when world travel was much less of a factor than it is now.
Currently we have an Ebola scare, which is not likely to turn into a pandemic, although it is not as impossible as the authorities would like you to believe. The truth is that Ebola is about as contagious as Mono, and we’ve all known people who have caught Mono. …And diseases mutate, sometimes naturally and sometimes by human hand, like the case several years ago where an airborne version of an influenza virus was genetically engineered by European scientists.
Most medical scientists believe that there is a 100% chance that there will be a major pandemic in the next 50 years. Again, increased population, crowding, health care cuts, and certainly airline travel have all mitigated the cumulative risk. Even if the pandemic is restricted to a portion of the population, it will be enough to trigger that social instability I mentioned in point #1.

#3) When you understand how weapons technology is evolving, it becomes much easier to accept the fact that a terrorist nuclear strike in a North American city is highly possible. Whether it be an actual nuclear explosion, a simple dirty bomb, or an EMP event, any terrorist attack of this nature would, again, cause a massive destabilization of the economy and social integrity. A recent CBS report stated, “Various experts estimate the chances of a nuclear detonation in the next 10 years at somewhere between 10 and 30 percent.” Smuggling through a nuclear, not to mention a biological, weapon is getting easier and easier. People have mini-genetics labs in their cupboards.
This is very much a product of technology, -that science wonder that we’re hoping will save us-, outstripping the social restraint and restriction we’re capable of putting on it. Take, for example, the use of highly technical missiles by drunken rebels to shoot an airliner down in Ukraine. Ooops.

#4) Our food supply is a paradox. In our need to produce food for an ever increasing population, we’ve resorted to modifying crops and livestock in order to increase efficiency. Without that increased efficiency we would possibly have a food shortage. (I know there are lots of debates about what “could” be if we tackled our food problem in a different way, but I’m talking here about what “is”.) The result is that we’ve essentially gutted the bio-diversity of the plants and animals that make up our agriculture. While there were once dozens of types of corn or grains, now we’ve reduced it to a handful, most of them highly bred or even genetically modified. Now, I don’t want to get into a GMO debate here. But the fact is that we’ve narrowed the general biodiversity. One catastrophic even could have a serious impact on our cattle, our wheat, or just about anything. I’ve been unable to find the reference for it, but I recall one interview with David Suzuki about 15 years ago or more where he told the story of a lab almost releasing a strain of wheat accidently which would have cross pollinated and seriously depleted our wheat crops with disastrous results. (While Suzuki has made some unfortunate statements lately on some scientific topics, genetics is his field and I’m inclined to give his statements on that topic a lot of weight.) I’ve used the word “fragile” above, but nowhere is it more true than when talking about our ability to produce food.
And that is just the beginning of the food paradox. We’ve created a system which requires massive transportation of food, without which many areas would be very hard pressed to survive. If regular deliveries were suspended, how long would the food in the supermarket last? I’ve seen answers of anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks, probably depending on how much people panic and stock up.

#5) Water is one of the most important things you need in order to survive. In a survival scenario it is the number two priority, and only because freezing to death is faster than dying of thirst. I became concerned with water availability when I saw the recent crisis that they had in Dayton, where algae blooms released a chemical toxin into L. Erie, which then got into the water supply. The thing that made this crisis different was that, as a chemical toxin, the problem couldn’t be solved either by boiling or by filtration. Neither removes a dissolved chemical (unless it is a better than average filtering system.) Similarly, water filtration plants would have to be overhauled if they were to treat this kind of water pollution. That’s not likely to happen, and even if it does, it has been shown that this kind of advanced filtration on a city scale is prone to breakdown.

The headlines that talk about crisis in the parts of the world are important, and can ricochet back to us indirectly, but the main things that cause our Earth to be fragile are much more mundane. People take out life insurance understanding that there might be personal challenges and tragedies; however there can also be global or societal challenges and tragedies. Preparing for these kinds of calamities might involve having a few cases of bottled water, an alternate source of heat and enough food for a week or so. However, if the problem escalates to the next level, are you prepared for a month or even a year of hardship?

And are you ready to protect what you may have prepared from people who might want to take it away from you? Even if one person out of a hundred is willing to assault or kill you in order to feed their own family, …that’s a lot of people. To use a nerdy reference, in The Walking Dead TV show, it’s not the zombies that tend to be the problem.

O.K. So you might disagree with my original statement that I’m not a “Prepper” or survivalist. But I don’t see myself any different from the person who takes out life insurance. In fact I might see my decisions as even a little more practical. You hope and work for the best, but prepare for the worst.

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Comments
  1. mmmmw says:

    You sound a bit like this guy: http://olduvai.ca/

    • pwiinholt says:

      Interestingly, I am acquainted with him, though we’ve never spoken about this. We used to work together. His views were a surprise to me when I connected olduvai to him, but to the best of my knowledge, a lot of my sentiments predate his.

  2. mmmmw says:

    I did see that he was a teacher, and wondered if you knew him.

  3. pwiinholt says:

    He and I worked in the same school about 20 years ago, and I actually taught one of his daughters more recently. Back when we worked together, I was even then doing work with youth groups teaching wilderness survival. I’m sure we talked about it often, but he never revealed any interest in the subject back then. It also never came up when we associated at my more recent school, so it was a surprise when I made the connection.

  4. Thought I’d jump in since I’m part of the discussion and give some context to my own thoughts regarding this. I studied anthropology/archaeology for a number of years in university, doing my Masters in archaeology prior to Teachers’ College (working on a number of ‘digs’ in Ontario and Mexico). It was at this time that I was acquainted with the constant rise and fall of prehistorical civilisations.
    PW is correct that we never discussed this issue when working together as I drifted away from the topic (caught up in family, career, and self). It was after watching the documentary Collapse in Dec. 2010, with the late Michael Ruppert, that I caught the bug again. I found the documentary disturbing on a number of levels and began researching the claims Ruppert made; it has significantly altered my perception of life and global events.
    Anyways, love your post, PW, and you highlight some significant risks; several of which society has downplayed or simply ignores. One that I would add would be concerning the economic/monetary system we have. The hubris that a small cabal of bankers display in thinking they can control a dynamic, complex system is, at times, laughable. If we don’t blow ourselves up with nuclear weapons, we might just accomplish the same with a sudden, dramatic collapse of our monetary system (which is so tightly integrated with our energy systems).
    Finally, I would suggest a great text by archaeologist Joseph Tainter that lays out in detail how and why complex societies collapse, succinctly entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies. Humanity has travelled this road many times before and we are simply repeating what has occurred to previous complex societies before us. Another great text is the classic Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows et al..
    Cheers:)
    Steve

  5. […] BE PREPARED, A discussion of “doomsday” scenarios and the need to anticipate them. | PW’s …. […]

  6. mmmmw says:

    I figured there was an archeology connection, based on the archeological reference in the name. Where did you do your degree, Steve?

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