The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Secret Determinant of Your Survival in Catastrophes

The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

The response to my article about how climate change is now unstoppable and people should consider what they will do to survive it included some questions of what those considerations should be.

(This is a reprint of a 2018 article. The issue keeps coming up, and there are many new readers, so it’s needed again.)

I don’t want to go into the technicalities of survival preparation. There are plenty of books and blogs (prepper blogs) devoted to it.

But a lot of them miss the proverbial forest for the trees. Obviously you’re going to need the basics; obviously you don’t want to be in the worst places when whatever it is hits.

But less obvious is that the primary determinants of who survives will be social.

Strong and Wide Social Ties

Look, when the shit hit the fans, distribution is hard to entirely determine. Some people will survive, others won’t. Minus tons of money (not always as useful as one thinks, minus prep work) and maybe even with tons of money, what determines survival best is how many people care about you and want you to stay alive.

Are there people who will check on you? Share food and shelter and medicine if they have to? Find (or be) two strong young men and hump you out if necessary? Do people care?

If you don’t have a strong social group, and wider ties, if you’re essentially on your own or just with your immediate family (and it isn’t a huge clan), then your odds of dying or suffering going way, way up.

Don’t have this? Join a church. There are agonostic churches, by the way. Any functional church checks on its members, does visits, helps find jobs, etc, etc…This is a ready-made social group. Yeah, you have to do this stuff yourself, but it’s good for you to care for people and be cared for. When Emile Durkheim studied suicide in 19th century France, he found that atheists suicided most, followed by Protestants, followed by Catholics. This was based on social engagement (don’t transfer this direct, look for a church with social engagement).

If you absolutely can’t stand church, find some other close knit social group. People who look after each other.

Be On Good Terms with the Violent Authorities

Do the local cops like you? Do you give to the patrolman’s benevolent association, or whatever? Does the police chief know your name and care about you? If there is a local military base, are you on good terms there? If there is a local gang, are you on good terms with them?

I don’t care how many guns you have, or if you think  you’re Rambo, organized violence beats unorganized violence. When shit goes bad, you want the people who are used to fighting as a group to think you’re a great person. You want them to defend you and not think of you as a victim.

You may have reason to hate some of these folks, those reasons may be good, but the best way to deal with an enemy is to turn them into a friend, and this is about survival.

Keep Your Resources Largely Secret

You aren’t Rambo, you don’t have an army at your beck and call, and you’ve done your work: You have food, water, medicines, maybe even power. Other people may resent that. They may ask you to share. You may not have enough to share with as many people as want you to share, and still survive. So keep it on the down low. I’m not saying don’t share at all, but conceal how much you have, and keep it hidden. Be smart about this, a semi-public stash you show to those you share with and a hidden stash are a good idea, for example.

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Have Tradeables

In the old days, this used to mean cigarettes. In a crisis, it will mean medicines like antibiotics, drugs, medical supplies in general and anything else you can think of that will be in short supply and needed (iodine tablets for purifying water might be a hot item, for example).

You’ve got to be real careful with this stuff, see “secrecy” above. If people think you have a stash, and know who you are and where you’re from, this can go bad. Strong social ties, ties to the local violent authorities, and secrecy can protect you somewhat, but use your sense.

Careful Following the Crowd

Despite wanting to have strong social ties and all that, remember that the places that are worse to be are often the big center points: the stadium or whatever set up as a central distribution and camp out point. This is where the rapes and violence happen. You should prepare in large part so you don’t have to go there. If you do, visit only, don’t stay, and go in numbers with people good at violence and stay together. Dead serious on this.

Belong to an Organized Group

A good church qualifies, but any reasonably large group (50+ people) who are used to working together outside of work can qualify. When government fails, such groups, used to working together, can pull together. Bonus if the group tends to include people with technical, agricultural, and survival skills. Be on good terms with these people.

Concluding Remarks

The people who live, in good times and bad, tend to be the people who other people want to live. When established authority collapses, groups that already exist but aren’t dependent on that authority tend to take over; and yes, organized groups with guns tend to matter.

Want to live? Make it so you living is what other people want.



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  1. Purple Library Guy

    Consider joining your local medievalist society–SCA or whatever. They get together in semi-organized social groups, they are explicitly interested in pre-modern technology and technique, and they have armour and have learned to hit each other with swords and bows.

  2. StewartM

    Keep Your Resources Largely Secret

    I don’t know how long that would be sustainable, if one is also part of a trusted group that likes you and would defend you. I’d dare say if they did find out that you were hiding a ‘stash’, then they would become resentful and even angry that you deceived them.

    It’s akin to winning a big lottery prize and then keeping the winnings secret. Yes, that can be done, but those who succeed at it tend to be reclusive and and keep to themselves. I understand and concur with your sentiment, as there have been cases of lottery winners who were kidnapped and even killed by relatives or friends who had the goal of getting some of the money. (Funny, how the wealth of the rich can be hidden, and that is a god-given privacy right, but only a few states allow lottery winners–who have far less wealth–legally accept their prize anonymously. Even if you don’t have to go in front of a camera to accept the winnings, in most states it’s a public record and someone could find out by going to the relevant public office and requesting the information.)

    A better solution is maybe to move somewhere where there is still a sense of community? Where you will be accepted? Where you are not the obvious outlier (by race, by creed, by sexual orientation, or by some other metric?). What this might drive is the whole US becoming a series of ‘ghettos’, as self-defense was a reason why these came to be. As I said, this is why the advice of establishing some homestead out in the wild somewhere might not be good advice if you end up surrounded by those who think you are one of the ‘other’.

  3. Feral Finster

    Folks who survived Bosnia and other places tell me that the best tradeable to have is practical skills. Not gold or ammo or even arable land, but skills. A slightly less concrete skill one needs is diplomatic skills, the ability to talk the local gang out of shooting up your church, for instance.

    Finally, tarps. You can never have too many tarps.

  4. mago

    FF. Don’t forget duct tape.

  5. mago

    Also, knowing how to grow and procure food, setting up a field kitchen and cooking for groups tends to enhance one’s popularity and hence survival potential.

  6. mago

    Foraging. You definitely want to acquire foraging knowledge and
    Purslanes and nettles are your friends found in locales both rural and urban. There are many more.
    Go wild

  7. different clue

    ” Be on good terms with the violent authorities” sounds like very good pragmatic survival advice.

    In my own amateur merely intuitive way, I suspect it means that “left-wing” people will have to decide between pursuing their politics . . . or being on good terms with the violent authorities in their area. Because if “left-wing” people are known to support – let’s say– Black Lives Matter . . . while society still seems normal, their “local police” will remember and will take revenge if society breaks down. The police wont’ have to kill Black Lives Matter supporters themselves. All the police would have to do is to quietly tell their contacts within the local Intrumpahamwe Militia groups that you have supported Black Lives Matter, and that you probably need killing, and that if something happens to you, they ( the police) won’t try very hard to solve it.

    If you expect society to break down to the point where survival requires being on good terms with the local violent authorities, you will have to choose between being an activist and accepting the fact that the violent authorities will probably arrange for your death after the social breakdown . . . . or giving up your political activism totally and entirely in order to be on good terms with the violent authorities.

    There’s an ethical test, for real. And a bravery test, too.

  8. capelin

    Eagles: “There is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here.”

    If/when things truly go sideways to the point that Anarchy (the hurting kind) reigns over the Civilized World, it will be uncharted territory, given the scale and the technology sloshing around loose. And, to Ian’s point, the extent and distance to which our societies have moved away from village and community level knowledge and ways. For many, the muscle memory is from a couple generations ago now.

    I would add that, from my experience, larger networks are important but there’s a depth of trust/knowing what to expect, from having a few core allies.

    I don’t forsee Humanity pulling out of something like this. Little pockets here and there, sad edgy people with gamma-tolerent genes. Still, best to give it yer best in the meantime, there’s humour and light in most things.

    Easy to say, I guess, not being in Gaza currently.

  9. sbt42

    “Stay useful.” If you actually prefer to stay alive in our pending hellscape, this is a mantra for you to strongly consider. There is a lot of good that can be done, but if you’re recognized as dead weight or an enemy, it’s largely over for you as far as that other party is concerned.

    I really wish I never had to think of apocalyptic scenarios. It just makes everything about day-to-day life and relations seem so worthless and petty. Sign of the times, and so it goes.

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