There's a certain narrative, that seems to have moved beyond the scope of libertarian-flavoured SF into the popular imagination, of a kind of Cleansing Apocalypse. The story goes that a great environmental or economic disaster sweeps the nation; the government collapses; but small groups of rugged rural survivors stay alive to sow the seeds of a new and better society. It's a compelling mixture of dystopian warning and Arcadian fantasy. Proponents advise that the best way to survive is to own rural property; to learn how to hunt, farm and survive independently; and be prepared to defend yourself against wandering Mad Max-style human predators.
I think the problem is it depends on a certain assumption: that disaster will cause the collapse of the State, which isn't really borne out by experience.
In his history Stalingrad, Antony Beevor reports of a scene where after the Soviet breakout, a German general is captured in a cellar by the Russians. "Where are your men?" demand the captors. Wearily, the general points to the handful of soldiers around him. What's relevant here is that even though virtually everyone has been wiped out, the structures and institutions of the army have survived.
This doesn't just apply to the military realm, but to the civilian. As the Russians pushed into German in WW2, the Nazi regime did not collapse; if anything it's control over the populace grew stronger. As sanctions bit into post-Gulf-War-One Iraq, Saddam Hussein only consolidated his strength and control. While the rulers of the government may change, the existence of a government remains. If anything, the State gains more power in a crisis.
Furthermore, in a disaster or crisis, the survivors tend to be people with lots of contacts, with large support networks, with friends in high places. It's not the rugged individualists who do best, but the schmoozers, the networkers, the party hacks and the social climbers.
Cleansing Apocalypse fantasies tend to involve valiant homeowners fighting off roaming bands of disorganized marauders: difficult but achievable. However, this assumes an ahistorical breakdown of authority. Given that the state is likely to survive, the people after the land are likely to be a hungry but organized army; well-armed and vastly outnumbering the rural farmers. This isn't really practical to defend against.
Another tenet of the Cleansing Apocalypse is that it will be necessary to know all kinds of survival skills; how to plough the land, milk a cow, gather the harvest, and be self-sufficient. Again, this assumes a breakdown in organization. A more likely scenario is that urban authorities will take control of agriculture; as in Stalinesque collective farms, or Mugabe's takeover of the white farms; or Pol Pot's forced ruralization. The pattern would be of unskilled labour directed by a few: following simple orders is all that's required of the new farm labourers. The best quality of life goes to those in a position of power when the apocalypse comes.
If you believe that the disaster is coming, the best way to prepare is not to buy land in the country and learn to farm; your property will probably be confiscated and your labour used in virtual slavery. The best strategy is to remain in the cities, where you can cultivate useful relationships, and work your way up the hierarchy of power. In the countryside, you will be too isolated to work a shifting power structure. Man is a political animal, a creature of the Polis; political skills rather than agricultural will remain the most useful.
To survive the coming apocalypse, start networking now.
Tim Berners-Lee interview: OK's blogging, dislikes bomb-making.
Wrote an analysis document today. Feel a strange sense of achievement.
Faster, Better, Cheaper is a reduced content, reduced editing, increased frequency diary concept.
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