In 22 June, 2001, Tara O’Toole and Thomas Inglesby of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Bio-defense Strategies, organized a war game like no other.
The two researchers, working with an array of bodies such as the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, set out to simulate the effects of a biological attack on the US. The project was called Operation Dark Winter.
What they discovered was that the country was ill prepared to cope. Within two weeks there would be enormous civilian casualties, a catastrophic breakdown in essential institutions, and mass civil unrest. Food supplies, electricity and transport infrastructures would all collapse.
In short, the world would get medieval on America’s ass. And the same thing would happen all over the globe.
These days we’re spoiled for choice in terms of potential catastrophes. Natural and ecological disasters, nuclear weapons, terrorism, experimental technological accidents (“Oops, we’ve accidentally created Skynet”) – they’re all in the game. In 2008 a group of experts met at an Oxford University conference and suggested that there was a 19% chance of a global catastrophic event before 2100 (with super intelligent AI and molecular nanotechnology weapons at the top of the threat list). It was just a bit of fun, and they added plenty of caveats to that figure, but still, something to think about, eh?
With all this in mind, the Guardian spoke to the academic and author Nafeez Ahmed, who has studied global crises and mass violence, and recently advised Ubisoft on the authenticity of its post-pandemic video game, The Division. We asked him, in the event that society collapses, what should we do. Here’s what he suggested.
1. Don’t hole up alone with hundreds of tins of baked beans
“There’s a survivalist response which is ‘I’m going to hide away all by myself’,” says Ahmed. “You’re probably not going to survive like that – you have to cooperate with other people. This may not be obvious at first because you may see others as a potential threat, but the moment you become a loner, you’re likely to lose simply because you’re now part of a dog-eat-dog environment. The more people who band together, the more likely you are to be able to rebuild something like a society. So I’d say share those baked beans. In fact, you don’t even have to stick to baked beans.”
2. You need to go rural … but not too rural
You were probably expecting this, but let’s make it clear anyway. Cities are wonderful when everything is functioning but, as The Walking Dead made clear, they’re lethal when there’s no order, electricity or infrastructure. “If you stayed in the city, you’d be in more danger, there’s no doubt about that,” says Ahmed. “Generally speaking, when academics have run these scenarios on predictive models, cities are found to be extremely vulnerable simply because there are so many supply chains that are interdependent, and so many people there with you who are also dependent on these supply chains. People will be competing with each other for these scarce resources, which creates violence.”
However, the other extreme – total isolation – may also not be a good idea, for the reason given above. You need a group of differently skilled people who can work cooperatively in order to build your own supply chains and flourish. So, we’re talking … small market town? “Yes,” says Ahmed, not altogether seriously. “Ideally you’d want to be somewhere in Kent.”
3. You need access to running water and agricultural land
In the event of a major global catastrophe, we’re going to have to face the very real possibility that Waitrose will be closed. Within the first few days, roads will be clogged and supermarkets looted, so you’ll be forced to generate your own supplies. “In a scenario such as a pandemic, you need to be somewhere you can access running water and/or other sources of energy,” says Ahmed. This isn’t just for sustenance – fast running water can also be harnessed to provide power – as long as you thought to buy a small-scale hydroelectric generator. The problem is, most of us don’t spend our weekends buying up on personal energy solutions – just in case. “If we’re talking about a sudden collapse, then the chances are you won’t have a solar power generator to hand,” confirms Ahmed. But at least if you’re near water you can drink it.
“There’s also the need to grow your own food,” says Ahmed. “Again you’re better off doing that with a group of people on a large area of land where you can apportion labour. That’s not going to work as well in an urban environment.”
4. Establish communications
“If you wanted to forge a community and be resilient, you may not necessarily have to communicate with the wider world,” says Ahmed. “However, you may need to know what’s going on. The thing is, in a catastrophic scenario, you don’t know what communications are going to be up and running.”
The basic method of acquiring information will be a wind-up or solar-powered radio. However, to actually communicate with the outside world, or with members of your community, you may be back to walkie-talkies, two-way radios or even a citizen band radio – the problem there being that, in the event of a major catastrophe, you’ll only be able to communicate with 1970s truckers. All of these will require electricity, so unless you’ve stockpiled batteries or fuel for a traditional generator you may be stuck. However, we’re now seeing both solar and hydrogen-powered generators – and, of course, there’s the nano membrane toilet which sorts both your power and sanitation issues in one go.
What about the internet? According to Peter Taphouse and Matthew Bloch of UK-based server-hosting company, Bytemark, there’s a possibility that many of the tens of thousands of separate networks (or Autonomous Systems) and data centers that make up the backbone of the internet could survive the collapse of civilization if they had access to local power. However, the content networks and transit providers – big companies such as BT, Sky, Virgin, NTT, Cogent – would be vulnerable to societal collapse. Sure, Google has nice offices and all, but people are less likely to go to work if the city is a death zone of marauding looter gangs. So even though the net is designed as a nonlinear decentralized system, it could be that only military frameworks would reliably survive – and they’re not accessible from your local coffee shop.
Your best option, then, may be to set up your own community computer network – and the most sensible technology would be Wi-Fi, as the components are easily available. “You could loot a PC World for broadband routers and then hit a garage or supermarket for some Pringles cans,” says Bloch. “With those, you can probably build a reasonable network across a scorched suburb.”
Why a Pringle can? Well, it can be used to create a cantenna which would be capable of boosting a Wi-Fi signal from your computer. “Some students in Kansas made a cantenna that transmitted over 100 miles a few years ago,” says Bloch. He suggests using a cheap Raspberry Pi as the combined communications hub and router (although a basic netbook may be a good alternative). “I ran an old Pi off four AA batteries for four hours just to play a video game a while back, and that was wasting power on bluetooth and speakers. They can shift a lot of traffic, and run little servers, so I imagine you could run tiny hubs off a car battery for 1-2 weeks at a time.
“If you ran an old-school email network off those, it’d be quite handy and expandable piece by piece as you contacted neighboring villages, cleared the zombies out, etc. I guess that’s the nice thing about the internet: the oldest protocols still adapt to this situation. I think some people really want to see this happen, just so they can prove it.”
In the Fallout series of post-apocalyptic role-playing games, survivors are able to utilize an old closed network called PoseidoNet, which has survived the nuclear war – there are terminals placed throughout the world. So could we, in real life, somehow access corporate, academic or even military networks to communicate?
“Basically Fallout seems about 80% accurate to me,” says Bloch.
5. Don’t necessarily trust the government or law enforcement
All major governments have contingency plans in place to ensure their survival after a global disaster. In 2007, for example, George Bush signed into place the National Security Presidential Directive, which claims the power to execute certain orders in the event of a catastrophic emergency – President Obama also signed a National Preparedness executive order in 2012. The thing is, most of those preparations are classified – we won’t know what they are until it happens. What we can be fairly certain of, however, is that it will involve the suspension of constitutional government and the installment of martial law. To some degree.
“Based on the continuity of government plans we have in the US and western Euro, there’s no doubt that you would have a visible force presence on the streets to try and maintain order,” says Ahmed. “There would be all sorts of things necessary in a pandemic scenario – the need to quarantine, the need to contain the spread of the virus.
“Whatever the situation, there’s also going to be more of a need, as infrastructures fail, for people on the ground to establish and maintain order. We saw this during the Olympics when the security contractor effectively collapsed and the army had to come in. It showed the need to maintain discipline, and it also showed that the army is trained to respond to a situation where systems start to break down.”
But here’s a slightly paranoid question: what if it has been decided by contingency planners that civilians are somewhat surplus to requirements? What if the security personnel aren’t actually on our side?
“Never 100% always trust the military – especially when they’re in your own territory,” says Ahmed.
Instead, we should be using our fledgling communication networks to gather public support and ask questions. “The fact is, we have democracy for a reason – there are checks and balances,” says Ahmed. “The government has said that they need to have these continuity operations and we’ve said, ‘okay I guess we need those’ – we’ve given our consent by not really complaining about it. But at the same time, we know that’s not the way we want the country to run.
“So the moment we shift into a state where suddenly the police and army, this unelected minority of people, have all the power, and where all the political processes are suspended then, yes, there is a justifiable level of skepticism. Populations need to be asking, when is this situation going to end? At what point is this temporary suspension of our normal constitution going to lead back to the normal way of things?
“This is a totally legitimate inquiry. You don’t necessarily have to be a conspiracy theorist to question authority. In the west, we know there is a certain degree of discipline and accountability that our militaries do have – there are rules of engagement. But we know from history that when you have this sort of situation, there is all sorts of scope for abuse.”
6. You may have to be self-sufficient for a long time
So you have your agricultural land, your solar powered generators and Raspberry Pi communications network, but the big question is: how long before civilized modern industrial society is rebuilt? Or in other words, how long before Netflix is working again?
“In a global pandemic scenario, you’re looking at a long time before everything is safe,” says Ahmed. “With influenza, for example, we’re talking about a lead time of several years before society can get to grips with it all. If you really wanted to stay safe, I think you’ll need to survive for a decade before civilization sorts itself out.”
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