May 112012

A small mixed use farm not far from an urban concentration - a vanishing part of our essential infrastructure.

The chances are you live in a city.  Indeed, the chances are 4:1 or more that you live in or close to a city/urban center.

This wasn’t always the case.  If we go back a couple of hundred years, in 1800, it is thought that only about 3% of the world’s population lived in urban areas.

Skip forward to 1900, and the number had risen to 14%, although most cities were small rather than big.  There were only 12 cities in the world with populations greater than 1 million.

This evolution has continued, and at an accelerating pace.  Just fifty years later, in 1950, 30% of the world’s population was in urban centers, and – notwithstanding the appalling destruction of cities throughout Europe and Asia during World War 2,  there were now 83 cities with populations over 1 million people.

Zeroing in on the United States, we see an even greater trend towards urban living than in the world as a whole.  It is hard to be absolutely exact – not only because the US Census Office has repeatedly changed its methodology and definition of what is a city or rural area, but also because we ourselves probably have differing views of the matter, too.

But, in general terms, in the US, by 1950 we were well past the halfway point.  60% of the population lived in urban areas compared to 40% in rural areas.

Move forward another 50 years, to 2000, and at that time, almost 80% of the population lived in urban areas, leaving just 20% in the countryside.  And whereas in 1900 there were only 12 cities worldwide with populations in excess of 1 million, there are now more than 12 ‘urban areas’ in the US alone with appreciably more than 1 million people in them.

Now while the shift in rural/urban numbers, in the US, from 1950 to 2000 might not sound like a huge change to you – from 60% to 80%, that’s not the best way to look at it.  It is actually more significant than any previous shift.

You should also look at the 40% still living in rural areas.  This has halved to 20%.  Perhaps the best comparison is to think about how the 60/40 ratio meant that for each rural dweller, there were 1.5 city dwellers (in 1950).  In 2000, for each rural dweller, there were now four city dwellers – two and a half times as many as 50 years earlier.

Probably, today, the ratio is more like 83/17, meaning for each rural dweller there are now five city dwellers.  Maybe we’re already getting closer to a 1:6 ratio (86/14).

There’s another element of this as well.  Until sometime probably in the 1930s or 1940s, more people lived rurally than in the cities.  But today there is a massive imbalance with the huge preponderance not only of people but of wealth and resources and everything else, all in our cities, while our rural areas are emptying and lying largely neglected – for example, the 25% or so of people in rural and semi-rural areas are served by only 10% of the country’s physicians.

How and Why This Has Happened

This steady trend, with people moving from the farms to the cities, has happened for several reasons.

Mechanization on farms has allowed for massively increased productivity, allowing the same or greater food production by fewer and fewer workers.  This has also pushed down the cost of food (and/or increased the profitability of growing food and selling it).

The greater productivity and affluence of farmers has increased their desire for non-subsistence level goods, growing an economy for everything in the form of non-farm goods, and freeing farm employees to move to work in factories.

The trend from non-mechanized production of goods to mass-production served to concentrate people in areas to work in enormous factories, and the greater efficiencies in producing goods again lead to more wealth, and more consumption, and the need for additional non-farm manufacturing and services.

Lower transportation costs and better/more reliable and faster transportation methods made it possible for concentrations of non-farm workers (ie cities) to source their food supplies from further and further away, freeing cities from earlier limitations on size based on the ability of the surrounding areas to produce sufficient food for them.

This trend has continued even further, with global trade now allowing for food to be produced at lower costs not just elsewhere in the same state, not just elsewhere in the country, not just elsewhere in the same continent, but somewhere half-way around the world, and to appear in our supermarkets at lower cost and almost comparable freshness to locally produced goods.  As you surely know, your local Wholefoods or other ‘quality’ food store actually charges more for local produce than for imported produce these days – how crazy is that!

So these days – all going well – it is entirely possible for huge cities with millions of people to obtain all their food and other essential services from locations hundreds and even thousands of miles away.

Why This Change Is Potentially Worrying

In case you’ve not already joined the dots in the appropriate pattern, the problem is this.  Back when a small city was served by the farms within a day or so of travel around the city’s outskirts, there wasn’t a lot of downside if something ‘went wrong’.  Besides which, back then, everyone kept larger inventories of food.  Individual families would keep weeks of food in their home (including their own preserving of foods); grocery stores and their distribution warehouses would be geared up for replenishment every week or so, and the farmers and their cooperatives and other distributors also kept stocks of products.

Any part of the food chain could be interrupted, and the other parts would be able to continue functioning for some days or longer, and the interrupted part of the food chain could quickly be repaired or replaced.  Worst case scenario – enough nearby farmers could continue to work their farms by hand, and take their food by horse and cart to the cities in sufficient quantities for the city population to be fed.

But now, with ‘just in time’ inventory systems, and families who buy food one day at a time, with no more than several days of emergency food at home, the entire supply chain – now stretched hundreds or even thousands of miles – has little reserve or resiliency in case of any disruptions, and if there is a disruption, it is harder to work around the problem and reinstate the smooth functioning of supply lines.

Every step of the supply chain now replies upon ‘artificial’ productivity enhancers.  The farmers rely upon intensive farming processes and machinery, irrigation, fertilizer, and so on.  The distribution system relies upon electronic ordering and control, and upon airplanes, trains and trucks to move goods quickly, hundreds or thousands of miles before the food items spoil (and the city populations starve).  Even the supermarkets rely upon electronics to manage their inventory control systems and customer billing, and the citizens rely upon transportation to get to and from the supermarkets (and quite likely, to travel up and down the many floors in their apartment building too).

Worst case scenario now would see millions of people in an urban area finding themselves with no local food supply sources within 50 or more miles of where they live, and with sources further away, but within say 100 miles or so, that were only capable of feeding perhaps 10% of the city’s population.  And with only a few days between a supply disruption and the population having no food to eat, there is very little time to resolve a problem or come up with alternate sources of sufficient food for the millions of people affected.

If a longer term disruption to society’s functions and services occurred, the modern-day imbalance between those who produce life’s essentials – the rural dwellers (and not all rural dwellers are food producing farmers these days anyway) and those who need life’s essentials to live but who can’t and don’t produce any themselves – to say nothing of the now massive distances between where food is produced and where it is consumed – makes it difficult or impossible for city dwellers to retreat to the countryside and find the needed support and sustenance there.  When there was a one to one ratio, it was probably possible, but with a five to one ratio?  Forget it!

This is another reason why we prepare for hard times – because there are no longer any ‘safety nets’ out there in case of disruption.  Quite the opposite – not only is there no longer any safety net, but now we have further to fall.

In 1800 each city dweller was supported by 33 rural dwellers/farmers.  In 1900, each city dweller was supported by six other people.  But by 1950, the ratio was dropping below one to one, and now, it has completely flipped on itself – there is only one rural dweller for each five or so city dwellers.

Any sort of failure of our highly leveraged infrastructure and support systems at present and we’ll discover just exactly how terribly unsustainable that ratio can be.

May 062012

Scientists predict there's one chance in eight a solar storm could end the world as we know it within ten years

Here’s an interesting story from the LA Times about increased activity on/from the sun and the dangers such things pose to our comfortable life as we currently know and enjoy it.

Stated simply – solar storms can disrupt and/or destroy electrical power distribution systems, power lines, transformers, and the devices connected to them.  In today’s electricity-dependent world, none of this is good.

One point we’d disagree with – the story says :

Much of the planet’s electronic equipment, as well as orbiting satellites, have been built to withstand these periodic geomagnetic storms.

The sadly implausible nature of this claim is revealed in the very next sentence of the article, which seems to contradict the reassurance of the previous sentence :

But the world is still not prepared for a truly damaging solar storm.

There are two key things to appreciate in understanding the vulnerability to LAWKI (Life as we know it).

Solar Storms are Not New

First, solar storms are nothing new.  They occur, to greater or lesser extent, all the time.  We don’t know enough about the sun to accurately predict its ‘weather’ although we have observed some things over centuries such as the approximately 11 year cycle between periods of lesser activity and periods of greater activity, with the current cycle (the 24th since they started counting and measuring them) expected to peak in May 2013 (assuming the Mayans are wrong and the world doesn’t end in December 2012, of course!).

Note also that a period of low activity doesn’t mean no solar storms, and neither does it mean only weak solar storms.  It just means fewer solar storms, although there is still the possibility that one of the few that may occur is a really big strong one.

If you’d like to know more about this, here’s an interesting page on NASA’s site that discusses the solar cycle and the historical observations to date.  In particular, you will find more information about the effects and impact of the huge solar storm in 1859 (mentioned in the LA Times article, but in much less detail).  If you don’t bother clicking over to the NASA page, the quick headline is that the 1859 solar storm, if it occurred today, is guesstimated to cause $1 – 2 trillion in damage to our infrastructure and take 4 – 10 years to recover from.  This is 10 – 20 times the cost of Hurricane Katrina.

The Impacts of Solar Storms Have Increased

Our second point is that our society is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the types of disruptions that a large solar storm would cause.  Solar storms, themselves, aren’t getting worse.  But the risk they pose to our society is increasing.

In 1859, electricity was rare and of little importance.  Edison’s electric light bulb wasn’t yet patented (this happened in 1879).  Electrical distribution only started in the 1880s.  Marconi wasn’t even born until 1874 so there was no radio of any sort.   The main disruptions in 1859 were to the telegraph circuits.

Today of course, sees electricity inseparable and essential in almost every part of our daily lives.  And even when we don’t directly use electricity personally, it has been used somewhere else to produce the goods and services we need and rely upon.

We got a taste of what could happen in our modern world when in 1989 a moderate solar storm caused the entire province of Quebec to lose power in 90 seconds, plunging 6 million people into a world without electricity for nine hours.  Because this happened at 2.46am local Quebec time (on Monday 13 March) this was at a time of minimal power use, which helped minimize any permanent damage, and also reduced the impact on Quebec’s population, who simply failed to wake up by any electric alarm clocks, and probably most people only experienced a conscious awareness of no power for maybe four hours or so.

A more powerful solar storm would do more than trip circuit breakers in power stations.  It would ‘fry’ transformers (ordering a new transformer typically requires three years or more of lead time until delivery is received, no-one in North America makes power transformers any more),and possibly damage or destroy power lines, and might harm all sorts of devices connected to the mains power.  The size of the transient voltages and currents caused by the solar storm could overwhelm the limited capacity of various surge protectors that many devices use as a light layer of protection.

The LA Times article says that Britain’s official assumption is that if it were to experience a storm similar to the one that wiped out Quebec’s power grid, then it would expect ‘to lose one or two regions where the power might be out for several months’.

If that’s the official stated assumption, the reality could be vastly worse, for Britain, and of course for the US too, if we were to experience a solar storm.  But even if Britain were ‘only’ to lose one or two regions, for ‘several’ months (ie probably 3 – 6 months) what would the impacts of that be on the people in those regions?  If one of those regions was London, that could mean half the country was without power for six months.  You can bet that would be life changing (as in ‘life threatening’)!

It is very hard to know exactly what the extent of damage might be.  The LA Times plays a bit of a guessing game as to the impacts on our life if there is no electricity, which is a bit like the game of ‘For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost’.

For example, no electricity means no power to drive the gas pumps at petrol stations, which means no gas or diesel for trucks or cars, which means no food deliveries, which means – well, most people prefer to pretend not to understand what that means.  Remember also that with no gas, you can’t go out into the countryside to the farms to buy food directly – and they have no gas/diesel to run their farm machinery either.  And any cool stores for, eg, apples; they’ll have lost their cooling, so all that food would be spoiling too.

Never mind food, what about water.  No power means no water pumps.  Ooops.  That means no water coming out of your taps, and with no gas for your car, any water you might get is water you’ll have to walk to find and carry back with you, all by yourself.

It also means the sewage systems stop working, too. At least that is probably survivable, albeit unpleasantly so.  But with rapidly deteriorating sanitary conditions, expect the spread of disease.  Ummmm – did we also mention that without electricity, modern hospitals will completely stop functioning.

If you’re in a multi-floor apartment building, no power means no elevators.  Again, something you’ll probably survive (unlike no food or water) but it sure is life changing.

No power means no light and no heat either – even if you have gas heat in your home, you probably use electricity for the fans that blow the air through the heater and around your house.  Alternatively, if it is summer, you’ll have no cooling.

No power means your credit cards won’t work, and you won’t be able to get money out of (or into) an ATM either.  There goes the banking system.  Not to forget, no television, no radio, no phones (neither cell phones nor landlines) and – for some of us, worst of all – no internet.

Playing with the Odds

Aaccording to this scholarly article, the possibility of an 1859 type super sun storm occurring in the next ten years are about 12%. That’s a fancy way of saying one chance in eight.  Slightly worse odds than Russian roulette with a six chamber revolver.  Who do you know who would agree to play a game of Russian roulette once every decade?  Probably no-one.

However, the same people who are terrified of guns, loaded or empty, pointed at them or safely locked away out of sight, are the same people that sneer at preppers and say there’s no chance of any risk to our modern life and society.

Here’s an amazing concept :  The chances of a TEOTWAWKI type power disruption from a super solar storm are greater than – for most people – the chances of a house fire.  But we all insure our houses, paying maybe $1000 or more a year just in case of a problem.

We could all lose our houses and still live.  It would be a financial tragedy (assuming we have substantial equity in the house) but our lives would not be risked by the loss of our house.  We’d be in a rental apartment within a few days.  We’d still have our jobs, our cars, and the rest of our lives.  In a week, we’d have bought replacement clothing, and be starting to buy the other essentials in our lives.

But the loss of electricity across our entire state or country – that does risk our lives.  After a week of no electricity, we’d be worse off, not starting our recovery.  After a month, we might be dying of starvation.

People spend hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars each year insuring against a risk that is less likely to occur, and which would have a much less serious impact on their lives if/when it does occur.

If it makes sense to spend $1000 a year to insure against the low risk of losing one’s house, how much should one spend a year to insure against the greater risk of a more harmful event – a solar storm destroying our power grid?

May 032012

People gather by a Mayan temple in Chichen Itza, Mexico

An international survey just released suggests that 15% of people world-wide believe the world will end during their lifetime.

The least pessimistic countries were France (6% expect the world to end), Belgium (7%) and Britain (8%).  Here in the US people are the most pessimistic, with 22% of people expecting the world to end in their lifetime, the same percentage as in Turkey.  People see the world ending for a variety of reasons, including biblical prophesy and the Mayan 2012 claim.  More details here.

Now for an important distinction.  These people are not preppers.  These people expect the world to end; preppers simply expect a major change to the world as we know it; either briefly, or for some more extended period of time.

There’s really no way to prepare for the complete end of the world, is there.  What use is stockpiled food, a retreat, or anything else if the world just ends!

Keep this in mind when talking to others about your views.  Possibly one reason that some groups of ill-informed people choose to ridicule or sneer at preppers is their lack of understanding about who we are and what we do.  When your friends discover that preppers aren’t strange people, but are normal ordinary people like yourself (hopefully you’re reasonably normal and ordinary!) that challenges their first perception, and when they discover that you don’t expect some type of super-natural Armageddon that is impossible to resist, but rather, you are simply prudently preparing for a range of very possible short and longer term disruptions to our current comfortable lifestyles, that should challenge their other misperceptions, too.

After all, wouldn’t you much prefer your friends and neighbors to join you in prepping for future challenges?  That way, if/when something does occur, rather than having them trying to get free assistance from you and your own scarce resources, and being a drain on your own preparations; they’ll instead be able to contribute to a larger shared resource of capabilities and materials.

There’s no need to be aggressively bothersome about talking about prepping, but if the topic comes up, it is appropriate to talk a little about it.  We suggestion you start off from the point that everyone is a prepper already to a greater or lesser extent, and the only distinction between us all is how much we prepare and what we prepare for.  That is a positive and inclusionary approach to the topic.

May 012012

What would happen to you if the bottom suddenly dropped out of the economy?

There’s a reason economics is called ‘the dismal science’.

Much of economics is not at all scientific.  It is imprecise, unrepeatable, and based on each economist’s personal value system – they say that if you get ‘n’ economists in a room, you’ll end up with ‘n + 1’ opinions about the economy and what to do about it.  We’d never have recessions, depressions, slow-downs, crises, or everything else bad if economics was an exact science.

So predictions of upcoming economic doom and gloom should always be viewed with skepticism (or perhaps with optimism, in the hope the predictions are more likely wrong than right).  But just because economists seem to be wrong more often than they’re right doesn’t mean that our economic future is guaranteed to be trouble-free and positive.

Indeed, at present, it seems we’re busy barely dodging economic bullets at a much greater rate than normal.  For example, will the EU and the Euro collapse?  The last year has seen a steady stream of articles grimly predicting its collapse, followed by reports of political saves guaranteeing its future.  Who really knows what will happen.

What about China?  The storm clouds also hang over China on a regular basis, with commentators saying that China is about to go into a ten plus year period of decline or zero growth (either of which would cause extreme political risk for that country’s leaders).  On the other hand, even if it is ‘business as usual’ in China, if that country finally revalues its currency up to where economists tell us it should be, we’d lose our source of low-priced goods, one of the few bright things on the US economic horizon this last decade or two.  What would Walmart do if it could no longer buy just about everything at extraordinary low prices any more?

What will we all do if the price of gas continues to go up?  Are our own country’s economic problems solved by more deficit spending, or by less?  Some people think one, others think the other, and the only two things that are certain is that ‘more of the same’ is not the right approach, and that both the ‘more spenders’ and the ‘less spenders’ can’t be simultaneously correct.

There are lots of things that might go wrong, economically, either for us personally – ie, we lose our jobs and can’t find appropriate alternate employment – or for the country as a whole – ie, lots of people lose their jobs and those of us fortunate enough to keep them have to accept pay cuts.

Here’s just one example of potential doom and gloom economic scenarios being discussed – although this article starts off with the scary headline about the economy facing a ‘fiscal cliff’ but doesn’t really build on the promise of the headline, and instead talks not about falling off a fiscal cliff, but hoped for best case scenarios instead.

As we’ve said elsewhere, you’d not be reading this blog if you base your life on hoped for best case scenarios.  So the ongoing level of potential economic disasters that are being discussed, especially when set alongside our far from resilient national and world economy currently, have to be noted.

What would you do if you lost your job?  The thing is that much of our prepping pre-supposes an ongoing supply of money to cover the costs of our preparing for future adversity.  It is possible that in time, a well prepped household will reduce its outgoings and its reliance on income continuing to come in, but until that point, you definitely need money.  Furthermore, a future situation where you can ‘live off the land’ doesn’t mean you just relax and take it easy all day – you’ll be working as hard as you’ve ever done, but at practical tasks such as producing food and maintaining shelter.  And even in such a case, as long as there is a ‘rest of the world’ outside of your retreat, you’ll still want to occasionally get comfort and convenience items to help your life.

One practical suggestion, such as it is, for what to do if you lose your job.  First, if you’re married or in some other stable domestic partnership, spread the risk.  Don’t both have the same type of job, and definitely don’t both work for the same company.  That way you hopefully won’t both have your income disappear simultaneously.

Secondly, give some thought to how you can develop a second income – perhaps from a hobby you have.  Whatever your interests are, the chances are you can see some ways to use your knowledge and contacts in that field into a money-making activity.  It doesn’t have to make you a lot of money while you’re fully employed, but it is good if you can at least do some ‘proof of concept’ trading so you know that, if you need to, you can grow that activity in the future.  This also gives you the start of some trading history and gives you a chance for word to slowly spread and for your reputation to slowly grow, so if/when you need to make it your main income source, you are not starting from nothing.

Third, you should focus in, now, on how to cut down your monthly outgoing costs and how to maximize your ability to achieve economic independence.

Your prepping will help you reduce your energy consumption and cost, and should also help you reduce your reliance on expensive pre-cooked foods and enhance your ability to cook good quality food from fundamentals at much lower costs.

Delay buying a new car by a year (or two, or three).  This one thing alone will make a huge difference to your monthly outgoings.

Just a few lifestyle changes can help you appreciably reduce the amount of cash you need each month to live on, making you much less vulnerable to economic hard times, and freeing up your remaining income to invest in prudent preparing.

Apr 302012

Groups of rioters and looters can be difficult to anticipate and defend against

There’s nothing new about rioting and civil/social disruption.

Indeed, it is currently the 20th anniversary of what are known as the ‘Rodney King Riots’ in Los Angeles – a five-day period of mayhem that erupted with no notice, and which saw looting, destruction, arson and murder across substantial parts of South Central Los Angeles.

It is helpful to quickly review lessons from this before moving on to a look at future vulnerabilities.

The Rodney King/South Central Los Angeles Riots in April/May 1992

The jury decision acquitting  the police officers who were filmed beating Rodney King was announced at 3.15pm.  The first protest response was at around 3.45pm when a crowd of about 300 gathered outside the courthouse to protest the decision.  This was nothing too alarming.

Between 5pm and 6pm, a group of 24 police officers confronted a growing crowd of African-Americans – not at the courthouse, but a considerable distance away in South Central LA.  Out-numbered, the officers retreated, ceding command/control of the territory to the crowd.  By 6.45pm, this crowd, with no police presence to moderate or control them for almost an hour, started looting, attacking vehicles and people.

A television helicopter at 6.45pm, hovering over the crowd, filmed and broadcast live scenes of the crowd dragging a white man (Reginald Denny) out of his truck and viciously beating him up.  We suggest that this live coverage of the crowd gone wild and with no police presence may have encouraged and incited others to join in what was spiraling into major rioting.

It quickly became apparent that the police had withdrawn entirely from large sections of South Central Los Angeles, leaving lawless anarchy behind.  Opportunistic looting and destruction started taking place on a widespread basis, opposed only by Korean store owners who armed themselves and banded together to protect their stores.

Over the course of the five days, nearly 1600 buildings were destroyed or damaged as a result of 3600 different fires.  More than 2300 people were injured, and at least 53 people were known to have been killed in riot related violence (including 10 shot by either the police or armed forces).  22 of the 43+ non police shootings remain open and unsolved now, and in view of the passing of time, will probably never be solved.

The murders are significant because the rioting looters were not just unarmed people looking to steal a color television.  Many of them were armed, and were either randomly shooting at people for no reason at all, or were using their firearms to force their way past store owners so as to loot their stores.

The police were immediately overwhelmed and unable to maintain control, and it was only after not just the National Guard but also regular US Army soldiers and Marines too were deployed that the rioting ended, five days after it started.

Lessons from the LA Riots

From our perspective, we see several key lessons.  The first is that civil disruption can develop very quickly.  It is hard to say at what point ordinary citizens would have become alarmed at this rioting – remember the timeline above.  The court decision by itself didn’t mandate that rioting in this scale would follow, neither did the people protesting at the courthouse – if anything, that was safely away from South Central LA and a safety valve for upset citizens.

The two key events were the police retreating from the group of protesters sometime around 6pm, and then the evolution of the mob from angry upset people to a lawless group of rioters, and the broadcasting of the mob violence over live television, indicating to other disaffected people that they could riot with impunity.

From the flashpoint sometime after 6pm to the televised beating of Reginald Denny was less than 30 minutes, and rioting on a regional basis was underway within an hour after that.

The second lesson is that it took 4 – 5 days before the police – by then augmented with some 15,000 reinforcements in the form of other state police and federal officers, National Guardsmen, plus regular Army and Marines, to get the rioting under control.

We Are More Vulnerable Now to Similar Rioting

There was a lot of analysis into why such a large group of people chose to riot in 1992.  Much of this analysis took the form of liberal hand-wringing and blaming society and other factors/forces for the bad behavior of the rioters; you can choose to accept or reject that as you wish.

But one point is relevant – the point that the rioting came after some extended period of rising disconnection between the rioters and society in general.  This disconnection was economic and social in nature.

We make this point because it seems probable – whether validly justified or not – there is a similar disconnection across much of the country at present.  For further exemplification of the current disaffection of large groups of society with the society in which they live, look at the riots in England in August 2011.  This was a four day period of mayhem that infected not just many parts of London, but also other cities and towns across England too that ended up affecting 48,000 businesses with losses to a greater or lesser extent.

The last few years have been marked by a difficult economy and a growing disaffection at the dichotomy between ‘evil bankers’ at one end of society and their ‘economic victims’ at the other end of society (we’re not judging the merits of such disaffection here, merely reporting on what we observe).  The Occupy Wall Street movement has done a good job of exploiting this unrest, albeit largely peacefully.

We have also seen groups mobilizing against what they see as the evils of international trade, protesting at World Trade Organization meetings.

And in addition to these groups of people who are suffering real or imaginary grievances, there are the ever-present anti-social groups in the country who are keen to take part in violent mayhem any time they can just for the sheer devilry of it, and/or as a way to enrich themselves with the spoils of looting.

So our first point is that the underlying social tensions that could create violent rioting are as strong today as they have ever been.

Now for the second point, hinted at in our headline.

We have suggested the Rodney King riots grew from the televised coverage, beamed into everyone’s living rooms, showing people that they could riot with impunity, and in effect encouraging them to join in the party.  That factor remains ever-present today too, of course – maybe even more so.  Video isn’t just sourced and distributed from professional news gatherers in their helicopters, now everyone with a cell phone can shoot video and within minutes have it live on YouTube or elsewhere.

We now have a new factor – a factor that has contributed to successful revolutions in other countries (notably Egypt and other ‘Arab Spring’ countries) and believed to have been a key element of the rapid growth and spread of the rioting in England last August.  This is the use of social media by rioters to promote their actions and to call in more people to join with them.

By social media we mean primarily Twitter and texting because these are almost instantaneous ways of passing information, either from one person individually to other individuals, or from one person to groups of any size up to many thousands of people.  With such information being sent to people’s cell phones, there is little or no delay between a message being sent and it being received by tens, hundreds or even thousands and tens of thousands of people.

Twitter in particular has two very powerful features for social networking – the ability to ‘re-tweet’ and to forward on twitter messages to other people, and the ability to add ‘hashtags’ as a way of reaching other like-minded people who the sender doesn’t already know and hasn’t met before.  A twitter message can potentially ‘go viral’ and end up on hundreds of thousands of people’s screens in minutes.

We have already seen this in a slightly less threatening sense – the new phenomenon of sudden flash mobs, coalescing out of nowhere.  Until now, these flash mobs have been largely non-violent and haven’t got out of hand.

These tools can also be used by mobs as a way of passing ‘intelligence’ among themselves – letting mob members know the whereabouts of police, road blocks, etc that might impede their actions, and also letting them know where the best tempting targets are.

There is also an added dimension with social media has helped facilitate.  It is less regional and more national/international.  The Rodney King riots didn’t spread to the rest of the US.  The London riots last August were instantly emulated and copied in other cities and towns all across England.


We suggest there is at least as much underlying disconnection between large elements of the ‘under-classes’ (define that term any way you wish) and society in general now as there was in 1992.  Social media make any flashpoint more likely to spread, further and faster, than ever before.

Riots seem to take 4 – 5 days to bring under control (assuming they are controllable).

There is little reason to expect riots would spread out of the concentrated downtown areas of cities and into the outlying ‘leafy suburbs’ – there’s just not the density of population and tempting targets to sustain a riot in a residential suburb full of single family homes.  But if you live in a downtown area, you are vulnerable to the direct effects of rioting, and if you live in a suburb, you may be vulnerable to flow-on effects such as disruptions to food supplies and to utilities.

It is impossible to predict where riots may start or what the flashpoints may be that initiate them, and also impossible to predict where they may spread.

In a major riot situation, you should expect rioters to be armed and to be senselessly shooting at people, places and things for no reason other than because they can.

Seeking refuge inside a building in a riot affected area is only prudent if there is no risk of the building being set on fire.  In a riot situation, you have two choices – evacuate the area entirely as soon as there is evidence of growing rioting; or be prepared to defend your property from safe positions and with the possible need to use lethal force to do so.

If you choose to evacuate, you need to be careful with your choice of route – you don’t want to abandon the possible greater safety of your residence and then find your car ambushed by rioters, or to be trapped by destroyed cars blocking the road ahead.

If you choose to defend your property – perhaps because it is not safe to evacuate – you will need to have as many people as possible with you and willing to actively defend your property.  One or two people are unlikely to dissuade a rioting crowd of 20 – 50 (or more) rampaging towards you.  The Koreans were reasonably successful because they grouped together, and because the rioters recognized in the Koreans a determined adversary.

A less than lethal way of getting the attention of a crowd and persuading them to leave you well alone might be some exotic shotgun rounds – in particular, the Dragon’s Breath rounds that spit out a brief jet of flame approximately 50 ft or more, a ‘fire siren’ round that sends out a very loud whistle (send this first to get their attention) or a thunder flash round (very loud noise – implies very great power), and stinger type rounds that send out nylon balls that hurt but usually don’t seriously wound or kill.

In such a case, you’d want to test these rounds before an emergency to get a feeling for their range and effects, then you’d want to carefully understand where those range points are around the property you’ll be defending.  Note also that the Dragon’s Breath is massively more spectacular at night.  And you could only use this in places where there was no risk of starting fires as a result of your firing the round – you might end up causing more property damage to other people’s property than that you prevented to your own property.

Needless to say, you only have a short time to use such warning devices before needing to use something more serious.  Don’t still be warning a crowd when it engulfs and overwhelms you.

Apr 102012

1950s school bomb drills were one way of prepping. Hopefully you adopt more effective methods.

Neither threat is new, but both have been uttered again this week, and with more vehemence than before.

Threat 1 :  Iran

Our good friends the Iranians (not!) are reputed to be preparing an army to launch against the US, waging war against the country’s infrastructure such as our power grid, water supplies, and other public infrastructure components.

But this ‘war’ would not be fought on American soil, and wouldn’t see combat between our troops and theirs.  This would be a cyber-war, with the Iranian forces being hackers rather than soldiers, and rather than risking their lives on US soil, they’d be attacking our systems from the comfort of their living room tables.

The results to us would be the same.  There’s no difference to us, as between dynamite bombs and logic bombs, when it comes to destroying the control system for a major power substation, a hydro-electric dam, or a water treatment facility.  If when we turn the tap, no water comes out, or if when we flip the switch, the light doesn’t go on, we’re identically affected, no matter what the cause.

More details about this threat here.

Threat 2 :  North Korea

The North Koreans also had a message of hate to share with us this week.  Their top soldier – their Army Chief of Staff – claimed they had unspecified weapons that could ‘defeat the US at a single blow’.

No-one is sure what this would be, and it may well be based more on rhetoric than real substance, but it isn’t a good feeling to have the top soldier of a country that is still technically at war with us to threaten to destroy us completely.

More details about this threat here.

Analysis and Comment

Modern warfare is totally different to that of 50 years ago.  Fifty and more years ago, warfare was low intensity, it occurred over an extended period of time, and the ultimate victory would almost invariably go to the country able to allocate the most men, money and industrial manufacturing to the conflict.

With the US having by far the strongest economy in the world, and one of the largest populations, it was able to field huge armies and both supply and resupply its armed forces at rates vastly greatly than any opposing forces.  Our ability to win any conflict that we fully committed to was close to assured.

But these days warfare is high intensity and can be all over and done with in a matter of minutes (if nuclear), or days/weeks (if conventional).  High intensity wars are not so dependent on a country’s economic strength or even its pool of available manpower, because the war is generally over and done with during the first round, based on the forces and material that the opposing sides have on day one of the conflict.

There is no time to induct and train up and deploy more troops, there is no time to start producing more planes, tanks, and ships.  The war has been won or lost well before then.

With the US running down the size of its standing forces, with it reducing not only the number of planes, tanks and warships, but also its stocks of missiles, bombs, and even bullets, we no longer have an unstoppable lead up front.  And even if we did survive the first round of a high intensity conflict, how long would it be before we could start resupplying?  How long does it take to build a new warship?  A year or more, sometimes five years or more.

How long does it take to build a new plane?  While a new plane only takes maybe a week on the assembly line, the real question is ‘how long does it take to build a new assembly line, and new factories to manufacture the sub-assemblies for the planes?  The answer there is again measured in years, not weeks or months.

The other feature of modern warfare is that it is like guerrilla warfare on steroids.  The key thing about guerrilla warfare is the imbalance of forces.  Traditionally, an attacking force needs to be two to three times the size of the defending force to win an encounter; with guerrilla warfare, tiny teams of men can tie up tens or hundreds of times more of the opposing force.

The concept of guerrilla warfare on steroids is that whereas before it would have taken a team of maybe ten special ops soldiers days or weeks to hit each target in enemy territory, and they would have been vulnerable to enemy countermeasures, now it takes only one clever hacker perhaps no more than a few hours to destroy the control systems for the target that previously would have been destroyed by tons of high explosive instead.  A hacker could wake up in his bed at home in the morning, then after breakfast work from his kitchen table.  By lunchtime he might have destroyed multiple high value enemy targets, then after a comfortable lunch, he could repeat the exercise again for the afternoon, never having personally put himself at risk.

These are the problems and these are the vulnerabilities the US now faces, totally like any threats of ever before.  Our military might – such as it may be these days – is powerless to protect us against a ‘suitcase nuke’ or a biotoxin strike or a remote hacker.

Oh – two more things.  First – this type of future war won’t be fought on a distant battlefield in a far-away foreign country.  For essentially the first time in our nation’s history, this war will be fought in the American homeland, and its casualties will be ordinary US citizens – people like you and me.

Second – the overall vulnerabilities of US society magnify the disruptive effects of attacks on our infrastructure.

The loss of power is more than no lights at home.  It means no power for the factories that make the food we eat, no power for the hospitals, and so on and so on (okay, to be exact, most hospitals have emergency power systems that provide unknown amounts of power, of unknown reliability, for unknown periods of time, but you get our point).

The New Great Equalizers

Back in the days of the wild west, the gun was referred to as the great equalizer.  No longer was the outcome of a fight dependent on the person with the greatest physical strength.  Even the puniest of men and the frailest of women could compete on equal terms, based not on physical prowess but instead on skill at arms with a gun.

Today we have two new great equalizers.  The first is computer hacking.  For the first time in our country’s history, threats to our national security do not require a stronger country with a more powerful economy and a larger army; any puny little country with a handful of clever computer hackers could potentially bring us to our knees more quickly than a super-power with a 10 million man army.

The second is the NBC threat :  Nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.  A drop of toxin in a city water supply, a suitcase nuke exploded downtown in the center of your city, or – worst of all – a single EMP pulse which could destroy most of the electronics and electrics of the entire country – these weapons are trickling down to smaller and smaller countries.

The ‘nuclear club’ of countries that possess nuclear weapons, once the exclusive preserve of the US, UK, France and USSR, is now getting crowded with around ten countries now having nuclear weapons, and plenty more working their way towards that goal.  And with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons ‘out there’ – particular those formerly belonging to the Soviet Union before it broke up, who’s not to say there are a few stray ones in the hands of evil doers.

Chemical and biological weapon capabilities are even more widespread.

Bottom Line

If it isn’t already obvious – our country is massively at risk of man-made disruption – of ‘The End of the World as We Know It’.

And with our fragile society and its lack of reserves and redundancies in supply lines and sources, any disruption will threaten much broader consequences.  Whether such disruptions might take three months or three years to resolve becomes irrelevant when society starts to collapse after three days of disruption and is completely destroyed after three weeks.

How long could you manage with no food, no water, and no utilities, and roving gangs of desperate citizens keen to take whatever you might still have from you, by force if necessary?

We need to be prepping.

Mar 312012

The ancient town of Marl, Germany, seems to have little linkage to Detroit. Read how a fire in Marl is impacting on global auto production.

There was a fire in a factory in the tiny German town of Marl, in a factory belonging to Evonik Industries, on 31 March 2012.

This is hardly earth shattering news – on the same day, there were probably fires in your own home town too, and countless others elsewhere in the world.

But, as uninteresting as this fire in a far away place may seem, today we live in a global village.  Nowhere is far from anywhere else in terms of trade and dependencies.

This was hinted at, in a less surprising and more intuitively obvious manner, when the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last year disrupted the production of various computer and home electronic items – it is rumored to have even delayed the release of the latest versions of Apple’s iPads and iPhones.

But we accepted that – after all, the tsunami impacted massively on much of Japan and elsewhere in the world as well, and the radiation clouds from the damaged reactors circled the globe.  It seemed appropriate that the outcomes of such a huge global event should in turn be massive and global in scale.

But now, back to the small factory in the town of Marl (population 90,000).  This one factory produces between a quarter and a half of the world’s supply of a chemical which is required in the manufacture of automotive brake and fuel systems.  Without it, cars and other vehicles can’t be completed.

How long will it take to get the damaged factory producing again?  At least three months and maybe longer.  So for three months or more, the world’s automakers, no matter whether they be in India or China, Europe, Mexico, or the US, will only be able to make half as many vehicles as they had planned on making.

This illustrates the lack of ‘fault-tolerance’ in our modern society.  So much of what we consume and rely on every day ends up having critical and non-redundant components.

On the face of it, the world’s auto manufacturing industry seems to be distributed and fault tolerant.  You could close down an entire country’s manufacturing plants and those in the rest of the world would have little trouble compensating for the loss of production elsewhere.  There are probably hundreds of different manufacturing locations, in tens of different countries, all around the world.

But when you drill down beneath the surface, you find surprising critical elements such as is now being exposed by the fire in the Evonik Industries facility in Marl, Germany.  One single supplier provides an essential ingredient for half of the entire world’s production of automobiles.

This is an outcome that few people would ever anticipate or expect.  But it is a situation that is increasingly possible – increasingly probable – to be repeated, in all sorts of other industries and finished goods.  Industrial consolidation and specialization has concentrated the manufacturing process into fewer and fewer companies and factories, and just-in-time deliveries and inventory have effectively zeroed out the former inventory buffer to compensate for occasional interruptions in supply.

Fortunately, a halving in the global production of automobiles for 3 – 6 months is unlikely to change the world as we know it, or to impact on our lives much at all.

But what about other things that are more essential to our lives?  For example, disruptions to our electricity grid that would require the replacement of major transformers – it takes three years from ordering a major transformer to it being delivered, and being as how the US no longer has any manufacturers of transformers in-country, we’re also reliant on another country and its companies choosing to do business with us – something that can’t be taken for granted in perpetuity.

This is why we prepare.  Because so much of what we take for granted are not things that truly should be taken for granted any more.  And, if a disruption does occur, the time it takes to restore things back to normal may be substantial, and potentially life threatening.

More information about the Marl fire and its impact on the auto industry here.