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 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.

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.

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.