How To Think About Catastrophe

Many thanks to the commenters on my review. I won’t be agreeing with all of you, but I value your input for increasing my understanding of what others think. I have some related ideas on how to think about the issues raised specifically by Lightning Fall and generally by “preppers” and, indeed, anyone anticipating a societally disruptive crisis in the near future.

NB: this is an essay in the original sense of “attempt.” It is unlikely to fully represent my thinking on these issues even a few years hence; and whether you agree with me or not, I encourage you to think these things through based on your own abilities and experience, and then act as your specific situation appears to require. Hayekian distributed local knowledge may save us. Central planning, as I hardly need admonish this audience, will not, and therefore any attempt by me to impose a uniform mental framework should (and undoubtedly will) be firmly rejected.

1. Apocalypse Now – Humans in general, certainly late 20th/early 21st century Americans, have a reliable appetite for apocalyptic predictions. I mentioned Matt Ridley in my review, and he has blogged a thorough takedown of the many failed scenarios put forward by the environmentalist movement over the past several decades; “population explosions, global famines, plagues, water wars, oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, Y2K bugs, mad cow epidemics, killer bees, sex-change fish, cell-phone-induced brain-cancer epidemics, and climate catastrophes.” For my part, I particularly enjoy tweaking the noses of some of my fellow believers with the litany of, to put it mildly, unrealized geopolitical occurrences predicted in Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the single best-selling book worldwide published in the entire decade of the 1970s. By comparison, radical environmentalists are amateurs (Lindsey took care to include their stuff in his book, by way of not missing a bet).

There are of course good evolutionary-psychological reasons why we should be attuned to the prospect of disaster. Plenty of partial extinctions have occurred in human history, probably starting with the Toba eruption that set the stage for the appearance of behaviorally modern human beings in a small, rapidly evolving population of survivors. Every human society has been beset with existential risks, and even the most primitive were principally threatened by other human beings (more on this below), so it is entirely normal to view human action as a source of ultimate destruction. The indigenous population of the Americas shrank by ~95% in the century after European contact, almost entirely from imported diseases, and there is some evidence for a ~90% population crash in Western Europe when the Western Roman Empire collapsed.

What every one of the modern-day scenarios, though – all ultimately religious, whether de jure or merely de facto, and sometimes containing a good deal of truth about human nature – have in common is that they utterly neglect the upside. It’s arcadianism with no hope of redemption; we’re going downhill from some kind of an ideal past, and there’s no way out. Er, well, unless society is successfully reordered by the would-be philosopher-kings, or perhaps restored (and of course dominated) by those who positioned themselves appropriately beforehand. The politician promoting Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the survivalist hoarding gold coins are conceptual siblings: they’re both aiming to come out on top after Judgment Day; if all goes well, the ingrates who didn’t acknowledge their wisdom will have been purged by events or cowed into permanent submission.

But as the saying goes, God gave you two hands but only one mouth. And I would recommend to this audience, in particular, that you apply the same rhetorical tools in evaluating, say, CAGW to other catastrophes as well, including the ones you like. Then you can act on what – if anything – is left standing.

2. Heterogeneity – The most emotionally compelling disaster narratives are of the binary, knife-switch variety. Everything “on” is turned “off”: Atlantis sinks beneath the waves in a day and a night; humanity perishes completely from nuclear blast, fallout, and organized suicide; barbarism and illiteracy reign supreme; industrial civilization and science vanish; every population center is wrecked by earthquake, tsunami, winds, or Noachian rainfall. No more nice-time bright-boy shoe-shine pie-in-the-sky dreams.

But what happens in the real world is very much a matter of degrees. Gradations that come immediately to mind, from most to least destructive, or perhaps from most to least unhealthy, are:

  • the (mathematically speaking) trivial case of complete institutional or demographic annihilation – see the Mongol invasion of the Khwarezmid Empire, 1219-1221, or the fate of the native population of Hispaniola after European contact, 1492 et seq
  • thorough military defeat and near-disappearance of influence – Confederate States of America, specifically its Cavalier/plantation, lowland-South culture, 1861-1865
  • temporary but highly destructive defeat with lasting trauma and cultural distortion – Mongol invasion of Kievan Rus, 1237-1240
  • decisive defeat with excision of specific cultural elements but overall cultural/demographic survival – many examples, including the Axis powers, 1941-1945
  • significant disruption but with relatively little demographic turnover and essential cultural continuity – also many examples; McNeill cites “a slender but vital intermediate social stratum” of scribes, local magnates, and landowners preventing the complete disintegration of Egypt during the Hyksos occupation, 1730-1570 BC
  • post-traumatic growth – see Taleb; the canonical example in our time has been Japan, 1945-1990

I would not wish any of those except possibly the last on the United States, and while I suspect that we are in fact an “antifragile” society, I have no desire to see that attribute too rigorously tested. And a lasting trauma that managed to engender an American Dolchstoßlegende might be worse for humanity’s future than any of the others.

For completeness’ sake, I must also note the risks of observation selection effects and anthropic overconfidence bias, terms I borrow from the study of global catastrophic risks (specifically, from a chapter by Milan Ćircović). In plain language, those fancy phrases mean that just because something hasn’t wiped us out yet doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. We cannot retrospectively evaluate a complete collapse/extermination event, because we wouldn’t be here to investigate it. So while (per Strauss & Howe) American society survived four “Crisis Eras” between the late 17th and mid-20th centuries, that is in itself no guarantee that we will survive the fifth, which is now upon us. Also, only the last of the four was an (almost entirely) external conflict, and given the technologies now available, there is not much reason to believe that US territory will remain unscathed this time around.

To return to my point, however, the complete removal of the US from subsequent human history is at the extreme end of the range of possibilities. As such, I just don’t think it’s the way to bet. And if not, then running away and hiding somewhere is not an appropriate response to having apprehended our time of trial.

3. For Your Situational Awareness – Famine, pestilence, tsunamis, volcanoes, drought, hurricanes, and blizzards (hell, full-blown Ice Ages) notwithstanding, no cause of death in human history has consistently outranked ordinary, retail manslaughter. Estimates of the fraction of adult males in primitive societies killed in fights start at 10% and run as high as 60%. We didn’t get the Sixth Commandment for nothing.

Given, then, that the most immediate hazards (and opportunities) in human society have always been internal to society itself, we have been shaped by selective pressures which reward a strong desire for situational awareness. Like any other human ability, this can be directed toward the negative (gossip) or the positive (compassion toward strangers), and these days a fair amount of it is directed toward notoriously profitable technology; see social media, “big data,” etc. In a catastrophic event, that technology might become much less available. I contend that the innate drive we all have to know what’s going on with other people is strong enough that entire populations cut off from nearly all advanced means of communication will nonetheless acquire a workable knowledge of human events. Compare the grapevine recounted in Life and Death in Shanghai with actual events as documented in Mao: The Unknown Story. An enormous population living in dire poverty and with only state-controlled media nonetheless had startlingly accurate knowledge of the activities, and interpersonal conflicts, of its most powerful leaders.

A perhaps deceptively minor point: the drive to situational awareness may include a desire for knowledge of purely physical events, but any such desire is unlikely to predominate for long, even in an extreme situation (eg use of nuclear or chemical WMD). Disaster movies are fun, but outdoor/scenic webcams are not the most popular websites for a reason.

4. The City and Its Enemies – Speaking of the value of situational awareness about other people, here’s John W. Sommer, writing in one of the earliest issues of the Cato Journal:

Cities have been the nexus of human interaction for nearly 10,000 years, and their persistence is testimony to the value of information. Concentrated information, as one finds in cities, presents many possibilities. Possibilities promote choice. Individual exercise of choice is liberty …

In a catastrophic event that disables high-technology communications networks, access to concentrated information entails physical proximity to as many people as possible. Such proximity was frequently of overriding value even in pretechnological societies; agriculture was invented to support pre-existing cities, not the other way around.

And if transport is similarly disrupted, the same applies to physical proximity to trade goods – and to markets for those with goods to trade. Recall the “conversation formula,” C = N × (N – 1) / 2. The number of possible interactions between people increases approximately as the square of their number. You would be far better off in a small town of 1,000 people than on an isolated farmstead, and better off by the same factor again in a metropolitan area of 1 million. The more people can easily meet and interact, the easier the knowledge problem gets.

This is why I said cities will recover first, and there is no intrinsic upper size limit to this rule; it’s an irrevocable matter of combinatorics. There are of course constraints specific to some locations. If I were to pick an American city on that basis, it would be one with multiple major road and rail links, probably not coastal (thinking here of the Einstein–Szilárd letter), not in an area with problematic water supplies – which is most of them west of the 100th meridian – and that also does not have a particularly high cultural/political profile (quick metric: how many popular TV shows have been set there?). All that’s easy for me to say; I already live in one that meets my criteria. And I feel I must recount the (possibly apocryphal) tale of a man who became convinced, in the late 1970s, that nuclear war was inevitable and imminent. He spent many months investigating to find what seemed to be the safest place in the world, and many months more preparing and moving there. A year and a half later his new home was blown up and his yard seeded with land mines. He had moved to the Falkland Islands in late 1980.

5. Prepping – So, we’ve decided to work with the apocalypse we get, rather than the one we want; can see that it may have a wide possible range of effects, and are committed to rapid recovery; and are counting our fellow human beings as assets, rather than liabilities. Now what?

Well, there are plenty of people ready to sell you all sorts of supplies and tools, and there are any number of checklists to go through and certifications to be had. Quite a few of which are in fact good ideas, but none of which will avail if they are not accompanied by the right attitude on your part. The good news is that if you can get the attitude down, the material side of things will seem relatively easy. The bad news is that said attitude requires prioritizing interaction with other people as both a customer and a provider; see Ridley again, on the importance of trade and specialization. In Corporate America-speak, soft skills will always be at least as important as hard skills. Given the apparent attitudes of many “preppers,” who prioritize hard skills, or merely possessions, I expect that quite a few of them will disappear without a trace in a seriously disruptive event. As I mentioned in my review, their remains will turn up years later in isolated locales, and their standoffishness will seem inexplicable.

But we’re talking about reasonable people instead, and in your struggle to do what the situation truly requires, you will need to carefully consider your own cultural substrate, generational temperament, and inherited attributes, all of which are far easier to constructively direct than to entirely transcend. Do not regret your background – learn to make good use of it.

It will not be an easy time; Auden’s “waves of anger and fear,” the realization that the clever hopes of a low dishonest decade have expired, will be ours in full measure. You may feel overwhelmed. That’s normal. What matters is what happens next. You must, after all, see where you are, and show an affirming flame.

8 thoughts on “How To Think About Catastrophe”

  1. “Cities have been the nexus of human interaction for nearly 10,000 years, and their persistence is testimony to the value of information. Concentrated information, as one finds in cities, presents many possibilities.”

    Remember, as many do not, that cities were lethal for most of their populations until about 1850. It was at that time that the mortality curve began to fall below the new immigrant curve. That was in England but the same was true of Holland and other European cities. Rural life was healthier until modern times. It may be again.

  2. ” agriculture was invented to support pre-existing cities, not the other way around.”

    Eh? Ag. was invented? Cities developed first and then food sources were created? It is the other way around.

  3. I’d bet the farm that one will be safer from man-made large scale catastrophes, in the decades to come, outside the city.

    Re. the best minds are living in the cities; that’s probably true. What is also probably true is that the majority of the worst, least capable, minds live in the city too.

  4. “Heterogeneity – The most emotionally compelling disaster narratives are of the binary, knife-switch variety.”

    The classic example of this is the Pre-Pueblo Anasazi

    A spectacularly swift collapse

    Only there was no “disaster”.
    Supporting the elites got to be to much of a burden, so the productive members of the culture just decided to close up shop and leave.

  5. Cities have been the nexus of human interaction for nearly 10,000 years

    I read a little about the Bronze Age a few years back. The author pointed out that what Bronze Age people called a city we would describe as a fort. It was more of a fortified palace with a marketplace, grain storage and a spring or well. Most of the people lived in the surrounds, and fished, hunted or farmed.

    Much of the imminent disaster industry is self serving, a form a societal-wide scam. Their supporters either stand to benefit or are dupes. Governments and quasi-government organizations (the UN) know these things are ripples in the noise, but they seek to co-opt these movements for their own benefit. The solution is ALWAYS the same, we need more power and more money to save you all from this coming death. “Make out the check to IPCC, please sign here, thank you very much. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appt in Bonn to test drive that new model Mercedes…”

    I’m less concerned about sudden disaster than death by a thousand cuts. The kind of damage being done to the people and economy every single day by federal and state politicians and the oligarchs and the politically connected on whose behalf they operate.

  6. I disagree about ‘cities’. Try ‘town’ instead; that’s much closer to the scale Micheal H. cites in his comment.

  7. “You must, after all, see where you are, and show an affirming flame.”

    Well, a lot of the time I’m up on the side of my local mountains. Looking down.

    Humans until about 10,000 years ago were a hunter gatherer species, opportunistic scavengers and hunters. The actual animal is evolved to do just that, although there are the beginnings of changes as time goes by. They herd better now, for one thing.

    We really were made to wander.

    Anyway, as humans are not my favorite species, and as I love my wild places, I can only hope whatever catastrophe you create largely impacts the cities and leaves my wilderness alone.

    I can only hope.

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