5 min read

The Hard Things Go Last

The Hard Things Go Last

I'm afraid I can't remember where I heard this put so pithily as the title, but the basic wisdom of this letter is: the things that you hope will disappear in collapse are the things most likely to endure. Institutions that we find draconian, or unfair, privileging the few and beating down the many, are what will almost surely remain in the event of a disaster. This is something that has to be accounted for in our preps, in thinking of our own safety, and the safety of our communities.

We have to dispel the fantastic idea that you (and I) may have around collapse as an escape hatch on society. Society won't fall fast, and it won't drop on everyone's head equally. Collapse is not a portal to utopia–the road thereto is long and hard. What is going to fall apart are conveniences, supply chains, critical infrastructure. You're going to have a harder time getting into a hospital than being thrown in jail. The police are not going to evaporate–they are almost certainly going to behave worse, not better. As the rich and powerful find their lives of plenty slipping away, they will not accept the inconvenience without a fight–and, of course, they will not do the fighting. They will enlist the police, private security firms, mercenaries, and the military, to do the fighting for them. Elite panic–the tendency of the rich and powerful to act fearfully as opposed to humanely in a crisis–is a large part of why the world will fall apart this way. It's also partly why the world is falling apart. The instincts of the powerful affect society much more immediately, and visibly, than the empathetic acts of the meek.

The Big K

Let's take, for example, the Godwin's Law of collapse narratives: Katrina. In such an extreme situation as New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there are a million narratives one can pull. You can focus on looting, if you want to be an asshole, or you can focus on civilians rescuing one another at risk of their own lives. You can talk about how the early stories out of the Superdome were ones of horror when more accurately they were desperate stories of people looking out for one another. But there are two or three through-lines from these examples: racism; violence/ignorance of the state; and empathy.

On the ground, white people chose to patrol their neighborhoods and shoot at virtually any Black person that came near. Racist narratives were, of course, pervasive in the media and tainted a lot of what we heard out of the city in the aftermath of the storm. But beyond that, the racism baked into our systems was reinforced by the system, as government intervention was sorely lacking. Some of the first boots on the ground sent by the government (and others) were Blackwater operatives (yes, that Blackwater), meant to guard white property in rich neighborhoods. On the Danziger Bridge, six days after Katrina hit, New Orleans police opened fire on a group of Black residents who were unarmed and had committed no crime. Two people were killed, and four more injured. The officers were out of uniform and arrived–supposedly responding to a call of an officer down–in a rental truck.

The only silver lining here is that people, regular ol' people, more often than not will try to help one another. That's obviously not always the case, but it is enough of the time. And if that sounds dangerously like the one thing I'm always harping on, well, that's because it's the same thing: community. I've mentioned before the efforts of people like scott crow and native New Orleanians who banded together to provide aid for the city and helped defend against roving gangs of white boys. People came to help from all over–see the Cajun Navy–and aid poured in from other countries. But what happened on the ground by the grit and goodwill of civilians is not what we pay taxes for, and that money, and those to whom it goes, tend to vanish when most needed.

Venezuela's Economic Collapse

A rolling economic crisis in Venezuela provides us with another glimpse of a failing system maintaining its worst aspects. Precipitated by intense government corruption and a drop in oil prices–upon which the economy heavily depends–the Venezuelan crisis is marked by extreme privation among the citizenry and equally extreme repression by the government. Starting in the early 2010s, mismanagement and corruption led to shortages of basic goods across the country, which was exacerbated when the global supply of oil reached its 2015 surplus, dropping prices. The result was a dizzying amount of hyperinflation that put what little resources were available to Venezuelans beyond their reach.

The extent of the crisis is made manifest by shocking images and hard data: pictures of empty shelves and people rummaging through trash for food; endless lines for bread and medicine distribution; an average of twenty pounds lost by every citizen; people in the streets demanding simple access to material they need to survive. Predictably, the powerful in the country did not starve–the military was put in control of the food supply–and despite the lack of basic necessities for everyday citizens, there were more than enough police to brutalize the inevitable protesters. Crime skyrocketed, and Venezuela has become one of the most violent countries in the world. Gangs and police frequently work under some level of cooperation, with police receiving a percentage of stolen goods and some neighborhoods becoming, effectively, autonomous zones. Nicolas Maduro, the president since 2013 (some would say arguably), also encouraged the proliferation of loyalist gangs, calling on them to "keep the peace," which sounds rather familiar.

Despite this near-collapse, the Venezuelan government was still able to prop up arms of police and military, such as the Special Action Forces, to coordinate the extrajudicial killing of key figures and protesters, resulting in over 5,000 such murders just in 2017. Prisons still ran, and political prisoners were kept and tortured. The government was able to keep up border enforcement, attempting to block shipments of humanitarian aid due to predictable-if-senseless politicking. This is the way society crumbles: not with a sudden vacuum, but with disorder.

A Present Problem

As we move into the New Year having just suffered an atmospheric river, polar vortex, bomb cyclone, and whatever else we may get hit with before this letter lands in your inbox, it's worth stressing that while I talk mostly about collapse, the lessons are meant for today–edifices crumbling or no. In Buffalo, New York, the disparities of care put in place by white supremacy and capitalism are evident and deadly. Rich, white neighborhoods are closer to sources of food and medical care, their roads are plowed quicker, and their power is restored faster than neighborhoods that are predominantly Black. As if this needed further underscoring, the mayor of Buffalo excoriated looters, and the city police created an "anti-looting task force" in response–taking resources away from the rescue effort in order to incarcerate thieves. Even in a disaster that is far from collapse, the system is designed to serve only a select few, and the well-being of the majority is very seldom, if ever, in mind.

Whether in a temporary scenario or something more permanent, we cannot count on the failure of our enemies to pave the way for peace and equality. The structures that we've fought to dismantle will remain, while what we depend on for everyday survival will be gone. There is no stepping out your front door into an empty paradise, in which you and yours can scavenge supplies from deserted stores and roam the streets in an ivy-covered wonderland. Supply lines will collapse first, and what's left will rise in price until the shelves are bare. This is one more reason among the myriad that preparation today is key, and that we build community amongst ourselves and our neighbors so that we can help each other in the wake of the loss of that which sustains us, while that which attempts to crack us over the head gets a new nightstick.