When it comes to how we see and prepare for SHTF, thinking in terms of real and probable rather than fictional and possible can make a big difference. Even though SHTF has many forms and levels and is in essence complex, random, diverse and unsystematic, some patterns and principles are common to the way things unfold when it hits the fan.
With Toby and Selco’s Seven Pillars of Urban Preparedness as inspiration, I came up with a different list of the 15 dynamics and realities of collapses.
#1 SHTF is nuanced and happens in stages
Thinking about SHTF as an ON/OFF, all-or-nothing endgame is a common mistake that can lead to severe misjudgments and failures in critical areas of preparedness. Part (or parts) of the system crash, freeze, fail, or become impaired. This is how SHTF happens in the real world. And when it does, people run for safety first, i.e., resort to more familiar behaviors, expecting things to “go back to normal soon.”
By “normal behaviors,” I mean everything from hoarding stuff (toilet paper?) to rioting, looting, and crime, and yes, using cash – as these happen all the time, even when things are normal. But no one becomes a barterer, a peddler, a precious metals specialist in a week. Society adapts as time passes (and the situation requires). That’s why preppers who are also SHTF survivors (and thus talk from personal experience) insist that abandoning fantasies and caring for basics first is crucial. This is not a coincidence. It is how things happen in the real world.
Recently I wrote about black markets and the role of cash in SHTFs, emphasizing these things take precedence except in a full-blown apocalypse – which no one can say if, when, or how will happen (because it never has?). Now, I don’t pretend to be the owner of the truth, but those insisting changes in society happen radically or abruptly should check this article about the fallout in Myanmar.
#2 Everything crawls until everything runs
Number two is a corollary to #1. SHTF happens in stair-steps, but most people failing to prepare and getting caught off-guard is evidence of the difficulty of the human brain to fully grasp the concept of exponential growth. It bears telling the analogy of the stadium being filled with water drops to illustrate this.
Let’s say we add one drop into a watertight baseball stadium. The deposited volume doubles every minute (i.e., one minute later, we add two more drops, then four in the next minute, eight in the next, then sixteen, and so on). How long would it take to fill the entire stadium? Sitting at the top row, we’d watch for 45 minutes as the water covered the field. Then at the 48-minute mark, 50% of the stadium would be filled. Yes, that’s only 3 minutes from practically empty to half full. At this point, we have just 60 seconds to get out: the water will be spilling before the clock hits 49 minutes.
This is an important dynamic to understand and keep in mind because it applies to most things. Another example: it took over 2 million years of human prehistory and history for the world’s population to reach 1 billion, and less than 250 years more to grow to almost 8 billion.
#3 The system doesn’t vanish or change suddenly
Based on history, the Mad Max-like scenario some so feverishly advocate is not in our near future.
The Roman Empire unraveled over 500 years. We may not be at the tipping point of our collapse or the last minute of the flooding stadium, as illustrated in #2 above. But time is relative, and those 60 seconds can last five, ten, fifteen years. Things are accelerating, but there’s no way to tell at which point in the curve we are.
That doesn’t mean things will be normal in that period. A lot has happened to people and places all over the Roman empire during those five-plus centuries: wars, plagues, invasions, droughts, shortages, all hell broke loose. Our civilization has already hit the iceberg, and the current order is crumbling. There will be shocks along the way, some small and some big. But SHTF is a process, not an event.
#4 History repeats, but always with a twist
That’s because nature works in cycles, and humans react to scarcity and abundance predictably and in the same ways. Also, we’re helpless in the face of the most significant and recurring events. But things are never the same. Technology improves, social rules change, humankind advances, the population grows. This (and lots more) adds a variability factor to the magnitude, gravity, and reach of outcomes.
What better proof than the COVID-19 pandemic just surpassing the 1918 Spanish Flu death toll in the US? It’ll probably do so everywhere else, too. Even if we don’t believe the official data (then or now), we’re not yet out of this new coronavirus situation.
#5 SHTF is about scarcity
A shrink in resources invariably leads to changes in the individual’s standard of living or entire society (depending on the circumstances, depth, and reach of the disaster or collapse). Then it starts affecting life itself (i.e., people dying).
Essentially, when things really hit the fan, abundance vanishes, and pretty much everything reverts to the mean: food becomes replenishment, drinking becomes hydration, sleeping becomes rest, home becomes shelter, and so on. Surviving is accepting and adapting to that.
#6 The consequences matter more than the type of event
I’ll admit to being guilty of debating probable causes of SHTF more often than I should, mainly when it comes to the economy and finance going bust. That’s from living in a third-world country, with all the crap that comes with it.
It’s what I have to talk, warn, and give advice about. I still find it essential to be aware and thoughtful of the causes. But it’s for the consequences that we must prepare for: instability, corruption, bureaucracy, criminality, inflation, social unrest, divisiveness, wars, and all sorts of conflicts and disruptions that affect us directly.
#7 Life goes on
Humankind advances through hardship but thrives in routine. We crave normalcy and peace, and over the long term, pursue them. Contrary to what many think, life goes on even during SHTF. And things tend to return to normal after the immediate threats cease or get contained.
At least some level of normal, considering the circumstances. For example, in occupied France, the bistros and cafés continued serving and entertaining the population and even the invaders (the Nazi army). It was hard, as is always the case anywhere there’s war, poverty, tyranny – but that doesn’t mean the world has ended.
#8 SHTF pileup
Disasters and collapses add instability, volatility, and fragility to the system, which can compound and cause further disruptions. Sometimes, unfavorable cycles on various fronts (nature and civilization) can also converge and generate a perfect storm.
It’s crucial to consider that and try to prepare as best we can for multiple disasters happening at once or in sequence, on various levels, collective and individual – even if psychologically and mentally. And if the signs are any indication, we’re entering such a period of simultaneous challenges.
#9 Snowball effect
Daisy based her excellent article on the 10 most likely ways to die when SHTF on the principle of large-scale die-off caused by a major disaster, like an EMP or other. This theory is controversial and the object of endless discussions. Some say it’s an exaggeration. But in my opinion, that’s leaving a critical factor out of the equation.
Consider the following: according to WPR and the CDC, before COVID-19, the mortality rate in the US was well below 1% (2.850.000 per year, or about 8.100 per day). If the mortality rate increases to just 5%, this alone would spark other SHTFs, potentially more serious and harmful than the first.
That five-fold jump in mortality would result in more than 16 million dead per year or 44.000 per day. That’s 5% we’re talking about, not 20 or 30. If there’s even a protocol to deal with something like that, I’m not aware. It would be catastrophic on many levels over a shorter period (say, a few months).
Early in the CV19 pandemic, some cities had trouble burying the dead, and the death rate was still below 1%. Sure, other factors were playing. But the point is, things can snowball: consequences and implications are too complex and potentially far-reaching. Think about the effects on the system.
#10 SHTF is a situation, but it’s also a place
Things are hitting the fan somewhere right now. Not in the overblowing media but the physical world: the Texas border, third-world prisons, gang-ruled Haiti, in Taliban-raided Afghanistan, in the crackhouse just a few blocks from an affluent neighborhood, under the bridges of many big cities worldwide, in volcano-hit islands.
There are thousands of places where people are bugging out, suffering, or dying of all causes at this very moment. If you’re not in any SHTF, consider yourself lucky. Be grateful, too: being able to prepare is a luxury.
#11 Choosing one way or another has a price
Being unprepared and wrong has a price. However, so does being prepared and wrong. Though some benefits exist regardless of what happens, the investment in terms of time, finance, and emotion to be prepared could be applied elsewhere or used for other finalities (career, a business, relationships, etc.) rather than some far-out collapse.
Since so much in SHTF is unknown and open, and resources are limited even when things are normal, survival and preparedness are essentially trade-offs. We must read the signals, weigh the options, consider the probabilities, make an option, and face the consequences. That’s why striving for balance is so important.
#12 SHTF is dirty, smelly, ugly
This is undoubtedly one of the most striking characteristics of SHTF: how bad some places and situations can be. Most people have no idea, and they don’t want to know about this. Those who fantasize about being in SHTF should think twice. Abject misery and despair have a distinct smell of excrement, sewage, death, rotting material, pollution, trash, burned stuff, and all kinds of dirt imaginable. And insects. The movies don’t show these things. But bad smells and insects infest everything and everywhere, and it can be maddening.
During my street survival training, I get to visit some really awful places and witness horrible things. The folks eventually going out with me invariably get shocked, sometimes even sickened, when they see decadence up and close for the first time. Even ones used to dealing with the nasties – it’s hard not to get affected.
For instance, drug consumption hotspots are so smelly and nasty that someone really must have to be on crack just to stand being there. It’s hell on earth, and I can’t think of another way to describe these and other places like third-world prisons, trash deposits, and many others. Early on, being in these places would make me question why I do this. It never becomes “normal.” We just adapt. But seeing these realities changes our life and the way we see things.
#13 The Grid is fragile
It’s baffling how this escapes so many. Most people I know are in constant marvel with modern civilization. They look around, pointing and saying, “Are you crazy? Too big to fail! There’s no way this can go away! Nothing has ever happened!“.
We have someone to take our trash, slaughter, process our food, treat our sick, purify our water, treat our sewage, protect us from wrongdoers and evil people (and keep them locked), control the traffic, and defend our rights.
Peeking behind the curtains is a red pill moment. What keeps The Grid up and running is not something small, but it’s fragile. The natural state of things is not an insipid, artificially controlled environment. On the positive side, it makes us feel more grateful, humble, and also more responsible.
#14 The frog in the boiling water
That’s you and me and everyone around us. There’s no other way around it. We’re the suckers who get squeezed and pay the bill whenever something happens, anywhere and everywhere. It’s always our freedom, rights, money, and privacy that gets attacked, threatened, stolen.
Not only because the 1% screws us at the top, but because we’re the big numbers, the masses. And only those who work and produce something can bear the brunt of whatever bad happens to society and civilization.
Make no mistake: whenever the brown stuff hits the fan, it will fall on us. It’s no reason to revolt but to acknowledge that, ultimately, we’re responsible for ourselves.
#15 People can make things worse
Just have a look around and see what’s happening. Selco himself will tell you that the most dangerous thing about the SHTF is other people.
Sometimes, the mechanics, brutality, and harshness of SHTF end up in the background of personal narratives and emotional accounts. Being more knowledgeable and cognizant of some general aspects of collapses may allow flexibility, creativity, improvisation, adaptation, resiliency, and other broad and effective strategies.
Or, simply provide material for reflection and debate, really.
Either way, even those who haven’t been through collapse can still learn from history, from others’ experiences, from human behavior, from the facts. Just be sure to see the world for what it is and not from what you think. Because it will go its own way, and reality will assert itself all the same.
What are your thoughts about the dynamics of an SHTF scenario? Are there any you want to add? Does this match up with your personal expectations? Let’s discuss it in the comments.
Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.
Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City, is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times.
You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor