Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, April 6, 2020

Collapse: Where can we find a safe refuge?

Does it make sense to have a well-stocked bunker in the mountains to escape collapse?

Sometimes, you feel that the world looks like a horror story, something like Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth.." Image from F.R: Jameson.

Being the collapsnik I am, a few years ago I had the idea that I could buy myself some kind of safe haven in the mountains, a place where I and my family could find refuge if (and when) the dreaded collapse were to strike our civilization (as they say, when the Nutella hits the fan). It is a typical idea of collapse-oriented people: run away from cities, imagined being the most vulnerable places in a Mad Max-style scenario.

Maybe I was thinking also of Boccaccio's Decameron, when he describes how in the mid-14th century a group of wealthy Florentines finds refuge from the plague in a villa, outside Florence. And they had a leisured time telling stories to each other. I don't own a villa in the countryside, but I took a tour of villages in the Appennini mountains, a few hundred km from Florence, to seek for a hamlet of some kind to buy. I was accompanied by a friend of mine who is a denizen of the area and whom I had infected with the collapse meme.

We found several houses and apartments for sale in the area. One struck me as suitable, and the price was also interesting. It was a two-floor apartment with the windows opening on the central square of the village where it was located. It had a wood stove, the kind of heating system you can always manage in an emergency. And it was at a sufficient height you could be reasonably safe from heat waves, even without air conditioning.

Then, I was looking at the village from one of the windows when a strange sensation hit me. People were walking in the square and a few of them raised their glance to look at me. And, for a moment, I was scared.

Did you ever read Lovecraft's short story "The Shadow over Innsmouth"? It tells the story of someone who finds himself stuck in a coastal town named Innsmouth that he discovers being inhabited by fish-like humanoids, the "deep Ones," practicing the cult of a marine deity called Dagon.

Don't misunderstand me: the people I was seeing in the square were not alien cultists of some monstrous divinity. What had scared me was a different kind of thought. It was that I knew that every adult male in that area owns a rifle or a shotgun loaded with slug ammunition. And every adult male in good health engages in wild boar hunting every weekend. They can kill a boar at 50 meters or more, then they are perfectly able to gut it and turn it into ham and sausages.

Now, if things were to turn truly bad, would some of those people consider me as the equivalent of a wild boar? For sure, I couldn't even dream to be able to match the kind of firepower they have. I thanked the owner of the place and my friend, and I drove back home. I never went back to that place.

A few years later, with a real collapse striking us in the form of the COVID-19 epidemics,  I can see that I did well in not buying that apartment in the mountains. At the time of Boccaccio, wealthy Florentine citizens could reasonably think of moving to their villa in the countryside. These villas were nearly self-sufficient agricultural units, where one could find food and shelter provided by local peasants and servants (at that time not armed with long-range rifles). But that, of course, is not the case anymore.

The current crisis is showing us what a real collapse looks like. And it shows that some science fiction scenarios were totally wrong. The typical trope of a post-holocaust story is that people run away from flaming cities after having stormed the shops and the supermarkets, leaving empty shelves for those who arrive late. That didn't happen here. At most, people seemed to think that what they needed most in an emergency was toilet paper and they emptied the supermarket shelves of it. But that was quickly over. Maybe we'll arrive at that kind of scenario, but what is happening now is not that the supermarkets are running out of goods, everything is available if you have the money to buy it. The problem is that people are running out of money.

In this situation, the last thing the government wants is food riots. And they especially care about cities -- if they lose control of the cities, everything is lost for them. So they are acting on two levels: they are providing food certificates for the poor, and, at the same time, clamping down on cities with the police and the army to enforce the lockdown. People are facing criminal charges if they dare to take a walk on the street.

Not an easy situation, but at least we have food and the cities are quiet. Think of what would have happened if I had bought that apartment in the mountains. I wouldn't even have been able to go there during the coronavirus epidemics. But, if somehow I had managed to dodge the police, then I would be stuck there. And no supermarkets nearby: there is a small shop selling food in the village, but would it be resupplied during the crisis? The locals have ways to survive also with local food, but a town dweller like me doesn't. And I never tried to shoot a wild boar, I think it is not easy -- to say nothing about gutting it and turning it into sausages. Worse, I am sure that no police would patrol that small village, surely not the woods. So, maybe the local denizens would not shoot me and boil me in a cauldron, but if I were to run out of toilet paper, where could I find some? And, worse, what if I were to run out of food?

So, where can we find refuge from collapse? I can think of scenarios where you could be better off in a bunker somewhere in an isolated area, where you stocked a lot of supplies. But in most cases, that would be a terribly bad idea. A well-stocked bunker is an ideal target for whoever is better armed than you, and they can always smoke you out. Of course, you can think of a refuge for an entire group of people, with some of them able to shoot intruders, others to cultivate the fields, others to care for you if you get sick. Maybe, but it is a complicated story: you need to build up a whole group of people with similar ideas and complementary skills, but most collapsniks are good intellectuals but poor peasants or hunters. You could join the Amish, but would they want you? It has been done often on the basis of religious ideas and in some cases, it may have worked, at least for a while. And never forget the case of Reverend Jim Jones in Guyana.

In the end, I think the best place to be in a time of crisis is exactly where I am: in a medium-sized city. It is a place that the government will try to keep under control as long as possible, and not a likely target for someone armed with nukes or other nasty things. Why do I say that? Look at the map, here.

This is a map of the Roman Empire at its peak. Note the position of the major cities: the Empire collapsed and disappeared, but most of the cities of that time are still there, more or less with the same name, the new buildings built in place of the old ones, or near them. Those cities were built in specific places for specific reasons, availability of water, resources, or transportation. And so it made sense for the cities to be exactly where they were, and where they still are. Cities turned out to be extremely resilient.

But how about Roman villas in the countryside? Well, many are being excavated today but, after the fall of the Empire, they were abandoned and never rebuilt. It must have been terribly difficult to defend a small settlement against all the horrible things that were happening at the time of the fall of the Empire.

So, overall, I think I did well in moving from a home in the suburbs to one downtown. Bad times may come, but I would say that it offers the best chances of survival, even in reasonably horrible times. Then, of course, the best plan of mice and men tend to gang agley, as we all know.  In any case, collapses are bad and that's doesn't change for collapsniks.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)