Tuesday, November 15, 2011


"I always tried to turn every disaster into an opportunity."
-John D. Rockefeller

Zombie disaster movies and books are popular right now (over $5 billion of economic activity, according to the 24/7 Wall Street), although I suspect they're reaching the end of their real wave of popularity. The theme of apocalyptic disaster that people have to scratch and scramble their way out of is one that has been part of entertainment for a long time now, particularly in the cold war. Movies like Threads showed the horrors of post-nuclear war, the Road Warrior movies seem more about the collapse of civilization, but whatever the reason, struggling to survive when things go completely wrong is a source of some fascination.

Economic depression is a temporary, very difficult time period when jobs are very scarce, prices rise significantly, and the nation - even the world - struggles to get back on its feet. Such a time is very challenging, but the basic structures of society and civilization survive, such as stores, police, roads, hospitals, government and so on.

There is a deeper, more significant level of economic collapse that could take place, however. This would result in the infrastructure and basic trappings of civilization crumbling due to lack of support and maintenance. This level of disaster would mean that there isn't simply a temporary slowdown, but an utter collapse of the economy not just in one nation but worldwide to such a degree that there is no way out of it short of a long, slow rebuilding process.

Now, this may seem like a silly thing to concern yourself with, because it presumes a horrendous event that comes along once every few thousand years at most, but the fact is we may be creeping up on such a thing in our lifetimes. Every so often, humanity seems to reach a point where we start to lose learning and technology, to regress rather than grow. What causes such a disaster varies but it seems to come along every so often.

It could be prompted by insanely huge, crushing debt that squeezes the life out of a country, it could be some massive catastrophe like a Manhattan-sized meteor hitting the planet, it could be due to any number of events, even the slow corrosion of a culture no longer able to sustain its self due to selfish, hedonistic lack of virtue and courage.

Whatever the cause, this life would require a level of effort and skill that would leave almost all of us helpless. Even an ordinary depression would likely result from many dying because they simply do not know how to take care of themselves without a credit card and handy shopping nearby.

But this level of disaster requires skills not used for over a hundred years because of the comforts of civilization we've all grown used to. And even if we never face such a level of disaster, these are skills people will find useful even in good economic times - but especially helpful in bad ones.

First, you'll need to know how to get your own food. Shelter will be easy enough to come by, at first, by keeping your present home or finding one that's abandoned. In a place like Detroit, where this kind of economic catastrophe is slowly taking place, there are plenty of places to squat. You'll need to know how to maintain them, but that's another part of the series. Shelter is the first of the rules of five: five hours in cold or extreme heat and you'll die without shelter.

Water is the number one survival requirement after shelter. You can go about 5 days without water, but you won't be in any shape to help yourself after the first few. Once you can survive a cold night, you'll need to get some water. Water is usually easy enough to come by, since almost all settlements are near a source of water, particularly fresh water. It will be possible at first to survive with filters, but you will eventually need to learn how to boil and clean water on your own, since it is unlikely you will be able to rely on people manufacturing replacements for your Brita pitcher. There are a lot of places on the internet that will teach you how to build your own filter, which I highly recommend, but they usually rely on at least some pre-made supplies such as screens, which you might not have access to.

Food is the third critical requirement of survival, and you can make it about 5 weeks without food, but by the third you'll be so weak and sick you won't be in any shape to get some of your own. The last week you'll likely be in a coma. So you'll want to get on this right away, once you have water and shelter covered.

That means you need to learn how to hunt and fish. Most people have some rudimentary ideas of hunting and a lot know how to fish. If you don't know how to fish, its pretty easy to learn and you almost certainly know a fishing enthusiast who can help you. Hunting might be more difficult to find, particularly if you are city bound, but there are people who'll help you for a fee.

Setting up for fishing is a bit spendy, but you don't need the best possible gear. A basic spinning reel and rod and a set of hooks is enough, but you'll want some other supplies like a tackle box, hook remover, a good knife (which you already should have as a basic survival tool - perhaps I'll do something on that as well, although its been well covered elsewhere), a hand net, and a creel or something to keep fish in. This will cost several hundred dollars to set up, but once you have it, will last you for decades, if not your whole life with care and maintenance.

Fishing is a good, basic way to get food. Because almost everyone lives near some sort of body of water and because of fisheries stocking the waters, there is fish almost everywhere in America. You can eat just about any kind of fish, but some of them taste a lot better than others. Your goal is not enjoyment, bragging rights, or quality here, its survival, so head to where you know there's fish and get what you need for the day and maybe tomorrow if you can store the fish safely.

And if you learn to fish, you're going to have to learn one of the basic facts of life. Meat does not come in cans and Styrofoam containers. It comes in animals, and its bloody, messy, and nasty to get out of them. It means death and blood and dismemberment. You have to get past that right away. There is no survival on a vegan diet if civilization collapses. You will need to learn to eat meat, and meat you butchered.

You might swear you'd rather die first, that you'll go hungry before you gut a fish, but when you get hungry enough, that sea kitten starts looking a lot more like dinner. Its disgusting, I know, but its necessary and when you take that first bite of fresh trout you will forget all about it. Some things taste so good they're worth the effort, and you need that protein. So learn how to gut a fish. Feed your dog with the guts, because if things get really horrible you'll want a working animal - a few, in fact, but more on that in a moment. If you're really hard up you can eat the guts but I seriously recommend not doing so unless you absolutely have to. That's where the parasites and disease are. Your dog can handle this stuff a lot better than you can.

And when you learn to hunt, you'll have to learn to clean those animals too. And while a fish is a one-man job with a knife and a few seconds... a deer is a bit more work. Fish will only feed a few people and only for a while, because once you fish out an area, it takes a long time to restock. So you will need to travel a lot in most cases to keep gathering enough fish to survive on. Hunting provides more meat of greater variety.

Setting up for hunting takes a bit more money than fishing. Your primary cost is a weapon, and those don't come cheap. When disaster strikes, they'll be even more expensive and rare, so be ready ahead of time. You'll need to get a weapon, a stock of ammunition, and some basic gear like a warm outfit, good boots, a knife (again), rope, and the usual survival gear (compass, maps, rain gear, fire making kit, med kit, etc). A full set of hunting gear is going to run you more than a thousand bucks, the gun taking about half of that, so you'll want to build up over time.

Ideally, you'll want to load your own bullets. This isn't just cheaper, but it can result in more reliable ammunition, and if things go horribly wrong, you won't be able to run to the store for bullets. They'll be in other people's guns and not being shipped all over to sell any longer. In any case, the last place you want to be in in a store with too many people after too little ammunition. That's a recipe for death. Loading your own bullets means reusing brass and getting as much of that as you can stocked up because it tends not to go bad (and can be cleaned up).

It also may entail mixing your own gunpowder, which is a pretty technical chemistry skill but worth learning if you really want to be ready for disaster. Knowing how to create the things you need to build from is an advanced survival skill but it will make you someone people will rely on, pay for the services of, and protect. If you can work a smithy and make metal items or create medicine out of raw materials, you're a critical asset in an apocalyptic setting.

Storage of all this meat is critical too. If you bag an elk and manage to get it cleaned and carried home (no small task in its self), you have 500-1000 pounds of meat. In fact, here's a handy chart I found of ranges you'll see in meat from game animals, ranging from low to average to exceptional*

Antelope 80 100 125
Whitetail Deer 125 225 350 +
Mule Deer 150 250 400
Bighorn Sheep 175 250 300 +
Black Bear 200 400 650 +
Caribou 250 400 600
Grizzly Bear 500 1,000 1,500 +
Elk (Wapiti) 500 800 1,000
Moose 650 1,200 1,600 +
* females weigh approximately 1/3 less than males

And yes, you can eat bear. You can eat cougar for that matter, its supposed to taste great according to mountain men but I'm skeptical. Now, even a really hungry family is going to have a rough time eating 800 pounds of meat before it rots, and that means you'll need to learn to store and preserve it. And since we're presuming that your frigidaire won't have power to run any longer, that means more primitive methods.

Salt is the best preservation device, but salt is not easy to come by. Once the basic stock runs out in your store, do you even know how to get more? If you don't live near a salt mine or the ocean... you're not going to have any. Salt used to be one of the most valuable commodities in the world. When someone was said to be "worth their salt" that was a very high compliment; soldiers were sometimes paid in salt. Kings controlled the salt at meals and would give it to those they trusted and liked. If you can learn to gather your own salt (its actually not that tough, it just takes a lot of time, if you have a source) you'll be a valuable worker again.

So you'll want to learn to smoke and prepare meat for storage, and that's the origin of Jerky. I love me some Jerky but the reason its so expensive is because its not easy to make. You have to have meat to begin with, which isn't cheap, then you have to have the special place to smoke and dry it, with the right seasoning. Still, a smokehouse is pretty cheap and easy to build and you will probably want something like that around so you don't have rotting meat and waste. Because its not easy to get elk meat and you don't have time and energy to waste if you're in this situation.

The other option is to hunt small. Squirrel, Possum, Raccoon, all kinds of small creatures are around to eat. The advantage of small game is that it doesn't require storage. One pheasant will feed one or two people. Once its eaten, all that's left is bones and feathers (keep the feathers for fishing flies, bedding, etc). In a town gone wild and to ruin, there will be packs of dogs, and while people cringe at eating Fido, humans have been eating dog for a long time. The Nez Perce Indians would raise and cultivate dogs for a steady supply of food before the white man showed up, and today some cultures still eat dog. Remember we're talking about serious collapse and disaster here, not a few years of high unemployment - but even then you might find yourself needing meat.

And if you keep animals around to harvest and use, you'll have a renewable, trustworthy source of food. Cows produce more milk than a family can use up in a day, which means butter, cheese, ice cream, sour cream, and milk to trade for other goods you don't produce. Chickens give you a steady supply of really good eggs. Warning: once you've had farm fresh eggs, those crappy, tasteless, pale eggs at the store will barely be edible. Other animals such as geese, goats, and so on can supply feathers, wool, meat, milk, and goods for a family to survive on. You'll just need to learn to kill your animals when the time comes, and care for them because there will be predators after what you have - and some of them will be human.

Still, its not all blood and knives. If you have dirt and some seeds you can feed your family pretty well. Gardening is a skill its worth learning in any circumstances because the quality of food you can get from your efforts. The drawback of gardening is that its a significant amount of labor and time before you get what you need, but once its producing, you'll tend to gather more than you'll use. Again, this means trade goods and a way to bring neighbors closer. Just have your gun handy for when someone comes by wanting the fruits of your labor without your permission. The entire plot of The Magnificent Seven is about bandits stealing grain and food from a village. They weren't after gold, they just wanted food they didn't work for.

Gardening pays off in several ways, since in addition to food and trade, you get seeds for next year or for trade. It also gives you compost for richer soil, and its something you don't need to travel far to survive on. It can even attract game: deer will come down to eat your garden, too. Keep that rifle handy.

Then comes transportation, which is almost enough of a topic for a full post of its own. Gasoline is great, but almost nobody will have the petroleum, let alone the resources to refine it. Eventually those tanks will run out and your car will become a big lump of metal and plastic. That means you'll need other means of transportation. Most of the time that's going to be bicycle and walking, and while you can stock up on bike parts, eventually those tubes and replacement bits will run out. I know in theory how to collect rubber, but I haven't any clue how to refine it, much less turn it into an inner tube. Even if you learned, rubber is not easy to come by north of the Rio Grande.

So that means you'll eventually have to do without complex mechanical transportation. And that means horses or walking. Today people walk for exercise, but complain if they have to park too far away from a store. We'll circle a parking lot like vultures looking for a spot near the door, just to avoid walking too far. Walking isn't just something you have to put up with or exercise with, its how you get places. And that means you'll need to be ready to walk a lot if things go really bad.

Horses are a great option but they have severe limitations. First they require significant care. The horses we have today are feeble, fragile, and basically stupid (not completely, they can be quite clever). You have to care for them every day and they eat a lot. You can't drive your horse quickly to a spot and leap off to go shopping, you have to make sure it won't wander, be abused or stolen, and is in good shape. You can't just park your horse outside and leave it, you have t tend it, rub it down, and feed it. It needs a lot of water, pasture, and its own shelter. And horses are quite expensive to begin with.

Which is why they hung horse thieves in the old west. Putting a man afoot in dangerous territory a hundred miles or more from a town was all but a death sentence. Stealing something that valuable was a massive theft, like stealing someone's home and running away with it. A horse is an important tool for travel and work, but you'll need to understand the cost and trouble they entail. Its worth it when there's no other way around, but be ready.

Its unlikely any of us will face this sort of intense disaster. Even if things go really wrong, civilizations, particularly with the technology we enjoy today, can recover pretty quickly. Medicine and infrastructure are at such a level now we can usually prevent the worst effects of a truly awful catastrophe. Consider Hurricane Katrina which a few hundred years ago would have resulted in obliteration of New Orleans and many other towns. Just gone off the map. Now they're practically rebuilt (or at least, they're in roughly the same shape they were before the storm, which wasn't that great to begin with).

Still, it isn't impossible that things could go this horrifically wrong, and even if they do not, many of these skills are very useful to learn. Hunting and fishing to get your own food is useful in any economic situation, because its not just a supply of edible material, but it gets you out of your routine and into nature which we all need on occasion, at least. Being prepared for disaster pays off even when the disaster doesn't take place. And these days, it seems foolish not to be ready if you can be.

This is part of the Economic Depression Era Survival Kit.


Eric said...

I've given this a lot of thought over the last few years, and Im convinced that if things collapse and you can't a) grow your own food, b) raise your own livestock and c) protect both of these from thieves, then you will simply not make it more than one or two years (unless you are a succesful thief).

Hunting and fishing are not going to be viable survival plans. Large and midsized game would be wiped out in a few months of serious hunting. Fish populations might last a bit longer, especially if you are on a coast and can fish in the ocean (requires a boat and sailing skills once the gasoline runs out), but almost all managed "wild" fish populations would be quickly wiped out if large numbers of people tried to sustain themselves on them.

If you look back at records from the time when the American West began to be heavily populated, wildlife was so dense it is hard for us to even imagine it. This worked perfectly for feeding Indian villages who rarely numbered greater than a few thousand people, but when Wesern town began to develop, with country homesteads surrounding them, you see story after story of the wildlife thinning out at a surprising rate. Grown children of pioneers were writing about how their parents hunted to survive, but for them wild game was mostly a traditional meal, if they were lucky enough to find any... that's after just one generation of moderate population, and well over 100 years ago.

The best method I've been able determine would be to have access to a patch of land of at least 5 acres where you could sustain yourself on garden crops during the spring, summer, and fall, and live off livestock meat over the winter. I think for most people goats would be the best livestock... they are hardy, can eat just about anything, and are a good size for meal planning. Pigs would be another good choice for a meat animal. Cattle are decent too, but require a LOT of food over the winter (much more per pound than do goats or pigs) and they produce so much meat that it would be hard to properly cure/smoke/jerk it before it spoiled... you'd probably lose a lot of meat.

And of course defending your food is an issue, and requires either being in a secure spot that is hard to find, or grouping together in numbers for protection. The latter is probably the better choice because you can also share labor duties, but it also requires a significantly larger plot of land to be able to sustain more people.

The hard part would be making it through the first two years, as people in high population centers begin to starve and fight and then the survivors spill out into the countryside looking for food. If you are in one of these population centers when this begins, without a place to go, I think your chances of long term survival would be very, very low.

Christopher R Taylor said...

I think that hunting would be more viable than you would expect if for no other reason than a goodly portion of the population will die out as described in your first paragraph (if not from the disaster that would cause this scenario) but you have to be mobile and cannot stay in one place. So yeah, you're going to have to domesticate and grow animals yourself as well.

Anonymous said...

ed in texas
Just as an aside, 2 years ago a UK paper printed a guide to the preparation and cooking of squirrels, because, as they said at the time, 'so many older folks were setting traps in the parks'. There was quite a stink about it at the time.
So this may not be quite as abstract as you think.