Preppers spend much of their time and energy getting ready for and wondering what kind of event will befall the world that will see them put that preparation and their hard-earned skills to use.
The rest of the time they think and puzzle over all the many things that could go wrong, and how they will survive them: Who will survive with them? What will be the key to survival? Where will they go?
These questions are all definitely worthwhile, and need answers but I see a surprising lack of thought given to what the rest of their world will be like in the days and weeks following the collapse of society.
While you might think it’s speculation that is wasted effort better spent on other things that you can control, I disagree: The context in which you operate is everything.
In failing to understand the greater context of what other groups of people are doing – your fellow citizens and survivors, the police, the government and any organized groups of bad actors and criminals – you are failing to ground your plan in a potential reality.
To help remedy this and to help get your noggin joggin’ in a slightly different direction when it comes to surviving A SHTF situation, I will present several potential outcomes that could help illuminate what other people and the remains of society will be doing post-collapse.
Use this to jump start your own thinking process on the matter and further refine your survival plan.
As you read this article, keep in mind none of us have a crystal ball or the ability to scry the future, no matter how much as we would like to. No man or woman alive can see all ends.
The following is purely speculation, and there are so many variables piled upon variables concerning how society will topple in the aftermath of the big one, I could be completely wrong. As always, take things with a grain of salt, and always have a back-up plan.
But that being said, this speculation is informed by that one invaluable resource that the wise will draw upon and the foolish will disregard: the past.
There is nothing new under the sun, and unfortunately that includes the decline and eventual collapse of societies and empires throughout time. Quite a few, in fact, in the very near history of the world.
We do not have to dust off old and tattered scrolls to read about this stuff. We need only look as far away as the mid and late 20th century in Europe, Africa and elsewhere. There are even a few American cities that can serve as informative models for our decision-making process.
These events I referenced have informed what I am writing in this article, and for that reason it is generally trustworthy. It might not be your experience if, God forbid, you actually have to live through it in the wake of some terrible catastrophe but I am not pulling this stuff out of thin air, either.
As grim as it is to consider things as awful as civilization-wrecking disasters take heart that these things have a certain life cycle, certain patterns.
If nothing else, you can just file these potential outcomes away into your personal prepping database as just one more possible scenario you have considered and nominally prepared for.
Everyone will have it rough after a society-toppling event, but perhaps none more so than your fellow survivors, your fellow citizens. In the immediate aftermath of the event, be it a man-made catastrophe or a natural disaster of biblical scale, many people will be in a sort of shock.
The ones that are not injured will almost certainly have friends, family or other people they are responsible for who are. Almost everyone will have lost somebody, or have someone close to passing.
Sitting among the ruined, ashen remains of what was once a reasonably pleasant life in a pleasant country and not knowing if they will even be able to find, much less bury their loved ones will be a stressor that is too great to bear.
After this initial time of shock, disbelief, and dismay, the real stuff of survival will take center stage in their thoughts. Many people will be made homeless, or facing homelessness, depending on the situation.
No matter if they are fleeing violence or just trying to escape the physically destroyed town where they used to live, the vast majority of your fellows will make up a new class of people: the dispossessed, those who have lost their home and the majority of their material possessions to the event.
The creation of this new class of civilian, in stark contrast to those who are fortunate enough to have a reliable roof over their head and even some of their possessions left (or for the blessed few their families intact and whole), this will be the first source of real friction.
It does not take much imagination to see how utterly dependent modern society is on all the tiny parts and pieces, all the many interlinked cogs and gears of commerce in order to survive, much less function.
You can absolutely depend on this fragile machine being completely disrupted in the aftermath of an event, assuming it is not destroyed totally.
Need will become the ultimate motivator on a daily basis. Desperation and resentment will take root, and then take hold of people.
You will see two things happen because of it; first, conflict between fellow citizens, former neighbors and everyone else as those who lack will try to get what they need from those who have. Food, water, shelter, medicine, everything.
Thievery and looting will be an everyday occurrence, but the strain on resources that have suddenly become very precious indeed will mean that violence occurs regularly and with increasing frequency until a new equilibrium is established.
Part of achieving that new equilibrium will be the exodus of survivors and refugees heading out in any and all directions which might promise greener pastures just around the next bend, or the next town over, or the next state.
For some they might be living a meager and wretched existence just trying to get their next meal or trying to stay ahead of the encroaching winter or hostile forces.
In the weeks following the event, something resembling a functional if ramshackle society might remain where the old one fell in place. This will be largely dependent on the nominal habitability of the place.
Some places are only habitable with the benefit of modern technology functioning as intended.
Others only have enough food for the people living there thanks to the endless stream of tractor trailers and train cars and ships loaded with goods and provision; they produce nothing or little to eat.
It is a certainty that most or even all of these commercial shipments will stop, and that means people will go back to bartering or providing for themselves in order to survive.
An event that is bad enough to truly topple society means that reliable relief from state level or federal level government agencies will probably not be forthcoming, and if it is it will not be enough for the long haul.
This means that in the face of a new paradigm that will exist for the foreseeable future a great many people in a given area will have to leave or die in order for what goods are reliably obtainable locally, either from stored goods or new production, to sustain the people who remain.
How they adapt to this new world and their role in it remains to be seen, but after the dust has settled the business of life will go on as it ever has, only much harder and far, far less certain.
All members of the various police forces that patrol the nation will have an unenviable position in the aftermath of a major catastrophe. Oath-sworn to do their duty, many of them will head into the worst imaginable situations regardless of danger to themselves.
No matter what is occurring, many of them will not survive in pursuit of their objectives. On the other hand, police officers are people too, and people who have loved ones, family and other people they are personally responsible for.
Facing down an uncertain future or a direct and grave threat to their own families, a fair fraction will undoubtedly desert or fail to show up for their shift.
As the days and weeks progressed in the aftermath of the event, the role of the police will be uncertain.
If enough of local government still exists and exerts nominal control (and more importantly is accepted as the functional government by the surviving civilians) at least some police will continue to push a post to help fulfill necessary organizational and security roles in the post-collapse society.
But the more broken links there are in the chain of command and the shakier the existing governments they serve are, the more likely it is that the police forces of the world will break down after a major catastrophe.
This is less likely to occur in smaller, tight-knit communities and more likely to occur in large cities. Some police officers might be well enough known and respected to maintain a sort of leadership or advisory position among survivors.
Others with less savory reputations and those that are unknown or seen in a less-than-positive light may decide to take their chances elsewhere, or just fade back into society, just one more survivor in the crowd.
But in any situation where the government remains at least nominally stable and functional, being a police officer is likely to be a pretty good billet despite the hard work and long hours.
Being the single “cell” of government force, literally the one-man unit of law and order, they are valuable to the governments that they serve, and that means that they can expect a certain amount of support and upkeep where other people will have anything but certainty.
A bed or at least a cot in a shelter, food and clean water, and what health care can be provided under the circumstances.
If these perks of the job are greatly reduced or even end entirely, police officers will typically fall into one of two camps: the true believers who hold their oath over anything else, and those who perceive the current situation as breach of contract in any case.
The true believers, God bless them, will continue to do their duty to the best of their abilities. The others, and I am not judging, will stop reporting for duty, or else might look elsewhere for profitable employment.
In any restructuring event, people who have viable skill sets or connections may find themselves useful, even valuable to those who seek to install themselves in a position of power, whoever they might be.
Those who served on the force at any level and in any capacity may well try to ingratiate themselves to these would-be rulers.
At any rate, the police and former police can be either a help or a hindrance to survivors depending on how tightly they try to maintain the government’s control over the situation.
As the government and the people grow more frightened and desperate, clashes and other negative interactions will become increasingly likely between police and survivors.
In many ways members of the military will see their futures in the immediate aftermath of the event perhaps the least in-question.
The military is actually a pretty good gig in times of crisis because, much like police, they are valuable to governments as necessary components of effective governance, and in this theoretical case their employer is the U.S. Federal Government.
A truly nation-shaking event will see the president of the United States declare martial law, which means the military is about to get very, very busy.
Despite having to work long hours in austere conditions, members of the military will remain well-funded, well-fed and generally taken care of, and not for nothing have someone looking out for their well-being if not their best interest.
However, much like police some members of the military will desert during this time out of fear for themselves or fear for their families.
Unlike police, the consequences for going AWOL from military service are significantly more severe, and the military will have measures in place to both retain and track down its members in times of crisis.
Also compared to most police agencies the military’s chain of command is far more durable with a great many more contingency plans and rules for succession of leadership and assumption of command compared to police forces.
Even if entirely severed from federal government oversight for a time, entire units can operate more or less autonomously under standing general orders until the chain of command is restored.
Regarding interactions with the surviving civilian populace the military is most likely to provide a bastion of control, and even a glimmer of hope.
The military does nothing well if it does not do logistics well, and so long as there is a viable strategic need for it they can send men, material and expertise streaming into an affected area and begin the work of stabilizing, cleaning up and restoring order.
On US soil, the arrival of substantial military contingent will be seen by many survivors as the “beginning of the end” of their current tribulation. Whether or not this is actually true is dependent upon many factors.
Typically, any small scale or localized catastrophe can expect government aid and assistance from the military in the form of the National Guard.
Considering that the military and the federal government have virtually bottomless resources for dealing with these localized events, their appearance is a virtual certainty.
Things get trickier the more widespread the effects of the event are, or as the scale of the event increases. Truly regional or national events or even the actual collapsing of society will see military effort and material triaged in order to support strategic objectives.
This is not just a matter of who needs help the most; entire towns and cities might be sacrificed, left to fend for themselves with what they can muster, if they do not support recovery and stabilization efforts.
What places might be given priority by the military in such times? Certainly any area that houses a military base will fall under its protective umbrella, more or less, although even this is not guaranteed.
Likewise, major centers of industry and certain commercial hubs, especially those focused on logistics and service businesses will more than likely be protected if they serve the current or long-term objective.
Any area that is rich in needed natural resources, refineries, power generation facilities, factories and so forth almost certainly will see a military detachment as will the cities and towns that sprout up at major transportation crossroads.
In a major, nation- or globe-spanning event, areas that are “flyover towns” or little more than rest stops will be left to their own fates.
And, although it is an ugly thing to think about, any declaration of martial law has consequences for the citizenry. When martial law is in effect in a given area it effectively suspends citizens’ constitutional rights.
Depending on the nature of the event, and especially if it is of a revolutionary bent, the gloves may come off when the military is dealing with civilians.
As it turns out, they might not be the saviors the desperate survivors want if their orders are to preserve the status quo and protect government installations and control at all costs. This is probably more unlikely in America than other countries, but far from out of the question.
The Federal Government
In anything but the most cataclysmic or truly apocalyptic scenarios, the fate of the federal government is probably the least in question of all the groups of people you will be interacting with in the immediate aftermath of a collapse.
The federal government is simply so massive, so byzantine, and so hardened against breakdown or annihilation that enough fragments of any given branch and any given agency will survive in order to maintain or reconstitute at least a semblance of functionality.
Whether or not the infrastructure and the personnel (not to mention the resources) will survive along with them to see their edicts and orders handed down and executed is another thing entirely.
America is a truly massive nation, and even the far-reaching tentacles of the federal government cannot hope to hold it all in hand at once.
Any crisis with truly national implication will strain the effectiveness of the federal government to its limit, and there will be plenty of areas that will either escape notice or concern, and go without federal influence for the duration, or at least until things start tracking back to normal.
It is possible that a specific event, one that badly damages America’s communication and travel infrastructure, will see what is effectively a federal government-in-exile; largely intact but also largely ineffectual at the local level.
One truly harrowing possibility is a scenario where, after sustaining enough deaths in the upper echelons, the surviving members of the government actually wind up competing with each other to see who is next in the chain of succession.
This promises to be extremely ugly no matter who wins and whatever else happens. Paradigm-shifting events have a way of bringing out the very worst in people no matter who they are, and some who have long suffered in the lower ranks will be keen to see their ambitions slaked in the wake of a major event.
But, all of those scenarios are getting pretty far out on “the fringe” even in the theoretical what-if that we are discussing in the confines of this article. Only the most drastic, longest-lasting and severe events will shake the US government’s command and control of the country.
The Criminal Element
The malcontents, the criminals, the psychos and the scumbags will be the biggest wildcard, and potentially the gravest threat in a post-collapse situation.
While these people are always present in any civilization, in a healthy, functioning one they are kept towards the fringes, “beyond the walls”, by police and tough citizens that are ready to confront them.
They are a lot like weeds in that way, in that they grow only where the grass is not healthy or is patchy. Criminality sprouts up in civilization much the same way. When a civilization is not healthy, it paves the way for and fosters criminality.
The criminal element will fit into one of two broad categories in a post-collapse situation:
- small bands or individuals, the opportunists who will seize the day and run wild when police are powerless, eliminated or busy with bigger problems,
- and large criminal organizations or warbands, typically lead by a fiery demagogue or “alpha” scumbag, to use the opportunity to consolidate their own power and procure loot and tribute from mostly defenseless survivors, and other resources.
It might be strange for decent people to think about it, but in all kinds of post-collapse situations criminal activity often flourishes.
Excepting the psychopaths and the sadists who just want to inflict pain and torment on their fellow man, most criminals still operate for gain. What they do is in effect their jobs.
Criminals might even take on a slightly more legitimate bent by providing goods and services to people who are in desperate need, in exchange for payment of course…
Those people will readily take advantage of any opportunity to get what they need in a new world where certainty is all but forgotten.
In this way, assuming they are not just rampaging marauders, organized criminals may provide a certain sort of stability, even if that stability they provide is fueled by unsavory activity and Faustian bargains.
If the situation for the surviving civilians becomes truly untenable, they may well turn to the criminal organization for provision or even employment, swelling their ranks.
This can create a haven for criminal activity and a sphere of influence out of all proportion with their legitimacy. This will nonetheless exist until such time as the proper government or a larger organization with more influence, firepower or material can oust them.
But no matter the level of organization, survivors can expect to have to deal with these people on a larger or smaller scale in the immediate aftermath of a societal collapse.
These are the people that will steal and kill with very little provocation, and unfortunately form the chief threat to life, limb and supplies in many SHTF scenarios.
To say that life will be different in the aftermath of a societal collapse is probably the understatement of the millennium. It will be so drastically different, and in so many ways that it is hardly conceivable for most people.
Yet history has already furnished us many examples and if we are smart we will learn from them in order to better prepare for the same circumstances in our own country. Despite the hardship, the death and the decay strewn all around, life does go on.
People persevere, and groups will continue to function, though their missions and influence may be greatly reduced in the aftermath where others will be greatly increased.
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