Robustness in a time of collapse 

A personal newsletter this week

Last Wednesday I woke up, like a few million other Bay Area residents, to a red-orange sky and drastic air quality warnings. After going through the better part of a year of interesting times, I’d like to share some of the ways I’ve changed my thinking and my life to adapt to a world where chaos is closer to me and more is likely to come. I think it might be useful to calibrate with others in order to avoid under/over-reacting.

Self-reliance is a community virtue

A few years ago I took the San Francisco Fire Department’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Team training. The training was spread over six weeks of weekly 3-hour classes where we learned how to respond to emergencies like earthquakes. After the training, NERT volunteers can be activated to triage emergency scenes, survey damage and call in rescues for survivors, and generally provide support. If you’ve seen civilians in green vests in the city’s parks during the pandemic/heat wave/fires, they’re likely NERT volunteers.

Community Emergency Response Team |

Beyond the practical lessons on turning off gas lines and performing basic first-aid, the thing that stuck with me the most was a few ways to think of my relation to the community in the case of emergency.

The trainers from SFFD were adamant that we be realistic and conservative about what aid we can render. I’m not a trained professional. If I run into an unsafe situation, like a damaged building, I risk creating a situation where I also need to be rescued, which endangers others. Protecting myself has to always be my top priority.

The trainers also stressed that just by not needing assistance in an emergency, I am fulfilling my responsibility to others. In California our institutions are still strong enough that we can be confident that in the case of, say, a major earthquake, the state will provide emergency aid and rations to the population. It will probably not be pleasant–maybe I’d have to wait hours in line to receive supplies, but California will probably not let people starve. But if I’m in line, I’m taking up resources in a time when distributing resources is particularly difficult. Merely by not burdening our systems of resiliency I am benefitting my community.

If I am safe in my home for a week while workers in our recovery systems do the most urgent work, I’m someone they don’t have to worry about. If I can check in with my neighbors and lend support in a completely decentralized way, I’ve lessened the burden on recovery. Due to the inequities of our unjust society and of life in general, in a crisis there will inevitably be people in need. My first responsibility is to not be one of them, and my second responsibility is to assist others, which I can only do if I’ve taken care of myself first.

But robustness is a property of populations, not individuals

The prepper community seems to me to exhibit tons of unhealthy viewpoints and behaviors. The focus on guns, gadgets, and individualism is ultimately a retreat from a world that is out of our individual control. In the extreme, it seems like preppers have a man vs. society fantasy of surviving as individuals even as shit hits the fan, or SHTF in prepper parlance. I admit I relate to this fantasy, but I recognize that robustness is a property of populations, not individuals.


One way to think about robustness is as a measure of how many things can go wrong before I’m affected. Preparation helps, but handling the unexpected requires a group of people with diverse roles and skills. As a common sense example, imagine that I’m completely alone and I break my leg. I would be in serious danger. If I’m part of a community where people can care for me, I’m probably fine. The mutual dependence of a community creates robustness.

A short story in Cory Doctorow’s Radicalized makes this point well. (Spoilers rest of paragraph) In the story, a collection of wealthy professionals set out to survive a pandemic in a well-stocked survival compound. After some fun playing with guns, they encounter the unexpected in the form of a cholera outbreak. The main character has practiced survival skills obsessively but no one in the compound knows the first thing about designing a sanitation system. In contrast, a nearby open community struggles through losses but ultimately thrives. Big problems are made up of small problems, and in a broad community, someone will be able to solve the small problems as they come up.

In real life, the tempo of urban life can work against robustness. As the social division of labor increases, there’s a tendency to outsource the functions we rely upon to stay alive. Over time, the graph that describes the movement of resources around the planet, to me and away from me, becomes more and more complex. It’s hard to evaluate robustness in such a complex system; there are more and more nodes in the network that I rely upon, but there are more alternative nodes through which to access resources I might need.

Instinctually, I felt that my former lifestyle was not hitting the right point on the curve of self- vs. system-reliance. On a typical day I used to commute on a private bus 90 minutes each way. At my job, all of my meals were prepared for me by food service workers. I had my laundry done through my workplace. I had so little free time in my home that I ended up outsourcing most of my quotidian responsibilities to other workers through commercial services. Half a year outside of tech conglomerates, it feels like that lifestyle was unsustainable in a lot of ways. During quarantine I’ve had time to reestablish more habits of self-sufficiency in my life.

Where on the curve should I be?

Then, there’s the factor of alarm. I experience a constant barrage of new information on the internet, and the information I see is generally presented with poor devotion to scale. One way I’ve tried to calibrate how much I react to new circumstances is to place myself on an adoption curve.

Do I want to be an innovator when it comes to reacting to negative news? Not in most things; that feels paranoid to me. Preppers are innovators and I think they’re kind of weird. But I will watch videos made by preppers, so I guess I’m an early adopter. In other areas I can be a late adopter. I don’t have to decide whether to send kids to school, so I can afford to lag in deciding whether public spaces are safe.

But suppose things get worse. If it starts to look like remaining in a place isn’t safe, where on the bug out curve do I want to be? Leaving too early would be majorly disruptive to my life. Leaving too late would be dangerous. DHS building a dossier on a member of DSA San Francisco helps me calibrate what time it is–we’re at the thinking about coming for the socialists phase. My solution for now is to have options. What would a plan be if I needed to get out of my home with almost no notice? With a week of planning? A month?

So what have I done?

I’ve had time off from work since the pandemic started so I’ve been able to turn some of my thoughts into action. I’ve tried to optimize for things that improve my life in most possible futures. Some of the things I’ve done:

  • Stocked a ~6 month supply of dry goods using, among other things, heat-sealed mylar bags, oxygen absorbers, sealed storage buckets, and other methods that are easy to learn about on YouTube.

  • Generally increased my supplies on hand. I used to embrace the just-in-time delivery lifestyle of Amazon Prime. Now, this strikes me as fragile while stocking better is a cheap luxury. If supplies are constrained in the future and I don’t have to change my toothpaste brand, I’ll be able to hold on to a little bit more of a sense of normalcy.

  • Learned to bake more basic goods. Also learned to cook and freeze larger quantities of meals so I don’t have to go out as often.

  • Started studying to renew my amateur radio license; I hadn’t used it since I was a kid. Got a couple of radios.

  • Got a spare tire and built an emergency kit for my car. 

  • Prepared a go bag.

  • Completed a firearm safety course.

  • Got to know my neighbors. Whether it’s dealing with supply shortages or noticing when the police come for you, the people physically close to you are your first line of defense.

  • Improved my practical home skills. YouTube is an unbelievably good resource for learning practical skills. I’m not particularly handy, but I have the confidence now that I can figure out common problems that need a tool to fix.

  • Improved practical skills within my specialty. I’ve asked myself, what skills in my wheelhouse might be useful in a situation where infrastructure becomes unreliable? I had a local ISP install a backup wireless dish on my roof. As a hobby project I converted phone lines in my house to ethernet. For more practice I did the same for my neighbor (in return for a case of beer). I’ve researched how one might build a network to connect a lot of people in a place with minimal infrastructure.

  • Started rucking. I figure walking a long way carrying stuff is a useful skill in a lot of situations.

But our individual choices won’t matter much

Changing your own behavior will have some effect but it’s ultimately very small. No single person is responsible for the burning air in California. No single person can stop the political unrest. We are subject to the whims of forces much larger than ourselves.

I’ve been frustrated by the tendency of some people in the mainstream to look for a savior. It seems to me there’s been a hero coming to save us for a while now–Comey, Mueller, Fauci, or whoever. I’m so sick of this belief that someone else will solve problems that we are either suffering from or complicit in (and in America you are one or the other or both). I’m tired of being told to vote. People with the resources and capacity need to do a lot more than vote. We need to be organizing each other into formations that can challenge and disrupt the forces that are killing us.

The real way to optimize for our individual survival is to be part of an organization that is dedicated to freeing us and helping us survive our impending crises. It can be a church or a fraternal order or a revolutionary political party, but being a part of something bigger than oneself is probably the best way to build robustness.

I don’t now what kind of difficulties lie ahead. I think some things will get worse before they get better. I think a lot of systems we rely upon are fragile. I think chances are good we’ll wake up on November 4th in a chaotic situation. There is a multiple-victim shooting most days in this country; if one occurs on November 3rd, anything feels possible to me. Preparing for the absolute worst case–collapse or revolution–is impractical, but there’s a smart bet on things mostly staying the same but occasionally getting worse. I want to keep my head but I also want to take care of myself and those close to me, and to not be a burden to others.

(Substack has comments. I’d be interested in hearing how you’re changing your life for what may come.)