Experts who recently briefed the U.S. Congress on the threat of a North Korean nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack painted a horrific picture of the aftermath of a nuclear explosion that would dismantle the nation’s power and communications grids. A Washington Examiner story quoted officials as saying an explosion of a high-altitude nuclear bomb delivered by a missile or satellite could “shut down the U.S. electric power grid for an indefinite period, leading to the death within a year of up to 90 percent of all Americans.” The story hardly surfaced in the day’s news, buried beneath the titillating sexual perversions of Harvey Weinstein or the lingering questions of whether to kneel or stand at the playing of the national anthem. Even if Americans were paying attention, it is unlikely they would know what to do about a likely EMP attack, or about any of the serious evils of civilization today. As Kirkpatrick Sales wrote over twenty years ago, we seem “incapable of imagining what an alternative might look like, or even realizing that an alternative could exist.”
The time is long overdue for us to begin imagining alternatives. An EMP attack or similar visitation of doom on modern society would be calamitous. The millions of victims would include both urban dwellers and suburbanites who excel at creating Excel spreadsheets but know nothing of practical survival skills. Of course, the urban poor would suffer, too. Survivors would include a small clan of elites with deep pockets and those rare individuals living in communities who still possess the skills and knowledge to live off the land. Very few Americans can live off the grid for any length of time or have the deep financial resources to purchase scarce goods when the economy suddenly unravels.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates that 60% of Americans have not prepared for such a disaster. Even for those who do make preparations, the FEMA survival handbook suggests only a two-week supply of food and water. Presumably the federal government will come to the rescue by then. Just ask the Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria in September, where weeks later emergency supplies are not reaching hurricane victims, some who reportedly are living off of roots and rain water.
The devastating impact of a grid-buster would be severe for a society completely dependent upon electricity and fossil fuels for all aspects of life. Food transportation would come to a halt. Grocery stores would be emptied. Water companies would lack power to pump water to homes. Air and rail travel would end. Personal automobile transport would be halted due to a disruption in delivery of fuel to filling stations. Companies would send home employees because all digital communications are down. No food, no water, and no wages is a recipe for misery for fully-domesticated humans.
In the mass, industrialized, bureaucratic apparatus in which we live, our economic and social identities are also dependent upon the grid. Financial statements, medical records, credit information, proof of ownership, and personal contacts are all online. Few people have “paper copies” of such vital information. Would we “exist” anymore without a digitally-certified identity?
Americans have been trained from their earliest days to have a single-minded focuse on one thing – the acquisition of things. They have neither the patience nor inclination to be bothered with anything that will divert them from making money. They are conditioned to acquire and consume in a system mediated by currency, digital currency at that. They are completely unprepared for life off the grid.
Communities who are in but not of the American empire, and who have resisted the consumerist lifestyle, such as the Amish and certain land-based intentional communities, will have a distinct advantage in an off-the-grid economy. There is also a small number of rewilding practitioners hunting and gathering in places such as the American Northwest who will do quite well.
For the rest, a sustained period of attempting to survive off the grid is a terrifying scenario. Millions will suffer from starvation, disease, lack of access to medical care and exposure to the elements. Few are prepared for such an event, and the aged and children would be especially vulnerable, as they always are in catastrophes. To dwell upon this scenario is disturbing and even maddening.
Glenn Parton wrote in, “The Machine in Our Heads”(1997) that “the personal pursuit of sanity is, or will shortly become, the overriding issue for the vast majority of people,” and that each person in our fearful society, “must be armed with an ideal or vision of what s/he would like to be and should be.” Parton answered that there was no better way to go forward than “a tribal ideal,” where individuals enter into cooperative associations and establish human villages “embedded in a healthy/wild landscape.” Such a solution is even more critical now than it was two decades ago.
We should all be forming associations with friends and family within which we can survive and thrive in the likely event of a grid-busting catastrophe. Where will we live? What skills do we have, and what skills do we need to acquire? Who possesses those skills, and who can teach them to us? Do we have the weapons and tools necessary to hunt, gather and till? Do we have a basic understanding of local flora and fauna, of medicinal herbs and plants? Can we prepare food and provide shelter and clothing? Are we physically, emotionally and spiritually prepared for a world without electricity, cell phones, grocery stores and water delivered to our tap?
Today we should be banding with others to form and develop a tribal community, to learn survival skills, to build a working knowledge of permaculture and horticulture, to determine a game plan, to begin building a culture of survival and of thriving. We might have years, months or weeks, but we will be grateful that we broke free of the fetters of isolation and dependence and formed a tribe to live and move within in the uncertain world that is coming.