Rawles, James Wesley. How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It. New York: Plume, 2009. ISBN 978-0-452-29583-4.
As I write these comments in July of 2011, the legacy media and much of the “new” media are focussed on the sovereign debt crises in Europe and the United States, with partisans on every side of the issue and both sides of the Atlantic predicting apocalyptic consequences if their policy prescriptions are not promptly enacted. While much of the rhetoric is overblown and many of the “deadlines” artificial constructs created for political purposes, the situation cannot help but remind one of just how vulnerable the infrastructure of civilisation in developed nations has become to disruptions which, even a few decades ago, would have been something a resilient populace could ride out (consider civilian populations during World War II as an example).

Today, however, delivery of food, clean water, energy, life-sustaining pharmaceuticals, and a multitude of other necessities of life to populations increasingly concentrated in cities and suburbs is a “just in time” process, optimised to reduce inventory all along the chain from primary producer to consumer and itself dependent upon the infrastructure for its own operation. For example, a failure of the electrical power grid in a region not only affects home and business use of electricity, but will quickly take down delivery of fresh water; removal and processing of sewage; heating for buildings which rely on electrically powered air or water circulation systems and furnace burners; and telephone, Internet, radio, and television communication once the emergency generators which back up these facilities exhaust their fuel supplies (usually in a matter of days). Further, with communications down, inventory control systems all along the food supply chain will be inoperable, and individuals in the region will be unable to either pay with credit or debit cards or obtain cash from automatic teller machines. This only scratches the surface of the consequences of a “grid down” scenario, and it takes but a little reflection to imagine how a failure in any one part of the infrastructure can bring the rest down.

One needn't envision a continental- or global-scale financial collapse to imagine how you might find yourself on your own for a period of days to weeks: simply review the aftermath of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornado swarms, and large-scale flooding in recent years to appreciate how events which, while inevitable in the long term but unanticipated until too short a time before they happened to effectively prepare for, can strike. The great advantage of preparing for the apocalypse is that when something on a smaller scale happens, you can ride it out and help your neighbours get through the difficult times without being a burden on stretched-thin emergency services trying to cope with the needs of those with less foresight.

This book, whose author is the founder of the essential SurvivalBlog site, is a gentle introduction to (quoting the subtitle) “tactics, techniques, and technologies for uncertain times”. By “gentle”, I mean that there is little or no strident doom-saying here; instead, the reader is encouraged to ask, “What if?”, then “What then?”, and so on until an appreciation of what it really means when the power is off, the furnace is dead, the tap is dry, the toilet doesn't flush, the refrigerator and freezer are coming to room temperature, and you don't have any food in the pantry.

The bulk of the book describes steps you can take, regardless of how modest your financial means, free time, and physical capacity, to prepare for such exigencies. In many cases, the cost of such common-sense preparations is negative: if you buy storable food in bulk and rotate your storage by regularly eating what you've stored, you'll save money when buying through quantity discounts (and/or buying when prices are low or there's a special deal at the store), and in an inflationary era, by buying before prices rise. The same applies to fuel, ammunition, low-tech workshop and gardening tools, and many other necessities when civilisation goes south for a while. Those seeking to expand their preparations beyond the basics will find a wealth of references here, and will find a vast trove of information on the author's SurvivalBlog.

The author repeatedly emphasises that the most important survival equipment is stored between your ears, and readers are directed to sources of information and training in a variety of fields. The long chapter on medical and dental care in exigent circumstances is alone almost worth the price of the book. For a fictional treatment of survival in an extreme grid-down societal collapse, see the author's novel Patriots (December 2008).

July 2011 Permalink