In his writings and blogs, John Robb adds a dimension of chaos to the peak oil scenario that preoccupies Kunstler and others. Robb highlights the growth of non-state groups and super-empowered individuals who have no loyalty to the larger society and acquire powerful weapons while financing themselves through criminal activities. He studies the ways in which such groups could take down or devolve a modern city, or find the points where attacks can disrupt systems of international trade and the flow of resources. He sees our situation as increasingly vulnerable to disruptions by multiple actors who may share no unified ideology or set of goals, but do share increasingly efficient tactics for paralyzing larger institutions and systems, thus weakening the legitimacy of large political units. After which the groups may or may not set themselves up as local protectors.
John Robb's blog is Global Guerillas. See also his article in City, "The Coming Urban Terror", and his book Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization.
In this interview my reporter talks to someone living in a suburb outside a city when both are just beginning to face attacks and disruptions. There is much higher technology than in the Kunstler-style scenario, but it is unreliable because of constant disruptions. Nonetheless people work to maintain order and connection.
Thanks for spending a little time with me today.
It's no problem. We've been busy around here since the power and water were cut off last week, but things have finally slowed down.
Some group from eastern Europe sabotaged the computers controlling a power distribution center about fifty miles away, and an individual blew up a water pumping station.
Do you know anything about what they were trying to do?
Not really, though we think that the European group was testing a plan for extorting money. The guy that blew up the pumping station had access to some hi-tech weapons and was protesting some local issue over there.
How do you handle such events?
We've gotten used to disruptions. The water supply was restored after six days. The power should be back on in a few weeks. As for the people that caused it, I suppose there is some attempt to track them down, but there are so many groups with issues and high-powered angry individuals these days.
Your house looks about the same as last time I visited, but that's one big fence you've put around it.
I'm worried about the way things are going. There have been some bad incidents.
Even out here? We've had disorder and disruptions in the city but I expected it would be more peaceful here.
It probably is more peaceful than in the city since we don't have your density of population. But even here there have been some home invasions – not by people looking for drug money, like it used to be, but from people looking for food, because the usual supplies have been disrupted, or they don't have any money.
We've had more break-ins in the city too, but our biggest problem is the disruptions of deliveries and services. Someone blew up a water line from one of the reservoirs. We had to ration water for a week. Then someone sabotaged an electric substation, blacking out half the city for two days. Another group tried to blow up a railroad bridge that brings in food.
There's some of that here, mostly electric power lines. It's an echo of attacks aimed at you in the city. I doubt we're a big enough target on our own. But we don't get our service back as quickly out here. And when the airport was attacked by that other group it messed up deliveries here for three months.
That was very effective. But all these disruptions are temporary. Life goes on around them.
But they increase.... that's why the fence.
It protects the house some, but doesn't do anything for the larger vulnerabilities.
Like you in the city, we try to get along around the disruptions. What's scary is that there hasn't been any effective way to stop them from happening.
Does your local government function enough to keep order?
Our immediate local government, somewhat. The state government seems distant and not very effective. The state police still come around now and then, but they are stretched awfully thin, so we don't see them too often. Still, they do try to protect the power grid and the railroad. We will have to keep up the roads on our own. The county doesn't have the money to keep the machinery going or get the raw materials. We do a lot of road repair by hand but the surfaces are deteriorating. There are some groups now offering "protection" that the civil authorities can't provide.
It all certainly distracts us from thinking about energy and environmental issues
Yes and no. A lot of the disruptions are stimulated by the energy shortages.
Not to mention the groups overseas that interfere with trade or the supply of oil and other resources.
Out here where the distances are fairly large, we've had to become more locally self-sufficient since the supply of goods has gotten so irregular. It's really a pain that there are so many groups who have figured out ways to disrupt things.
How about your supply of information? Do you still have the Internet? Can you keep up connections?
The newspapers died a long time ago. The Internet functions most days, when power is on, but it's hard to rely on what you read because there's been so much tampering and so many false sites.
You don't have the large labor force that we in the city can mobilize when we need to meet emergencies.
That's why things here get fixed slowly.
In the city when some system is attacked it affects many more people, so even if we can mobilize a lot of labor to fix pipes or wires, there's many people who suffer.
We have it a bit easier out here because groups that are trying to make an impact by disrupting systems look for places that will have dramatic effects. Here the population is stretched too thin for their desired trauma. But we get affected when they mess up distribution and financial systems.
In the old days when this was farming land, people were supposed to rush to help one another in emergencies.
When this became suburban that kind of neighborly help got pretty weak, but we're getting it back again.
What do you use to keep in contact on the local level?
The telephone system works some of the time, and when the Internet is functioning we can use that. Some people have small radios and walkie-talkies.
How do you keep these electric and electronic devices functioning when the power supply is untrustworthy?
We stockpile rechargeable batteries and charge them up when the electricity is working. Many us have small solar charging devices, and some people run generators on alcohol derived from plant waste. So we can bridge over the times when the electricity isn't working.
I would imagine that there's not much new investment coming your way.
New investments mostly go to larger population centers. So we have a lot of volunteer labor, the suburban equivalent of barn raising, for repairing old things and building new. We have to stick together.
How do people make money here?
Some do and some don't. As the town becomes more self-sufficient its economy becomes more internally centered. Some people have jobs outside the town at offices or factories. They commute however they can. Still, the big economic slowdown has meant that a lot of people have lost jobs linked into the national economy. So we've tried to provide occupation for such people in keeping the town up, which has become more difficult because the large systems have become so fragile. There isn't a lot of national currency coming in; there's a lot of bartering. A town bank has created a local scrip some people use.
Do you trade with other towns?
Most of the towns around here have the same problems we do, though there's some trade in locally grown foods. The major trade is in skills: we have a good plumber and we trade with the next town that has someone who can do solar power, and so on.
Are the towns still that distinct these days?
Originally the suburbs built out this way more or less ran into one another. They belonged to large townships or to none at all. But since the larger systems have become unreliable, it's better if local governments get small. Also, because we need to bring back more farmland, there's been a tendency for the suburbs to condense into towns separated by stretches of open land. The distances aren't too great, and there is some cooperation among local centers. There are more local governments than there used to be, because the big ones weren't that efficient when conditions got shaky.
The city has been in the process of breaking up into smaller local units too. Of course they touch one another, and they compete in a lot of unpleasant ways, but it seems to work better.
Out here on the plains governments are smaller than they used to be. But I would think that in the city you'd also have groups trying to govern themselves who were tied together by some affiliation other than geography.
That's true. There are some scattered ethnic groups and some religious groups who've begun to assert their own independence of the local government. The mix is pretty complicated, but in some ways it still feels like the city always did, with lots of people and groups going in different directions in the same space. Relations have become dicier sometimes but by and large we get along.
Here we have the kind of small-town feel which people wanted when they moved to the suburbs. They didn't really have it in old days when the suburbs just were spreading out and out.
So all this disorder has made it feel more like what people wanted suburbs to feel?
In a way, yes, but they have to put up with unreliable systems, so that what was supposed to have been smooth suburban living has gotten more like real country living, not like what they came for twenty years ago.
Out here when the systems get disrupted, do you get violent reactions?
Not so much, because things get fragile. I would imagine that in the city the potential of violence has gone way up from what it used to be
It was always there, but you're right that there's much more now. People are edgier as a result. Also because the city is so big it can't be very self-sufficient, and there's not really enough local farmland outside the city to supply food in all seasons, so a lot of energy is spent on maintaining supply networks. The railroads become really important.
Do supplies still get flown into the city from overseas?
Not always. We get a lot of imports by sea. For most manufactured goods that doesn't matter so much, but food is our greatest need and there are some foodstuffs that don't survive ocean voyages.
With all that going on the city must be losing population.
Yes it is, but where do people go? The suburbs around the city are like yours; they can't handle large increases in population. So people are drifting away and we're not quite sure where they go. There are some new communities being founded, but nobody is keeping very good track of them.
Can't the government gather statistics?
It's not easy, and we don't know how reliable they are. The larger governmental units have less power and more problems. They function but not too reliably.
One could argue that in an era of fragile transportation networks, concentrated urban locations would find it easier to make new social formations and alliances. On the other hand, urban locations are also more vulnerable to violence and systemic breakdowns, as their density offers fewer chances for smaller resilient units. In times of stringency and civil disorder, though, suburbs might be safer places to live. If they can be supplied with food and goods and develop local centers, suburban residents might experience the social advantages of a small town where people learn to support one another. Such communities would be still better if they were kept open to wider connections.
(Continue to Scenarios: Urban Optimism)