That’s the question posed by Charles Hugh Smith, whom we’ve met many times in these pages. It’s a very good one, and ties in with the advice I and others have given often over the past few years: get out of cities, and move to a location and environment where one will be more secure from urban crime, violence and unrest.
Here’s a lengthy excerpt from Mr. Smith’s article. Bold print is his emphasis.
Moving is a difficult decision, so we hesitate. But when the window to do so closes, it’s too late. We always think we have all the time in the world to ponder, calculate and explore, and then things change and the options we once had are gone for good.
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My new book Global Crisis, National Renewal: A (Revolutionary) Grand Strategy for the United States is a result of realities few are willing to face: the extreme inequality we now have in the U.S. leads to social collapse.
That’s the lesson of history. So to believe as if collapse is impossible is to ignore the evidence that social collapse is inevitable when inequality reaches extremes.
Social collapse has consequences, and so we have to ask: where do we want to be in the vast human herd when social order unravels?
My new book also addresses the transition that’s obvious but easily denied: we’ve transitioned from an era of abundance to an era of scarcity. There are many historical examples of what happens as scarcity diminishes living standards and puts increasing stress on individuals, families, communities and nations.
. . .
At present, few anticipate urban America becoming a dicey place to live and own a home. But inequality and the hollowing out of the economy by globalization and financialization has left cities entirely dependent on diesel fueled trucks to deliver virtually everything.
This is also true of rural communities, of course, but some rural areas still produce energy and food, and given the lower population density, these communities are less dependent on global supply chains and are therefore more self-sufficient. Rural households have more opportunities to raise animals, grow vegetables, etc., and more opportunities to have supportive relationships with neighbors who actually produce something tangible and essential.
. . .
Lower population densities lend themselves to greater self-sufficiency / resilience and to community cohesion. Roving mobs are less likely to form simply because the low density makes such mobs difficult to assemble.
As I explain in my book, social cohesion is a combination of civic virtue, shared purpose, agency (having a stake in the local economy and a say in decisions which affect everyone) and moral legitimacy, i.e. a community that isn’t divided into a self-serving elite that owns the vast majority of the wealth, capital and political power and a relatively powerless majority (i.e. debt-serfs and tax donkeys).
In my analysis, social cohesion in most urban zones has already eroded to the point of no return. The tattered remnants will crumble with one swift kick.
The conventional view is the urban populace will continue to grow at the expense of rural regions, a trend that’s been in place for hundreds of years. But this trend exactly parallels the rise of hydrocarbon energy. Large cities existed long before hydrocarbon energy, but these cities arose and fell depending on the availability of essential resources within reach.
Imperial Rome, for example, likely had 1 million residents at the apex of its power, residents who were largely dependent on grain grown in North African colonies and shipped across the Mediterranean to Rome’s port of Ostia.
Once those wheat-exporting colonies were lost, Rome’s population fell precipitously, reaching a nadir of perhaps 10,000 residents living amidst the ruins of a once great metropolis.
More recently, economic and social shifts hollowed out many city cores in the 1970s as residents and jobs moved to the suburbs.
A reversal of this trend in favor of small cities/towns and rural areas may already be gathering momentum under the radar.
All this is abstract until the attractions of city living fade and economic vitality declines to the point of civic and financial bankruptcy. Cities have cycles of expansion, decay and decline just like societies and economies, and it behooves us to monitor the fragility, dependency and risk of the place we inhabit.
At nadirs, homes and buildings that were once worth a fortune are abandoned, or their value drops to a fraction of its former value.
Putting these dynamics together, the problem boils down to a systemic scarcity of housing in attractive, productive rural towns and regions and a massive oversupply of urban residents who may decide to move once urban zones unravel.
Let’s assume that a mere 5% of urban residents decamp for rural regions. Given that there are about 130 million households in the U.S. and 81% of that total is 105 million households, 5% is 5.25 million households. Given that the number of rural communities that have all the desirable characteristics is not that large, we can estimate that it might be difficult for even 500,000 urban households to relocate to their first choice, never mind 5 million.
This gives an extreme advantage to those few who move first, long before they must. The financial advantage for first movers is equally extreme, as they can still sell their urban homes for a great deal more money than they will fetch once conditions deteriorate. (The value of homes can drop to zero, as Detroit has shown.)
Those few who decide to join the early movers even though the difficulties are many have all the advantages. Those who wait until conditions slip off a cliff may find their once valuable home has lost most or all of its value and the communities they would have chosen are out of reach financially.
Most people reckon they have plenty of time to act–decades, or at least many years. The problem with systemic fragility was aptly described by Seneca: “Increases are of sluggish growth but the way to ruin is rapid.”
My own expectation is a self-reinforcing unraveling that gathers momentum to breaking points by 2024-25, only a few years away. Rather than fix the systemic problems of inequality and scarcity, the status quo’s expedient fixes (printing trillions out of thin air and hoping there will be no adverse consequences from distributing free money to financiers and bread and circuses) will only accelerate the unraveling. There may not be as much time as we think.
New readers pondering these dynamics may find value in one of the more widely read of my essays, The Art of Survival, Taoism and the Warring States (June 27, 2008) which discusses the importance of being a helpful and productive member of a tight-knit community and the futility of having an isolated “bug-out” cabin as Plan C.
The vista of solid ground stretching endlessly to the horizon may turn out to be a mirage, and the cliff edge is closer than we imagine.
I’d like to endorse Mr. Smith’s warning about societal collapse. I’m in the unusual position (for our times) that I’ve actually seen this happen in several Third World countries. I’m very aware of how easily chaos can slip into anarchy and the destruction of all the civilized norms and structures we hold dear. I’m seeing some of the same warning signs in our inner-city areas that I saw in Africa not so long ago. Also, consider the example of the Weimar Republic that we read about last weekend, and in an earlier article as well. Extreme inflation – hyperinflation – caused that chaos, and we’re facing the very real danger of that right now in this country. Furthermore, that chaos gave rise to conditions that Hitler used to come to power a decade later. There is no reason whatsoever that something similar couldn’t happen here in the United States as well. We’re as human as the residents of Weimar Germany were, and we’re as prone to human errors and catastrophically wrong decisions as they were.
I voted with my feet on this one. Six years ago, Miss D. and I moved from a large city in Tennessee to a small town in northern Texas, which offers a homogenous community of like-minded people in an area remarkably free of many of the urban tensions and divisions that plague our big cities. Since then, others have joined us, until today the North Texas Troublemakers (as we term ourselves) are a small extended family of friends, committed to helping each other and to standing together in the face of trouble if need be. It’s a gladsome thing to be a part of such a community, and I’m very, very glad we made the move when we did.
I very strongly recommend that if it’s feasible for you, you consider doing something similar. If it’s not feasible, then I suggest you make what preparations you can to face difficult times – political, social, economic and cultural, with particular emphasis on security and provision of essentials for your family. I’m not sanguine about the prospects for the next few years in big cities. Neither, as you’ve just read, is Mr. Smith.