A “new to me” book I have been reading and finding enjoyable is actual quite old, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer. I am about 60% of the way through the book, first published in 1977, and it is a beefy tome. The mass market paperback is listed at 640 pages and because it was written in the 70s it takes it’s time to get to the pivotal moment in the book. Despite the age of the book it hasn’t lost much in technological changes with no smart phones or some of the other common technology we have come to take for granted, which is a sign of a well told story.
I am quite certain that I owned a paperback copy of this when I was a kid but never read it, so I find myself at 50 reading books I acquired when I was 8 or 10 and reading them now.
Lucifer’s Hammer is in some ways pretty standard fare for the “end of the world” genre, but what sets it apart is the detail. Spoiler alert but the basic gist of the story is that a comet strikes the earth and causes the near instantaneous end of civilization. If you have looked at a map, one thing you will notice is that many of the world’s population centers and most significant cities are located on or near water so something like a massive strike in the oceans from multiple large objects would cause tsunamis and wipe many cities out. L.A. is on the coast and only 300′ above sea level. D.C. sits on the ocean and is only 400′ above sea level, New York is basically at sea level. You get the point. Bad things happen. Niven and Pournelle get pretty deep into the science of the events and the cast of characters is a bit unwieldy but it comes together.
Each chapter starts with a quote and one really caught my eye. It comes from a book titled The Coming Dark Age by Roberto Vacca and the quote reads as follows with some added context from the book:
It is certain that free societies would have no easy time in a future dark age. The rapid return to universal penury will be accompanied by violence and cruelties of a kind now forgotten. The force of law will be scant or nil, either be cause of the collapse or disappearance of the machinery of state, or because of difficulties of communication and transport. It will be possible only to delegate authority to local powers who will maintain it by force alone —and who will be able, with the same force, to resist the source from which their delegated authority derives. In such a situation feudal anarchy becomes the rule.
The rights of property will undergo very profound and rapid changes. Registers of landed property —even now chronically inaccurate and out of date will lose all meaning: at first because most landowners will have died without heirs, and then because perpetuating a grievous and antiquated system of property registration is an intolerable burden when that property is virtually worthless. Ownership through use will become the common way of acquiring property; it will no longer require ten or twenty years or more to be operative, but a few months or weeks. The advantage of possession will make most desirable those properties which easily lend themselves to defense against seizure by force.
We take for granted that things will just work a certain way. There are rules and we follow those rules because we as people know at a subconscious level that if we don’t, the alternative is the chaos that our forbearers fought to tame. Our civil society relies on these rules and most people, especially heritage Americans, follow these rules. We stop for stop signs because if we didn’t, lots of people would die in car crashes. We pay for the items in our cart at the store because if we didn’t the stores would close. We respect the property boundaries of our neighbor’s yard and in return expect the same. We have laws and a law enforcement mechanism to enforce these laws but there aren’t enough cops to police every four-way stop. You could drive around all day running stop signs and not get caught by a cop, but you are very likely to get in a wreck.
Something portrayed vividly in Lucifer’s Hammer and also from examples in real life when society breaks down however temporarily is that these rules of civility are often abandoned almost immediately, especially by some people who figure out that things are different more rapidly than others. Most of us would presumably still try to cling to the rules of civility, at least initially, because that is all most of us know. People who live on the fringes of civil society? They wouldn’t wait for long, just as soon as it became apparent they could get away with it they would go wild. Look at the aftermath of civil disorder, whether caused by natural disaster or manmade chaos. There are people who are simply waiting for the right circumstances to start looting, whether it is the aftermath of a hurricane or a “mostly peaceful protest”. An increasingly numerous subset of people dwelling in America didn’t grow up in a civil society and won’t hesitate to go back to the proverbial and often literal law of the jungle. If the breakdown appeared to be more permanent than a storm? The resulting chaos would be far more intense.
In a society without the rules of civility, things are going to be different. A lot different.
What you own will be what you can hold, or what you are willing to take. The title to a car, the deed to a house, the receipt showing you paid for groceries or batteries? That shit will be meaningless. I wouldn’t be surprised to find people showing up at their “bugout” location only to find some local boys are already there and not at all impressed that you paid the property taxes for years. What are you going to do about it? If the answer isn’t “shoot them, reclaim my property and take their stuff” then you are wasting your money on a bugout bunker.
There will be a direct relationship between your likelihood of surviving the initial chaos and how quickly you can change your mindset to reflect the new reality. Whining like a little kid “That’s mine, no fair!” won’t help you keep your stuff and more than likely will accelerate how quickly you get a bullet in the back of your head. For most of human history and in much of contemporary human reality the rule is still “Might Makes Right”. You don’t have to become a wastelands warlord but you need to be ready to avoid being a victim of one.
To beat the proverbial dead horse, this is why mental preparation is at least as important as physical prep. The longer your mind stays stuck in normie, “things will go back the way they were” mode, the greater your likelihood of getting killed by someone who doesn’t share your fantasy. If someone you don’t know (or maybe even do know) shows up unannounced, you won’t have the luxury of asking them their business politely. Instead your response should be a twitch away from gunfire unless and until they prove to be harmless. Honestly in a SHTF situation, no one will be harmless. Underestimating the most base human nature will be lethal and quickly.
You should already be categorizing people into different groups in your mind. Your spouse and your kids are hopefully completely trustworthy. Close family and friends would be next on the trust scale. Other friends and acquaintances with useful skills are in the next ring out. After that? Everyone is suspect. Keep your preps on the down low, need to know basis. Don’t think for a second that your overweight, soft neighbor who wears socks with sandals and drives a Mini Cooper would hesitate to put one in your back to get your stuff if things get ugly.
The prepared mind is compartmentalized with “how I deal with people now in a mostly polite society” and “seeing everyone as a potential threat”. Your trigger to switch mindsets should be very light indeed. The rules of a civil society will be the first casualty, your mental preparation and ability to change gears will determine if you are the second casualty.