Dear Mr. Johnson,
Thanks for your reply to my note about the Stormwatch Project. Your comments deserve a response and I hope you don't mind my taking a few screens worth of email to offer one. In the hope of keeping my earlier response short, I may have left a false impression of exactly what it is that we're trying to do with the Stormwatch Project, and I also left out a good deal of the analysis that makes us think such a project has some hope of success.
First, I'd like to say a little about the thinking (and the traditions) underlying the Project. I quite understand your lack of confidence in the sort of "urban community building" nonsense attempted, with so much eagerness and so little common sense, in the Sixties and Seventies. While I was a little too late on the scene to get involved in any of these projects, I've read a number of the post-mortems written by participants, and I agree fully with your criticisms. As a longtime inner city resident who has, like you, been in a few mobs, I also have some sense of what the Project's strategy is dealing with.
But the model the Stormwatch Project is using is not the one that failed in the Seventies. It's one that succeeded on a massive scale all through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1900 more than 40% of all adult Americans belonged to at least one fraternal lodge; membership levels in Canada, Great Britain, and several other countries were similar. In these countries, lodges were the basis of a "social safety net" radically different from the entitlement schemes promoted by liberals and adopted, to various degrees, by most governments in the twentieth century.
The lodges were as popular as they were because they worked, and they worked because they made access to lodge resources contingent on contributing to those resources, and to participating in the lodge according to closely defined standards of behavior. Those who chose not to comply were (and are) thrown out on their ears. Much of the traditional subculture of the fraternal lodges functions as a way to exclude those who aren't willing to play by the rules or contribute to the common good of the lodge and its members. At certain times, these methods of exclusion have included violence, and though that hasn't been necessary for quite a while the framework is still potentially there.
Again, this system worked very well for two centuries. It fell from popularity only when government entitlement programs, the dominance of mass entertainment culture, and the postwar boom convinced most people that they didn't need to commit the time, money and energy needed to keep the lodge system going. Nowadays, as people become increasingly aware that the entitlement system won't necessarily be there when they need it, the pendulum is starting to go back the other way. Certainly here in Seattle, in the two lodges I'm personally involved with, we've doubled our active membership in the last three years and have a stack of applications in process right now.
With regard to crisis management, this is certainly a concern, but here parallels from history are worth noting. You bring up the example of medieval castles and abbeys, which is worth considering -- but it's also worth remembering that these took centuries to emerge in the aftermath of Roman collapse. In the century or so after the breakdown of Roman imperial power, it was the countryside that suffered most (from barbarian raids, banditry, and the like) while many cities retained some semblance of culture and civil order. Concentrations of population made it possible for them to draw resources from nearby rural areas -- by force if necessary -- and also provided the labor pool to maintain and repair aqueducts and other civic works. The rural areas had no such advantages, and so rural depopulation was a major fact of life in much of post-Roman Europe. It wasn't until the seventh century that serious rural monasticism got going in Europe, and by that time social order had been effectively restored over much of the West.
This same process can also be traced out in a number of other historical examples -- for example, the first two centuries after the collapse of Heian-period Japan, or several phases in China's repeated history of overshoot and collapse.
My guess is that in many areas (though by no means all), the same sort of process will follow the end of the industrial age. The standard model of collapse assumes that urban areas will disintegrate at once into mob rule. It seems more likely that urban governments and elites will do whatever they can to maintain social order locally, that existing police forces and National Guard units will support them, and that the majority of citizens (who have far more to lose than to gain from a period of mob rule) will back public-safety measures even if these involve martial law or the equivalent. This concentration of force, labor, and intelligence -- recall that most educated people live in and around cities these days, and the "low-IQ urban mob fodder" you mention aren't even a majority in many medium-sized urban areas -- will be used in part to convert lawns and green space in urban and nearby suburban areas to subsistence farming; again, this was standard after the fall of Rome, when cows grazed in the Forum.
Given intensive gardening, it would be possible to grow a subsistence diet for most of Seattle's current population within Seattle's current city limits, and there will be substantial population decreases due to collapsing public health and other causes, of course. Given the amount of energy currently expended in sheer waste in the US -- it's relevant that many European countries manage quite a respectable standard of living on one-third the energy use per capita we seem to find necessary -- there's every reason to think that many urban areas will maintain some degree of non-muscle energy availability for decades or longer during the declining arc of the Hubbert curve. All these factors will tend to make medium-sized to small cities much more difficult nuts to crack than the conventional wisdom suggests. In such a situation, just as they did in the aftermath of so many previous empires, looters and bandits will tend to head for rural areas,where they will encounter relatively lavish pickings and much less opposition.
Over the long term, the rural bandits (and those who organize local resistance against them) will probably become the progenitors of a new feudal aristocracy -- but it's likely to take a couple of centuries for this to become stable, and it's the time from now until then that we most have to worry about.
So our concern is to establish a framework for mutual aid, defense, and survival that won't look like a political threat to local authorities during the decades of transition, as the USA turns into a crazy-quilt of small semi-independent states and large patches of anarchic rural zones, and won't draw attention to itself during such periods of panic and mob violence as may occur. The lodge system has done that effectively in the past, and we see no reason why it can't necessarily do so in the future. The fact that most people have no idea it exists, or think of it in terms of Fred Flintstone's Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes and the like, is not precisely a disadvantage either.
I should also respond to your image of mobs rushing toward the local Moose hall. If a lodge becomes blatant enough in its activities that it becomes a target for a mob, it's failed in one of the main tasks we face. As the _ninja_ of Japan pointed out a long time ago, invisibility is also a way of defense...and of attack. A multicentered, diffuse, redundantly organized approach -- all things implicit in the lodge tradition -- also offers plenty of options in dealing with the headless beast that is a mob.
With regard to the speed or slowness of the crash, that's a crapshoot. Barring a sudden improvement in the supply of crystal balls, nobody will know for sure until it happens. As you point out, it's possible that it could happen very quickly indeed. On the other hand, it could equally well go more slowly -- and if this happens, the Lindisfarne strategy is in trouble. In many ways, it's as precariously dependent on a fast collapse as the Stormwatch strategy is on a slow one.
In a slow collapse, local and regional governments will probably remain in existence for some time, and might well treat fortified high-tech rural enclaves either as potential threats or as targets to plunder for arms and other useful items. The possibility that a slow collapse could see guerrilla warfare between a decaying central government and ethnic or regional insurgencies should also not be discounted, and in such a struggle both sides would have very good reason for targeting enclaves where weapons and technology could be had for the taking. Equally, given a complete collapse of rural social order, bandits, rogue military units, and the like would be drawn to such enclaves like flies to a corpse. Thus the Lindisfarne strategy has its potential drawbacks as well as its strengths.
As you point out, furthermore, the fortified rural hideout is far and away the most popular idea in the minds of people who are thinking about survival. Whatever the Stormwatch Project does or doesn't do, there will be thousands of people in such hideouts in the event of a collapse; if that turns out to be the best strategy, in other words, it's covered. If it turns out to be fatally flawed, on the other hand, nearly all our eggs are in one basket. (This is one of the reasons why the Stormwatch Project site is very deliberately written to underplay the scale of the probable collapse. It's not intended to attract or interest survivalists; it's intended to reach people who, for whatever reason, aren't willing or able to take the survivalist route, but who can be encouraged to take steps that may pay off later on.)
I hope this clarifies a little more what we're up to, and why we think it may be worth the attempt. I would certainly encourage those who are more interested in the Lindisfarne strategy, and have the necessary capital to make a serious go at it, to give it their best shot. Ultimately, the more strategies put in place by different groups, the better the odds of bringing something worth saving through the approaching mess.
John Michael Greer
The Stormwatch Project