Four Meals Away From Anarchy

by Zoë Sharp

Monday morning. Just back from a photo shoot over the weekend with numerous images to sort and burn and get in the post on a magazine deadline. I got up with every good intention of getting that out of the way, having my usual blended smoothie for breakfast, doing a few miles on the stationary bike, then cracking on with the rewrites with the iPod on full shuffle in the background.

And then the power went out.

Fortunately, my desktop machine is connected to an Uninterruptable Power Supply, dating back to the time of Windows 95 when, if you suddenly pulled the plug, it tended to get a little … sulky, shall we say.

So, much squeaking and bleeping from the UPS, warning me I had enough time to do a controlled save and exit, but probably not enough to start transferring large images to a back-up drive so I could work on them on my laptop.

Seeing various men in hard hats and United Utilities fluoro jackets wandering about down the lane, I ambled out and asked roughly how long it would be before they had the problem sorted. Slightly Baffled Looks were exchanged.

“Erm, didn’t you get the card?” one asked nervously. “They were supposed to send them out last week. This is an organised shutdown for maintenance work. It’ll be off all morning.”

No, I didn’t get the card, obviously. And using the term ‘organised’ in this context seemed to be overstating the case somewhat, since none of my neighbours had received notification of this impending power-cut, either.

So, back to the strangely silent study and there my creative side really got to work on me.

No power for the blender, so no usual breakfast.

No power for the stationary bike, so no exercise routine.

No music. No Internet. No email. No walkabout telephones. No TV.

OK, so this wasn’t the end of the world. I have a laptop I could have used, but even though the batteries are pretty good on such machines these days, I find it enormously difficult to concentrate when that little battery-life meter is ticking away in the background. But, if desperate, I could have gone and sat in the car and used the cigarette-lighter charger.

As for the Internet, I’m not so addicted that I was prepared to hop into said car and drive to the nearest town where there’s a very nice arts-and-crafts gallery I occasionally frequent, which has self-service cappuccino, free wireless Internet, and half a chance of the kind of cellphone signal we can only dream about at home.

Instead, I resorted to making notes on the rewrites in good old-fashioned pencil, and when I’d gone about as far as I could without typing up the alterations, I sat down and read a book. All this in the knowledge that, if this ‘routine maintenance’ turned into a ‘oops, we’ll be back to fix it in the morning’ we’d be dining by candlelight that evening. (Fortunately, we have a gas hob, so we can still cook.)

And, having been hit by 130mph winds when we first moved into the new house a few years ago – an occasion which resulted in us losing about a third of the roof and having the power off for a week – we discovered that the levels of insulation we’d installed during the build were worth their salt. It was still warm inside after a week with no heat circulating, even in January.

But, I was suddenly aware that, at the flick of a switch, I’d left the technological age of computers and email and instant communication and information behind. Instead, I’d time-travelled back to using a graphite stick on a sheet of paper and the prospect of burning string inserted in wax for light.

It was a sobering thought.

This came at a very apt time, following JT’s recent post, How Technology Is Changing The Face of Literature, in which she particularly mentioned the mobile phone and how its widespread use has to be accounted for. As I mentioned in my own comment to JT’s piece – new technology can be accounted for very easily, because the more we come to rely on gadgets, the further removed we become from the business of day-to-day survival.

Like the cheetah, the fastest land animal. For short bursts, the cheetah can run at up to 60mph (96kph), but in evolving into this sleek speed machine, it has become too lightweight to defend its kills, often expending life-threatening amounts of energy to bring down prey, only to have other scavengers horn in and elbow it away from the table before it’s had a chance to eat.

Not that I’m likening the average human to a cheetah, but it seems that, as a species, we’re in danger of evolving ourselves right out of existence.

Of simply being too clever for our own good.

And that information, of course, came from a quick Google search on cheetahs. When I first started writing, research meant hours spent in the local reference library, not simply surfing the Web from the comfort of your own home. Increasing numbers of libraries have been taking out bookshelves and putting in computer terminals, so has some of that knowledge been lost?

Back in 1975 there was a brilliant TV series on the BBC called ‘Survivors’. Devised by Terry Nation, the concept was that a genetically engineered virus is accidentally let loose, wiping out 95 percent of the world’s population, and leaving the survivors to face both nature and human nature, in their attempts to rebuild a way of life.

Last year, the BBC remade the series, with a new cast and story arcs interwoven with the original ideas.

And it struck me that people thrust into that same situation today would have a much harder time than their 1975 counterparts. Back in ‘75, there were no personal computers, no mobile phones, no satellite TV broadcasting 24-hour-a-day news from around the world, no Internet and no sat nav systems. Domestic microwave ovens were still a relatively new invention, and the majority of people did not rely on them as their sole means of preparing a mind-boggling array of pre-packaged convenience food. People still knew how to meet up at a prearranged rendezvous point without being in constant “Where are you?” cellphone communication. They knew how to read a map, mend their own clothes instead of throwing them away, and could prepare a meal from raw fresh ingredients.

In 2004, there was an article published in The Times, which explained the opinion held by the British security service, MI5, that western societies are ‘four meals away from anarchy’. If there was a terrorist attack, a hacker-instigated computer meltdown, or some other natural disaster that disrupted the electricity, food and water networks, it would be approximately 48 hours before things began to descend into chaos. The panic-buying and hoarding would start, and – when stocks ran out – violent defence of those limited assets would quickly come into play. As soon as people start to go hungry, in other words, civilisation goes out the window.

So, what if Monday’s power-cut had not been a brief interruption, but the start of a global catastrophe? Then what would I have done then?

What would YOU do?

You need transport, but cars need fuel. With no power, you need to hand-crank the fuel out of its underground tanks and hoard it, because the refineries have shut down and there won’t be fresh supplies being delivered any time soon. And no doubt a lot of other people will have the same idea …

And cars have become a disposable item. Could you mend yours if it went wrong? No mechanics to take it to, no computer diagnostics at the local dealership to pinpoint the problem. So, maybe you need to resort to more primitive means. Can you ride a horse? Do you know how to feed and care for one? And, even if you do, can you also act as your own veterinary surgeon and farrier?

What happens if you get sick? No Googling the best form of treatment, no paramedics or surgeons, no modern anaesthetic or drugs.

Could you make a fire, build a shelter, identify what’s safe to eat in the wild or what will kill you stone dead? Can you fend off predators – human and animal?

Processed food in the supermarkets – always supposing they haven’t been picked clean by looters by now – has a sell-by date. What happens when it’s all gone, or gone bad? Could you grow enough food to sustain you and your family? Could you catch, kill, and butcher an animal to eat?

Could you kill another human being to defend what’s yours?

OK, I’ll stop now. This is what happens when I let that writer’s ‘what if’ side of my brain loose to run with an idea.

A few last questions. If society as we know it ended tomorrow, what would you miss most?

What about modern life would you be rather glad to see the back of?

I’m on the road today, travelling down to the CrimeFest convention in Bristol, which looks like being an enormous amount of fun, but I’ll try to respond to comments as soon as we get to the convention hotel this evening.

And next weekend, of course, I’m off to Mayhem in the Midlands where I am delighted to be the International Guest of Honour, but that, as they say, is another story.


Meanwhile, this week’s Word of the Week is facinorous, which means atrociously wicked, from facinus, a crime.


29 thoughts on “Four Meals Away From Anarchy

  1. billie

    Great post, Zoe… I get a few of those "survivalist" catalogs in the mail sometimes (not sure how I got on THAT mailing list!) and it’s fascinating to page through and see all the things offered for sale, including MREs and surgical kits, manuals on how to perform medical procedures, etc.

    I have an independent streak that makes the idea of self-sufficiency to the extreme appealing, but that’s combined with a sense of optimism that neutralizes the desire to prepare for massive disaster!

    Hope your conference is fun!

  2. toni mcgee causey

    We went through a long period of no electricity and no water and lots of damage after Katrina. Completely bare grocery shelves, long lines at the gas station where someone was cranking out what was left of the gas (one of the owners, not a looter). Then there was no gas to be had for miles and miles, particularly around the New Orleans and North Shore areas, so if you drove in there (to bring in food and water), you had to have enough gas with you to drive back out. We stopped at one location where there was a long long line waiting (there was rumor that station was going to open that evening). We had water and food sent to us by people outside of the state and we were bringing it into the area to the local FEMA and Red Cross stations because they did not have supplies. None of their trucks had arrived. We stopped at this particular location because I’d seen a family with an infant and they looked in bad shape. When I gave them water and food, they were very appreciative, but they warned us not to let the crowd see that we had the supplies because there were some who were armed and panicky.

    I spent days going back and to LSU to the triage that they had set up in the assembly center, watching as hundreds of people came in, having lost everything, needing the basics to live by. It will sober you up and put your entire life into perspective when you live through that. Nothing, after that, will ever compare.

    Last fall, Gustav came through and we were without electricity for six days. My husband, though, having learned from Katrina, had supplies for everything we needed. (Most around here did.) We had a generator (he kept my computer running so I could meet my deadline, which I met), food, stored water (there are packs of boxed water the military uses which has a shelf life of five years–bottled water does not last that long. Food. Gas. And plenty of candles.

    I think the only thing I’d really miss is a roof over my head–I’ve seen too many torn off and the family losing everything inside.

  3. Jake Nantz

    Wow, great post Zoe. We have a generator for the short term, and my wife’s garden for long term veggies. As far as meat, well, I live in the south. In other words, while I don’t hunt, I have enough rifles and shotguns to do the job if I needed to. And my wife loves to fish and is better at gutting and cleaning than I am.

    So what would I miss the most? The peace and fun of letting my dogs out into the backyard and playing with them. Because, rest assured, if food became scarce, some lazy-assed nutjobs would find it much easier to ‘hunt’ people’s pets than wild animals. And my dogs are my girls. Someone threatens them, it’s the same to me as threatening children. So if someone were to think of that, they’d do better to shoot me first, because if they didn’t…well, I’m a very good shot, and in a case like that I would be shooting to maim, not kill.

  4. Rae

    Great post, Zoe –

    If modern society ended today, I’d miss a lot of things, but what comes immediately to mind are travel and iPods. I’m assuming that I’d still be able to find books 😉

    If I could erase one modern marvel, it would be email on mobile devices, i.e. blackberries and iPhones and the like. I hate that I find myself in so many "conversations" where the other person is really only partly involved, because they’re fooling around with their email. And as much as I love Project Runway, I wouldn’t mind seeing the last of reality TV.

  5. Louise Ure

    Safe to say that I would not be one of the survivors. As a longtime believer that there are not enough chairs in nature, I doubt that I could shoe my own horse, stitch my own wound and hunt my own dinner.

    Like Rae, I’d be happy to see the end of Reality TV. And I’d add Twitter to the list of "don’t let the door hit you on the way out" items.

  6. Gayle Carline

    Whenever I read about "what if technology was taken away from us?" I think about Thurber’s "Recollections of the Gas Buggy." He quotes his washerwoman, Mrs. Robertson, as saying that "if people kept on riding in cars, they would soon lose the use of both legs, and the life of Man would pass from the earth." I love Thurber.

    And I know how to ride and care for a horse, altho I hope all the books wouldn’t be destroyed because I’d need a little help to teach me to trim his feet. They don’t necessarily need shoes. I can garden, know how to fish, and have raised chickens, altho I’ve never killed and plucked any.

    Which reminds me of my friend, Kip, who was determined to grow her own food, but couldn’t stand to look a chicken in the eye when she needed one for dinner. So she’d wrap one in a dishtowel and hit it over the head with a hammer. I love my friend.

    I don’t have a gun. That could make the Apocalypse difficult, but I might survive by flying under the radar. Oh, wait – there won’t be any radar, huh?


  7. Melanie

    I haven’t had a cell phone since moving to Mexico two years ago. When I go home to visit friends and family, I’m forced to make plans the old-fashioned way, as much as it irritates said friends and family. But I get by. 🙂

  8. JT Ellison

    Since I’m having my own electronic catastrophe this morning (I can access Twitter, but no email – #irony) this was a timely post for me.

    I love Diana Gabaldon’s books for many things, but mostly for her insight into how people survived without Publix and computers.

    Water – stream – check. We can’t do that today, it’s all polluted.

    Food – hunt game and grow garden – check. Can you imagine me hunting? Fishing, sure, but hunting isn’t my things, and anything I touch plant wise shrivels up and dies.

    Medicine – we’re damn lucky anyone survived, considering a cold could kill you and the doctors had no concept of germ transference, and as such hastened the death simply by passing the infections on ad naseum.

    Defense – sword, long gun and pistol – check.

    So I could defend myself, but not collect water or eat and if I got sick – forget about it. Great…

    MREs and Cipro, here I come.

  9. Tom

    We’ve already been burglarized since times got tougher in the Golden State, so we’re expecting things to get worse. Food, water, defense, communication, medical care, exit strategy . . . you feel like you’re wearing a tin-foil beret as you plan and prepare, but you’ll feel a lot worse if you die for want of a nail.

    Mostly we’re thinking about the self-irrigating container garden in the back yard, an exit strategy toward the Midwest/MidSouth, and how fortune favors the prepared mind.

    Look up the ‘resilient communities’ movement. It’s both hopeful and sobering.

  10. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Billie

    Love the idea of those survival catalogues. Don’t think I’d like to spend too much time living on MREs – I’ve had the UK army equivalent (24-hour ration packs) and the food is … interesting.

  11. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Toni

    I admire your resilience enormously – and that of all the people who survived Katrina. Your experience sounds like the kind of thing that will be with you forever.

  12. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Rae

    I’m a latecomer to the joys of the iPod, but I would certainly miss music – still, it would bring back the joys of live performance.

    And I totally agree about people carrying on two half-conversations and being fully engaged in neither. I love it when I got into stores in the States and there’s a sign saying, "If you’re talking on your cellphone, we will not serve you."

  13. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Louise

    You never know what you can do until you have to … ;-]

    When we were house building, I had a bit of an accident with a chopsaw and ended up stitching my own finger back together. The blood spatter patterns on the floor were most illuminating …

  14. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Gayle

    "Which reminds me of my friend, Kip, who was determined to grow her own food, but couldn’t stand to look a chicken in the eye when she needed one for dinner. So she’d wrap one in a dishtowel and hit it over the head with a hammer. I love my friend."

    LOL! So do I!

  15. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Melanie

    No cellphone? Good for you. I wish I could get by without one, because I think we’re doing untold damage to ourselves having the dratted things constantly glued to the side of our heads.

    I just try not to use it very much!

  16. Zoe Sharp

    Hi JT

    I should have known that someone as organised as you would have a checklist of survival techniques.

    There’s a BBC Radio 4 programme called ‘Desert Island Discs’, which asks guests to choose eight records to take with them to a mythical desert island, plus a book and one luxury item.

    I always said that my luxury item would by survival expert, Ray Mears!

  17. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Tom

    I’ll certainly look up the movement you mention. Surviving anything requires a certain amount of luck, but the strange thing is, the more you plan, the more lucky you seem to be.

  18. Mary Lynn

    Okay, I admit it; I’m a ‘Doomer’. I have a tin-foil hat, but it’s more of a beanie than a beret. I suppose if I were to add Mickey Mouse ears, I would have enough foil to build a solar oven, which is something to consider.

    I actually believe that we will see the end of “Life as we know it” in the next few years. I fervently hope we don’t, but I’m scared enough to spend a significant portion of my day thinking, researching, and acquiring the skills and tools to survive. Among the things I’ve done is learning to make cheese and stockpiled antibiotics. I’ve bought all the back issues of Mother Earth News on CD and have the plans to convert a bicycle to a generator so I can power the computer to read those issues.

    The thing I will miss the most, I think, is turning on a faucet and having plenty of clean(?) water, especially hot water, come out the spout.

    When I’m in full-tilt Doomer Boogie, I think we will see families with far-flung members reassemble, or see equivalent assemblages of friends create very small sustainable communities. We would re-form an inter-dependency of people rather than unsustainable dependency on businesses and government.

  19. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Mary Lynn

    For a ‘Doomer’, you have a lovely vision of the future – I hope family groups do pull together in the event of disaster.

    I think I agree about the fresh water, though! I’m definitely a wallow-in-the-bath kind of person.

  20. toni mcgee causey

    Ah, well, thanks, Zoë. I didn’t mean to sound so gloomy this a.m. (That’ll teach me to wake up at the crack of… uh… 3:30 a.m.)

    I think I managed not to have online withdrawals because my husband is freaking MacGyver–both times, he still managed to get my computer running *with* internet. I used to joke that I’d be just fine in a cave, but I always end up amending that to "with running water" and then " and plumbing" and then "and electricity."

    JT and I share the "kill a plant at 20 paces" gene. Plants commit hari kari in the back seat of my car if they just *think* they’re coming home with me. My mom used to chastise me for not watering something given to me as a gift and I said, "Why give it false hope?"

    I could fish the hell out of some fish, though. I grew up fishing.

  21. Jill James

    I would be in a deep pile of doo-doo. We are so dependent on all the goodies in our lives. I look at the next generation and shudder. My daughter can’t go mere minutes without texting, her and her boyfriend couldn’t find the grocery store with GPS, and I don’t think either one knows how to truly cook. We’re doomed. 🙂

  22. Robin of My Two Blessings

    Terri Blackstock’s restoration series deals with something exactly like this. An electromagnetic pulse hits the earth and knocks out all electronics. The story deals with how people try to figure out how to survive. They have to grow their own food, draw water from lakes, barter for goods, protect themselves, etc. It is a fascinating series because it takes several years for someone to devise a new way to generate electricity. It is a excellent series about survival.

  23. Pari

    We have a really, really big garden. It’d take us through the first few months at least. We also deliberately moved to a very central part of town where just about everything we need is within fairly easy walking distance. So that’d solve two of the biggest problems.

    As to the world ending . . . well, if I were around in any conscious form, I’d simply miss life.

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    I’m really sorry to be answering these so late. As payback for my ‘how would we cope without technology, I then couldn’t get on line at the hotel without presenting either my firstborn (don’t have one) or my right kidney in payment.

    I loved your comment, "JT and I share the "kill a plant at 20 paces" gene. Plants commit hari kari in the back seat of my car if they just *think* they’re coming home with me. My mom used to chastise me for not watering something given to me as a gift and I said, "Why give it false hope?""

    I, too, have the same gene. Except, of course, those hideous kind of gift plants that people present to you and you feel your face lock up as you manage to grit out, "Oh … how lovely …" Those, of course, cling to life with enormous tenacity.

    My sister is a professional gardener and I’ve seen her plant stuff and actually instruct it to, "Grow, you little bugger." And they do!

    But, of course, this would come as no surprise to anyone who’s met my sister ;-]

  25. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jill

    This is exactly the kind of thing I was meaning.

    Yup, dooooomed, I tell ‘ee. Dooooooooomed!"

    I keep meaning to do a proper survival course. Maybe I will before it’s too late … ;-]

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    I’ve already stated how lousy I am with green stuff – I imagine that when I walk into a garden centre the plants behave in the same way as the lobsters in the tank when Mr Creosote walks into the restaurant in Monty Python’s ‘Meaning of Life’

    "As to the world ending . . . well, if I were around in any conscious form, I’d simply miss life."

    What a beautiful comment. Here’s me thinking, ‘Damn, no more Jelly Beans" and you’re being profound ;-]


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