Commentary

Triggered Collapse, Part 1: A Nation Unprepared

by Drew Miller

As numerous past disasters and government exercises have indicated, many people will take advantage of overwhelmed police to loot and maraud. “Preppers” are well aware of this threat, but it may be politically incorrect for government officials to honestly address lawlessness and risk offending voters, so they lack preparation for the problem of gangs and armed marauders looting and killing in the wake of a big disaster that overwhelms first responders.

Drew Miller headshotThe December 2016 issue of The American Interest warned that “the world is likely entering the age of bioengineered viral pandemics and collapse” since bioengineering technologies make it easy to modify and release new viruses that could cause not just a deadly pandemic but a collapse in economic activity and loss of law and order. The threats that could trigger a “collapse” (i.e., a cessation of most economic activity and widespread lack of law and order for a prolonged period of time) are increasing due to: advances in technology that can and will be misused; increasing vulnerability in an interconnected, “just in time delivery” economy; and a population that is more dependent and incapable of caring for themselves, plagued by a million plus gang members who will take advantage of any situation that overwhelms police.

Pandemics, Power Outages & Violence

Viral pandemics are a major threat to the United States, perhaps among the worst the nation has ever faced. Most pandemics are caused by viruses, but can be bacterial, such as plague. However, bacteria biothreats tend to pass through other animals (“vector”), are not as contagious, and thus less dangerous. Pandemics may occur naturally, by an accidental release from a laboratory, or bioattack by a nation state or terrorist organization. Bioengineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are particularly dangerous. The technology is advanced, widespread, and inexpensive. Some scientists believe that a new, bioengineered GMO could pose an “existential” threat to humans.

Even if the virus is not highly lethal, the breakdown in economic activity and loss of law and order that ensues could kill millions of Americans if the collapse is severe and enduring. Today’s world is more dependent on “just-in-time” deliveries of food and essential supplies, more vulnerable to disruptions in economic activity, and generally less able to survive quarantine situations. Collapse is likely to result from a viral pandemic or other disasters that trigger panic, loss of food/water/medicine for many citizens, and subsequent breakdown in law and order.

When a pandemic erupts, the electric grid goes down, a regional earthquake disrupts tens of millions, or some other significant disaster overwhelms first responders, law and order will likely vanish in many cities as people panic, food stores are quickly sold out or looted, law enforcement resources get stretched, and some people exploit the situation. Food truck drivers may find it too dangerous to drive into cities or on long trips because of increased risk of either contracting the virus or getting attacked by marauders. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, the looting and violence scarred truck drivers, with many refusing to go into New Orleans without military escort.

New York City had a power outage in 1977 that yielded a record day of crime. In the UK in 2011, there were 4 nights of rioting, looting, and killings in major cities with no cause or justification. Organized mass lootings are becoming a regular occurrence in the United States. In a much more life-threatening, longer-lasting pandemic, much more and worse lawlessness would be expected to occur.

In 2017, former senior national security officials, including former CIA Director Admiral James Woolsey, warned that North Korea likely had nuclear warheads optimized for high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effects, deliverable by satellite or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), that could take down the national electric grid for over a year and kill up to 90% of the population by “starvation and societal collapse.”

Biologists warn that the H5N1 avian influenza kills about 60% of its victims, compared to just 2% for the 1918 Great Spanish Flu Pandemic, which killed about 50 million. According to a 2012 article published in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice and Science:

Like all influenza strains, H5N1 is constantly evolving in nature. But thankfully, this deadly virus does not now spread readily through the air from person to person. If it evolved to become as transmissible as normal flu and results in a pandemic, it could cause billions of illnesses and deaths around the world.

With DNA engineering and new techniques that allow production of GMOs, a virus could be designed and unleashed to be highly lethal and transmissible, with a long period of being contagious before symptoms appear. Bioengineering enables a small terrorist group, or even one dedicated individual, to modify and release a new virus that could cause both a pandemic and a resulting collapse in economic activity and possibly law and order.

Bioengineered viruses are the ideal weapon. Compared to nuclear weapons, they are more deadly, cheaper and easier to create and launch, and, most importantly, offer the ability to attack with impunity to retaliation since it may be difficult to know and prove who released the virus.

Interdependencies & Increased Consequences

A host of experts say that such bioengineered viral pandemics are inevitable since it is increasingly easy to modify an existing pathogen to make it more lethal or transmissible. Although a bioengineered virus could be highly contagious and deadly, it is possible that more people would die from the collapse aftermath than deaths from the virus if communities are not well prepared to respond to the pandemic, keep essential supplies flowing, and maintain law and order.

Even with a lot more resources devoted to trying to detect it, launching a bioattack is relatively easy to do and the technology and know-how is irreversibly available. Technology advances will continue to increase the power of small groups and individuals to kill millions and massively disrupt the economy and law and order. Unlike the largely rural, resilient population that weathered the 1918 flu pandemic (a low-lethality virus), today’s urbanized society – dependent on electricity, daily deliveries of food coming long distances, central water supply systems – is a dependent population that may face both a much worse virus and economy in total collapse with widespread loss of law and order.

The U.S. military, and National Guard in particular, will play a key role in recovering from a severe pandemic, loss of the electric system, or other major disaster. It will take all active and reserve military forces and more to avoid or cope with a collapse in economic activity and widespread loss of law and order. Most of the guard troops deployed for Hurricane Katrina response and recovery operations were used to support law enforcement. Looting and violence in other recent public disturbances also suggest that military forces will be needed during a pandemic to back up security at medical facilities, help law enforcement maintain order, conduct quarantine enforcement, and transport (or escort) food and essential supplies.

Triggered Collapse, Part 1: A Nation Unprepared (article photo)
©iStock.com/Animaflora

Unavoidable Yet Survivable

This bleak “Age of bioengineered viral pandemics and collapse” – and growing threats from other new technologies – is probably unavoidable. The real uncertainty is not if a bioengineered viral pandemic, crippling attack on the electric system, or a “black swan” disaster will occur, but how bad it will be and what depth of collapse will result. Governments at all levels need to make recovering from a collapse – whether from a pandemic, loss of the electric system, or other trigger event – its top priority and urge citizens to prepare for survival when there is no functioning economy and widespread loss of law and order.

Whether the first bioengineered virus comes from an accidental release or is spread by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the key point uncertainty expert Nassim Taleb argues in his 2010 book, “The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable (2nd edition),” is “Black Swans being unpredictable, we need to adjust to their existence (rather than naively try to predict them).” Estimating, assuming, hoping that accidents, lunatics, terrorists, or enemy states will not release a GMO, or that they can always be detected and stopped, would be a mistake. Instead, the nation must adapt to the existence of the bioengineered viral pandemic threat now and make big changes in strategy, military forces, economy, and preparedness to ensure the consequences do not cascade into a societal collapse. Communities need to be prepared to deal with the consequences of a viral pandemic that produces significant numbers of casualties that cannot be stopped with a simple quarantine. This problem deserves far more attention and resources. Although likely unable to stop the release of lethal new GMOs, survival is possible with effective preparedness.

Many of the obvious needed preparations are relatively low cost. Households need to have months, rather than days, of stored food and water. The National Guard should train and equip its forces to implement quarantines and support local law enforcement. State and local police forces should set up reserves, trained and equipped for simple guard duty, not the full range of police duties. Creating a “Civil Ground Patrol” (modeled on the Air Force’s Civil Air Patrol) would train and build a force of volunteers to help in disaster recovery and response efforts.

This article is Part 1 of a six-part series on closing disaster recovery gaps and preparing for triggering events that could cascade into long-term societal disruptions:

Triggered Collapse, Part 1: A Nation Unprepared

Triggered Collapse, Part 2: Natural, Accidental, or Deliberate Viral Pandemics

Triggered Collapse, Part 3: Lessons in Lawlessness

Triggered Collapse, Part 4: Cascading Consequences Beyond the Event

Triggered Collapse, Part 5: Gaps in National Disaster Planning Scenarios

Triggered Collapse, Part 6: A Nationwide Call to Action

Drew Miller, Ph.D., a former intelligence officer, Pentagon Senior Executive Service official, and retired Air Force Reserve Colonel, business executive, management consultant. He was an honor graduate of the Air Force Academy, receiving an academic scholarship to Harvard University, where he earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in public policy. He has published articles on the bioengineered pandemic threat and presented at national conferences on disaster preparedness. He served as a part-time elected official, county commissioner, and University of Nebraska Regent for 16 years, and continues to serve in the Civil Air Patrol.