Last week we talked about prepping for a possible worst-case scenario with the election—a specific possibility that we can all see on the horizon, whether we know exactly what will happen or not. Today we’re talking about the increasing complexities and dangers of the climate crisis era—an age of unpredictability and uncertainty—and how we can hone a basic skill to be ready for those dangers.
Climate change is known as a threat multiplier, which is exactly what it sounds like: existing problems are made worse and more complex by climate change. Take California's wildfires, a threat that has always existed made far worse in recent years. If you're here, I don't need to explain why. What you might have forgotten, and what we can consider the unforeseen logical consequence to a civilian, is that when the fires are finally extinguished, and the rain comes, it is frequently in a dangerous downpour. This would not only cause flash flooding on its own, but now loosens the fire-ravaged soil and causes mudslides. In 2018, many were killed by a mudslide in Montecito, which had burned only a month prior.
When Katrina struck New Orleans, overzealous racists barricaded their neighborhood from "looters," arming themselves and shooting whoever they pleased. Some of the first boots on the ground were not rescuers, but Blackwater contractors hired to protect government and private property. Imagine waiting days for rescue from one of the nation’s worst natural catastrophes (worsened by government bungling), only to flee on foot after the waters recede and to be turned back at gunpoint or detained by mercenaries.
Imagine that happening tomorrow. One emergency rolls into another, rolls into another. Stir in COVID-19. Add fascism, bring to a boil.
The majority of the population, if they consider prepping at all, think of it as a refuge of the paranoid. They think of that pop-culture prepper who has a hundred buckets of freeze-dried stroganoff in his basement and keeps his money in gold. Where you and the pop-culture prepper overlap is that you've looked out your window and decided that the world did not feel safe. What you've both done is observed your surroundings and come to a conclusion about them. That is what we're working on today, albeit on a different scale.
This week's main task in preparation is not a material one. We're going to attempt to cultivate your situational awareness. Briefly, situational awareness is the ability to interpret your surroundings for the dangers and opportunities they might contain. We all use situational awareness to some extent—hopefully you use it while driving. The task today is to ensure that your SA (yeah, I know) is turned on at all times and capable of being cranked to 11 when you need it to be. We will attune that ability so that when you enter any situation you recognize the elements involved as potential threats or assets and—our real goal—learn to project this sense into the future to predict consequences of events and prepare for them.
This is the way that soldiers, cops, and conservative preppers assess their environment. You'll be thinking the way they think, but they don't have a patent on SA. It's a methodology that's as old as dirt, only in the last century given a fancy name.
In security, the first day of training typically reminds a new guard to utilize their five senses when on patrol. Thinking of this simple task as your job may assist you in remembering it—it certainly helped me. Hired to care for the entire population of a hospital and the building itself, I began to walk the halls constantly scanning with all my available senses. Did I just catch a whiff of fuel back there? Was that an unusually warm draft? Is that water dripping down the hall? For each I'm using a distinct sense to pick up on an unusual occurrence, and that's the key word. You're looking for something out of place. SA is all about combing through the entirety of your environment to find the gun-toting needle in the haystack. Experts call these anomalies; they’re the kinds of thing that your subconscious mind might pick up on, even if you don’t.
You begin turning on your SA by paying attention to your environment. Imagine you're in line at a coffee shop. It's been raining out. You see that the man ahead of you in the queue has on a long coat with his hands in his pockets. The woman ahead of him is on her phone. There are three baristas behind the counter. Two men sit at a table beside the door, hunched close and talking. There's a line for the restroom. It's cool inside, and the espresso machine is loud, thankfully drowning out most of Mumford & Sons. It smells, naturally, like coffee.
Creating a narrative out of the scene above is the second part of SA: interpreting sensory input with critical thinking. Whether there is danger in this scene or not is, at the moment, unimportant. What is important is that you are able to take in all these details and then build a narrative to assess the possibility of danger. A man in a long coat with his hands in his pockets could be suspicious, but the weather has been bad. The two men at the table are perhaps a little odd, but the espresso machine is on. At this precise moment, you have used your senses to create an inconclusive narrative—but the important thing is that your SA got you to this point.
Projecting that story into the future is the last part of cultivating your SA. To do so, you have to think about human behavior—yours and everyone else’s. It turns out the man in the coat wanted out of the rain and to rob the coffee shop. What do you do? What is he, and everyone else, likely to do? The others around you are certain to panic, but you considered this possibility the moment you got in line. You have a split-second advantage over everyone else, even, possibly, the would-be robber. You’re behind him, after all.
There are a million practical things to think about when it comes to cultivating a more mindful, situationally aware perspective. They will eventually become instinctive for you. For some of you, surely, they already are. When I step through my front door, my fiancée will tell you that my attitude visibly shifts. I get quieter, stand up straighter. I scan my environment. When we go out to eat (remember that? I barely do), I sit facing the door if I can. I look for the exits. I people-watch, or seem to, when I’m also looking for how our day can go sideways. I look for obstacles to line-of-sight, for something sturdy to run behind. Is anyone patting their side, their back, their coat pocket (a novice indicator of a concealed weapon). Is anyone, like me, paying attention to their surroundings, and if so, do they seem nervous or simply attentive? I run scenarios in my head while waiting for our supper: what if someone got rowdy at the bar? What if a car veered off the street and smashed through the front of the restaurant? If I’m outside, in a park or out in the country or wherever, I pay attention to the animals. Did birds, crickets, etc. stop singing? Did a flock of starlings rush off nearby? There may be a threat they detected before I could. Or it could be, you know, a cat.
To begin honing your situational awareness, your practical prep for today is to go on a simple, familiar outing—it could be to the grocery (for water and beans, naturally), to a coffee shop, to a park, wherever. Once there, read through this list:
1. Where are the exits?
2. How many vehicles are in the parking lot? (If too many, how many are near you?) What kind are they? Is anyone in them?
3. Observe your fellow shoppers/park goers, etc. for anomalies. Are any acting strangely (this includes, in the Age of Coronavirus, sick)? How are they dressed? Do any seem to be in a hurry or anxious?
4. Do you notice anyone else paying attention? How many people around you aren’t?
5. How would you escape from your destination, whatever it is? What threats are likely to occur in your situation? Are these threats human or natural?
6. Is there anything useful around you that would allow you to hide, to take cover, to fight back should a threat arise? (Think deadly weapons, such as the overpowered Campbell’s Tomato Soup wielded by Antifa or a hedgerow to hide behind.)
7. When you leave, try to remember the make, model, and license plate of three vehicles.
Don’t be surprised if you find this taxing. It’s an active skill that requires practice, but it yields immediate dividends. People who are situationally aware are less likely to be the victim of crime because your would-be attacker notices you noticing them, and Joe halfway down the block is, somehow, still playing Angry Birds in this, the year 2020. You will also come to appreciate your surroundings—you’ll notice a new sprig of flowers, catch squirrels playing in your peripheral vision, take in a particularly blue sky. And, eventually, you will be able to focus your awareness while relatively relaxed.
As you become more accustomed to this outlook, you will begin to process events through an awareness/preparedness lens. That, ultimately, is my goal for you. I want you to read the news and anticipate outcomes. I want you to think critically about all the ways that disasters overlap in 2020. With winter two months away, and COVID-19 raging again, think about how disastrous conditions can multiply, who might take advantage, and who might be at risk. Do you have elderly or ill neighbors, family members, friends? How might you assist them? Remember how overburdened our healthcare system was at the beginning of this pandemic. Throw a blizzard on top of that. With a cultivated sense of situational awareness, you will anticipate these possibilities and others. When most people see a storm on the horizon, they expect rain. When you see a storm on the horizon, you will expect a cascade of possible disasters, and be prepared for them.