Urban Magnets for Disaster

When it comes to bad stuff the sky’s the limit. It’s gonna happen, eventually…one way or another. And it could be real bad.

And when bad stuff happens, you’re better off being somewhere else.


Generally, bad stuff seems to happen most often in cities. Why is that? Cities are where most people live. It is where governments are. And it is where the labor force is most specialized.

There are no subsistence farmers living in cities. Nor do urban populations “live off the land.” Instead, they depend on complex networks of commerce. The typical city dweller produces neither food nor energy. He sits all day in an office — completely dependent on others to provide power and food. Then, he goes home — still completely dependent on the division of labor for his most important needs.

Progress can be described as the elaboration of the division of labor. In man’s most primitive state, specialization is extremely limited. From what we’ve been told, the early man was the hunter. Early woman gathered…that’s about the extent of it.

As the tribe grows larger, specialization increases. One person might tend the fire. Another might be in charge of making clothes or arrows.

The advent of sedentary agriculture and towns caused a big leap forward in human progress and, not coincidentally, the division of labor. Some townspeople went out to tend the fields. Others began to focus on woodworking…or iron mongering…or making weapons…or clothes. Some played cards and hung around at bars. There was soon a homebuilding industry…and, not long after, merchants, prostitutes and bankers…and even shyster lawyers and tax collectors.

As the division of labor expanded, the average person became richer…and more dependent on others. In order to eat, someone else had to plant…and till…and harvest…and hunt…and gather. And then, when agriculture became mechanized, he depended on faraway people who produced oil and gasoline…and people who built tractors and combines…and bankers who financed industries and factories. And, of course, he was more dependent on money too. In the days when he bartered, money was no threat. Then, when he traded only with gold and silver coins, there were no monetary breakdowns…no hyperinflations…and no financial crises.

As the 20th century progressed, more and more people gave up agriculture, moved to cities and took part in other industries. Today, cities may have millions of residents — like Bombay with 14 million…or Sao Paulo with 20 million…or Mexico City with even more. All of these people are dependent on vast, stretched lines of communication and commerce.

Even the farmers themselves are now dependent on these sophisticated networks of commerce. They depend on money…and what it will buy. Agriculture has become monocultural. That is, a farmer is likely to produce only wheat. Or only rapeseed. Or only barley. Or only cattle. Gone are the chickens around the farmhouse and the pig in the back pen. If the system of transport and trade breaks down — or the money itself goes bad — thousands of farmers could go hungry too.

There are black swans all over the place, waiting to be discovered. And when a black swan appears, people in the cities seem to suffer most.

In the hyperinflation in Germany in 1923, for example, farmers had so much food they ran out of storage space. But they wouldn’t sell it to city slickers. The mark was losing value so fast, farmers preferred to hold their crops off the market, knowing that the price was soaring…and that if they sold, the money they got would soon be worthless.

People in the cities, meanwhile, were starving. Soon, gangs roved the countryside, raiding rural barns and houses…and occasionally killing farmers who tried to resist.

Plagues hit city dwellers hard too. Proximity seems to be a curse when an infectious disease appears.

And, of course, in time of war and revolution, cities tend to be the battlegrounds.

Advancing armies are rarely polite. But even if they are advancing through the countryside, they are usually advancing towards cities, which they attack. In the old days, cities were besieged, starved out, and then, when they were taken, the attacking soldiers were given three days in which to sack the cities. In other words, they had three days to commit whatever mischief and mayhem their imaginations suggested.

When bad stuff happens, progress goes into reverse — so does the division of labor. When an economy goes backward, much of the specialization that developed during the boom years turns out to be uneconomic, or unaffordable, or unwanted. People may be willing to pay someone to park their car when they are flush. But when they are broke, they will park their own cars.

As the division of labor goes backward, people also find they need to tend to their own food and energy needs. Here is where it gets very tough for people who live in cities. They have no stores of mason jars with food from their own gardens that they have canned themselves. They have no hams hanging in the barn or stocked away in the larder. They have no animals on the hoof that they can slaughter. They get no eggs from the chickens they don’t have…and they can hardly go into the local park and shoot squirrels to make a pie.

Instead, they are out of luck.

Generally, when the black swans come out you are better off in the country — with country-boy skills and old-time farms supplies.

We once met a fellow who had a keen appreciation for apocalypse. He was sure it was coming. So, he moved to Arkansas where, he said, “I’m protected by 300 miles of armed hillbillies.”

That’s something else to think about. Not only do you have to worry about food and energy, you also have to worry about your neighbors. If you have a nice little vegetable garden next to a large apartment complex, for example, you might have a hard time protecting your crops. And don’t count on fattening a calf in Central Park during a famine.

You need to be somewhere else. Where?

Bill Bonner
Whiskey & Gunpowder

February 18, 2011