John Locke on How to Survive the End of Your World

My own post-apocalyptic interests began after the derecho this past summer in Virginia. A derecho, for the uninitiated (all of us in Virginia, prior to last summer), is fancy word for “windstorm”–not a tornado, but rather a stormfront of extremely powerful, one-directional winds: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derecho

The surprise derecho knocked out our power during the night, but at first that did not really seem like such a big problem. Sure, now the AC did not work, but my wife and I were used to this sort of thing from growing up in the Midwest and the South. And as far as my toddler was concerned, the whole thing was great fun. We still had water, so we were able to strip him down to his “Little Swimmers” and let him run through the sprinkler in the back yard to stay cool. It also gave us an excuse to eat up all the popsicles and ice cream.

But here was the unnerving thing about the situation: the derecho not only knocked out power–and so land-based phone lines–but it also knocked out cell phone service in the area. That doesn’t just mean no Twitter feed: it means no 911 service, no police, and no ambulance. If something had gone wrong, it was up to my wife and me to handle it. And I rarely feel capable of handling a blog post, much less an existential crisis. Drive to the hospital yourself, you say? I sure would try, but suffice it to say that the inability of DC area drivers to realize that a non-functioning streetlight means a four-way stop is worthy of a blog post in and of itself.

Now my “harrowing ordeal” lasted all of 36 hours, and exactly nothing noteworthy occurred. But it does go to show in its own small way one aspect of how thin the veneer of civilization actually is. This is one of those facts we are aware of as humans, but prefer to keep at a comfortable cognitive distance: we generally like our post-apocalyptic contemplation seasoned with unreal elements such as zombies (The Walking Dead) or aliens (Falling Skies).

General view of the Bavarian city of Nuremberg...

General view of the Bavarian city of Nuremberg. In the distance, the Frauen Church; Behind the destroyed buildings the Hauptmarkt ID: HD-SN-99-02986 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was to my surprise, then, that the subject of societal collapse came up in my philosophy class during our reading of John Locke’s 2nd Treatise, a text decidedly lacking in both zombies and aliens (though Locke would argue that absolute monarchs are scarier than either, but I digress). In the  course of Chapter IX, “Of the Ends of Political Society and Government,” Locke notes three important things naturally lacking to man outside of a political society: an established law, indifferent judges, and power to enforce the natural moral law. Locke makes these points without histrionics–he is trying to avoid an exaggerated Hobbesian view of man’s natural state as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”–but his point is clear: outside of political society, or after the collapse of a political society, mankind is in an “ill condition.” Justice becomes the arbitrary will of strongmen. Individuals are overwhelmed by larger armed gangs. And lawlessness and disorder are the norm rather than the exception.

But Locke has a solution to this, and it is arguably the most basic, indispensable survival technique known to man. It is more important even than stockpiling food and weapons (though I recommend those measures as well). Locke’s advice is this: establish a political society again. Here is the quotation from Locke:

Section 127. “Thus mankind, notwithstanding all the privileges of the state of nature, being but in an ill condition, while they remain in it, are quickly driven into society . . . And in this we have the original right and rise of both the legislative and executive power, as well as of the governments and societies themselves.”

Now when Locke writes that it sounds a little drastic; I hope your first thought when the power goes out is not to attempt to set up a new nation. But we are free to retrieve whatever we wish from the text, so let’s modify it slightly, and give it a less scary name: networking. In a strange parallel, just as networking is an important way to navigate a tricky job market now, a slightly different form of networking will be important in the case of an ugly event such as  a natural disaster that disrupts or destroys political society. One need not sit down by candlelight and attempt to redraft the Articles of Confederation: holding an informal neighborhood meeting every morning in one’s garage following a serious disaster would likely be a better way of building friendships and helping others in a time of need. But either way, the truth known both to John Locke and to purveyors of lurid post-apocalyptic fantasies is this: the most important thing one needs to survive an end-of-the-world scenario is, surprisingly, other people.

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