From Matt Bracken:
Professional trappers don’t catch fast-breeding and destructive feral pigs using hunting dogs and guns, or in little traps one or two at a time. The wily pigs quickly learn to evade humans after such fleeting contacts. So how do the pros trap entire feral pig herds, eliminating them all, from granddads to piglets, in one go?
They feed them, most generously. They kill them with kindness.
First, in a clearing in the woods, the trappers build an enclosure about twenty feet on a side and four feet high, made of stout wire mesh. There is an opening on each of the four sides of the pen. The pen is loaded with corn and other pig favorites. At first, the suspicious hog honchos will send in a few of the little ones as scouts. The scouts come and go at will, eating to their piggy satisfaction, until eventually suspicions die and they are joined by every other member of the herd right up the chain of command. The pigs soon come to believe that if nothing bad has happened to them after entering the strange wire enclosure full of corn, then nothing bad will ever happen. Their “normalcy bias” kicks in very quickly.
Soon, the pigs can’t imagine any other life. Rooting for tubers? An unpleasant task of the forgotten past. Nightly the herd eagerly trots to the free corn in the pen, and they fail to notice when one of the openings has been closed off with another panel of wire fencing during the day. Pigs are said to be as smart as dogs, but neither can count to four. Nor are the closings of the second or third openings much noticed. Finally, all that remains for the trapper to do is to install a powerful spring-driven trap door above the last opening. The entire tribe of formerly wary feral hogs once again enters the pen, and with a metallic clang their miraculous corn nirvana turns into a death trap.
The moral of the story: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t go inside the “free corn” pen, not even when all the doors are open. Free food is as dangerous as the sirens’ song to ancient mariners. It is all too easy to get used to being fed, and then to miss the exits closing one at a time.
2. The Turkeys and Farmer Brown
Pigs are Einsteins compared to turkeys. Turkeys are so stupid that care must be taken to prevent them from killing themselves by accident. For example, if incorrectly stimulated, they might stampede into a corner of a feeding lot and trample many of their brethren to death in their urgency to follow the herd.
If turkeys think at all, they think of Farmer Brown as “the food man” or “the food god.” So you can imagine their simple and unreserved joy at seeing the food man arriving to dispense the daily manna. For 364 straight days they believe they are living in turkey heaven, and they worship the food man, until on day 365 he unexpectedly takes an ax to their necks. (Hat tip to Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his seminal book, “The Black Swan.” If you have not yet read it, you are way behind the learning curve. It’s waiting for you at your local library.)
The moral of the story: If somebody is feeding you every day and asking for nothing in return, give an occasional thought to his motives and his possible end plans. Not everybody that feeds you loves you. The normalcy bias can kill you.
3. The Buffalo Jump
Native American Indians hunted on foot before the arrival of Spanish horses in North America. Bows and arrows and spears were not showstoppers against stampeding herds of bison, each weighing up to a ton. The Indians understood bison much better than the bison understood the Indians, however, and so the bison repeatedly failed to discern that all the pesky humans waving flags and setting grass fires were funneling them into a narrow draw and then to a yawning cliff, with squaws and children waiting below to commence the butchery.
The moral of the story: If you are being stampeded and funneled, it might be toward disaster, not away from it. Take any exit and go another direction. Read about the Greek city of Smyrna in 1922 to see a human Buffalo Jump in action.
4. The Lemmings
The lemmings we are interested in are the small furry rodents that live on islands around Norway. For most of history, their mass charges into the frigid waters were seen as some kind of group suicide. Today, they’re understood to be the result of the little rodent’s rapid gestation period kicking into high gear during rare periods of abundance of seed grasses sprouting madly during particularly mild arctic summers. In a matter of months the lemming population explodes, but eventually every last seed is eaten, and not another seed will appear until after the passage of the long arctic winter. The starving rodents packing the small islands can either die in place or undertake a desperate swim to greener pastures on other islands beckoning in the distance.
The moral of the story: There doesn’t need to be a pig trapper or a turkey farmer in the equation to cause a mass die-off event; nature can do it all on her own. And nature doesn’t care about your schedule, or your personal problems.
5. The Land Crab Massacre
One day in Puerto Rico a platoon of Navy SEALs had to drive in a few trucks and vans to an isolated rifle range way out in some swampy corner of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base, now sadly closed. A few miles of gravel road paralleled the Caribbean shore, with mangrove trees close on both sides of the narrow track. You had to access this rifle range at certain times during the daily tidal cycle, or the road might be under water. The frogmen spent the day shooting guns and blowing things up, then at sunset packed up the trucks for the quick run back to their beloved NavSpecWar Det Caribbean.
Truck headlights illuminated a moving sheet of land crabs, migrating from the ocean toward the land for the night. Land crabs have a body about the size of a fist, and one claw as big as a Maine lobster’s. They were so tightly packed that you could not toss a hat into their midst without hitting two or three: a near solid mass of them covering a mile of gravel road and the mangrove swamps on both sides. All the SEALs could do was drive over them in their government trucks, pulverizing thousands of them, maybe millions, leaving two wide swaths of crushed crab, crackling and squishing beneath our tires for a mile.
On the return trip to the range the next day, not a sign remained of the land crab holocaust. The smashed crustaceans had been immediately devoured by their erstwhile kin, who were probably happy that the hard work of shell-cracking had already been done by Goodyear tires. A mile-long crab massacre was followed by a cannibal feast that left no trace, overnight.
The moral of the story: Don’t be caught in the middle of a mass migration where you have no room to maneuver independently. Any outside force, or your neighbors, can smite you at will. Like Desert Storm’s “Highway of Death,” refugee columns attract warbird attention the way that honey attracts flies. History is full of refugee columns being strafed, on purpose or through mis-identification. Or like the bison, refugee columns can be herded into traps, and the individual refugee can do nothing to prevent it. This is a paradoxical case where the normally presumed “safety in numbers” is a deadly betrayer instead of a savior. Given a choice, going it alone beats The Buffalo Jump every time, but it’s very hard to bolt from the herd.
6. The Rat Flood
This occurs in northeastern India and parts of Burma. Only in the last century was this bizarre cycle of human famine following unexplained super plagues of rats finally understood. It turns out that forests of a certain bamboo species go into a wild explosion of fruiting, producing seed nuts on a 48-year cycle, a trick of nature that had been missed until the middle of the 20th century. Intrigued by the half-century cycle of human famines reported in 1862, 1911, and 1959, modern scientists finally noticed the link between the famines and the bamboo tree cycle. By 2006, the next time the bamboo began to fruit, they were on hand to observe the complete phenomenon.
The superabundance of nuts every 48 years leads to an explosion in the population of Asian black rats, which live in the bamboo forests. Because of their rapid breeding cycle, the number of rats per acre shoots up to astronomical levels, eventually the entire mega-crop of nuts is consumed, and a lemming-like mass starvation follows.
Millions of starving rats break out from the forests in what the local people call the Rat Flood. The onrushing solid tide of scurrying rats destroys entire crops in the ground and attack unprotected granaries, leading to an immediate human famine. Millions of dying, dead and decaying rats add to the misery by polluting streams and causing other intensely nasty sanitary problems. A once-every-48-years bamboo nut super-fruiting leads to millions of rats and then to human famine.
The moral of the story: If subtle connections are missed, a radical new situation may at first wrongly be considered a Black Swan Event. But sometimes the Black Swans can be seen in advance, if seemingly unconnected links and mechanisms are properly understood. And if you’re not sure what a Black Swan Event is, you definitely need to read the book.
7. Lions, Hippos and Crocodiles
Certain stretches of African rivers dry up from time to time, stranding all the water-dependent creatures in a new desert-scape dotted with evaporating ox-bow lakes. During the normal times of plentiful water, hippos and crocs are the masters of the riverine environment. Lions and elephants interface with them at the edges, but pose no challenge to the undisputed lords of the river.
That is, until the water level drops during a severe drought cycle, and the last stagnant ponds dry to cracked mud. Then the crocs and hippos, already starving and dehydrated, must bolt overland to discover another pond or river extension. Few of them moving cross-country in the desert heat live to see another waterhole. Their overland fatality rate is lemming-like, as lions, hyenas and vultures swarm in when they finally drop to the earth.
The moral of the story: Don’t be a hippo if your stretch of river might dry up. Be adaptable to many environments, not just the master of one that might prove to be impermanent. Better yet, be a bird, able to fly away to a safe location as conditions on the ground change for the worse. Have an agile mobility plan—or two or three.
8. Hungry Horses
If you read a lot, you will run across these stories a few times a year. As a recurring phenomenon it’s not as well known as some of the others, but it happens often enough to merit attention. Do an internet search on starving horses, and you will find many such sad stories. Typically, a utility company repairman, meter reader, contractor or salesman will visit a remote ranch or farm and be horrified at the sight of dozens or more starving horses or cows. There may even be dead livestock on the ground. The witness informs the sheriff, who comes out and arrests the land owner for animal cruelty and other charges.
The land owner will usually end up doing prison time, often for what he believes was no crime. He was merely doing the best he could, but times were hard. He had lost his job or been injured, but bottom line, he couldn’t afford trips to the feed store. They were just plain hungry times, they were all hungry, but the livestock would fatten up again just as soon as he got enough money for the feed, or the drought ended and greened up the fields. And it’s going to rain any day now.
This dynamic recalls Confederate Major Henry Wirz, the commander of the open-air POW camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Everybody was hungry, civilian, military and prisoner. They were hungry times. There was no food to give the detainees. Nobody had a plan for the Union POWs, except to corral them in a given location. In the year before April 1865, nearly one-third of the 45,000 Union prisoners died. Wirz was hanged in Washington late in 1865, after one of the first American war-crime trials, yet to this day many believe he got a raw deal. After all, his apologists say, he was doing the best he could under the terrible circumstances.
The moral of the story: The guy who is starving you may sincerely be trying to feed you, but his best efforts might not be enough. In the end, if you are penned in, you can be killed by simple starvation and neglect, requiring no directly malign intention by your captors. Starvation just happens naturally when insufficient food is coming into the enclosure.
9. The Crazy Cat Lady
When the stink of the crazy cat lady’s house sufficiently annoys the neighborhood, she is either found inside dead, or if she is still alive she must be taken away to the crazy old people’s home. After the surviving starved cats are taken away by folks in hazmat suits, her house will often be burned down to prevent the spread of disease. Most of the rescued cats are too far gone and must be euthanized at the animal shelter.
Yet her motives were perfectly pure! The crazy old lady truly loved her pets. She could not bear to imagine them out in the cold rain, hungry and alone, so she invited them inside. Imagine that you are the fifth or sixth cat adopted into her warm and dry house. An old stray would consider himself to have landed in cat paradise. Soft rugs, plentiful food, and a kind human hand await inside. Purrr-fect. It’s a great deal even if you are the tenth cat invited inside, but not so great when you are the two hundredth and the inside population is breeding unchecked. The crazy old cat lady, in spite of her very good intentions, ends up presiding over the feline version of Auschwitz, a true death machine, killing her beloved cats slowly by starvation, dehydration, and disease.
The moral of the story: Good intentions don’t mean squat if you trap other living beings inside an enclosure and then you can’t feed them in perpetuity. The holocaust that results is still on you. Expressed good intentions about your trapped population will not be accepted. “I was doing my best to help them” will ring as hollow a defense as “I was just following orders.” North Korea comes to mind as a very large enclosure.
10. The Grasshopper and the Locust
Grasshoppers are the same creature as locusts, but as population density and crowding increase, the small green insects undergo a morphological change caused by increasing tactile stimulation that leads to new hormonal releases. Little Jiminy Cricket will more than double in size, take on a darkened and armored appearance, and develop effective flying wings. The morphing locusts will breed even more often, in preparation for their famous swarming behavior.
The tiny grasshoppers, instead of accepting the fate of other overpopulated, starving species, turn into warrior invaders and take wing to go in search of greener pastures, leaving famine and death in their wake. An emergency breakout plan is part of their DNA.
The moral of the story: Soft and timid little creatures can turn fearsome and go on the warpath if their very survival is at stake. Even a weak and normally helpless neighbor can become a danger if his survival is at stake, especially if he joins a gang where he benefits from strength in numbers.
If somebody else is feeding you—even if you entered the community or the building of your own free will, even if all the doors and gates are currently open or unlocked—you may already be living in your future prison. All it takes is a change in management to turn your Holiday Inn into San Quentin. Like the feral pigs, you might find that the exits are all sealed off, and the free food was meant only to lure you in and fatten you for slaughter.
If you are kept in an enclosure, even if you are currently being fed with food brought in from outside, you are living at the mercy of the status quo. The benevolent dictator who satisfies your needs may be replaced overnight by Caligula or Stalin. Your Holiday Inn might be sold to or taken over by the next Nazi SS.
Or authority might be abdicated entirely, leaving prisoners starving in their pens and cells; think Baghdad Zoo after the 2003 American invasion. A power vacuum, such as occurs when the crazy cat lady becomes infirm, can be as deadly to a trapped population as the turkey farmer and the pig hunter are to their own deliberate target populations.
Creatures that are able to flee starvation will do so.
If presented with an impossible barrier, they might attempt a lemming-like swim, or head across desert terrain like hippos fleeing the last dried-up pond. But they will try. They will not starve in place.
Or starving millions may break out and appear like a sudden refugee tidal wave, as is the case with the Rat Flood in India. Or the millions might turn warlike and break out violently like locusts, bent on temporary conquest and laying waste to the land in their search for sustenance. But few creatures will starve to death quietly in their dens. Social ecologists will ignore this lesson at their peril.
Most of these parables involve a densely packed population that undergoes a cutoff in their food supply that is too rapid to permit them an adjustment period. The more densely packed the population, the more likely that when their food is abruptly cut off, they will attempt to break out in search of new food sources.
Urban areas in the United States and other countries present many risks similar to some of the parables cited above. America has somehow evolved a system for artificially maintaining the lives of millions inside open-air prisons, with free food dispensed to the voluntarily semi-incarcerated. It is all too easy to grow dependent on free food, as the feral pigs might attest. Turkeys don’t know any better, being born in captivity, but the same fate awaits them at the end of the free-food line.
Today we have become a nation of slaves.
One group is made up of the wage-slaves, working for the government so that politicians can dispense largesse to their pet interest groups in return for their votes. Fifty million Americans are currently enslaved on the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) food-stamp plantation. The masters of both the producers and the moochers are the looters “employed” in the government sector, robbing Peter to buy Paul’s vote in order to raise taxes on Peter yet again. Combined, the looters and the moochers will always outnumber the producers, until some population-altering event disrupts the status quo. (Hat tip to Neil Boortz for his looters, producers, and moochers trichotomy.)
The urban population density is obviously high, with no possibility of providing its own food through local agriculture. In the event of a food supply disruption, such as a breakdown of the EBT system, it is very likely that a large part of the urban population will break out in search of food rather than quietly starving in place after all the supermarkets and other nearby food sources are looted.
Like restarting a diesel engine with an air-locked fuel line, getting the food supply system of a city running again cannot be done by turning a key and stomping on the accelerator. The diesel engine air-lock must be tediously purged and the injectors bled. This takes time, and there is no shortcut method, no matter your state of desperation to get the engine running. The “just in time” food supply system and our lack of old-fashioned food warehouses will worsen the air-lock in the broken food supply. It will be extremely tricky to restart the food supply conveyor into an out-of-control city in the thrall of deadly food riots. The hungry population may break out in anger before the authorities are able to introduce some type of emergency feeding plans. In fact, the desperate rioting mobs, paradoxically, will be the main impediment to delivering the food. FEMA might rescue one or a few cities, but will be impotent if the food supply crisis is widespread and many cities are affected.
In normal times our urban inhabitants are free to come and go at will. But cities are usually divided into manageable sections by highways, railroad trunk lines, rivers, ravines, steep mountainsides and other manmade or geographical features. The authorities, or those living in areas adjoining the boroughs experiencing starvation, may or may not permit free entry or passage of hungry refugees. If the authorities or suburban vigilantes wish to stop the breakout of the starving masses, it will have to be done with extreme force, if it can be done at all.
Roughly, these are the three alternatives facing those who find themselves in an urban area when the outside supply of food stops:
1. Die in place like the neglected horses or the felines trapped in the crazy old cat lady’s house of horrors. This only happens to captive populations, but it happens. Some armed force might be guarding the bridges and highways around your ‘hood, with strict orders to “contain the problem.” The Warsaw Ghetto could become the model for ultimate urban renewal and a radical rebalancing of the moocher-to-producer population ratio. As with the crazy old cat lady’s putrid house, fire may be the cleanser of choice. Again, read about Smyrna in 1922.
2. Attempt relocation too late, like the lemmings and the hippos. This was the fate of many of the Jews in Germany, the Armenians and Greeks in Turkey, and the Christians in the Middle East today. The human normalcy bias is so strong that it’s difficult for most people to understand, after a few peaceful generations, that bad can go to worse and then to fatal in a few unexpected jumps. Jews, Armenians and Greeks all clung to the belief that things could only get better—until it was too late to flee successfully. The Copts in Egypt may be the next population of Christians marched into a desert to die, while the world watches.
3. Break out, like the bamboo forest rats and the locusts in search of more nutrition in the next valley. But don’t expect to be welcomed in the next county if you are forced into a mass refugee exodus. Instead, you will be considered a plague of hungry locusts, and locusts are exterminated whenever possible. When you move into the hinterland you may find crude signs posted stating that Trespassers Will Be Shot On Sight. Signs put up by very serious hard-eyed people with more scoped deer rifles than EBT cards among them.
It will now be pointed out that there are more rural than urban users of the EBT system. This may be true in absolute numbers, but it is not important. There is a reason why the parables in this essay focus on situations where population densities are high when the food-rug is pulled out from under. Out in the wider country, there is a likelihood of the former EBT user moving in with other rural kin. Truck gardens and farmer’s markets are not such a distant memory, and arable land is plentiful. A deer or a pig might wind up over a fire. “A country boy can survive,” to quote one modern philosopher.
But there will be no surviving within the urban death traps when the seemingly perpetual food conveyor grinds to a halt for any of a number of causes. The only question is, will the EBT urban plantation slaves die in place, penned in by suburban rifle fire or other means, or will they break out in a starving flood? Possibly even with government help, on government buses? To be taken to whatever wire-fenced FEMA camp enclosure awaits them—or perhaps to your local high schools as a “temporary” measure?
Either way, what an unholy mess we find ourselves in. Our urban plantation population of EBT slaves has become a Damocles Sword hanging above the greater society. That perpetual food conveyor had better not experience a hiccup—for any reason—or in an eye blink there will be unholy hell to pay. Wise citizens will carefully consider the meta-terrain around them for future Black Swans, Black Swans that in reality might be located at the intersections of already understood natural phenomena and the unintended consequences of social experimentation gone disastrously wrong.
The final moral of the story: Don’t live in—or near—a densely populated enclosure where all the food is brought in from outside, even if today the exit doors are all open.
(And now I will be called the usual pejoratives by the usual politically correct imbeciles, who would condemn a child for noticing that a too-swiftly receding ocean tide might be a tsunami warning. “Don’t ever mention tsunamis!” the imbeciles will shout. “It is forbidden! Tabu! Haram! If you mention tsunamis, you will bring them!” Wise people ignore these imbeciles and press on with learning, and warning.)