72 hours to anarchy
May 8, 2006 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Where did I read the claim that organized society as we know it here in the US could fall apart in as little as 72 hours?

I read an article at least a year ago which argued that given 72 hours without electricity, running water, police or medical services, re-suppling the local grocery store -- all those things we take for granted every day -- that what we think of as "civilization" would fall apart quite rapidly. The point of this argument was, I believe, that a stable and organized society takes a lot of time, money and effort to build, and very little to tear apart; that we are much closer to still being savages than we like to admit to ourselves. The article itself may have been about a much larger issue -- rebuilding Iraq, peak oil, rising cost of social welfare, homeland security, I can't remember -- but somehow this "72 hours" number stuck in my brain.

I was reminded of the article during the hurricane Katrina disaster, but my Google-fu has failed to turn it up again. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

I am 85% certain of the 72 hours factoid. All other recollections about this article may be fabrications of my own poor memory.
posted by junkbox to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There is an old saying that society is only three meals away from anarchy. Sort of the same concept. Quick google suggests unclear attribution.
posted by Mid at 8:52 AM on May 8, 2006

I seem to recall 72 hours being the magic amount of time the people should expect to be on their own following a natural disaster in the US.
I also seem to recall this being more of an excuse for just how fucked-up emergency services have become (ex: FEMA) these days. Along the lines of "You're all on your own now, suckers. Thanks for the taxes."
posted by Thorzdad at 8:56 AM on May 8, 2006

I can at least confirm you're not crazy (or maybe we both are). I remember reading something similar to this in the past year.

Googling "3 days without food, water, electricity" turned up a lot of emergency preparedness links saying that is how you should prepare for a disaster.
posted by MasonDixon at 9:03 AM on May 8, 2006

I can not help on the sourse of your quote but as some one who has occasionally stewed about this and is involved in delivering health care I don't think 72 hours is far off if there was a large scale disruption of electricity and transportation. We went through this with yk2000 planning and I was overwhelmed how dependent we are on electricity and its critical role in supporting the other infrastructures we need--after all, how would the fuel trucks be filled if there was no electricity--back up power at hospitals is limited to a few days--etc.
posted by rmhsinc at 9:14 AM on May 8, 2006

If it relates at all the Mormons encourage their congregations to have a '72 hour kit'...everything one might need for a full 72 hours: bottled water, matches, candles, dehydrated food, clothes, blankets...etc.

I recall it was for a similar reason.
posted by nadawi at 9:50 AM on May 8, 2006

In 2004 the Times of London reported that the British MI5 used a 'four meals from anarchy' scale to evaluate threats to the realm. That seems so much better than our color coded threat level warning system here in the US.

"Folks, you've got dinner tonight and the breakfast. After that, you're on your own."

Also, Plato had something along these lines; he said society is 'just a few meals away from barbarism.'
posted by DragonBoy at 10:05 AM on May 8, 2006

I thought 72 hour kits weren't uniquely mormon. I've got mine!
posted by craniac at 10:05 AM on May 8, 2006

I would not be suprised that they aren't strictly mormon, but I know they were a huge deal to the church. They also encouraged far more storage. There were a few years when our basement was filled with paint bucket sized cans of all sorts of dried food. It actually kept my family alive during some hard times.
posted by nadawi at 10:22 AM on May 8, 2006

the san francisco disaster preparedness site is at 72hours.org - perhaps you saw a mention of this somewhere?
posted by judith at 10:41 AM on May 8, 2006

I read an article at least a year ago which argued that given 72 hours without electricity, running water, police or medical services, re-suppling the local grocery store -- all those things we take for granted every day -- that what we think of as "civilization" would fall apart quite rapidly.

But aren't those things--electricity, running water, police and medical services--what defines civilization? I mean... if we don't have them, it sounds like civilization has already collapsed.
posted by maxreax at 11:02 AM on May 8, 2006

Response by poster: maxreax -- civilization in the sense of a safe, orderly, well-organized society, instead of "every man for himself" anarchy. The point the author was trying to make, which may be obvious to you already, is that we are merely 72 hours without running water away from reverting to "Lord of the Flies" in the streets of our gated communities.

I'm interested in the point it made about the fragility of so-called civilization, not in improving my emergency preparedness.
posted by junkbox at 11:10 AM on May 8, 2006

Perhaps it was this Straight Dope article, which also features theoretical zombies.
posted by user92371 at 11:42 AM on May 8, 2006

I always say it as "a week away from cannibalism."
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:51 AM on May 8, 2006

Check out New Orleans for some first-hand info on what happens, and how quickly, in the event society breaks down.

72 hours is more of a metaphor for the fact that modern first-world society is HEAVILY dependent on a wide variety of infrastructure. If multiple pieces of that infrastructure go down, so does society as a whole. And since cities have virtually no food-growing capacity inside them and a great many mouths to feed and a very limited store of available food, if food shipments break down things get very.... interesting... very quickly.

The SF book "Dies the Fire" by SM Stirling is about this scenario. One day, all internal combustion engines cease operating, all electrical appliances die. What happens? The book follows a number of people who coincidentally have the skills to survive in such a scenario.
posted by jellicle at 12:05 PM on May 8, 2006

Police agencies all over the world use the 72 hour number for disaster response. It's a pretty common thing, I think, so you might've read it anywhere. Anyways, as Katrina demonstrated, the real number is more like 24. If there is not a near-immediate foreceful, police response then people will take advantage of the chaos to ensure their own survival.
posted by nixerman at 12:09 PM on May 8, 2006

72 hours is also pretty much the longest an average person can function without water.
posted by Megafly at 12:27 PM on May 8, 2006

Seventy-two hours is the inside edge of the national response window (for both Canada and the US). The response plans I've seen rely on local response (fire, police and local health) for the first three days. Local responders will be swamped---that's expected---but prevent things from going completely to hell in 72 hours. After that, the larger national resources are supposed to be in place to begin to take over.

In the larger emergency responses I've been part of, the 1998 ice-storm in eastern Canada, the power failure on the eastern seaboard of 2003, a couple of larger oil spills and ship shinkings, have all approximately followed this timetable. By-and-large, the second wave of responders, those that aren't local, get to the scene after three days.

I don't know what happened with last year's hurricanes, but the call-ups seemed to happen extremely slowly. FEMA seemed to be trying to do everything in-house and seemed to be ignoring outside offerers of help. (I'm speculating---no direct knowledge). More the exception than the rule, in my experience though.
posted by bonehead at 1:44 PM on May 8, 2006

Incidently, 3-5 days is also the period the Red Cross uses as their guideline for duration of relief. Their role is primary relief, meeting the needs of the affected immediately after the event. After that time, they anticipate being able to hand-off to national or other agencies.
posted by bonehead at 1:49 PM on May 8, 2006

I'm with user92371... the real concern here is zombies. I would say, even if you're not convinced Zombies are a real threat, read through the Zombie survival guide by Max Brooks (I heard he's Mel Brooks' son). It actually has some really good advice for preparing for/dealing with a complete collapse of civilisation. Whether it is caused by Zombies or not.
posted by indiebass at 2:23 PM on May 8, 2006

This question reminds me of the opening pages of James Burke's book Connections, which was also a television mini-series. In it he describes a blackout that occurred in 1965 along the east coast, and speculates how the denizens of major urban areas would cope if the infrastructure that modern society depends upon were no longer there. How would they provide themselves with food or warmth or security? He doesn’t really try to answer the question, but uses it to explain the historical intersections and innovations of people and ideas that developed modern society.

I remember spending a lot of time in high school reading Connections and hoping to see Connections 2 on the Discovery channel. I wonder what ever happened to the show?
posted by meditative_zebra at 8:25 PM on May 8, 2006

The same thing that happens to all the shows -- it's now available on DVD! There's even a
Connections 3 but the original was the best, and especially that first show (in the context of this discussion). But I think it was actually the first installment of his "The Day the Universe Changed" (book is available, although I'm referring to the TV series).
posted by Rash at 9:27 AM on May 9, 2006

« Older World Cup Scenarios   |   Firefox user settings Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.