The “Collapse” Spectrum: Why and How We Define Collapse – Forward Observer Shop

The “Collapse” Spectrum: Why and How We Define Collapse

There are two words I really hate using: collapse and civil war.

One of the most important things we can do as intelligence collectors and analysts is to be deliberate and precise with our words. As an intelligence analyst trying to provide my commander with accurate intelligence, nothing made that task more difficult than reading vague or poorly written intelligence information reports. An intelligence collector may be highly skilled — he may know how to ask the right questions, prompt valuable responses, and ingratiate himself with sources who have the informational goods — but if he can’t clearly, concisely, and accurately report that information, then he’s of much lesser value to the team. I rarely had the luxury of being able to get in contact with a reporting officer and ask, “What in the world did you mean by this? What did the source actually say, verbatim?”

And that’s why I hate using the words “civil war” and “collapse”, because they’re not specific. Whenever I read the words “societal collapse” or “economic collapse”, I wonder: collapse to what level? 100% collapse? 50% collapse? (Even a 25% collapse in employment and living standards is going to cause significant problems.) One could argue that we’re witnessing a societal collapse right now — a collapse of established, normative sociopolitical behavior and attitudes. It might be more accurate and specific to say that we’ve entered into a period of societal decline, but it only goes to show just how vague the word “collapse” actually is. The collapse of the Roman Empire lasted for centuries, and we only know that because we can read the history. I wonder if those living in any given 50 year period of that collapse understood that collapse was occurring. The same can be said of civil war. Will states be fighting each other in the Second Civil War? Is the North invading the South again? Will we be battling for control over Washington D.C.? What, exactly, is meant by the term civil war?

Now, you may be thinking, Well, that’s just a semantic game. Everyone knows what a civil war is. This may work for a cursory understanding of where we’re headed, but in intelligence we deal with specifics. The commander needs to know the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the situation. You don’t prepare for a civil war, you don’t prepare for an electromagnetic pulse, you don’t prepare for economic collapse. You prepare for the effects of these events. And if we’re not deliberate with our understanding of these threats and their second- and third-order effects, then we’re not truly prepared.

With that in mind, let’s identify a solution to the vagaries of “collapse” by putting it on a spectrum. I’d start off by asking myself, on a scale of 1 to 100, what would be the earliest indication of decline or collapse I’d see in my community? Probably people being laid off. If that becomes a trend, then we see a spike in unemployment. That’s certainly an indicator of decline, however short-lived, endemic, or permanent it becomes.

Worse than that, other indicators might be electrical brownouts, internet blackouts, fuel shortages, dollar decline, or some other case of systems disruption. If short-lived, maybe it’s just a sign that things aren’t “normal”, however, in prolonged cases these will have very significant effects.

Beyond that, we might have outbreaks of violence. The sporadic riots and protests to which we’ve become accustomed to seeing is an indicator of decline or instability. Sustained rioting or political violence is a potential indicator of collapse. Also along those lines are the instability, unrest, criminality, and/or violence that begins occurring in our communities as a result of unemployment, systems disruption, or political strife. That’s a little more collapsey than just an increase in unemployment.

Beyond that, we have the failure of government at local/city, state, and/or federal levels; and/or permanent or near-permanent disruption of public services and utilities. Now this is actually collapse. And I’m not talking about a weekend government shutdown. I’m talking about senators and representatives getting out of town and going back home. This is an end to welfare deposits, and national debt repayment, and social security checks. Worst case scenario, this is true, actual collapse. Given some context, most anything prior to this is decidedly not.

Here’s a little chart I drew up to help us understand.

There are undoubtedly other benchmarks we can apply to collapse, from 0% to 100%, and maybe that’s a good exercise for your preparedness group. How will we know when we’re at 10% on a scale of 100% total collapse? What does 25% or 50% collapse actually look like in our community? What types of events or activities will that entail? (As always, remember our maxim: The more extreme the prediction, the less likely it is to come true. We can look at this chart, left to right, as more likely to less likely.)

Once you answer these questions, then you’re performing the work of intelligence. Thinking through, applying some metrics, and answering these questions is the difference between moving from a ball park answer to a home plate answer. This is the incredible utility and value of intelligence, so I hope you’ll take some time to get a step ahead of your peers by getting serious about it.

If you want to get head and shoulders above your competition, then do an Area Study. Those serious about community security complete an Area Study. You can enroll in online training, like the Area Intelligence Course, and or have our intelligence veterans build you a custom threat intelligence product. We build Area Studies & Assessments for preparedness groups, community security teams, neighborhood watch groups, home owners associations, and other concerned citizens. Our next availability to start a new project is 07 May 2018.

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Always Out Front,

Samuel Culper


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Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.


  1. I never thought about it that way. I’ve seen discussions that conclude collapse/shtf is “only” after EMP/big event, discounting anything smaller like hurricanes, lay offs catastrophic to an entire community, etc. I never liked that all-or-nothing definition of collapse because it’s not practical. If the local smelter closes and everyone is laid off, it may not be shtf to the world but to me in my immanent day-by-day experience, shit has hit the fan when everyone’s losing their homes, getting divorced, suddenly drinking/drugging, even killing themselves. I used to call it mini-shtf for lack of a better word. Your article shows a helpful way to gauge how things are going and to brace for what mat come next on the continuum. Thanks

  2. “You prepare for the effects of these events.”
    Just wanna say, I appreciate the direction these articles are heading; this is really useful information. My thinking about a “happening” is evolving from “zombie apocalypse” to a more realistic understanding of conflict based on what I’ve been reading here and on Brushbeater, Sparks, Mountain Guerrilla and Failure of Civility.

    Identifying situations as “low-level conflicts” is more in-line with “happenings” currently going on around the globe, from Mumbai to Syria to Mexico to Israel. I don’t really see stuff at this level in the news, so it’s interesting to read it here and in the books/articles you reference. From that, I get a better idea of how “life goes on” in the midst serious conflict.

    “One could argue that we’re witnessing a societal collapse right now . . . ”
    Mosby says this too, and while I don’t necessarily buy into his “collapse of empire” assertion, we are definitely in the “shit ain’t right” era.

  3. A former Soviet said, collapse happens one person at a time. I’ll add to that one family, one city,etc…

  4. I was reading, this morning, of a London woman who was followed home by a black immigrant. He attacked her in the street, stabbing her a number of times (in the face and body) … and raping her. She survived with her life intact. Of her mind, I have no idea.

    Anyway, for that woman, “Societal Collapse” was real and absolute. Yet, the wider populace remains largely unaffected, and continues to hold the belief that”all is well”.

    There must be many thousands of people who have experienced a similar “Societal Collapse”. Each of these personal tragedies does chip away at “our” complacency, though.

    I suppose that we “normies” will eventually perceive the risk to be so great that we are compelled to act. Only God knows when.

  5. The collapse you allude to is in the low intensity phase right now, and it is rolling out just like a major offensive does. That demonstration and probe you were ignoring is the main attack, according to Murphy. Ask yourself why it is rolling out like it is. Because TPTB want it that way. They’ve dumbed a lot of people down, but not enough of them, and the rest are well armed and highly pissed off. Dramatic and obvious offensives would give rise to lethal pushback. So you keep the Con going any way you can, and it costs much less in the long run because you kept the ones most dangerous to you hoodwinked until the end game. The leftists of heated bent will probably be TPTB’s undoing, because they can’t resist the siren call of going too far. How do you know if you’re in a collapse? If you’re asking those kinds of questions, you’re in a collapse.

  6. I would also posit that a collapse can be temporary – as Statuary says above, unemployment or other major life events.
    In particular, I see many preppers talking about society falling apart, a collapse that is 70% or more on your scale. One thing I don’t see many preppers talking about is shorter term high impact events; while there are many possible events, the major ones to me are fires and storms (for parts of the country include tornadoes and earthquakes).
    Look at how parts of the Houston area were (and some still are) uninhabitable after hurricane Harvey, the damage to Joplin MS after the tornado several years ago or the forest fires in relatively populated parts of California last year.
    The lesson to me is this: don’t just plan for the worst you can think of: also plan for the most likely for your situation – both in terms of local natural (or manmade) hazards, but also family or personal hazards. As mentioned above, how secure is your job? If you are at risk of job loss, you need to have the resources to survive a period of joblessness or have an alternate source of income ready.

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