You should ignore the news unless it's of historic import. Russia's invasion of Ukraine constitutes an event of historic import.

Russia has Invaded Ukraine

One could argue for an even stronger position: you should ignore the news unless it 1) affects you and 2) there is something that you could do about it. I'm trying to think about whether 1 and 2 are true. Like most of us, I have some thoughts, but ultimately I'm not a geopolitics person and don't really know what I'm talking about. And so, this post is a request for comments[1], not an authoritative write-up.

May as well start now

Suppose we have the best case scenario: the war ends, tensions disappear, and we all go back to our lives. How long will that last? How long until tensions get serious again? 1 year? 5? 10? 25? 50? 100?

I lean towards the earlier end of that spectrum. 80,000 Hours would "guess the chance of a nuclear war is 2-20% in the next 200 years". Using that as a jumping off point, the chance of tensions developing enough where the threat is notable seems like it'd be a lot higher, especially given the current invasion.

Even if your estimate is towards the later end of this spectrum, it still seems like the sort of thing we will need to deal with in our lifetimes at some point. So then, any effort spent educating oneself and preparing right now probably won't be wasted. It's like buying honey for your pantry: it doesn't expire, and you know you will use eventually.

Decide what level of risk you are ok with ahead of time

There has been some talk about this in the context of covid. That you should decide ahead of time at what level of case counts you'd be ok with returning to eg. outdoor dining? What level for indoor dining? What level for large indoor gatherings?

Because if you don't, you risk some sort of status quo bias. And similarly, you risk the boiling frog thing happening to you. The case counts just slowly get lower and lower and lower, but each change is too small/gradual to get you to take action.

I think a similar principle makes sense in the context of nuclear risk. I could see tensions escalating, and escalating, and escalating, and escalating, but each escalation seems too small to justify an action like moving from the city to the country. To guard against this, I think it'd make sense to have some, preferably quantitative, idea in your mind about when you would take various actions.

What can an individual actually do to lower their risk?

I don't have a great grasp on this question, but I can think of a few things.

Moving to a remote location

I'm thinking of remote islands like Tristan da Cunha that are aparently inhabitable and sustainable. Making a move like this would be a pretty extreme option, so the risk would have to justify it. But it's hard for me to imagine a remote location like this getting hit by a nuke. And who knows, if you look on the bright side, maybe it'd be a good change of pace and life experience.

Moving to a different country

What I have in mind here are places like Iceland and South Africa. It wouldn't be quite as safe as living in a remote location, but it seems to me that countries like these are significantly safer than places like the US and western Europe.

Moving to the countryside

As an example, I live in Portland, Oregon right now. Which is a city. If I moved out east to the countryside, or even to a place like Bend, OR, judging by maps like these and these, I'd be a lot safer, because Portland is more of a target. This probably wouldn't be as safe as moving to a different country, but moving to a different country would be a lot more inconvenient.

Building a bomb shelter

Imagine that you are interested in self-defense. You could learn how to punch and kick and wrestle and fight. That would improve your chances if you did end up in an altercation. But y'know what would really improve your chances? Avoiding the altercation in the first place!

That is the analogy that comes to my mind when I think about bomb shelters. They feel to me like learning to punch and kick. I suppose it's not a bad idea and it might prove useful, but it also seems like you'd get a lot more mileage out of avoiding the situation to begin with.

Buy useful items

I only looked into this very briefly.

Hazmat suits are something I thought of, but it seems that the bigger risk is from ingesting dangerous particles. Particles that touch your skin aren't as big a deal, and normal clothing that covers your skin will probably suffice. Also these suits aren't really enough to protect you from radiation to a significant extent.

Masks might be somewhat helpful. My initial impression is that I'm skeptical of their usefulness, but I'm not sure.

Some rough EV math

Let's try to look at the question of how much different levels of risk "costs".

Take a look at this graph. The top row is how likely you are to get attacked. The left column is how likely you are to die, assuming you got attacked. The resulting values assume that you value life at the standard $10M, and show how much the risk of getting attacked "costs".

1/2 1/5 1/10 1/100 1/1k 1/10k 1/100k
1% $50k $20k $10k $1000 $100 $10 $1
10% $500k $200k $100k $10k $1k $100 $10
50% $2.5m $1m $500k $50k $5k $500 $50
90% $4.5m $1.8m $900k $90k $9k $900 $90

There's a lot more to say about calculating the costs and factoring various things in[2], but the goal here is to just keep it simple and get a rough picture.

How would you use this information? Well, think of it like this. Maybe you estimate that moving to Greenland moves you from (50%, 1/10) to (90%, 1/1k). Because tensions escalated from where they are as of 2/28/22, let's suppose. According to the table, you'd be "saving" $491k by making that move. So you have to ask yourself whether the inconvenience is worth that amount of money. Seems like something of a close call.

Personally, I place a much higher value on life than that standard $10M value. I elaborate on it here, but the value I use is $10B, not $10M. Let's see what the graph looks like if we use that as our value on life. Actually, for easy reference, let's do this:

Value of life: $10M

1/2 1/5 1/10 1/100 1/1k 1/10k 1/100k
1% $50k $20k $10k $1000 $100 $10 $1
10% $500k $200k $100k $10k $1k $100 $10
50% $2.5m $1m $500k $50k $5k $500 $50
90% $4.5m $1.8m $900k $90k $9k $900 $90

Value of life: $100M

1/2 1/5 1/10 1/100 1/1k 1/10k 1/100k
1% $500k $200k $100k $10k $1k $100 $10
10% $5m $2m $1m $100k $10k $1k $100
50% $25m $10m $5m $500k $50k $5k $500
90% $45m $18m $9m $900k $90k $9k $900

Value of life: $1B

1/2 1/5 1/10 1/100 1/1k 1/10k 1/100k
1% $5m $2m $1m $100k $10k $1k $100
10% $50m $20m $10m $1m $100k $10k $1k
50% $250m $100m $50m $5m $500k $50k $5k
90% $450m $180m $90m $9m $900k $90k $9k

Value of life: $10B

1/2 1/5 1/10 1/100 1/1k 1/10k 1/100k
1% $50m $20m $10m $1m $100k $10k $1k
10% $500m $200m $100m $10m $1m $100k $10k
50% $2.5b $1b $500m $50m $5m $500k $50k
90% $4.5b $1.8b $900m $90m $9m $900k $90k

Focusing on what matters

So far, there are a few distinct questions I've laid out:

  1. How much do you value life?
  2. How much do you value not having to move to X (or take whatever other action)?
  3. How likely is it that you get attacked?
  4. How likely is it that you die in an attack?

The answers to #1 and #2 are personal [3]. The answers to #3 and #4 are... hard to figure out.

That's something I'd like to comment on, actually. It's been said before, but when things are hard to figure out, you still have to make your best guess and go with it. It's tempting to think "this is too hard, I don't know how to think about or estimate this". But what's next? Go on with your life? Follow the herd? Each of those is an action. The reason to take an action is because it is your best guess as to what is optimal. Maybe your best guess is to continue with your life or follow the herd, but you should take those actions because it is your best guess, not because it is the default.[4]

Anyways. I think questions #3 and #4 are the ones that are most relevant, in a sense. Those are the questions that are "moving". Your answers to #1 and #2 are what they are. They're important, but they're static, so once you have your answers you don't need to continue thinking about them.

On the other hand, your answers to #3 and #4 will change as the situation (d)evolves. And as they change, it might become worth taking various actions, like moving to Iceland. Again, I usually try to ignore the news, but this is an exception. This is a situation where the news actually might affect you in such a way that is important and where you can do something about it.

Estimating the risk

One approach for this would be to think about it from first principles. Educate oneself. Have conversations with friends and fellow rationalists. Iterate. Etc.

This doesn't seem like a very fruitful approach to me. I'm not sure how to articlate why, exactly, but it just feels like the sort of situation where approach #2 of trusting the experts would make more sense.

One way to think about it is rationality skills vs domain specific knowledge. It feels like the sort of thing that'd require a lot of domain specific knowledge, knowledge that takes years and years and years to accumulate. Rationality skills are certainly important, but I'd expect there to be smart people in the field with something like an 8/10 in rationality skills and 10/10 in domain specific knowledge, and that seems like it'd win out over a 10/10 in rationality skills and 4/10 in domain specific knowledge.

I might be wrong though, and this is a very important (and interesting!) question. My confidence in approach #2 over approach #1 here is maybe something like 70-80%. More qualitatively, I have a decent feeling about it, but wouldn't feel particularly surprised if I was wrong.

Also, to be clear, I'm not trying to say that it is an either or sort of thing. In reality it makes sense to incorporate various sources of information and opinion, including ones own gears level understanding. I'm moreso trying to pose the question of which direction it makes sense to lean, and how strong we should be leaning in that direction. My sense of the answer to that question is that we should lean in the direction of domain experts moderately strongly, but also keep an eye on smart people who aren't in the field have to say. And on markets like Metaculus.

Finding the right experts

Let's suppose we are doing what I just described and leaning towards approach #2. I think the first step there is to find the right experts to follow.

I want to be clear, in advocating for approach #2 over approach #1, I'm not saying that any ol' expert will do. And I'm certinly not saying to just blindly listen to and follow what various governmental organizations tell you. Following Zvi's commentary on covid over the years (wow, plural), I've began putting a pretty small amount of weight behind what they say. What I am advocating for is finding some experts who seem particularly dependable, and following them.

How does one do that? Good question. It's a very practical question in this situation, and a very interesting question more generally.

My instinct says to find some PhD students to talk to. Hop on a call, get a feel for the landscape, and iterate from there. They're more likely to talk to you than actual professors, and are smarter than undergrads. Or maybe it's the signal-to-noise ratio. I'm sure there are some great undergrads out there.

I also want to note that the word "some" is plural. I think it's important to hear from multiple sources. Once you hear the same thing being advocated for from various directions, it's usually a pretty good sign.

Another approach is to use one's network. Ask friends, family and coworkers if they know anyone smart in the geopolitics space. And that's just one degree of separation away from you. From there you can iterate. Continuing the processes, and traversing the social network.

Similarly, we have each other! LessWrong! We're a network of people. A community. There's thousands of us. We're probably relatively well connected. Focused on the tech industry, sure, but there's gotta be geopolitics people out there. Or people who know geopolitics people. If that's you, please speak up! :)

On the other hand, perhaps there is currently a place in the rationalist community where high quality conversation (on questions #3 and #4) is already happening. Anyone know? I'm not seeing much on https://www.lesswrong.com. If it is private, I'd appreciate a DM.

The unit of caring

As Elizer explained, money is the unit of caring. I wonder what throwing money at the problem would get us? I wonder how assurance contracts could be utilized?

Survival experts

I've been talking about this idea of finding experts to help us with questions #3 and #4, but it might also be helpful to find experts who can address questions of what actions are even valuable in the first place. Maybe moving to Greenland isn't actually helpful. Or maybe it is helpful but building a bunker or something would be more convenient and just as helpful. Maybe there are important actions I'm not aware of.

I spent some amount of hours googling around for this stuff, but I wasn't very happy with the quality of content I came across. It was a lot of clickbait-y posts, amateurish blogs, and blogs from wacky-seeming people.

RFC

Again, this post is a request for comments. Hopefully I said a few useful things, but I'm not too optimistic that I have. My main goal here is to start a conversation and continue the process of figuring this out together, with a focus on what actions would be instrumentally useful for us to take.


  1. In the software community, Requests for Comments (RFCs) are a thing. But on the spectrum of "quick initial conversation starter" to "authoritative thing", RFCs that you see in the software community fall a lot closer to the latter than this post does, from what I understand. ↩︎

  2. If you have a family, for example, there are multiple lives in question. Still, I think the goal here is just to get within an order of magnitude (or two), so the extra lives probably aren't too relevant. But one thing to consider is, eg. if you're an xrisk researcher, you are having a large positive impact on many other lives, and by you dying that impact would be lost, so you might want to incorporate that. ↩︎

  3. Well, I certainly have things to say about the first question. And I also have things to say about the second. But for the purposes of this post, I think we can just call them personal and move on. ↩︎

  4. I don't think I did a very good job of making this point. Oh well. ↩︎

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34 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:39 AM
New Comment

Hello, neighbor! I am rural in your general part of the world, and disaster preparedness has been among my hobbies for most of my life, so I have a few comments!

I notice that you seem to treat personal risks from WWIII as an isolated event, whereas I see it as more of a continuum. It's like talking about the risks from covid only if one personally contracts the virus, versus considering the bigger picture of risks where the virus itself is one factor but other factors include supply chain interruptions from a combination of worker sickness and policy responses, interruptions of access to medical care even if the medical problem is unrelated to the virus, and so forth. One example of such an effect that I'd expect if the US was participating in a hypothetical WWIII is that the resources we typically use for wildland firefighting would be busy, so wildfires (started by lightning, to say nothing of those which might be intentionally set) could be expected to threaten more property (especially rural and suburban) and run uncontained for longer, generating a lot more smoke which people in cities would have to try not to breathe due to its health risks, and we've known for a very long time that masks keep particulates out of the lungs so you'll still want n95s. Semi-unrelatedly, if that earthquake we're overdue for manages to wreck the west coast, Bend will be the nearest airport so if you're living there it'd be prudent to consider the nonzero possibility of a flood of refugees coming through at some point.

How much do you value life?

Covid has highlighted to me that the value of life in various possible futures may differ. One can, without inconsistency, place a high value on life in a world like we knew in 2019, a slightly lower value on life that is spent entirely like we spent 2020, and a lower still value of being the only survivor in a radioactive wasteland.

One thing that comes up late in discussions of preparedness and makes many people quite uncomfortable at first is fully grasping the idea that nobody can survive everything. No matter how prepared you get, there will be some disasters that you simply cannot prepare for. You just get unlucky and bam, you're dead. I cannot reasonably prevent a meteorite from crashing through my ceiling and smashing my skull open. I cannot reasonably prevent a hidden congenital vascular defect in my heart or brain from deciding that today is the day it stops keeping my blood in the proper tubing. I cannot reasonably prevent some driver from losing control of their vehicle and running me over while I'm walking down the sidewalk. There is always a "welp, guess I'll die" condition to any preparedness plan, so figuring out where yours is can help dispel the illusion of obligation to prep for certain particularly extreme eventualities.

Buy useful items

Hazmat suits probably won't help too much, unless you're doing highly specialized tasks and have the training to use them. Masks probably will help, because lungs are for air and explosions kick up a lot of dust and other crud you don't want to breathe. Also, there will probably be more fire around (especially in the summer, around here) and breathing smoke is really bad for you.

IMO, there's a surprising overlap between items that'd be genuinely useful in a disaster and items that are already useful in providing aid to the homeless. I think that useful items are the things that people can't make themselves, and which reduce the incidence and transmission of sickness. Even if your area isn't directly affected, it'll probably be second-order affected by an influx of refugees, hopefully on their way to ports and airports to relocate to less-affected parts of the world. Simple stuff that people no longer make for themselves and yet need to avoid disease include soap, toothbrushes, and clean socks. Hats and blankets, too, in the winter. Water bottles, toilet paper. Perhaps camping style water filters -- the Sawyer Mini works fine and can be had for pretty cheap. These things keep basically forever, can be usefully donated if you decide you don't want to be prepared with them after all, and could be massively useful to make things suck less if society falls apart for a bit.

Also, pick up a copy of the book Where There Is No Doctor (published by Hesperian). It reads a bit like simple english wikipedia, but it's a great resource for deciding what to treat at home versus what it's worth making a risky trip to medical aid for if you don't have the kind of urgent care access available that we've gotten used to.

Building a bomb shelter

Whatever you do, don't bury a shipping container. They're only meant to withstand forces downward on the corners, and can collapse with you in them if you pile soil on the sides and roof and then the soil multiplies in weight as it gets wet. Getting the airflow right in any DIY'd shelter is pretty challenging, although there are some companies which sell actual engineered shelters if you're willing to pay the premium to get it from specialists.

How much do you value not having to move to X (or take whatever other action)?

This intersects with risk assessment for other possible disasters. For instance, moving to Bend makes you a lot safer from that big earthquake, yet puts you at greater risk of impact from gas price fluctuations (since so much stuff is trucked there).

Thinking about places that an enemy might want to destroy, it's also not that hard to imagine a future in which datacenters are appealing targets. Facebook has a DC in Prineville right next to Bend, and I think Google has stuff in the Dalles. Folks are quiet about it, but DCs seem to pop up wherever there's good hydroelectric power, probably for the combination of cheap electricity, cheap land, and easy access to cold water for thermal management.

Hello, neighbor! I am rural in your general part of the world, and disaster preparedness has been among my hobbies for most of my life, so I have a few comments!

Hi! How cool!

I notice that you seem to treat personal risks from WWIII as an isolated event, whereas I see it as more of a continuum.

I have mixed feelings about this. I definitely agree with the continuum idea. There's an A% chance that life is X% as valuable as it was. B% chance that it is Y% as valuable. C% chance that it is Z% as valuable. Etc. However, thinking about it that way is difficult. It is easier to just think about it as if there is an A% chance of this single bad thing happening. And making things easier to think about is very useful. When things are difficult to think about, it is tempting to just throw your hands in the air and call it quits.

I think that it makes sense to use some sort of multiplier. Look at those values for X, Y, Z, etc, and try to estimate what the average is. For example, maybe on average life is 10% as good as it used to be post nuclear attack. So instead of using, say, $10M as your value for life, you'd use $1M. Eg. that $1M figure acts as some sort of summary of the continuum you describe. Same with looking at the probabilities.

There is always a "welp, guess I'll die" condition to any preparedness plan, so figuring out where yours is can help dispel the illusion of obligation to prep for certain particularly extreme eventualities.

Great point. I agree. We should accept defeat in certain scenarios and seek out a good "bang for our buck".

Hazmat suits probably won't help too much, unless you're doing highly specialized tasks and have the training to use them.

Good know know, thanks.

Masks probably will help

Yeah. This is seeming like one of the things worth doing. Although I personally am already stocked up on N95s and also have a P100.

Whatever you do, don't bury a shipping container. They're only meant to withstand forces downward on the corners, and can collapse with you in them if you pile soil on the sides and roof and then the soil multiplies in weight as it gets wet. Getting the airflow right in any DIY'd shelter is pretty challenging, although there are some companies which sell actual engineered shelters if you're willing to pay the premium to get it from specialists.

Wow, good to know! This helped me update some incorrect beliefs. I had previously been thinking that DIY shelter might be worth exploring, because it's pretty simple, just a matter of how much mass there is between you and the radiation, and what that mass is made of. So just getting hunks of wood or metal should do the trick. I guess not though. I shouldn't be surprised, this stuff is never as easy as it seems.

I definitely agree with the continuum idea. There's an A% chance that life is X% as valuable as it was. B% chance that it is Y% as valuable. C% chance that it is Z% as valuable. Etc. However, thinking about it that way is difficult. It is easier to just think about it as if there is an A% chance of this single bad thing happening.

Just a thought on this portion of the exploration.   It's definitely easier to think about the simplified world, but that simplification will impact your option-set as well, and you'll miss out on value in a whole lot of the actual probability space, because you collapsed it into a different scenario.

You can't avoid it completely - there are simply too many possibilities and actions to consider in a human brain in a reasonable amount of time.  But quantizing to 3-5 scenarios can be a lot more useful than just 2, and will help counteract some of the human biases that crop up if you're thinking in binary terms.

Very good point, thanks for making it. I think I probably simplify too much. I like the advice to quantize to 3-5 scenarios. I think it'll help prompt me to get a better feel for my actual option-set, like you said. Making a mental note to do this more in general moving forward.

I had previously been thinking that DIY shelter might be worth exploring, because it's pretty simple, just a matter of how much mass there is between you and the radiation, and what that mass is made of. So just getting hunks of wood or metal should do the trick. I guess not though. I shouldn't be surprised, this stuff is never as easy as it seems.

Don't let me hurt your curiosity -- DIY shelters are absolutely worth learning about, and disaster preparedness is synergistic. There's a reason the CDC ran that "zombie apocalypse preparedness" campaign back in 2011 -- preparing for any one disaster tends to improve your preparedness for all of them. The actions to take to prepare for most disasters are fundamentally the same: Arrange for clean air, shelter, water, food, etc. For instance, when covid first hit, I had n95 masks on hand because I had set some aside expecting wildfire smoke to be a problem. I had hand sanitizer on hand because it's useful for controlling disease if one's supply of water is restricted -- minimizing the water needed for hygiene means more for drinking, which buys more time to fix the supply problem. So I'd recommend starting with preparing for the disasters that with extremely high probabilities of affecting you, and pay attention to the ways in which that preparedness increases your odds of survival for lower-likelihood events like a nukes or zombies.

Look into how to harden your home against the types of disasters that it is most likely to experience. Watch videos of ember storms to update your model of how your home might survive a nearby wildfire. Learn where your water, electric, and gas shutoffs are so that you can stop a little household emergency while it's happening. Do a fire drill; see whether any children in your home can actually open and escape from their bedroom windows when they hear the smoke alarm in the middle of the night. These are the kinds of disasters that threaten you with high probability, and will remain relevant for as long as modern civilization continues.

The drawback to making a disproportionate investment in nuclear shielding is the question of how you'll find uncontaminated food, water, and air after surviving a hypothetical disaster. If you invest excessively in shielding and inadequately in the basic necessities, it'll both lower your expected survival duration in most disasters (you will always need food, and only sometimes need to block radiation), and probably decrease your quality of life in the event that the expected disaster never arrives. The benefit to well-thought-out shielding is that it could also reduce the penetration of stray bullets into your home if you got unlucky, and potentially improve your home's thermal efficiency and even fire and seismic resilience depending on what you use and how you use it. Having a basement, which is much like a bomb shelter, is massively useful for both food storage and sheltering vulnerable people from extreme heat events if there's a power outage and you can't run your A/C.

I've got a creative idea. What if you just had hunks of metal and basically made a little makeshift tipi out of them? I don't see why that wouldn't protect you from those initial gamma rays, or what other risks they might pose.

I think if you're only concerned about shielding against the initial radiation, you might only need the shield between you and the blast.

I wonder how much metal it would actually take. How much would that cost, and weigh? this suggests that "a few inches of lead" would suffice. So let's say we're using the minimum viable lead sheet... If you're lying or standing behind it, 2' x 6' would probably suffice. Say it's 3" thick, so roughly 3 cubic feet of lead. this says a cubic foot of lead is about 708lbs, so we're looking at about 2124lbs of lead, give or take. If you need it thicker than that, it'll obviously weigh more, at 1 cubic foot per inch at that size. Will the structure of your house be able to handle that kind of load where you'd like to put it? The lowest price estimate that a quick search turns up is $1 per pound, which would make such a shield expensive enough to warrant budgeting for but not out of reach on a tech salary.

My impression of the health risk of a nuclear event is that radioactive particles in the environment persist for quite a long time and create health hazards. I get this impression mostly from having visited the Chernobyl exclusion zone and experienced the strict security protocols making sure nobody left with even radioactive dirt on their clothes. While nuclear-blast doses of gamma radiation will definitely kill you right away, I don't actually know how to quantify the risk of being near all the radioactive stuff if you came out from behind a person-sized radiation shield immediately after a blast.

Thanks for doing that research! Seems a bit much, price-wise and risk of screwing up (in my case) my apartment floor-wise.

But at the same time, it does strike me as a plausible route to go down. This diagram indicates that the radiation levels go down pretty rapidly. So if you could hang out in that little person-sized space for, I don't know, 12 hours or so, maybe that'd mostly eliminate the risk? It would certainly be uncomfortable. But since this is a situation where your life depends on it, it doesn't seem too bad. And you could pay more money to have more space if you'd like.

And if you combine it with, say, a $25 P100 mask + eye goggles after you exit your metal shield, my understanding is that the big thing is you don't want radioactive fallout particles entering your body. The P100 + goggles + not eating/drinking anything radioactive should basically eliminate that risk. So yeah, this actually sounds kinda plausible.

A recommendation: buy a HEPA filter, and also some P100 masks. I imagine these may help a bunch in a "shelter from fallout" scenario. I hear HEPA filtration was originally invented to get radioactive contaminants out of the air.

+1.  General emergency preparedness (keeping a few weeks of food/medicine, having a generator and fuel, knowing first aid, etc.) is low-hanging fruit, and pays off in a HUGE range of scenarios.  

If you wouldn't mind, I would love to hear you elaborate on this. It's something I'm confused about. For example, HEPA filters, food, etc. would only be useful if you were sheltering at home, right? But, wouldn't you want to escape to the countryside if there were an attack coming?

I guess there is the scenario where you didn't have time to escape to the countryside. But for me at least in Portland, even if I had 20 minutes of notice, I would be able to at least run on foot a few miles east and get out of the likely blast radius. This diagram indicates that there is a very high value in doing that. I assume the same thing is true for a lot of people: they're somewhat centrally located and it'd make sense to venture outwards if you had any sort of advanced notice of an attack.

Honestly, HEPA filters are probably limited - they require power infrastructure, and provide a quality boost to life, but rarely the difference between death in a week and a much longer lifespan.

Other forms of emergency prep (food, medicine, knowledge) matter a lot in the case where you don't die immediately but almost all public services are disrupted.  This is available with a lot less commitment than moving to a bunker in the woods, and is portable and valuable if your risk assessment changes and you later decide to move.   

It's not the difference between death in a fireball and living, but it CAN be the difference between death in the week following an attack or collapse and living much longer.

I see. Thanks for the response. As I research this more, I'm starting to think that the scenario where food would be useful is quite, quite unlikely, and probably not worth preparing for. For example, in the 80,000 Hours podcast episode with Daniel Ellsberg, Ellsberg talks about how it is extremely likely that we'd end up in a nuclear winter scenario where only you'd only survive if you were located in a few select areas of the globe like Australia and New Zealand.

Yeah, the likely "full war" scenarios don't leave many humans a year later, no matter how much prep they've done.  So the question becomes about how much probability weight you put on lesser events that destroy and disrupt some things, but don't permanently render most of the earth uninhabitable.  And are there any such scenarios where Bend is significantly better than Portland for a survivor?

That said, New Zealand is beautiful, and if you put enough value on your life in those possible worlds, you should seriously move there.

I'm starting to think that the scenario where food would be useful is quite, quite unlikely,

I am very confused by this, to the point where I wonder if you missed a negative! Remember the bare grocery shelves of early covid? Wasn't that a scenario where food storage would be useful?

No I meant it as is. If there is a nuclear winter, it kinda doesn't matter regardless. Suppose crops all die out within a year. Maybe you stored 18 months worth of food and stick it out longer, in a bunker let's say, but then you end up dying after that anyway. So in that scenario, I think having food stored doesn't really help much.

Then there are other scenarios where I think the safer thing would be, at least for me in Portland, to escape as far from the city center as possible, in which case I wouldn't be able to carry too much food. Then there's the fact that food is useful when society has collapsed enough where it can't provide it to you. But in that world it seems like it'd be quite difficult to protect your food supply if you don't have a bunker. Eg. people would be desperate and would break in and try to steal it. And also, in the scenario where society has collapsed enough where it can't provide you food, I think that points pretty strongly towards enough nukes having been used to trigger a nuclear winter, in which case it wouldn't matter anyway.

Sorry, I don't think I broke this down very clearly, but hopefully it communicates the gist of where I'm coming from. When I imagine the various scenarios, it's seeming to me like a large supply of food would rarely be useful.

Thank you for explaining! Our models of the world are just very divergent in this particular spot. To simplify near the edge of uselessness, your model says that there will be no more food for you if the grocery shelves are empty, and mine says that edible things will appear out of the ground for me if I wait long enough. (Both oversimplifications have their inaccuracies, of course)

I guess for an urban person who's highly entwined with modern society and not interested in setting up a homesteading type lifestyle pre-SHTF, nuclear winter might qualify as a "welp guess I'll die" event.

Then there are other scenarios where I think the safer thing would be, at least for me in Portland, to escape as far from the city center as possible, in which case I wouldn't be able to carry too much food.

In prepper communities, there's the concept of a "bug-out location". They realize, as you have also observed, that there are many types of disaster in which the best thing for an urban person to do is go somewhere more rural. However, the next step in that plan is to think through where they would go, and how they would get there. Many people have family or close friends who live rurally.

The trick to making that work, of course, is to talk to them about it before showing up on their doorstep. The urban lifestyle often involves much higher disposable income than the rural one, so there are many ways that a "hey can I store some stuff here and show up if pdx gets nuked" relationship can be mutually beneficial. Maybe there's some infrastructure contribution you could make to the place that would increase the whole group's odds of doing well in a disaster. Maybe an agreement that they're welcome to start in on the food you stored there if you don't manage to make it out in x time would be mutually beneficial. The details vary from friendship to friendship and from family to family, but the goal is basically to contribute to a community which would be able to help you meet your survival needs if you needed to show up there.

If you have a location where you'd be welcome to stay if you had to get out of the city, I'd highly recommend establishing some perennial food crops there if at all possible. Naturalizing edible stuff that's harvestable through the year, rather than letting a space get taken over by the himalayan blackberries that are useful for a whole 3 weeks, makes an ecosystem much easier to forage in (and passers-by have a hard time stealing food if they don't recognize a plant as being edible!). But that's a whole other conversation :)

I'd love to dig into this further. I find it both interesting and useful.

Our models of the world are just very divergent in this particular spot.

Where exactly are they diverging?

One possibility is that they diverge in the likelihood of a nuclear winter being triggered, given a US-Russia nuclear exchange. On that question, I think my belief is something like a 20% probability. I basically am taking Luisa Rodriguez' estimate of 11% and bumping it upwards a bit based on my impression of her estimate being a little lower than what is typical, and based on me being just broadly more pessimistic.

Another possibility where they diverge is, in the event of a nuclear winter, how survivable we each think it would be. I lean towards thinking it'd mean crops die out and I'd die within a year or so. You lean towards thinking that it'd be survivable long term. Crops would come back, society would rebound, and storing large amounts of food would help you get past the initial chaos and survive long enough until things rebound. Is that an accurate summary?

In prepper communities, there's the concept of a "bug-out location".

Cool. Thanks for introducing me to that term.

Tell me if this is naive, but I'm kinda thinking that, one situation is if you anticipate the attack early enough, you can probably just find an Airbnb (and hit the grocery stores) then. Eg. suppose Russia mobilized weapons against America or something and society in general doesn't panic/react much.

Then another situation is where, let's say Russia nukes NYC but not Portland. In that situation, I expect the government would have various places set up to take people in who are seeking to shelter from a subsequent attack, like at high schools or whatever. So I'd be able to head out to, say eastern Oregon and have access to one of those places.

If so, the question becomes whether it'd be safer to be in a private residence or something than say a high school.

  • If the private residence had a bunker or was particularly insulated, then it might do a better job of shielding against the initial impact of the bomb. But if the initial impact of a bomb something to worry about in eastern Oregon, then that sounds like a world where we're basically doomed anyway, because eastern Oregon is low on the list of priorities to nuke, and thus it'd mean all out war, nuclear winter, anarchy, etc.
  • Another reason why you might be safer in a private residence is if you're stuck there for a long time. Ie. if in the world where you shelter at a local high school, they run out of food there and you die, vs the world where you shelter in a private residence you don't run out of food. But if that were the case, it sounds like it'd also mean the US-Russia war was extremely severe, meaning the same stuff about nuclear winter, anarchy, it being difficult to survive for various other reasons, and it not being a particularly fun world to be a part of.

Yes, HEPA was in fact invented to get radioactive contaminants out of the air, or so I heard, but they are unneeded for protection from fallout because most fallout (by mass, not by particle count) consists of particles about the size of peas, which of course do not stay suspended in the air.

Of course things like N-95 masks are very useful in emergencies for other reasons.

If you value your life at billions of dollars the implied risk of driving for an hour is, roughly, thousands of dollars.

My calculations estimate it at more like $100, making it an activity I try to avoid but can be flexible with if necessary. Where I live it is walkable enough where a car isn't needed.

I consider the escalation of cyberwar more likely than nuclear war. It is much easier for cyberwar to escalate as the attribution of attacks is hard and various non-state actors are involved on both sides.

It's plausible that the person most likely to escalate this conflict into WWIII is a hacker that sits in their basement and that doesn't take direct orders from any government.

I would expect that geopolitics experts underrate the agency and effects of cyber actors just like nobody had scenarios like Arkipov's submarine in their models during the Cuban missle crisis. 

We likely could achieve more by focusing on tech people than by focusing on traditional geopolitics in this conflict.

What do you think a single hacker could do that would realistically lead to a WWIII situation?

Lock full-on the throttle / lock steering ahead-and-maybe-slightly-to-the-left / lock out brakes of e.g. every Tesla[1] in existence[2]? This is not utterly implausible for a single person to be able to do[3][4].

9/11 caused the US to invoke NATO article 5 for ~3,000 civilians killed. ~2.3 million Teslas have been sold[5].

  1. ^

    Or insert other major remotely-accessible model of car here.

  2. ^

    Especially if the person in question is both a) in a country that isn't cooperative with NATO and b) doesn't especially bother to cover their tracks.

  3. ^

    There's been multiple instances of white-hats pointing out remotely exploitable security flaws in cars, and Tesla's response to white-hats has been extremely negative, meaning that flaws that would otherwise be fixed often aren't.

  4. ^

    Also note that Teslas are cellular-connected.

  5. ^

    I don't have an accurate number as to how many are on the road.

I consider the escalation of cyberwar more likely than nuclear war.

I do too, but these probabilities are not exclusive.  In fact, they're correlated.  The path from cyberwar to nuclear war is pretty believable.  

My thoughts:

I consider the escalation of cyberwar more likely than nuclear war. It is much easier for cyberwar to escalate as the attribution of attacks is hard and various non-state actors are involved on both sides.

It makes sense to me that attribution of attacks is harder, that various non-state actors are involved on both sides, and that each of these things would push cyberwar towards being more likely than nuclear war. However, I figure there are a million other things to consider. Things that I don't have much of a grasp on at all. To conclude that one is more likely than the other with some moderate degree of confidence, I'd want to have a much stronger grasp on the other factors and be able to weigh them up, but I don't have that, so a low-confidence position is what makes sense to me.

It's plausible that the person most likely to escalate this conflict into WWIII is a hacker that sits in their basement and that doesn't take direct orders from any government.

Maybe. Or maybe cybersecurity is actually good in this context, and it is thus implausible. I don't have a grasp on how good the cybersecurity is, so it's hard to say.

I would expect that geopolitics experts underrate the agency and effects of cyber actors just like nobody had scenarios like Arkipov's submarine in their models during the Cuban missle crisis.

It's not clear to me why you believe this. Arkipov's submarine is just one data point and doesn't seem strong enough to me to be confident. The place my mind goes is more general human and organization biases, and incentives, and access to information, but I'm not sure exactly how any of that applies here.

We likely could achieve more by focusing on tech people than by focusing on traditional geopolitics in this conflict.

It's not clear to me why you make this claim either.

Thanks for the fairly open post, taking ideas seriously.

seems like the sort of thing we will need to deal with in our lifetimes at some point

Depending on what you mean by "dealing with", many of us have been dealing with it for a long time.  It's not the sort of thing that stays dealt-with, so it's an ongoing process of minor contributions, not a "fix it and move to the next problem" thing.  

My advice: anything you can think to do, say, or spend, to reduce the chance of a worldwide nuclear exchange (including just living a normal life and trying to provide some trade value to people around you or distant from you, to participate in economic connectedness) is likely to be MUCH more effective than trying to find a place to run away to.  

How much do you value life?

Note this is not (for me, nor for most I think) a point-value.  It's not "life with some modifications" vs "cleanly dead", it's a huge range of projections of duration and enjoyment of life.  Unless you give a significant weight to potential immortality before significant degradation (I do not, but some here do), you probably want to optimize quality in addition to duration.

How much do you value not having to move to X (or take whatever other action)?

Plus "how does it change in the event of a catastrophic disaster"?  Honestly, moving to farmland isn't likely to save anyone - if most cities are destroyed, so is the government that makes your home safe to be in and enables the cooperation and infrastructure to deliver food.  Being dead in Portland or being alive but starving and under siege by refugees and militant neighbors in Bend is actually a difficult valuation.

How likely is it that you get attacked?

And what range of outcomes if you do, with what probabilities?  My estimates are that if the suburbs of Portland OR are nuked, the rest of the civilized world is also destroyed or unlivable.  There's a VERY narrow probability window of value-of-life for non-disastrous actions made now to help in the event of a worldwide nuclear war.  Building a commune/compound with self-sufficient farming, bunkers and a small army of trusted, armed followers might be effective, but is probably more than most of us want to commit.

  1. How likely is it that you die in an attack?

Death in the attack is the easy outcome.  How likely is it that you survive the attack and face starvation, gangs, sickness, etc. afterward?  What actions can change the probabilities of those outcomes?

Thanks for the fairly open post, taking ideas seriously.

Thanks for the engagement.

Depending on what you mean by "dealing with", many of us have been dealing with it for a long time.

Yeah, I wasn't very clear here, sorry.

What I meant is something like figuring out what your options are, at what level of risk you would pursue each option, and how you would go about evaluating the level of risk. Ie. "I would move to South Africa if I thought there was a 1/1000 chance of being attacked. I would do A if I thought there was an X% chance of attack. B if Y%. C if Z%. D if I had this amount of time. E if that amount of time. Etc. And for evaluating the level of risk, I will use Alice, Bob and Carol as my sources of information."

This does actually seem like the sort of thing you could move on from once you've "figured it out", for the most part. Or maybe there is something I'm not seeing. What do you think?

My advice: anything you can think to do, say, or spend, to reduce the chance of a worldwide nuclear exchange (including just living a normal life and trying to provide some trade value to people around you or distant from you, to participate in economic connectedness) is likely to be MUCH more effective than trying to find a place to run away to.

This doesn't make sense to me. Suppose I participate in economic trade by doing some freelance programming work for someone in, say, Germany. That seems like it'd have a negligible impact on reducing the chance of nuclear war.

But perhaps one can shut up and do the impossible, if that is what you mean. Seems quite difficult though.

Note this is not (for me, nor for most I think) a point-value. It's not "life with some modifications" vs "cleanly dead", it's a huge range of projections of duration and enjoyment of life.

Yeah, that is true. Although I am a big believer in the need to simplify things. Incorporating how much you value life in all of the various scenarios and stuff seems like it'd make the question too difficult to think about.

So what makes sense to me would be to use some sort of multiplier to cut down the original value you'd place on life. Life after a nuclear war seems like it'd be a lot worse. So maybe it'd make sense to use a 1/10 multiplier? Eg. If you value it originally at $10M, life after nuclear war would only be worth $1M? Hard to say.

Plus "how does it change in the event of a catastrophic disaster"? Honestly, moving to farmland isn't likely to save anyone - if most cities are destroyed, so is the government that makes your home safe to be in and enables the cooperation and infrastructure to deliver food. Being dead in Portland or being alive but starving and under siege by refugees and militant neighbors in Bend is actually a difficult valuation.

Hm, good point. This too I am finding difficult to think about. I do agree that government and infrastructure would be significantly, significantly harmed. But maybe other countries would be in tact enough, and one can survive long enough until help comes from them? At least it's progress to have identified this as one of the cruxes.

[T]here's gotta be geopolitics people out there. Or people who know geopolitics people. If that's you, please speak up! :)

As Elizer explained, money is the unit of caring. I wonder what throwing money at the problem would get us? I wonder how assurance contracts could be utilized?

 

I've been interested in geopolitics for a long time. I could write a weekly column for $500 per week.

So then, any effort spent educating oneself and preparing right now probably won't be wasted. It's like buying honey for your pantry: it doesn't expire, and you know you will use eventually.
 

But knowledge can in fact "expire", it can be lost, e.g. when it isn't used, when there's no repetition for long periods of time.
 

Good point. My sense is that it'd be the sort of thing where it'd come back to you more quickly though. "Oh yeah, I remember this."

I'm also not a geopolitics person, but quite frankly, personally, I'm deeply scared. Putin's nuclear half-threats... Belarus now receiving nukes from Russia...

And most importantly - why the heck did he even invaded Ukraine in the first place?? The closest I've found to a truthful justification was "if Ukraine joins NATO and decides to take back Crimea by military action, NATO will invoke article 5 and it might lead to WW3". But is he being honest? NATO is a defensive organization, the US has invaded many countries since it joined, and no time was article 5 invoked except on 9/11 where the US was actually attacked first. So Ukraine invading Crimea (part of Russia) wouldn't be anything defensive that would justify invoking article 5 - or would it since international law, I think, still recognizes Crimea as Ukranian territory??

Even then, like I say, I see no good reason to invade Ukraine. The 200.000 troops he sent are the same number of active Ukrainian troops (which will be almost all used), plus you have some 10 million fighting age men who seem very willing to grab a gun and take it to the streets. Most importantly, US/world is steadily supplying Ukraine with weapons, including anti aircraft and anti tank weapons which will do a lot of damage to Russia's air and tank superiority. As a result, Russia might take Kiev, but I find it almost impossible that it will last any long, since Ukrainians are extremely determined and have the help of the whole world almost.

So this will only hurt Russia mid/long-term, and possibly make Ukraine join NATO quicker. Is this an emotional move? Is this a desperate all-in? I'm deeply scared, honestly wouldn't be surprised with at least Russia nuking Ukraine after their army has been weakened and they feel they can't win conventionally.

I definitely agree with all your claims. If I had money, moving to the countryside AND buying one of those doomsday bomb shelter flats would be something I would do immediately.

Let's hope this doesn't escalate!

Russia managed to take Crimea without any bloodshed. There's a good chance that the military planners thought that taking Ukraine would also be easy. American military planners thought the war in Iraq would be much easier. That said, just because the war isn't over after a single week doesn't mean that Russia is not able to decisively win it. 

There's some chance that Putin believes that the war gives him a good negotiating position and he's now in a position to get deals he wouldn't have gotten before. 

Taking a small portion of a country that is an island and where the majority of the population is ethnically the same as the invaders is completely different from taking a whole country of 45 million whose population is deeply adverse towards you.

"There's some chance that Putin believes that the war gives him a good negotiating position and he's now in a position to get deals he wouldn't have gotten before."

After possibly causing severe losses to his army, to his economy, and to his reputation? The only thing that made Russia a superpower before this war was nukes, and this only comes to cement that fact. Hence my claims about irrationality / all-in gamble. Hence my fear.

Anyway, not in reply to your comment, but don't really understand all the downvotes, from what I've been reading my opinion isn't even that unpopular or anything wildly out there.