What Happens When Society Collapses?

When societies collapse all bets are off, survival isn’t guaranteed even for the prepared. The most likely collapse scenario in the Western World is financial collapse. A consumerist society greased by a global financial system teetering on the edge of the abyss.

I am not a professional scientist or a specialist in Collapsology, but it doesn’t take a Mensa member to recognize something isn’t right in the Western World.

What Happens If Society Collapses?

Every Society throughout history collapses at some point.

When a society collapses, it can return to a less developed state, be integrated into a larger, stronger state, or vanish. Some collapsed societies may bounce back but with less adaptive capacity, reverting to less complex, less centralized socio-political forms using simpler technology.

Interested in learning more about societal collapse? Check out the Ready Squirrel article, “26 Ways to Prepare For Societal Collapse.”

Collapse of Society: Five Stages

So, what does the collapse look like?

Society collapses in five general stages: first financial collapse, second commercial collapse, third political collapse, fourth social collapse, and fifth cultural collapse.

The five stages of societal collapse are a simplified theory that can be used to recognize the decline that leads to full-blown meltdown, based on Dmitry Orlov’s book, “The Five Stages of Societal Collapse.”

I tried to use some of the other theories on collapse, but they are so detailed and have so many facets I’d be writing a book instead of a short article. Don’t take this information as gospel but as one way to simplify and think about what is happening around you.

Also, keep in mind I care about the environment but I don’t drink the Kool-aid.

Stage 1 Financial Collapse

Faith is lost in the financial system and currency. The population no longer thinks that the economic future will bear fruit and that there is no financial security or a way to build wealth for the future.

The financial system no longer supports loans or guarantees assets to spur future growth.

Loans and “guarantees to pay back loans” are needed to maintain a global economy.

Business and financial institutions become insolvent, savings and retirement disappear, and access to loans and capital for future investment are no longer available.

Likely Cause of Financial Collapse In America

According to Orlov, Usury, money-lending for interest, is based on an ever-expanding global economy.

“Western nations are dependent on global finance for: savings, pensions, government services, food crops, and the importation of goods. Said another way the U.S. government takes out loans and pays interest to keep the system running.

Borrowing money and the ability to pay it back depends on an economic system with future growth, or looked at another way infinite growth. Finite resources do not support infinite future growth.

At some point, the financial system has to collapse.

Check out the Ready Squirrel article, “Societal Collapse: Realistic Examples.”

Stage 2 Commercial

Commercial collapse occurs when actual products and services become scarce or unavailable. This isn’t just lawnmowers and new cars, it includes food.

Commodities are hoarded.

The import and retail supply chains break down, which triggers widespread supply shortages.

Ships don’t leave port. Imported and exported items cease to exist.

The trucking system collapses, and so does the food supply.

The population no longer believes that the market will provide for their needs.

“All that is required for financial collapse is for certain assumptions about the future to be invalidated, for finance is not a physical system but a mental construct.”

The Five Stages of Collapse, Dmitry Orlov

Borrowing and lending money are what grease the economic engine. Everything downstream depends on it, from local infrastructure to military assets.

Money has value because we believe it has value. Financial and global trade systems are based on the psychology of belief, the idea of value.

Stage 3 Political Collapse

Political collapse occurs when governments can’t provide food, shelter, transportation, and security.

The population loses trust in the government. Political officials try to fix the supply chain, but they can’t.

The political establishment loses authority and becomes irrelevant to the Populus.

Stage 4 Social Collapse

The population no longer trusts social institutions or their ability to provide.

Churches, charities, and other social organizations try to satiate the loss of necessary supplies and fill the gaps left by the ailing political government.

It doesn’t work as they quickly run out of stores.

Stage 5 Cultural Collapse

This is a stage of despair, faith in humankind’s goodness is lost.

Human behaviors that bolster the thin veneer of society: “kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, and charity” are lost. The ship is sinking, and it’s every man for himself.

What Causes a Society To Collapse?

Various factors cause societal collapse, and each of these factors intertwines and amplifies one another. Below are eight “general” reasons societies collapse.

  1. Economical
  2. Environmental
  3. Social
  4. Cultural
  5. Natural Disasters
  6. Over Population
  7. Resource Depletion
  8. Foreign Invasions

Learn the best types of food to stockpile for the collapse, “Societal Collapse: 36 Top Foods For Storage”

What does Societal Collapse Look Like?

We’ve all watched the movies and read the books, MadMax, the Walking Dead, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s (Gulag Archipelago). We can only imagine a world turned upside down.

Following is an article, supposedly written by a man who survived the war in Bosnia. I say supposedly because I can not verify authenticity. This letter has been floating around since the early nineties, but it will give you an idea of what it’s like on the ground when SHTF.

Note: I did minor edits of the letter, so it is readable. If the story is believed, the original letter was translated from Bosnian to French and then to English. It’s a little rough but a good read.

One year in Hell…

I am from Bosnia. You know, between 1992 and 1995, it was hell. For one year, I lived and survived in a city with 6,000 people without water, electricity, gasoline, medical help, civil defense, distribution service, any kind of traditional service, or centralized rule.

The army blockaded our city, and life in the city turned into total crap for one year. We had no army, no police, and those armed [with weapons] protected their homes and families.

When it all started, some of us were better prepared. Most of the neighbors… had enough food… for a few days. Some had pistols; a few had AK-47s or shotguns.

After a month or two, gangs started operating, destroying everything.

Hospitals, for example, turned into slaughterhouses.

There were no more police. About 80 percent of the hospital staff were gone. I got lucky. My family at the time was fairly large (15 people in a large house, six pistols, three AKs), and we survived (most of us, at least).

The Americans dropped MREs every 10 days to help blockaded cities.

This was never enough. Some — very few — had gardens.

It took three months for the first rumors to spread of men dying from hunger and cold.

We removed all the doors, the window frames from abandoned houses, ripped up the floors and burned the furniture for heat. Many died from diseases, especially from the water (two from my own family). We drank mostly rainwater, ate pigeons and even rats.

Money soon became worthless. We returned to an exchange.

For a tin can of tushonka (think Soviet spam), you could have a woman. (It is hard to speak of it, but it is true.) Most of the women who sold themselves were desperate mothers.

Arms, ammunition, candles, lighters, antibiotics, gasoline, batteries, and food.

We fought for these things like animals. In these situations, it all changes. Men become monsters, and it was disgusting.

Strength was in numbers. A man living alone [would get] killed and robbed. It ]was] just a matter of time, even if he was armed.

Today, my family and I are well-prepared. I am well-armed, and I have experience.

It does not matter what will happen: an earthquake, a war, a tsunami, aliens, terrorists, economic collapse, uprising. The important part is that something will happen.

Here’s my experience: You can’t make it {or leave it.]

Don’t stay apart from your family; prepare together, choose reliable friends.

1. Moving Safely

The city was divided into communities along the streets. Our street (15 to 20 homes) had patrols (five armed men every week) to watch for gangs and enemies.

All the exchanges occurred in the street.

About 5 kilometers away was an entire street for trading, all well-organized, but going there was too dangerous because of the snipers.

You could also get robbed by bandits. I only went there twice when I needed something scarce (list of medicine, mainly antibiotics).

Nobody used automobiles in the city: The streets were blocked by wreckage and by abandoned cars.

Gasoline was costly. If one needed to go somewhere, that was done at night.

Never travel alone or in groups that were too big — always two to three men. All armed, travel swift, in the shadows, cross streets through ruins, not along open streets.

There were many gangs, 10 to 15 men strong, some as large as 50 men.

There were also many normal men, like you and me, fathers and grandfathers, who killed and robbed.

There were no “good” and “bad” men, and most were in the middle and ready for the worst.

2. Fuel

Woods surround your home city; why did you burn doors and furniture?

There were not that many woods around the city, and it was stunning — restaurants, cinemas, schools, even an airport. Every tree in the city and the city park was cut down for fuel in the first two months.

Without electricity for cooking and heat, we burned anything that burned.

Furniture, doors, flooring: That wood burns swiftly.

We had no suburbs or suburban farms.

The enemy was in the suburbs, and we were surrounded. Even in the city, you [didn’t know] who was the enemy at any given point.

3. Useful Knowledge

To imagine the situation a bit better, you should know it was practically a return to the Stone Age.

For example, I had a container of cooking gas.

But I did not use it for heat. That would be too expensive!

I attached a nozzle to it I made myself and used to fill lighters. Lighters were precious.

If a man brought an empty lighter, I would fill it; and he would give me a tin of food or a candle.

I was a paramedic.

In these conditions, my knowledge was my wealth. Be curious and skilled.

In these conditions, the ability to fix things is more valuable than gold.

Items and supplies will inevitably run out, but your skills will keep you fed.

I wish to say this: Learn to fix things, shoes, or people.

My neighbor, for example, knew how to make kerosene for lamps, and he never went hungry.

4. Preparing for next time (three months to prepare)

Three months? Runaway from the country?

Today, I know everything can collapse really fast. I have a stockpile of food, hygiene items, batteries — enough to last me for six months.

I live in a very secure flat and own a home with a shelter in a village 5 kilometers away.

Another six-month supply there, too. That’s a small village; most people there are well-prepared. The war had taught them.

I have four weapons and 2,000 rounds for each.

I have a garden and have learned gardening.

Also, I have good instincts. You know, when everyone around you keeps telling you it’ll all be fine, but I know it will all collapse.

I have the strength to do what I need to protect my family. Because when it all collapses, you must be ready to do “bad” things to keep your children alive and protect your family.

Surviving on your own is practically impossible. Even [if’ you’re armed and ready, if you’re alone, you’ll die. I have seen that happen many times.

Families and groups, well-prepared, with skills and knowledge in various fields: That’s much better.

5. What to Stockpile

Food, hygiene items, batteries, accumulators, little trading items (knives, lighters, flints, soap).

Also, alcohol of a type that keeps well. The cheapest whiskey is a good trading item.

Many people died from insufficient hygiene.

You’ll need simple items in great amounts. For example, garbage bags. Lots of them. And toilet paper. Non-reusable dishes and cups: You’ll need lots of them. I know that because we didn’t have any at all.

As for me, a supply of hygiene items is perhaps more important than food. You can shoot a pigeon, and you can find a plant to eat, and you can’t find or shoot any disinfectant.

First aid skills, washing wounds, and burns. Perhaps you will find a doctor and will not be able to pay him.

Learn to use antibiotics. It’s good to have a stockpile of them.

You should choose the simplest weapons. I carry a Glock .45. I like it, but it’s a rare gun here. So I have two TT pistols, too. (Everyone has them, and ammo is common.)

I don’t like Kalashnikov’s, but again, the same story. Everyone has them; so do I.

You must own small, unnoticeable items. For example, a generator is good, but 1,000 BIC lighters are better. A generator will attract attention if there’s any trouble, but 1,000 lighters are compact, cheap, and can always be traded.

We usually collected rainwater into four large barrels and then boiled it. There was a small river, but the water in it became filthy very fast.

It’s also important to have containers for water: barrels and buckets.

6. Gold and Silver

Yes. I personally traded all the gold in the house for ammunition.

Sometimes, we got our hands on money: dollars and Deutschmarks. We bought some things for them, but this was rare, and prices were astronomical. For example, beans can cost $30 to $40, and the local money quickly becomes worthless. Everything we needed we traded for through barter.

7. Was salt expensive ?

Yes, but coffee and cigarettes were even more expensive. I had lots of alcohol and traded it without problems.

Alcohol consumption grew over 10 times as compared to peacetime. Perhaps today, it’s more useful to keep a stock of cigarettes, lighters, and batteries, and they take up less space.

At this time, I was not a survivalist. We had no time to prepare — several days before the shit hit the fan. The politicians kept repeating over the TV that everything was going according to plan. There’s no reason to be concerned. When the sky fell on our heads, we took what we could.

8. Firearms

After the war, we had guns in every house. The police confiscated lots of guns at the beginning of the war. But most of them we hid. Now I have one legal gun that I have a license for.

Under the law, that’s called a temporary collection. If there is unrest, the government will seize all the registered guns.

You know, many people have one legal gun, but also illegal guns if that one gets seized.

If you have trade goods, you might be able to get a gun in a tough situation. But remember, the most difficult time is the first days, and perhaps you won’t have enough time to find a weapon to protect your family. To be disarmed in a time of chaos and panic is a bad idea.

In my case, a man needed a car battery for his radio, and he had shotguns, and I traded the accumulator for both of them.

Sometimes, I traded ammunition for food, and a few weeks later traded food for ammunition. Never did the trade at home, never in great amounts.

Few people knew how much and what I keep at home.

The most important thing is to keep as many things as possible in terms of space and money. Eventually, you’ll understand what is more valuable.

9. Security

Our defenses were very primitive. Again, we weren’t ready, and we used what we could. The windows were shattered, and the roofs were in a horrible state after the bombings.

The windows were blocked — some with sandbags, others with rocks.

I blocked the fence gate with wreckage and garbage and used a ladder to get across the wall.

When I came home, I asked someone inside to pass over the ladder. We had a fellow on our street that completely barricaded himself in his house. He broke a hole in the wall, creating a passage for himself into the ruins of the neighbor’s house — a sort of secret entrance.

Maybe this [seems] strange, but the most protected houses were looted and destroyed first. In my city area, there were beautiful houses with walls, dogs, alarms, and barred windows.

People attacked them first. Some held out; others didn’t. It all depended on how many hands and guns they had inside.

I think defense is essential, but it must be carried out unobtrusively. If you are in a city and SHTF comes, you need a simple, non-flashy place with lots of guns and ammo.

Make your house as unattractive as you can.

How much ammo? As much as possible.

Right now, I own a steel door, but that’s just against the first wave of chaos. After that passes, I will leave the city to rejoin a larger group of people, friends, and family.

We also constantly kept someone watching the streets. Quality organization is [important] in case of gang attacks.

The shooting was constantly heard in the city.

Our perimeter was defended primitively, and all the exits were barricaded and had little firing slits. Inside we had at least five family members ready for battle at any time and one man in the street, hidden in a shelter.

We stayed home through the day to avoid sniper fire.

At first, the weak perish. Then, the rest fight.

During the day, the streets were practically empty due to sniper fire.

Defenses were oriented toward short-range combat alone.

Many died if they went out to gather information, for example. It’s important to remember we had no information, no radio, no TV — only rumors and nothing else.

There was no organized army; every man fought, and we had no choice. Everybody was armed, ready to defend themselves.

You should not wear quality items in the city; someone will murder you and take them.

Let me tell you something: If SHTF starts tomorrow, I’ll be humble, and I’ll look like everyone else. Desperate, fearful. Maybe I’ll even shout and cry a little bit.

I’ll stay aside, well-armed, well-prepared, waiting and evaluating my possibilities with my best friend or brother.

Super-defenses, super-guns are meaningless.

If people think they should steal your things, that you’re profitable, they will. It’s only a question of time and the number of guns and hands.

10. Sanitation

We used shovels and a patch of earth near the house. Does it seem dirty? It was. We washed with rainwater or in the river, but the latter was too dangerous most of the time.

We had no toilet paper, and if we had any, I would have traded it away.

It was a “dirty” business.

Let me give you a piece of advice: You need guns and ammo first — and second, everything else. Literally everything! It all depends on the space and money you have.

If you forget something, there will always be someone to trade with for it. But if you forget weapons and ammo, there will be no access to trading for you.

I don’t think big families are extra mouths. Big families mean both more guns and strength — and from there, everyone prepares on his own.

11. Medical Care

Most injuries were from gunfire.

Without a specialist and equipment, if an injured man found a doctor somewhere, he had about a 30 percent chance of survival.

It ain’t the movie. People died, and many died from infections of superficial wounds. I had antibiotics for three to four uses — for the family, of course.

People died foolishly quite often. Simple diarrhea will kill you in a few days without medicine, with limited amounts of water.

There were many skin diseases and food poisoning.

Many used local plants and pure alcohol — enough for the short-term but useless in the long term.

Hygiene is critical, as well as having as much medicine as possible — especially antibiotics.

Agricultural Collapse

USSR Food System

In the former Soviet Union, agriculture underperformed, leading to failed collective farms, which led to permanent shortages of meat, grain, and protein. USSR had to imports grain from hostile governments to provided bread.

Russian families used kitchen gardens and local food sources to supplement their diet.

The modern U.S. Food System

The U.S. agricultural system is based on oil inputs. A Highly Industrialized agricultural system relies heavily on diesel, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and agricultural loans.

If the supply lines fail the shelves will be empty in three days. Many people in the United States are not within walking distance of a grocery store.

Chart #1 Soviet Reaction To The Collapse Of Agrictulture And Modern U.S. Food System

Soviet Union (Food Habits)United States (Food Habits)
Kitchen GardensSupermarkets and Big Box Stores
Local Food StockpilesFood Shipped in Diesel Trucks (Supply chain dependent)
Home Cooking CultureFast Food Culture
Physically ActiveObesity Epidemic
Foraging For FoodWaiting to be fed
Social Collapse Best Practices, Dmitry Orlov


During the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, there were long waiting lists to trade apartments. The high population density in Russia caused multiple generations to live in one location.

Public transportation allowed residents to get around.

Spikes in crime were offset by generations living in one location. People knew the people around them and had some type of support.

Suburban dwellings in the United States may be untenable during a major economic collapse as political power will no longer provide public services such as sewer, water, police, fire, and other services to outlying or suburban areas.

Grocery stores are too far to reach on foot, and public transportation is not available.

Orlov believes that during a societal collapse in the United States there will be a mass exodus to areas with higher populations. This is the opposite of what most preppers plan and prepare for.

In case of collapse, the majority of the Americans will probably depend on food distribution centers set up by the government so this may not be too far-fetched for the majority.

I still believe being self-sufficient off-grid is the way to go.

Chart Two: Characteristics of Housing In the USSR and the United States

Soviet UnionUnited States
Owned By The StageOwned By Banks or Corporations
Free RentForeclosures and Evictions
Accessible By Public TransportationLargely Inaccessible Except By Car
Everyone Stays In One PlaceFlood of Refugees From Suburbia to higher population areas


Berman, S. (1997). Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic. World Politics, 49(3), 401-429. doi:10.1353/wp.1997.0008

Orlov, D. (2013). The Five Stages of Collapse: A Survivor’s Toolkit. United States: New Society Publishers.

Dmitry Orlov: Blog