Modern civilization may not be quite as safe as we thought. Britain’s security services have been privately warning their staff that western societies are just 48 hours from anarchy.
MI5’s maxim is that society is “four meals away from anarchy”. In other words, the security agency believes that Britain could be quickly reduced to large-scale disorder, including looting and rioting in the event of a catastrophe that stops the supply of food. The maxim opens a question as to whether civilized societies could so quickly revert to primitive behavior.
MI5 — whose motto is “regnum defende”, defend the realm — uses the “four meals” rule to assess the threat levels from attacks on strategic installations, such as computer networks and power stations; natural disasters; or widespread strikes and civil disobedience.
There is evidence that the breakdown of order could be caused partly by the first pangs of hunger.
This could occur if, for example, a bomb attack prevented food getting into an area or if computer systems were attacked by hackers, throwing the electricity, food and water networks into chaos. Alternatively, an attack by biological, nuclear or radiological weapons could result in an area being cordoned off.
It is likely that the people affected would immediately buy up all the food available. As supplies ran out, the public might try to break through cordons or start competing violently for available food.
It is estimated that after as little as four missed meals, a “law of the jungle” would take over, in which citizens resorted to looting or violence to find food.
Worry over possible disruption to food supplies was one of the issues the government tried to address in its booklet Preparing for Emergencies: What You Need to Know, circulated to all homes in Britain in the summer, which advised households to stock up on tinned food and drinking water to guard against the possibility of a disruption to supply.