The short extract above is the most terrifying thing I have ever read about how your mind might work in the instant you realise that a devastating, comprehensive crisis is about to hit. In Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road, most of the pages are taken up with depicting the consequences of a complete breakdown in human society after an unspecified nuclear holocaust. No technology, no food, no rule of law, no authorities left.
The book is full of more obviously violent and gruesome moments of rape, cannibalism, brutality and death. But this paragraph always scared me the most because the narrator still has a certain presence of mind. The bomb drops. He fills the bath with water, knowing that those few litres could save him and his pregnant wife, at least for a few days. But this act of filling the bath, of using this piece of technology while it still works, is also an admission: we are not ready. We are not prepared. How could we be for the kinds of disasters that might befall us in the 21st century?
The Road is probably the greatest literary example of an apocalyptic genre that dominates popular culture today. I thought of it again in May this year when the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency’s information leaflet ‘Om krisen eller kriget kommer’ (If Crisis or War Comes) dropped through my letter box. It is a 20-page information pamphlet that raises the question of what you would do should Sweden experience a systemic crisis or existential threat – either military or civil – and gives some practical advice about how to prepare. It is, in a sense, like Cormac McCarthy’s novel, dystopian futurism, but with a very different emphasis and intent.
“Om du är förberedd bidrar du till att hela landet bättre kommer att klara en svår påfrestning./If you are prepared, you will contribute to the whole country better overcoming a major crisis.”
The leaflet is the fifth time the Swedish government has issued advice about how to survive the worst. In 1943, the government issued the first edition of ‘Om kriget kommer’ (17 pages) at a time when neutral Sweden was watching from the sidelines as Europe consumed itself in the Second World War. It was dry and completely without illustrations, with no apparent thought for design beyond the heraldic symbol of Sweden that lends a bureaucratic authority to the front cover. The content was overwhelmingly focused on how a country might function when at war: resistance, the avoidance of being captured, measures to prevent spying and your rights under the rules of the Hague convention.
There followed a 33-page version in 1952 and then in 1961, with the Cold War just beginning, the document was further updated and extended. That edition ran to 40 pages, with detailed descriptions of how to stay safe in conventional, biological and nuclear war. It was beautifully illustrated, with informative diagrams about nuclear fallout and photographs of the food you would need to get ready if you were required to leave your home. There was also much more propaganda value. The front cover was a beautiful, abstract image that appears to depict ominous, dark clouds gathering.
There was, in 1961, a pretty gung-ho belief in Sweden’s ability to defend itself. The first double-page spread has a wonderful illustration of two supersonic Saab Draken aircraft racing to engage a squadron of shadowy enemies, accompanied by the words “Sweden wants to defend itself, can defend itself and will defend itself!” in large point size and italics. A version of this sentence was in the 1943 leaflet too, but the illustration of Sweden’s finest aircraft added patriotic and technological confidence.
By the 1980s, the mood had changed and, by the evidence of the third edition of ‘Om kriget kommer’, released in 1987, the standard of public-sector graphic design and illustration had declined. Badly drawn, faux-Otl Aicher stick men hide in ditches, lie on the ground and cower in basements in gas masks. While in 1987 the emphasis was on how to gain a modicum of safety, the sense of Sweden’s own strength was still present – according to the text, the country then had the potential to mobilise 850,000 people, including 110,000 volunteer soldiers, in the event of war.
“Tänk igenom hur du och personer i din närhet kan klara en situation när samhällets normala service och tjänster inte fungerar som vanligt./Think through how you and people near you would manage a situation where society’s normal services do not work as normal.”
The reason for the publication of a new version in 2018 is not entirely clear, but it hardly takes a genius to imagine what it may be responding to given worsening geopolitical and environmental outlooks. The reason provided by the Swedish authorities is simply that “it was about time”, and that previous guidance is out of date and required refreshing. The decision was made in parliament in 2016 and the government gave the role of informing the public about how to be prepared to the Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB). In response, MSB has for the last two years run something called “Crisis preparedness week” (with its inevitable hashtag #Krisberedskapsveckan), during which schoolchildren and adults participate in seminars and events about how to ready themselves for the worst. This year, the publication of ‘Om krisen eller kriget kommer’ was the key event of the week. It was distributed to 4.8m households in Sweden (more or less all of them) and advertised widely.
There are similarities between 2018’s leaflet and those of previous years but there are a couple of striking differences. The biggest is that this year’s leaflet is not just about war, but evokes more general crises for which we need to prepare, whether they be floods, fires or other environmental disasters. It became particularly timely this summer, when Sweden experienced a profound heatwave that led to widespread forest fires as far north as the Arctic Circle.
The broader scope of the 2018 leaflet means that it does not include very much practical advice about how to escape nuclear or biological weapons (as previous versions did). The tone in general is more constructive than that of earlier versions and somehow softer – less interested in describing a specific enemy or threat. Instead, the text asks citizens to think about what they would do if services stopped working as normal. To that end, the centre spread is a handy, tickable checklist that has a list of items you should have at home in readiness. It is lengthy and predictable: canned food, candles, water containers, batteries, transistor radio, warm clothes. The list is almost cosy, more suggestive of preparations for a camping trip than for the apocalypse.
As the brochure progresses, there is a shift of focus from civil to military crises. This is the bit that raises some fear. Most significantly, there is a frank admission about Sweden’s readiness for war that could be seen as a startling attempt to justify increased defence spending. “For many years, preparations for war and war have been very limited in Sweden,” says one special boxed-out section. “[…] Therefore, planning for Sweden’s defence will be resumed. It will take time to develop all the aspects of this.” Also, there is a bullet list of threats that raises the prospect of terrorist attacks on nuclear-power stations, fake-news campaigns, food crises and even “robot attacks”.
Graphically, the front cover sets the colour scheme of orange and red that represents different levels of seriousness. Orange is used throughout the leaflet to denote civil emergencies; red, military ones. On the cover, we see an illustration of a mixed-race family preparing the things they might need to get them through a couple of days. In red-tinted counterpoint, a collage of three illustrations at the bottom of the page shows a bridge collapsing, a flood and the army advancing through a pine forest.
“Du som privatperson har också ett ansvar/You as an individual also have a responsibility.”
The illustrations printed throughout the pamphlet are by Arvid Steen, a Swedish illustrator and animator. The pictures are easy to relate to, with an emphasis on a diversity of ordinary people, rather than the heroic, square-jawed soldiers one might expect to be represented as the potential saviours of the nation. Although they were produced digitally, their hand-drawn appearance – a function of Steen’s distinctive, pencil-sketch style – is part of the reason they are so effective.
Steen describes this commission as “my proudest achievement in my working life so far” and he has clearly thought carefully about the tone of the imagery. For me, his approach makes most sense when seen in relation to recent video games and graphic novels. The mix of depicting older technology, ordinary domestic settings and a diversity in gender, race and age evokes The Last Of Us, the Naughty Dog-designed video game from 2013 that is one of the great recent depictions of a post-apocalyptic world. Steen’s illustrations similarly resist the temptation to depict catastrophies, sticking instead to human relationships.
The illustrations provide a powerful narrative and emotional arc to accompany descriptions of scenarios that, for most, are very difficult to imagine. We see a kindly but serious grandfather considering his granddaughter’s questions as they listen to the radio, one arm wrapped protectively around her back. We see a woman with a clipboard shepherding people down a staircase and into a safe room. And we see a similar woman helping a limping and semi-conscious man away from a burning building. In each of them, a gesture or an expression gives you a sense of your own responsibility to those in your immediate vicinity and the emotions you might experience in that situation. The illustrations are humane and convey the strong impression that kindness and solidarity will be our most reliable assets in the event of catastrophe.
Steen’s approach was to make things look as real as possible. “I have done a lot of things for games companies where the objective is to create an impact and effect, but here I was as naturalistic as I could be,” he says. “I was really careful not to make the soldiers look badass. They are real people, as real as I could make.”
One of the illustrations shows soldiers advancing through a typically Swedish forest and coastal landscape. There is less gung-ho nationalism in this image than in the ones from the 1961 document but the aeroplanes still have the just-detectable silhouette of Saab fighters. Accompanying this image, in a red box, is the only sentence that has barely changed in all four editions of the pamphlet: “If Sweden is attacked by another country, we will never give up. All information about resistance ending is untrue.”
“Om du hör signalen: gå inomhus, stäng fönster, dörrar och ventilation och lyssna på Sveriges Radio P4 som har i uppdrag att ge samhällsinformation./If you hear the warning, go indoors, close the windows, doors and ventilation, and listen to Radio P4 which has the mission to give the community information.”
It is very difficult to measure the effectiveness of a publication like this. Its publisher, MSB, did some research that suggests that 80 per cent of people who received the leaflet have kept it, and that half have read it in some detail. Thirty-four per cent of people said they would make some preparations at home, and about the same percentage reported that the leaflet had worried them. I wonder if these two groups are the same people. I suspect it will encourage a few preppers in their endeavours. For the rest of us, it gives the feeling that there is something we can do should the worst happen. Nowhere in all the information around the leaflet is there mention of where potential threats are coming from – no mention of Russia, radical religious terrorism, large-scale arctic-ice melt, Trump or anything else – and I cannot escape the feeling that there might be a very different draft of this leaflet somewhere, ready for the moment when one of these theoretical threats becomes a reality.
In the blasted landscapes of The Road, the lead character is constantly hunting for food, water and shelter, but it is his sometimes-obsessive love for his son that keeps him going. ‘Om krisen eller kriget kommer’ is a less extreme reminder of this. It is a bold and uncynical statement about individual responsibility and collective care, even if it euphemistically avoids describing the worst that could happen as a result of climate change, terrorism or war. I have not yet started stockpiling energy bars and rosehip soup, but I have thought more carefully about those who would be in my care in the future and what I might need to do for them.