A Reuters story on preparing for societal collapse has been getting a lot of blog attention this weekend. The piece is mostly even-handed, considering the source. I guess the survivalist image has come a long way from that of gun-totin’ hilljacks squirreled away in their mountain cabins. The new term is “prepper”, thank you very much. And I must admit to being of the same mind, if not in practice.
I think what’s driving this is a looming realization of the fragility of our civilization, and the sense that it wouldn’t take much to bring it all crashing down. It’s been said to be a thin veneer easily stripped away, and that rings true.
So what’s driving otherwise normal people to think like this? Believe me, there are a lot more of them (us?) than you might think. Anyone who has paid attention to current events for the past decade probably doesn’t keep it buried too far in the backs of their minds. It doesn’t require a belief in any kind of end-times eschatology or the Mayan calendar, though I suppose that helps. All it takes is awareness and the ability to draw likely conclusions. And the past ten years have illustrated just how tenuous our hold on civilization can be. Consider:
9/11. I know it’s been done to death, but calling it our generation’s Pearl Harbor is no exaggeration. Thousands of our fellow citizens died through the simple act of getting up and going to work in mostly average jobs. Does anyone recall the general freak-out that ensued afterwards? I remember driving home from work and seeing cars lined up at gas pumps like it was 1978 again, some stations closed while others were forced to jack up their prices to $5.00 a gallon or more. Yes, I said forced. A friend of mine ran a gas station at the time and that was the only way he could keep from getting bled dry by panicked buyers. The only alternative would’ve been actual rationing. And for exercising sound supply/demand judgment, these business owners were hauled into court by our state’s AG.
Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans in particular. Remember the chaos of that little episode? We all know the Bushies took a lot of blame for not making everything hunky-dory within the first 72 hours, but what exactly were they supposed to do in the face of such a total calamity? Pre-position all those logistics close enough to make a difference, and guess what would’ve happened…yep, it would’ve all been swamped and of absolutely no use to anyone. Sometimes natural disasters just happen, and it may be beyond the reach of our government to come save us before things get really nasty. In the end, we’re all responsible for our own lives. Deal with it. Because when seconds count, the cops are only minutes away.
Which reminds me of how poorly NOLA handled things in the first place. Confiscated firearms, cops shooting people and covering it up, plus the gratuitous looting and general mayhem. All that on top of a city flooded by brackish water choked with debris, gators, venomous snakes, and corpses. What a friggin’ Walking Dead style nightmare that must have been.
2008. The clincher for most of us. I have no idea how close we really came to a complete financial meltdown, but it hasn’t left my memory. There was a lot of BS being spread around back then, between the election and Hank Paulson’s burning need to bail out his buddies. But all that crap about “we must do this in the next 3 days or the world economy will collapse” was, well, crap, precisely because it took Congress 2 more weeks to pass TARP. Which was promptly re-purposed in ways that we’re still figuring out. But obviously some really bad $#!+ was going on because we really haven’t bounced back from it. The housing market certainly hasn’t, and probably won’t for years to come. Even if it’s already hit bottom, most of us will need 5 to 7 years to recoup lost equity. But that’s not really the worst of it.
What’s worse is that we’ve done nothing to fix the underlying problems that nearly froze our financial system, and in fact have done much that will probably ensure something even worse. I really don’t care what your politics are, the truth will eventually win out. Facts is facts. I’ve said before, you can’t ignore the laws of economics any more than physics. The consequences just take longer to reveal themselves.
The one aspect of the ’08 meltdown that has stuck with me was the danger of a total credit freeze-up. And I suspect it’s the same reason a lot of people identify with the “preppers”. Namely, if you have any understanding of retail business and supply chains, you know what a mortal danger sudden loss of credit can be. I’ve been in air transportation my entire adult life and therefore understand supply chains pretty well. “Just in time” logistics are how a lot of retail businesses (read groceries and pharmacies) keep the shelves stocked. There’s not a lot of elasticity built into that system, because we just count on everything working.
But what I didn’t understand until ’08 was the financial side of the equation. Not until I spent a couple of hours sitting next to a local industrialist as we were both flying home from business trips. In the middle of the financial crisis, he gave me a crash course in how companies use revolving credit. Namely, most of the stores we’re all used to relying on for life’s necessities stock their shelves using short-term rollover loans. And there was a real danger of that completely freezing up. Your average grocery store has maybe two day’s worth of inventory in stock. What happens if they have no money to buy this weekend’s inventory? Look no further than your local supermarket the night before a major weather event. Even here in Ohio, where it’s kind of expected, the prospect of a mild winter storm will have people mobbing the stores.
So what happens if there’s a run on Kroger because of economic disruption, and they no longer have access to their revolving credit to rebuild inventory? Now multiply that thousands of times over, in communities across the country. Not a pretty thought.
Another character-building aspect of being in aviation is that I know what job disruption feels like. Layoffs happen. A lot. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt three times over. But 2008 was the first time in my life that I had ever actually thought about what a luxury we have in just putting food on the table. Because I finally understood how little room for error there is in the system we all rely on for essential nutrition and medicine.
The icing on the cake is that during the intervening years, the entire world’s debt load has exploded. One office of our government is essentially buying up the IOUs issued by another office of government. When has that ever turned out well? And given the general decline in our society’s civility and self-control, I don’t expect most people to handle any major disruptions well at all.
So what? What can an average person do?
More than he thinks, I imagine. Even if the economy weren’t an ongoing concern, it’s always a good idea to keep plenty of non-perishable food around. You never know when there could be a disruption, especially if you live in an area prone to major natural events (Midwestern winters, Southern hurricanes, Western earthquakes). My family doesn’t have a basement full of supplies but we do generally keep a week’s worth of groceries around, just because life gets busy. If we got hit by a blizzard or other disruption, we’d be all right.
What else? Batteries, candles, radios, a full can of gas always makes sense. What if things really go down the drain? A generator, if you can afford it. “Go-bags”, backpacks filled with the bare essentials that you’d want to have on hand if it were necessary to get out of town for a few days on short notice.
Firearms, with a realistic stash of ammo. A standard-issue GI ammo can full of 9mm, 20ga., and .22lr makes me happy. Like it or not, we live in a country where we recognize your God-given right to defend yourself and your family. In modern times, that means something preferably of the large-caliber variety. Providing for your family can be accomplished with the small-caliber variety, but let’s face it: if things really get that bad, everybody else is going to have the same idea in which case those gun-totin’ hilljacks up in the mountains will have the definite advantage.
Chances are you’ll never have to worry about any of that stuff. Better to have and never need, than to need and not have. Everyone has to get to their own comfort level, but I suppose the bottom line in all this is what they taught me way back in the Boy Scouts: Be Prepared.