Monday, November 28, 2011

"It Pays to Plan Ahead" - Prepping and Black Swans

Along with my daily dose of comics, I scan a few "survival" or "prepper" websites and blogs just about every day.  These ran the gamut from simple conservative political/economic discussion to folks who believe that TEOWAWKI (The end of the world as we know it) or SHTF (the last word here is "fan", OK?) is right around the corner.  My feeling on this? There are a number of things that can go really wrong in this incredibly complex and fragile culture that we live in. The "system" is far from bullet-proof.  It all runs on oil, with EVERYTHING receiving input of the energy of petroleum products.  There ARE a number of things that can go wrong.  My brother, Andrew, is a splendid example of how this works, or doesn't work.  He lives in a fairly (about 15 years old) new house, in the woods on the edge of Monson, Massachusetts.  In the last half-year, he and his wife have lived through THREE disasters!  A tornado ripped through the town, damaging his church, destroying the town grocery store and knocking out his power for a day-plus.  Then, Hurricane Irene came calling, flooding and a number of trees down in the area.  Finally, a heavy snow storm. This left his home with out power, or water, for SIX DAYS, as they are on a well.  He does keep jugs of water for drinking and buckets of water for flushing in the garage.  All this in the space of a few months.  One study found that 91% of the population of this country is unprepared for a serious interruption in their food supply of more than a few days. You thought those videos of the Black Friday shopping mobs, fighting over x-boxes were daunting?  What about a similar crowd, only this time they are after food and water for their families.  Or, perhaps,attempting to buy  gasoline to leave town or get money from an ATM or bank that has been exhausted.

I did about two decades of disaster training and volunteer work with the local Red Cross.  I served as a volunteer at the San Francisco Earthquake in 1989 and the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995.  People, as a rule, are conditioned to expect that someone will look after them.

"Survivalists", in my mind, are the harder-core folks, the ones who are digging in in northern Idaho in a fortified homestead.  This group operates on the assumption that a major collapse WILL happen and probably sooner than later.  Some of the urgency diminishes when you realize that a few of these people have been at this since, or before, Y2K.  "Preppers" on the other hand, are those who recognise that "bad things can and will happen" but hold out hope that things won't fall apart anytime soon.  They "plan for the worst and hope for the best" as they add to the stores of supplies.  I put myself in the latter category of folks.  Visitors to the house sometimes ask if  "we are Mormans", after seeing the basement pantry.  We aren't, but neither do we worry about an interruption in supply. Over the decades, I've picked up things like kerosene lanterns and heaters, parts to keep my BMW motorcycles running, medical supplies and equipment, tools, and other supplies.  Many food items have a LONG shelf life. We rotate cans and dry food to the local food bank after a few years.  It's not just "beans, bullets and band-aids", it's also knowledge.  It wasn't a conscious decision but following the twin careers of nursing and BMW motorcycle mechanics has nicely prepared (there's that word again!) me with a set of skills for any number of "problem situations".  With the Red Cross, I learned to research what disasters can happen in what parts of the country.  I don't worry about hurricanes here but fire, floods, tornadoes and hazardous material accidents are on the list for the Colorado Springs area.  What do I think are the most likely problems?  Some sort of economic disruption or a pandemic of some sort top my "worry list".  The hospital I used to work for (see below!) called a meeting to plan for the H1N1 Flu that was expected.  The meeting fell apart when it was realized that the hospital would probably be unable to function because so many of the staff would stay home to either quarantine themselves or to care for their own families.

Most of us can remember that flash of realization that "maybe the adults really AREN'T in charge as well as we thought".  For me, this insight came during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962.  Watching the adults frantically stripping the supermarket shelves of ALL the canned goods really made an impression on me as a 12 year old.  The process of reading and learning history supports the idea of "putting things by" as well. Accounts written by people who lived through the very recent Bosnian conflict backs up the notion of being prepared. This stuff is not fiction, it is very real and has happened a number of times in the recent past to people who were very similar to us. 

In his book of the same title; Nicholas Taleb came up with the very apt term "Black Swans" to label events that has tremendous impact yet they were completely unexpected.  The attacks of September 11th are often cited as a Black Swan event.  Hurricane Katrina should not have been such an event but unfortunately, it was.  A black swan can be as small and personal as a flat tire.  Several years ago, as I and my wife were riding motorcycles to a national rally in Oregon, she came to halt with a nail in her front tire. It was "in the middle of no-where".  A local, passing by in a pickup truck, whipped out his cell phone and called three local bike shops to see who could help.  NONE of them could or would repair this almost-new tire that has a nail in it!  I got out the tire repair kit I always carry, removed the nail and plugged the hole, and hooked up a small 12 volt air pump.  Her tire was repaired, firm and ready to go in under 15 minutes.  What could have been a day-long show stopper became a minor delay because I had planned ahead.  Flat tires are rather rare with the modern tires in use today but they are NOT unknown! 

My life-changing black swan should have been the minor surgery of a gall bladder removal.  I went into it knowing there are such things as "risks of surgery".  What caught me by TOTAL surprise was the behavior of the treating (and my employing) hospital.  After I awoke from the 28 day septic coma the botched operation put me into, it did not occur to me that I would not be cared for by the hospital that damaged my health and supposedly cared for me as an "associate" and "member of the family."  I spent another month relearning how to walk and regain strength from the very-near-death experience.  On the day before I was to stagger home on a walker to finish recovering, my head nurse came to me in tears.  I was being TERMINATED, "because I could no longer do the work"!  Of all the possibilities I had thought of, as I was coming back to life, being fired (and stripped of healthcare coverage) was NOT one of the possibilities!  I had spent too many shifts; listening to the over-head loudspeaker prayers to imagine such an outcome.  I had seen too many posters of the "Seven Penrose Values".  Hell, they'd anointed my hands with Holy Oil during Nurses' Week!  To borrow a quote from the movie Animal House: "You screwed up! You trusted us!"   If my wife and I had followed the "usual American lifestyle" of living at a level of consumption that required two full time jobs to support things, this would have ended with us being homeless.  Fortunately, we had lived well BELOW our means, for many years before this happened.  I had spent my entire adult life preparing for "something bad" to come my way.  This did not get in the way of enjoying life and being able to do a lot of interesting and worthwhile things.  Simple living DOES have its rewards! I certainly had NO idea that "what would get us" would be the actions of a Catholic healthcare corporation! That black swan continues to reverberate in our lives, as I am crippled for life and am now applying for Social Security Disability.  We are old enough that we can start to draw down our IRA savings to make up for no real income, other than my wife's Social Security. We are having to buy our own health insurance - this will end early next year as the COBRA plan runs out.  The money is being spent at a shocking rate.  We don't know what will be available to us at that time.   Again, I started putting money away in these accounts when I was 26 years old. 

I can't promise that "bad stuff will happen" to this society or that "everything will be just fine" for a long time.  It's all about odds and probabilities.  I believe some of the problems associated with "Peak Oil" or "Peak Water" will start showing up in the next few years.  There are more and more people; and fewer easy-to-obtain resources every year. Our society is incredibly complex and dependent on LOTS of energy being applied.  We could remain lucky, this has mostly been the case so far.  I am rather grateful that I prepared for the black swans that I could foresee and the ones that I didn't even imagine.

1 comment:

  1. I'm one that thinks the so-called 'recession' is just beginning. The next two years will be telling. What goes on in Europe will migrate here. Fiat money isn't worth the paper it's written on. As long as the government can bail out failing banks (prop them up...?) against the wishes of the people, our 'security' is tenuous at best. I knew about Europe 3 years ago. They called them PIIGS for Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

    Goldman Sachs caused the problem by selling AAA investments knowing they were DDD, made money on the sale, and then shorted them making money on the turn. That's what brought down the real estate market.

    Gold and silver are the canary in the coal mine with regards to inflation. Watch that price and realize the dollar is decreasing in 'value', nothing more.

    Store food, water, medical, get a propane generator for power. Reinforce your house perimeter. Arm yourself. Keep your mouth shut. There's a lot of folks who won't and they'll be 'looking' for provisions.