Friday, November 23, 2012


"All my friends are trying to make me paranoid, but I'm onto them, and I'm not going to let them!" -- a college buddy.

(This compulsion to write can be really annoying, especially on an overfull stomach.)

Bob Owens's PJ Media series ridiculing the persons portrayed in NatGeo's "Doomsday Preppers" series has drawn sharp criticism, and some condemnations, from his commenters. I shan't speculate on how many of those commenters are themselves preparationists -- "preppers." But I do find it amusing how near to absolute the commenters' verdicts are against Owens's supercilious snarkery.

I should mention, in the interests of full disclosure, that:

  1. I'm closer to agreement with the commenters than to Owens on this subject;
  2. In some sense, I, too, am a "prepper," as you might deduce from the following discourse.

An article such as Owens's leaves me thinking about an old semi-humorous quip:

What if the purpose of your life is merely to serve as a warning to others?

It's not impossible -- and it should give pause to anyone who's tempted to make a single, barely possible future calamity the focus of his existence.

That having been said, being reasonably well prepared for certain kinds of disturbances and dislocations -- events that, while not certain to occur, are both more than barely possible and foreseeably destructive -- is difficult to criticize. Let's consider a single example: an acceleration of inflation, caused by the Obama Administration's ceaseless borrowing and spending.

When inflation hovers around the 2% to 3% level, few people give it much thought. The pot is being heated slowly enough that the frog won't become alarmed and jump out. But as we who experienced it remember from the Carter inflation, when it rises to 7% or more, the effects are sufficiently compressed in time that Americans will react specifically to it:

  • Some will go on credit binges;
  • Some will spend their deteriorating dollars at once;
  • Some will begin to speculate in the equities market;
  • Some will belatedly buy hard assets that have a chance of keeping up with the inflation;
  • Some will do all the above, and perhaps more.
Now, at this juncture in history, we can foresee that at some difficult-to-predict point in the near to intermediate future, there's likely to be a sharp -- perhaps even convulsive -- increase in the prices of consumer goods. The huge cash balances in the accounts of major American financial institutions seem to me to guarantee it. Is it a lead-pipe-cinch, bet-the mortgage-money certainty? Not quite, but it's beginning to look much more likely than not. He who reads the tea leaves this way has only two plausible reactions:
  • "Well, there's nothing I can do about it. Besides, there's still a chance it won't happen."
  • "I'd better brace for impact as best I can."

The more probable one thinks that future convulsive surge in prices, the more likely he is to adopt the second attitude. He'll put an appreciable fraction of his savings into precious metals. He'll eschew credit exposure, particularly to variable-rate obligations. He might build himself a pantry and stock it with nonperishables, to hedge against the possibility that the supports of life might become hard to get at any price. He will become, in the broad sense of the term, a "prepper." Those who differ with him about the likelihood of the financial upheaval he foresees will deem him a bit silly about it, perhaps even mentally unbalanced. Probabilities being what they are, the disagreement won't be resolvable by argument.

The whole thing is about probabilities. Just how likely is that inflationary surge? Opinions vary widely -- and those at one end of the distribution consider those at the other end paranoid or imprudent. This is the attitude I take toward preparationism. I can't predict the future with absolute certainty; I can only try to assess the probabilities from what I can see, and from my knowledge of history. So I shan't attempt to prepare for a global nuclear war, but I most certainly will brace myself and my family against calamities that seem to be likely enough to be worth some effort and expense: accelerating inflation; a rise in racial violence and gang-related predation; sharply reduced availability of medical services; consumption quotas or price controls on oil, gas, and electric power; and the too-awful-to-contemplate possibility that the NHL might never have another season.

I'd consider anyone who fails to take the appropriate measures against those developments excessively optimistic about the American future. I don't trouble myself about what they might think of me.

But let's put a somewhat sharper focus on that NatGeo series and the persons it chooses for its subjects. I must admit that those folks do strike me as unbalanced, in the strict sense of the word: that is, they're putting the lion's share of their efforts and assets into bracing for calamities that seem highly improbable. What is NatGeo's aim in spotlighting such persons?

It could just be about entertainment. We do like to laugh, and when the object of laughter is someone to whom we can feel superior for some reason, it adds an edge that many people enjoy greatly.

It could be about the range of possibilities these out-of-the-mainstream people have considered: calamities many of us would never have conceived of on our own, such as the sundering of North America into two continents by a fracturing of the tectonic plate. People who enjoy imaginative fiction might get a kick out of such speculations for themselves, whatever they might think of the wisdom of trying to prepare for such an event.

Or it could be that NatGeo has a darker motive: a desire to spread the attitude that "preppers" of all sorts are really too ridiculous for us "sensible" types to consider their contentions at all. I don't think that's terribly likely, but just as I must admit that North America might "tear along the dotted line" some day -- Pangaea, anyone? -- I must admit that it's at least possible that NatGeo has some sort of institutional interest in defaming preparationism to the larger American populace. A number of Owens's commentators have broached that possibility.

Whatever the case, I'm not a big TV watcher, but I think I might start watching the show. Who knows? I might pick up some good ideas, if not for my sub-basement survival bunker, then perhaps for my next novel.


Scott said...

I Tivoed the show. As with pretty much every single reality show, like those moonshiners or hog hunters, there's very little hard information conveyed. More like lingering shots of shelves full of canned goods & safes full of guns, or $300K bunkers. I doubt you'd learn anything from it.

As for why NatGeo does it? Well, I tivoed it and you're talking about it. ;-)

Martin McPhillips said...

Emergency preparedness is a very sensible thing. My old Usenet friend Paul H. decided after last year's blackouts in New Jersey that he had had enough and purchased a generator. He happily (and with some faux smugness) turned it on during *this* year's blackout. Then the blackout continued, the lights stayed off, and he had to go find gasoline (or maybe it was diesel) to keep the generator going. But the gas stations had mostly closed and those that remained open had lines with a two-hour wait.

This illustrates what? That preparedness can only prepare for so much. If there is a breakdown of the extended order, of which we still observe the lingering effects of just a minor breach in parts of Staten Island after hurricane Sandy, then there is no real way to prepare for that. The vast network of trade and commerce that is our prosperity cannot be reproduced in the basement. There could of course be settlements where some crude approximations of what we have come to regard as our normal life could be established, but it would be like an extended camping trip and we would lose our time to survival.

It would not be a matter of simply "getting the lights back on" if there is such a massive failure. Trade would become onerous because of the breakdown of finance and hence of production.

A good sign that we've arrived at the outer ring of such a breakdown will be the day you ask the supermarket manager why there haven't been any Cheerios on the shelf for a while and he shrugs indifferently, as if to say, "Why are you asking me?" Then you notice that there's no more canned pineapple and the produce is rotting in the bins.

The day you will know we're there is when, after filling your gas tank with some of your hoarded supply from the back shed, you head out to a toll road and the toll collectors are gone. When the government itself stops putting its hand out, then the sun is starting to set. A while after that the word gets around that the marauders have started to show up, and the irony will be that they will always want a larger cache of weapons, so they will be anxious to target the armed. They will leave their comrades where they fall, too, and replenish their ranks from the sides of the highway. As we've learned from places like Cambodia and parts of Africa, there is no killer like a child handed a gun by an amoral thug or headman.

So preparedness can get you down the road a ways, but it will max out at a year or two. Even a splendid community of like-minded souls who see things with stark contrast and constant hearts would be stressed to the limit.

On the other hand, a government that survives in a diminished "Airstrip One" society will become bloodthirsty in its repression and eventually devour itself as did the Soviet Union. But not without breaking a lot of eggs before throwing out the spoiled omelet.

furball said...

"I'd consider anyone who fails to take the appropriate measures against those developments excessively optimistic about the American future. I don't trouble myself about what they might think of me."

I sometimes think that's the point: They want to trouble you about what you think about you. Or what others might think.

Why else show the silliest most debased side of things?

Anonymous said...

I have not watched the NatGeo show but I have watched Independence U.S.A. on Glenn Beck Tv and I'll say it's excellent. The things that are done on the show are practical not just for a calamity but also in terms of being somewhat self sufficient.

I've never been a "prepper" or the least bit interested in it, but I have a "feeling" things are not going to end well in regards to our financial situation. So I have been "bracing" myslef.

Anonymous said...

Martin Mcpillips,

The mistake your friend made is not having a battery run generator. Gas generator is not really good idea for preparedness.