To this point, we’ve walked you through the reasons why we feel our society is not just vulnerable to catastrophes, but massively more vulnerable than at any previous time.
A prudent person, on noting that the risk of a negative outcome is increasing, takes steps to either reduce the risk or to at least prepare for the eventuality and be able to solve the problem when it occurs.
If your car’s radiator starts to leak, you get it fixed and until you get it fixed, you probably carry a container of anti-freeze with you, just in case, and you check the radiator liquid level regularly so as not to have the car spectacularly overheat and fail on your morning freeway drive to work.
But one of the consequences of the evolution of our society is that, unavoidably, we have less support resource to assist us in the event of a modern day major emergency.
One of the things that has massively reduced the costs of most businesses, and increased their ‘efficiency’ has been ‘just in time’ sourcing of products.
Just in Time Reduces Our Cushion
In the past, businesses would keep an inventory of months worth of raw materials and also of months worth of finished goods. This tied up a lot of capital and also required a lot of space to store them. But it was the way things were.
Nowadays, a manufacturing business manufactures to order rather than sells from inventory, or at least, keeps their inventory levels as low as possible so as to improve their ‘stock turns’ each year and ‘return on capital invested’. As for their raw materials, they time the delivery of raw materials to arrive on the same day they are needed for the manufacturing of the finished products. There is no stockpiling of raw materials at all.
So what happens if there is a disruption to the supply of the raw materials? The company instantly ceases to be able to continue to manufacture its finished product. And with less finished product on hand, it quickly runs out of the ability to pass its product on to whoever needs it.
Maybe this doesn’t matter too much in car manufacturing, but it sure does matter in food production.
The problem with food is that most households have three days or less of food stored at home. Most supermarkets have two days or less of food stored on their shelves. So if a disruption to the delivery of food to supermarkets occurs, first you get immediate panic buying that cleans the supermarkets out entirely, then within three days you start to get people starving, with no food at home and none available to buy.
Some Things Take Longer – an Illustrative Example
Remember World War 2? Well, you probably don’t remember, but trust us, it happened. Our point here is that when the US entered World War 2, it was able to very quickly ramp up its manufacturing. Prior to WW2, Boeing was producing maybe a handful of planes a week/month. Within a couple of years, it was churning them out, a dozen a day.
One source suggests that, in total, the US built 303,713 planes during World War 2 (a period of little more than 1200 days).
Nowadays, it takes Boeing three years to increase its production rate on its 737 assembly line from 31.5 to 42 planes a month. And whereas new airplane designs would be developed, tested, and manufactured in just a year or two from start to finish, now it takes 5 – 10 years to create a new plane from scratch.
This is because new planes are massively more complex than older planes, of course, and have millions more components within them. In the olden days, Boeing would make everything, itself, that went into its planes – even the motors (until an anti-monopoly measure split the original Boeing into several different parts). Nowadays, Boeing has to rely on a network of subcontractors, who in turn have sub-sub-contractors, and at every step of the way, each factory chooses not to have too much spare capacity, so any increases might require adding on to the factory, and so on.
Our point is simply this. We no longer have the ‘surge’ capacity we used to have. If suddenly we need to get a large number of replacements for whatever, that may not be possible, because the manufacturers are optimizing their production to close to exactly the present rate of demand, and increasing their production might require a lot of complex additions prior to being enabled.
For example, it takes three years from ordering to receiving a mains power transformer for a power company sub-station (and they are not even made in the US any more). If the country suddenly suffered damage to a dozen major transformers (eg from solar storm or EMP) it would have to rely on companies in foreign countries to supply replacements, and would have to wait 3+ years for them to start being delivered.
Cities are Not Self-Sustaining
A rural village is close to self-sustaining, especially in the past. The food and water that its citizens need is largely grown in and around the community, and in most cases, by the residents themselves.
While it would be unpleasant for this community to lose some of the conveniences of the modern day world, it would not threaten the very lives of the people living there.
But cities are completely not self-sustaining. Nothing of what is needed to sustain life comes from the activities of the people within the city. Energy does not come from nearby. Water does not come from nearby. Food does not come from nearby.
Cities are totally reliant on the smooth functioning of the stretched supply lines that bring everything needed into the cities every day.
Many cities have more than 20,000 residents per square mile, the densest city areas in the US go up above 50,000 people per square mile, and Manila in the Philippines, the densest entire city, crams it people in at a rate of 111,000 per square mile (that is one person for every 250 sq ft of space).
Compare that to a rural area, with a density of maybe 200 – 500 per square mile.
The Rural/City Balance is Unsustainable
We’ve gone from the beginning of the 20th century with one city dweller for every six rural residents, to now, barely 100 years later, with one rural resident now being matched by five city dwellers. This is a 30-fold shift from one side of the century to the other.
In the low-tech situation back then, it was easy for each six rural dwellers to make enough food for themselves and for one more person too. And if something made cities unsustainable, then it would be easy for the countryside to accept the mild increase of people returning to it – a 15% increase in population.
But now, the situation would have those six rural dwellers not just producing food for themselves, but now needing to produce food for 30 more people in the cities too.
There are two reasons our country and our cities survive today. The first is due to massive mechanization and automation on the farms, and a change from small family owned/operated farms to mega-farms owned by absentee corporations. The second is due to all the food we now import from other countries, all around the globe.
What happens if our lines of communication and transportation are damaged, and we can’t now source materials from thousands of miles away? What happens if our ability to intensively farm our own remaining farmlands is compromised?
Quite apart from anything else, there’s nowhere near enough farmland within a day or two walking distance of any city to feed the city dwellers.
Think about this. Remembering the low inventories of food now stored within these cities, any interference to the supply chain of food into the cities would result in people running out of food within five days.
And a longer term supply disruption would plunge the entire country into famine. Even if our farms maintained their peak outputs, we just don’t produce enough food to feed us all.
So, what should a prudent person do? We’re glad you asked that question! Please now consider the next article in this series, Starting Your Own Prepping Program, for some simple ideas about easy ways to start to improve your own disaster resilience.
Return to An Introduction to Prepping
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