A friend directed me to a “preppers” website-whether as a joke or a friendly warning, I’m not sure. If you don’t know what preppers are, you’re in the same ignorant state I was in until a few hours ago.
Preppers are people who focus on preparing for a world gone mad, broken, or just broke. They point out that we non-preppers are shortsighted, heavily dependent on everything to keep working, and basically oblivious to the risks of modern life. They remind us that (I will use unverified statistics here) 44 percent of Americans are “just one unexpected event away from financial disaster” and 55% have less than three days’ supply of food at home. Moreover, if the electrical grid went down, 21% think they’d survive less than a week and 75% believe they’d not live more than two months.
Are these stats accurate? Actually, it doesn’t matter. As even non-preppers would admit, the world seems to be increasingly unstable-our complicated systems being as vulnerable as they are magnificent. I-or rather, they-know that virtually all of us do not grow our own food and slightly fewer of us would know how to do so. We don’t dig our own coal or drill for our own oil…and even if we are green we wouldn’t know how to build windmills much less solar panels. Well, the list goes on and to no avail, since our awareness of such possibilities and our lack of preparation for them is not in question; only our resolve to do something about the risk.
And risk is what this is about. Can the electrical grid collapse, a meteor blow away Chicago, or a new virus wipe out 20% of us? Of course. Will they? Maybe so in the long run of centuries, but almost certainly not in the next five years. Human beings are not good with calculating life’s risks, as statisticians keep telling us. But we do make an effort to calculate them, at least roughly. So how much will I disrupt my life to protect from what extent of impairment and for which levels of probability? My wife and I chose to drive a few hundred miles recently knowing full well that there was a probability X that one or both of us faced severe injury or death as a price the universe often imposes for taking that risk.
Similarly, most of us choose to accept the risk that in the next few decades there will be a bloody revolution that tears the intricately designed systems of our civilization apart. To most of us, the probability is too low even though the devastation would be catastrophic. At a large scale political level, we choose to take our chances with global climate change rather than alter our comfortable energy policies and practices. We don’t do much better with electric power grids and that isn’t even controversial. Most of our choices are beneath the radar of conscious, studied, debated thought. Most of us do not give these matters the focused consideration that preppers do.
In reading scores of preppers’ comments earlier today, I couldn’t help but notice they talked mostly about their internecine disagreements (when they weren’t engaging in various name-calling and poorly written, uneducated squabbles). I saw no substantial debate of what was otherwise a rich area for discussion, which tipped me off that preppers operate in an intellectual fog pretty much like the rest of us. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was not impressed with their intelligence. But it would be so easy to lose the baby along with the bath water that I want to retain what their dialogue and, yes, sometimes their craziness can bring to our attention and that is this:
At an individual or family level, most actions to protect against large consequence/low probability system failures are either futile or offer only temporary salvation. However, at a high political level-that is, the level at which a far more distant time horizon should be the daily concern-potential actions are not nearly so pointless. In other words, differing levels of organization should attack different levels of issues. For example, individual citizen cannot make a decision to go to war or protect against an errant meteor, but the national level can and should. Similarly, a board of directors, the CEO, and the shop lathe operator should be attending to entirely different levels of issues. Nothing esoteric about the hierarchy of issues (though frankly, in practice it isn’t understood all that well).
Preppers may not have much to teach individuals, but a great deal to teach politicians and bureaucrats at the highest levels. Oh, wait, those “responsible” politicians and bureaucrats seem to wallow in matters of far lower level than that to which I refer. Just watch Congress operate in any administration. In a very disturbing sense, at the highest levels of government, nobody is minding the shop. I want to say more about that in a future post, but for now I need to correct my statement of merely two sentences back: Preppers can teach us as individuals a very important lesson, though it isn’t the lesson to abandon our homes and go to the mountains. It is the unintended lesson of what we should expect-nay, demand-from politicians and lofty bureaucrats. Thus it is that warnings even from crazies need not only win converts to their small cults and regularly amuse the rest of us. Their evangelical warnings can serve to remind us that contemplation and deliberation about highly catastrophic yet highly improbable events should comprise much, perhaps most, of the agenda and problem-solving of elected officials and governmental executives.
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