Keeping things going

We’ve built out a society based on efficiency. That’s led us to many long-distance supply chains.

You plug in your toaster, and there’s electricity. Where did it come from? In turn, what fuelled the generators that made the electricity at that remote plant, and where did that fuel come from?

Where did the bread come from you put in the toaster? Where did the grains come from that were baked at the bakery?

You could drive yourself crazy just trying to figure this out for a meal, much less a day of your life. As Heidegger noted, there’s a big difference between thinking of things as “ready to use” and thinking of them as “present to you”. (Those questions were designed to elicit presence.)

Efficiency, in turn, has created many points of failure to consider.

An anti-fragile society — one with many alternatives and forms of resilience — is considered less efficient. It is certainly effective under many more conditions than is the one we have now.

Our efficient society depends totally on all the other parts working as expected for this corner of it to work as expected. It’s not enough that the deliveries come to your local store from the distribution centre. The distribution centre had to receive goods, the goods had to be manufactured, the supplies to make them from had to arrive, all the way back to their being grown or extracted as expected, on schedule.

Stockpiling (at any point in that chain) reduces efficiency (it ties up money resources “unnecessarily”) but does get offset by dealing with breaks in the long chain of production. That’s why we as individuals have pantries and keep things on hand ahead of when we need them. That’s why elsewhere in the great chains supplies are also kept.

Not to mention, of course, that harvests of anything grow (or not) as they will. We are not in perfect control, much though the whole cult of efficiency makes us act as though we are.

Becoming anti-fragile means putting more elements of the great chains close to hand.

It means generating some power locally. You may not replace all your dependence on the electrical grid, but every bit of offset you can manage where you are helps. (You might also have a gas-fired stove and a toaster that fits over a burner as an alternative way to toast if the power is down. There’s more than one way to add resilience to your life.)

It means generating some food locally. Even pots on a table, or on a balcony, can grow some fruits, or vegetables. A yard can produce quantities of food. Now, if for some reason you can’t get to the store, or the store’s supply chain breaks down, you have alternatives.

It means each week’s food budget includes some money for the pantry. Even if all you can put away each week is a single tin of something, slowly you build up resources for dealing with uncertainty. (Given inflation in food prices — up 35-40% last year in most of the world — your stockpile is also a way to eat cheaper in the future.) Yes, you have to watch expiry dates now, and manage your supplies. Resilience comes at a cost.

It means having more than one way to get around. If you are totally dependent upon a car — let’s say you live in a far flung portion of suburbia, with 2 acre and up lots, or out in the countryside — you are also dependent upon all the elements of that decision. Petrol will always be at the pumps; the pumps will always work; all the bridges and roads will be maintained; communications exist to call for help when needed; parts are in ready supply; and so on.

A bicycle might be a real help as a backup. Or a scooter.

Or moving somewhere where you can walk as needed — where things are close enough to walk to them, do what needs doing, and carry things back home — or where there’s public transport as required.

Much of our society lives in places where options are at a premium. Public transport doesn’t work in far flung areas — there just isn’t the number of riders to run the service frequently enough, even if you’re willing to run something through the neighbourhood from time to time. Single-use zoning means long trips (if you’re on foot) for anything. 10 minute walks are fine — half hours to get there and half hours to get home have you firing up the engines every time.

These are just a few ideas. Look around you. Ask how you keep it going if somewhere else in the world things break down.

Right now we are completely dependent on everything working as planned. And the economist’s answer — “prices will adjust to reflect the supply shortage” — is no answer at all.

Not if you like living.

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