Monday, September 20, 2010

The Limits to Prepping

We've discussed what I've called termed the "Mechanics" of dealing with the coming breakdown - stealing this engineering term as a way of trying to figure out how individuals and communities are going to handle the incredible dislocations that I believe are coming our way, courtesy of a wave of negative mood so deep that the like has not been seen in centuries, though the flashes that tore across the United States in the 1860's and that ripped Europe, then much of the globe apart in the 20th century, were bad enough.

One key concern is the "brittle" nature of the systems that have grown up during the late great Bull Market that flamed out at the beginning of this new century. Yes, we have very cheap energy (especially compared to the great benefits we derive from it), we have a vast abundance of cheap food (the product of industrial farming techniques), and, even with all of its absurdities, we have a government system that still works tolerably well as far as the average citizen is concerned. Be that as it may, each of these key systems is in grave peril:

1. The cheap energy we enjoy is courtesy of our immense military power. The ability to keep the sea lanes open, to keep friendly (or at least cowed) governments in power in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Congo, and Mexico and even unfriendly or neutral governments, such as Iraq and Venezuela, contribute mightily to the global supply of petroleum. In deep bear markets, the reigning military power is often challenged. That challenge, even if met successfully, can often disrupt or destroy the supply chain it was built to defend. By that I mean, sure, we could bomb Iran into dust and keep bombing for years to come, but if the blowback meant a devastation of Saudi oil refineries and ports, a revolt in Iraq and Kuwait and the choking off of passage through the Straits of Hormuz - what would that mean to household and government budgets in the U.S. when the impact on oil prices was felt? Alternatives do exist and rationing would be put in place, but imagine the disruption as the country moved to only being able to use 9 million barrels of oil/liquid fuels products a day instead of 20 million?

2. The cheap food system continues to worry me deeply. It is highly reliant on petroleum products for both fuel and pesticides. Ag would almost certainly be given a top claim on fuel in any rationing situation, but even then, considering how corrupt the federal government has become (note the disgusting way BP continues to distort how the Gulf Oil Spill disaster is "researched) would such rationing work? What worries me is that it would be a step-wise collapse down in production if petroleum supplies were restricted, not some gentle curve. Remember, to do industrial farming right, you have to use the soil totally different than in non-industrial farming. Industrial farming means you kill off as much of the bugs in the soil as you can, you have to run enormous combines and tractors through your fields, you have to pretty much use RoundUp Ready crops these days for large scale production of corn or beans and if any of that chain gets broken, you can count on massively reduced harvests.

And if you think switching to non-industrial farming techniques is viable in the short term, I will first laugh sadly, and then refer to you some quotes from a man writing for Collapsenet under the pen name Unrepentant Cowboy - a Texas farmer who is trying to farm without using Big Ag hybrid seeds and use the kinds of techniques you'd need in a world where inputs such as capital and petroleum were restricted:

From Corn Harvest 2010: Corn harvest is near done and the end can’t come soon enough. I am seriously considering not planting corn again as a commercial crop. Like many that have studied sustainable agriculture, I decided to get away from genetically modified grains. So the corn we planted was non-Roundup-ready corn. Not only non-Roundup-ready corn, but also a non-hybrid. The idea was to grow corn from which I could keep back my own seed... ...For all of this we harvested about 60 bushels to the acre, while most people that grew Monsanto’s best harvested between 120 and 140 bushels to the acre. They didn’t work half as hard as we did. Half hell, one-tenth as hard. Their crop is worth as much or more per bushel than mine in the local market. There’s a reason farmers use chemicals and genetically modified grains. People want cheap food. Farmers want to make money growing food. Oh, you’ll hear talk about organic this and that or natural this or that. Bottom line: at least 95 out of every 100 dollars worth of food sold in this country is produced by industrial agriculturalists. You cannot grow good wholesome food for those prices. Period. Every goddamned advance in efficiency or productivity over the years has been met with a price cut in the value of the commodity produced...

Unrepentant Cowboy is a must-read for anyone thinking that disruptions to industrial farming techniques will be met by smooth and seemless transitions as farmers immediately adjust to meet new market conditions. Ag is like every other sector of the economy - burdened with debt and locked into production techniques that work great in an era of positive mood, but which have little resiliency to face a shattered economy and society.

3. And yes, for all of the horrible manifestations of corrpution and stupidity we can focus on, the government system in the U.S. still functions well for 80% of the population. When budgets get slashed further, when services get sold off to corrupt corporations or abandoned altogether, when corporations buy off the Feds from the next great disaster, this system will face a crisis of faith. I believe the government system at the federal and state levels will be found wanting, with all the socionomically-predicted consequences inherent in it.

This was a lot of blog space to summarize what we've already been thinking about. I think it is important to revisit "where we are" because it has impacts on just how much we truly can prepare for the Coming Collapse.

On paper, getting out of debt, totally readjusting how you use transportation or grow food and trying isolate yourself from the impact of food or oil shocks should be your task. In reality, many people, especially younger ones are burdened by excessive student debt while at the same time facing a job market that has few prospects and many of those prospects are low-paying. Incentives (in the form of already-built infrastructure and propaganda for nearly 100 years) are skewed towards a car-centric culture and housing and job opportunities are layed out accordingly. Growing your own food is a pipe dream and the few who are attempting to grow bulk grops with heritage seeds or other sustainable practices may well be broke by the time the crash has settled out fully.

The energy required to keep the self-delusion of solvency and greatness alive is wearing the United States thin, but the self-delusion is still there. Prep for what you can but always remember that your mind and how you react and "swim" in the greater sea of mass mood is the most important asset you have.

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