Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Could we cope with really hard times?


From North Carolina recently, my daughter reported seeing men with baseball bats at fuel-starved gas stations. They were patrolling the lines of automobiles, preventing interlopers from cutting in.

Evidently a hurricane or a pipeline breakdown had disrupted energy supplies to certain areas of the southeast, and suddenly there seemed to be no gas for sale anywhere. To cope with the fuel shortage, my daughter stayed over with friends on campus to avoid driving; her manager at work had to send a vanpool to pick up the company’s workers. The city seemed to come to a standstill, she said.

And that was before we heard the news that the banks had run out of money.

So I’ve been speculating: if we were to have a real economic depression, how would today’s America cope? Most cities reportedly have a two-to-three day supply of food on hand. In the event of a severe disruption to the food supply, those baseball bats would come out again in a hurry.

According to some old timers I’ve spoken with, today’s America is less self-sufficient—and therefore less ready to cope with a depression—than it was eighty years ago. Back then, back yard vegetable gardens were plentiful, and many rural homes had a barn and a few chickens. To a generation raised on Starbucks, McDonalds, and WalMart, real deprivation would come as an ugly surprise.

But perhaps we have hidden resources. I can visualize ways that technology would push dramatic new responses to a crisis. Maybe instead of bread lines, we’d have "flash mobs" at grocery stores. They’d converge on a store, clean it out within seconds, and disappear. Then the government would bail out the grocery chains because they’re “too big to fail,” and life would move on.

In any case, the 24-hour news cycle would never stand for a prolonged depression. After a couple of weeks, hardship stories would get “old,” and we’d be back to discussing Paris Hilton’s next presidential campaign.

Or maybe we’d just get bored with suffering and ignore it for a few years, the way we generally do with war and poverty. And life would go on, only things would be much harder than before.

Any thoughts on how the technology generation would cope with a depression? Creative ideas, please!

5 comments:

  1. This is a very interesting topic. I live in Alaska, one of the few mostly self sufficient state. I was born and for many years lived in what is called up here "The Road Bush". That means it was basically off the grid, except that there was a major highway access and power if you could afford to get the lines run to your house. The area is called Salcha (look on a map, it's the blank area along the Tanana River between Fairbanks and Delta Junction).

    Half of our neighbors had either no electricity, no running water, or neither. This area is still the same. They are not poor necessarily, they just choose to live off the grid. It's a harsh life, but if you're used to it not too bad. My three children spent a lot of their young lives out there.

    I spent 8 years in the big urban areas of Baltimore MD, Columbus Oh, and SanDiego Ca. I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty, most folks can't cope with an all out subsistence way of life.

    Even if it never devolved into a total "The Postman" scenario, most Americans, especially urbanites, would have a very difficult time at best. People would be desparate for control, desparate for data, for instant access, communications, free delivery, medical care, etc.

    If a depression were of the scope of the 30's, I think American society would simply move towards a more socialist form of government management, which would most likely not be released from those more strict regulation when the emergency is over.

    People may be so hungry for data and internet access that they would blindly give away their rights to privacy in exchange for ease of access to services and entertainment rather than suffer the silence of long nights without television or internet.

    And no way would most folks hunt for food, or grow their own veges. Fastest way to subjugate a population is to make them dependent on largesse, then slowly pull the teat away.

    Most Americans don't really have a clue how to take care of themselves with out modern conveniences.

    I deal with the topic of being off the grid, albeit in the context of a military thriller story, in one of my podcast audio novels, titled 65 Below.

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  2. I'm a pretty tech-savvy youngster who loves his technology. The idea of a subsistence lifestyle is as foreign to me as it is terrifying, and I don't think I'm alone. My generation would be in some serious trouble if confronted with a 30s-esque downturn. To my knowledge, there isn't a food-bearing plant in my neighborhood and, short of pets, the food that is present comes from the local mega-mart. I seriously doubt that anyone nearby is at all practically prepared for anything severe.

    The question of how the techie generation will deal with depression isn't quite insulting; after all, it's not as if the baby boomers are swimming in personal experience. Still, I have absolute confidence that we will survive. There's an easy argument to be made predicting social strife, baseball bats, theft, assault, death, and whatever else springs into the imagination, but humanity has survived for some time now and things have not always been warm and sunny (literally and figuratively). Come what may, we will survive. Humanity, on aggregate anyway, is simply too intelligent to completely implode.

    However, this thought process really helps illuminate just how thin our margin of error is. We're flirting with outstripping our resources and only technology has allowed us to keep pace. So, what happens if that infrastructure is disrupted? Bad things, to be sure. How will a hobbled economy affect our response to disaster, be it natural or man made? Will such a disaster help unify us as we were after 9/11, or will it polarize the population as Katrina did, either easing or exacerbating the recovery process? How will our allies and enemies respond? We still have one of the largest economies on the planet; if the bottom falls out, who will be there to catch us? Do we deserve to be caught?

    More than the domestic turmoil, what keeps me awake at night is the speculation on external reactions. Of all the countries we're allied with, do we have any real friends? If needed, will they help shield us those who mean us harm or render aid to get us back up and running? I want to believe that some would stand at our side, but I'd much rather never have to find out.

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  3. I like that term "off the grid," Basil--has a nice eco-green sound to it, and way cooler than "subsistance living." Anonymous, I'm also sure that the techno generation is up to new challenges--but as you point out, the underlying infrastructure of go-it-alone-ism is completely gone (except apparently in Alaska), so major adjustments would have to be made if the electricity gets shut off!

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  4. I'm a technological optimist. I believe all the techies in the country would get together and put all who prefer "The Grid" (like me) back on it.

    It's techies that brought us this lifestyle, and I expect them to help us rig something up during an outage. (That's why I stay close to them!)

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  5. I had a good laugh over your great blog, and it's hard to keep a sense of humor these days. One thing about the comments are that any rights you relinquish to a government will not be returned easily, if at all, and any government which becomes entrenched becomes increasingly inflexible.

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