Just In Time

20 thoughts on “Just In Time”

  1. Prepping for supply chain disruptions? I got a mild case of it. My hit list:

    1. Water. Lots of it.
    2. No exotic MREs. Rather, Pasta & other stuff that I eat all the time but that stores for a year or more. I also hoard things like cooking oil and toiletries.
    3. Potatoes. A staple that’s easy grow, natural storage, no processing necessary. The other gardening is fun but could never provide the raw calorie count to feed my family.
    4. Walking/biking is not super convenient where I live but I could get by.
    5. Energy? I’m totally dependent. Luckily, coastal NorCal temps range from 45-75 so really no heater or AC is necessary for survival per se. For cooking… I got a fireplace? It’s a hole in my plan…

    The stereotypical prepper things like guns n gold are low on my list. Knowing my neighbors however is pretty high.

  2. Let’s be clear–just in time supply chains are about the efficiency of money, not the efficiency of a hundred other factors, particularly energy use. It all depends on what variable you’re trying to optimize for. (See: Efficiency Is Not the Enemy of Resiliency: http://karenlynnallen.blogspot.com/2016/03/efficiency-is-not-enemy-of-resiliency.html)

    I’ve worked in manufacturing plants making cornflakes and toothpaste, among other things. Engineers can optimize many different variables. Not once was I ever asked to optimize energy use or to reduce supply chain fragility. Cheap energy and cheap road use created the tenuous supply chains you describe. But huge warehouses full of stuff aren’t always so great either–the stuff often gets damaged or goes bad before anybody can use it, creating its own level of waste and squandered resources.

    Higher energy costs would substantially reduce supply chain fragility by making locally-sourced components and locally-produced food much more competitive. Yes, food would cost a little more but Americans waste 40% of food produced, and no one really needs blueberries flown in from South America in January. Yes, we would have less stuff, but Americans already have so much stuff our landfills and self-storage units are overflowing with it all. (Don’t even get me started on how wildly over-medicated Americans are while simultaneously being the sickliest in industrialized world.) Higher energy costs would also drive energy efficiency in a country that squanders energy insanely. (American’s could literally cut their energy use in half in five years without a noticeable drop in standard of living.) A gradually increasing carbon tax over the next ten years would encourage efficiency and reduce supply chain fragility in a manageable, not terribly painful way. Instead, you’re right, the US will wait until a Saudi revolution and then have a nasty, painful crisis with a heck of a lot of needless suffering and misery.

    With the defacto choice of a sudden unplanned crisis before we’re willing to change, it will take years to resolve all the supply chain issues. Some food and water stored will get a household through a few bad weeks, but for the medium-term, a better bet is a vegetable garden, chickens, rain barrels, solar panels and a bicycle. An even better bet is to live in a region that already produces a lot of renewable electricity, has electrically-powered transit, and produces a lot of actual food (not just corn and soy!) within a fifty-mile foodshed. (I’m pretty sure we’ll see widespread use of electric vans quickly spring up to bring local produce to city markets, just as truck farms did fifty years ago.)

    Once the petrodollar ends, Americans aren’t going to be able to afford most of this imported stuff anyway.

  3. Johnny, you aren’t one of those “preppers” are you? There were a lot of them (called “survivalists”) during the Great Inflation of the 1970s. They contributed as much to the revival of the Right as the Religious Rght did. There was some overlap.

    1. Howard – I’m a gay guy from San Francisco. If you want to wedge me in the same category as conservative Republican southern Baptists… good luck with that. I’m suggesting that we’ve all gotten very comfortable with a set of arrangements that makes us vulnerable to events in remote parts of the world. A reasonable response might be to grow a veggie garden, plant some fruit trees, keep a few hens, live in a walkable neighborhood, insulate your home so you save money and don’t need as much energy… None of that seems radical to me.

  4. I like this post, Johnny!

    Interested to know how much further you could extend the topic of efficiency/vulnerability in where we choose to live.

    So many directions it could go… Just like we don’t have home grown good or spare parts, we don’t have a lot of the intelligence or materials to rebuild our places on a different set of values.

    But then, how much should we trade off efficiency for disaster prep? Taleb would say protect your downside, right?

    I always enjoy these little glimpses into your thinking. Your posts manage to be thought provoking without spoon-feeding a message.

    Hope you’re well! I’m moving to Ontario on Oct. 25 by the way. Ryan’s coming with. We’re not sure where yet, but probably Kitchener-Waterloo which I’m sure you’ll give a big thumbs down hahaha. It’s changed a lot in the past 10 years. Can’t put my finger on it, but it just feels right at the time. I’ve been carefully considering options everywhere within 2 hours transit of my mom though.


    1. Gracen – more blog posts to come on the topic of local resilience vs. global vulnerabilities. In the end the transition won’t be voluntary. Change will come as a result of repeated external shocks.

      1. I can’t wait for more posts. Stumbled upon this blog today, to my delight: you do a wonderful job using real places and situations to help our minds tackle the larger picture. Thank you for what you’re doing.

        1. Thanks. How do you see these blog posts coloring your interpretation of the town you live in? Is any of this information actionable for you personally?

  5. I think the term we’re looking for is “fragile.” If all those interlocking parts stop working, or even stop being frictionless, things get pretty screwed, pretty fast. How many even think about a pipeline leak in rural Alabama leading to gasoline shortages in NYC? How many consider where that stuff they put in their car comes from, or the stuff that comes out of the faucet, or wall socket? It’s all delivered by old, creaky infrastructure.

    Consider that in comparison to the war ravaged countries in the Middle East, where, if the shooting will just stop for a couple of days, markets start reappearing and life tries to surge to normal. In the US, the solution would be to just place an Amazon order and wait for the UPS truck. Fragile is a scary word.

  6. I can’t disagree with you; our systems have their vulnerabilities. We should all be prepared for systemic failures. Nevertheless, our systems are better than agrarian based systems. I’ll take 2016 over 1016 everyday.

    Thanks for blogging about what it is you love.

    1. The compromise would be a system in which each local region produced its own essentials like food and fuel and then trades non-critical goods and services for profit and a higher standard of living. 1925 or 1952 might be a completely comfortable sweet spot.

      1. I feel like there is no going back unless we are forced to by something. That could very well happen.

        However, I don’t see regional, agrarian autarky working. It is vulnerable to failure itself and people will naturally demand food from other regions if they can’t produce enough food for themselves. China can’t even feed itself today without food imports from elsewhere.

        1. At least partly because China has chosen a “development” path that poisons what arable land and water it does have (ignoring the vast population overshoot, of course). That’s not sustainable, either. No worries, though. Our spreadsheet diddlers and casino gamblers are selling off to the Heathen Chinee the arable land and resources they need. (Google Smithfield Foods) Having your local food controlled by a colonial power will work so well…just ask the 19th century Indians.

  7. There is another side to all this interconnection and inter-reliance, though, and I think it’s at least worth considering. It probably helps prevent conflict (the old kind). People worry about superpowers like the US and China starting world war 3 with each other. But in reality they’re quite dependent on each other. The borders are blurring. The elite used to make gains 100 years ago by invading each others’ countries and taking more land, and population, under their control. Now they don’t need to: they can accumulate vast wealth through a different kind of violence – the violence of inequality. There are no doubt pros and cons to this new arrangement, but at least world war 3 looks decreasingly likely to ever happen – as long as the systems you describe hold. And while they seem fragile, they’re probably not, because you can bet that in a crisis those in power will move heaven and earth (literally) to make sure the systems continue functioning. We saw it with the banking system in 2008. There’s no price they won’t consider paying. Problems with oil supply? Watch how quickly we can switch to EVs. Problem with manufacturing in China? Watch how quickly factories can be built in the west. When those in power have such vast wealth, and such a fundamental interest in maintaining the systems you describe, I think they’re a lot more resilient than you think.

    1. Society is already working extra hard 24/7 to maintain the current set of arrangements. Cut off the oil supply flowing out of the Strait of Homuz for six months due to war or terrorist attacks on critical infrastructure and see how things play out. There’s no slack in the system so “frenemies” like China and the U.S. will get testy with each other – particularly when other less prominent but aggrieved players see an opportunity to take advantage of the situation while everyone is distracted and in a weakened state.

    2. I agree with your thoughts, but I fear the possibility of one insecure megalomaniac achieving the possibility of starting a chain of events that will cause a lot of suffering. I can think of four possibilities. One has everything he needs, but is restrained by the fear of retaliation. One hasn’t yet mastered the required delivery mechanism, but is trying diligently. One hasn’t put the pieces for the bomb together and alleges they aren’t trying anymore. And one hasn’t yet been granted political access to the trigger. I hope the puppet masters in whom you have such faith have got a handle on all of them, because it will only take one.

      But then, the puppet masters will have to reveal that they exist and the other 6 billion people in the world are not actually free. (Jeez, sounds like the plot for a SciFi novel)

      1. Let’s not rush directly to Dr. Strangelove and the Zombie Apocalypse. What I’m describing is a highly leveraged and overly complex system where no one really knows exactly how it all works or how to fix it when it breaks. The solution is to quietly disengage by re-localizing the most critical elements of household and community essentials: food, water, energy, etc. If the global supply chains break down for any reason life will go on – minus some of the extras.

        1. Sorry. Too much political coverage left my head in a stranger than usual place.

          There is a great deal of work being done to address those issues under the Transition Towns banner, especially in the UK. The thing that impresses me most about them is the mindfulness and initiative embedded in their approach. Although they center their planning around the concept that energy sources are going to change soon, what they wind up doing is very local and leads directly to resiliency.

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