Inconceivable: Why Failure Is Normal, and Should Be Part of the Plan…but Isn’t

Sharon December 13th, 2008

“He’ll never catch up!” the Sicilian cried. “Inconceivable!”

“You keep using that word!” the Spaniard snapped.  “I don’t think it means what you think it does.”

…”Inconceivable!” the Sicilian cried.

The Spaniard whirled on him.  “Stop saying that word!”  It was inconceivable that anyone could follow us, but when we looked behind, there was the man in black.  It was inconceivable that anyone could sail as fast as we could sail, and yet he gained on us.  Now this too is inconceivable, but look - look” and the Spaniard pointed down through the night.  “See how he rises.”

The man in black was, indeed, rising.  Somehow, in some almost miraculous way, his fingers were finding holds in the crevices, and he was now perhaps fifteen feet closer to the top, father from death.

The Sicilian advanced on the Spaniard now, his wild eyes glittering at the insubordination.  “I have the keenest mind that has ever been turned to unlawful pursuits.” he began, ”so when I tell you something, it is not guesswork; it is fact!  And the fact is that the man in black is not following us.  A more logical explanation would be that he is simply an ordinary sailor who dabbles in mountain climbing as a hobby who happens to have the same general final destination as we do. ” 

- William Goldman _The Princess Bride_ 

I fear that the Great Vizzini, of Goldman’s wonderfully brilliant and funny book (if you have only seen the movie, you are denying yourself a great pleasure)  may actually have to give his title of “the keenest mind that has ever been turned to unlawful pursuits” up now - there are just so many competitors these days, most of them bankers and politicians.   Of course, it could just be that like Vizzini, they aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are - and we’re starting to get a good look at what a world turned over to the corrupt and not-terrifically-bright-in-any-useful-way looks like. 

The northeast just had a major sleet, snow and ice storm.  Predictions for my area involved more than an inch of ice, followed by a few inches of snow, and widespread power outages (and, in fact, there are more than 1.2 million people in my area without power - I fielded several phone calls today from friends saying “You know, if I didn’t listen to you, I’d be a lot more uncomfortable right now.”)  The local schools closed even before the storm, in anticipation of nasty weather, so Eli was at home.  And while Eric was off giving a final exam, my kids and I convened for homeschool and set about making a list of the things we ought to do to be ready for an extended power outage.

We moved some of the firewood that sits in our mudroom into the depleted woodboxes in the house, and began moving more wood into the mudroom, so that we won’t have to try and chip the wood out from a sheet of ice.  We checked the freezer to make sure it was full, and added a few bottles of water to keep it at capacity longer.  We already keep our refrigerated food on our porch instead of using electric refrigeration, so no worries about that.  We made sure we knew where all the flashlights and the extra batteries were, put the solar lantern in the window to charge, threw on an extra load of laundry in case it was a few days before the next one could go in and generally got ready for a power outage.  We reassured the boys by changing the batteries in their LED nightlights and giving each one his own flashlight.

I was doing a radio interview as we were making these preparations, and I mentioned them to the interviewer, saying that we’re pretty ready for power outages, so that it isn’t that big a deal here.  And she asked me whether other people should do this, and when I said I thought they should prepare for interruptions in power, argued,  ”but think about all the time and money you use up getting ready to be able to operate without power - and most of the time you don’t need those preparations - after all, extended power outages for most people happen only once every few years -  is it really worth the effort for most of us?  Plus, you have to be thinking “what if something goes wrong all the time” - isn’t that depressing?” 

My interviewer was playing devil’s advocate, of course, but I think she articulates a pretty common viewpoint - the idea that thinking about failures and bad stuff is too depressing and that it isn’t worth the time and energy to prepare for most contingencies. The reasoning behind that is that most disasters - or even minor disasters - don’t happen very often.  Of course, when those disasters do happen, well, the sheer discomfort of being unprepared is pretty intense, but then we forget.

In fact, I’d go further than she did, and think that the idea of contingency planning in the US comes with a taint of superstition - that ill luck will strike those of us who actually spend time thinking  about what might go wrong.  The fact that our culture’s only vision of someone who is prepared is the survivalist curled up in a shack with his stash of guns suggests that we fundamentally think that preparation for negative outcomes is on the whacked out side.  I think this leads us to actually radically underestimate how often things go badly wrong.

And this leads to a painful  reality - despite the fact that winter power outages happen out my way all the time, we know for a fact that the extended outages in my region there will leave us with people who are freezing, and hungry, isolated and unable to cope.  They won’t have the batteries for their flashlights, or any strategy for cooking or eating. At best, they will come out of this traumatized and miserable. At worst, some of them may actually die.

 But we also know that these folks will be deemed normal, and their lack of preparation will be treated as normal.  Just as people in California with no earthquake preparations or folks in Florida with no preparations for a Hurricane will be treated as normal.  We treat a lack of preparedness, in our society, as completely reasonable and rational, even expected.  Thus, if you are in line at a Red Cross shelter because you have no food and water in your home 48 hours after a hurricane hit Gainesville, odds are no one will even raise an eyebrow and ask why in heck you don’t have any food.

My point is not to pick on anyone (and yes, I know that there are some people who don’t have enough food access to have a reserve, but that hardly describes everyone) - in fact, I think the reason that we look upon the lack of personal contingency plans as so reasonable is that it isn’t just personal - our society as a whole has very few contingency plans - much less strategies for adapting to failure.  We regard planning for anything bad as a sign of an unhealthy focus on the negative.  We feel it is so unhealthy that we find that at every level of our culture - from the purely personal question of whether we have a strategy for dealing with common disasters to the international policy level where no one seems to have ever asked any questions about what might go wrong on a host of subjects - we have no contingency plans.  Not only do we not have them, but we dismiss and deride anyone who suggests we make them.

All of which suggests that we have a very troubled relationship to the idea of failure.  Speaking as someone whose entire body of work could probably be summarized as “Ummm…have you thought about what happens if something goes wrong?”  I’m acutely aware of how unpleasant and frightening most of us find the idea of failure - and because we find it unpleasant and frightening, we are likely to dramatically underestimate its likelihood and frequency, and be truly shocked when failures happen.  But in fact, we shouldn’t be shocked - failure is far more routine and normal than we expect.  Not only is it normal, but treating it as normal might actually reduce the likelihood of disaster.

For example, for a good bit  more than a decade now, a large number of voices have responded to the idea of Globalization with fears that the creation of a global economy might eliminate protections for the most economically vulnerable members of the world’s economies, erase valuable cultural differences, lead to political hegemony and environmental rape, and also make economies more vulnerable to difficulties that once wouldn’t have concerned them much. 

It turns out that anti-globalization activists were right in just about every particular. Globalization did screw quite a lot of the world’s poor, to put it bluntly, and the collapse of globalization seems poised to screw billions more.  Tying our economies together is starting to look like it wasn’t such a hot idea for a lot of folks, starting, perhaps in Iceland, and for the International Banks that bought US mortgage dept, and travelling on to China, which depended on exports to the US, and is now seeing its own economy crash - and which crash is likely to do even more damage to the US, which depends on China to buy its debt.  Oops!  Globalization did result in unprecedented ecological damage - which we now have to live with.  It turns out that the depressing people who kept saying “umm…don’t we need a back up plan just in case this doesn’t work the way you hope it will” and “shouldn’t we maybe reconsider something that works even if things don’t go well?” were right.

There have been similar groups speaking out about energy issues for decades, or asking whether it might not be safer not to degrade the ecology in the first place than to rely on our ability to fix it when problems become evident.  And they to have been accorded precisely the amount of respect you’d expect - not much.  And they too, turn out to have been right.  It turns out that we may be spending 1/5 of global GDP (according to the Stern Report)  addressing the consequences of catastrophic climate change, unless we can stop it - which means that if we fail in the almost unbelievable challenage of arresting climate change,  we’re facing a potentially permanent Depression - because no economy can bear that burden without difficulty.  Our economy may well be permanently impacted by declines in available energy supplies, and our failure to invest in renewable energies.  Ooops.  It turns out that a lot of folks pointing out overarching problems were, well, right.

But along with the “Oops”  and the enormous chorus of voices calling our current crisis unforseeable, even as Goldman’s wonderful villain Vizzini would say, “Inconceivable!” and the talk of Black Swans and unpredictability is the fact that, as Yeats put it, things fall apart.  And they do it, not once in a great while, but rather often, even when the falling apart is something we do not choose to conceive of.

Thus, the war to end all wars built the ground for the next one, and the end mechanism of the subsequent war left us with the massive and presently insoluble problem of nuclear arms.  Similarly, as Jared Diamond observes, all of our most intractable present problems have been caused by the solutions we’ve sought to other problems - peak oil and climate change aren’t just bad things that are happening to us, they are the logical consequences of our solutions to other problems - standard of living, transportation and food issues.    In many cases, social problems follow the same course - the urbanization, for example, of Southern rural African-Americans during and after World War II really did free a lot of poor southern workers from poorly paid domestic and agricultural labor, and offer short term increases in wages.  They also destroyed cultural networks, stripped farmers of land and access to natural resources,  and resulted in an urban poverty arguably may have been more destructive than the rural poverty that preceeded it.

Now it would be false to suggest that the problems that we were solving weren’t real - and that for a time, the solutions didn’t seem better to some people.  For many a Chinese peasant, eating meat twice a week is better than twice a month before globalization.  From the perspective of someone who values the Great Northeastern Forest, the replacement of coal and wood for heating by natural gas and heating oil was a real improvement over the old options.  The problem is that the period of “solution” was brief and the new dependencies and destructions make the fall back much harsher - so, for example, the peasant who left the land to work on the periphery of the big city now no longer has his job, nor his land - or if he can get the land, climate change and pollution mean that it cannot support him any longer.  Now the American Northeasterner is completely unprepared for disruptions in price or supply of their energy - and adaptation is likely to cause even greater deforestation than before.  And, of course, there are people and perspectives from which things were always worse - from the perspective of climate change, the shift from a woodstove that heats a portion of your house to central, oil-fired heating was a disaster, for the hundreds of millions of peasants around the world who got poorer, not richer as they lost their land, there was never any good in the solution.  That things look different through different lenses is inevitable - but each layer of solution and complexity seems to have more dissenters, and put us in line for a bigger fall.

This might seem an argument primarily for contingency and scenario planning, and at a minimum, it should be.  But I’d like to suggest something else - something that works at the personal for me, and that might work at the level of societal planning.  What if we assumed failure?  What if, instead of no contingencies, or simply having a backup plan, we insisted that our society work not just when things are going well, but that the very solutions we choose operate to serve us even when they fail in reasonably likely ways?

My family uses this model in our planning for the reasonable contingencies of our lives - we aren’t prepped for everything - no bomb shelter, no SETI system to keep out alien invasion, and if the world goes into a sudden ice age, I’m woefully short on Mammoth repellent.   But we’re pretty good when we talk about things like ice storms  knocking out the power - it happens nearly every winter.  And because of that, my house works pretty well without power.  I have solar lanterns, rechargeable batteries and solar chargers, a couple of oil lamps, a manual water pump for when the well goes out, a wood cookstove, a solar oven and a composting toilet and a spare battery for the laptop so I don’t lose too much work.  Our house works great during the vast majority of times when we have power - and if it goes out, well, we flip on a few battery lights, put dinner on the cookstove to simmer and go out and bathe standing in the tub with a solar shower bag filled with water that warmed on the cookstove.  No biggie.

Now you could argue that getting my home ready to function this way took money, time and energy, and you’d be right.  So is it really worth it?  Sure - and this is why.  The very tools that I use to ensure that I’m comfortable in a power outage also serve me when the power is on.  The solar battery charger works great for my son’s nighlight, and the flashlights.  The down comforters that keep us warm when the only heat is coming from the woodstove also work great when we just don’t want to burn fuel or spend money on heating oil.  The solar lantern goes out to the barn with me, the cookstove allows me to use the wood that the ice storm is going to provide us with in fallen tree limbs.  The solar shower bags are wonderful for that outdoor sluice-off in the summer when I’m covered with garden mud.

Now these adaptations could operate as contingency plans - and then they would be costly and energy absorbing.  Having a wood cookstove that you use only when the heat or cooking facilities are out is certainly better than nothing, but it is an awfully expensive way to deal with a crisis. I certainly couldn’t blame those who are contingency planning for saying it might not be worth it.  On the other hand, a cookstove that makes use of downed wood, cuts your energy bills and also gives you an emergency backup, well, that’s not a bad solution.  By working not from the assumption that I ought to have an emergency plan for an unlikely contingency, but from the assumption that complex systems fail regularly *and* that the best system is to build infrastructure that assumes failure but also functions well without it, I get the best of both worlds - it actually doesn’t cost me very much to adapt.

How would this work on a world policy scale?  Well, let’s take energy as an example.  Let’s assume that more than 30 years ago, during the first energy shocks, we’d recognize that both absolute oil supplies (as characterized by the peaking of North American oil) and foreign supplies (as characterized by the OPEC cuts) were unstable, and subject to failure.  How would that have changed our energy and economic policy over the last 30 years?  It is very difficult to me to imagine a scenario in which we did not begin seriously building out renewable energies then - or one that did not offer improvement over our present situation.  Simply assuming that the oil supply might fail might well have reduced our overall economic growth (although that is by no means a given) compared to what we later had fueled by cheap oil.  But among the economists I know, I cannot find one who thinks that even the very short-term economic impact would have been negative enough to offset the advantages - and many doubt the impact would have been negative at all.  Similar scenarios are devisable if, for example, we were to have taken the information about global warming available to us in 1979 (copious, actually) and said “it seems pretty likely that continuing to burn fossil fuels would be a bad idea, so let’s begin a gradual phase out.” 

But, of course, hindsight is always 20-20 - what would such a policy look like right now?  Well, in economic terms, having a policy that planned for failure would mean assuming that the economy is not going to rebound in 2009 or 2010, and that our investments in infrastructure must be concentrated on mitigating the suffering of people who are going to be poorer, not shoring up financial institutions bound to failure.  Thus, we’d be putting our billions into small businesses, not huge ones, into basic things like food and insulation, instead of big luxury items that bring in profits in good times, but are useless in bad ones. 

But the funny thing about this is that just like the example of the energy build-out 30 years ago, I think there’s a compelling case to make that we would be richer in the long run, for example, if it took only a little energy to heat our homes, if we didn’t have to buy health care and if we invested in small scale agriculture.  I’m not going to sit down and make it point by point today - but I’d suggest historically speaking, the boom and bust cycle doesn’t necessarily result in net improvements over a more stable model - there’s a detailed analysis of this in Thomas Princen’s marvellous book _The Logic of Sufficiency_ that is a superb starting point for this case - and I will write more about it.

What about climate?  Well, you will remember my argument with George Monbiot - Ruchi, over at Arduous pointed out, quite rightly, the major issue with both of our approaches - that both of us are offering strategies with a substantial likelihood of failure implied.    She makes an engaging case for a third alternative.  I disagree with her analysis of how to approach this, because fundamentally I think climate change will exceed our capacity to mitigate, not to mention our capacity to manage mitigation and any kind of functional economy,  but I think the larger observation - that at this point we simply can’t afford any strategies for adapting to climate change that don’t include a full repetoir of mitigation strategies.  What this might look like is another issue - and one I intend to play with in the New Year, once I’ve shaken the book monkey off my back.

I wonder if it is possible to imagine a world in which failure is normalized, part of the narrative, expected and in which we choose our strategies to return positively even when things, as they say, fall apart.

By the way, we lost power for about 12 hours - drank cocoa, played with the boys, I worked until my laptop battery ran out, then went out and milked and hung around.  The power came out, but many of our friends are without power into next week - we’re hoping they’ll come have a sleepover party here! 


24 Responses to “Inconceivable: Why Failure Is Normal, and Should Be Part of the Plan…but Isn’t”

  1. Verdeon 13 Dec 2022 at 3:53 pm

    So back here in Utah we heard of a woman who had invited poeple stranded in their cars back to her warm home and fed them hot goulash. I wondered if that was you, or one of your friends.

  2. Fernon 13 Dec 2022 at 5:34 pm

    I always felt that what I was prepared for would not happen, but what I’m NOT prepared for WOULD happen. So, if I’m ready to handle a power outage, that preparation will ’scare’ it away. I was the only mom in my son’s playgroup that had a will. Cheap insurance! Spend $50 for a will, and not spend nights up worrying about who would raise our child if we died.

    Magical thinking? Heck yeah! Because when our son was 18 days old we had a storm and lost power for a day. It still happened, dang it! OTOH, we could hunker down at home, with our wood stove and wood and flashlights, and be fine. I WORKED at the shelter at the time, and THEY had no power, either, and their lack of power lasted days longer than mine did. Couldn’t drive on the roads to get anywhere - an acquaintance of mine drove his 4 wheel drive to get to work, ended up arriving at the hospital he was an anesthesiologist at in an ambulance with a career=ending arm injury.

  3. AnnaMarieon 13 Dec 2022 at 6:02 pm

    I am one of the completely wierd folks who try to live my life as if power is going to go off sooner rather than later. I just sold my washer and dryer, I’m doing laundry by hand. I’m cooking more and more on the wood stove (I really want a wood cookstove). We are planning to unplug the frig soon and if I can figure out solar hot water next summer the water heater will go too. I’m trying to reduce our Kw usage to as little as possible and then to nothing.

    I’m not sure if power will be available for the rest of my life or not but if I’m living as if it’s not it won’t matter to me either way.

  4. Claireon 13 Dec 2022 at 6:59 pm

    Here in St. Louis, MO, we are expecting an ice storm on Monday. Not as bad as yours, but a quarter inch of ice is bad enough.

    Are we prepared? Of course. Every year for the past several years we have had at least one electrical outage lasting at least 24 hours. In 2006 we experienced 6 days of no electricity in summer following 2 severe thunderstorms less than 36 hours apart, and 1 day without electricity following a bad ice storm. We expect electrical outages of the few day variety so we are always prepared!

    We have plenty of food because we belong to a cooperative and buy in bulk. We have a small propane camp stove, a large propane burner, a solar oven, a Weber kettle and charcoal and wood for it (our stove is electric so we need a backup). We have oil lamps, plenty of oil, a solar lantern, and flashlights including hand cranked ones. We have a space blanket, an air mattress, sleeping bags and extra blankets if we have to move into the basement. What we do not have is a source of heat that does not rely on electricity. Our gas furnace needs electricity to operate the blower motor. But the basement is about 55 degrees right now. If the living area gets that cold, we will move into the basement. No way will it get colder than the 40s even if we had no electricity for weeks.

    Was it expensive to prepare? Not at all! We are tent campers, so the stove, air mattress, and camp stove are part of our camping equipment. I bought the solar oven years ago and use it some, planning to use it more. The basement came with the house. We have the Weber kettle for grilling already. We always have stored food because we buy in bulk, and we store rain water because we use it to flush our toilet.

    Which reminds me: many of us who have basements that are dry enough for use already have the best nonelectric heating and cooling backup there could be, with no added expense. Our basement does not get warmer than 73 degrees in summer. If we chose to go without air conditioning (we have it but minimize its use to when nighttime lows do not drop below the low 70s), we could easily survive our usual 3 weeks or so of bad heat by sleeping in the basement. We could live in the basement during winter. I have not noticed the temperature dropping below 50 degrees, although that is with heat on, a little of which gets into the basement. Even without heat, I do not think the basement will get colder than the 40s, because the soil does not freeze that deeply here. Much of the basement is below freeze level.

    I would like to see more people ready for an extended electrical outage, and I think that many, perhaps most, people would not find it expensive to be ready if they took a careful inventory of what they already have and thought a little of how to adapt it to a short period of time without electricity. Those with reasonably dry basements may already have the shelter problem solved, any time of the year. Flashlights and lanterns are cheap sources of spot lighting. A cheap propane camp stove would solve the cooking problem, for someone who does not have an outdoor grill. Extra blankets are readily available at garage sales. Having a small store of easily cooked food and some stored drinking water (we have 55 gallon drums of rain water in the basement, filled from similar drums under our downspouts, conveyed into the basement by garden hoses, and pumped out with a cheap hand pump) solves what to eat and drink. Eventually we will set up a humanure toilet such as that advocated by Joseph Jenkins. In the meantime we use the stored rain water to flush our toilet. As long as the public sewer system has electricity, this will work. It might work anyway, but I have not had occasion to find out.

  5. Michelleon 13 Dec 2022 at 8:15 pm

    And here I wondered if anyone else had Plan B ideas. Mine doesn’t relate directly to weather-type emergencies, but it’s definitely a backup plan. Meanwhile, I acquired two crank flashlights for about 5 bucks apiece at Penney’s this week - I don’t like buying new stuff, but when I could get these $20 items for $5, I went for it. I’ve been talking to my carpenter about taking out a wall in my house so I can put in a woodstove, and have more recently started considering making it a cookstove instead of a regular woodstove.

    Sharon, keep on reminding us to think ahead, and to plan for ALL the scenarios. It’s great to plan how we’ll feed ourselves from our gardens when all is going well. It’s also great to plan how we’ll feed ourselves when things are NOT going well. Thanks!

  6. Jimon 13 Dec 2022 at 8:21 pm

    -They also destroyed cultural networks, stripped farmers of land and access to natural resources, and resulted in an urban poverty arguably may have been more destructive than the rural poverty that preceeded it.

    poverty that arguably


  7. debraon 13 Dec 2022 at 8:48 pm

    as a single mom and only source of income for a family of four i’d rather be prepared than wake up one day finding myself out of a job and my kids out of a home and food. over the last several months we’ve been working on building food stores, introducing new and simpler meals, planting a garden, cutting back on power use while making sure we are comfortable. what does that mean? much needed chimney repair so that the fireplace is useable not only for heating the main room of the house but as a place to cook if need be. adding doors to the open areas of the larger living area so that smaller, easier to warm areas are created, improving insulation, replacing older windows and worn seals (my house is 40 years old and the windows have leaked for as long as i can remember) among other projects. i haven’t quite gotten all of the kids to agree on the composting toilet (nor am i sure, in the burbs, how to manage such a thing) but we’re working together as a family to change our definition of “normal.” one thing i can guarantee is that my kids are the only ones in the neighborhood who share the bathroom with chicks in the winter.

  8. bunnygirlon 13 Dec 2022 at 9:08 pm

    Your preparations sound similar to what I did ahead of Hurricane Ike, except instead of prepping firewood, I made sure the battery-powered box fans were ready and the spare batteries, charger, and inverter were on hand.

    I started my disaster-prep years ago, and when you buy just one or two things a month over a period of years, all but the very poorest can build a nice stash with very little financial pain.

    The benefit to me was that I didn’t need to dash to the store with everyone else when the hurricane was on its way and instead I just took everything we would need out of storage and put it where it could easily be found. Then the hubby and I did what we would normally do until the storm knocked out the power. We were without electricity for almost a week, but we weren’t the ones waiting for FEMA handouts or waiting in long lines at the few stores and gas stations that were open. We ate delicious meals (scrambled eggs with chipolte cheddar, gingerbread pancakes, penne with pesto and pinenuts, garbanzo bean curry with spinach, etc) and had no real worries.

    I found a few gaps in my preparations and I’ve resolved them. We’re ready for the next time, which I hope will never come, and we’re also ready for some really fab camping trips, which is a great side benefit of prepping for a power outage.

    BTW, have you or any of your readers noticed a flour price spike? King Arthur whole wheat flour doubled in price since last week at one of the stores I shop at and the Amazon price looks ridiculously high, too. I didn’t get to investigate further when I was at the store last night because my husband had a bad cold and kept pestering me to quit gawking at the baking goods so we could go home.

  9. curiousalexaon 13 Dec 2022 at 10:01 pm

    I am reminded of when I worked at the MN Super Computer Center one summer. They had diesel generators for backup power in case of power failure. During the incredibly hot days when EVERYONE was running their AC, spiking the utility companies, they had an agreement to go to their backup systems from utility power. This gave them a rate break on their utilities, and more importantly, practice with the backup systems. During an actual outage, there was never any wondering if the systems would work, or scrambling to figure out what to do, because it was something that had been practiced under controlled predictable situations.

  10. graceon 13 Dec 2022 at 10:31 pm

    it’s almost Winter Solstice…that Moon

    and I can’t stop loving YouTube
    go to You Tube
    type in
    Playing for change
    song around the world
    stand by me

    N Mex

  11. Devin Quinceon 13 Dec 2022 at 10:32 pm

    We attended a meeting of our local homesteaders/survivalist group today for group bread making. We had great discussions on how best to ride out these events. The agreement as you have stated here is to build a community no matter how small and be prepared.

    On a more sad note, a neighbor we have been having issues with due to our “lifestyle” showed up just how petty she has become. We asked if they would be willing to give us their old pumpkins which were headed to the compost heap in exchange for half the preserves and she told him no. It is really sad when someone is willing to have perfectly good food go bad just to spite someone. And she considers us not normal for our doomer attitude

  12. Jennon 14 Dec 2022 at 12:31 am

    I have some things here covered in case there’s an emergency, but there’s still more that I should do, especially given how often the power goes out in the winter because of ice storms. It’s never been for long, but just because it’s never happened before certainly doesn’t man that it won’t (good grief does it feel like that applies to a great many things right now). I got a whole bunch of things accomplished today, so now I’m thinking that might be tomorrow’s project. I’m not hugely keen on going out and buying new things, but there are at least some basics that I should probably have on hand. Now, if only I could figure out where to get a solar battery charger around here…

  13. ExRangeron 14 Dec 2022 at 1:25 am

    Hi Sharon,
    It is a pleasure to read whatever you happen to write on your Blog or in your books.
    One of the big things I took away from my time in the Rangers was always having a plan B and if possible a plan C. And I am happy that my 25 yr old daughter picked it up from me and continues the tradition. Thank you for all you do.

  14. Pangolinon 14 Dec 2022 at 7:05 am

    Sharon, what people are now calling pessimism just used to be good sense. There was a time when everybody in the Northeast understood that they were going to be snowed in for a week just as everybody on the rural California coast knows that storms will knock out roads and they will be stuck in the winter. In the summer fires will close some roads and you could get stuck also. Fact of life. Your roof will leak and a pipe will break in your house so you better check the shutoff valve once a year to make sure it works. Keep a good tarp handy.

    The pretense that there will be some boundary between depowering, a green-tech wave and pollute and adapt is silly. We are going to do all of the above at once until one choice or hybrid clearly succeeds where others fail. Voluntary & planned power-downs will be rare. Green-tech may never catch up and pollute and adapt is likely to play interference and then fail spectacularly.

    A fourth option would be radical personal transformation. Change so strange that we wouldn’t recognize the successful outcome as an option. People wrapping their existing houses in cob walls. People giving up heating or cooling the house and heating a sauna instead. It’s far easier to heat a closet to 150º than 2K sq. ft. to 65º once you accept that you’re heating the person instead of the house. Humanure toilets would be one of those changes. A return to dark nights. A labor market that has to hire within bicycling distance and train from within. Make college students bunk with old folks. Arrange marriages and households for restless youth as an alternative to war and rioting. (what? you thought they were angry about network coverage?)

    The 3 billion people with restricted food availability are going to change to things like permaculture and biochar faster than the Irish picked up potato eating. If one person in a county gets it right and thrives his neighbors are going to be hot on his heels to duplicate the trick. Things will get spectacularly worse and better at the same time; like a green Australia exporting coal. The trick will be to keep communications open so that options will be open. Knowing what works, what we should try again, what failures flamed out particularly quickly; that will be the trick.

  15. Studenton 14 Dec 2022 at 9:56 am

    In 2002 I lived in a small community in the Rocky Mountains - 9000+ feet. In March that year it snowed for three days nonstop until we had 5 feet. Many people were snowed in for a week or more. I worked for the county sheriff’s office and our emergency response was limited to search and rescue and deputies on snomobiles. We could only respond to serious medical emergencies.

    You would think people who choose to live in high, remote mountain regions would be prepared for bad weather. But our dispatch received many calls requesting help because of lack of food, fuel and water. One person complained she needed food for her pets and wanted a deputy to make a 4 hour round trip in a blizzard to bring some Kibbles and Bits. People said they had no wood and had just run out of propane. Our dispatcher replied, “Do you have wooden furniture?” When they replied yes, she said, “Start burning it.”

    As a reminder, don’t limit your preparations to your home. Keep blankets, gloves, hats, earmuffs, boots, handwarmers, flashlights, etc. in your car in the wintertime. Don’t drive anywhere distant in the winter without food, water and cellphone with you.

  16. Jeanon 14 Dec 2022 at 10:57 am

    Sharon - Would you please elaborate on your manual water pump backup? Our well pump is in a pit outside the back door and I have no idea how to get water out of it for a longer term power outage. I do store water for short term outages.

  17. Greenpaon 14 Dec 2022 at 11:12 am

    Sharon, there’s another source of “denial” these days. I’m sure you’re aware; but I’m hyper aware, because an old friend of mine has been sucked into the cult - of- “The Secret.”

    You know, the “Law of Attraction” - get anything you want, just generate the right vibes by wishing properly, and quantum physics guarantees the universe WILL give you that new job, sailboat, Beemer, or boyfriend.

    It’s kind of amusing to me, because my friend used to be rabidly anti-religious, and now she’s as vehement as the most tenacious pamphlet passer.

    Part of what they teach is that you should avoid thinking about bad possibilities, because that will cause them to happen.

    I haven’t been tracking the movement; it may have peaked; but for a while there it was growing like crazy, particularly after Oprah had them on her show.

    Not much to do about it- but it might be a question worth asking, when you’re trying to get person A to see what you’re saying, and they continue to just ignore any and all logic. “So, are you a follower of the Law of Attraction?” If you get a yes- that may be where the intractability comes from.

    Just don’t think about it, and it won’t happen! Easy!

  18. Evaon 14 Dec 2022 at 11:25 am

    Our culture of denial is pervasive. It not only includes emergency/energy preparedness as you write about above but also divorce, illness, unemployment, death, poverty etc. By living we will likely encounter some or most of these. No financial or personal cocoon is enough to protect us, nor would I want one that was.

    Just as some people consider you an extreme survivalist, some consider me morbid. But by considering alternatives we are more physically and emotionally prepared.

    Thanks for your always interesting writing.

  19. Stephen B.on 14 Dec 2022 at 12:48 pm

    I’ll go further and say that Americans (US’ers that is)
    look down on people who stock up and prepare as overly parsimonious,
    or cheap. They’re seen as throwbacks from thrifty eras that don’t
    fit in well with the always-rosy, and devil-may-care, spendthrift
    ways of today. It isn’t only the survivalist in his cabin that is
    distained, but the Mormon family with a corner in the basement full
    of supplies, or the grandparents with a similar cache of food, tools,
    and techniques as well. Once upon a time it was considered a duty
    for everybody to provide for themselves as much as possible so as not
    to become an undue burden on the rest of society (esp. when society
    was having difficulty itself), but now, however, the situation is
    turned around. Now, it is expected (falsely) that the rest of
    society (esp. meaning government) is going to come to your rescue in
    your time of need because society and govt. is *SO* affluent that
    such rescue won’t be any problem for the rest of us and govt. to bear
    at all.

  20. Greyon 14 Dec 2022 at 1:16 pm

    I agree with Stephen. I’ve often said that 100+ years ago, when a hurricane or flood, or some other disaster hit an area, people would pull themselves up by their bootstraps - organize, help their neighbors, and everyone would pitch in to help each other to get life back to normal. They didn’t look to the government for help - THEY took care of it.

    I’m going to pick on Katrina because it’s the most obvious and notorious example: How much different would Katrina have looked if the folks hit there had been prepared, had left when officials told them to, and had everyone pitched in to help rather than shooting each other? I don’t take issue with looting of needed materials in a time of crisis - if folks had been stealing water or gatorade rather than beer - but all of them could have worked together rather than sat around waiting for Big Government to bail them out - especially since Big Government took their time about it.

  21. Ahmedon 14 Dec 2022 at 3:34 pm

    Well, at least all the “experts” you cite are, like you, chosen.

  22. Jim Con 14 Dec 2022 at 11:07 pm

    Most technology systems are designed my engineers. Yes, I already know how anal and boring engineers are, I am one. What I see is that most financial systems, which should be designed by financial engineers are, regretably, designed by the so-called “MBA” people. Most of which are not even able to pass a simple engineering exam covering the basic concepts of systems analysis. So here we are, being managed and governed by lawyers, and MBA, most of which I call crooks.
    It is our own fault for allowing them to lead, and yet we continue to vote them into power.
    My other quote of the day, “One nation - under educated”

  23. Heather Grayon 15 Dec 2022 at 12:20 pm

    No power here from Friday 4:00 AM to Sunday 1:25 PM. Enough damage from ice and trees/branches falling that the power for the town was shut off so the teams could work safely all over the place. Weren’t hit as hard as the next town over though - Goshen. I expect some folks may not have power over there still.

    Most things went pretty well, although the furnace’s alternate system isn’t that great. Still, L knows more about how it works now. FIL is now more amenable to getting a backup generator for the furnace (wood-fired but needs electricity for the circulatory system). Because of funky things with the furnace we were actually too warm on Friday, but managed to level things out. With or without electricity/generator, the transition should be smoother next time.

    Woodstoves are good! Oh and the folks are also now interested in getting a stovetop fan, having used ours yesterday.

    Not having hot water wasn’t fun, but we managed. Although, given the opp. of a hot shower, once we could get out of town on Saturday we did go visit some friends who had power. But we did heat water for washing dishes at home, and ate at home all but the one time while visiting our friends. We heated some of the water on our own woodstove, and some on the gas stove downstairs — my in-laws have a gas stove with a pilot light.

    Sunday’s lunch, before the power came back, was seasoned chicken (by me), sweet potatoes, spinach (my in-laws buy some stuff out-of-season), sweet pickle chips, a loaf of quickbread (thawed), and apple pie.

    Most of our frozen stuff stayed frozen — we finally moved the stuff into a cooler on Saturday and set it out on our porch (north-facing). The chicken had thawed so that’s why we had that for lunch on Sunday. My MIL’s freezer was indoors but in the back kitchen, which isn’t heated and is kept closed up in the winter except when in use. The gas stove is in there, so we curtained off the part of the room with the freezer to protect it from the stove.

    Our crank electric lantern worked really well, so we’ve decided it’s worth getting a second one. But the oil lamps did well too, as did our little flashlights, so we’re pretty happy with our lighting choices.

    Happy I had enough clean clothing that I didn’t have to do laundry, but already know I can handle that.

    Water wasn’t a problem. A spring comes into the house as well as town water. A little limited but not bad — one bathroom can be switched over to the spring plus there’s a faucet in the back kitchen all the time and the J-pipe upstairs (part of the system that keeps the spring water moving so it doesn’t freeze). But we did use a few jugs of water — partly because it was convenient to have them stationed in different places and partly because can’t keep the same water in the jugs forever, so they’ll get fresh water as part of the rotation.

    Today I’ll be making more applesauce with apples we peeled and cut up during the power outage. I’m also nearly done with making a quilted wall-hanging I’ve been meaning to make. And L finished cutting up another pumpkin and another butternut squash, so I should steam those today too.

    We’re pretty happy overall with how things went, and have confidence that we could handle more if we had to. But I do want to get in better shape — very tiring!

  24. deweyon 16 Dec 2022 at 2:33 pm

    Hey Claire, if you’re still reading this thread, I’m in St. Louis too and would love to know where is this co-op from which you get bulk food!

    We also spent the second night of the 2006 blackout sleeping on the floor in our basement (after sweltering through the first 24 hours upstairs, wondering if the cat was going to have heatstroke - she is used to airconditioning down to about 80 and was overtly unhappy with 90+).

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