August 16, 2008 – An unwelcome preview of our possible future in which systems and utilities work a little less reliably.
By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond
A couple of weeks after my last visit to the grocery store I was starting to run low on produce, and my garden and my neighbor’s are about spent. So yesterday I reluctantly acquiesced to put on some clothes and make the trip to the store and buy some produce. I’ve done this dozens of times before and had no reason to expect that this trip would be any different. But when I got to the store a startling scene confronted and alarmed me: empty shelves. Not a couple of empty shelves, mind you, but every single refrigerated shelf! I’d say roughly one-fourth of the food shelves in the entire store were empty. There was no cold produce, no meat of any kind, no fish, no dairy products of any kind, no cheese, butter, milk, yogurt, no eggs. I mean, absolutely nothing. (I asked two employees why the shelves were empty and both answered that they didn’t know! How incurious are these people? If I worked in that store and saw such a shocking sight, I’d expend the tiniest bit of effort to find out what was wrong, if only to be able to answer the customers’ predictable questions with something more intelligent than, “Uh, I don’t know.”)
While I reassured myself that it was an anomalous event, given my expectations of the future I couldn’t help but see it as a preview of things to come. I had to stifle a panicky survival instinct that started to well up inside me, even though I knew this was an anomaly. In the back of my mind I could hear a little survivalist voice anxiously saying, “I have no food at home; there is no food here; gotta find food.”
Our food distribution system is somewhat fragile. I’ve read repeatedly that grocery stores have only a few days’ supply of food on their shelves. So what happens if there is a shortage of food? Or if there is a shortage of fuel for the trucks that deliver food? Answer: empty shelves like what I saw yesterday. In addition, what happens if there is an electricity outage? Even if there is no shortage of food or fuel, refrigerators won’t work without electricity, resulting in the same empty shelves I saw yesterday. Larger stores might have backup generators, but how long can those keep the refrigerators running? A protracted electricity outage is likely to affect things like fuel delivery (among other things, fuel pumps don’t work without electricity), and fuel is required to run the backup electrical generators!
And even if stores have food to sell, cash registers, UPC scanners and ATM card readers don’t work without electricity, and the staff is hopelessly incapable of using battery powered calculators in lieu of cash registers. I once witnessed a clerk trying to ring up a simple purchase of mine using a calculator because the store’s cash registers weren’t working. I had calculated the total including the tax in my head, but the clerk, using a calculator, managed to undercharge me by $10! Normally I would have pointed out the error, but the clerk was obviously so befuddled already that I decided not to make things any worse and left, $10 richer.
I was surprised that a large, wealthy store (its initials are W-M) would suffer a problem so severe and prolonged as to necessitate clearing out the entire refrigerated foods section. What about smaller, poorer stores? What if they had financial problems or difficulty obtaining replacement parts? In such cases the stores could be without refrigerated foods for weeks!
My first impulse was to head home and shop at my local grocery store, which is exactly what I did. I don’t usually shop there because it has such a paltry selection, but paltry is better than none. However, in a genuine shortage crisis, that small store would also be cleaned out swiftly, especially with panicky people buying more food than they immediately needed.
Now fortunately, where I live people have backyard gardens that provide some food, and there are lots of farms around here whose owners might be willing to sell their food directly to the public. Of course, farms and backyard gardens produce food only a few months out of the year. There are also massive grain elevators within walking distance whose operators might be willing to sell grain during a crisis. And there is the river, which is so teeming with fish that one can practically sit in a boat and wait for a big, fat catfish to jump right into it!
But what about cities? Cities are almost totally dependent on a steady inflow of trucks to keep the stores stocked. In a crisis, panicky urbanites would probably frantically drive from one store to the next hoping to find some food, only to find empty shelves in ten or twelve stores before giving up in despair. While a big city might have a thousand times the number of stores we have here, it also has a thousand times the population.
It’s probably a good idea to keep several months worth of food on hand, especially foods that don’t need freezing or refrigeration, such as canned goods, pasta, flour, oats, rice, beans, sugar, salt, spices, herbs, nuts, dried fruit, dry cereal, powdered milk, dry yeast, cooking oil, coffee, tea and my favorite, alcohol. Another type of food to keep on hand, an expensive luxury, is freeze-dried food. Interestingly enough, a couple of freeze-dried food distributors report being more or less out of stock after the U.S. Government recently purchased nearly all their stock. I wonder what the government knows that it’s not telling us.
And don’t forget bottled water! About a year ago we had a water main break and I was without water for over six hours. Let me tell you, six hours without water really makes you appreciate how dependent you are on the stuff. Aside from needing the stuff to quench your thirst, you need it to cook, clean, wash your hands, shower and flush the toilet. I was on the verge of hauling some buckets down to the river to fetch some water so I could at least use the toilet, when the water main was repaired. Of course, then the lines were fouled and it took several days for the mud and filth to be cleansed from the lines. Right after that episode I went out and bought ten gallons of bottled water so I’d at least have something to drink should that happen again.
In the last year I’ve suffered a water outage, several electricity outages, a prolonged Internet outage, a telephone outage, soaring fuel prices, and now a temporary food shortage. While I sense that these problems are becoming a bit more frequent, most importantly they are instructive lessons about what to expect in the future and how to prepare for them.