Friday, August 12, 2011

Expiration Dates

The idea of long-term planning in prepardness is something which doesn't get a lot of play in the real world setting.  People seem to expect that a crisis will last a year or two, then we'll dust off, pick up the pieces, and drive down to pick up a pizza.  Or something like that.  The coda on every piece of fiction written by a survivalist seems to show the surviving protagonists relaxing, with the lights back on in a family setting that is almost reminescent of the ideal of the fifties. 

In contrast, the more mainstream post-apocalyptic fiction tends to look toward the opposite view, especially cinematic fiction.  Looking at the world of Mad Max, it's clear that there is going to be no quick and easy recovery in that setting.  Other films like Cyborg, Steel Dawn, and The Ultimate Warrior, all seem to show the same idea, that a world which has taken centuries, if not millenia, to assemble itself in a certain way, falls apart, then the crash is going to be as loud as the ascent was spectacular. 

Of the two views, I think the long-term collapse view is far more realistic.  When Rome (the ancient era equivalent of America) collapsed, it took over a thousand years for Europe to reassemble itself in any form that even began to rival what the Roman Empire had been at its height.  Therefore, part of the "mission" of the Leibowitz Society is to encourage long-term survival planning, not on the order of a month, a year, or even a decade. 

Modern "prepping" seems to operate with the mindset that if enough things are put to the side, there will be no problems.  Firearms and ammunition are always on the list, but what happens when the firearm is still around, but the 3-4 cases of ammunition stored up don't work as intended any longer?  What about the several pairs of shoes with soles that crack from depolymerization and the socks that don't stay up because they were made with elastic and no other provision to keep them in place?

Realistically speaking, it seems reasonable that the model for where human industry will settle at will be somewhere prior to the dawn of the industrial age.  In other words, if it existed, or could be done, in the late 1700s, it's probably fair to say it will be possible after the collapse.  So, with regard to firearms, black powder flintlocks seem likely to be around, but modern ammunition will probably not be likely to be produced.  There are some areas, such as medicine, that will at least benefit from modern knowledge (no more bleeding with leeches), even if not all the technology (x-rays) are available.  One of the most striking things will likely be the "flattening" of society and labor, as high-tech agriculture is replaced by sweat and toil. 

I drew up the following list as an intellectual exercise to try to figure out how long things would last following a complete collapse, based on general expiration dates.  Obviously, it's not complete, and these are just rough estimates.  But, it's interesting to still think this through in terms of a generational exercise.  If we accept the core principle behind the Leibowitz Society -- long term storage of knowledge -- then we also should accept the idea that the preparations we've made for ourselves to get through the coming collapse are also likely to be used by our descendants, and we should plan accordingly for them, too.

2 years:
Canned foods, medicines, seeds

5 years:
Gasoline, diesel, kerosene
Batteries (dry and wet cell, lipo)
Non-leather shoes
Pens and ink

20 years:
Modern roofs, acidic paper

20-40 years:
Ammunition, preserved foods

50 years:
Metal tools

100 years:
Wooden furniture, wine, distilled liquor, firearms

While not inclusive, it would be interesting to hear of examples of people setting things aside for the long term, or if they can think of prepping supplies which don't have long shelf lives and or will be used up quickly and people will have to find substitutes for them.


  1. Recently, I have been thinking of the "essential consumer goods" like razors, toothbrushes, tweezers, nail clippers etc. that are very hard to imagine replacing and will make people very uncomfortable to live without.

  2. Ross,

    I remember reading -- I want to say it was a book by Ragnar Benson, but I don't remember -- about what trade goods were sought after by people living in Cuba (which, since 1959, has been in something of a de facto state of collapse, at least in terms of living conditions). Razors, toothbrushes, and toothpaste were among the items people sought after most, not some of the more typical items (like alcohol) that people expect to stock up and use as trade goods.

    I suppose one enterprising thing to do would be to figure out how to manufacture substitutes for those items, or see what was used back in the day to fill those needs.


  3. I thought that "prepping" and people boasting about their "preps" was one of the most bizarre things I encountered on peak oil forums. What did people think they were dealing with, riots or a hurricane? The implications of peak oil are essentially that your standard of living will go down. There is no way to prep for that. In fact, there is a good argument to enjoy what remains of the current version of civilization while it lasts.

    There are some worthwhile choices and debates on what to do in the face of peak oil; eg should you still have kids and if so how many; do you try to relocate and if so where; how long do you try to stick it out in the formal, 9-5 wage economy; try to save in the expectation that prices will collapse, or spend in the expectation of the value of money collapsing or being unable to prevent theft you your savings, and so on. How to "prep" is not part of this.

    But I also think that the comment on razors, toothbrushes and toothpaste to be bizarre and I wonder if their unavailability is an urban legend. Its pretty easy to make both toothbrushes and toothpaste from common materials and ingredients. They weren't used in 7th century France, for example, not because the technology was absent, but becasue the concept of dental hygene was absent. Razors are another matter, but just grow a beard. I've always wondered before the invention of safety razors how people kept clean shaven when the fashion or their professions favored that.

  4. About five years ago we started maintaining a store of canned goods and dry goods such as flour and rice. I just went through the cans trying to sort through the expiration dates. A lot of the cans were a year or so out of date but none had signs of spoilage. We rotated the stock. I was shocked at the flour and rice. Even though it was in a metal container the bugs had gotten in and ruined it all. I think that even when you get it fresh from the store there are already bugs in there. There is a learning curve to storage.

  5. Ed,

    I think that "prepping," per se, makes sense in at least a limited sense. The notion that we would see a very gradual decline in living standards is no more or less likely than a sudden, rapid drop. At that point in time -- where people are scrambling to make some sense of what has just happened (and try to assemble new, lower-energy input systems), having some supplies put aside gives people a "cushion" as they decide what to do next.

    I would agree that the idea that one can "prep" and expect to come out on the other side of a collapse doesn't make much sense. I'm a little reminded of the episode of the new Twilight Zone where a guy mistakenly believes a nuclear war has occurred and so he sits in his bunker, day after day, when the reality is that the government built a containment dome over his town. It's just the wrong approach for the wrong problem.

    I've always wondered, too, how people back in the day kept shaved. I would suppose obsidian might work as a razor, maybe flint, too.


  6. Zappnin,

    I would have to agree that people have a lot of trial and error when it comes to storage. I remember years ago, a friend of mine who was storing value packs of ramen noodles in unsealed 55 gallon plastic barrels (I don't think I need to comment on that).

    Just as essential -- and something which should be practiced now -- is storing foods without all the high-tech methods we have available (e.g. even canning).


  7. One approach is to consider what items we can store and put away to maintain a life of "convenience" as close as possible to what we have now. Some of us, however, prefer the approach of "re-naturalization" which is essentially the process of humanity learning to rejoin the planet and its systems on the planet's terms (which actually are very generous and filled with grace and beauty). I do believe humans have much to contribute, but must it always be with items that give us control over others and the environment? What if our technologies get freed from the current economic system and focus on dismantling that which causes fear and dis-ease rather than treating the symptoms. This summer I have watched bare-foot kids race across gravel roads as they joyfully play and grow. Shoes? Maybe during winter but there are options that don't require rubber/plastic or stockpiling.

    The lessons I am looking to learn as this current economic/military/social system breaks apart is how to do it right next time, not how to live with and preserve the vestiges of a sick and third-rate paradigm. Looters from the old system won't find much they want at my home except plenty of community, peace, (yes, there is grief at what has been done to the planet), and lots of work to embed energy and increase "surface area" where the new has room to germinate and take root.

    -J. Braun

  8. J. Braun,

    I find a lot to like in that point of view. Realistically, we're probably going to find ourselves back in a 1700s level of technology -- itself not exactly a bastion of creature comforts. Therefore, do people try to take the path of trying to reproduce a dying modern lifestyle (or even a socially aspirant colonial one!), or do they start looking for ways to be happy in a world of less?

    My concern for a long time, in starting this endeavor, has always been whether or not people will learn from the past (and the spiritual sickness which seems to hang over so much of it), or if they'll be able to finally take a look at what has been done in the name of one idea or someone's naked ambition, and start moving forward in a rational manner. I think you are already a long stride along in that right direction.


  9. Has anyone here see The Green Valley? It is a BBC series on farming in the 1600's style. I bought the DVDs - and watched them several times.
    You know, life was simpler then. I saw another programme on TV last week in which a full-time, experienced lawyer changed jobs to bake cakes and work at a tea shop. She was sick of her life. My colleague wants to finish his job as a senior exec search consultant to be a truck driver.
    John, didn't men use to go to barbers for shaves? They used the old "cut throat" razors.

  10. Like you, I view long term collapse as the most likely scenario. That being so, if one can spare some fiat, then why not take advantage of the abundance of goods available in the here and now. I mean, China is effectively subsidizing the American consumer and the USD as reserve currency is a boon too.

    Collect while the collecting is good.
    There's items such as solar panels, solar cookers, down jackets, shoes, tools, LED lights, etc etc etc that will have a long life and prove to be difficult or much more expensive to obtain after the (likely) coming financial reset.

  11. I think a reasonable amount of preparedness just makes sence even in non-collapse times. I have personally not done much to stock up on what I would consider essentials but I did buy a good handsaw and some seeds. I'm also concerned with loss of knowledge/ability especially when it comes to growing food. I started container gardening this year and had great success initially with the snap peaas but the beets, carrots, cucumbers and lettuce were basic failures. That learning curve I guess. I imagine that kind of disappointment spread out to permeate an entire civilization and the implications are sobering.

    But, like most people on this site I'm not really depressed by it all. The key, IMHO, is improvisation. I cut my teeth on jazz sax and this skill is probably the most valuable I have learned, Dimitri Orlov seems to get this in his writing. You have to improvise to weather profound changes. Survival is not enough. If we can't live a life worth living than there's no point, really.

  12. BUGS in the flower and grains? freeze them for a few days. then i packed them with a sprinkle of boric acid. Pressure cookers save fuel and tenderize the toughest meat. they are the best for canning. 15psi for 15 minuets sterilizes everything. bandages... If you cook chicken the bones are soft enough to eat or feed the critters. beans and brown rice are quick. check out diy rocket stoves, saves fuel, easy to make.

  13. It's doubtful things will ever again be as plentiful as they are now. Yes, decades of abundance have lulled most to complacency.
    It's difficult to imagine there might be a sea change in a short period of time.

    Currently we have economies of scale, just in time manufacturing, worldwide shipping, oil,electricity,food,a (semi-functioning) government. No world war.

    Don't count on this persisting.

    I suspect there'll be a lot of folks kicking themselves in years to come thinking they could of secured some crucial items back before TSHTF.

  14. Any collapse that happens (and it is far from a given that it will happen) will greatly shorten life spans and will not be a sudden collapse. That is to say that any adult alive today will likely not be affected by it to the extent your preparations indicate as it will be a very slow collapse. They'll be dead of old age before it gets really bad.

  15. amazing to me how many contributors do not even know what a straight razor is ... how quickly Gillette has dumbfounded you all .... for those still interested in "prepping", there are good ones, along with strops and soap and what have you, still readily available on eBay and other places/.....juts, its worth the bucks to get good ones, trust me on that ....

  16. like the stock market, civilization "took the escalator up, but takes the elevator down" ... or maybe just jumps down the empty shaft ... a mere seven days of the electric grid being down, and a along with it all of the gas stations not being able to pump gas and the water authority not able to pump water, and the whole society is at its knees, totally helpless with not even a clue as to what to do ....

  17. Some very interesting and insightful comments here (I'll have to track down "the Green Valley" and watch it sometime). The problem that we've been defining here is that while we can adapt, we have the problem of not necessarily knowing how long we'll be in a stage of free-fall, how quickly it will come on, and so on.

    The other thought here is that while we accept/understand the idea of collapse as a change in lifestyle, among other things, we still look at it with the expectation of living through it, on some level(insert the old anecdote about soldiers being asked to volunteer for a suicide mission being told that most of them won't make it back, then turning and looking at the guys next to them and thinking "I feel sorry for you guys").

    The collective amnesia of humanity keeps me up at night sometimes, being one of the primary reasons for the Leibowitz Society's existence. We have a wealth of information in the past, the processes of the present, and the principles of thought to carry us into the future. However, these things are so quickly forgotten when people find themselves in need. Katrina, in some ways, was a perfect example of what life would be like after a quick collapse. What level of existence would've been the norm after that, if it was a nationwide or worldwide event?

    Remember also that part of the point of the Leibowitz Society is not just to plan for a long term, slow-motion collapse (even though it's probably the most likely), but also to prepare for sudden collapse brought on by anything from a shift of magnetic poles, to global rioting and war, to a new Black Plague.

    So, while we might look at a slow collapse and see ourselves as adaptable to circumstance, we should probably also consider that fast collapse will not allow us to adapt any faster, even in spite of a drastic need to do so. It's then when we would need at least some level of "prepping" to get our heads above water and figure out what to do next.


    (by the way, I notice that I left adhesives off the list, something of an oversight)

  18. I will miss floss picks the most.

    While pondering this topic from a personal perspective, I am haunted by the fact that things happen overnight. One day, we had the USSR. A few days later, it was gone. One day we had a healthy economy. A few days later, we had the first bailouts. One day, Enron was strong, Fortune 500 company, etc....

    As civilians, we are so far out of the 'power-loop' of what is really happening that we probably do not know what dangers our society is really facing or how fast things will appear to fail.

    I do know that whatever kills us, it will be years in the making, silently, and we will be distracted by things such as the debt celing which was crafted to produce a doungrade of government securities and a subsequent upgrade of corporate securities (junk bonds).

    In short, we are flying blind until side-swiped by the issue currently kept secret which will ruin our lives overnight.

  19. Personally, I am not a believer in total economic and societal collapse, but I still feel that the complete loss of the skills of our ancestors makes us a very vulnerable society in case of hardship. Reviving the old trades, as well as rebuilding local communities and sustainable village economies are important prerequisites to an acceptable lifestyle in a (possible) post-industrial society. Hiding in a hole with lots of food and guns (like some preppers do) will only attract attention and forms a short-term strategy at best.

  20. The cells at Black Beach Prison have security cameras.

    You can expect that as long as modern technology can give small bands of professional warriors an advantage over everyone else, pockets of such technology will be available, and such warriors will roam the land.

  21. Metal tools poorly stored and unused will rust away, but I have my great grandfathers' pre-WWI tools that have held up well. If maintained, they will last and be able to build new houses and sheds, furniture and boats.

    Guns are the same way. John Browning designed weapons from the 1920's/1930's made by Colt of plain old easy-rust steel are fully functional 90 years later if maintained by several generations of owners. Wood stocks and grips are long-lasting when oiled, or re-make-able. We don't really know how well polymers will withstand the ravages of time, but they don't rust!

    Modern smokeless ammunition, especially the old corrosively primed kind (like Russian, Yugo, Bugarian cold war x39 and 54R), will be 99%+ reliable for 3 generations or over 100 years when kept in a closed ammunition can in a dry basement. There are anecdotal examples of WWII .45ACP in a cardboard box kept in a desk drawer firing 100% 60 years later. That is far from an ideal storage condition.

  22. Batteries aging-out and becoming unavailable, especially high-tech small batteries, will lead to less-availability of the super-force-multipliers like head-mounted night vision, IR targeting lasers, compact high-output lights, tiny radios, etc. The GPS network is a race to failure by losing the capacity to launch replacement satellites, receivers going non-functional, or the ground control stations becoming looted burned hulks. Same with Iridium satellite telephones. Firearms, especially the basic kind with unpowered optics and peep sights, will be working with pre-collapse factory-made ammunition (especially one-time-use rimfire ammo) for at least a century after we are all buried, and will become concealed, unspoken-of, family treasures.

    For less than $1000 in 2011, a person could get a 10/22 carbine, a MkIII Target pistol, a .22 double-action revolver and thousands of rounds of high-quality (but not "target grade") ammunition like Federal #510 (about $165.00 for a case of 5k). Spend any change or a little more on Volquartson action parts, good slings & holsters, SS hardware, folding stock, or sights upgrades. You might want something that can stop a big man faster than 3 days (gut-shot), too.

    Over-preparing for TEOTWAWKI with too many weapons and too much ammo is almost as silly as having none. There is a "just right" quantity and quality of weapons that doesn't take resources away from short-term critical items like clean water, preserved food, stored medical supplies (which do have effective expiration dates and need re-buying), body temperature control (clothing, shelter, fuel), and other necessities for long-term living. This is, of course, a decision to be made based on your circumstances and assumptions about the future.


  23. Here in England there are plenty of examples of wooden furniture up to 500 years old. Likewise metal tools and weapons. And I have seen bottles of wine nearly 200 years old in Crimean wine cellars. Admittedly better if looked after reasonably carefully.
    Re "Tales of the Green Valley", now on Youtube, see: