Friday, May 18, 2012

It's Material

The blessing, and eventual problem, of living in an industrial society, is that we are surrounded by lots of mass produced items we become dependent on for functioning. These things are often not made to last more than a few years, much less a generation or more, because they can be easily replaced, and because the people who manufacture them will go out of business if they don't. In fact, there is often such a surplus of manufactured goods that it sometimes make more short-term economic system to discard things people don't know what to do with than it does to sell them. One of my first jobs was working at a retail store that sold appliances. It was not uncommon for us to be told to throw a perfectly good returned or "scratch and dent" washer or dryer away, instead of marking it down and making it available for a customer. The problem was that a new unit could be sold in its place, and the company could still make more off of selling the new unit, and discarding the old, than it could by a mark-down. At least to the credit of the people I worked with, none of us was ever happy about having to do that and realized what a complete waste it was.

As a society, we still tend to operate the same way, even if we don't often think much about it. Most clothing really isn't purchased with the intent of durability over time. Elastic, for example, will tend to get brittle after a period of non-use. I was surprised when I pulled out a pair of socks the other day that I'd had for just a couple of years and heard the characteristic "crackle" of broken-down elastic. If we have the foresight to stock up on a few extra pairs of socks or underwear, are we taking this into account? Our ancestors made do just fine with underwear that used drawstrings and ties, if they wore any at all (see this).

Plastics, likewise, can break down over time, especially when exposed to sunlight. So can rubber tires (which is where "dry rot" comes from, having nothing to do with exposure to water). Our snazzy new greenhouse covers might look nice now, but what happens when they yellow and turn opaque from micro-cracks? Or the plastic handle on our mass-produced hoe or shovel snaps? Wooden handles, cared for, will last forever. Also, consider the problem of plastic pistols, such as Glocks. They have a claimed lifespan of one hundred years or more, but none of them have been around for more than thirty or so years, so who knows? (although, in fairness, ammunition's shelf life is generally between 20-40 years)

Even engines and modern vehicles are problematic, with ten or fifteen years doing pretty good on most things powered by internal combustion. I talked in my last practical commentary about the maintenance that vehicles require, and the need to find practical alternatives for transportation, both personal, and of goods. One thing that people might consider purchasing is a Vermont garden cart. My parents had one of these, didn't take good care of it, and it lasted for twenty or so years before finally falling apart due to neglect, not any flaw in the cart itself. While this is a mass-produced item, it is made to last for generations, and can be bought with solid rubber tires for durability.

People who "prep" always seem to operate from the assumption that the lights will come back on at some point, and Wal Mart can be cleaned up and re-opened after a few years of rot. Freeze-dried food and a locker full of ammunition are nice, I suppose, but the reality is that the lifestyle shift brought on by the new Dark Age is going to require an evaluation of how we live our daily lives and what we can do to best adjust. It's not the dramatic things which are going to make a difference to most people, but the simple items which made life easier for our ancestors, when our idea of a "Dark Age" was their idea of normal life.


  1. is it James...? right...? its funny you mentioning the medieval underwear...

    ,,,my version of an Brithonic Pict circa 200AD...I re-discovered Celtic Trew's...which is basically, woolen stuff, straight off the loom, say 12 inches wide & 26 feet long...also a stout leather belt & garters(string)
    Its a perfect fit...genius concept forgotten in time...until
    the strip also doubles as a 'Philly Beg' little skirt(Kilt)...could also be a Turban...or whatever...rolled up, makes a good pillow...needs be !

    1. John, but James is pretty close. :)

      Love the illustrations, very cool. I remember watching Rob Roy when I was younger and thinking "a long garment like that makes a lot of sense." These technical problems were solved a long time ago by our ancestors, and forgotten by us in a flurry of marketing and "invention for the sake of invention."

      The idea should always be to create something versatile which can last for years, if not for a person's lifespan, not thrown away when the next season rolls around.

  2. Everything up to now has been along the lines of slow decay.
    Of course there's always the chance of something coming along (a black swan) that radically speeds up the breakdown, however it appears the odds are for gradual decline.

    Freeze dried and ammo cached away might just be the ticket (along with deep cycle battery banks,solar and living in an area that isn't dependent on a car).

    As for the "Dark Ages" .... jesus man. I'm over 55 and without kids. Who cares about 30 years in the future, might as well be talking 300 years. I'll be dust in both.
    Besides, all it takes is the discovery of viable cold fusion or thereabouts and it's a whole new ballgame.

    1. Yeah, I agree about the advancement of technology and how things would change at that point. I've been watching the Planetary Resources "launch" with a lot of interest for that reason.

      I really didn't start the Leibowitz Society with the idea of making myself comfortable during the Apocalypse, but rather with the idea of "generational preparedness." In other words, saving the ideas, thinking, and knowledge that should be passed down from generation to generation. It's not a lot different from not changing your motor oil and pouring it out on the ground -- someone is going to come along after us and this is what we do for them, among other things.