• Disaster Shopping with Gupta

    by  • October 8, 2008 • Hexayurt, Personal, The Global Picture • 8 Comments

    So there’s a very real possibility that civilization as we know it is about to crash. God knows, Iceland is. Here’s one way to think about this.

    1> Estimate the possibility of general systems failure:


    2> Multiply what’s in your bank account by that number.

    3> That’s about how much you would rationally spend on things to help you survive the crash scenario right now because, well, if you need stuff at the same time everybody else needs stuff, your money’s no good. These are mostly fringe items and will sell out immediately in a sudden crash scenario.

    What should I buy?

    My approach to these things has always been a bit idiosyncratic. I used to be a hobo (literally rode freight trains) and I’ve spent a lot of time dirtbag camping. I used to have gear, then I stopped having gear, and my quality of camping experience didn’t change much, not because I was ultralight, but because I was generally lucky. Poor gear and good gear work the same when things are OK. Good gear sometimes works when your life depends on it.

    This is a “poor gear” list. Not much is military quality, it’s all useful consumer crap that you can buy cheaply and easily that’ll really help if things Go Wrong.

    Item One: Food
    Go to Sam’s Club or CostCo and buy cheap calories in cans. Tuna, beef stew, hot dogs. Nothing that you can’t eat cold, and not vegetables. You want the cheapest raw calories you can find. In an immanent disaster where I knew the food supply was just going to stop, I’d be buying lard and cooking oil, not rice. Cannot stress this too strongly, spend your budget on calories. With moderate care, one person’s food for a month is $100. Including beef jerky. You’re not going to live on this stuff for more than a month or two unless you kill your neighbors, this is about comfort, not survival. You’re buying this stuff to feed your family and best friends for two weeks, not yourself and your dog for a year.

    Calories per dollar is your guide. Calories per dollar. If you are hungry, you will eat it. (for a few weeks – for months, you need variety and nutrition.)

    Item Two: Communications
    Two items: keeping your cell phone working through power outages, and keeping track of your family in a no comms crisis.

    If you don’t have a transistor radio around the house, buy this one or spend $10 at wal-mart. Shortwave is a nice feature, though. You want that, if you know what it is.

    For your cell phone, you need power. You could buy a solar powered cell phone charger – there are many good enough brands out there. This, however, is a onesie. It does one thing, and it’s not very flexible, adaptable or resilient.

    Instead, try a solar powered batter charger, and something to adapt (a key word) that power to the needs of your cell phone. There are two ways to go with solar batter chargers: overkill and underkill or worst.

    That Accumanager 2020 (the overkill option) is the world’s greatest battery charger, by the way. I miss mine (sob!)

    Now let’s turn your charged batteries into a charged cell phone with a little widget. A few bucks, you could do it with a wire, but this works. And has lots of adapters so you can charge your friends phones. For $10 each.

    Disaster economics: it’s not price gouging it’s financing expedited access to critical infrastructures, mate.

    Ah, you say, but now the damn cell towers aren’t working any more. And you don’t want to leave the house to forage for wood because you want to be at home in case of news. Well, now you need walkie talkies. There are tons, you want two things:

    1> GMRS, not FRS. And a good brand, which has decent reviews, and works.
    2> It should take 4AA batteries.

    These Midland radios are perfect. There are some roughly equivalent Motorolas. You’ll get two miles out of them through most situations, which is a half hour walk, or a 10 minute run if you’re fit. 5 miles on a good day, which is an hour’s walk. You want these.

    Why is 4AA the ONLY CHOICE? Because AAA batteries cost three times what AAs cost for the same energy storage, and you need three times as many of them for your devices. AAA batteries are the scourge of the earth, and you should shun all devices which subsist on this scum. AA! Only AA.

    These low-discharge NIMH rechargable batteries are all roughly the same. The number refers to battery capacity, but you’d rather have 12 decent quality 2200 than 8 excellent 2900s. Low discharge is really nice – they stay full in storage, rather than gradually going empty. That’s nice.

    Buy one set of batteries per device, plus two extra sets per person, plus one set for the charger.

    That is a lot of batteries, but what you’re talking about is running your life on these for weeks or months if the grid goes down for a while, or for three years until the cells die if you’re in a TEOWAKI scenario.

    Buy batteries.

    Also note that’s three, different, incompatible devices – transistor radio, cell phone, walkie talkies. Interesting how communications is so complicated.

    Item Three: Conveniences

    AA LED Headlamp. You’ll get used to this: NOT AAA! NEVER EVER AAA.

    Pick one that suits your budget. Then buy a backup from Wal-Mart for $12 and be amazed how bright it is. The one you paid $40 for is waterproof, though.

    For your heavy lighting needs, also consider the world’s best price/performance flashlight. Runs on AAs, of course, either on two or one. 6 hours of light equivalent to a big maglight. Voltage regulated which means it doesn’t get dimmer as the batteries run out. This is an incredibly pleasant feature for a heavy use light because you just turn it on, and it’s always the same brightness, right up until the last 10 hours when it’s still pretty usable. Some people prefer unregulated – but you saw how that worked for finance.

    Honorable mentions: a great LED headlamp you should consider and the venerable, beautiful, 4AA 2W Underwater Kinetics flashlight which will never, ever let you down in the rain, mud or zombie attacks, but is fifty bucks. Lovely item, though. All their gear is.

    Utterly superior wood-burning camp stove. Takes AA for the blower. Can heat an entire house, or just burn your chilli in 15 seconds. Lovely, lovely device, cannot be overpriased. Buy one just to wonder at its magnificence.

    Item Four: Water

    Bleach and vitamin C tablets or Emergen-C. Purify the water with the bleach, then after it’s safe to drink, add the vitamin C (just a pinch) to remove the chlorine taste.

    Why is water fourth? It’s fifteen seconds to acquire, and you probably have it in your house already. If water goes out for a few days, you’re going to need a sawdust toilet. But that’s a bucket and a lot of newspaper (instead of sawdust.) You’ll live.

    Item Five: Comprehensive First Aid Kit
    One of these depending on budget.

    Item Six: Other Crap I Like
    World’s best space blanket. World’s best emergency whistle. World’s warmest, best designed, uglyest outdoor clothes. Wiggy’s secret is that he silicon-coats insulating fibers so they stay dry and don’t compress so the gear lasts forever and doesn’t trap moisture at all, even when you sweat. Unfortunately the clothes are boxy, like a Saab. But unbeatable. And never forget the Lovely, tasty, mainstay food bars.

    Finally, don’t forget the hand sanitizer because the developing world is a filthy, filthy dirty nasty place, and pandemic flu, bad sanitation and many other potentially fatal risks can be reduced by a simple rule: every time you or somebody else comes into your home, people squirt this stuff on their hands and wash them. At the door, right after people take off their shoes.

    Right now, we’ve all got it easy: the tap water is pure, the lights come on, the food is cheap and plentiful. I believe we’ll be back there again in 10 years, but cushion your transition if you can. Learning how to deal with nature again, with the unpredictability of a life that you cannot fully control, is the heart of the experience of poverty, and of social and financial collapse, disaster and so on.

    Wash your damn hands. It can save your life.

    If you want to learn more about this kind of thinking, take a look at the Fragile Plenty diagram (PDF, and zoom in!) and consider watching the Six Ways To Die section (5 minutes) of the Reykjavik Briefing. Draw your own Six Ways To Die map, and work on moving your essential services to your own house and your own administrative control.

    Good luck!

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    8 Responses to Disaster Shopping with Gupta

    1. Kári
      October 7, 2008 at 3:47 am

      You think Iceland is headed for this kind of disaster? But the man on TV said everything’s going to be all right!!

    2. October 7, 2008 at 4:01 am

      No, but I’m sure America is.

    3. Sasha
      October 7, 2008 at 7:23 am

      Kari said :
      ” You think Iceland is headed for this kind of disaster? But the man on TV said everything’s going to be all right!! ”

      When they say so, run for cover! It means that really, everything is going down. Seen that many times.

    4. October 8, 2008 at 2:40 pm

      (FYI, the transistor radio link is messed up.)

      Good tips, especially so on the communications.

      It may be a few weeks, or it may be longer. Anyone taking this advice should also consider stocking up on something that can be used for exchange should paper money, and hence your bank account, once again return to its intrinsic value (i.e. zero).

      This may mean common (at present, anyway) consumables like cigarettes, vodka and diesel, but in any prolonged crisis likely means gold and silver coins.

      Gold would actually be too valuable for convenient smaller purchases, so silver is the better way to go. One-ounce silver coins that are widely recognized the world over include the Canadian Maple Leafs, Mexican Libertads, and American Silver Eagles. If you intend to purchase bullion, best do it soon as the premiums on physical metals are currently rising precariously (due to unprecedented demand) and waiting times of 2-8 weeks are already common with all major vendors – including the government mints!

      Here are a few reminders of what the reality of a currency crisis will mean for your hard-earned paper money:


      “My father was a lawyer,” says Walter Levy, an internationally known German-born oil consultant in New York, “and he had taken out an insurance policy in 1903, and every month he had made the payments faithfully. It was a 20-year policy, and when it came due, he cashed it in and bought a single loaf of bread.”

      The Berlin publisher Leopold Ullstein wrote that an American visitor tipped their cook one dollar. The family convened, and it was decided that a trust fund should be set up in a Berlin bank with the cook as beneficiary, the bank to administer and invest the dollar.

      (Source: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/commandingheights/shared/minitext/ess_germanhyperinflation.html)

      PS. Vinay, I’ll give you a pass on the ‘unregulated’ finance industry gag – this time 😉

    5. October 8, 2008 at 3:14 pm

      Hahahah. Yeah, behind closed doors I blame the entire things on generations of bankers raised with the government providing stability to the extent of moral hazard, and the same for We The People. Just because it went up all your life doesn’t mean it goes up in the same way that object go down when dropped, you know?

      In terms of trade goods, if I thought it was going to go down that far (and I don’t) there’s only one I’d consider investing in: condoms.

      Small, portable, fungible, and people need to get laid. We don’t know how pharmaceutical supply chains will do, but we do know that sex will continue, and condoms are generally a pre-requisite even more so in times of financial crisis when the last thing anybody wants is a pregnancy to content with.

      However, I think that we’re going to see a soft-collapse, not a hard crash. There are four reasons for this:

      1> One of the functions of the market is to move information. That function can be offloaded on to the internet: think efficient electronic barter exchanges, math trades and so on.

      2> Many countries have long memories and strong internal markets.

      3> The Euro is likely to stay afloat, more or less.

      4> Ultra-cheap solar panels, which will cut the cost of daylight electricity by maybe a factor or four or more, are in mass production – a few gigawatts a year now – but in the medium term (5 to 10 years) the certainty that electricity will continue to get cheaper and cheaper in future will act as an economic stimulus on a titanic, industrial revolution scale.

      Interesting times.

    6. October 8, 2008 at 6:15 pm

      Your idea on stocking up on condoms for barter is excellent (aside from their poor shelf-life compared to vodka bottles, perhaps).

      Funny how our vices (to some traditions of thought, anyhow) constitute our best means of exchange.

    7. October 8, 2008 at 6:26 pm

      Yes, the shelf life issue is the key problem there. I suspect that actual shelf lives are much longer than notional shelf lives, but that’s a subject for somebody who knows the chemistry and materials science to opine on.

      If anybody buys a containerload of condoms, please send me a garbage bag full. 🙂

    8. October 8, 2008 at 6:26 pm

      PS: “Vice” is the Christian word for “what you want and anything you enjoy.”

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