Letter Re: Pandemics--Winners and Losers

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Jim, I think your estimations on the results of a pandemic are ... incomplete. Say the worst case scenario happens...say 1/3 of the population of the US dies. That is 100-million or so people, out of 300 million or so.We really don't know what segments of the population H5N1 will attack. In Asia, it's attacking the very young mostly but they're also the ones that have the most contact with the infected fowl. The 1918 Spanish Influenza killed mainly young to middle aged, very healthy people, but that was from secondary infection that couldn't be treated (today we have antibiotics that would work on the sequalae of the viral infection). So, we don't know which parts of the population will be most at risk.
The population of the United States reduced to 200 million would be a terrible tragedy. But to put it in perspective, the population of the United States was 200-million in 1965. Since 1965, we've gone to the moon, mapped the human genome, developed technology that I won' bother to repeat. However, life in 1965 wasn't exactly terrible, not like the 'dark ages' that bubonic plague kept Europe in.

Call me an optimist, but should the worst happen I think it would take a relatively short time (less than 50 years) before the economic growth of the US (in particular) regains it's former levels. Climbing a mountain the second time is always easier, since we already know the route. - "Flighter"

JWR Replies: Hmmmm... I thought that I had been intentionally optimistic in my estimate of the potential effects. Imagine a situation where people are panicky because of an outbreak of an easily transmissible flu strain in the United States--even in just one region. Who is going to continue to show up for work? Will the 18 wheelers continue to roll--restocking the grocery stores? (A situation exacerbated by the inevitable panic buying.) Will the fuel tankers still dock at American ports? Will supply trucks be allowed to cross Federally dictated quarantine lines? Will the coal trains continue to arrive at the power plants?

Our economy is a widely distributed web of interdependency. The supply chains are almost ridiculously long. The modern microwave convenience foods oven come immediately to mind. Take for example, a bag of Stouffer's Chicken/Vegetable Stir Fry: Where are each of ingredients grown or raised? (The following is mostly conjecture.) The wheat for the pasta (Kansas?), the Broccoli (California?), the Chicken (Arkansas?), the tomatoes (Chile?), the bell peppers (Texas?), the carrots (Alabama?), the parsley (Oregon?), the water chestnuts (China?) the white long grain rice (Louisiana?), the pineapple and sugar (Hawaii?), the molasses to combine with the sugar to make brown sugar (Tennessee?) the ginger (Japan?) the sesame oil and curry powder (India?), the salt (California?), the apple cider vinegar (Vermont?), the "yeast extract" (a pseudonym for MSG) (Taiwan?), the corn starch (Iowa?) Consider that each food and spice transits many states by truck or train or even across oceans in cargo containers before arriving at the Stouffer Corporation food processing plant in Solon, Ohio. There, they are cooked and flash frozen. OBTW, where is that plastic bag made? And where is the ink on the label made? Then those bags are boxed up in cardboard box that is made in a nearby Ohio town. But wait! The wood pulp that makes the paper for the box comes from trees felled in Washington and milled in Idaho. Then, through a different chain of supply-again transiting umpteen states--the the boxed bags of frozen entrees must be kept continuously frozen until it makes it to your local store freezer case. An optimist would call this a "modern miracle." As a ornery pessimist, I call it a disaster waiting to happen.

With these long chains of supply, I predict that it won't take much to collapse the whole works. Of course, we've never seen something of this magnitude happen to a modern technological society. Our entire society is geared toward driving down costs by choosing the absolute lowest cost components/ingredients, regardless of their place of origin, and then storing as few of them as possible. (The "kan ban" or "just in time" supply system--again to minimize costs.) In the 1930s, more than 20% of the population lived on family farms. Today, 2% of the population feeds the other 98%. And in the 1930s chains of supply were short--the vegetables in the grocery stores mostly came from nearby truck farms.

We have built ourselves a house of cards! Just pray that people keep coming to work out of economic necessity. I agree that the road back to economic recovery following a collapse could potentially be swift, given our level of technology. But if one of the key enabling infrastructures (grid power, telecommunications, or transportation) gets badly broken then our technological sophistication could turn out to be our Achilles' Heel.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim Rawles published on October 24, 2005 4:27 PM.

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