“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”

— Carl Sagan

“There’s no harm in hoping for the best as long as you’re prepared for the worst.”

— Stephen King

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

— Benjamin Franklin

“Over-preparation is the foe of inspiration.”

— Napoleon Bonaparte

Update on my previous “New Life” post:

Following my wife’s passing in late April, I felt very strongly a need for a new, positive direction for myself. This was seen as a return to my previous consulting practice in some manner. But, as poet Robert Burns wisely observed in 1785, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.A-gley indeed.

Events globally seem to have taken a major turn for the worse over the past couple of months. World War III, perhaps ultimately going nuclear, has begun in real actions, if not in officialdom. Escalations occur almost daily now at the top levels of the West and the Non-West.

My gut-feeling today is that all this is leading to events and situations of catastrophic dimensions – very soon and globally. In the next several months. Inevitably.

I am by nature an optimist in the sense of looking for constructive responses (and even anticipations) to whatever comes along. COVID black swans, even. Not today. Oddly enough, like Elon Musk (not my favorite person or prognosticator):

 “…Noting he had a ‘super bad feeling’ about the economy, Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said the electric carmaker needs to cut staff by around 10 percent, according to an internal email seen by Reuters.”

Musk spoke specifically about the “economy” but my sense is that he was referring to much more. This also is my deep concern.

So, for me, back to a focus on blog posting until whatever is going on out there plays out in full. Very much hope I am wrong in what I feel is coming – very soon.

What is “prepping”?

Stated simply, prepping is the process of preparing oneself to survive without a complex infrastructure such as that which exists in modern society. The term “prepping” often refers to the act of preparing oneself for life during and after an apocalyptic event.

Predicting the nature, timing, and magnitude of an “apocalyptic” event or situation? Good luck with that one.

I read so much these days about the importance of “prepping” oneself or one’s business. While the general concept of “being prepared” seems completely sensible, there is a small detail that must be faced: prepared for what?

Life in a world without complex infrastructure? There is an awful lot of complex infrastructure out there today, globally distributed. What are the odds of most of this machinery getting whacked severely in some sense? Some nasty stuff seems very likely to happen but just what “nasty stuff” might happen is largely or completely unforeseeable.

Does preparing for the unforeseeable make sense? Is it even possible? What unforeseeable thing or things will you prepare for? Nuclear world war? An EMP that knocks out power across a continent? Another dread disease like COVID? An asteroid hit like the Chicxulub one in the Yucatan about 65 million years ago?

Prepping implies or requires a “for what?” target

All prepping carries an implicit assumption about the state of the world that you believe will exist as a prepping-for target. You don’t prep for a future state that you do not believe will occur. And you can’t prep for more than a very few possible future states.

Your odds of prepping for the wrong thing seem very high.

So, which future state(s) do you believe are sufficiently likely to occur to justify some serious prepping effort, time, and resources?

My honest answer would be “I simply have no idea”.

In this case, I must admit that prepping – for me – would be a complete waste of time. But, perhaps like you as well, I feel that I must do something – anything – to ensure, as best I can, my survival through whatever may come along.

Maximizing my survivability is the real target

Note that “survivability” is not “prepping” in the usual sense of both terms. The latter typically involves storing various supplies and materials (and even gold) in the event that these become unavailable under some particular adverse circumstances.

Survivability, on the other hand, simply seeks to achieve the greatest possible ability to survive, and perhaps even prosper, through whatever may come along. Very different goals, very different approaches.

A recent post on Understanding and Strengthening Your Points of Vulnerability addressed survivability within the context of reasonably stable times. This argued for identifying each point in your business or organization where an adverse event or situation might cause significant damage. Or perhaps presents an attractive opportunity.

The world is a very big place with a lot of people

Even a major disaster like the Black Death that occurred in Afro-Eurasia from 1346 to 1353 and killed an estimated 75-200 million people (as much as 50% of the European population) was far from a world-ending event. With such a large population decline from the pandemic, wages soared in response to a labor shortage. Landowners were also pushed to substitute monetary rents for labor services in an effort to keep tenants.

If you were among the very fortunate majority who did not get taken out by the Black Death, economic changes were hugely beneficial for many. Feudalism – essentially widespread slavery – was an early victim as well.

At the far extreme of catastrophes was the Chicxulub asteroid hit around 65 million years ago. Just about wrecked the entire earth for the subsequent millions of years. Larger mammals and like critters got whacked while a bunch of smaller ones thrived as the large predators vanished. Happy mice maybe?

Mice got lucky on this big one?
Mice got lucky on this big one?

The point here is a dual one: (1) all but the most extreme catastrophes leave very many people still alive and able to survive; and (2) the huge population reductions can prove highly beneficial to a large subset of survivor beings.

This is not to say that catastrophes are often as beneficial as they are damaging. Or worse yet, that catastrophes are vital to the progress of humankind (and critter-kind generally). The real trick in all of this is to be among the survivors and to possess the ability to produce something of ongoing value to other survivors.

Good news, based on Black Death survivor counts: We all have at least a 50% chance of survival if we do nothing special. Doing something constructive may well push these odds much higher. Of course, survival probability has some seriously-variable topography, so that your actual odds may be a lot higher – or a lot lower.

Step #1: Be among the survivors

If you miss on this one, there is no Step #2 to be concerned about. So, what might a business or organization do to improve its survivability?

Location diversity. Major nasty-stuff happenings are generally location-focused. If you are not in the current ground-zero area, you may well be largely unaffected even by the worst of catastrophes. But if your business or organization is highly concentrated geographically – people, facilities, markets, sources – you are vulnerable, perhaps fatally so.

Achieving location diversity is rarely something that can be accomplished in any short timeframe. It requires careful planning, often significant resources, and strong leadership.

Revenue sources diversity. Revenues flow from some combination of customers, markets, products, technologies, facilities, …. Most businesses have fairly high concentrations of one or more of these components. Over half the revenues flowing from a handful of major customers is unfortunately very common. Any one of these disappearing due to some sort of catastrophe can threaten the survival of even the best businesses.

Achieving revenue sources diversity often aims first at customer and market concentrations but the target list should include all primary business dimensions.

Concentrations that indicate serious vulnerabilities.
Concentrations that indicate serious vulnerabilities.

Does your business or organization have a current set of revenue source concentrations charts like these? Should be easy to generate for most businesses. My guess is that one or more of these charts will greatly surprise you.

Input materials and goods source diversity. After our challenging COVID experiences and supply chain impacts over the past two years or so, the importance of multiple-sourcing and safety stocks should hardly need mentioning. Most of you today will be well-along, I hope, in addressing this critical survivability determinant.

Ability to finance operations. How reliable are your external funding sources? Can you operate effectively based on operating cash flow alone? Do you have a substantial volume of routine foreign trade transactions? What happens if somebody gets the bright idea of placing trade or currency sanctions on a major trading partner? Naw, nobody would do such a dumb thing outside of wartime, would they?

Building partners and community. Today seems to be a very good time to build and strengthen working relationships with your main business partners and resources. It is not a good time to try to stand on your own, independently.

Agility and adaptability. This complementary pair has been a favorite topic of these posts (see here, here, and here for examples). Being highly agile and adaptable provides a broad-based foundation for being a survivor no matter what comes along.

A good starting point in practice is to identify and address – in priority – your greatest points of internal vulnerability. This was in fact the topic of a recent post: “Understanding and Strengthening Your Points of Vulnerability”.

Our modern way of life is very fragile

Kind of like Rome or the Mayan empires? Lots of examples, as analyzed by American anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), a seminal and founding work of the academic discipline on societal collapse. He elaborates that ‘collapse’ is a ‘broad term,’ but in the sense of societal collapse, he views it as ‘a political process.’ He further narrows societal collapse as a rapid process (within ‘few decades’) of ‘substantial loss of sociopolitical structure,’ giving the fall of the Western Roman Empire as ‘the most widely known instance of collapse’ in the Western world.

Looks like empires of virtually any kind have a natural lifespan based on an inevitably growing and ultimately fatal complexity. Collapse is simply the endpoint of a particular society, while the great majority of humankind goes on about its business of survival.

Much has been made of the likelihood of a collapse of Western civilization, particularly the U.S. and its politico-economic dependents. William Strauss and Neil Howe in the late 1990’s popularized a “generational” theory of cyclical transitions (see Related Reading below and a post) that mostly fall short of a Tainter-type complete collapse.

Since empires do in fact collapse, perhaps following some transformations and transitions along the way, we do not seem to need any kind of external catastrophe to do the job. “We”, as in “us civilization-dwellers”, will take care of this job quite nicely, thank you.

Bottom Line:

Big things are definitely happening today, even if they have not yet managed to reach broadly catastrophic dimensions. What we are clearly facing, almost certainly, is a set of major threats to our business and organizational survival. These threats are largely or completely unforeseeable in nature, magnitude, and timing. You can’t realistically “prep” for these: You can only tackle your survivability.

Related Reading

Wikipedia on societal or civilizational collapse:

“Societal collapse (also known as civilizational collapse) is the fall of a complex human society characterized by the loss of cultural identity and of socioeconomic complexity, the downfall of government, and the rise of violence. Possible causes of a societal collapse include natural catastrophe, war, pestilence, famine, economic collapse, population decline, and mass migration. A collapsed society may revert to a more primitive state, be absorbed into a stronger society, or completely disappear.”

“Virtually all civilizations have suffered such a fate, regardless of their size or complexity, but some of them later revived and transformed, such as China, India, and Egypt. However, others never recovered, such as the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, the Maya civilization, and the Easter Island civilization. Societal collapse is generally quick but rarely abrupt. However, some cases involve not a collapse but only a gradual fading away, such as the British Empire since 1918.”

“Anthropologists, (quantitative) historians, and sociologists have proposed a variety of explanations for the collapse of civilizations involving causative factors such as environmental change, depletion of resources, unsustainable complexity, invasion, disease, decay of social cohesion, rising inequality, secular decline of cognitive abilities, loss of creativity, and misfortune. However, complete extinction of a culture is not inevitable, and in some cases, the new societies that arise from the ashes of the old one are evidently its offspring, despite a dramatic reduction in sophistication. Moreover, the influence of a collapsed society, such as the Western Roman Empire, may linger on long after its death.”

Jared Diamond in his 2005 book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” summarizes his methodology in one paragraph:

“This book employs the comparative method to understand societal collapses to which environmental problems contribute. My previous book (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies), had applied the comparative method to the opposite problem: the differing rates of buildup of human societies on different continents over the last 13,000 years. In the present book focusing on collapses rather than buildups, I compare many past and present societies that differed with respect to environmental fragility, relations with neighbors, political institutions, and other ‘input’ variables postulated to influence a society’s stability. The ‘output’ variables that I examine are collapse or survival, and form of the collapse if collapse does occur. By relating output variables to input variables, I aim to tease out the influence of possible input variables on collapses.”

William Strauss and Neil Howe in 1991 proposed a “generational” (cyclical)” theory of why nations, and in particular the U.S., go through a series of wrenching transitions short of complete collapse. An overview on the Strauss-Howe generational theory from Wikipedia:

“The Strauss–Howe generational theory, devised by William Strauss and Neil Howe, describes a theorized recurring generation cycle in American history and global history. According to the theory, historical events are associated with recurring generational personas (archetypes). Each generational persona unleashes a new era (called a turning) lasting around 20–25 years, in which a new social, political, and economic climate (mood) exists. They are part of a larger cyclical ‘saeculum’ (a long human life, which usually spans between 80 and 100 years, although some saecula have lasted longer). The theory states that a crisis recurs in American history after every saeculum, which is followed by a recovery (high). During this recovery, institutions and communitarian values are strong. Ultimately, succeeding generational archetypes attack and weaken institutions in the name of autonomy and individualism, which eventually creates a tumultuous political environment that ripens conditions for another crisis.”

“Strauss and Howe laid the groundwork for their theory in their book Generations (1991), which discusses the history of the United States as a series of generational biographies going back to 1584. In their book The Fourth Turning (1997), the authors expanded the theory to focus on a fourfold cycle of generational types and recurring mood eras to describe the history of the United States, including the Thirteen Colonies and their British antecedents. However, the authors have also examined generational trends elsewhere in the world and described similar cycles in several developed countries.”

“Academic response to the theory has been mixed, with some applauding Strauss and Howe for their “bold and imaginative thesis”, while others have criticized the theory as being overly deterministic, unfalsifiable, and unsupported by rigorous evidence. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who graduated from Harvard University with Strauss, called Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 the most stimulating book on American history he’d ever read. He even sent a copy to each member of Congress. The theory has been influential in the fields of generational studies, marketing, and business management literature. Strauss–Howe generational theory has also been described by some historians and journalists as pseudoscientific, ‘kooky’, and ‘an elaborate historical horoscope that will never withstand scholarly scrutiny’. Academic criticism has focused on the lack of rigorous empirical evidence for their claims, as well as the authors’ view that generational groupings are more powerful than other social groupings, such as economic class, race, sex, religion, and political parties.”