TCS Daily

Disaster Unpreparedness?

By Tim Worstall - August 26, 2004 12:00 AM

Glenn Reynolds pointed out in these pages that we are rather more prepared for disaster than we had thought, geeks, hobbyists and the plain fixated providing a well of knowledge that we can draw upon if necessary. As he said:

"And that's the real lesson. We have such a diversified collection of skills because our society is rich and free, so that people have time and leisure for such pursuits. No plausible government program could prepare us adequately for the kind of unlikely cataclysm Stirling employs -- but, in fact, if we should ever find ourselves needing people who can construct a lorica segmentata we've got them. "

This thought, rather than providing comfort about the robustness of civilization, disturbed me. Not for any grand reason, simply, because I could not think of a skill that I possessed which would make me a valued member of such a society, or even one in which I would be able to survive. My technical knowledge is all in the supply of weird and wonderful metals, not their uses or their mining. With an economic background I can make intellectual arguments for my value yet I'm not sure how useful that would be in an environment of rough hewn "can do" types. Somehow, pointing out that my ability to imbibe and appreciate good beer in quantity is an incentive that aids the rest of society in encouraging the provision of good beer in quantity looks better on paper than I think it would go over in practice.

The day therefore started with a hint of gloom and despondency, a little more than there usually is at that uncaffeinated hour. This led to a little thinking about which would be the most useful technologies if indeed we did face such a cataclysm as Reynolds postulates. Not the arbitrary limits of a science fiction novel, but what if there was a large asteroid strike, or Yellowstone did go up, assuming that enough of us survive to do anything? My mood rose to a more normal level of dyspepsia as I recalled the point that has to be beaten anew into every generation of economics students: methods of organization are technologies. It might be that I would have to pose as an economic or social historian to survive, but with this thought I was certain that I could be of value to a recovering civilization.

Over the past six or seven thousand years of recorded history we've tried any number of methods of organizing society and the work and experiments done within it. Some work, some don't, some in certain situations and some in others. Polygamy, as an example, works very well in societies with 50 -- 80% death rates in young males and without similar death rates in females. It works less well where survival rates are not so sexually skewed. The scientific method seems obvious to us now, despite the problems that activists of all stripes have with its real world application, yet it is less than half a millennium old. In a world of roving bands of pillagers and meager and slow communications agricultural feudalism has much to recommend it; there are those who insist that the invention of the limited liability joint stock company had more to do with the growth after the Industrial Revolution than the steam engine did.

One can go on with multiple examples of things that we have learned by trial and error in the past, things which do not require a particular level of physical technology for us to apply. OK, our particular method of organizing the world might stumble in the face of disaster yet recovery would be swift as compared with the time it took us to get here first time, simply because it would not be the first time. The Society for Creative Anachronism and various back-to-the-land hippie movements would indeed have useful skills for us as we pull ourselves up off the floor yet these will not be the most important technologies, the truly vital ones will be exactly the same ones that we value in our current society. Freedom of speech, trade, association, the rule of law, sanctity of contract, these may not actually sound like very useful things if one is faced with the breakdown of technological civilization. Yet they are precisely the very things that brought that civilization about in the first place and so would be vital to any desire to return to it after disaster.

I am almost forced to be cheerful as I read over one of the good Professor's phrases once again:

"...because our society is rich and free,..."

Precisely. Because our society is rich and free we know that it is possible, we also know what it is that encourages and enables a society to be so. Ask any engineer whether he would prefer to attempt a machine which nobody knows is feasible, or would he prefer to reverse engineer from the point of knowing both that it is possible and being provided with the rough outline of how it is possible?

Perhaps there will be a place for historians and economists after the deluge then?

Tim Worstall is a TCS contributor. Find more of his writing at


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