TCS Daily

Serious Disaster Preparedness

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 25, 2004 12:00 AM

Last week's column on disaster preparedness was entitled Preparing for the Worst. A few readers objected that the title was wrong.

I wrote about preparing for things like terrorist attacks or hurricanes, but those, some noted, aren't really the worst disasters that can happen. What about real civilization-threatening cataclysms like an asteroid strike, or the explosion of the "Yellowstone caldera? How can we prepare for those?

Past a certain point, of course, we can't. Some disasters exceed our ability to respond, no matter how much preparation goes into them. Some are sufficiently inconceivable that it's just not rational to prepare.

But it's also worth noting that we are, in fact, better prepared in some ways than we may realize. I've just been reading Steve Stirling's new novel, Dies the Fire, in which every piece of technology more sophisticated than a waterwheel or a crossbow basically quits working. (He hasn't gotten around to explaining how that happened yet, and though I have my ideas where he's going in future books, that's not relevant here.)

In Stirling's story, lots of people die, of course, but civilization doesn't, quite. And though some might find the extent to which his leading characters are able to draw on expertise gathered via the Society for Creative Anachronism and various back-to-the-land hippie movements a bit convenient, I have to say that I know rather a lot of people with those sorts of skills myself. And there seem to be a lot more floating around out there. (Just look at the website for the XXIVth Legion -- and be sure to check out the ballista page.) It's almost as if, as we move up the technological curve, interest in old stuff is growing.

Why is that? There are, no doubt, cultural explanations for why geeks in particular are fascinated with obsolete technologies, but it's certainly the case that any gathering of geeks or science fiction fans will find a lot of people interested in old technologies: From arms and armor, to brewing and viticulture, to seafaring and agriculture.

And it's not just geeks, by any means, who make a hobby of such undertakings. It's just people who find that sort of thing interesting, and apply their surplus time and money to it. As a side effect, though, we have a large bank of people possessing all sorts of skills that aren't especially useful now, but that might be.

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.

And they're probably better at it than they would be if they were government employees. (In fact, some are making good money doing it right now).

Nor are those skills limited to old-timey stuff. In fact, according to a recent news report, the large number of amateur astronomers out there has provided a major resource in looking out for potentially dangerous asteroids:

"Warner, 42, a computer programmer, was closing his backyard telescope down for the night when he received an e-mail from a senior scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., asking him to look at the patch of sky where asteroid 2004 AS1 would be if it was going to hit the Earth. To everyone's relief, it wasn't there. It eventually flew by the planet from the comforting distance of 8 million miles.

"The fact that NASA called on Warner in a pinch says much of the vital role that amateur astronomers are playing in helping the agency track potentially dangerous asteroids flying around our neighborhood. . . .

"[T]he agency has not devoted the resources to tracking the thousands of asteroids in our vicinity, some of which may one day hit the Earth.

"Instead, they have come to rely on a cadre of backyard stargazers armed with powerful telescopes, sophisticated computer software and a new generation of digital cameras.

"'I don't think we could do it without their contributions,' said David Morrison, one of the founders of Spaceguard, the NASA program assigned to track near-Earth asteroids."

A society that's rich and free will have citizens who -- entirely on their own -- will develop a wide range of skills. Most of these skills will never provide more than hobby-level amusement for their owners, but in the aggregate they provide a resource that could not easily be developed through any sort of government program. And that's a kind of disaster preparedness, too.


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