The lockdown initiated by government reactions to COVID19 (the coronavirus) has imposed a rare glimpse into how elements of dystopian novels manifest in the real world: restricted travel, skyrocketing unemployment, an economy in recession, police arrests for routine outdoor activities, masks and gloves merely for grocery store visits, and semi-rationed groceries (for the very high demand commodities). The coronavirus lockdown has changed more people’s lives in a month than probably any event in history in terms of daily living. (Note,it hasn’t changed lives more drastically than other events – not by a long shot.) I have been overwhelmingly fortunate in keeping a steady paycheck throughout the lockdown and for the foreseeable future, and I’ve founding nothing in my situation to classify beyond a mere inconvenience. Zero hardships by God’s mercy.
A crisis, even if relatively small, is a test of the strength of a nation, a community, and a family or person. Storms find the leaks in the roof, and the big leak in society (at every level) is over-dependence.
The COVID19 events has given us a rare glimpse at problems we may face in far more severe circumstances and opens my eyes to two categories of things: 1) the conveniences we take for granted (but are not “essential”) and 2) what we depend on to survive. In the former are the abilities to buy what we please, travel where we want, and find information on the internet. In the latter are stocked grocery stores, the availability of medicines, and access to water, gas, and electricity. We have become dependent on both categories, but the the latter things are the dependencies of most concern.
How Dependence Forms
Man seems stuck on a trend toward increasing dependence on others or the state for survival. Whereas at some point in history an average peasant knew how to convert a live bird to that night’s dinner, the average 21st century man can hardly stomach the mere thought of reverting to such base practices to get a meal. Our comfortable lives now come at the cost of increased dependence, which has developed in two ways throughout history: either as 1) an adaptation to circumstance or 2) as an evolution of efficiency. The former often has a formula resembling this:
group B has resource X
group A doesn’t have resource X
group A needs resource X
group A depends on group B
Here, group may be a either a person, family, community, or nation, though in the context of this essay it’s the family. Dependence formation by an evolution of efficiency (#2) occurs not for want of something, but rather as a byproduct of efficient production.
A good example of this is Henry Ford’s assembly line for car production in the early 1900s. Instead of a group of workers making an entire car, each worker has a scope of work limited to only a part of a car. This is beneficial because each worker becomes very efficient at their particular job and increases overall production efficiency. However, now each worker relies on the other workers in the assembly line to make a complete automobile. A formula for this evolution of efficiency might look like as follows:
group A makes X and Y
Y is made from X
group A is divided into A1 and A2
group A1 makes X
group A2 makes Y using X
group A2 depends on group A1
And many variants like this, but with the basic idea, that each group specializes in an area while coordinating with other groups to achieve a goal. For a company, that goal is usually to produce something efficiently. For a person, that goal is to acquire everything necessary to survive.
Likewise, a society’s work force usually specializes, such that each worker can be more efficient in their work, produce more, and earn more income. This usually evolves naturally in most societies but comes at the price of each member of society depending on others to get everything they need. A professional blacksmith makes horseshoes much more efficiently than a banker could in his spare time, but the blacksmith, at the cost of specialization, thereby must rely on others by trading (with or without a currency as a trade medium) to get food, clothing, and other necessities.
Such specialization has greatly benefited society and enabled an explosion of growth when coupled with a free market economy.
Preparing for the Worst
However, when is one over-specialized? Perhaps a definition of over-specialization is quantified by how many self-preserving skills we maintain (those skills needed to survive on our own). I’m in no way expecting societies or individuals to abandon the workforce structure of specialization that has been so successful for 150 years, but the recent COVID19 lockdowns cause the imagination to wander in to apocalyptic-like territory.
What if the grocery stores can’t keep up and food shortages come? What if we lost electricity to our homes for a prolonged period (always a possibility no matter the season)? What if gas supplies ran out and we couldn’t commute or fetch groceries? Such worst-case scenarios should be in the mind of every adult from time-to-time.
All this is on my mind, especially as I contemplate where I’ll live once I move my family from our current living situation. Rural life looks more enticing every day, as COVID19 dominates the news.
Having a decent sized garden or some livestock on a few acres sounds like a reasonable step toward self-sufficiency.
Growing up on 80 acres, I know that, at a minimum, the cabin-fever experienced during the lockdowns would abate with a few acres replacing the row upon row of suburban homes. Out of the city, the airs a little fresher, freedom a little wider, and personally, God a little closer. City buildings rarely inspire awe toward God, but nature sure does. I miss the sound of the wind in the trees.
A family, as the basic unit of society, should strive for greater independence from society in terms of survival. This idea, however, could easily devolve into family isolationism, if not properly explained. What I’m not suggesting is for everyone to build a fortress without a gate – to shut themselves off from other people entirely. Mankind, even introverts like myself, were made for community, for friendships, and for engaging with others on a frequent basis. However, families can maintain community while ensuring their interaction with larger society isn’t a lifeline on which the livelihood of the family depends.
If the internet died today, could you get from point A to point B if needed? Do you even own a map? Can you read that map?! Items and skills like these should be universally known. It could makes all the difference in survival – or at least in avoiding some inconveniences.
A few things that can further our independence as families include growing a small garden, keeping some livestock, homeschooling, acquiring an energy source (like solar or wind), identifying where to get good drinking water if public water becomes unavailable, and learning how to hunt, fish, fix basic things, make a fire, etc. A nice way to semi-prepare and have fun at the same time is to take a camping trip – a real one (no “glamping”!): Tents, a fire, portable water purifiers…you get the idea.
If it seems a more rural life is needed to achieve some or most of these aspects of independence, I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence. Urban life is naturally more likely to yield dependence: higher density of people using shared infrastructure. We get used to shared spaces (like public parks) and the spending time in a place that we do not own. None of that is bad in itself, but overexposure to it breeds a culture of dependence nonetheless. It’s one of the main reasons I love the country and plan to move out of an urban environment as soon as possible, mostly for sake of the formation of my kids.
Our nation and communities will be stronger against more severe shutdowns if we all take a step back and examine our dependence on things much taken for granted.