Thursday, February 23, 2023

The Collapse LXXXXII: The Worth Of Things

 29 April 20XX +1

My Dear Lucilius:

Our nights are still a bit too cold for planting to begin. This has always bothered me about living here, that I really cannot get things in the ground until well after I would in my previous dwelling locations. I suppose it is why so many that garden here chose to have greenhouses.

Before, of course, it was useful and productive hobby. Now, it may very well be that “life and death” sort of thing the apocalyptic authors always wrote about.

It strikes me as humorous as I sit here in the morning, writing over my tea (the coffee has gone back into storage to be brought out for special occasions, if at all): I sit in my small house filled with things, many of which have limited or no functionality in the newly reconstituted world.

The refrigerator – it is not mine but rather a dinosaur from another age, the International Harvester unit that my grandparents in their day put here. It has been used seldom enough over the years before my arrival that it continued to function without interruption – right up to the day we lost power for good. Now, it is nothing more than a shelf and storage unit.

Or the other various items of furniture in this house, or the dishes and cookware – functional, yes; thankfully I am not one to overspend on such things so likely their function still matches their value.

On the other hand, things that were readily available – hand tools for example, or weapons, or even books – have taken on a value far beyond what I paid for them. Not just in the their practical usefulness of course, but in the fact that they are in some cases now (and going forward, perhaps all) virtually irreplaceable.

Yes, I suppose one can make the argument that screwdrivers and pliers and dictionaries will still be around in abundance in the years to come. But even then, those things will cost something, and the cost of them will be something of equal or greater value, not just the slips of paper we used to exchange. And unless I miss my mark, no-one will be making such things again, at least in my time left on this earth. The sort of machining required for modern tools and many modern things now lies silent, lacking the power and skill sets to create more materials.

So many missed two things, Lucilius: The nature of true value, and the fact that civilization and the things that maintained it are a dense interconnected web of unrealized and unrecognized contributions. Cut too many string of the web, and it will simply collapse – and without a spider to rebuild it, it will simply remain brokenly, flailing upon the wind.

Your Obedient Servant, Seneca


  1. Nylon126:23 AM

    Good point TB, with a collapse what items from Mayfair will have value vs from Tractor Supply? I really don't want to find out, especially the older I get.

    1. Nylon12, the funniest of things got me to thinking about this. I was at my parent's looking for "that one particular tool" and could not find it (found it later, of course). This sent me down the path of what would happen if commonly available things were not all that common.

  2. Anonymous6:46 AM

    In an environment like that, a quality multi-tool would be part of my EDC items for certain. Even a needle for clothing repair would become valuable.

    So many things and services we take for granted, potable water would be near the top of the list. Before electricity was widespread, hauling water to the household for cooking, laundry and cleaning was the cause of many late in life stooped shoulders.

    1. A multi-tool is an amazing thing. And the humble needle, needed for several kinds of repair, is irreplaceable if you do not have one.

      Water: I have a little more appreciation for water having hiked some and being dependent on either finding more or carrying it. We badly take easily accessible water for granted.

    2. Anonymous6:26 AM

      Water is indeed very precious. I hear in some 3rd world countries, several hours EVERY DAY are used just to retrieve water for their family's use. I'll bet if they arrive to 1st world countries, they just stare at pure water coming out of spigot / drinking fountain.

      I cut the top off of one of those foil drink envelopes and keep folded in my wallet, just to have a watertight container to hold water and drink at my leisure. Weird, I know lol.

    3. Nothing weird about that prep at all - easy to transport, easy to use.

      We are blessed with the abundance we have. Often people do not appreciate their blessings until they are gone.

  3. I hadn't really considered such a thing before but how many people in this country know how to cast, say the head of a garden rake? Assuming those people were to die off in an event, how long would it take those who are left behind to ever make a rake head again at volume?

    1. That is where my mind ended up as well Ed. Yes, there are always "leftovers", but leftovers are not the same as being able to make the thing you need.

      We all know the annoyance of not having the thing at hand you want when you need it. Imagine that thing can likely not be recreated in your lifetime. Even with our current knowledge drain, we are perilously close to this.

  4. An interesting post - it brought to mind a science fiction book I read many years ago by Jerry Pournelle (alas died in 2017) and Larry Niven called Lucifer's Hammer, about an asteroid hitting the earth and wiping out much of civilization. One character stood out - an insulin dependent diabetic who realised that the impending collapse of society and civilization meant that he had no chance of survival, so he used his remaining time to collect all of the basic "how-to" books that he could find so as to preserve a possible way for survivers to rebuild a functioning world.

    1. Also, an interesting book a Canticle for Lebowitz where a man wraps books in tinfoil and hides them from the book burners after a nuclear war.

      And the rebuilding much later with the difficulties of understanding the books.

    2. Will - I have Lucifer's Hammer (although to be fair, it has been a while since I read it). Oddly enough, I specifically remember that character because of his insulin dependence and the fact he made a choice to save civilization as he could as could not longer save himself. I should re-read it.

    3. Michael, I have not read A Canticle for Leibowitiz although I should - it is often referenced in this genre.

  5. Anonymous4:54 PM

    The man who has a river front with a good drop will be in manufacturing. Every little stream in New England with a decent head had dams on them. Sawmills, grain mills, machine shops, all driven by a big waterwheel and a lineshaft. Mostly made from wood.
    These days, small turbines and gensets will be used also. The skills are out there-they may not be polished like an everyday job skill, but they do reside in a few. Those who can MAKE, those who can PLAN, those who can MANAGE will do so. Those who cannot or will not contribute will be banished.
    This ^ assumes our enemies do not overrun our broken system....

    1. The inimitable John Wilder made the point some months ago that without power, very little gets done except by wind, water, or human labor. I would suspect even in our modern era of ever increasing energy costs, there might be a small scale renaissance in such things.

      In such a world, you are correct: you will need to contribute in some fashion or die. History of dire situations tells us time and again this is exactly how things work - yet in our First World comfort and problems, we seem to think otherwise.

    2. Anonymous6:34 AM

      Another everyday need is transporting items from here to there. Unless very small and easily carried, a cart or wheelbarrow with no-flat tires will be valued for ability to accomplish this task. Not many urban dwellers have one of these in their stuff. They should reconsider that decision, if they have the room.

      So so many items we take for granted. That is one real benefit of camping outdoors for days. It can really tell the participants what is required and what is clutter.

    3. Transport is huge and one I do not think of almost at all, it is so common place. At The Ranch, I use a wheelbarrow that we have had all move life (with a no flat tire) to move wood from the shed to the house. That is almost the only time such things come to mind.

      Backpacking has certainly helped me with that. I am aware, even in the relatively "tame" hikes we take, of how much I can carry for 3-7 days. Our packs can start at 30-40 lbs including food (the weight goes down, unfortunately). With a tent, sleeping bag, minimal personal supplies, and required food and equipment, it really is not a lot.

  6. The problem with rebuilding is it takes a lot of Teamwork, planning and sometimes just bullheaded stubbornness to do things like watermills and such.

    It only takes one troublemaker to burn it all down because they could.

    We have far too many troublemakers. Some run for political office.

    1. Anonymous9:56 PM

      There will be "zero" tolerance applied to troublemakers. Do not think in such a situation of collapse any of our current rules of punishment will stand.
      Troublemakers will not last long, unless they have an army.
      Then they can pillage, and end up starving like the rest.

    2. Michael - It is very much a team effort and requires planning and knowledge; that is why pre-Industrial societies tended to either not do it at all or do it as some form or group.

      Troublemakers - individuals - will likely be cast out of whatever group they are in. Contribute or move on is what history suggests happens in such situations.

    3. Anon - In societal breakdowns, the justice norms - for good or ill - are often the first things to go. At best, people have neither the time nor the patience for reconciliation and restitution.

      The above mentioned Lucifer's Hammer includes a part where a group of survivors casts out a mother and her son because they broke some rule. I cannot remember the specifics now, but it is the sort of thing that in civilization would not raise an eyebrow. Here, it was literally worthy of separation from society (and in that situation, likely death).

  7. This is actually happening in slow motion, TB. California's lunatic "governor" Newsom and his merry band of rainbow tasters have outlawed the sale of fuel-powered small engines as of the end of this year. How many people know this? Not many. Think of how much a gas-powered weedeater, blower, mower, edger, and yes, even generator will be worth once people realize they can only buy weak, expensive, foreign made battery powered "equivalents." The same will go for fuel-powered vehicles as society jumps on the cliff-bound "green" bandwagon. And that isn't NEARLY as bad as what he's done with our right to bear arms! Weapons are slowly becoming worth their weight in gold. Indeed, so are airgapped, ACCURATE references to our history! ...And this is only the beginning...

  8. The transition from the "But Mu Diversity, My Rights" and all that to the REAL WORLD (tm) of root hog or die cooperation is going to be rough.

    I see how poorly families deal TODAY with 1st world problems like limited Wi-Fi, no unlimited cell phone data and such and shudder when they find out that whatever money they have is for FOOD and heat.

    That is the transition period where seniors are going to do poorly as the takers get bold BEFORE the sense of "Community" Spoken in the above well thought replies comes into place.

    Thus, Ecclesiastes 4: And though a man might prevail against him who is alone, two will withstand him. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

    A few trusted friends standing together can push the wayward into accepting family discipline.

    One Father or one Mother cannot guide the chaos of me, me, me and anger of why me that forms too many families I know.

    Am I making sense here?

    1. I think so Michael - if you are suggesting that the current mindset of entitlement would rise to a crescendo before being smothered by the realities of the world and by those that see entitlement in a very different way.

  9. I don't know which is more interesting, your chapter or the comments that follow.

    I feel like I have a somewhat odd vantage point to the relationship between things and the culture they create, not by choice, but because we never had the finances to participate very well. Thankfully, we've learned to see it as an advantage, rather than resent it. Especially now, as society enters a seemingly precarious time in history, with so much of the conversation being on the end of non-renewable resources.

    My daughter recently introduced me to the Absolute History channel on YouTube. Of special interest to me, are the series where three brave souls (a historian and two archaeologists) spend a year on various historical farms in England, living as it was in those times. I've finished the Victorian Farm and am now watching my way through the Tudor Monastery Farm. Episode four sees our brave souls mining and smelting iron as it was done in the 1500s. Primitive, by today's standards, but a string in the web that has made so many things possible.

    The modern web of life as we know it was built on clever historical innovations, now all seen as "backward." As you pointed out in your post about awareness, the importance of these connections doesn't seem to occur to people; I suppose because we've rejected our simple beginnings in favor of complicated technologies. But in doing so, I can't help but wonder if we have killed the spider necessary to maintain and rebuild the web. And if it could be rebuilt, would we be smart enough to avoid what made it collapse in the first place?

  10. Leigh, it is odd how finances seem to underlie a great deal of how we view things: there is work that is "beneath us" or work that for other people (the uneducated, of course). It sometimes seems that our society (our Western One) only sees the work of value that is of high technical or scientific value: we give awards for intellectual and scientific pursuits (the Nobel Prize), yet the same sort of thing does not exist for more humble tasks such as farming or plumbing.

    The sort of thing you are referring to with the farming videos is also known as Experimental Archaeology, which is testing hypotheses of how ancient people did things by actually living as they did and doing the things they did with the technology they had (one of the main characters in Michael Crichton's book Timeline was a practitioner of this). It is sounds endlessly interesting to me (yet another thing I will never get to). It is eye opening to many (I think) to see how difficult it was to produce the things that we take for granted.

    But all of that is still built on a foundation of knowledge that went before. And we seem to be happily undercutting that foundation.

    I read a recently article that stated that there has been yet another discovery about Roman concrete: it practices a form of self healing (really a form of crystallization, but for non-living concrete, it may be the same thing). We use all kinds of concrete, but have never been able to replicate portions of the way the Romans made and used it.

    It does seem a bit odd that we would double down on technology even at the same time we are actively trumpeting about non-renewable resources. The two cannot be true at the same time; modern technology is highly dependent on resources which are effectively non-renewable.

    Most people can learn older technologies - heck, I think we can attest that we all have, sometimes later in life. But one has to do that in the context of 1) Being willing to learn; and 2) Accepting that the quality and standard of living not be the same as the modern 21st Century. My sense is that many people would struggle to make that transition.


Comments are welcome (and necessary, for good conversation). If you could take the time to be kind and not practice profanity, it would be appreciated. Thanks for posting!