over easy

Although being a visionary seems fruitful, you never want to be too far ahead of the times. When you can predict the future very far ahead about something that’s very important, the more fervently you behave in accord with that prediction, the more of a lunatic you will seem. An clear example is that all of our best knowledge about cosmology indicates that the universe will end at some point in the very distant future; however, if you’d spent your whole life screaming that the world is coming to an end, you’d seem like a nutter. If you’ve only been whimpering about it in the last couple of years, you seem … almost rational? Timing is everything.

Resurrecting an old idea at the right time looks like genius. In 1993, Apple introduced a personal handheld device that would be your constant companion, storing all sorts of your useful information and contacts so that you could always carry your digital world with you. When Steve Jobs returned as CEO of Apple in 1997, he killed the project. In 2007 he introduced the iPhone and changed the world. Steve Jobs wasn’t a better visionary than John Sculley; he just had better timing.

So really what you want to be is slightly ahead of the times. What does that look like? You’d know it when you see it, and then see it again. See, you can only be sure that you’ve seen a prescient idea after you have looked at it at least twice. The first time you look at it, it looks like the work of a lunatic. The last time you look at it, it seems utterly sensible, though you may still have your doubts.

Yesterday I came across The Easiest Person To Fool, but realized that I’d come across him years ago – and at that time, I’d dismissed him as a nutter. Irv Mills may describe himself as a “collapsenik” rather than a prepper or a survivalist, the latter terms sometimes having the tinge of overzealousness to them – I don’t think that the distinction between any of those terms is important for my purposes, as the mental image for all of them is basically the same to the uninitiated. The point is, when I read Irv’s website a few years ago, he sounded a bit crazy to me. He seemed to be living an isolated life in the woods, obsessively preparing for a disaster that might never come.

But yesterday I took a closer look at his autobiographical notes. He’s just a normal guy, nothing nutty about him. He worked in the energy industry for years, developing a detailed understanding of the limits and consequences of carbon-based fuel sources. As he aged into retirement from his first career, he noticed the fragility of our financial system and the precarious consequences for his children, and he thought longer and harder about the state of the world. By 2006, he concluded that it makes sense to start preparing for the collapse of civilization. That sounds dramatic, but when he lays out his thoughts on “business as usual” and hippies and magical thinking, he comes across as a very deliberate and rational thinker. He comes across as almost trendy, actually.

Apocalyptic thinking is very much on trend now. The world seems to be on the verge of a breaking point. Climate change, structural economic instability, tech disruption, authoritarian politics, trade wars, shadow digital wars, real “hot” wars … we seem to be in a constant bath of troubles that’s about to boil the frog. Apocalypse, zombies, and dystopia are such common features of our mainstream entertainment that they’re beyond cliche now. People who once seemed like hermetic nutjobs now seem … entirely rational?

In politics, the mainstream viability of an idea exists in the “Overton window” of formally supported policies, popular behavior, and sensible choices. The range of acceptable political discussion moves with the times, ascending through various degrees of public acceptance. Here’s an example on the topic of human sexuality.

1965:

  • Policy: heterosexual marriage
  • Popular: premarital sex
  • Sensible: premarital cohabitation
  • Acceptable: contraception
  • Radical: abortion
  • Unthinkable: same-sex marriage

To be clear, the Overton window is just a description of what is currently considered sensible (and above) in mainstream political discourse; it’s not a value judgment on whether that sensibility is right or wrong. Even with that caveat, your mileage may vary depending on where you live and who you associate with. I would roughly say the window on these issues moved like this:

1975:

  • Policy: premarital sex
  • Popular: premarital cohabitation
  • Sensible: contraception
  • Acceptable: abortion
  • Radical: same-sex marriage

1995:

  • Policy: premarital cohabitation
  • Popular: contraception
  • Sensible: abortion
  • Acceptable: same-sex marriage

2015:

  • Policy: contraception
  • Popular: abortion
  • Sensible: same-sex marriage

Moving from sex back to the end times: Now, everyone should have some degree of preparation for disaster, but there’s sort of an Overton window for disaster prep as well. If you live in a stable society with no special history of natural disaster, maybe your Overton window for prepping for disasters looks like this:

  • Policy: fire alarm
  • Popular: fire extinguisher
  • Sensible: earthquake kit
  • Acceptable: power generator for a day or two
  • Radical: a year’s supply of food and water
  • Unthinkable: bomb-proof shelter

It’s possible that I’ve inadvertently joined the Tinfoil Hat Of The Month Club, but I’ve come to believe that there’s almost nothing outside of the Overton window for the collapse of civilization. At most, we could have a discussion about what’s on either side of the border between sensible and acceptable. Are you prepared to go a week without power from the grid? That’s totally sensible in most places, and it should be popular where I live in California. Have you stockpiled weapons because you’re concerned about the breakdown of civil order including the law enforcement response to that breakdown? That seems acceptable to me. Do you have a detailed escape plan covering you and your loved ones? Sensible. Growing food in a kitchen garden? Canning? Keeping backyard livestock? Popular. Put your life savings in Bitcoin? I mean … I still think that’s stupid, but it’s nevertheless totally acceptable.

You might think I’m crazy, or you might think you’ve been smelling what I’m cooking for a while now. Either way, it makes sense for you to consider the gifts of the collapseniks. After spending some time with Irv, I followed some links from his blog to Albert Bates, who charts other collapseniks, and Dave Pollard, who offers a map you can easily find yourself on and a great reading list. Go ahead and click around a bit. You might think I’m crazy, but I think that with the road we’re on, I’ll keep this going ’til the sun goes down forever.