“Flattening the curve.” This popular phrase is one of many new additions COVID-19 has made to our cultural vocabulary. Hopefully, it’s something we’re all actively doing and not just talking about. But this curve flattening language is really just a new way to talk about an old practice — preppers have been flattening all kinds of curves, from food to water to electricity, for decades.
As our society moves more in the direction of just-in-time inventory and dwindling on-site storage (e.g. hospitals only have three days worth of PPE at any given time), it makes our critical systems that much more vulnerable to sudden spikes in demand. And that’s why preppers, because we tend to stock up before the spike hits, are the original curve flatteners.
What it means to flatten the curve
If you took our advice back in early February and stocked up on a few weeks worth of food in anticipation of the coming lockdowns, then congratulations! You were already a curve flattener.
When the rising curve of pre-lockdown panic buying suddenly exceeded the capacity of our supermarkets to supply beans, toilet paper, and other essentials to the public, you didn’t have to be part of that wave. Instead, you could stay home. You made it possible for others who couldn’t (or didn’t) get ahead of the crisis to buy those critical staples.
If you’d been working your way through our bug-out bag list and reached the N95 respirator entry before January, good work. You were able to help healthcare workers by flattening the demand curve for respirators.
If you already had a well-stocked home medical supplies kit that could handle a wide range of emergencies without the need for an ER visit, then when this crisis hit you were prepared to flatten the ER demand curve and save that urgent care capacity for COVID patients.
This kind of curve-flattening scales outside the realm of COVID-19 preps. If you have solar panels and rechargeable batteries on hand, you’ll be ready to generate and store your own electricity when summer heat brings an electricity demand surge in your area and causes a brown-out.
If you have gas or diesel safely stored on your property, you’ll be ready to avoid gas lines if a hurricane or other evacuation emergency happens in your area. You’ll help flatten the fuel supply curve.
Modern preppers carry the slack that has been optimized out of the system
During the current pandemic, we’ve heard a lot about how unprepared America’s hospitals are. In large part, that’s because hospital bed capacity had been optimized away prior to this pandemic. In an effort to cut costs and achieve greater commercial efficiency, hospitals cut back on beds and ran right along the edge of full capacity. Even everyone’s current pandemic hero, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, was pushing hard for hospital capacity reductions in the name of profits before this crisis hit.
The moment there’s a surge in demand, our optimized systems melt down. They just have no excess capacity to absorb the surge
Everywhere you look in modern life, you see this same dynamic at work. Businesses use advanced technology and modeling to optimize their systems. In the process, they squeeze out every inch of slack. That’s why airplane legroom has shrunk over the years. It’s also one reason why California has brownouts in the summer, and why New York had them after Hurricane Sandy. It’s why just-in-time inventory systems mean that stores have just a few days worth of food on-hand at any given time.
These optimizations work great during normal times. But these are not normal times. As we’ve learned, the moment there’s a surge in demand, our optimized systems melt down. They just have no excess capacity to absorb the surge. We end up with a physical manifestation of the kind of distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) that brings down popular websites and online services.
Prepare for certain (yet unknown) changes
To expand on the way I framed it in a recent interview for the New York Times: prepping, then, is about taking into your own home (and onto your own balance sheet) the slack and resilience that have been optimized out of our critical food, electrical, medical, and other systems in the name of profit.
When you prep, you aren’t really prepping for the end of the world. Instead, you’re planning for the next breakdown of one of the hyper-efficient system that we all depend on. Maybe it’ll be an unexpected change, like a surge in demand or a disaster, that takes out some part of the supply chain.
As a society, we are not likely to give back the efficiency we’ve gained from computer-optimized, just-in-time delivery systems for everything from food to drugs to electricity. We’re used to having exactly what we want or need, as soon as we want or need it. If we’re going to have any amount of societal resilience in the face of certain surges and periodic emergencies, that resilience will have to come from the preparations people make ahead of time. That way, when the moment comes, the prepared can flatten the curve for everyone else.
It’s important to think about why you yourself should start preparing. But it’s just as important to encourage others to do the same. The more of that missing excess capacity we can move from supply chains into individual households, the more prepared our entire society will be when catastrophe strikes.