These days some of us fall too easily into patterns of dystopian thinking. Hurry up and get to the end of the world! Maybe it will be better that way! Every day I hear from someone who tells me they’re glad they’ll be dead before the worst of it. It’s kind of a downer.
Indeed, our world is changing quickly. No one can deny climate change anymore. Tiny viruses have proven themselves capable of upending our day-to-day lives and health care system. Institutions we once trusted seem to crumble before our very eyes. And sure, people aren’t being very nice about it. Some appear willing to eat sand (or horse medicine) before changing their minds about anything.
But why would we throw up our hands? Who honestly wants to endorse resignation as a regional or national strategy? Especially when we still have so much to build upon. You could strip away half of all our modern conveniences and we’d still have a higher quality of life than a middle class family enjoyed a century ago.
I would know. I’ve been researching the Iron Range of the early 1900s these last five years for a book. Each old newspaper from this era reveals a fresh new way to die that people today largely don’t have to worry about. Today we have remarkable machines, plenty of food, and so many TV shows that we couldn’t watch them all if we tried.
But we do have problems, big ones, and we will need to accept that some of the shortcuts that let us live in unprecedented comfort won’t be options for much longer.
I have a pet theory, one that seems like it will be tested soon. It goes like this. The first time the Diet Coke truck stops making its deliveries on time, society will receive a jolt that we haven’t known since the Great Depression.
Now, I’m being mildly cheeky here. For some it’s Diet Coke. For others its Canadian whiskey, kombucha tea, or one of those tall energy drinks that look like cans of WD40. The point is, our favorite “want” dressed up as a “need” won’t be available. What will we do then?
We got a taste of this during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when there was a run on toilet paper. It’s true that there was some panic buying during the early spring of 2020, but there was also a problem seldom talked about: supply chains.
There are two kinds of toilet paper. The soft, fluffy rolls we buy for our home and the giant industrial rolls purchased in bulk for large facilities. And the market for these different kinds of toilet paper is bifurcated. Some companies make consumer TP and others make commercial TP, but few make both.
When half the workforce went home for several months the demand for consumer toilet paper skyrocketed while the demand for the giant rolls dropped. Because these were different companies, it wasn’t as easy as converting commercial lines to consumer production. So as people stocked up, the supply chain failed.
The pandemic and a series of natural disasters all over the world have conspired to disrupt supply chains that affect us in ways we can see right now.
For instance, you may know that it’s hard to find a good deal on a car right now because of a limited supply of both new and used vehicles. The reason for this is a shortage of computer chips from China and other Southeast Asian nations. These chips are vital components in modern automobiles. Without them, it becomes difficult to produce new vehicles or repair newer used models. This fact has made this a very challenging summer for anyone who buys or sells cars.
Speaking of cars, one popular Iron Range tradition is the Labor Day Shootout, the traditional end of the dirt track racing season at the Hibbing raceway. But the Mesabi Tribune reported that drivers had to contend with a shortage of racing tires. Try as they may, race organizers could only access a fraction of the tires normally used on a big race weekend. Drivers adapted, but it affected performance.
A shortage of shipping containers disrupts myriad deliveries from overseas. Ships wait in the harbor for new containers, which come precious and thus dramatically increase shipping costs. This creates both higher prices and lower supply of everyday stuff. My son works at at fast food restaurant and says they’ve been having a heck of a time getting enough caps for the fountain drink cups. Ditto for plastic jugs used for juice, milk, and other consumable liquids.
True, we’ve experienced historic events that have caused many of these problems. But, really, I get the sense that it wouldn’t take much more to dramatically reshape the cost/benefit structure of our complex international supply chains. In fact, we should count on it.
If hearing this makes you want to curl up in a ball, well, I understand. But once you’ve worked thorough that, consider the tremendous opportunity we will have to reshape better, more sustainable, more humane supply chains for the next century.
Here in northern Minnesota we have what we need. When you count all of North America, we have plenty. We can thrive. But it might not look like the ostentatious excess of these past several decades. It might look like local products and resources that cost more but create honest work for our neighbors and fellow citizens. It need not be lamentable, so long as we accept change and work for something more than ourselves.