The Utility Function of a Prepper

by Alex Hollow1 min read21st Jul 202120 comments

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Looking at the top posts on /r/prepping right now, you can find these two images:

Various "survival" gear. Good luck carrying all that wet food!

 

I think this one is cute, and I might talk more about it in another post.

I used to think that people who are stockpiling food, water, and guns out of fear of are acting irrationally. But then I realized maybe they just have different utility functions than me.

I think preppers have a satisficing utility function. As an exaggerated example, imagine a utility function where you got 1 utility each day from having enough food and water, and 0 utility from not having enough food or water. If you had that utility function, you really should start stockpiling food and water immediately!

Arguments about prepping are often have the general form of a prepper saying "it improves the worst-case outcomes in lots of scenarios" and a non-prepper saying "but it doesn't maximize expected value!". If you accept that the source of the disagreement is preppers having satisficing utility functions, and non-preppers having maximizing utility functions, you can see the futility of that line of argument. Telling someone their utility function is wrong won't get them to change their utility function.

Once I started thinking about preppers as satisficers, I realized why they are so worried about civilizational collapse. If you feel reliant on other people to provide you with the resources you need to meet your satisficing threshold, then reducing that reliance would be a high priority.

While I have you here and we are talking about prepping, I'm going to try to convince you to store a little water in your house. Water is one of the largest (by volume) necessary inputs to human life. If the water main burst in your house, it would be highly inconvenient and would require moving. If a natural disaster took out running water in your neighborhood or city, it might be a humanitarian crisis. Buying some large jugs of water and stashing them under your bed is a very cheap, low-cost intervention that has a decent chance of greatly improving your life if you lose access to running water.

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What you need is the ability to clean water, not necessarily giant tanks full of it. Most places have water. Most places do not have potable water. 

I've used this filter (https://sawyer.com/products/mini-filter/) before and found it satisfactory. Buying something cheap like this and throwing it in a case/bag/whatever as insurance is a very low cost high return action.

Most places have water, but how close is it to where you live? If you don't have a way of storing a significant amount of water, and live far enough from your local water source that you would have to drive, there is a benefit to having enough water storage so that you can transport a reasonable amount of water per trip.

But I agree that having a water filter on hand is useful in cases where you have access to water, but you aren't sure whether it's safe to drink or not.

Most places have water, but how close is it to where you live?

The toilet cistern has water in it. The next door neighbours have a pool. Hot water tanks are literally water tanks.

Digging a hole could work in plenty of places nearby. So would solar distillation of vegetable matter (assuming the sun was reliable). You can collect dew with a variety of techniques.

Yes, having potable water in a vessel is ideal, but prepping is at the very least thinking about what you'd do without nice neat plans that never go wrong. 

If you don't have a way of storing a significant amount of water

Then you sanitise and drink it at the source. Your body is water storage.

If you cannot move the water then the logical alternative is to move your use of the water to the water source.

Wheelbarrows exist. I quite like garden carts too, because they have four wheels and don't need me to balance them. You can't rely on cars because there might not be viable roads. Worst case scenario and you just go full Africa and lug the water however many kilometres you need to - that's what millions there do every single day (that being said, it sucks).

If you really want to go all out then you can rig up pumps and hoses. People have been moving water around for millennia, it wouldn't take me long to jerry rig something with a wheel and garden hose to be able to do the same. That's the part of prepping that interests me most - having a challenge like "I need to move water a kilometre without existing infrastructure, how do I do it?".

but you aren't sure whether it's safe to drink or not.

Always assume water is tainted unless you know for sure to the contrary. 

Dirty water can be lethal. If you don't have clean water then you probably won't have the medical care necessary to deal with the consequences either. Spending the five minutes to learn how to make oral rehydration fluid is worth it. 

For things like hurricanes, one can look at the historical record, make a reasonable estimate, and do a prudent amount of prepping.  For a societal collapse, there's no data, so the estimate is based on a narrative.  The narrative may be socially constructed, for example, a religious narrative about the End Times.  Or it may be that prepping has become a hobby, and preppers talk to each other about their preps, and the guy that has 6 months of water and stored food gets more respect than the guy who has a week's supply of water under his bed and whatever canned food is in his pantry.  The difference is not really the utility functions, but the narratives and probability estimates that feed into the utility functions.  The doomsday preppers are prepping more because they think doomsday is much more likely.

(I completely agree with your advice to store some water.  I do the same.  Over-prepping runs into diminishing returns, and not prepping at all is irresponsible, but a modest amount of prepping is a no-brainer.)

Societies have collapsed before. Plenty of data on eg civil wars presumably. So one could make a useful ballpark estimate of the annual risk of this. Which I suspect is surprisingly high even for rich countries; if we factor in covid as a near-miss. And things like the BLM protests/riots could also lead to local civil breakdown with resulting shortages. Oh, come to think of it it did - CHAZ. In which IIRC the protesters ran short of food and had to request outside supplies.

Realistic threat modeling takes into account severity and duration, not just probability distribution. "had to request outside supplies" describes normal life for most of us, not a situation to prep for.  

The thing that's hard to model is the wide-scale systemic fragility in the modern world.  Collapse could easily go deeper than expected, and then there's no "outside supplies" to be had.  It's very (very!) hard to predict the specific edges of that scenario that would let your individual preparation be effective.

OK, good points.  There is a spectrum here... if you live in a place where there's a civil war every few years, then prepping for civil war makes a lot of sense.  If you live in a place where the last civil war was 150 years ago, not so much.

CHAZ took place in a context where the most likely outcome was the failure of CHAZ, not the collapse of the larger society.  CHAZ failed to prep for the obvious, if not the almost inevitable.

I'd be careful with thinking of prepping as a binary "do/don't prep" distinction. If you live somewhere where a civil war happens every 2-3 years, the expected value of something that only has value in a civil war scenario is much higher than if one happens every 150 years or so. However, that doesn't mean you should "prep" in one case and not the other, just that some actions that would be worth it if civil wars were frequent are not worth it if civil wars are infrequent. Water may be useful in both, but training your friends in wilderness survival or whatever, maybe less so.

Indeed. I think it's pretty clear there are a few basic prepping things (such as water storage) which are well worthwhile whatever the risk, because they're cheap and potentially life-saving. And some useful halfway houses - eg re wilderness survival, buying a book (but not going on a survival course) is a cheap option.

I doubt it's a difference in utility function (the value placed on a given state of the world), but in the distribution of predicted event.  If you're worried about a sudden event that disrupts everything for a few weeks to months, then surviving that with stored food and defense is what you plan for.  If you're worried about a complete collapse to pre-industrial capacity, then you think about seeds and skills to make rebuilding slightly faster (even if not in your lifetime, perhaps your grandkids).  

What the second group forgets is that even if it's a long-term collapse, there's still 1-10 years of short-term violence and starving people trying to eat your seed stock.  You may not need lots of guns, but you need lots of people you trust who have guns.

Having lots of potable water around is definitely a good start.  That's one of the reasons I argue against tankless water heaters - having 40-60 gallons of stored water is rarely a bad thing.  If you don't have a few weeks' worth of food and medicine that doesn't require electricity to eat, that's also valuable in a very wide range of scenarios.

This post reminds of fallout shelters during the cold war. It can be the most extreme kind of prepping among common people, and it has been the real thing at that time period.All the news and propaganda could have influenced people’s minds and the market for bunkers and shelters had been pretty big, shaping one of the features of the cold one era. Obviously, buying a bunker is not frequent that much anymore and it failed to have a chance to prove its usefulness; we don’t know if they worked against nuclear bombs.  

I have an interesting question, imagine yourself going back to the era, as a middle class. Are you going to buy this bunker? What would be its utility function and satisfying facts?

P.s. oh, I realized this feels like prepping a must-item like water, except that its cost is very very high. If the cost is very high, do we prep the item or not? 

we don’t know if they worked against nuclear bombs. 

The point of a fallout shelter is in the name, to protect from radiation long enough that most of the nasty stuff breaks down so that you can go outside without getting radiation poisoning. They were never meant to protect from blast or heat.

Its stout appearance gave me the impression it will protect me, even at the blast, which my house definitely can’t protect me from haha. Well, it makes sense that concrete will melt in the core of a nuclear explosion. Although I will hide and stay inside the bunker. 

buying a bunker is not frequent that much anymore

Are you sure? The second doom boom is here, and people are buying bunkers again.

The difference between bunkers and water is not just the cost, but the probability of needing one - there are many non-nuclear-war cases for wanting water on hand. So water has a higher probability of being useful, and a lower cost.

The second doom boom is here, and people are buying bunkers again.

Desire to have a bunker would be more universal at that time. I think the customer pool has become much narrower and maniac these days. For example, the government considering building shelters is absurd this time, but they did in the past. On the other hand, the fallout shelters are one of historical features in the 50s-60s.

The difference between bunkers and water is not just the cost

Sorry, I tried to mean when we were in the cold war era, specific to the nuclear disaster. I just wanted to ask what will happen when we need to prep expensive_but_must items. What if water is so expensive already?

I don't think I understand the question. If something is expensive but will definitely (let's say with 99% certainty) save my life (which I think is the sort of thing you are describing as expensive_but_must), I would buy it at almost any cost. 

Alex is correct about water. People can go weeks without food but only days without water, so if there's a crisis water is the most important.

I'm not a general prepper, but if an earthquake breaks a bunch of water pipes or something it might take a few days to fix things.

Here in the UK many people did basic prepping against Brexit, by buying lots of canned food in case there were import shortages. (Not surprisingly these were Remainers, ie opposed to Brexit, so more inclined to believe doom-laden narratives about it.)

As it turned out there were no such shortages, nor indeed the predicted miles of food trucks from Europe held up at customs, because supermarkets had planned adequately.

There was also of course a lot of hoarding at the start of covid. A friend of mine bought a second freezer and filled it with a month’s supply of pizzas etc. He also made serious plans to (illegally?) decamp to another part of the UK (and asked me to join him) so as to be very near a major hospital. He researched which hospitals had the most available intensive care beds.

There weren't miles of trucks, because exporters sent out fewer trucks to compensate for the slower customs. Ie. food was coming in at a slower rate.

Indeed, they sent fewer trucks as a result of correct planning. The predictions seemed to assume supermarkets wouldn’t plan.