Matt Springer has been giving presentations around San Francisco about home earthquake preparedness since 2008 (for more information about the presentation, go to his earthquake preparedness website). This Quaketips blog is devoted to posts ranging from technical "how-to" articles to more philosophical "should-you" topics. New articles will be posted at most about once a month, so people who subscribe won't be subjected to lots of e-mail.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The ethical dilemma of being prepared when other people aren't

This is somewhat of another sequel to the previous post about old MREs.  Don’t worry, this isn’t turning into an MRE blog, but there’s an important aspect of emergency preparedness that people tend to ignore, and I want to raise it here: How do you prepare for the desired number of days without ignoring the plight of those around you who didn’t prepare?  As we head into the season when people are most likely to think about the folks who are less fortunate, it seems like a fitting topic.  I don’t have perfect answers, but I would like to offer some food for thought.

Here’s a scenario:

Being wise and sensible, and a frequent reader of this blog, you have stashed away enough food, water, and other supplies to be self-sufficient for at least 7 days after a disaster even if your regular supply of food was at a low point when the disaster struck.  The food has not gone bad, the water is fine, your kit is in a reasonable location, etc.  Then, a major earthquake occurs!  Stores and banks are closed, and everyone is on their own for a while.  Good thing you and your family are set for 7 days.  But wait: the neighboring family never got around to preparing, or didn’t think it was that important, and after 2 days, they are out of food!  Or perhaps several neighbor families.  They are hungry; they have hungry kids.  They see that you have enough for 7 days, and they ask you for some of your food.  “You don’t need 7 days of food; surely the stores will open or the government will bring in supplies before then, and my son is hungry now!”  And these aren’t total stranger neighbors; these are your friends.

What are you going to do?

After all, the whole point of your careful preparations over the years, for just this event, was to have supplies to last you and your family for 7 days, not to have 7 days worth of supplies that you hand out to other people on the 2nd day and then you don’t have any more for yourselves on the 4th day.  Basically, if you desire to be prepared for 7 days, you should have the right to do so.

Well, I’m not a professional ethicist or a spiritual leader, and even the fact that I consider myself to be an ethical guy doesn’t give me the standing to dictate the correct moral solution.  However, I have thought about the issue a great deal for many years, so at least that puts me in the position to make one non-controversial point: if you have supplies for your family for 7 days, and other families (especially with children) near you have none, then you are going to have a problem.  My goal in this blog is to point out potential post-quake problems and to suggest pre-quake solutions.  In this case, my pre-quake solution is: don’t ignore this issue.  Your solution, depending on your philosophy, could be “I’ll make sure that I have enough and won’t be able to give anything to anyone who didn’t prepare.”  It could be “I will not turn down a neighbor in need; guess I may not really have 7 days of supplies after all.”  I suspect many people would be uncomfortable with the first, and the second seems rather self-defeating.  Surely there’s a way to have 7 days of supplies without refusing to help hungry neighbors or other people in need.

Surely there’s a middle ground.

One way out of this would be to have purchased enough food for your family AND for a few extra people.  It would certainly be very thoughtful.  On the other hand, if you are storing MREs, they are actually rather expensive, so storing away a substantial amount of extras increases the financial burden.

Those who read my previous article know where this is headed.

I am reluctant to officially give advice here, but I’ll tell you what I have done.  Because I have demonstrated repeatedly to my satisfaction that MREs are still fine even after twice their “best by” shelf life (calculated the old way, not the new shorter way), I am storing not only the current batch but the previous batch as well.  That is, I have a “current” box of MREs that are within their recommended lifespan, and I have a “previous” box of MREs that have surpassed that shelf life.  The batch even before that (14 years old) was still good, and I not only ate the few that I tested for the previous article, but I have gradually used up all of the other 14 year-old provisions over the past couple of months so that I don’t end up throwing entire MRE batches into the garbage and waste all that money.

This way, I have all of the current provisions that I had planned on having, and I also have the previous cycle stored away that I could use to hand out to those who needed a boost.  If I did that, I would certainly explain to the recipient all about the shelf life and my 14 year old MRE experiment, and would probably be there when the first one was opened to ensure that it was as good as expected, perhaps even taking a bite to prove that I wasn’t passing off bad food!  The fact that my current 14-year-old MREs are fine suggests, but doesn’t prove, that the next 14-year-old MREs will be fine.  In fact, my experience was only with one manufacturer, Mil-Spec, and there are other brands out there so perhaps my experience won’t extend to those.  I suspect, however, that these are all packaged in essentially the same way.  Still, I’d feel better inspecting one to ensure it hasn’t ballooned out and doesn’t smell bad before passing it off to others, and I could also ensure that I could warn them about dishes known to become unappetizing over time (such as the applesauce and jam).

So there’s my humble suggestion on how this problem might be avoided without any extra outlay of money if your MREs have already gone through a “best by” cycle and you have a previous batch.  It takes up extra space but the space isn’t wasted; in fact, if you don’t have to give these to other people, then you can even consider it an extra layer of protection if the aftermath of a disaster lasts longer than 7 days.  If you have only purchased MREs for the first time, then clearly this isn’t applicable to you; perhaps you could store away a few extra cans for the purpose (but remember that the shelf lives are just 2-3 years).

Sorry, this also doesn’t apply to emergency water, since having uncovered a few months ago that the commercial bottled water from the store doesn’t really expire, you won’t have an “old batch” to give people, but at least there are other sources of drinkable water and ways to purify questionable water, so this isn’t as big of a problem.

Now, if any readers have gotten to this point and are thinking “what a jerk, passing off expired food to other people,” I emphasize again that I’ve been eating these myself, and haven't found it to be a bad experience.  I think this is a creative solution to two problems: how to help the less prepared people around you while still successfully having your full 7 days of supplies, and how to avoid wasting food that is still good.  Even if you are well-prepared, the first few days after a disaster may not be enjoyable, but hopefully your stomach and conscience will both be feeling ok.

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