My Privileged and Precarious Life


I’m always painfully aware of how privileged my life is. I grew up in New England’s affluent suburbs as part of the upper middle class. I attended college at Columbia University with generous financial aid. And now I’m working in one of the few industries that’s aggressively hiring in a job position that’s seeing growth. There’s a stark contrast between my situation and those less fortunate around me. New York City’s current unemployment rate of 8% remains unchanged since a year ago. U.S. unemployment is 9.1%.

Right now there’s so much more demand for technical talent than supply of it that I wish I could wave a magic wand and turn idle construction workers, durable goods manufacturers, and fishermen into Ruby on Rails developers.

Although my life is privileged, I’m afraid it’s precarious. The basic human necessities for survival are water, food, shelter, and (depending upon climate) clothing. I can create a website and scrape data, but at the end of the day I can’t eat my Ubuntu virtual or code a web app to generate potable water. Although I can create a linked list in C, if I’m left by myself in the Catskill mountains or the frontiers of society, I doubt I’d come out like Sam Gribley or Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I often think of what I’d do in a catastrophic scenario. A day after my friend said I was silly for worrying about doomsday scenarios, I wake up to hear Mayor Bloomberg ordering the evacuation of the city’s coastal areas and shutting down the transit system. We also quickly forget major crises as soon as they pass.

These are only some of the recent natural disasters.

  • July-August 2010. Floods triggered by heavier-than-normal monsoon rains hit northwest Pakistan. By the time the waters began to recede in late August, more than 160,000 square kilometres of land — about one-fifth of the country — was under water. More than 1,700 people were killed and 17.2 million people have been affected.
  • Jan. 12, 2010. A 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti killed over 230,000 people.
  • May 12, 2008. A 7.9-magnitude earthquake in Sichuan, China killed over 70,000 people.
  • May 3, 2008. Cyclone Nargis, swept along by winds that exceeded 190 kmh and waves six metres high struck the Burmese peninsula and may have left as many as 100,000 dead, according to U.S. estimates.
  • Oct. 8, 2005. A 7.6-magnitude earthquake in Kashmir, Pakistan killed at least 80,000 people and left three million homeless.
  • Dec. 26, 2004. A 9.0-magnitude quake off the coast of Sumatra triggered tsunamis that swept through the coastal regions of a dozen countries bordering the Indian Ocean. The death toll has been estimated at between 225,000 and 275,000.

And let’s not forget about the disasters we humans create ourselves: crime, terrorism, war, financial crises, pollution, etc.

The food I eat and the goods I buy come from a sprawling yet fragile industrialized system. My Macbook Air I’m typing on is made from many components from many companies. I don’t know how to draw water from a well, how to slaughter a chicken, or do subsistence farming. My atavistic side feels neglected. Of course, these are skills that won’t benefit me as a service worker in this post-industrial age, but I feel exposed and vulnerable. I live off the top of so many other layers of civilization that make everything run smoothly, provide my Macbook Air electricity, and deliver food to my local grocery stores. The more complex and specialized society becomes, the energy is required to maintain it. Just look at America’s decaying infrastructure. I see it everyday when I take New York’s crowded and creaking subway, when I try to avoid all the potholes in Manhattan streets.

A really scary documentary I watched is Collapse. It’s an 82-minute monologue with Michael Ruppert, ex-LA cop and investigative reporter. Supporters think he’s a visionary and radical thinker. Critics call him a conspiracy theorist and an alarmist.

The key to understanding infrastructure lies at the heart of complex civilizations. When roads and bridges fail; levees aren’t rebuilt; when dams, transmission lines and generating stations are not maintained; when any of a hundred possible things fail for lack of money or material…civilization starts to break down. – Michael Ruppert