The Mad Max Economy

Photo: Gbleem (CC)

It’s no surprise that preppers and their suppliers are having an “I told you so” moment in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s assault on the media capital of the world. The New York Times leads its Sunday Business section with a story about a booming business segment built on Americans’ fears of a return to the dark ages:

Waukesha, Wis.: Folks here don’t wish disaster on their fellow Americans. They didn’t pray for Hurricane Sandy to come grinding up the East Coast, tearing lives apart and plunging millions into darkness.

But the fact is, disasters are good business in Waukesha. And, lately, there have been a lot of disasters.

This Milwaukee suburb, once known for its curative spring waters and, more recently, for being a Republican stronghold in a state that President Obama won on Election Day, happens to be the home of one of the largest makers of residential generators in the country. So when the lights go out in New York — or on the storm-savaged Jersey Shore or in tornado-hit Missouri or wherever — the orders come pouring in like a tidal surge.

It’s all part of what you might call the Mad Max Economy, a multibillion-dollar-a-year collection of industries that thrive when things get really, really bad. Weather radios, kerosene heaters, D batteries, candles, industrial fans for drying soggy homes — all are scarce and coveted in the gloomy aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and her ilk.

It didn’t start with the last few hurricanes, either. Modern Mad Max capitalism has been around a while, decades even, growing out of something like old-fashioned self-reliance, political beliefs and post-Apocalyptic visions. The cold war may have been the start, when schoolchildren dove under desks and ordinary citizens dug bomb shelters out back. But economic fears, as well as worries about climate change and an unreliable electronic grid have all fed it.

Driven of late by freakish storms, this industry is growing fast, well beyond the fringe groups that first embraced it. And by some measures, it’s bigger than ever.

Businesses like Generac Power Systems, one of three companies in Wisconsin turning out generators, are just the start.

The market for gasoline cans, for example, was flat for years. No longer. “Demand for gas cans is phenomenal, to the point where we can’t keep up with demand,” says Phil Monckton, vice president for sales and marketing at Scepter, a manufacturer based in Scarborough, Ontario. “There was inventory built up, but it is long gone.”

Even now, nearly two weeks after the superstorm made landfall in New Jersey, batteries are a hot commodity in the New York area. Win Sakdinan, a spokesman for Duracell, says that when the company gave away D batteries in the Rockaways, a particularly hard-hit area, people “held them in their hands like they were gold.”…

[continues in the New York Times]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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18 Comments on "The Mad Max Economy"

  1. If you get a DC – AC adapter for the car, one with generous watts, you can convert your car into a generator.

    • True, but gasoline itself might be in short supply in a regional disaster. Ask NYC residents with cars about this.

      • then you cant use a gas generator if you don’t have gas obviously. I was giving a tip to try to save people some money, if you are out of gas then you need to build a fire to stay warm. We all know about the lack of gas in nyc, you’d have to be dead not to hear those news. The city is crowded but in the suburbs you can usually find gas and still run operations from your home with a generator. Using the car as a generator also cuts the risk that some uninformed people have when they run the generator inside the home and die from the generators exhaust gases

        • True. Those devices good to have even in non-emergencies, though I’d use surge protection if I were to connect an electronic device to it.

          What’s appropriate for disaster prep is a very individual sort of thing. Published guides only a starting point.

          • Inverters are made for camping and usually have a fuse to cut any power surge, more protection is always good, its best to connect only one power hungry device at a time, check how many watts a device uses by reading the labels on the device. You can run light, make coffee, have a hot plate or a small space heater, if the inverter is strong enough. With the unit i have, if you plug something that takes too much current it just does not power on. Also extension cords take some watts out of the current if they are long but that is an issue for smaller inverters. I use a smaller inverter 150 watts and its enough to charge laptops, phones, and run a lamp with an efficient bulbs, i find that entertainment is key in a lights out situation. I’d be more worried about electronics when they turn the power back on, that can damage electronics, cut the main breaker. Best thing in my emergency kit is the specialized emergency food supply that stays for 5 years and i have several gallons of water. Around here heat and sanitation are the biggest issues when disaster strikes but with a little labor you make a fire to dry clothes and warm up.

      • P.S a car running on idle uses a fairly small amount of gas, especially smaller cars.

        • Mark Mendon | Nov 13, 2012 at 11:13 am |

          I DID THIS! Exactly this. I Had an old 1995 Lexus SC 300 parked right outside my first floor apartment window. I took my 2500 watt continuous pure sine wave inverter and mutilated two sets of jumper cables so I could run the cables out my window and under the hood of my car. About 1,300 watts or so was the limit I could draw from the car while it was idle. But it worked and worked great. My whole apartment had power and was a beacon of light in my unlit neighborhood. All my friends came over so we could watch movies on the 62″ 1080p DLP TV 🙂

          Word to the wise; don’t use modified sine wave inverters. Electronics don’t like them and anything you plug into it that has a transformer is going to emit a loud hum.

          I used less than an 1/8th of a tank of gas for 6 days of continuous power. My 3.0L 2JZ saved my ass and was virtually silent while running. The other tenants thought I was some kind of a Nikola Tesla type genius. Kinda sad how something so simple is almost magic to the typical American.

          • Yup. Its the way to do it, i was reminded of inverters when irene hit. Its not as loud as a generator and your ride stay constantly warm, if you need to make a trip; cold starts are bad for cars.

          • cool… but why did you put inverter in apartment instead of running 120V extension cord from inverter under hood of car?

          • Mark Mendon | Nov 13, 2012 at 4:34 pm |

            The inverter reads out the voltage and the wattage, I wanted to see what I was using. And it was snowing rather heavily. The 00 AWG cables ran around 6 feet or so from the car’s battery to the inverter which was on a shelf next to the window. The inverter I have is quite large as it can handle up to 5000 watts and can run continuously at 2500 watts. It has 6, 120 volt outputs, 4 three prong, 1 two prong, and 1 three-phase hook up. I had all the 120 volt plugs hooked up and needed to see what I was drawing each time I plugged something in like a toaster, blow dryer, 62″ DLP TV, space heater, 50″ plasma TV (which uses A LOT of juice), cable box, lights, refrigerator, etc.. It also had to run my roommates grow-op. Those 250 watt HID lights used far less juice than I expected though. My apartment was like the place to be when the power was out; Cannabis, movies, heat and electricity. 😉 Funny how we take those things for granted.

          • lucifershal0 | Nov 13, 2012 at 8:20 pm |

            Ok I totally believe your story but what I don’t believe is if your car was running for the entire 6 days you would have gone through more than an 1/8 of gas man. could ya put a little bit more info on that one?

  2. So buy your “mad max” accessory kit while you can still get the stuff at reasonable prices in no particular hurry. FEMA recommended 48 hours worth of supplies *before* it started failing in regional disasters. What Occupy Sandy is doing in the outlying parts of NYC where FEMA and city emergency services broke down is cool, but better to be worm, well fed, and dry and not need to depend on emergency services that will be overloaded in a major emergency. And if you have to evacuate, better to have warm, clean clothing , necessary papers, and a backup of your computer data in your bugout bag in case you don’t have a home to go back to.

    What color is your bugout bag? Advice on how to do this all over the Web. Better do this while you have the leisure to order stuff at your leisure online.

    • Matt Staggs | Nov 13, 2012 at 10:49 am |

      Yeah, a lot of this is common sense stuff that everyone should do. Even if the zombie apocalypse doesn’t come, inclement weather or a local disaster could cause major problems if you’re not prepared.

      • I have never understood the notion that it’s cool not to be prepared. Saw some posts on twitter from people boasting about that with Hurricane Sandy on the way.

        • lucifershal0 | Nov 13, 2012 at 8:24 pm |

          Obviously they thought Obama and the democrats were going to save the day. People are extremely uneducated and expect the gov. to take care of them forever. I am originally from tornado ally and now living literally 5 minutes from the beach in SC i’m aware of what a hurricane can cause. I went through Charlie in orlando,FL back in 2004 and have never seen weather like that in my life. It also doesn’t hurt to actually get a few friends you can trust or rely on in a dangerous emergency.

          • Head in sand thing not limited to Democrats. Next time I hear “preparation is uncool” from a Republican, I’ll refer that person to your post, and you can explain to that person that he or she is really a Democrat.

            Network of friends in emergency is indeed a good thing to have.

  3. 12V DC/ car-cigarette-lighter-plug phone chargers sell out fast after a disaster. Doesn’t matter a diddle damn anyway if the local cell phone towers were knocked over by a tornado; you can’t plan for everything.

  4. lucifershal0 | Nov 13, 2012 at 8:18 pm |

    I’m really sure the people suffering from Hurricane Sandy could use some GLOBAL WARMING about now? What the hell happened to that myth anyways?

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