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Widespread Shortages.

Posted on 28th September 2021

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The news contains lots of reports about shortages. This problem seems to be the nature of the world, now.

Bus With Neon Lights And Stripper Poles

The funniest story that I have seen is this one on The Hustle, describing the impact of a shortage school-bus drivers in the US, which talks about the case of a high school teacher in Boston who wanted to take his 11th graders on a field trip. No yellow school buses, were available for charter, so he ended up renting from a private company. The bus provided was equipped with neon lights and stripper poles. I am sure the students told their parents all about it. Some of the side-effects of this bus driver shortage include increased costs of the school bus service and increases in the amount of parents driving their kids to and from school (with all the associated impacts of more petrol consumption, increased pollution, more traffic congestion and more traffic accidents).

There is a worldwide shortage of semiconductor chips, making computers and accessories like graphics cards and RAM more expensive and increasing waiting times, and causing car, washing machine and smartphone manufacturers to pause manufacturing (here, on the BBC). Part of the blame can be laid at the door of the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused a dip in demand; now that demand is picking up again, the chip manufacturers do not have the capacity to meet it, having retired or mothballed chip manufacturing plants and shed staff.

There are shortages of truck drivers in the UK (here, on the BBC) and the EU (here, on Politico). In Britain there is a shortfall of about 10,000 lorry drivers, both for fuel and grocery delivery, prompting the UK government to temporarily relax visa requirements for truck drivers.

There are shortages of natural gas in the EU (here, on The Economist) and the UK (here, on the BBC).

There is a CO2 shortage in the UK (here, on the BBC).

There are enormous problems with petrol (gasoline) supply in the UK (here, on the BBC); not a shortage, as such, (there is plenty of petrol), just a delivery problem (because of the shortage of truck drivers), all being made worse by panic buying, as usual.

There are shortages of various groceries in the UK (things that are imported from the EU), and in the EU (mostly, but not only, things that are imported from the UK), due to Brexit and other causes. Things are starting to improve now, but for a while we were not able to get Branston pickle or Marmite. Last year our everyday wine (from Portugal) was not available in a local German supermarket for an extended period. Another supermarket keeps dropping items off of its stock list (the "Sensational Burger" vegan burger, hot sauce, etc.). There are regular warnings that coffee may become more expensive and harder to get. Real vanilla is very expensive and hard to find.

Various reasons are slated for these different shortages:

  • Brexit is blamed for the problem with truck drivers in the UK, and for many of the grocery shortages in the UK and the EU.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic is blamed for many shortages.
  • The natural gas shortages in the UK are blamed on a cold winter depleting stocks, but in fact some of the fault lies with inadequate contingency stocks, so we should probably blame the government.

Some of the blame lies with industry's love affair with JIT (Just In Time) manufacturing and supply; although it helps reduce costs (by reducing the amounts in stock) this system is much less robust when things go wrong. JIT is definitely partly to blame for the shortage of semiconductor chips.

One thing that occurred to me is that the current shortages in so many things are exactly what one would expect at the beginning of societal collapse (see here), with plausible explanations given for each different shortage, but all in fact symptoms of deeper and wider malaise. I am not saying that societal collapse (due to climate change or other reasons) is definitely to blame, but it is a possibility that bears consideration.