Phrase of the year: Supply Chain

I’m picking supply chain as phrase of the year. While there were other strong candidates, the stark frailty of supply chains and its psychological backlash came as a complete surprise. Other contenders were: climate emergency, atmospheric river, and heat dome.

image: Global Supply Chain Institute -University of Tennessee

Supply chains were on Canadian’s minds even before the atmospheric river hit.  Google Trends shows “supply chain” peaking from October 17 to 23 as we worried about goods being stranded in ports and shelves being empty for Christmas.

After the torrential rains began falling, shoppers went on a panic shopping spree and emptied grocery stores of produce, milk, eggs, meat, and in echoes of the pandemic panic, even toilet paper.

After the rains, Google Trends showed “supply chain” reaching another peak from November 14 to 20.

The panic over supply chains was more visceral than rational. The real supply chains remained as Kamloops’ grocers are supplied from the East and South as well as from the lower mainland.

B.C. is exterior-centric. When I moved to Kamloops from Calgary, it struck me odd that I was moving to some place called “the interior.” It was obviously named by those from the coast who like to call the place where they live the “mainland.” We Interiorians would never name this place so.

The supply chains of our minds are more tenuous. The sense of being cut off from the mainland was part of the panic. The memories we have of before B.C. was a province are part of our cultural heritage. In the 1800s, we were dependent on the flow of goods from the ports on the coast. It’s imprinted in our collective psyches.

So, when supply chains from the coast were threatened, it seemed like we were doomed. But contrary to the perception, groceries quickly appeared on shelves even though routes from the coast were still cut off.

Who is cut off from whom is a matter of perspective. The Trans Mountain pipeline was shut down because of potential damage from the washouts. Gas was rationed on the coast while plentiful here. This prompted Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian to quip: “We are not cut off from the coast; the coast is cut off from us.”

If you live where food is produced, or where there are lots of groceries, supply chains present a different dilemma.

When water flowed into the Sumas Prairie, which is not really a prairie but a lake-bed only one metre above sea level, the family-run Lepp Farm Market in Abbotsford, was open and fully stocked. Shiny mandarin oranges sat in wooden crates. There was milk and eggs in the coolers. A chalkboard sign announced the soup of the day: cabbage beef borscht.

The problem for the Lepp’s was not a shortage of food but that they now lived on an island. Charlotte Lepp mused: “We have food, but people can’t get to us.”

Supply chains will continue to occupy our conscious and subconscious minds in the New Year.

Real supply chains carry the bounty of globalization and the fragility of a network exposed by the climate emergency. Our mental supply chains carry our hopes of prosperity and the fears of our vulnerability.

When the frailty of real and mental supply chains meet, panic sets in.