Sunday, March 08, 2009

The great disruption

There's a must-read op-ed from Thomas Friedman in the New York Times today titled "The Inflection is Near?" He warns that we have not only reached the limits of our financial system but are also facing the limits of what the earth can handle:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”


One of those who has been warning me of this for a long time is Paul Gilding, the Australian environmental business expert. He has a name for this moment — when both Mother Nature and Father Greed have hit the wall at once — “The Great Disruption.”

“We are taking a system operating past its capacity and driving it faster and harder,” he wrote me. “No matter how wonderful the system is, the laws of physics and biology still apply.” We must have growth, but we must grow in a different way. For starters, economies need to transition to the concept of net-zero, whereby buildings, cars, factories and homes are designed not only to generate as much energy as they use but to be infinitely recyclable in as many parts as possible.

(Now might be a good time to watch "The Story of Stuff," a video that packs an amazing amount of information into 20 easy-to-understand minutes. Highly recommended.)

I'M REMINDED A BIT of an article I read last year in NewScientist. Rather than addressing the issue of us pushing up against the limits of what is possible, "Are We Doomed?" examined the ways that an increasingy networked and interdependent world actually becomes less stable and prone to collapse over time.

Reading it, I remembered being a child and first becoming aware of the environmental movement in the 1970s. Once while thinking about pesticides or nuclear waste or some other manmade threat to our natural world I had the intuition that we're in a race with ourselves: can our technology develop fast enough to keep us one step ahead of the problems that we've created with earlier technological achievements?

I'm not one to believe that there is always a technical or scientific solution to every problem. Some problems are human in nature. Satisfying some of our needs is, in fact, grounded in production. Can we grow enough food? Can we supply fresh water? But others are philosophical. Can we learn to be happy with what we have rather than continually requiring new things and new stimulation?

In "Are We Doomed?" Debora MacKenzie notes that as a society becomes increasingly complex, it inevitably faces the problem of diminishing returns:

"For the past 10,000 years, problem solving has produced increasing complexity in human societies," says Joseph Tainter, an archaeologist at Utah State University, Logan, and author of the 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies....

There is, however, a price to be paid. Every extra layer of organisation imposes a cost in terms of energy, the common currency of all human efforts, from building canals to educating scribes. And increasing complexity, Tainter realised, produces diminishing returns. The extra food produced by each extra hour of labour - or joule of energy invested per farmed hectare - diminishes as that investment mounts. We see the same thing today in a declining number of patents per dollar invested in research as that research investment mounts. This law of diminishing returns appears everywhere, Tainter says.

As complexity has increased, hierarchical systems have given way to networked systems:
"To run a hierarchy, managers cannot be less complex than the system they are managing," Bar-Yam says. As complexity increases, societies add ever more layers of management but, ultimately in a hierarchy, one individual has to try and get their head around the whole thing, and this starts to become impossible. At that point, hierarchies give way to networks in which decision-making is distributed. We are at this point.
And this explains some of the very financial shocks that we're now experiencing:

As connections increase, though, networked systems become increasingly tightly coupled. This means the impacts of failures can propagate: the more closely those two villages come to depend on each other, the more both will suffer if either has a problem. "Complexity leads to higher vulnerability in some ways," says Bar-Yam. "This is not widely understood."

The reason is that as networks become ever tighter, they start to transmit shocks rather than absorb them. "The intricate networks that tightly connect us together - and move people, materials, information, money and energy - amplify and transmit any shock," says Homer-Dixon. "A financial crisis, a terrorist attack or a disease outbreak has almost instant destabilising effects, from one side of the world to the other."

Fire is a natural part of a forest's lifecycle. By interrupting that cycle in places like the American West, we've set the stage for increasingly intense firestorms by allowing dead material to build up. Just as forest managers are now trying to adopt strategies more tolerant of small blazes, we may need to accept small collapses as being integral to human societies as well:
"This is the fundamental challenge humankind faces. We need to allow for the healthy breakdown in natural function in our societies in a way that doesn't produce catastrophic collapse, but instead leads to healthy renewal," Homer-Dixon says. This is what happens in forests, which are a patchy mix of old growth and newer areas created by disease or fire. If the ecosystem in one patch collapses, it is recolonised and renewed by younger forest elsewhere. We must allow partial breakdown here and there, followed by renewal, he says, rather than trying so hard to avert breakdown by increasing complexity that any resulting crisis is actually worse.
ANOTHER ARTICLE in the same NewScientist issue, "Will a Pandemic Bring Down Civilisation?" warned that we're more vulnerable to pandemic than we have been in the past. Because our societies are more complex and integrated now, things are likely to break down rather quickly if certain key individuals become sick:

Especially vital are "hubs" - the people whose actions link all the rest. Take truck drivers. When a strike blocked petrol deliveries from the UK's oil refineries for 10 days in 2000, nearly a third of motorists ran out of fuel, some train and bus services were cancelled, shops began to run out of food, hospitals were reduced to running minimal services, hazardous waste piled up, and bodies went unburied. Afterwards, a study by Alan McKinnon of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK, predicted huge economic losses and a rapid deterioration in living conditions if all road haulage in the UK shut down for just a week.

What would happen in a pandemic when many truckers are sick, dead or too scared to work? Even if a pandemic is relatively mild, many might have to stay home to care for sick family or look after children whose schools are closed. Even a small impact on road haulage would quickly have severe knock-on effects.

One reason is just-in-time delivery. Over the past few decades, people who use or sell commodities from coal to aspirin have stopped keeping large stocks, because to do so is expensive. They rely instead on frequent small deliveries.

Cities typically have only three days' worth of food, and the old saying about civilisations being just three or four meals away from anarchy is taken seriously by security agencies such as MI5 in the UK.

Now extend the truck driver scenario to other critical areas of our civilization: medical care, electricity generation, communications. If hospitals run low on supplies, people will grow sicker. As more people become sick, it becomes more likely that power plants will shut down, either from being short-staffed or starved for coal (which arrives constantly by train). When the power goes off, television and radio go off the air. The knock-on effects are enormous.

We are, without a doubt, living in interesting times. Are we at a turning point? With any luck, yes.

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