Playing Cassandra

I’m feeling distinctly pessimistic today. As I’ve written in the past, the notion that “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice” may be a necessary belief to remain motivated in generations-long battles for justice, but as an “is” statement (as opposed to an “ought” statement), it is naive at best in light of the cyclical nature of civilizations. All civilizations in the history of humankind have, sooner or later, declined and fallen into a “dark age”.

And with that cheery introduction, I’ll give you the following:
1)Rachel Maddow analyzing the effects of money on US politics. Basically, Republicans and corporations now have enough money at their disposal to win even extremely unlikely electoral races. And the Democrats’ plan to survive and counter this? winning, then amending the constitution. except that, as just noted, they can’t really win anymore. So basically, unless the Repubicans actually manage to self-destruct, the US government is now wholly theirs, on all levels, for years to come.

2)A graph and summary about oil prices since the economic crisis. oil prices are currently falling because of assorted political clusterfucks, but for the last year, despite fluctuations, they are as high as they were at the beginning of 2008. and anything “good” happening economically will instantly reverse the current downward trend. so, it seems our choices right now are economic collapse somewhere important and the continuation of the Era Of Cheap Oil, or economic stabilization/recovery and the official end of oil below $100/bbl. Peak Oil, anyone?

3)In Europe, xenophobia always lurks just under the surface, threatening to erupt. The EU and its predecessor were created to end a history of conflict that includes the Hundred Year War, the 30 Year War, and that started both world wars. And they were doing a decent job of it, considering, before the global economic meltdown. But because the meltdown happened before the EU figured out how to manage itself in crisis situations, it is now in a political as well as an economic crisis. With predictable results: Fascists are getting elected wherever sufficient distrust of the other EU members has managed to break to the surface

4)And last but not least, speaking of the long arc of history: here’s a paper in Nature (I haz pdf) about possible “critical transitions” in the global ecosystem in the next century or so. I’ve kind of written about these transitions before. They’re basically what happens to an ecosystem when it stops being resilient enough to withstand a particular environmental pressure: it undergoes a drastic change until it can regain (relative, temporary) equilibrium as an entirely different ecosystem, one that usually doesn’t sustain the same species and communities as before. And this paper basically discusses the possibility that our biosphere is about to undergo a critical transition as a result of human-caused pressures on the system. Some choice quotes:

Here we summarize evidence that such planetary-scale critical transitions have occurred previously in the biosphere, albeit rarely, and that humans are now forcing another such transition, with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.

This Modelling suggests that for 30% of Earth, the speed at which plant species will have to migrate to keep pace with projected climate change is greater than their dispersal rate when Earth last shifted from a glacial to an interglacial climate, and that dispersal will be thwarted by highly fragmented landscapes.Climates found at present on 10–48% of the planet are projected to disappear within a century, and climates that contemporary organisms have never experienced are likely to cover 12–39% of Earth48. The mean global temperature by 2070 (or possibly a few decades earlier) will be higher than it has been since the human species evolved.

Although the ultimate effects of changing biodiversity and species compositions are still unknown, if critical thresholds of diminishing returns in ecosystem services were reached over large areas and at the same time global demands increased (as will happen if the population increases by
2,000,000,000 within about three decades), widespread social unrest, economic instability and loss of human life could result.


1) “success oriented planning”, Big Oil edition: remote shut-off? we don’t need no stinkin’ remote shut-off!

2)The Arizonan immigration-law is sparking calls for boycotts on multiple fronts: baseball, businesses, other cities, foreign countries

3)random obligatory anti-corporate link: two simple statistics

Functional redundancy, “success-oriented planning”, and the global economy

I’ve been working on this post for a while, and it still doesn’t feel quite finished, but because of the Iceland volcano outbreak, I’m gonna post it anyway, since it’s relevant. Maybe there will be a part two if this version ends up needing too heavy revision/expansion.

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Functional redundancy is a term used in biology and ecology mostly (and in software engineering, too); it refers to different components of a system performing similar functions, so that in case of disruption, they can take over each others’ functions(in ecology, that would be the ability of another species to fill a particular, suddenly empty niche that is necessary for the functioning if the whole ecosystem). Having a lot of this functional redundancy is usually seen as a sign of the health and resilience* of a system1, 2.

A similar concept exists in engineering3, where critical systems usually have multiples as fail-safes.

In both cases, the redundancy is “expensive”, i.e. it uses more resources/energy than a system without it would. This means that in ideal and/or stable conditions, a system with redundancy functions at sub-optimal levels, because the redundancies reduce efficiency. What this generally means is that every system must balance resilience against efficiency.

And this is where “success-oriented planning” comes in. You see, in business, redundancies are almost always considered wasteful, and are cut out. Overstaffing, overequipping, overtraining etc. are all seen as flaws, as things that cut into the bottom line. And so, they are removed as much as possible. But of course this only works in ideal conditions, so doing this means you’re planning on succeeding, and are not making any contingency plans. This, on paper, generally looks significantly more efficient in both time and money. In reality though, every fuckup (and there always are fuckups) costs more time and money, because there are delays in acquiring the extra resources required to fix the problem**. Sometimes, the fuckups are so many, or so huge, that they destroy the plan altogether, when a less efficiently but more pessimistically designed plan might have survived.

And what does this have to do with Iceland’s volcano? Well, the volcano shut down Europe’s most popular, cheap, and least subsidized for of transport. Stories about people stranded on vacation were abundant; usually further down were stories about suddenly overfilled trains and ferries, even though often both have additional trains/boats in service. Similarly, even though there was squeaking about possible future food shortages in stores, there really weren’t any, partially simply because a lot of stores are replenished once a week, but partially also because not all foods have to be transported from very far away, thus risking spoilage.

Those things are all symptoms of functional redundancy, maintained almost entirely by state-funding/intervention: the rail is state-owned in most European countries, and so are many ferry services. Even road maintenance, for all those newly rented and now hard-to-come-by cars, is state funded. Similarly, the existence of spare vehicles and crew, which was mobilized to deal with the suddenly increased demand, is a sign of maintained redundancy. So is the existence of the vast majority of European agriculture.

If transportation would have been left to capitalist competition, there wouldn’t be this multiple redundancy in transportation. The buy-off and deconstruction of America’s public transport in those cities in which it was sold to private interest is pretty good evidence for this: in LA for example, there was an excellent network of trolleys within living memory of some of its senior citizens; now the only way to get around is to drive. And additionally, even if additional systems existed, they’d be just as understaffed and under-equipped as many purely for profit, non-subsidized companies are (for example, ancient undermaintained airplanes, and overworked long-distance truck-drivers), so they would hardly be equipped to shoulder such a sudden shift in demand.

Similarly, if the flight-stoppage had lasted longer and Europe had to subsist on its own food reserves, even this early in the year, it wouldn’t have been a disaster, because food is still produced in Europe. This is almost completely a question of functional redundancy, since according to free marked principles, virtually no food should be produced in Europe at all, and it all would have to be shipped/flown in from overseas,*** from cash-crop producing cheap-labor countries. This would have spelled a disaster for Europe, as well as the supplier countries, since they wouldn’t be able to sell.

Now, a volcano eruption disrupting flights is a bit of a freak-event. But it’s not like were not facing a similar, more predictable and also more permanent disruption in the near future. Peak oil is looming4, or might have even passed, and transportation and agriculture will be likely its most notable victims.

The Green Revolution for example is entirely fossil-fuel based, and so is its descendant, the GMO revolution****; neither will successfully continue to function in a post-cheap-oil world. Fostering small scale, local agriculture could provide some functional redundancy (Yes, small scale, local agriculture is capable of feeding the world; Victory Gardens provided as much food during WWII as large-scale agriculture did. Thanks for asking), but modern subsidies, especially in the US, do precisely the opposite, subsidizing monoculture on ginormous scales. This is entirely counterproductive. So is the continued push for agro-fuels, which will die the moment fuel-intensive agriculture does.

Transportation is in a similar and partially worse pickle. I’m not aware of oil-free kerosene-alternatives at all. Cars may well be turned into all-electrics in the next decade, but then they’ll still run on fossil fuels everywhere except in France maybe, and that would mean more CO2 emissions, which we can’t afford for obvious reasons. The current flight-crisis is showing that trains can barely handle having to pick up the slack for a short-lived temporary flight outage. What will happen when both flying and driving suddenly become non-existent or heavily reduced? What will happen in the US, where the train map has a rather HUGE holes in the middle5, and most the trains run only once a day as it is (oh, and they regularly get stuck in the mountains in the winter, and no trains cross the Cascades and Rockies for days, even weeks then)?

As far as I can tell, the USA has lost the ability to create functional redundancies in the 80’s, when every politician seems to have run on the “running government like a business” platform, and the only subsidized business, agriculture, has been subsidized in entirely the wrong direction, i.e. away from diversification and towards monoculture and specialization. It’s an entire country build according to “success-oriented planning”, i.e. this idiotic, powerful American optimism and exceptionalism that keeps on fueling its economic bubbles***** and that eschews even thinking about a Plan B, and which, as a result, has pretty much only one solution for every problem, and often it’s already a pretty jury-rigged one. There isn’t much resilience in the system.

Europe is somewhat better off, especially because they already have a lot of this infrastructure in place and because new non-fossil-fuel infrastructure is being created that might make transitions easier. But for some unfathomable reason, quite a few European governments seem to want to become more American: more car-dependence, more “tax-rebates”, more “business-friendly”, and more useless agricultural subsidies that only prop up existing agriculture, rather than providing a non-fuel-intensive alternative.

And the rest of the world? Australia has never had much in the way of natural resilience; there’s a reason agriculture never developed there, and it’s on it’s way to its natural death now with more stress, and more irregular weather and less rain.

And the entire developing and undeveloped world has virtually no resilience left at all; domestic agriculture has become nonexistent, while export agriculture will become non-existent when transporting food across the world will become too expensive; and this is in the areas that aren’t being fucked over by global warming, and industrial erosion and poisoning.

On the whole, it seems the global economy is one big exercise in “success-oriented planning”. It’s time to fess up that that was probably a really dumb idea, and start building (and allowing other countries to build) some resilience into the most important bases of our systems (I mentioned agriculture and transportation, but electricity in general as well as communication are other important examples). I suspect it’s a wee bit late to prevent all disasters, but better late then never, I’d say…

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*resilience being a measure of how much you can fuck with a system until it finally cannot compensate, collapses and becomes a completely different system

**the new “solution” to this faulty planning is the creation of the disposable human. Temp agencies for example provide insta-experts/workers/whatever to companies. This precarization of labor creates fucktons of problems for the workers, especially in places like the U.S. where temp-workers don’t get benefits and get paid less than the equivalent permanent employee would, but it works just awesomely for the companies. ugh

***incidentally, there’s already been reports of some exotic and out-of-season foodstuffs spoiling because there was no way to deliver them from the countries in which they were grown to Europe; this has serious consequences on the countries where these crops are grown, because they usually lack diversification and functional redundancy, either as a consequence of colonial history, or as a consequence of World Bank and IMF blackmail that destroyed localized, non-cash-crop agriculture and various state-subsidized industries.

****both the high-yield agriculture of the Green Revolution, and GMO crops, are fertilized and pesticide/herbicide intensive, as well as labor-intensive, and therefore only profitable when economies of scale come into play. They also both lack in genetic diversity within and between varieties which would supply the plants with some of that flexibility and resilience to change.

*****probably best exemplified by the massive pre-financial-crisis hubris of “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”