Saturday, 12 April 2008

The end of civilisation?

The New Scientist magazine – recommended, by the way, to anyone who likes to keep up with developments across science – included a couple of linked articles by Deborah MacKenzie in its 5 April 2008 issue, concerning threats to our civilisation. Always an interesting topic to SF fans!

To summarise, the general thesis runs something like this: simple civilisations tend to be relatively unaffected by disasters, unless drastic environmental change (e.g. prolonged drought) makes their location uninhabitable. So although 14th century Europe suffered a one-third loss in population due to the Black Death, the civilisation continued. This was because it was essentially a rural, subsistence society, with urban populations being small. The survivors just carried on as usual, and all they needed could be grown or made locally.

Increasing the level of complexity of a civilisation increases its resilience, up to a point. Local disasters, which would previously have had major local effects, can be mitigated by rushing in aid. The threat of epidemics can be countered by the rapid development of medical countermeasures. However, as a civilisation becomes even more complex and tightly integrated, as ours is, its vulnerability increases. An economic shock affecting one major region affects everyone (as we are seeing now). Commercial economics drives efficiency, which leads to such changes as concentrating manufacture of a product in as few locations as possible; preferably only one, located in a part of the world where the labour is cheapest. Clearly such a system is more vulnerable to local disaster or transport interruptions than distributed production. This is exacerbated by the fashion for "just in time" deliveries, which means that only limited stocks are kept in warehouses; for instance, cities typically contain only a three-day supply of food.

This emphasises that we are highly dependent on the continuous functioning of our transport infrastructure. Not just to supply food, but just about everything we need, including medical supplies to hospitals and fuel to power stations and road transport filling stations. Power failures would cripple our ability to respond to crises, or even to find out what is going on. They would also lead to the rapid spoiling of refrigerated foods; in fact, the inability to buy anything (electronic shop tills wouldn't work). If transport breaks down, we will be plunged into deep trouble very quickly.

But what could have such a widespread effect on transport? MacKenzie suggests an international pandemic, such as the post-WW1 influenza outbreak which killed far more people than the war. She points out that this only had a 3% death rate, whereas in the cases so far of the H5N1 "bird flu" passing to humans, the death rate has been 63%. If bird flu (or some other virus) mutates to be highly infectious, our international air travel system could distribute it around the globe very quickly, perhaps more quickly than we could analyse the virus and devise, manufacture and distribute medical countermeasures.

The natural human response to a pandemic would be to stay at home; either due to sickness, or to look after sick relatives, or to keep from being infected. If enough transport workers are sick or stay at home, the transport system will fail. If enough refinery workers stay at home, no more fuel will be produced. If enough power station workers stay at home, the power will fail. If enough water supply workers stay at home, the water will fail. Very often nowadays, the continuous functioning of such essential services depends on a few key individuals. (A personal anecdote: I once attended a conference based in a college building. It started late, because the caretaker didn't turn up on time; and he was the only man with the keys.)

MacKenzie goes on to suggest that the increasing vulnerability and specialisation of complex civilisations may make their eventual collapse inevitable. This is not a new thesis; Jared Diamond covered such ground in his 2005 book 'Collapse', as did Joseph Tainter in his 1988 book 'The Collapse of Complex Societies', which examined the ways in which all previous civilisations have collapsed. We are not as immune from that as we might like to think (naturally, every civilisation has assumed it will last forever). Even without such a dramatic event as a pandemic, the increasing pressures on limited supplies of fresh water, fuel, food and other raw materials, are eventually likely to make our present way of life unsustainable. Climate change will exacerbate these problems, because our systems of agriculture are finely-tuned for our present patterns of rainfall, and much of our urban and transport infrastructure to existing sea levels. Any major international disruption, for whatever cause, will hit the confidence of the international financial markets on which the functioning of our civilisation depends.

What can be done? Those societies which would be least affected by major collapse would be rural ones with self-sufficient lifestyles (preferably located a long way away from densely populated urban areas) but it isn't feasible for most of us to live like that. Some measures will help stave off the risk of collapse, but they will not be easy to implement because they would be uneconomic if left to the market. More distributed production of essentials to spread the risk and minimise the importance of transport would certainly help. More use of distributed power and other supply systems would also add resilience. The local (even domestic) stockpiling of long-lasting foods and other essentials would be very prudent. So would disaster planning which takes into account the potential risks of a major pandemic and implements plans to minimise the effects (current planning tends to assume a death rate of no more than 3%).

MacKenzie points out that only one complex society has ever survived collapse, and that was by deliberate downsizing: the empire of Byzantium lost most of its territory to the Arabs, and responded by simplifying their society; moving out of most cities, switching to more of a barter economy, and changing their professional army to a peasant militia. Education levels declined.

A final thought: if the worst happens and our civilisation does collapse, it does not of course mean the end of humanity; although the world population would shrink drastically and revert to an earlier and much simpler form of existence. Recovery from such a disaster to anything like our present level of civilisation may not be easy. We have already mined out much of the easily-obtained fuel and other raw materials, so humanity could be caught in the Catch-22: before advanced technologies could be developed again, raw materials would be needed which could only be extracted by the use of advanced technologies, even if records of their locations had survived. What happens to our civilisation is therefore of critical importance to humanity's future.


Bill Garthright said...

Cheerful, huh? OK, I'm increasingly pessimistic about our chances, but that's not what I want to read in science fiction. So how could we plausibly avoid this - WITHOUT alien or supernatural help, a sudden attack of sanity among humans everywhere, or magical technology?

Well, the pandemic may not be a problem in itself, if it's identified quickly enough - and if it's deadly enough that strict quarantines are put into effect. But as you point out, the travel ban would kill us. Still, with increasingly expensive fuel, we might be tending towards more distributed electrical generation - home solar panels, small wind turbines, etc. - which could keep the power flowing, to some minimal extent.

That still leaves food, but I've got enough petrified... stuff in the refrigerator to last me awhile, if the power stays on. And some ancient food in the kitchen cupboards ("why in the world did I buy THAT?"). Besides, it takes awhile to starve to death (though the weakness would leave us even more vulnerable to disease).

Hmm, so far, still no science fiction. Well, nanotechnology has real promise (often the subject of optimistic hard SF). And with networked computers - and the Internet - some people can stay home and do their work (not many, admittedly). I just don't know.

OK, the pandemic strikes, but quarantines are fairly effective - so that some scattered areas remain free of disease while others are almost completely wiped out. In the healthy areas, civilization continues until a cure is found, and the survivors emerge to find a world with considerably fewer population pressures, but still enough to keep a functioning high tech society. Yeah, real 'optimistic,' huh?

Oh, well. This is only ONE of the reasons I don't write SF.

Anthony G Williams said...

I think we could cope with such a crisis, Bill, given adequate pre-planning (including a series of stand-ins for individuals in critical jobs). I used to get involved in disaster planning, on a small scale, and the important thing is to think it through: brainstorm all of the things which could go wrong, and put in place countermeasures. Studying actual disasters to see what went wrong is also invaluable. Then practice your emergency procedures.

A small example: one place I know had a standby electricity generator. The power went down for an extended period, but the genny didn't kick in as it should. When somebody went to look at it, he found that the fuel had all evaporated long ago - because it hadn't been in anyone's job description to keep the tank topped up.

The problem with putting in procedures to cope with massive international and regional disruption is that these will involve greater distribution of production, and greater stockpiling of necessities - and these aren't cheap. So do we go for profit or do we go for a sensible degree of resilience? Knowing our politicians, I am not optimistic...

Bill Garthright said...

And considering that our resources are limited, do we go for that 'sensible degree of resilience,' or concentrate on preventing or minimizing the disruption in the first place? SOME amount of disaster planning is prudent, but its highly unlikely to be enough, given a pandemic or other worldwide disaster. We may just have to live with the risk.

Anthony G Williams said...

I agree, it isn't possible to eliminate all risks.

The disaster planning "mantra" went something like this IIRC:

PREVENT the threat from happening;

Take PRECAUTIONARY measures to limit the damage if it does happen;

Put in place PROCEDURES to guide your actions if it happens;

Have a recovery PLAN to get back on your feet afterwards.

It is actually quite a powerful tool, and commonly used by businesses these days. Over a decade ago, an IRA bomb inflicted severe damage on the central business district of Manchester, which was closed off by the police for weeks. An insurance company was based right in that zone - but they were back in business within 24 hours. How? They kept all their data backed-up off-site, and had subscribed to a backup service which maintained an empty office building stuffed with computers, so they just moved their staff in and got going.

I think that we need something like such a disaster plan, on a grand scale, although the precautionary measures may involve lots of work on a small scale (e.g. local generation of electricity via solar power, wind, geothermal etc). The upside is that some of this may actually make financial sense anyway.

It would be best of all to prevent that crisis from happening, of course, but we can't count on that (and the crisis which DOES happen is not usually quite the one you've prepared for), so reasonable precautionary measures are sensible. I note that the USAF has decide to sponsor the production of fuel from coal, to insulate itself against reliance on uncertain international supplies. Similarly, large buildings in the earthquake zone of California are built to be resistant to earthquakes. That's the kind of thinking that needs to be applied to this problem, in my opinion.

Bill Garthright said...

Yeah, that makes sense. There's plenty of small-scale disaster planning that goes on. I used to work for an electric utility, and there's careful 'blackstart' (recovery from a complete blackout*) planning and regular drills. Critical loads (hospitals, police stations, etc.) are kept clearly identified, because those must be brought online first. But there'd be no problem with deciding where scarce power should go, if things came to that. Unfortunately, I have no faith at all in any higher level disaster planning that's being done (if any).

*Incidentally, I'm the only person who's ever blacked out our entire city. Luckily, we were able to restore partial power in just a few minutes, and almost no one in the city realized that everyone had gone black at the same time.

Anthony G Williams said...


That reminds me of what I presume was an urban legend doing the rounds concerning that Manchester bomb. The story goes that an electrician was working in the basement of a building close to the centre of the blast, and had just connected two power cables together - and turned on the power at the same instant that the bomb exploded. He was convinced that he was responsible and went into hiding for three days!