Weird Events and Social Fragility

We like to have backups for systems that we have some expectation of failing. We have RAID drives for our data, fire insurance for our houses.

Things that we consider highly unlikely, we ignore. Suppose, for instance, that all air travel in Europe were to be shut down for an extended time. Well, surely we’d travel by rail and by boat.

Well, it turns out that it hasn’t been cost effective to maintain enough boats to handle the overflow from shut-down airports. We expect air travel to be continuous. A sudden and unexpected failure of air traffic turns out to be a real blow to the system because insufficient backups are in place.

We don’t know these brittlenesses until they are unexpectedly exposed. A few years ago the Chicago River found its way into the basements of many buildings in the Loop, a risk nobody had ever considered.

I would even consider ClimateGate a brittleness. The explosion of totally unfounded accusations had a significant impact because of vulnerabilities in the press as well as within scientific institutions. The main consequences of this particular weird failure remain in the future and may yet be avoided, but the risk that a thousand generations will suffer as a consequence of some easliy misinterpreted grumbling about trash science remains real.

What can we learn from finding ourselves in a science fiction world, where we are plagued by failure modes we never even imagined? It seems to me that we are living closer to the edge than we imagined. As complexity increases, the potential for disastrous coupling between systems that aren’t conceptually linked (Icelandic vulcanism, German automobile production; coal delivery in 1906 and bridge repair in 1992) increases. How many other things will butt up against other things their users never considered?

This is what makes climate change special. To be honest, we don’t know what will go awry when and how much and how under anticipated climate change. But climate butts up against almost everything pretty much everywhere. Building practices that have never been exposed to termites will see termites. Rivers that have never had flash floods will get flash floods. Countries that have never seen hurricanes will get hurricanes. Who knows what all else will happen?

As the T-shirt says, there is no Planet B. If air traffic shuts down forever, we’ll get boats quickly and fast boats before you know it. But we have no backup plan for the atmosphere.

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9 thoughts on “Weird Events and Social Fragility

  1. manuelg says:

    > What can we learn from finding ourselves in a science fiction world, where we are plagued by failure modes we never even imagined?Heck, I would forgive those "failure modes never imagined", if we could get action on the failure modes that are like lingering on the railroad tracks as a freight train approaches.The Year 2000 bug was the only catastrophe averted by forward thinking and action, that I can think of. Katrina was caused by levees that were expected by all authorities to fail. Hyman Minsky said to expect financial crashes of arbitrarily large size on a periodic basis. George Bush the First laid out the reasons for not removing Saddam http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/169/36409.htmlThe idea that sober wise adults are in charge is a myth. They act surprised when the predictable catastrophe happens, confident that they will not really be called on it.

  2. There is a backup plan for the atmosphere, lterally so.Plants lots and lots and lots of trees:Irrigated afforestation of the Sahara and Australian Outback to end global warmingNeed to start right away.

  3. Bart says:

    The most recent example is probably the economic crisis that nobody expected (except a few people who warned that the bubblew would burst at some point, but these inconvenient warnings were ignored).And which caused a cascade of events as a consequence.Apparently, people love living in a bubble.Btw, as a tangent: Personal travel by ship is more carbon intensive than personal travel by airplane (as opposed to cargo shipping, which is much more carbon efficient, due to a much larger fraction of the weight to be moved being cargo rather than ship).

  4. sod says:

    Michael, you have the good fortune of being the latest victim of a "Tom Fuller analysis". his comparison between your blog on Pielke jr has come to the conclusion, that you have serious trouble, when not on your home turf.—————on topic: very good article. i saw a television interview yesterday, with some representative of a huge car manufacturing company. he told the reporters, that their production had stopped, because about 30% of their parts are delivered by air lift. i was seriously shocked by that number. although i have little hope, perhaps one good outcome of the plane traffic stop will be a second look at air freight.

  5. "As complexity increases, the potential for disastrous coupling between systems that aren't conceptually linked…increases."Worse still: the potential for disastrous de-coupling between [eco-] systems that aren't conceptually linked increases.

  6. gravityloss says:

    Bill Joy wrote about this – how increasing technology and complexity brings vulnerability: "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us". It was available online at least in 2000.About air travel, I'm a bit sskeptical. Most of it is just for pleasure. People could travel nearer as well.And the industrial stuff delivered by air can take a couple days longer and use the sea, rails and roads.

  7. Hank Roberts says:

    Yup.http://www.jstor.org/pss/1389234http://www.issi.it/temi%20SD/sviluppo%20sostenibile/Decrescita/docs/CATTON%20from%20Overshoot.pdf"… continued access to non-local resources became increasingly vital to human well-being and survival. As the ecological load increased beyond what could have been supported by the sum of the separate carrying capacities of the formerly insulated local environments, mankind's vulnerability to any disruption of trade became more and more critical…."

  8. sod says:

    oops, i forgot to mention, that fuller has posted the critisim of your blog on the air vent.http://noconsensus.wordpress.com/2010/04/23/tobis-and-pielke/

  9. They serve no positive function whatsoever, for a very simple reason that I've detailed repeatedly:You do not improve a dataset by removing perceived or even real deviations that go one particular way.Moreover, none of their bright ideas have panned out. None have been the slightest bit helpfulMoreover, their demands amount to "do things that we'll deny you the wherewithal to do, or we'll work hard to deny you even more wherewithal. Actually, we'll do that anyway, but for public consumption, the first thing we said is our position."In other words, if Clarence saw the whole gaggle of climate denialists jump into the river, he should mosey along and get his wings somewhere else. The world would be a better place, and especially the science world, if they'd never been born, any of them.

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