A Lifetime Of Vulnerability

The experience of a long commute is one of those experiences that helps one to see the vulnerability of infrastructure to difficulties. In a robust system, difficulties can be overcome by the presence of alternate routes so that they do not cause a great deal of stress and strain to existing infrastructure or the people who use them. Our systems in this present world are not robust, because even small problems can cause a great deal of discomfort and difficulty for people. In fact, a large portion of our infrastructure (roads, ports, and power networks come to mind) are under such strain that they do not work very well under normal circumstances, when nothing is going wrong. When something does go wrong, there is often no slack in the system to prevent problems from cascading and creating further difficulties, even if the problems that result are often overblown by those who are inconvenienced.

For example, the northbound portion of I-5 is closed this weekend between Washington SR-500 and the interchange with I-205 near Battle Creek, Washington, a few miles north of where I attend church on a regular basis. The local newspapers in Vancouver called the resulting traffic problem Carmageddon (I am not sure if the simultaneous closure of several other streets along SR-500 was related to the detour or not), which is a bit overblown. There is, however, a relationship between Carmageddon and the sort of disasters that are often lumped together as part of Armageddon, like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. That relationship is not likely to be seen often because it is often a rather terrifying matter to reflect on. Without going into too much grusome detail, let us discuss some of those parallels and reflect upon what they say about our insecure times and conditions and the insecure people (like ourselves) who happen to live in them.

For whatever purpose, my own lifetime and experiences and concerns seem well-suited to deal with the subject of the vulnerability of our systems and institutions. Within my own lifetime I have had the occasion to notice and feel the vulnerability of all kinds of systems and institutions to breakdown. Being a veteran of many dysfunctional institutions vulnerable to all kinds of abuses and the failure to accomplish basic tasks of protection and care, I have not been under the illusion that our societal institutions are sound. While the results have left me a far more anxious person than I would like to be, and have caused me a great deal of personal trouble, they have also allowed me to face the sort of potential threats that exist to our often complacent sense of safety and well-being. Anxiety, in other words, has a silver lining, a gift that can help provide insight and a strange sense of comfort in our times.

When I lived in Thailand, I saw firsthand how a natural disaster (in this case severe flooding in the central area of Thailand brought on by excessive rains in the north and northeastern parts of the country) threatened food supplies by endangering the transportation networks from the capital to outlying areas of the country. When grocery stores are reduced to selling almost only ramen noodles for several days, one is facing some serious difficulties in one’s food supply, all because of a single flood that was hundreds of miles away [1] [2]. Though this experience was in Thailand, what happened there could easily happen in other countries, for the reason that the same factors that make Thailand vulnerable also make other nations similarly vulnerable.

For one, many nations have dysfunctional political relationships between national governments and local governments, with poisoned political cultures in their nations and regimes that lack legitimacy in the eyes of large portions of their population, as well as corruption in governments where resources and money do not end up serving their intended goals, all of which prevent an effective response to any diasters that areas face. Likewise, consolidation of vital and important transportation and logistics networks have made a few companies and transportation lines responsible for a large proportion of our critical food and water supplies. The (seemingly terminal) decline of the Colorado River, for example, threatens the water supplies of at least half a dozen Western states, to say nothing of Northern Mexico. We cannot take our water for granted, especially as we people of the West have made decisions based on conditions that seem to have been based on temporary patterns that are no longer holding [3]. If we take for granted that things will go on as they have when our systems and institutions are already incapable of effectively handling the threats and concerns of our day-to-day existence, any disaster can have a massive and disproportionate effect on our lives that we may not be capable of handling effectively so that we may respond as best as we are able.

When one seeks an accurate knowledge of the vulnerability of our institutions and lives, there are some very different results that can follow. Sometimes, of course, we may oscillate between them. We may respond with greater faith in our institutions and systems, no matter how shaky they may be, simply because we cannot accept the possibility that they may fail. Sometimes, as happened in the late Roman Empire across the West, they fail spectacularly, leaving their remnants to following societies long after they have vanished. Sometimes we may feel so paranoid about the vulnerability of our institutions and systems that we become wild conspiracy theorists, seeing the fault of those institutions as being (only) the result of cabals and not the result of wider failures. To be sure, elites conspire when they can, but the roots of the malaise are much deeper than merely the people at the top, as they extend to the choices of even ordinary folks like ourselves. Since our own inattention to matters of infrastructure and logistics are part of the problem that our institutions face, we need to face up to the fruits of that complacency and lack of concern, while there remains some time to remedy the problems.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/start-your-day-off-right-with-a-food-shortage/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/if-life-was-more-like-a-game/

[3] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/17/book-review-cadillac-desert/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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11 Responses to A Lifetime Of Vulnerability

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