How fragile we are: Why the complexity of modern civilization threatens us all
THE FRAGILITY OF OUR MODERN HUMAN CIVILISATION did not become clear to me until I began living full-time in South America. As a resident of Vilcabamba, Ecuador, I’ve grown accustomed to the idea of knowing where the things I consume come from. The water I drink, for example, comes from a hole in the ground that taps into a water table replenished by the clouds hanging over the Podocarpus National Forest to the East. I can make a logical connection between the clouds, the rainfall, and the water in my glass. And if the well pump fails, I know I can always carry a bucket to the river a few hundred meters away and scoop up virtually unlimited quantities of water that recently fell out of the sky.
During a recent trip to Tucson, however, I found myself hesitating when I turned on the kitchen faucet. I paused, marveling at the magic of this water which apparently appears from nowhere. And it’s always there, reliable and uninterrupted. That’s when I noticed myself asking the commonsense question: “Where does the water come from around here?” I had no idea.
The realization astonished me. I lived in Tucson for over five years and yet the thought suddenly occurred to me that if the water stopped magically flowing out of these pipes, I had absolutely no idea where to physically find water beyond the bottled water in the grocery stores, and that wouldn’t last very long. Sure, I know where the rivers are in Tucson, but these desert rivers are bone dry river beds for all but a few days of the year. And yes, I know how to get water out of cactus, but it’s hard work, and the water isn’t pure water. Try to live off cactus juice for a few days and you’ll end up with severe diarrhea (which is dehydrating).
This thought never hit me when I lived in America, but now it struck me hard: Life in many U.S. cities is extremely fragile. Much of the abundance and convenience of city life is pure illusion, conjured up by a system of underground pipes that deliver water to your home and another set of pipes that magically dispose of your flushed liquid waste. A set of wires brings electricity that makes your home livable (at the great expenditure of energy for heat or cooling), and cheap gasoline makes it possible for fresh produce to magically appear in the grocery stores that feed us all with food from who-knows-where. Take away any one of these – electricity, water, sewers, fuel, food – and virtually every U.S. city becomes an urban death trap for all its citizens.
It’s not just Tucson, either: The entire American Southwest is extremely fragile when it comes to supporting life. The same story holds true with Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego and many other cities and towns of all sizes. The population currently living in the Southwest USA is far greater than what those geographic regions could support on their own: It is the mass-importation of water, electricity, food and fuel that makes life possible there. And all those mass imports are extremely fragile.
The flipside of this problem exists across Northern USA and Canada, where extremely cold winters make these regions unlivable without the steady importation of heating fuel. Most Americans and Canadians would freeze to death in less than a week if left without some ability to heat their homes during a severe winter freeze. Very few people (in the cities especially) still have free-standing, non-electric wood-burning stoves or effective fireplaces that can keep them warm and alive during such an outage. Most of the younger generation has never even chopped wood! (And wouldn’t know where to start if they had to…)
The illusion of progress hides the frailty of complex civilizations
As U.S. cities have become increasingly complex and population dense, they have simultaneously become alarmingly fragile. Just one small break in the supply lines — or one severe disruption in a single essential input — can ripple through the entire system, causing widespread catastrophe.
I found this difficult to see when living in the USA. Everything seems fine on the surface. The water always appears when you turn on the faucet. Electricity seems ever-present. Food is magically replaced on store shelves each night (apparently by sleepless Elves of some kind) and no matter how much gasoline you pump out of the gas station, it always seems to have more!
But what if these essentials stopped? Could YOU survive for even one weekend without store-bought food, water pressure in your home, fuel, electricity and internet access? Increasingly, the honest answer is simply “No”.
(This isn’t an article about survival, by the way. But if you’re interested in the concept of “surviving and thriving,” then check out the “surthrival” website of Daniel Vitalis at www.surthrival.com/ )
Our modern world lacks redundancy
In the quest for complexity, specialization and profit, our modern civilization has completely forgotten about redundancy. There is almost no slack in the systems that deliver your food, fuel, electricity, water or consumer products. That means if something goes wrong, even for a little while, you’ll need to depend on yourself to provide these things. Yet how many people have the ability to provide all these essentials for themselves — disconnected from the grid — for even as little as one weekend?
Very few, it turns out. And that leads to one giant, disturbing realization: When the next great disruption occurs, the vast majority of the population will panic. That’s because they’re unprepared. They have unknowingly bet their lives on the reliability of just-in-time delivery systems and complex infrastructure interdependencies. When the water stops flowing, or the electricity goes off, or the gasoline runs out, they literally will have no idea what to do.
The very idea that such a thing could happen will be entirely foreign to them. It’s as if they’ve all been living in The Truman Show (a Jim Carey film, one of my favorites) then suddenly the veil is lifted and they’re shown the real world. In the real world, water doesn’t just automatically flow through your pipes. Fuel doesn’t materialize into existence out of nowhere. Food isn’t mysteriously teleported to your local store each night while you sleep. In the real world, food, fuel, energy and water all depend on a long, intricate web of interdependent processes, and there isn’t a person living today who truly understands the complexity of those dependencies.
In essence, we are all living a civilization experiment. It’s an experiment that asks the question, “What happens if we all become specialists and give up our redundancies in the pursuit of higher specialized production?”
The cost of specialization
Let me rephrase it more simply: A hundred years ago, almost everybody was a farmer. If your neighbor’s garden crop failed, that was no big deal because you had some extra garden food to share with them. But as society became more “advanced” and complex, people became specialists: Forklift operators, grocery store checkout clerks, bank paper pushers, auto alarm installers, and so on.
Importantly, in this process they all lost the knowledge of how to grow their own food, or fetch their own water, or heat their own homes. Instead, they pursued their own narrow specialized skills and traded their time (and money) for bits and pieces of other peoples’ special skills, some of which include delivering the essentials we all need to survive. A newspaper journalist, for example, doesn’t need to grow her own food. She writes stories that farmers want to read, and in exchange, she eats some of the food they grow. The medium of exchange for all this is called “money,” of course.
As you can see, however, this specialization results in the mass loss of basic living knowledge such as how to raise chickens, how to prune fruit trees or how to plant garden seeds. I’m actually forcing myself to re-learn many of these basic skills now in Ecuador, and I’m finding myself astonished at how little I really knew about living off the land…
This loss of practical knowledge sets up precisely the kind of situation I hinted at earlier, where a disruption in the complex systems that deliver our essentials results in the masses panicking because they have no clue what to do. They’ve never had to use live-off-the-land skills, so they don’t even know where to begin.
Where can you find water within walking distance? How to build a water filter out of a plastic barrel, some sand and some old tree stumps? How do you repair a flat tire on a bicycle without changing the inner tube? How do you protect your garden veggies from insects or rodents without using chemical pesticides? These are the kinds of things that most people just don’t know, and yet in a breakdown emergency, these are precisely the kinds of skills that are desperately needed. (They’re the skills your parents or grandparents probably knew very well, but have since been largely abandoned…)
The upshot of all this is that it’s a good idea to acquire some essential preparedness skills so that you don’t find yourself a complete noob when the lights go out. And this isn’t about acquiring just stuff (gadgets and the like), it’s about developing skills and know-how. Skills beat stuff any day.
For example, by working alongside some of the locals I’ve hired in Ecuador, I’ve learned how to cut wire without a wire cutter. I’ve learned how to repair irrigation pipes without pipe clamps (just using bailing wire and a nail). I’ve learned how to build water troughs out of bamboo and how to make a decent roof covering out of dried sugar cane leaves. It’s all the more curious given that I came to Ecuador from what people call an “advanced nation” (the USA) and yet found myself clueless in so many areas that are considered common knowledge by the people of this “developing nation” (Ecuador).
I can tell you this: In a prolonged crisis, rural Ecuadorians will out-live USA city-dwellers by a hundred to one. Many skills that we might consider “advanced preparedness skills” in the USA are everyday knowledge to the Ecuadorians I know. There is much to learn from these knowledgeable people.
Come visit Southern Ecuador some time if you’d like to learn more for yourself. In cooperation with the local tourism bureaus, I plan to cover several tourist events and destinations throughout Ecuador in 2010. Watch for those announcements here on NaturalNews. For starters, the primary cities / towns to visit in Southern Ecuador include Loja, Zamora, Cuenca and Vilcabamba, where I live.
About the author: Mike Adams is a consumer health advocate with a passion for teaching people how to improve their health He has authored and published thousands of articles, interviews, consumers guides, and books on topics like health and the environment, reaching millions of readers with information that is saving lives and improving personal health around the world. Adams is an honest, independent journalist and accepts no money or commissions on the third-party products he writes about or the companies he promotes. In 2007, Adams launched EcoLEDs, a maker of energy efficient LED lights that greatly reduce CO2 emissions. He’s also the CEO of a highly successful email newsletter software company that develops software used to send permission email campaigns to subscribers. Adams volunteers his time to serve as the executive director of the Consumer Wellness Center, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, and regularly pursues cycling, nature photography, Capoeira and Pilates.