Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fragile Systems

Systems seem to fall into two categories, robust systems capable of functioning in all manner of conditions and performing adequately even when many of the components are disabled or destroyed, and fragile systems which break down when conditions change or components are compromised. Robust systems tend to be filled with redundancies, multiple components that fill the same function in the system. This is what makes them capable of maintaining function in changing conditions or when components fail. Fragile systems tend to have few or no redundancies. In optimal conditions a fragile system will operate with more efficiency than a redundancy laden robust system.

When we look at the life support systems for our civilization - food production, water, energy, we find exceptionally streamlined systems. Systems that use very few producers of a limited number of products, processed by a small number of processors, and shipped all over the world. Some of these systems are completely dependent on the other systems to function. Food production for example is a very fragile system that is entirely dependent on products from the fossil fuel system (another very fragile system) to function. A breakdown in the energy system would cripple the food production system and quickly result in total system failure.

Our food system is fragile for other reasons beyond its total dependence on fossil fuels. As it has moved toward a more efficient, global system redundancies have been stripped away. Now most of our food is produced and processed by a very few companies, using a surprisingly small number of products. The volume of the production system makes it susceptible to contamination from microbial or chemical sources that enter the production chain undetected and are rapidly disseminated around the globe. The poisoning of the soil used for growing our food by the over use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides creates vast pools of microbes that have developed resistance to traditional controls and which have no natural counter. Add to this the use of just-in-time stocking in regional warehouses and local grocery stores which results in most places in the US having less than a 72 hour food supply, and you have an immensely fragile system.

The fossil fuel system, which provides most of our energy as well as most of the fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides used in food production, is similarly fragile. It also produces waste products which are contributing to the warming of the global climate. The increase in carbon and other emissions from the use of fossil fuels is making global weather more chaotic, more prone to vast fluctuations in temperature and precipitation, and shifting temperature zones around the globe. These things put huge, unpredictable strain on the energy distribution system and on the food production system, contributing to the likelihood of collapse.

Water is not systematized like food and energy. It suffers from neglect. There is only a limited supply of fresh water on the planet. Much of it is being wasted or polluted with out thought. The natural conservation and filtration systems, forests, lakes, streams, wetlands, etc are being destroyed at an alarming rate.

All of the systems we as a civilization depend on are in a similar state. Highly efficient, fragile systems completely interdependent on each other, and offering the only way to meet basic needs for most of the human population on the planet.

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