Monday, March 15, 2010

Hope is a Virus

The April 5th edition of NewScientist included a piece by Debora Mackenzie entitled The End of Civilization.  Mackenzie suggests that the increasing complexity of our global civilization makes it increasingly vulnerable, and that a temporary work-force reduction similar to that caused by the flu pandemic of 1918 could terminally derail the system.  The problem, she says, is one of interdependency and a complete lack of redundancy.  Specialization is important for our global network to function efficiently.  But a high degree of specialization leaves the entire network at the mercy of its weakest nodes. 

The tone of the article is one of ominous warning.  We need to build redundancy into the system to avoid catastrophic failure.  And, of course, the driving assumption is that we should work to preserve civilization at all cost.  Interestingly, the article ends by pointing out that subsistence farmers would be least affected by civilization’s collapse; and the author couldn’t resist throwing a disparaging barb their direction, saying that “Perhaps the meek really will inherit the Earth.”  Subsistence farmers meek?  Comments like that cut right to the heart of Western arrogance.  I know, let’s have a reality survivor show where a subsistence farmer and a Wall Street banker spend a year on an island.  Smart money is on the farmer.  The truth is the meek have already inherited the Earth, and it’s time we reclaim our birthright from these meek quasi-humans.

Back on point: two things about this article are relevant for the current discussion.  First, the machine of civilization is becoming increasingly fragile, which should give some hope to those of us searching for ways to pull it apart.  Second, because interdependency and specialization are the very things that give the global machine its power, by heeding Mackenzie’s warning, increasing redundancy and decreasing specialization, we will be essentially starving the beast—and doing so in a way that eases us into a post-civilization lifestyle.    A post civilization futureif there is to be one for us—will include an extremely high degree of redundancy from one local community to another, a bare minimum of interdependency, and specialization limited to local expertise. 

Unfortunately, I can’t see any of the global corporate monsters acquiescing to policies aimed either at increasing redundancy or reducing specialization. 

So I guess we tend our gardens and wait for the next pandemic.

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