It All Falls Down (Warning: arcane philosophical musings ahead)
If one studies history at any length, one eventually discovers that for most people in most times, nothing happened. Most people tend to view history as this great collection of epic events, but for the most part people are born, live their lives, and die…without being more than peripherally effected by the waves of history sloshing too and fro. Now of course locally there are exceptions, and somewhere at this very moment cities and nations are suffering from the unpleasant vagaries of history…war or natural disaster or whatever. However, most cities and nations go decades or centuries between large scale catastrophes.
This is a good thing. Otherwise nothing would ever get done, life would be just one long Road Warrior outtake. However, sometimes things happen. Disasters, human caused or natural. And of course humans can be quite talented at augmenting a natural disaster (cough Katrina cough) too, but that’s not what I want to discuss today. Today I’m thinking disasters that are more or less the result of a bunch of factors reaching a critical point and over whelming a system. I’m thinking disasters that are loosely based on the lily pond analogy.
What’s the lily pond analogy? (If the esteemed reader already knows, they can skip this paragraph.) Very simply put, say on day one there is a pond with one lily pad. The lily pads are multiplying so that every day there are twice as many lily pads as the day before. On day thirty the pond’s surface is entirely covered with lily pads. On what day is the lily pond half covered with lily pads? The correct answer is day 29. The lesson here is that situations can exist where one can have an accelerating rate of use being applied to a fixed commodity, and superficially things may look like they can go on forever…until the very last moment.
The more extended point I am trying to make here is that things like the lily pad analogy are going on around us all the time. Oil consumption vs the supply of oil would be one. Debt vs the supply of capital. Food consumption vs the food in the fridge. Any number of examples can be easily thought of if one tries. The rate consumption can vary and the size of the resource being used can change, a person can obviously refill their fridge for example. Or if we want to mess with the basic analogy, the size of the lily pond could be increased.
In any event, civilization consists of a vast number of processes going on simultaneously, too many to enumerate here. “Peak oil” is probably the most obvious, the idea that our constantly increasing use of oil measured against a finite supply of oil is eventually going to lead to a catastrophic and sudden shortage. They may have a point, but peak oil is only a part of the problem. And that’s what I am getting at. Sometimes when enough of these key processes fill the lily pond at once, bad things can cascade through a civilization.
World War One, the Great Depression, and World War Two would be examples of such cascade failures. They all directly affected hundreds of millions of people. Though here in America all of these events were somewhat muted. The American Civil War was the last great calamity to overtake the USA as a whole, even then only the south suffered large scale infrastructure and economic damage in addition to the great loss of life (one American in fifty was killed in our civil war, many more had life changing injuries.) It was decades before the south achieved pre-war levels of production in some sectors of its economy.
The point to which I have been sauntering toward is this, I’m a little worried that we are in a situation where globally there are some dangerously full lily ponds. I often wonder if catastrophe is on the wind, in my youth people worried about nuclear war. There were some close calls in the early sixties. People have been predicting economic and social meltdown since, from economic collapse to Y2K to “Europe is going to be overrun by Muslims” people fear the worst. Most of the time I’m not too worried, as I stated in my premise, even now the odds are good that I will live out my life with nothing more globally catastrophic than Britney Spears or Paris Hilton afflicting America. The falling American stock market makes me a little concerned though…and then I dwell on these things.
It doesn’t help that the comptroller general of the United Sates warns that there are alarming parallels between the current USA government/society…and Rome before the fall. The stock markets falling, the mortgage meltdown, spreading violence, global warming is real (whether caused by humans or not,) peak oil is always a concern, and there are other alarming trends like crashing global fish catches and severe weather events. Is the end of the world upon us? I sure hope not, but I’m tired of bad news.
In an interesting coincidence in the news, archaeologists have just discovered that Angkor Wat, Cambodia, was the largest pre-industrial metropolis known, its total size about 3000 sq km (1160 sq mi.) That’s about the same size the modern metropolitan areas of Paris, Washington, or Lima. For six centuries this civilization flourished in what is now modern Cambodia, then mysteriously fell apart and was abandoned to the jungle. What precipitated its final collapse is still not known, but it certainly now appears as if their infrastructure was overloaded as the local ecosystems were modified and damaged by human activity. Civil strife and a loss of faith in their government may have also played a role. A lot of things apparently went wrong at once.
And of course I wonder, did any of these medieval Cambodians see the end of their great city and way of life coming? How much warning did they have after six centuries of peace and prosperity? I’m not heading for the hills yet, but I think there’s certainly food for thought here.
(The above closed image of ruins in Angkor Wat is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit, is a small part of a larger image, is central to illustrating the post, and is properly attributed. Credit: Copyright © Jessica Salsbury)