Have we become too fragile to survive?

A fallen tree blocks my road
A fallen tree blocks my road. © Sue Nethercott

It’s a bit breezy today

As I begin to write this, Eunice, a particularly strong storm, is howling through the trees around my house. A large oak just fell down, marooning me, and landing on the car of some people who were just getting out of it. Of particular concern to me is the nearby ash dying of ash dieback, a disease which we imported to this country, as we did Dutch Elm disease and others. My house was built before the increase in strength and frequency of storms due to global warming became apparent, but new houses are still being built in flood plains and in areas much more prone to wildfires or drought than in the past.

It may cost more to build for a changing climate, but insurers will tell you that it will cost a lot more to fail to do so.

Much existing infrastructure, both private and corporate, is not designed to function in today’s world. For example, during the recent Texas freeze, the electricity infrastructure stopped working and people died.

My internet has been down a lot during the storm and still keeps going down. I work from home over the Internet, so if it stays down, I won’t be able to work today. I still have a land line, but before long that will be discontinued and phone service will be through the Internet (I wrote about that here). Those who do not already have one will need to get a mobile phone for backup in emergencies.

Fortunately my power is still up, albeit reduced. Most of my neighbours have lost theirs. If it was not, not only would I have no electricity for light and computer and cooker and electric heaters, but my gas heating and hot water would not work because they are controlled by electronics. Not a pleasant prospect in winter. In fact, at the moment I have so little power only the lights and the computer work and the kettle takes many minutes to heat up.

Just in time to fail

All of us have felt the myriad shortages due to the pandemic and to the increase in demand as restrictions were eased. Some of us remember the fuel shortages and empty shelves of the 1967 Oil Embargo. And many areas have experienced shortages of building materials and other things after major floods, fires or other disasters, which are becoming more frequent. Our civilization is but a thin veneer. You may have noticed this when walking into a shop which has just been stripped down to bare essentials ready to receive a new glossy look.

Much of Europe is currently worried about the implications of a possible war over Ukraine on gas supply and prices.

A lot of this is due to two factors, which are interrelated — a tendency to put all our eggs in one basket and the rise of just-in-time manufacturing.

Just-in-time, also known as lean manufacturing, helps the manufacturers’ profits by saving them the cost of owning and warehousing large inventories of raw materials and components, but leaves them very vulnerable to breaks in the supply chain, whether due to a pandemic, a ship stuck in the Suez canal or a natural disaster.

Seeking to increase profits, many manufacturers have moved their factories to countries where labour costs are lower and regulations to protect workers or the environment are fewer. This tends to lead to long supply chains and concentration in a few countries (though which countries may change over time). This in turn also leads to vulnerability to pandemics and natural disasters.

Some concentration cannot be helped, of course. Natural resources such as fossil fuels or rare earths are not evenly distributed. Pipeline routes and shipping routes are very vulnerable to acts of terrorism or war, so it costs us a lot to maintain a military to protect them, and the availability of large militaries make large wars more likely. It behooves us to maximise alternative, renewable sources of energy as soon as possible, and not all concentrated in large wind or solar farms or dams, but distributed more locally. We need to encourage our scientists and technologists to design products which use less-rare materials wherever possible, even if they are not the cheapest.

In this modern era with so much controlled over the internet, we are not only vulnerable to military action. We are also vulnerable to cyber warfare which can cripple our infrastructure and also many modern appliances in the home and our transport. In fact, even if Russia stays its hand, some other actor could initiate a major cyber attack in Ukraine and precipitate an escalation.

Growing at least some of our own food would leave us less vulnerable to food shortages and price fluctuations, yet there are still housing associations which prohibit turning lawns into vegetable plots. While in the past a lawn meant you were rich enough to not need to grow your own vegetables, now it means that you don’t care about the environment in an age when more and more people do. Buying food grown by local farmers would also help both us and the local economy. Currently large profits go to owners of farms in places like Kenya, from where out of season foods are flown to the UK and elsewhere, which is environmentally unsound.

If we spend less money on food and unnecessarily complicated and expensive items, we can either spend more money on pleasure or higher quality items, or feel we don’t need to earn so much so we can take a job with lower pay but greater job satisfaction or shorter hours and commuting, for example.

Built in obsolescence.

Many things we buy are cheap and not built to last long, and having to replace them frequently not only fills landfill tips, but can also end up more expensive than buying one item that lasts a lot longer. But those items can seem very expensive compared to the cheap, and you have to trust that they will last long enough to be worthwhile buying. Such trust is in short supply these days.

Vehicles and modern appliances are not designed to be repairable by the public or local repair men and women, either. This can lead to more expense and waste, from having to throw something away because it would cost more to repair than replace, or extra cost, for example replacing a whole car headlamp unit instead of a simple bulb. And the manufacturers keep coming up with more and more bells and whistles to attract and addict us to their toys. Fortunately, there are some people keeping old skills alive. For example, there are groups on Facebook dedicated to the restoration and use of vintage sewing machines, many of which are still going strong after more than a century once they’ve had the necessary TLC. It won’t be easy to come up with an economic model that makes it profitable for companies to make long-lasting goods, but it must be done. One possibility is for them to rent out machines, and have to replace them themselves.

We need to do better

Countries cannot not be fortresses. Few, if any, are self-sufficient in everything they need and some could not grow a healthy range of food all year round, even with maximising storage. But neither should they be totally open to the world, as proponents of global free trade want. Rather, they should be like the cells of a body, surrounded by a membrane that lets some things in and out, and reject others. Different cells have different resources and are therefore able to perform different functions for the body (human society, if not Gaia) as a whole. In the body, all cells have some of the same basic elements, then specialist elements that enable them to perform functions that help the body as a whole. So, each country should be able to protect its core supply of resources (including labour) while continuing to trade for what it cannot produce itself. All should try to be as self-sufficient in food and essentials as possible, whilst not risking harm to neighbours, e.g. pollution from fossil fuel plants or radiation from nuclear accidents. Individual cells (people) and organs (families, social groups, countries) should protect their core yet cooperate with the rest and do no harm. No country should be allowed to grow and grow and grow like a cancer. They are harmful to the whole.

We live our lives with little thought for the future. For example eating poorly (not that everyone has a choice) and exercising little even though that can lead to considerable health problems and possibly expense (particularly in America) down the line.

Centralization of power, profits and manufacturing benefits only a very few, and leaves the rest of us very vulnerable to a collapse in our standard of living and even our way of life and the survival of whole societies. Centralization of power and wealth leads to great inequality which is not only unfair but does great harm to society (see the Equality Trust’s work). It is time that we reoriented society to focus on what we need to do to survive with a reasonable standard of living, focusing on low-tech, local solutions wherever possible. This will mean big changes to our economic system and government policies, and also to our buying habits and daily lives. But we are intelligent. We can work out how to live comfortable lives that are far more sustainable than now. We need to fund scientists to research better ways of doing everyday things. We need to value what works or has worked in simpler societies, and build on that, rather than continuing our ever-more-stressful lifestyle with more and more equipment we do not really understand and that we have to work ever harder to afford.

When you think how nature recycles and makes efficient use of everything, our efforts seem very poor for a supposedly intelligent species. If society is to survive, we need to put our intelligence to much better use.

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Sue Nethercott

Sue Nethercott

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Open University BA, UMIST MSc, OU BSc Environmental Studies. Interests: environment, COVID19. Double #ostomate. Thom Hartmann’s newsletter editor. Views my own.