Keywords: Thomas Homer-Dixon; climate change; peak oil; systems;electric power failure; scale-free network; hub; node; terrorist; redundancy; re-localization
Thomas Homer-Dixon’s new book, The Upside of Down, is superb. I’ve only read one-third of it and I’m overcome with admiration — and fear. Despite its title, it offers a gloomy prognosis. Maybe he will come up with some basis for optimism by the end, but not yet.
Still, the facts are not surprising. I’ve been reading a lot about climate change and energy depletion lately, and everybody is telling the same story: if the end of cheap oil doesn’t do us in, climate change will. Plus all the other catastrophes to the environment. But Tad Homer-Dixon tells the most integrated story of all, showing the inter-connections between all these problems, and indeed singling out inter-connection as a problem in its own right. That’s the angle that impresses me most.
He wrote about this in the Globe and Mail three years ago — I think after the massive power outage that stopped the northeast urban corridors of the US and Canada in its tracks. I was impressed with his novel argument at the time — at least it seemed novel to me at the time, and I think it still is. I haven’t heard anyone else including it in the big story. He writes, on page 10:
“When the power went off in August 2003, all air conditioners, elevators, subways, and traffic signals failed — but that wasn’t surprising. What did surprise many people, though, was the simultaneous failure of portable phones, automatic tellers, debit card machines, electronic hotel-room doors, electric garage doors, and almost all clocks. Most disconcerting of all was the loss of the constant flow of information that’ become a drug in our lives, as people were cut off from television, e-mail, and — worst of all - the Web. No one could tell what was going on. It was as if darkness had fallen in mid-afternoon.”
We need to reflect on this general insight, as Homer-Dixon does in a later chapter. The extraordinary connectivity among all parts of the world mean that we are all susceptible to influences from every direction, and that the dependence of our complex systems on each other multiply our vulnerability to breakdowns of all sorts. Computer viruses can sweet around the world in a day. The network of airlines can spread epidemics of disease around the planet. A widespread failure in the transporting of food or fuel or electricity could imperil us all. We can no longer count on our own resourcefulness in a crisis. I am no longer even able to walk home from downtown if the subway should fail, though most other Torontonians probably could do so. A failure in one system — say power — can cascade into failures in other systems, such as transportation, health, and food.
To overcome these vulnerabilities, we need to understand the properties of systems – which are not all alike. Thus Tad explains the great power outage of 2003:
“...the deregulation of the North American power grid in the 1990s caused long-distance electricity sales to skyrocket, which stimulated a surge in connectivity between regional electricity production and distribution systems that had previously been isolated from each other.“
What we need is a system of networks like those linking all the towns to each other by highway. Most nodes have only a moderate number of links to other nodes. Only few nodes have either very few or very many links. In contrast, as Homer-Dixon points out, there are “scale-free networks,” (like our airline connections today) in which a very few cities (called "hubs") have a huge number of links to other nodes. He notes,
“ If a scale-free network loses a hub, it can be disastrous, because many other nodes depend on that hub. An ecosystem, for example, will have a certain number of ‘keystone species’ — species that provide vital services, like pollination, to a wide range of other species — and these keystone species are essentially hubs in the ecosystem’s larger network of species. If enough of these hubs are lost the ecosystem can collapse.”
Terrorists, if they are smart, will target key hubs in our scale-free systems. How can these insights help us prepare? They definitely constitute warnings against becoming too dependent on scale-free networks. Any corrections to this problem requires us to build quite a lot of redundancy into our big systems.
Moreover, we need to take account of the psychological multiplication in anxiety that occurs when one of our important hubs is attacked. Homer-Dixon points out that the damage to the global economy resulting from the attack on the World Trade Center mostly resulted from the emotional shock spread through our networks of information. “The total cost of lost economic growth and decreased equity value around the world,” he writes, “ultimately exceeded $1 trillion — and that total doesn’t even include the increased spending on security measures and the later Afghanistan and Iraq wars.”
Homer-Dixon’s analysis of our predicament reminds me of another, related analysis by various people who focus on the looming problems of peak oil. According to this model, if petroleum fuels become too expensive, ordinary city-dwellers will be unable to afford food imported from any distance away. We will have to eat food grown close enough to our dwellings to enable us to bring it home easily — possibly even by bike trips. Yes, we’ll need to exchange services with each other, but these will have to be local exchanges, not requiring expensive transportation. The term that peak oil believers have coined for these new arrangements is “re-localization.” We will have to settle in communities where many of our basic needs can be met by the local community. Large urban aggregations will be impossible.
I had understood this portrait of the near future “re-localization” to be imposed by the excessive costs of transportation fuel. However, I can now see a different argument for this kind of re-localization. It will sever much of the connectivity among nodes. A person living in a village, growing her own potatoes and joining other women in their communal quilting bee, will be less likely to catch bird flu, for example, when arrives from Hong Kong in a Boeing 747. If her house is powered by an independent windmill or solar panels, she will not be devastated by the power outages that sweep her country, nor by pile-ups on interstate highways, nor by terrorists’ bombings of trains.
Still, this re-localization will not be possible for everyone. I, for one, will stay here in my high-rise apartment, despite everything. So will most of my friends, including the younger ones who are still adaptable enough to endure the return to a more primitive lifestyle. Yet I’ll pay attention to Homer-Dixon’s useful warnings and, insofar as I can, will encourage the creation of less vulnerable networks. Thanks, Tad.