How fragile we are: Why the complexity of modern civilization threatens us all
Wednesday, December 09, 2009 by Mike Adams,
(NaturalNews) The fragility of our modern human civilization did not
become clear to me until I began living full-time in South America. As
a resident of Vilcabamba, Ecuador, I've grown accustomed to the idea of
knowing where the things I consume come from.
I drink, for example, comes from a hole in the ground that taps into a
water table replenished by the clouds hanging over the Podocarpus
National Forest to the East. I can make a logical connection between
the clouds, the rainfall, and the water
in my glass. And if the well pump fails, I know I can always carry a
bucket to the river a few hundred meters away and scoop up virtually
unlimited quantities of water that recently fell out of the sky.
a recent trip to Tucson, however, I found myself hesitating when I
turned on the kitchen faucet. I paused, marveling at the magic of this
water which apparently appears from nowhere. And it's always there,
reliable and uninterrupted. That's when I noticed myself asking the
commonsense question: "Where does the water come from around here?"
I had no idea.
realization astonished me. I lived in Tucson for over five years and
yet the thought suddenly occurred to me that if the water stopped
magically flowing out of these pipes, I had absolutely no idea where to physically find water beyond the bottled water in the grocery stores, and that wouldn't last very long.
Sure, I know where the rivers
are in Tucson, but these desert rivers are bone dry river beds for all
but a few days of the year. And yes, I know how to get water out of
cactus, but it's hard work, and the water isn't pure water. Try to live
off cactus juice for a few days and you'll end up with severe diarrhea
(which is dehydrating).
This thought never hit me when I lived in America, but now it struck me hard: Life in many U.S. cities is extremely fragile.
Much of the abundance and convenience of city life is pure illusion,
conjured up by a system of underground pipes that deliver water to your
home and another set of pipes that magically dispose of your flushed
liquid waste. A set of wires brings electricity that makes your home
livable (at the great expenditure of energy for heat or cooling), and
cheap gasoline makes it possible for fresh produce to magically appear
in the grocery stores that feed us all with food from who-knows-where.
away any one of these -- electricity, water, sewers, fuel, food -- and
virtually every U.S. city becomes an urban death trap for all its
It's not just Tucson, either: The entire American Southwest is extremely fragile
when it comes to supporting life. The same story holds true with
Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego and many other cities and
towns of all sizes. The population currently living in the Southwest
USA is far greater than what those geographic regions could support on
their own: It is the mass-importation of water, electricity, food and
fuel that makes life possible there.
And all those mass imports are extremely fragile.
flipside of this problem exists across Northern USA and Canada, where
extremely cold winters make these regions unlivable without the steady
importation of heating fuel. Most Americans and Canadians would freeze
to death in less than a week if left without some ability to heat their
homes during a severe winter
freeze. Very few people (in the cities especially) still have
free-standing, non-electric wood-burning stoves or effective fireplaces
that can keep them warm and alive during such an outage. Most of the
younger generation has never even chopped wood! (And wouldn't know
where to start if they had to...)
The illusion of progress hides the frailty of complex civilizations
U.S. cities have become increasingly complex and population dense, they
have simultaneously become alarmingly fragile. Just one small break in
the supply lines -- or one severe disruption in a single essential
input -- can ripple through the entire system, causing widespread
I found this difficult to see when living in the USA. Everything seems
fine on the surface. The water always appears when you turn on the
faucet. Electricity seems ever-present. Food is magically replaced on
store shelves each night (apparently by sleepless Elves of some kind)
and no matter how much gasoline you pump out of the gas station, it
always seems to have more!
But what if these essentials stopped?
Could YOU survive for even one weekend without store-bought food, water
pressure in your home, fuel, electricity and internet access?
Increasingly, the honest answer is simply "No".
(This isn't an
article about survival, by the way. But if you're interested in the
concept of "surviving and thriving," then check out the "surthrival"
website of Daniel Vitalis at www.Surthrival.com )
Our modern world lacks redundancy
In the quest for complexity, specialization and profit, our modern civilization has completely forgotten about redundancy. There is almost no slack in
the systems that deliver your food, fuel, electricity, water or
consumer products. That means if something goes wrong, even for a
little while, you'll need to depend on yourself to provide these
things. Yet how many people have the ability to provide all these
essentials for themselves -- disconnected from the grid -- for even as
little as one weekend?
Very few, it turns out. And that leads to one giant, disturbing realization: When the next great disruption occurs, the vast majority of the population will panic.
That's because they're unprepared. They have unknowingly bet their
lives on the reliability of just-in-time delivery systems and complex
infrastructure interdependencies. When the water stops flowing, or the
electricity goes off, or the gasoline runs out, they literally will
have no idea what to do.
The very idea that such a thing could happen will be entirely foreign to them. It's as if they've all been living in The Truman Show
(a Jim Carey film, one of my favorites) then suddenly the veil is
lifted and they're shown the real world. In the real world, water
doesn't just automatically flow through your pipes. Fuel doesn't
materialize into existence out of nowhere. Food isn't mysteriously
teleported to your local store each night while you sleep. In the real
world, food, fuel, energy and water all depend on a long, intricate web
of interdependent processes, and there isn't a person living today who
truly understands the complexity of those dependencies.
In essence, we are all living a civilization experiment.
It's an experiment that asks the question, "What happens if we all
become specialists and give up our redundancies in the pursuit of
higher specialized production?"
The cost of specialization
me rephrase it more simply: A hundred years ago, almost everybody was a
farmer. If your neighbor's garden crop failed, that was no big deal
because you had some extra garden food to share with them. But as
society became more "advanced" and complex, people became specialists:
Forklift operators, grocery store checkout clerks, bank paper pushers, auto alarm installers, and so on.
Importantly, in this process they all lost the knowledge of how to grow their own food,
or fetch their own water, or heat their own homes. Instead, they
pursued their own narrow specialized skills and traded their time (and
money) for bits and pieces of other peoples' special skills, some of
which include delivering the essentials we all need to survive. A
newspaper journalist, for example, doesn't need to grow her own food.
She writes stories that farmers want to read, and in exchange, she eats
some of the food they grow. The medium of exchange for all this is
called "money," of course.
As you can see, however, this specialization results in the mass loss of basic living knowledge
such as how to raise chickens, how to prune fruit trees or how to plant
garden seeds. I'm actually forcing myself to re-learn many of these
basic skills now in Ecuador, and I'm finding myself astonished at how little I really knew about living off the land...
loss of practical knowledge sets up precisely the kind of situation I
hinted at earlier, where a disruption in the complex systems that
deliver our essentials results in the masses panicking because they
have no clue what to do. They've never had to use live-off-the-land
skills, so they don't even know where to begin.
Where can you
find water within walking distance? How to build a water filter out of
a plastic barrel, some sand and some old tree stumps? How do you repair
a flat tire on a bicycle without changing the inner tube? How do you
protect your garden veggies from insects or rodents without using
chemical pesticides? These are the kinds of things that most people just don't know,
and yet in a breakdown emergency, these are precisely the kinds of
skills that are desperately needed. (They're the skills your parents or
grandparents probably knew very well, but have since been largely
The upshot of all this is that it's a good idea to acquire some essential preparedness skills so that you don't find yourself a complete noob when the lights go out. And this isn't about acquiring just stuff (gadgets and the like), it's about developing skills and know-how. Skills beat stuff any day.
example, by working alongside some of the locals I've hired in Ecuador,
I've learned how to cut wire without a wire cutter. I've learned how to
repair irrigation pipes without pipe clamps (just using bailing wire
and a nail). I've learned how to build water troughs out of bamboo and
how to make a decent roof covering out of dried sugar cane leaves. It's
all the more curious given that I came to Ecuador from what people call
an "advanced nation" (the USA) and yet found myself clueless in so many
areas that are considered common knowledge by the people of this
"developing nation" (Ecuador).
I can tell you this: In a
prolonged crisis, rural Ecuadorians will out-live USA city-dwellers by
a hundred to one. Many skills that we might consider "advanced
preparedness skills" in the USA are everyday knowledge to the
Ecuadorians I know. There is much to learn from these knowledgeable
Come visit Southern Ecuador some time if you'd like to
learn more for yourself. In cooperation with the local tourism bureaus,
I plan to cover several tourist events and destinations throughout
Ecuador in 2010. Watch for those announcements here on NaturalNews. For
starters, the primary cities / towns to visit in Southern Ecuador
include Loja, Zamora, Cuenca and Vilcabamba, where I live. http://www.naturalnews.com/027694_complex_societies_civilization.html