Complexity and Vulnerability

10 thoughts on “Complexity and Vulnerability”

  1. Johnny, sounds like you’ve been reading Nassim Taleb. Check Marohn is a fan of his. So am I. I think corporate capitalism (though not all free market situations) has a serious bias toward fragility; they call it “efficiency.”

    1. Howard – I gravitate toward a happy medium. If each household / neighborhood / town had a sufficient reserve of essentials like water, food, and fuel to fall back on it would allow temporary disruptions to play out without catastrophic consequences. Trade between regions that specialize in things they have a natural comparative advantage is wonderful and should be encouraged.

      Unfortunately, what we have now is a vulnerable just-in-time 12,000 mile supply chain for critical items that require complex systems in order to function – with no Plan B.

  2. It’s nice to see you writing about these topics of late, but your last paragraph is just false:

    > As a society we have no interest in thinking about these things. Nor are we even remotely prepared to adjust to what is probably inevitable.

    As a society, ‘we’ have lots of interest in thinking about these things. The subset of people in our society that spend lots of time thinking about these things in particular are known as economists and I’ve read lots of their writing based on thinking about exactly these things.

    You’re right that (relative) complexity – or more specifically, specialization – is (relatively) more vulnerable to disruption. But, like almost everything, it’s a tradeoff! Less complexity or less specialization (e.g. more ‘generalization’, more independence) have costs too and there’s no obvious optimal level of complexity or specialization.

    But the most significant way in which you’re wrong is expressed by the last sentence of your last paragraph:

    > Nor are we even remotely prepared to adjust to what is probably inevitable.

    It’s frustrating that you don’t recognize that “price hikes” are an amazing *system* by which ‘we’ adjust to the “inevitable”. The price system is an amazing, evolved system by which everyone everywhere constantly negotiates access to and usage of scarce resources. Changes in prices are signals by which everyone involved can alter their behavior.

    And it’s particularly frustrating that a lot of tragic outcomes – like water shortages pretty much everywhere – would be *far* more easily avoided were we to actually avail ourselves directly of a price system, instead of suppressing them as we so commonly do.

  3. And yet,…

    I enjoyed your post on complexity, esp. how you generalized beyond energy to various forms of “value add” that may not always add value. It seems that hippies have long had radar for this sort of thing, moving out of cities to undervalued Edens and munching on unprocessed foods, etc.

    Yet, I ask you to consider some things: Dubai and Hong Kong have been booming. For awhile now. Why? The Great Lakes cities, including Chicago (excluding the Toronto area), have been moribund at best in the last decades. Some appear to be in worsening health even. Yet, they are located on the world’s biggest fresh water resource that in it’s sum is so wonderfully more than the sum of its gallons. The Great Lakes is the USA ‘s most underutilized resource, why?

    I have long been interested in the lake Champlain coastal real estate, if it wasn’t located in NYS it would be easy to turn into a vibrant, prosperous locale, largely free of the social ills of the Great Lakes, and generally more topographic ally beautiful.

    But these resources continue to,lie largely fallow. Why?

    Well, I always try to explain to folks on the Left that there generally is rarely ever such thing as a “water shortage” when it comes to residential life but rather an energy of a money shortage. My fairly prosperous grandparents were relatively early settlers in the Carlsbad, California area and I recall them being very conservative with their (hard, yucky!” water back in the 1970s. I grew up in eastern upstate NY in an area that had abundant pure lakes, ground water and natural springs that one could bring milk jugs to and access for free. I lived in the finger lakes on Cayuga’s waters for four years — yet, both areas are as moribund to abandoned as much of the upper Midwest. My home city of Troy, NY (you would love its downtown if you have never seen it) only managed to hang on because of large long established non-profit institutions, in spite of being at the highest navigable point of the Hudson.

    Obviously, there is much more at play in site selection.

    I do not know about Dubai per se in this matter, but I do know that at least Saudi and likely other gulf states came to the realization at least a decade ago that they were being VERY wasteful when it came to energy, for instance flaring off enough natural gas waste to likely be able to power the entire count roll of Israel and every BBQ grill in Texas. The problem was heretofore seen as getting the gas to the end-user. Somebody finally realized that both additional wealth and jobs could be created by locating the end-users close to the oil production. Energy intensive industries like Al smelting could have free energy, even fresh vegetables could be produced by turning methane into clean water and climate control. Heck, let’s build a university here, while we are at it.

    We have a well compensated in friend in these parts who is a turbine engineer. He has always gotten to go to exotic locales to work, and favors most tidal jobs. His company has always begged him to move to the gulf states and has kept upping the incentives (though, in this new period of energy glut, I am not sure this is still going on) but his quality of life here in central Virginia is too high for the lure of merely more money to dissuade him.

    Anyhow, this is not looking like a coherent essay, but my two points are: 1.possibly to “complexity=fragility” you point to is more a function of the city being both more fragile as well as being a value-add to many people. 2. There appears, give the ACTUAL historical failure of cities in my home area of the USA’s Northern tier (Rochester seems to be the newest casualty, yet in spite of no shortatage of water from the falls of the lovely Genesee River, or vast Lake Ontario, people have taken to calling it Rottenchester in recent decades) there are fault lines of fragility FAR more powerful than “water scarcity”. Look at Israel, it has multiple fragilities. Yet…

    1. Short version:

      Upstate New York (and the Great Lakes area in general) is gorgeous and has all the ingredients for future prosperity. It has been temporarily eclipsed by the the South and Southwest due to all manner of other factors that are likely to reverse sooner or later. Vegas, Phoenix, et al will hang on for a while longer, but long term Troy and Rochester are the far better bet.

      1. Climate; sunshine a resource. Though I suppose gloom is if you are Howard Kunstler. Much of the South has minimal to no lack of water.

        I hate Vegas, and it is true, Pheonix hasn’t any oil, only sunshine, which is common in much of the USA, outside the north-east.

        I would submit to you that the overrated Massachusetts Bay Area is the “temporary” region, as the land has always been overrated (many of the original settlers left for Virginia after a few winters and crop seasons) and only thriv d due to transportable cultural advantages.

  4. The current water crisis in California is showing that society can respond reasonably well to such situations if they have the luxury of time, but what about when the crisis occurs too quickly?

    For some of us from the East coast it seems incomprehensible that people would chose to live in places such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, Dubai, which are depending upon unsustainable systems. Scary…

  5. I lived in L.A. for years, lived in Vegas now. Every drop of indoor water including toilet water is cleaned up then pumped into Lake Mead to be used again. Southern Nevada is apportioned a mere 1.8% of Colorado River water. The constant recycling is how it lives. In 2015 it only used 1.2% and sold the excess to Socal.

    Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson, and yes, Los Angeles use less water now overall than they did twenty years ago. Not per capita. Total usage. With much larger populations.

    It can be done.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.