Rethinking Modern Infrastructure: The Vulnerability of Complex Systems

The COVID-19 pandemic is not so much about the characteristics of a virus as it is about the organization of modern societies. The modern infrastructure of hyper-mobility allowed the virus to move rapidly all over the world. Without that infrastructure, the pandemic could not have happened. The Black Plague in the Middle Ages, when mobility was mostly local and slow, was geographically constrained by limited human mobility.

The widespread destruction of Hurricane Ida is less about extreme weather alone than about the vulnerability of modern infrastructure to the risks of exposure to extreme climate chaos. The electric power, water, food, and fuel distribution systems of New Orleans, like those of most other cities, are so centralized that the destructive winds and storm surge destroyed their ability to function at all.

Neither the extreme wildfires in the West nor the unprecedented heat dome over the Pacific Northwest are about Mother Nature gone wild. They are about modern industrial-consumer infrastructure both causing and suffering from the destabilization of the Earth System. Our linear culture is unable to respond correctly to the non-linear complexities and boundaries of our own habitat, Gaia, the Earth System itself, which is a complex adaptive system.

The Vulnerabilities of Complex Adaptive Systems

The more complex a system the more vulnerable it is to threats of destabilization when something disrupts one or more of its internal subsystems. Although both modern societies and the Earth System itself are complex adaptive systems, our economic culture does not recognize that reality. It remains caught in its false assumptions of a predatory mentality, blind to the complexities of its environment and itself.

Each system has many self-regulating subsystems that barring direct interventions or major changes in their environments are generally self-sustaining. The stability of the human subsystem, like any subsystem, depends on the stability of the larger system—in this case the Earth System itself. Modern industrial societies have lately failed miserably by disrupting their relations with Mother Earth.

So, it should be no surprise that so many complex systems are going off the rails these days. The self-dealing juggernaut of the global system of extraction, production, consumption, and waste has already pushed many planetary sub-systems over the edge to instability and potential collapse. The global corporate-industrial system is hierarchic, which makes its infrastructure vulnerable to environmental threats, most of which it has created as unintended consequences of its predatory practices.

Sources of Systemic Risk

Comparing patterns of loss in diverse systems can yield reliable principles for reducing risk of catastrophe and even system collapse. For example, the more hierarchic a system the more vulnerable it is to catastrophic disruption. Most power systems are part of the national grid—which by its size and complexity is itself vulnerable to threats—with major power plants supplying electricity to large areas. Regional systems fail if major connections go down, making grid connection useless. If the system goes down as it did in New Orleans, everyone loses power.

However, if multiple power sources (wind and solar with storage) were distributed within the area, then the power source in a neighborhood less hard hit could continue operating while backup another that lost power, especially if it had adequate storage. If all parts of a large system depend on the same source of energy, failure will be widespread instead of localized. Similar configurations could make water, food, and even sewage systems more resilient. New York’s aging infrastructure cannot handle the heavy flooding from the depleted Hurricane Ida.

Our culture has a bias: Big is Better, and the more complex a big system, the more we feel that we have achieved “progress.” We assume that not only is big better, but complex is better than simple. However, the satisfaction-life of that giant SUV is short, unlike the experience of the destination to which it takes you. Our trips to national parks and wilderness areas, as well as other searches for more meaningful and simple experiences of life, contradict that consumer bias for big and gadget-filled products.

Transforming Infrastructure

We face a deep predicament in all this. Many of our infrastructure systems are not only old and deteriorating, but our ancestors designed them with the linear, hierarchical bias of “Man against Nature.” That bias continues to dominate our industrial-consumer culture. I fear that current plans for infrastructure restoration will fail to take the leap to transform it to harmonize with the ecosystems upon which we depend. At this stage, we can only afford clean technology, which means transforming our infrastructure. We need to revise our designs to meet our current knowledge of complex systems and how they can be designed to minimize risks of damage due to threats of whatever origin—storms, floods, drought, terrorist attack, etc.

Financial and political interests in continuing our present trajectory of endless economic growth have so far limited our ability to respond to the “new normal” of increasingly chaotic environmental conditions. Unless and until we collectively recognize the nature of the threats to ourselves and to the planet we have destabilized, we will not be able to take the unprecedented steps to survive the changes we have begun to experience in the early stages of the Anthropocene.

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