Volcanic ash and the collapse of civilization

A volcano erupts in Iceland, and the skies above Western Europe fall silent.

The birds must be wondering what’s going on with all the peace and quiet, but on the ground sirens start to wail as people are marooned and their travel plans ripped into shreds; florists are bereft of their Kenyan flowers and supermarkets their Thai sweetcorn; international mail piles up; aircraft are trapped far from where they’re supposed to be. If sirens aren’t actually wailing, perhaps they should be, because the disruption caused from a few days of grounded airplanes is a powerful reminder of just how tightly interconnected we live, and of how shocks ripple far into the distance from the epicentre of the event.

By coincidence, I’m just finishing Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Upside of Down, which is a punchy and historically rich tour through the coming challenges (and crises) that human civilization faces. His main argument is not just to highlight particular challenges, but to show their interrelationships, how they accumulate stresses that build up beneath the surface –  and how tipping points to systemic overload creep up on us without us realizing it. The connectivity and speed of our world transform by orders of magnitude the impacts of specific events and phenomena.

He’s well worth quoting at length:

“As societies modernize and become richer, their networks become more complex, interconnected and faster: they add more nodes, they increase the number of links among the nodes, and they boost the speed at which stuff moves from node to node along the links…Together, connectivity and speed often make economies more resilient to shock because they can respond faster and draw from their larger networks a wider range of skills, resources, capital and goods and services.

“But that’s not the end of the story…the first cost of greater connectivity is that a damage or shock in one part of the system – the failure of a machine, the release of a computer virus, or a local financial crisis – can cascade farther and faster to other parts of the system. This is especially true when the nodes in the network, or the elements in the system, are packed so closely together that the links among them are very short – that is, when they’re tightly coupled. Then problems with one node or element can ramify outward before anyone can intervene.

“As we create more links among the nodes of our technological and social networks, these networks sometimes develop unexpected patterns of connection that make breakdown more likely. They can, for instance, develop harmful feedback loops – what people commonly call vicious circles – that reinforce stabilities and even lead to collapse.

“Also, the new links we create can connect previously separate system or system components, so failure or accidents that would before have been isolated from each other now combine in unexpected and harmful ways.

“In a world of ever-increasing connectivity and speed, unanticipated interactions among previously separate systems happen more often, as do unanticipated combinations of failures within systems. And the likelihood rises that some of these combinations will cause catastrophe.” (113-115)

As the ash dissipates, life returns to ‘normal’. We’re not at that point of disintegration or collapse. We’re able to cope with this particular stress on the system in an relatively unburdensome way. But not unlike the financial crisis and economic recession, is returning to ‘normal’ and regular, settled patterns of behaviour just storing up trouble for the future?

None of this is deliberately apocalyptic (my title notwithstanding). Nor is my point one of anti-globalization, or anti-connectivity and anti-speed. But it is frightening, and it is a warning that just because the world isn’t aflame, all is hunky-dory.  As the Guardian’s Dan Roberts puts it, writing of food: “Our desire for all-year-round oral gratification has left us perilously dependent on just-in-time supply chains in the stratosphere.” What’s been stripped out, hollowed out – is the resilience, the layers that provide buffers against such shocks, especially repeated ones (and don’t rule out more volcanic eruptions in the coming decades) that weaken, and eventually batter down the door. Just how many days away from the edge are we living?

And so, a volcanic eruption offers us a particularly apt metaphor for contemplating the stresses that society places on the world (and are conveniently not too different from earthquakes, which is the title of the Homer-Dixon chapter that I’ve drawn from) – climate change, economic inequality, water shortages and so on. Pressure builds up silently, out of sight. We dismiss the rumbles. The longer it builds up, the more dramatic the eruption. The more dramatic the eruption, the more powerful the shocks that reverberate across society. So that’s one volcano. And then in another part of the world, another eruption happens. And another. Suddenly, despite the multitude of warnings and litany of telltale signs, the world is aflame.

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One thought on “Volcanic ash and the collapse of civilization

  1. Nishma says:

    Do we always notice these eruptions, or do things happen, times change and what comes out of it is yet another transition? Sometimes I wonder if we are even aware of what changes to our lifestyles a recession has brought, considering how we live in hyperreality and cannot see the ground we walk upon.

    And is there an edge? How much of what occurs a figment of our imagination, a rationalisation of our minds to construct some meaning in what passes rather than accepting the chaos that exists in the world?

    Maybe our lives are a lot less significant than we think they are…

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