Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Century of Disasters

Via Slate:

And yet in the coming century, these or other black swans will seem to occur with surprising frequency. There are several reasons for this. We have chosen to engineer the planet. We have built vast networks of technology. We have created systems that, in general, work very well, but are still vulnerable to catastrophic failures. It is harder and harder for any one person, institution, or agency to perceive all the interconnected elements of the technological society. Failures can cascade. There are unseen weak points in the network. Small failures can have broad consequences.

Most importantly: We have more people, and more stuff, standing in the way of calamity. We're not suddenly having more earthquakes, but there are now 7 billion of us, a majority living in cities. In 1800, only Beijing could count a million inhabitants, but at last count there were 381 cities with at least 1 million people. Many are "megacities" in seismically hazardous places—Mexico City, Caracas, Tehran, and Kathmandu being among those with a lethal combination of weak infrastructure (unreinforced masonry buildings) and a shaky foundation.

Natural disasters will increasingly be accompanied by technological crises—and the other way around. In March, the Japan earthquake triggered the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown. Last year, a technological failure on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico led to the environmental crisis of the oil spill.

Slate: The Century of Disasters/

What this says is that overpopulation is a driver of disasters, since it forces people to live in areas that are more prone to disasters. Not only does it force people to live there, but in greater numbers, causing the magnitude of such disasters to appear greater. It also forces us to be dependent on more disaster-prone areas for fuel, food, and water to supply the ever-growing population. For example, marginal land in dangerous areas must be brought under cultivation to feed a growing population, oil rigs must be drilled in hurricane-prone areas to get at what few reserves are remaining, and nuclear plants must be built in tsunami-vulnerable areas, because there is nowhere else to go. Finally, the sheer complexity of society makes it ever more likely for things to go wrong, just like it is more likely for a car with 3,000 distinct parts powered by gasoline to have a breakdown than a Radio Flyer pull-wagon.

Ipso facto, if we lived in a simpler society with fewer people, there would be less disasters. There would be fewer of us more spread out, making us less vulnerable to catastrophe, and we would not to rely on marginal and dangerous areas of the globe for food, materials and fuel.

These disasters are a choice. If you want less of them, the drivers must be dealt with - overpopulation and overcomplexity

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