Private Frazer’s catchphrase came to mind while reading a couple of articles on the fragility of civilisation in last week’s New Scientist.
In the first, Debora MacKenzie considers the possibility of a pandemic bringing down civilisation, in the second she considers that the very complexity of civilisation makes collapse inevitable. These are not possibilities to be dismissed out of hand, history suggests that all cultures collapse eventually and in many historical collapses, disease has played a major role.
The 1918 flu pandemic may have infected as many as one billion people (half the population at that time) and modern estimates are that some fifty million died. A similarly infectious and lethal pandemic today would kill 150 million worldwide and about 1.5 million in the UK. It is certainly possible that the situation could be made worse by transport workers staying away from work and thus food would fail to reach the urban population.
MacKenzie makes reference to plague that struck the Roman Empire in 170 AD and killing about a third of the population which, according to her, resulted in “the empire [tipping] into a downward spiral towards collapse”, implying that a modern pandemic would have a similar effect. I am not convinced by the analogy for two reasons:-
Firstly, we know far more about preventative medicine than previous civilisations and no pandemic in modern times has been anything like as lethal. Food could be delivered by the military as well as civilian workers. All involved in this work could be issued with NBC protective suits which would help prevent infection until vaccines and drug treatments could be developed. I confess that I would have found this scenario more believable in the days when socialism and social democracy were respected political philosophies, rather than the every-man-for-himself individualism which is the norm today which discourages putting yourself at risk for the public good.
Secondly, the Roman Empire was – as MacKenzie notes, a complex society. She suggests therefore, that removing key people would have a disproportionate effect. This may be true (of which more anon) but I am not convinced that the 170 AD epidemic led to the fall of the Roman Empire – the last Western Emperor was deposed in 476, three hundred years later.
One of the Empire’s major problems was economics – economic growth in the modern sense did not happen, the imperial economy grew when the Empire expanded its territories. When it stopped growing, the demands on it for defence and infrastructure maintenance did not, meaning the tax burden on its citizenry grew. This burden fell disproportionately on the productive classes as the ruling Senatorial class voted to exempt themselves from taxation. There is a modern analogy for this – many of the very rich park their money in tax havens and pay no taxes in the counties in which they live so those of us in waged/salaried employment have to make up the shortfall in revenues. Somebody tell Gordon Brown that if he starts taxing the super-rich he will help stave of the fall of civilisation.
The argument about the complexity of a civilisation exacerbating problems leads to the second article which argues that the very complexity of modern civilisation makes its collapse inevitable. If you have a subscription you can read it here.
She argues that our modern civilisation is highly net-worked and thus the removal of key individuals will result in collapse as such a society is less resiliant than a hierarchical culture. I find this argument rather unconvincing. Apart from the fact that our society is still hierarchical – when was the last time you convinced your boss s/he was wrong? - I would have thought that networking would increase resiliance because you can work around gaps easily. That is the basis of the internet, after all.
This “inevitable collapse due to complexity” argument started to sound very familiar – the Italian writer Roberto Vacca used it in his 1971 book (translated 1973) “The Coming Dark Age”. Vacca argued that all our major systems are overloaded and would collapse – between 1985 and 1995…
Obviously the collapse did not happen but there was nothing wrong with Vacca’s analysis of the complexity and potential fragility of our infrastructure. One reason it has not collapsed is computerisation and since the processing power of computers is still increasing exponentially, we don’t need to worry about this sort of collapse just yet.
That is not to say that Debora MacKenzie is competely wrong. Unprepared-for disasters could indeed have a devastating effect. New diseases are emerging all the time (as AIDS, Ebola, SARS and bird flu show). War has major effects on the societies in which they are fought (just ask the Iraqis) and the West has been at war with Islam since 11 September 2001. If we prepare for disasters such as those she highlights, we can deal with them. I only hope people in the Government have read her articles.