This web page and its companion web page provide a context for our postcollapse.org efforts. This page considers factors that are likely to trigger, intensify or hasten an infrastructure collapse. A companion page future history considers the likely sequence of conditions and events in the time period surrounding an infrastructure collapse.
Our infrastructure is highly complex and dependent on a number of related element. This complexity and interdependencies between these elements make it likely that a problem with one part of the infrastructure or one of its supporting elements is likely to significantly effect other parts of it. The complexity of our infrastructure and lack of good models for even major parts of it make impossible to do a realistic estimates on the probability of major failures or their effects.
This web page considers the infrastructure and its related elements from the point of view of what problems could result in significant damage or contribute to a total or near total collapse. Links are provided where we have found more detailed information on the web.
A good analysis and review of why some societies collapse and others not is found in the book "Collapse" by Jarod Diamond. The book provides interesting insights into the major factors contributing collapses. This is a recommended read that can be found in most public libraries.
A simplistic definition of the infrastructure is everything needed to move things from where they originate to where they are used.
To function properly our physical infrastructure needs a number supporting elements to work well. These include:
The physical elements of the infrastructure,
Materials and equipment needed to support, maintain, repair and modify it,
Energy Sources (electricity, gasoline, diesel oil, gas, coal),
Skilled human support (technicians, equipment operators, maintenance and repair people),
The information infrastructure (data, communications and software systems),
Economy & economic infrastructure,
A stable social structures.
All of these are interdependent and all are being stressed. The economic, information and physical infrastructures are all increasing in complexity. The information infrastructure is growing and changing at an extremely rapid rate as is the dependence of the economic systems and the physical infrastructure on it. All this is happening with little thought given to the sensitivity of these systems to potential stresses, failures and damage.
Note that parts the infrastructure are dependent on other parts of it working properly. Consequently, cascading failures are not only quite possible but probable. All parts of the infrastructure are also dependent on economic resources as well as energy and other natural resources.
Examples of interdependence: People without potable water are likely to leave the area or be to sick too maintain the electrical grid. Without diesel oil the trucks will not be able to deliver food or the repair parts to fix the water system. Electricity is used to pump gasoline, run water system components, and run: traffic controls, telephone systems and most factories. Fossil fuels are used to generate much of our electricity. Gasoline and diesel oil are used to run emergency electrical generators as well as farm equipment and the trucks that deliver food to grocery stores.
Note: An interesting view of complexity is found in a paper by Joseph A Tanner titled Complexity Problem Solving and Sustainable Societies. The paper considers complexity in a related but different way than the term is used here.
Our Infrastructure is very energy dependent. Most of our infrastructure consumes considerable energy resources, and the parts that don't, like roads and power lines, require energy to build and maintain them.
Most cities would run out of food in a few days without gasoline and diesel oil to fuel delivery trucks. Electric power is needed to run our refrigerators, the pumps in our water systems, the pumps at gas stations, all the computers that control things as well as lights and appliances. Most backup systems for generating electrical power, where they exist, use gasoline or diesel fuel.
Essential parts of our infrastructure and the farm equipment to produce our food are both extremely dependent on petrochemical fuels. Consequently, having alternatives that can be implemented quickly is essential survival insurance. Several of our project areas deal with producing alternative fuels for internal combination engines and or modifying engines to use alternative fuels. Alternate sources for heating and high temperature processes, such as kilns, forges and foundries are also considered.
A review of problems in the energy sector with an emphasis on oil can be found in www.dieoff.com . That site also has a large number of interesting links to supporting and related material with an emphasis on how a predictable lack of oil energy is likely to trigger significant social changes.
Functioning skilled people are needed to control and maintain our infrastructure. Without the operators in the power station electrical grids will fail quickly. Railroads and trucks do not operate without people. Without maintenance people much of the infrastructure will fall into disrepair, some of it quite quickly. A number of things could cause people to not do their jobs.
In a pandemic the seriously sick and dead do not go to work nor do those fleeing infection or those hiding in their houses to avoid contact. As population densities grow and the movement of people increases, the probability of a pandemic increases. See the World Health Organization web site who.org for more information on potential pandemics and current worries about bird flu. The growing populations of poor without health care collecting in larger numbers around many cities are an ideal breeding ground for a pandemic. Biological warfare agents could also create a pandemic.
Civil unrest, such as wars, riots, revolutions, and terrorist activities, economic problems and transportation problems could also keep people from getting to their jobs as could a variety of other disasters. A lot of people won't go to work without being paid in useful currency, so an economic collapse erodes human support.
In our society where many people live at a considerable distance from their work location lack of transportation could also prevent them from getting to their job. according to census bureau data, the average US commute time is approximately 25 minutes each way. People are highly dependent on the transportation infrastructure to get to work. Telecommuters as well as many others are dependent on the information infrastructure to do their jobs.
A Natural disaster such as a super volcano eruption, a major tsunami or comet impact would clearly change the environment and have a major impact on the infrastructure. Good tools for predicting of such events are not yet available.
Obtaining, moving and processing the resources to support this society results in environmental damage in almost all parts of the world. This damage is continuing and is often cumulative. Using these resources also impacts both our local environment and the global environment. Depletion of the ozone layer and global warming are obvious examples. In many cases man made changes in the environment also make the infrastructure more sensitive to natural and other disasters. For example removing trees makes the terrain more sensitive to heavy rain.
Many of our modifications to control the environment are not truly stable systems. Levies and dams are probably the best examples of this. Bee diseases being spread by moving bee colonies around to pollinate crops is another example. Having decimated many insect populations, how many crops would fail from a honeybee pandemic?
We are introducing new chemicals into the environment at a high rate, some in large quantities. Many of these will cause environmental changes. Some will cause significant changes. We just don't know! How long did it take to discover the effects of DDT on mammals and birds?
We are also introducing genetically modified plants that could cause environmental changes. Will insect killing plants also kill those essential to the environment. We just don't know!
The response of the environment to changes is quite complex, non-linear and poorly understood. Small change in one aspect of the environment can result in drastic changes in other aspects of the environment. We are just beginning to understand ecosystem dynamics and are discovering significant non-linear relationships. Some apparently unimportant change may in reality be catastrophic. We just don't know!
We do know that environmental damage has been the leading cause in the fall of a number of civilizations. It is one of the major causes identified in the book Jarod Diamond book "Collapse".
The economy and the infrastructure are interdependent. For the economy to work it requires the infrastructure to support it. To support the infrastructure the economy must work. The economy is also a very complex system and becoming more complex as it becomes more international. It is also poorly understood. Today the economic system has become quite dependent on the support of the information infrastructure and its underlying hardware and software. There are models of the economy but none have been good at predicting responses to changes or problems. Furthermore, current US government fiscal patterns are similar to those that have led to a currency collapse in other countries. One only needs to compare Argentina's fiscal history with what we are doing now to become alarmed. See US economic Collapse and fiscal policies as examples of these concerns.
For insights into the results of Argentina's fiscal collapse see the original internet postings by "Ferfal". They don't seem be still available on frugalsquirl.com, but can be found on a survivalmonkey.com blog. (see ferfal ). Although the Argentine fiscal collapse was only local, some of the lessons offered here might be useful in the turbulent period following any collapse.
Current business practices are increasingly focused on short term gains and efficiency at the expense of robustness and long term stability. Furthermore, both government and business decisions are increasingly based on complex software using information from multiple internal and external sources. People using this software are becoming dependent on it and as this happens the human skills to run the things without it erode. As this software becomes more complex and dependent on information from more sources, the likelihood of it failing increases.
Supporting our level of consumption also leads, directly or indirectly, to social disruption in much of the world. Social disruptions and changes can lead to wars (military and economic), revolutions, terrorist activities and other problems. These, in turn, can inflict significant infrastructure damage. As the completion for dwindling natural resources increases so will the resulting disruptions.
Our system remains quite vulnerable to terrorist attacks. See 9/11 Commission Report . Our policies continue to create both motivated enemies and a system with more serious vulnerabilities.
Consider how well Iraq's infrastructure is working even with massive outside help. Note that their infrastructure is much smaller, simpler and easier to repair than ours.
Our information infrastructure includes all communications (telephone, telegraph, the Internet, television, radio communication, satellite links, microwave links, etc.), computers and software as well the many people and things supporting these things.
Most of our information infrastructure is relatively new, extremely complex, rapidly growing and rapidly changing. The strong government, military and business dependence on it is also relatively new and growing rapidly. These processes have not been in place long enough to pass the test of time, nor to identify the implications and results of even relatively likely failures, errors and problems, let alone obscure ones. Our growing dependence on this part of the infrastructure is probably the least studied and least understood of major changes in our society in terms of global implication.
The information infrastructure deals with data. It collects data, moves data, manipulates data, present data to people who make decisions and makes many decisions without consulting people. Data can be collected by sensors or entered by people. Data is moved in hardware supported channels mostly controlled by software. The data is processed by software, people and combinations of both. Data collection can be automatic (like periodic temperature readings at a weather station, or at a pipe in a refinery ), software controlled (when a software program decided to read a sensor) or human controlled (like a lab technician taking a measurement or someone scanning in a picture). In many cases data collection is remotely controlled through a communication link. In all cases both the data sensing and the control of the sensor are subject to errors and failures.
Data communications today is often a quite complex process. It usually includes processing like modulation/demodulation, coding/decoding and encryption/decryption. The routing of the data through the physical hardware is likely to be variable and software controlled. Just the data routing procedures in many networks are so complex that they require extensive software support to function.
Data is seldom used in the form it was collected, but combined with other data and processed by humans or software to make decisions or control other processes. This processing, both human and software, is based on assumptions and models which may not always be valid. There may also be errors (human errors and software bugs) in converting the models to procedures and processes. These processes are done by physical systems that can also fail completely or subtly in ways that are hard to detect. See for example "Stuck Bit".
If one reads the technical magazines for people working in information technology, one finds that a large portion of the articles are concerned with security issues. This is true of both the magazines concerned with the economic portions of businesses and those concerned with controlling manufacturing processes such as running chemical plants. It seems that a large portions of our information infrastructure remains quite vulnerable to attack. Consider the disruptions caused by computer viruses, Trojan horses, etc. Most of these disruptions have been done by a few individual amateurs. What might be done by a well planed, coordinated, professional attack?
Note: The next sun spot cycle peak (in 2011 - 2012) is predicted to be one of the worst in recent history (sunspots). This could have significant impact on most communications systems. Infrastructure sensitivity to communications problems could well be tested.
We would appreciate pointers to relevant information or links to overview studies of our information infrastructure. There are many articles and books on information infrastructure sub topics, much of it myopic, but we have discovered very little “big view” information in this area.
Most of today's products incorporate parts with materials from many remote locations. These basic materials usually pass through multiple processing stages at a variety of locations before they are finally used. A problem at any source or intermediate locations could prevent making the product.
For example, consider a simple plastic gear that is used in making a number of products like an automobile speedometer or kitchen appliance. Such a gear is likely to be produced from chemicals originating from several different sources. The process of making it requires several more chemicals [mold releases, lubricants, cleaning agents, etc.]. Without almost all of these chemicals the gear would not be suitable for its purpose. Most of the chemicals needed are produced at remote locations from other chemicals coming from still more locations. Complex machinery and the power to run it are needed to make the plastic gears in addition to chemicals components. Any of a large number of things going wrong could prevent making these gears and the products incorporating them. Many products use hundreds of such parts, each with its own complex source tree.
If anyone knows of a study tracing back a full supply train tree to original raw materials for a product like an automobile or TV set we would like to know about it. How many physical moves of material or parts were needed? An example of one path in an automobile tree could be: tin mine [ore] -> refinery [tin] -> rolling mill [foil] -> capacitor manufacturer [capacitor] -> assembly maker [windshield wiper controller] -> automobile factory [car] -> sales location(dealer). We have simplified this by omitting all moves inside facilities and leaving out storage facilities. I would not be surprised of the parts tree for an modern automobile had over a million steps in its paths.
Increasing profits by improving efficiency is a major effort in many companies today. “Just in time” manufacturing methods are an easy to understand example of this. Just in time manufacturing coordinates suppliers and transportation so that parts arrive at the factory just before they are needed. This does increase efficiency, however it also increase the sensitivity to supply, transportation and communications problems. Not maintaining an inventory reduces inventory costs but then a single component not arriving on time can halt a production facility. Just in time manufacturing methods are a good example of sacrificing robustness for increased efficiency.
A lot of other popular efforts to increased efficiency are also implemented at the cost of reduced robustness. Another currently popular example is cutting down the number of suppliers in order to reduce the administrative costs of dealing with suppliers. This also tends to eliminate small suppliers. Fewer suppliers also means fewer alternatives if things go wrong.
Our water, gas, oil and gasoline pipelines are all susceptible to attack. They would be extremely difficult and costly to defend. The same is true of our electrical power lines, roads and railroads.
The physical infrastructure is also susceptible to natural disasters. The hurricane Katrina recently gave us some examples of physical infrastructure weakness and failures.
We are increasingly dependent on a very complex infrastructure. As this infrastructure becomes more complex and interdependent the probability increases of some failure, or combination of failures, having wide ranging effects on significant portions of the infrastructure and the economy. In addition to this there is an increasing probability of significant problems in the supporting economy, ecology and social systems. Each of these contributes to an increasing likelihood of catastrophic failures that could destroy much of the infrastructure's functionality and the fabric of this society.
In the years ahead our dependence on limited natural resources, most obviously oil, will add considerable stress to our very complex and little understood infrastructure..
1. Failure analysis (analysis of possible failures and their results) for even moderately complex systems with well understood parts and relationships is extremely difficult, expensive and usually incomplete. See the failure analysis example. Many parts of our infrastructure are considerably more complex than any system that has been analyzed. Furthermore, there are no adequate models of the infrastructure, its interdependent economic structure, supporting ecology or the stability of social systems. Even if these models were available, a good relatively complete failure analysis is probably beyond current capabilities. Consequently, good predictions of the probability, timing or severity of infrastructure failures are not possible. It is however clear that the likelihood is increasing.
2. There are a number of prophecies predicting some sort of catastrophic event destroying much of society. Notes on and links to relevant material are found at prophecies. The native American prophecies are probably the most interesting since they have been accurate in foreseeing other unpredictable events.
3. Additions to and better presentations of the material here are solicited. I'm sure much of the material here has been better written somewhere else. Can you help improve these limited notes with better material or references to produce more clearly presented and better supported material.
Book: "Collapse" by Jarod Diamond .
We would appreciate good references to add in here. Please send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
The web site www.dieoff.com posts a large number of good papers on this and related subject as well as some interesting links. Complexity Problem Solving and Sustainable Societies is an unusually interesting paper posted on their site.- - - Updated: 7 Aug 08