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Belmont Club

The Design Margin

October 29th, 2012 - 7:59 pm

When storms disrupt utilities as they have done in New York City it is always good to have a few things in stock. Some canned goods in the cupboard. Maybe the hated Spam and baked beans. A stock of ordinary candles and matches are in order as are 25 gallons or so of drinking water. A full bathtub of water for flushing the toilet in case the water pressure fails would be good. And one or more flashlights, preferably with some spare batteries.

There are a few tips and tricks in their use that may prove useful. One, never use your flashlight for extended illumination. The candles serve that purpose. To keep from burning your house down ground the candles in the bottom of shallow glasses (don’t use plastic) so that you can carry them around without drippings falling on your hand.

Stay put and learn to sleep. Rediscover why our ancestors basically shut down with the dark. You can’t do much until the sun rises again.

If you have to venture out into the flooded streets remember that it is better to get partially wet than to try to stay completely dry. One technique is to wear shorts and hiking sandals or tennis shoes and simply wade in the water. The shoes are there to keep your feet from injury. As long as your upper body is dry and warm you can go long distances — in the dark if need be with your trusty flashlight. Remember that umbrellas are completely useless in high winds.

Plastic bags are your friend because they keep cell phones and and your wallet dry. Put your electronics in the bags whenever you venture out.  Avoid walking abroad if you can until the natural calamity blows over.

But even with the best reasonable preparation, how long can you survive?

Storms are a good time to remember how slender is the margin on which civilization is built. Today’s miraculous cities are a going concern. Once they stop working they die.  Millions of people are literally totally dependent on the grid and can survive outside it only for brief periods. Most households could not subsist for more than a month without steady deliveries of food, the refrigeration to preserve it and the continuous supply of potable water.

Modern urban civilization is in many respects like a ship of artificial order floating in an ocean of natural entropy. That order is enforced by the availability of energy. Once the energy that keeps entropy from entering its hull fails then disorder begins to flood like water through its arteries and channels like an inrushing flood.  The virtual construct that is the 21st century mega-city begins to sink; not just gradually but quickly, terribly and catastrophically.

But unlike the ocean, which constantly reminds seafarers of its omnipresent menace, entropy does not manifest itself so clearly.  It is scarcely visible when things ‘work’. We only notice it when things stop working. Therefore modern civilized man often forgets the surrounding entropy exists.

He also forgets what keeps it at bay.

Energy, not only of the electrical kind, but of the sort that motivates human society, keeps things going. Energy is constantly pumping chaos out of the hull of civilization. Once it is exhausted then the ship goes dark and begins to settle into the deeps.  In recent years it has become fashionable to accuse the West of having an excessive design margin.

A number of pundits have written that we have storms because we have offended the climate gods. In our search for energy we have have incurred the wrath of Climate Change and its co-deity Global Warming. But suppose that in reality humanity has always been dependent on the vagaries of nature. Suppose that in the past asteroids have fallen from the skies, volcanoes have erupted which very nearly wiped all life on earth; that storms have been part of the story of mankind from time immemorial. If so then the pundits have it backwards. Nature is not something to be appeased, but to be mastered to some degree. Therefore energy has not brought down the wrath of the gods.  Rather energy has allowed us to get this far.

And the question is: do we want to keep civilization? Because don’t have to. We can try to find our way back, perhaps to the 19th century; or the 12th, the 8th or perhaps before history itself? Let us find out how far back we have to go before we appease nature perhaps only to rediscover what our ancestors learned: that no number of virgins cast into a volcano’s glowing pit will keep it from erupting.

The reason Third World societies can do with less was because they were simpler. But they are simpler no longer.  Today the organization, logistics and order required to keep New York, Tokyo, Shanghai or Hong Kong in existence is is mind-boggling. Because modern urban society is so dependent “just enough” is never enough.” ‘Just enough’ is simply a catastrophe waiting to happen.


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