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Works and Days

The Fragility of Complex Societies

March 15th, 2011 - 9:15 am

Thoughts on Japan

There is no more ordered, successful and humane urban society than found in Japan. Like most Americans, these last few days I have been moved as never before by the courage and calm of the Japanese people amid such horrific conditions, as one of the most sophisticated and complex urbanized cultures on the planet in a split second is nearly paralyzed. I confess I do not quite fathom the constant American news blitzes about all sorts of China Syndrome scenarios. Radiation pollution is a serious worry, but right now no one has died from exposure and perhaps 10,000 have perished from the tsunami and earthquake. It seems to me the greater worry right now is not yet a meltdown, but the vast dangers resulting from disruptions in food, water, power, and sewage.

Odder still, it was almost crass to watch American TV heads lead in with shrill, hyped-up mini-dramas about possible radiation clouds descending here on the West Coast, even as their backdrop screens showed biblical disasters of earthquake, flood and human wreckage. Whether we are exposed to a chest-X-ray dose of radiation seems insignificant in comparison to the horrific conditions that millions of Japanese are now enduring.

The Efficiency of Complexity Versus the Flexibility of De-centralization

Japan’s high density, central planning, mass transit, demographic uniformity, and a culture of mutual dependence allow millions to live humanely and successfully in quite crowded conditions (in areas of Tokyo at 6,000 persons and more per square kilometer). And compared to other Asian and African cities (Mumbai or Lagos) even Tokyo is relatively not so dense, though far more successful. Yet such urban societies are extremely vulnerable to the effects of earthquakes, tsunamis, “man-caused disasters” and other assorted catastrophes, analogous in nature perhaps to tightly knit bee colonies that have lost their queens.

I don’t know quite why many of our environmentalists and urban planners wish to emulate such patterns of settlement (OK, I do know), since for us in America it would be a matter of choice, rather than, as in a highly congested Japan, one of necessity. Putting us in apartments and high rises, reliant on buses and trains, and dependent on huge centralized power, water, and sewage grids are recipes not for ecological utopia, but for a level of dependence and vulnerability that could only lead to disaster. Again, I understand that in terms of efficiency of resource utilization, such densities make sense and I grant that culture sparks where people are, but in times of calamity these regimens prove enormously fragile and a fool’s bargain.

The Individualist American

I once wrote about the value of decentralization and local autonomy in The Other Greeks, Fields without Dreams, and The Land Was Everything — the shared theme being that the self-employed, the rural living (or even the suburbanite), and those who, in extremis, are able to produce their own food and shelter are far more autonomous, and far better able to react to adversity.

I know that there are two issues here — politically planned centralization and a more natural centralization that arises organically due to demography and a dearth of land. But both phenomena share affinities, and politics often in history simply reflects demographic realities.

Jefferson warned about Americans being piled on top on one another in cities of anonymity; and I am reminded of that difference from occasional trips to Manhattan versus a month each year in Hillsdale, Michigan. (Snow paralyzes New York as the mayor pontificates on transfats and second-hand smoke rather than plowing; snow seems not to bother rural and small-town residents of Michigan.)

History is a guide here. Perhaps a few thousand “Sea Peoples” toppled the highly complex, redistributive Mycenaean citadels, in a way that would have been impossible with the later decentralized and far less hierarchical city-states that grew up after the Dark Ages on very different premises from the pyramidal culture of Mycenaean Greece. The former had a palatial script, Linear B, used by a tiny scribal elite to monitor the redistributive economy; the latter developed a very different, far more flexible Greek alphabet, one that led to widespread literacy and true literature. There is no Mycenaean Antigone.

The hydraulic dynasties of the Near East and the pharaohs’ Egypt, despite their centuries of existence, were likewise vulnerable in a way that both Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt was not. Less than 3,000 hidalgos under Cortés decapitated the Aztec Empire in less than three years. In our time, we have seen, with the implosion of the Soviet system, the wages of central planning and a redistributive economy.

Apartment America?

While a disaster comparable to Tokyo is certainly possible here in California, Americans are by nature less prone to rely on centrally provided resources, and are still uneasy with high urban densities. We forget that the suburbanite — ranch house, three cars in the garage, and distance from the urban center — is not just an energy waster in comparison with his Euro apartment-dwelling, single Smart-car-driving, train-commuting counterpart, but a far more independent-minded, free, and self-reliant citizen as well. Again, I hope our technological future is not in grand mass transit projects thought up and operated by a huge federal government, but in cleaner, more fuel-efficient, private cars; not in massive power plants, but smaller, more dispersed local generators, be they powered by nuclear, solar, wind, or fossil fuels; and not in vast agricultural hydraulic regimes, but in family-operated, more intensively worked farms that are the anchors of rural communities — as idealistic and naive as that may sound.

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