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Surviving The Ruptures

Will you be left behind?

The LA Times describes the spread of a stem rust which, if unchecked, could potentially wipe out 80% of the world's wheat crop.

The spores arrived from Kenya on dried, infected leaves ensconced in layers of envelopes. Working inside a bio-secure greenhouse outfitted with motion detectors and surveillance cameras, government scientists at the Cereal Disease Laboratory in St. Paul, Minn., suspended the fungal spores in a light mineral oil and sprayed them onto thousands of healthy wheat plants. After two weeks, the stalks were covered with deadly reddish blisters characteristic of the scourge known as Ug99. ...

Crop scientists fear the Ug99 fungus could wipe out more than 80% of worldwide wheat crops as it spreads from eastern Africa. It has already jumped the Red Sea and traveled as far as Iran. Experts say it is poised to enter the breadbasket of northern India and Pakistan, and the wind will inevitably carry it to Russia, China and even North America -- if it doesn't hitch a ride with people first.

"It's a time bomb," said Jim Peterson, a professor of wheat breeding and genetics at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "It moves in the air, it can move in clothing on an airplane. We know it's going to be here. It's a matter of how long it's going to take."

Richard Posner in his book Catastrophe: Risk and Response has argued that societies chronically underprepare for rare catastrophic events. Part of the problem, as Didier Sornette argues, is that the probability of a high impact, low probability event is hard to estimate and even familiar, but complex systems occasionally give rise to emergent events which are difficult to anticipate. Things can be tooling along in apparent normalcy when a sudden transition or discontinuity occurs which Sornette calls a "rupture".

So why don't we prepare for them? A reviewer of Posner's book put the problem succinctly. Human beings don't prepare for what they can't clearly anticipate.

The core problem in dealing with these extinction threats is the need to incur large present costs for only speculative future benefits, where the beneficiaries of today's investments will be unknown to anyone living today. Democracies, run by politicians who get voted into office promising benefits to the current voters, can't make such farsighted investments for the benefit of people not yet living (or more precisely, not yet voting).

Another way to model the problem is in terms of savings and consumption. Societies tend to consume intellectual and material resources immediately. There is a disincentive to devoting resources to ends whose uses are not apparent. But when they become apparent, it may be too late. A society which a large fund of knowledge can answer unanticipated questions. But in a resource-constrained or consumption-oriented situation that knowledge may be regarded as idle. But as a general rule a society which lacks the reserve of knowledge to deal with non-routine situations will lack the ability to meet the Rupture.

In the last hundred or so years, Western societies have tended to think of social survival as a guaranteed commodity. But over a time span in which Ruptures can occur, survival is far from certain. In the long view, amid cosmic forces, humanity will always teeter on the knife's edge. Consider your nearest emergency hospital room. We tend to think of it as being always ready to accommodate us in time of need. But the staffing levels in many emergency rooms are probably adequate only for the average traffic for a given night. If a mass casualty attack occurred across a wide enough area there would be immediate shortages of trained personnel. And if a virulent disease struck the problem would be compounded by the fact that the medical staff themselves would be the hardest hit and their numbers rapidly attrited.

When the danger posed by a rare but catastrophic event is factored into the picture, the simplistic vision of an over-capitalized, excessively-scientific and inhuman West is replaced by an appreciation of what it is in times of crisis: the stored fat of a world which will face the occasional existential crisis. We have only what we need, and perhaps not enough of what we will one day need. The LA Times describes what will be necessary to meet the stem rust threat.

Now the pressure is on to develop new wheat varieties that are impervious to Ug99. Hundreds of varieties will need to be upgraded in the U.S. alone.

"You can't just breed it into one or two major varieties and expect to solve the problem," Peterson said. "You have to reinvent this wheel at almost a local level."

The first step is to identify Ug99 resistance genes by finding wheat plants that can withstand the deadly fungus.

Roughly 16,000 wheat varieties and other plants have been tested in the cereal disease lab over the last four years. The tests were conducted between Dec. 1 and the end of February, when the Minnesota weather is so frigid that escaping spores would quickly perish, Carson said.

These and similar efforts at a research station in Kenya have turned up only a handful of promising resistance genes, which crop breeders such as Brett Carver at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater are trying to import into vulnerable strains of wheat.

Each year, Carver crosses hundreds of plants in a greenhouse to produce as many as 50,000 candidate strains. Over the next four years, those are winnowed down, and the most promising 2,000 are planted in the field.

This is orders of magnitude beyond the capacity of village systems. And one day a Rupture may come which will require a response an order of magnitude beyond what we have.


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