We are increasingly dependent on fragile systems

Thousands of years ago, people could lose everything they had and most would still be able to survive. Today not anymore.

We have been becoming increasingly dependent on the systems we have built and we became spoilt. Our ancestors could drink water straight from a river, but we would end up with severe diarrhea and lose more liquids than we gained. Our ancestors had the knowledge and skills to find food out in the wild, be we don’t – most of us are likely to starve to death if we get lost in a large forest. Our ancestors could bear harsh climate, walk barefoot on snow and sleep in cold caves, but we are likely to get sick, likely even catch pneumonia and die. With the exception of some primitive tribes and specially trained soldiers, we have lost our ability to survive in nature.

We take food, water and warmth for granted so we don’t even think the supply can get interrupted. We have built very sophisticated systems to deliver these basic needs. Food from a garden got replaced by food that is grown and transported from hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometers away. Water from a local well got replaced by water that comes from a central large-scale treatment facility. Gas that comes in pipelines from underground fields thousands kilometers away largely replaced wood in the stove. Credit cards started to replace money that replaced physical goods long time ago. Computers replaced hoes and bows as are working tools. Information gets moved from written form via digital form stored locally to the cloud. All these sophisticated systems add efficiency and convenience when they work, but did you think what happens if they cease to work?

Imagine a scenario where electricity supply gets interrupted for a longer time. All of us know the first few minutes of a blackout – it is barely an annoyance. Many people experienced blackout for several days for example after hurricanes. People are stuck in high floors of the buildings without elevators. Food in the fridge and freezer starts to spoil. Cases of plundering and violent fights for supplies in supermarkets intensify. The affected region virtually stops any productive activity and relies on support of basic supplies from stock and unaffected regions.

But what if this happens on a global scale affecting whole countries, continents or the whole planet? There are many possible reasons this might happen – bad natural disaster, strong electromagnetic pulse caused by solar activity, war, terrorist attack at power plants, hacker attack at the grid. What if short-circuits melt the core of transformers which will take several months to replace? Fresh water won’t flow when you open the tap because it is cleaned and pumped using electricity. Stores will be empty. You will run out of cash and ATMs won’t work. In fact not even telephones or TV so you won’t know what is really happening. In a few weeks, people will run out of supplies and violent fights for resources will be escalating. In short time you have a full-fledged civil war where majority of population starves to death.

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