17 December 2009

Case Study: Portland, OR Water Contamination

Several weeks ago, here in Portland, the water distribution system was compromised when it was found that the number 3 water reservoir in Washington Park was contaminated with E. Coli bacteria. A large portion of west Portland was affected. Restaurants closed, and residents were instructed to boil all tap water for at least one minute before use, with this restriction remaining in effect until the following day. Within several hours of this announcement all publicly available bottled water had been purchased.

Whether the contamination was accidental or deliberate does not appear to be known, but the duration was mercifully short. Distribution centers would most likely have more goods on hand. Extra effort would allow swift delivery of needed supplies, perhaps at a higher price. But the supply chain can only accelerate so much before output is maximized. Furthermore it takes time to increase the capacity of any system, be it production, shipping, or storage. How long would such an event have to last before demand outstripped supplies?

Our standard of living is based on an intricate dance of static systems (water, power, sewer, tellecommuncations, roads) and dynamic systems (shipping, trucking, trains). Some elements of each system can be replaced by the other. For example bottled water may no longer arrive at the stores (trucking), but as long as our water distribution system is intact the peoples needs will be met (water). But reverse the scenario and we find limitations, which may lead to civil unrest, riots, and eventually death. One need only look to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to know that any major compromise to our infrastructure, even on a local level, will result in tragedy.

16 December 2009

Domino Effect

Some food for thought. For the first time in the history of humanity, we are now in the interesting, and possibly doomed, position of having a global society. No nation stands alone. Events anywhere in the globe can send shockwaves through the worlds economy. Wars on the other side of the planet can change your life in significant ways, even if your own country isn't involved.

Even more interesting is the fact that the world is now extremely interconnected when it comes to natural resources. With current technology we can move an orange grown in Spain to Mozambique in a timespan measured not in days or weeks, but in hours, if we so choose.

In the "civilized" world, most of what we buy and/or consume is not grown or made anywhere near us. Our clothes, our appliances, our cars, our furniture, is shipped from somewhere else, often from outside the country. Even the food we eat isn't typically grown near us. It comes from some other area of the country, or some other country altogether. It arrives by ship, train, or truck.

Lifestyles in the First World have become outsourced. Little of what we possess is actually FROM our own country. Our existence depends on a chain of supply that spans the globe. If a single link in that chain fails, what happens next?

15 December 2009

Nuclear Winter

It's a term most people have heard at least once, although they may not know the actual definition. It has nothing to do with radiation from nuclear blasts. The world has already experienced a similar phenomenon once in recent history, when Mt. Tambora erupted on April 5th, 1815, causing what is known as a volcanic winter.

The basic premise states that in the event of a nuclear war the resulting fires would eject enough soot and smoke into the stratosphere to significantly reduce the amount of sunlight which reaches the Earths surface. The reduction in sunlight would lead to lower temperatures and shorter growing seasons, resulting in famine. The eruption in 1815 led to what is often called "the year without a summer," and included widespread famine and significantly colder temperatures. New York recorded frosts in mid-summer, and New England, New Foundland, and Labrador had snowfall in June of 1816.

While mankind has done much to reduce nuclear armaments, there are new contenders in the atomic arena who seem eager to utilize the power of the atom for their own gain. The US and the USSR muddled through the Cold War without anihilating each other, but we now face the possibility of a new arms race amongst the Asian and Middle Eastern nations. Nuclear Winter remains a distinct possiblity, a brutal consequence to add to the list of the results of nuclear war. Another volcanic eruption of massive proportions may trigger a volcanic winter as well, although perhaps with modern monitoring equipment we will have enough advance warning to prepare for such a disaster.

Fragility of Civilization

Our civilization has lasted quite a while, at least from our perspective. We've come a long way from living beneath whatever overhang we could find, and killing other animals with a pointed stick. Make no mistake, we ARE animals. We're smarter (perhaps), we have opposable thumbs (not quite a unique trait), and we can make complex sounds with our vocal apparatus (an advantage that some biological anthropologists claim is responsible for our rise to greatness).

For all that, civilization is fragile. A combination of factors, or even a SINGLE factor, can undo everything.

The Straw That Broke The Camels Back

An appropriate metaphor for the current state of the world.