« Death Of A Thousand "Buts" | Main | Three Cheers For Beefy Boy »

Efficiency versus Survivability

Human society is a complex system composed of subsidiary complex systems.

Let us take a modern city as an example.

The physical infrastructure consists of the following complex systems:

Electrical Power Generation and Distribution (dependent on transportation of fuel)
Potable Water collection, treatment, and distribution
Sewage collection and treatment
Business and Home Environmental Controls

Roads (dependent on fuel supplies and subject to degradation on loss of Electrical Power)
Rail Roads (dependent on fuel supplies and Electrical Power for control and switching)
Air Transport (dependent on fuel supplies and Electrical Power)

Fuel Supplies
POL (dependent upon supply of Crude Oil, Transportation, and Electrical Power)
Gasoline (requires electrical power to distill from Crude Oil)
Jet Fuel (requires electrical power to distill from Crude Oil)
Diesel Fuel (requires electrical power to distill from Crude Oil)
Natural Gas (dependent on Electrical Power for control of delivery)
From these obvious relationships we can easily discern that disruption of one or more subsystem will have cascading effects on the rest of the systems.

Efficiency in the use of resources drives centralization.  One large power plant is more efficient than multiple smaller power plants.  However, should that one power plant be disrupted, a cascade of effects will be felt on other critical infrastructure across a larger swath of population.

Survivability drives design towards smaller less efficient nodes which offer each other mutual support but which can sustain the temporary (or not so temporary) loss of one or more nodes.

When a whole state (we're talking about you, California), region (hello, Northeast), or Country suffers a cascading failure (or rolling blackouts) it's a clear indication that "efficiency" was optimized at the expense of survivability.

Earthquakes, Tsunami, and other natural disasters are facts of life here on planet Earth.  Failing to design our infrastructure to survive such disasters through redundancy (smaller nodes) and geographical separation is a choice not to survive as a society.

Mega cities with efficient centralized infrastructure are societal suicide pacts.

Hat Tip to VDH for the inspiration.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Comments (15)

So... what's the alternativ... (Below threshold)

So... what's the alternative? Don't you think we should take our chances with our interdependent nodes of infrastructure?

I think he's trying to say ... (Below threshold)

I think he's trying to say you should stay North of the border and think small, both of which you already do.

hyperbolist,I thin... (Below threshold)
Rodney Graves:


I think we need to start taking advantage of modern telecommunication and networking and spread out into more, smaller, cities and towns. The large metropolitan areas are just too vulnerable to both natural disaster and hostile action, and really aren't necessary for modern industry and commerce.

Just in time delivery will ... (Below threshold)

Just in time delivery will cause major population centers to turn into a free for all jungle if there is ever a major catastrophic event that paralyzes the country.

It's just another way to po... (Below threshold)
jim m:

It's just another way to point out the fact that the left lives in a fantasy world.

They carry on about "sustainability" and "buying local", yet they decry suburbia and rural life. The large cities that the left believes everyone should live in are the definition of unsustainable. By their very nature they cannot be supplied with local goods because they would deplete the local region.

The left wants their big cities with instant accessibility to everything without having to pay for it. They want electric cars without the power plants to create the electricity. They want organic foods without the huge expansion of cultivated land that would be required to grow them. They want government to provide everything but even though they support increased taxes with their mouths, when given the chance to give the government more money they refuse. They want democracy as long as they win the elections. They want freedom of speech as long as they only hear things they agree with.

I don't know if it's hypocrisy as much as it is simply delusional.

I don't know if it's hyp... (Below threshold)
Evil Otto:

I don't know if it's hypocrisy as much as it is simply delusional.

It's both, Jim.

On the other hand, hunter-g... (Below threshold)

On the other hand, hunter-gatherer societies with no infrastructure didn't work too well, either.

GMAC,Most metropol... (Below threshold)
Rodney Graves:


Most metropolitan areas have 3 days of food on hand, largely thanks to "Just in Time" stocking. Economic "efficiency" comes at the expense of survivability.


There is a very large gap between what I have suggested (more smaller cities and towns, fewer mega cities and super dense urban areas) and a hunter-gatherer society. But feel free to knock that strawman of your own construction shrewdly on the head...

.... Hat Tip to VDH for the... (Below threshold)

.... Hat Tip to VDH for the inspiration ....

Isn't he, though!

But you done Good, too.

Five Stars.

This is good post. I think ... (Below threshold)

This is good post. I think we really need state's rights, local economies, and a diverse infrastructure.

People in rural areas learn to depend on themselves, to take precautions, to get to know their neighbors, because that may be all they have in an emergency. In the cities you tend to rely on the government and grow complacent about taking responsibility for yourself. We saw this during hurricane katrina, people waited for government buses to evacuate them, waited for government to provide them shelter, waited for days to be rescued. It's healthier for survival if you don't trust a centralized entity to take care of you because there's simply no one more qualified to look out for you than yourself. I'm afraid the real lessons of that disaster haven't been learned at all.

Excellent topic and great p... (Below threshold)

Excellent topic and great points, chico excepted.

Lived in an urban setting when the blizzard of 78 hit. Completely dependent on municipal services which were paralyzed.

Moved to a very rural section of Ma and during the massive ice storm a few years ago, when we were without power for 10 days, we did much better. Heated with a wood stove, manually got water from our well, the no-electric propane stove worked great. Had enough suppies to last quite a while. Biggest problem? Running low on beer.

Might be a lot more work to live in the boonies heating with wood, planting a garden, etc. But it did, and does, pay off.

"Most metropolitan areas ha... (Below threshold)

"Most metropolitan areas have 3 days of food on hand"

I am quite aware of that.

What happens after three days of no deliveries because the supply chain is broken?

"What happens after three d... (Below threshold)

"What happens after three days of no deliveries because the supply chain is broken?"

Violent left-wing protests and riots?

And Obama goes golfing.

Yttik be careful about sayi... (Below threshold)

Yttik be careful about saying such things about Katrina around here. They are a bit sensitive on that subject. They may delete you comments and threaten to ban you.

Yes there is a difference between metropolitan and rural areas. Some of it is a difference in supplies and experience. Some of it is general attitude.

As for efficiency vs. survivability, you need both. Although I would point out bigger doesn’t always make it more efficient or decentralize always make it more survivable but that is nitpicking. One thing I think we do have an issue with is we do not have enough “extra”. A small percentage or a key area goes down and we are in the world of hurt. Fuel,energy and water becomes extremely important when you are even a little short of them.

Small, competing systems dr... (Below threshold)
Ellie Light:

Small, competing systems drive innovation and progress. Centraslized systems cannot progress. This is why centralized systems always grow fat, stupid, and extinct eventually.

Can anyone name one corporation, country, or organization that has remained dominant in its niche for over a 100 years if it has embraced centralization as compared to those that have ignored it?






Follow Wizbang

Follow Wizbang on FacebookFollow Wizbang on TwitterSubscribe to Wizbang feedWizbang Mobile


Send e-mail tips to us:

[email protected]

Fresh Links


Section Editor: Maggie Whitton

Editors: Jay Tea, Lorie Byrd, Kim Priestap, DJ Drummond, Michael Laprarie, Baron Von Ottomatic, Shawn Mallow, Rick, Dan Karipides, Michael Avitablile, Charlie Quidnunc, Steve Schippert

Emeritus: Paul, Mary Katherine Ham, Jim Addison, Alexander K. McClure, Cassy Fiano, Bill Jempty, John Stansbury, Rob Port

In Memorium: HughS

All original content copyright © 2003-2010 by Wizbang®, LLC. All rights reserved. Wizbang® is a registered service mark.

Powered by Movable Type Pro 4.361

Hosting by ServInt

Ratings on this site are powered by the Ajax Ratings Pro plugin for Movable Type.

Search on this site is powered by the FastSearch plugin for Movable Type.

Blogrolls on this site are powered by the MT-Blogroll.

Temporary site design is based on Cutline and Cutline for MT. Graphics by Apothegm Designs.

Author Login

Terms Of Service

DCMA Compliance Notice

Privacy Policy