The fragility of the gigantic systems we depend on for everyday life in the
technologically advanced nations is grossly unappreciated. They are all connected in
webs of mutual interdependence, and as they wobble and fail, their failures will
mutually ramify and amplify each other’s instabilities. For instance, failure in the oil
markets in one way or another will crash transportation networks, which will
disrupt trade, manufacturing, farming, etc. The kind of failures currently on display
in the financial sector will likewise beat a path directly to trouble in all kinds of
businesses and in government’s ability to deliver basic services. The chains of
consequence run harsh and deep.
The anxiety around this dimly apprehended fragility leads most commonly
to the fantasy of ever more government control of populations, often in the “Big
Brother” mode. This paranoid belief in the supreme power of government is the
social analog of our techno-hubris. In fact, government is only liable to become
more incompetent, more ineffectual, and less able to control events and populations
as our systems unwind. Meaningful decisions, not far into the future, are more likely
to come from community leaders than from presidential palaces and parliaments.
The problems of hypertrophy and gigantism in our linked global economies
are such that there is now a correlation between the size of enterprise and its
fragility. It can be stated categorically that, moving forward, anything organized
to operate at the gigantic scale is liable to fail. This includes gigantic governments,
sprawling metroplex cities, national chain retail, bloated universities, 12,000-mile
manufacturing supply chains, 5000-acre corporate farms, and continental electric
In the event of cascading failure – such as the inability of supermarket chains to
restock their shelves, or of oil companies to deliver gasoline to the pumping stations
– the potential for social and political disorder is a dead certainty. We have not
experienced anything even remotely like this in the United States since the oil crises
of 1973 and 1979 so that many adults now in the prime of life have no acquaintance
with systemic disruption.
Except for the Balkans, most of Europe has enjoyed a kind of theme park
tranquility for half a century compared with the pandemonium of the early 20 th
century. That era of good feeling may, unfortunately, pass into history as new
friction points arise between failing national economies. Certainly the financial
stability that was taken for granted for decades has come unhinged and threatens to
evolve into civil unrest.
We have entered a zone of deep uncertainty in politics and economics. The
legitimacy of all authorities is suspect: presidents, judges, economists, police
captains. It becomes impossible to construct a social consensus about what is
happening and what should be done. The public loses faith in institutions. The
center cannot hold because the center is no even longer there. We have managed to
sleepwalk into a long emergency.
Illustration by Fanqiao Wang