Many of us who are aware of (dare I say preoccupied with) peak oil and its likely effects on an unprepared world tend to get so fixated on it (I know I do), that the potential for other factors to also cause disruption is neglected. So in this post I’d like to address any such neglect by exploring some of the non-oil factors that could come into play in the future.
Before I get to them, I’d like to briefly consider why our society might be so vulnerable in the first place. A big factor is the lack of functional reserve in many critical systems. Many doctors would already be familiar with this concept and its use in physiology. It describes the resiliency of a system (ie the ability to function after some sort of impairment). Let’s choose a biological example as an illustration. Consider the liver. In the pristine state, a liver has a large functional reserve. It is able to perform its life-sustaining services by using just a fraction of its total capacity. It therefore has an inbuilt redundancy system that allows for the loss of liver cells without compromising hepatic function. This explains why one can resect a liver tumour, or safely transplant just a part of a liver without killing one’s patient. It also explains why a person with mild to moderate alcoholic cirrhosis can lead an essentially normal life if they stop drinking.
So let’s apply this concept to our society. Picture the degree of debt that many are in, or the just-in-time inventory management systems that place only a day or two of supplies in a supermarket. Or maybe widespread financial derivatives trading or outsourced hospital linen services. Each factor decreases the functional reserve of the system, by reducing its ability to deal with sudden shocks (as there are minimal reserves available to act as a buffer). Globalisation and interconnectedness make it worse by allowing essentially instantaneous communication (thereby letting the shockwaves that follow sudden events to spread rapidly and extensively; this has the effect of magnifying any disruption because all people react at the same time). And in our highly complex world, even small events can similarly be magnified in importance, for example when a relatively small but critical process fails.
This brings us to the natural world. Buffers like the atmosphere and oceans allow nature to adjust to sudden events, just like the corresponding ones in the human world do. This results in a readjustment of natural parameters within ranges that coincidentally allow life on earth to flourish. Part of the way they do this is by transforming, storing or otherwise “hiding” harmful substances.
Unfortunately for us, many natural buffering systems are saturated, or operating at full capacity (some are likely to be over-saturated, but that’s another part of the story). They are therefore vulnerable to even small fluctuations or short-term shocks, as they do not have any spare capacity left to cope.
So what happens when natural, cultural or physiological systems are at saturation point and are assaulted by (even small) further disruption? They tip (see TheTipping Point for further information). That means they change suddenly from one state to another. If one is thinking about livers, hepatic failure is the result. If financial derivatives, think share market crash. If natural systems, think rapid climate change or population die-off. All are, of course, very bad if it happens to involve you.
I contend, like other authors, that many social and natural systems are poised at their tipping points right now (or may well have crossed them, given the time lags present in systems like oceans and climate – we just don’t know it yet). There is therefore a whole menu of potential causes for societal crisis and disruption, in addition to peak oil. They are categorised below.
- Human: Pandemic influenza; SARS; HIV; TB.
- Animal: BSE; Newcastle disease.
- Wars: Middle East; regional conflicts.
- Terrorism: Bioterrorism; nuclear; high profile (9/11); oil terrorism; infrastructure (eg Strait of Hormuz).
- Resource Wars: Water; mineral resources; timber; land.
Environmental / biosphere events
- Weather: Heat waves; cold snaps; droughts; floods; storms.
- Shortages: Water; energy (oil); minerals; uranium (eventually ?); blackouts.
- Degradation: Soil; water.
- Pollution: Air; water; soil.
- Accidents: Nuclear; chemical; oil spills.
Economic and political factors
- Share market crashes.
- Property price crashes.
- Recession / depression.
- Extreme political regimes.
Urban or social disruption
- Urban decay.
- Escalating crime.
This list is an organised version of a brainstorming session that I did. If you can think of others please leave me a comment. My reason for this post is simple: even if you remain a peak oil sceptic, there are so many other potential causes of crisis that one needs to think seriously about how we (as both individuals and as a society) can prepare for and cope with future disruptions.
I hope that I have demonstrated the need to pursue a basic level of preparedness for you and your family, especially as occurrences like water supply disruptions could place your health at risk. I would suggest this book as a fantastic place to start your preparation.