Cracks in the supply chain: Is metastable turning into unstable?

July 12, 2020

You who are reading this sentence are metastable systems. So, is the biosphere, and so is all of human society. A metastable system is one that remains stable so long as the inputs necessary to maintain its stability are available.

For humans this includes food (energy) and water. For the biosphere the key element is the energy input from the Sun. For human society, which is a subset of the biosphere, the Sun is also the key energy input. Much of the energy used by humans is stored in the form of wood, coal, natural gas and oil which all ultimately come from living organisms dependent on the Sun for energy.

Hydropower is also a product of the Sun which drives the water cycle on Earth and therefore allows hydroelectric dams to be filled. Wind and solar energy are, of course, products of the Sun as well. The energy harvested by humans gets expressed in manufacturing and transportation in machines. It gets expressed in human labor, but also in the thought, planning, and communications needed to make things happen.

What we are witnessing as a result of this pandemic is a widespread challenge to metastable systems upon which our societies depend. The most obvious are those related to hospitals and health care products. We often read in the news that hospitals are near “the breaking point” as if the hospital walls will burst when too many patients crowd into the building.

What this really means, of course, is that beyond certain levels of activity, the normal systems of a hospital will not function properly for want of people to provide services, for want of supplies needed to provide those services—tests for the COVID-19 virus come to mind—for want of space to examine all those seeking medical attention and for want of money to finance it all. (It must be said here that money represents a claim on energy in the form of fuel such as food or gasoline and embodied energy in the form of pills, medical devices, test kits and any other object that humans manufacture using the energy and resources they harvest.)

Like humans whose bodies desperately seek to retain their metastable state by resisting the invader virus, so, too, society seeks to respond by marshalling resources and sending them at an accelerated rate to those systems that are overloaded.

So far those systems, after a few shivers, have largely kept functioning—not as well as we would like them to, but enough to keep people in rich countries warm and feed. This has not worked as well in poorer countries. (See below.)

Now there is emerging evidence that major metastable systems are coming apart. The thing about metastable systems it that when they truly fall apart, this tends to happen rather quickly as the system tries to find the next lower stable state based on the input of energy and resources it is able to receive.

A personal report from a technology executive whose company makes mission critical parts for key industries in aerospace, communications, banking, cloud computing, medical devices and transportation safety gives cause for concern. He says more than one-quarter of management’s time is now spent dealing with virus-related issues and supply chain disruptions, time that ought to go toward “product development, safety and optimization.”

More ominously, he adds: “It is happening to us. Our suppliers. Our customers. Their customers.” In other words, it is happening practically everywhere. He goes on to say:

At what point does it break? I don’t know. But I can feel the system cracking. Complex things, like bridges, planes and supply webs don’t tend to break slowly. They give off telltale signs they are going to fail, and then they fail. Big. Fast. Completely.

The executive’s plea is in the context of asking people to wear masks which he believes will lessen infections and thus lessen the chaos now being visited on his business and others.

Perhaps the most chilling details of the assessment are these:

We have multiple inputs that are becoming increasingly difficult to get. Some of our usual suppliers are shut down. Or they can not get the inputs they need.

We are having to contemplate alternatives we do not have the time, nor the partnerships to fully vet or re-engineer around. Anyone who does advanced manufacturing knows, if you change just one input in a 100 input process—the effects can cascade in unexpected ways.

We can no longer get on airplanes. Meet. Work through issues with other teams in person.

The global reduction of air-traffic is making our logistics harder. We can not count on brokering space in the belly of a flight bound overseas to get product to our customer, or get inputs from our supply chain. We can not courier prototypes to EU customers. Or most of Asia. Nor even some of [our] customers in US States.

He concludes: “So. Here we are. Things are cracking.”

More immediately disturbing is a report from Oxfam which works globally to alleviate hunger and poverty. The report states: “By the end of the year 12,000 people per day could die from hunger linked to COVID-19, potentially more than will die from the disease itself.”

That’s how threats to metastable systems multiply as a result of their second-order and third-order effects. A piece about the report offers some examples of which these are two:

India: Travel restrictions left farmers without vital migrant labour at the peak of the harvest season, forcing many to leave their crops in the field to rot. Traders have also been unable to reach tribal communities during the peak harvest season for forest products, depriving up to 100 million people of their main source of income for the year….

Sahel: Restrictions on movement have prevented herders from driving their livestock to greener pastures for feeding, threatening the livelihoods of millions of people.

Talk about broken!

If we humans go without food for too long we simply die. Food is, of course, a necessary input to keep us all metastable. With less of it we might manage; but we might not be as robust and healthy. With far less, we might eek out a sickly, barebones existence as did many concentration camp survivors in World War II, but one would hardly call it living.

No one can say exactly how far our various systems will fall if their stability is undermined. We might get off lightly with the many temporary inconveniences we are experiencing now becoming permanent. Or, we might experience major dysfunctions, say, the inability to get replacement parts for industrial machines and household devices, a shortage of new electronic devices upon which we so heavily depend, perhaps even the loss of a consistent supply of drinkable water where breakdowns in public water systems become unavoidable because of the compromised manufacturing supply chain for parts and water treatment chemicals. There are so many other possible problems that could be imagined.

Metastable systems are stable until they aren’t. It looks like at least some of them could fail in the coming months unless the coronavirus is vanquished quickly. We just don’t know which systems.

Photo: Cars rest on the collapsed portion of I-35W Mississippi River bridge, after the August 1st, 2007 collapse. Photo by Kevin Rofidal, US Coast Guard. Via Wikimedia Commons Cars rest on the collapsed portion of I-35W Mississippi River bridge, after the August 1st, 2007 collapse. Photo by Kevin Rofidal, US Coast Guard. Via Wikimedia Commons

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: collapse, systems thinking