Salvaging Resilience

Regular readers of this blog will know by this point that my efforts to make sense of the shape of the emerging deindustrial future involve the occasional odd detour, and one of those is central to this week’s post. Mind you, those same regular readers may be wondering if the detour in question has to do with Ben Bernanke’s secret name as a Sith Lord, a point which occupied some space in comments on a recent Archdruid Report. (The best proposal so far, in case you’re wondering, was Darth Flation – think (in)Vader, (in)Sidious, etc.)

Still, that tempting topic will have to be left for another week. Instead, I’m going to have to clear up the confusions surrounding a bit of jargon popular in the current peak oil blogosphere. That process is more than a little reminiscent of fishing scrap metal out of a swamp; in the present case, the word that needs to be hauled from the muck, hosed off, and restored to its former usefulness, is “resilience.”

The rise of this term to its present popularity in green circles has a history worth noting. A year or two ago, the word “sustainability” began to lose its privileged place in the jargon of the time, as it began to sink in that no matter how much manhandling was applied to that much-abused term, it couldn’t be combined with the phrase “modern middle-class lifestyle” without resulting in total absurdity. Enter “resilience,” as another way to talk about what too many people nowadays want to talk about, generally to the exclusion of more useful conversations: the pretense that a set of lifestyles, social habits, and technologies that were born in an age of unparalleled extravagance can be maintained as the material basis for that extravagance trickles away.

The word “sustainability,” it bears remembering, has a perfectly clear meaning. It means, as the word itself suggests, the ability of something to be sustained, either for a set period of time – “sustainable over a twenty year period,” for example – or indefinitely. That was its problem as a green buzzword, because next to nobody wanted to talk about just how long the current crop of “sustainable” tech was actually likely to stay viable (hint: not very long), and even fewer were willing to grapple with the immense challenges facing any attempt to sustain any of today’s technologies into the indefinite future.

The problem with “resilience,” though, is that it also has a perfectly clear meaning. Once people figure out what that is, it’s a safe bet that they’ll be hunting for another buzzword in short order, because resilience can be defined very precisely: it’s the opposite of efficiency.

Okay, now that you’ve stopped spluttering, let me explain.

We can define efficiency informally as doing the most with the least. An efficient use of resources is thus one that puts as few resources as possible into places where they sit around doing nothing. The just-in-time ordering process that’s now standard in manufacturing and retail, for example, was hailed as a huge increase in efficiency when it was introduced; instead of having stockpiles sitting around in warehouses, items could be ordered electronically from a database so that they would be made and shipped just in time to go onto the assembly line or the store shelf. What nobody asked, and very few people have asked even yet, is what happens when something goes wrong.

The great Tohoku tsunami a few months back provided a wakeup call in that direction, as factories across Japan and around the world suddenly discovered that the shipment of parts they needed just in time for next month’s production runs had been delivered instead to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. In the inefficient old days, when parts jobbers scattered all over the industrial world had warehouses full of parts being produced by an equally dispersed array of small factories, that would have given nobody sleepless nights, since the stock of spares on hand would be enough to tide things over until factories could run some extra shifts and make up the demand. Since production had been efficiently centralized in very few factories, or in some cases only one, and the warehouses full of parts had been rendered obsolete by efficient new ordering systems, knock-on costs that would have been negligible in 1970 are proving to be very substantial today.

Efficiency, in other words, is not resilient. What makes a system resilient is the presence of unused resources, and these are inefficient by definition. A bridge is resilient, for example, if it contains a good deal more steel and concrete than is actually needed to support its normal maximum load; that way, when some outside factor such as a hurricane puts unexpected stresses on the bridge, the previously unnecessary structural strength of all that extra steel and concrete comes into play, and keeps the bridge from falling down. Most bridges are designed and built with that sort of inefficiency in place, because the downside of too little efficiency (the bridge costs more to build) is a good deal less troubling than the downside of too little resiliency (the bridge collapses in a storm). Like every project worth doing, a good bridge has to strike a balance between many conflicting factors, no one of which can be maximized except at the expense of others of equal importance.

This is something that one of the iconic figures of the Seventies, Buckminster Fuller, never quite grasped. For me, Fuller is what another iconic Seventies figure called a worthy opponent; his writings constantly force me to reexamine my own ideas, because they grate on my nerves so reliably. Partly that’s a function of Fuller’s insouciant assurance that technology inevitably one-ups everything else in the cosmos – Theodore Roszak’s apt gibe, “I would not be surprised to hear (Fuller) announce someday that he had invented a better tree,” comes to mind – and partly it’s his insistence that the universe had to make the kind of sense he wanted it to make – this is a man, remember, who spent much of his life insisting that pi couldn’t really be an irrational number – but the issue that comes to mind right now is his consistent preference for efficiency at the cost of resilience.

That’s not to say that Fuller didn’t score some major successes. If my house was in a good location for a wind turbine, I’d almost certainly use Fuller’s octet truss design for the tower, and a lot of very sturdy geodesic domes have been built using his patents. Still, it’s worth noting that not even Fuller was able to live for long in a dome house made to his own designs; if it had been perfectly caulked, it would have provided a comfortable home with very efficient use of materials, but since caulking is never perfect in the real world, it leaked like a sieve whenever it rained. That’s one of the reasons why Lloyd Kahn, the compiler of Domebooks I and II and a major proponent of geodesic domes back in the day, backpedaled in his 1973 compilation Shelter. That very worthwhile piece of Green Wizard literature talked at length about the problems with geodesic dome construction, and put most of its space into vernacular building from cultures around the world, from yurts and tipis to good sturdy old-fashioned carpentry that holds off the rain.

Most of the troubles that saddled Fuller with the label “failure-prone” were, like the vast number of leaky geodesic dome houses that sprang up in the Sixties, the product of too much efficiency and too little resilience. The Dymaxion car of 1933 is a case in point. In most respects it was a brilliant design, maneuverable and ultraefficient, but its career came to a sudden halt when one of the three prototypes got bumped by another car on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, flipped, and rolled, killing the driver and seriously injuring everybody else on board. Fuller designed the car with a narrow wheelbase relative to its length for the sake of maneuverability, and a high center of gravity to provide a smoother ride on rough roads. Both those choices made the Dymaxion car more efficient but less stable, and at highway speeds that’s not a safe tradeoff to make.

Thus efficiency is not resilient, and resilience is not efficient. Just-in-time ordering is conceptually the same as the Dymaxion car’s narrow wheelbase and high center of gravity: a great idea, as long as nothing goes wrong. Since it may have occurred to you, dear reader, that today’s industrial civilization seems to have a lot in common just now with these examples of high efficiency and low resilience, you may be thinking that it might turn out to be necessary to accept a lower degree of efficiency, in order to provide our civilization with the backlog of unused resources that will give it resilience.

Ah, but here’s where things get difficult.

There’s a reason why contemporary industrial culture is obsessed with efficiency, and it’s not because we’re smarter than our grandparents. Every civilization, as it nears the limits of its resource base, has to deal with the mismatch between habits evolved during times of relative abundance and the onset of shortages driven by too much exploitation of that abundance. Nearly always, the outcome is a shift in the direction of greater efficiency. Local governments give way to centralized ones; economies move as far toward mass production as the underlying technology will permit; precise management becomes the order of the day; waste gets cut and so, inevitably, do corners. All this leads to increased efficiency and thus decreased resilience, and sets things up for the statistically inevitable accident that will push things just past the limits of the civilization’s remaining resilience, and launch the downward spiral that ends with sheep grazing among ruins.

Trying to build resilience into a system that’s already gotten itself into this bind is a difficult project at best. The point of these efficiency drives, after all, is to free up resources to support the standards of living of the privileged classes. Since these same privileged classes are the ones who have to sign off on any project to redirect resources toward resilience, the difficulties in convincing them to act against their immediate self-interest are not hard to imagine. Since efficiency tends to take an aura of sanctity in such cases – privileged classes, after all, are as prone as anyone else to convince themselves that what’s good for them is good for everyone – proponents of resilience face an uphill fight against deeply rooted assumptions. After all, who wants to go on record in support of inefficiency?

And of course that’s exactly what we’ve seen in recent decades in industrial society. The Glass-Steagall Act, which imposed resilience on the US banking system at the cost of a fair amount of inefficiency, is a good example; it was gutted by an enthusiastically bipartisan majority, giving us the highly efficient but hopelessly brittle financial system we have today. Many other measures that put resilience into the system were also scrapped in the name of “competitiveness,” though it’s worth noticing that America’s ability to compete in any arena that doesn’t involve blowing large chunks of a Third World country to kingdom come has gone down steadily while these allegedly competitive measures have been at work. All of it, slogans aside, served to free up resources to maintain living standards for America’s privileged classes – a category that extends well down into the middle class, please note, and includes a great many people who like to denounce the existing order of American society in heated terms.

That’s our version of the trap that closes around every society that overshoots its resource base. The struggle to sustain the unsustainable – to maintain levels of consumption the remaining resource base won’t support indefinitely – always seems to drive the sort of short-term expedients that make for long-term disasters. I’ve come to think that a great many of the recent improvements in efficiency in the industrial world have their roots in this process. Loudly ballyhooed as great leaps forward, they may well actually be signs of the tightening noose of resource constraints that, in the long run, will choke the life out of our civilization.

Thus it’s a great idea in the abstract to demand a society-wide push for resilience, but in practice, that would involve loading a great many inefficiencies onto the economy. Things would cost more, and fewer people would be able to afford them, since the costs of resilience have to be paid, and the short term benefits of excessive efficiency have to be foregone. That’s not a recipe for winning an election or outcompeting a foreign rival, and the fact that it might just get us through the waning years of the industrial age pays nobody’s salary today. It may well turn out that burning through the available resources, and then crashing into ruin, is simply the most efficient way for a civilization to go.

Where does that leave those of us who would like to find a way through the crisis of our time and hand down some part of the legacy of our civilization to the future? The same principles apply, though it’s fortunately true that individuals, families, and local communities often have an easier time looking past the conventional wisdom of their era and doing something sensible even when it’s not popular. The first thing that has to be grasped, it seems to me, is that trying to maintain the comfortable lifestyles of the recent past is a fool’s errand. It’s only by making steep cuts in our personal demand for resources that it’s possible to make room for inefficiency, and therefore resilience.

Most of the steps proposed in these essays, in turn, are inefficient – indeed, deliberately so. It’s unquestionably nefficient in terms of your personal time and resources to dig up your back yard and turn it into a garden; that inefficiency, however, means that if anything happens to the hypercomplex system that provides you with your food – a process that reaches beyond growers, shippers and stores to the worlds of high finance, petroleum production, resource politics, and much more – you still get to eat. It’s inefficient to generate your own electricity, to retrofit your home for conservation, to do all the other things we’ve discussed. Those inefficiencies, in turn, are measures of resilience; they define your fallback options, the extra strength you build into the bridge to your future, so that it can hope to stand up to the approaching tempests.

The emerging patterns of the salvage economy that have been discussed here over the last few weeks feed into this same quest for resilience. Many older technologies, of the sort that might readily be salvaged and put to use, are a good deal less efficient than their modern replacements, and therefore much more resilient.

Here’s an example. There’s been plenty of talk in recent years about the risk of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States. It’s been the subject of Congressional hearings, a popular novel, and a great deal of hoopla in the media. There’s some reason for all this concern, as a single modest nuclear warhead detonated up in the ionosphere above the northern Midwest would generate a pulse that would fry electronic equipment over most of the continental United States, and it’s been argued that any of several non-nuclear technologies could do the same thing on a more local scale. There’s been a great deal of backing and forthing about how to shield national infrastructure against such an attack, but it’s only occasionally been noted that electronic technologies that are very nearly invulnerable to EMP already exist, and can be found in antique malls across the country.

The secret to those technologies? The old-fashioned vacuum tube. Vacuum tubes use plenty of power and convert most of it into heat, and the sturdy structure made necessary by that inefficiency makes tubes shrug off sudden transient pulses of the sort an EMP generates. Modern integrated circuits are many orders of magnitude more efficient, and so those same transient pulses go right into the heart of an IC chip and destroy it. If you plan on using a tube-based radio for communication in the event of an EMP attack, mind you, you need to be sure that it doesn’t have first-generation solid state components such as selenium rectifiers, or replace those with diode tubes, and you’d probably better do the sensible thing and get your amateur radio license, too, so you can get in some practice with your rig in advance. Still, it’s a viable approach, and a good deal cheaper than the alternatives – and it would be just as viable, and just as cheap, if the US government were to do the smart thing and arrange for a couple of midsized domestic electronics firms to start manufacturing reliable tube-based electronics as backups for critical infrastructure across the country.

There are countless other examples. By and large, older technologies are less efficient, because they were made in an age when efficiency wasn’t as overvalued as it is today. That means, in turn, that older technologies are by and large more resilient, and those who are concerned about resilience will often find that older, simpler, sturdier technologies are a better bet than the current state of the art. By and large, in turn, making use of those technologies means accepting downscaled expectations; a tube-based radio is easy, a tube-based television is challenging, and a tube-based video game would be around the size of a double-wide mobile home and use as much power as a five-story office building. This is why, sixty years ago, radios were common and cheap, televisions were less common and pricey, and games were played on brightly colored boards on the kitchen table or the family room floor without any electronics at all.

Still, downscaled expectations will be among the most common themes of the decades ahead of us, and those who have the uncommon sense to figure this out in advance and start getting ready for a less efficient future will very likely benefit from the increased resilience that will provide. Over the weeks to come, as I finish up the discussion of salvage and prepare to wrap up the entire series of posts on green wizardry that have been central to this blog’s project for more than a year now, I hope to be able to suggest a few more options for resilience along these same lines.