Thursday, February 24, 2011


I’m doing a college course at the moment and one of the requirements is that I put together and deliver a five-minute presentation on a subject of my choice. It mustn’t be work related. Five minutes is a scarily short amount of time. When I’m training we usually haven’t even got to where the loos are by five minutes. I tend to be garrulous. Crikey!
So, if not work related, what? There’d be too much setting up required to talk about science fiction, my abiding passion. I’m not sure a knitting demonstration is what the tutor had in mind, and I’m not allowed to talk about climate change. Then I had an epiphany. I’m going to talk about resilience. It is related to work but, although I touch on it in relationship to environmental issues in some courses, it isn’t something that is central to my job and it is something that I’m concerned about in my personal life. Here’s the first draft:

I’m going to talk today about resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from a shock. I think the opposite would be brittleness or fragility. It is a concept that can be applied to all sorts of things, from a material to a civilisation. Hands up those who think our current civilisation is resilient.

You might guess that I don’t. The fragility of our modern British civilisation first impacted on me in the early 70s. I remember it vividly. The family was watching Star Trek and some horrid black blob beast had battened onto Spock’s back when, Bang! The lights went out. This, our first power cut of the miners’ strike, dropped us from the far galaxy spanning future directly into the cold dark scary past.

At the time we lived on a modern housing estate. When it was built a large underground oil storage tank had been provided to serve the heating needs of the whole estate. Oil was pumped through to the central heating boiler of each house. No electricity, no light, no heat. In my grandparents’ home there would have been warmth and some light from the open fire. There’d have been hot water from the geezer and the gas cooker would work for a while until the gas pressure fell. And, coming from the generation that lived through the war, they had a healthy stash of candles.

Our modern and efficient house contained exactly one candle, the advent candle. By the time the lights came back on there was only a dribbly red stub left… And there was a run on candles the next day in the village. None available, not even for ready money.

I think the experience had a salutary effect on me. That and the extensive reading of disaster SF. It’s not at the forefront of my thoughts all the time but the awareness of fragility squats at the back of my mind. I’m convinced we haven’t learnt from our experiences. Our systems are terrifically efficient and terribly brittle.

What could possibly go wrong? Drought in Russia, floods in Australia, land used to grow biofuels, a growing appetite for grain fed meat in the new middle classes in China and India, speculation in commodities; all leading to escalating food prices. Not immediate enough? We’re all rich enough not to go hungry after all.

We import over 40% of our gas now. Another very cold winter, low gas storage levels, a disruption similar to the one that affected central Europe whilst Russia and the Ukraine squabbled about who was or was not stealing gas. How would we fare? A lot of our electricity is gas powered now too.

Or imagine the same very cold winter, more likely as the climate changes, causing water pipes to freeze and burst. It happened in Northern Ireland this last winter. Weeks with only bottled water.

How about another volcano? A problem with oils supplies? Remember the oil refinery blockade a few years ago? No petrol at the pumps? Very quickly little food in the shops?

Just in Time deliveries are extremely efficient but they are not resilient. We have spent the last several years working to become super-efficient, to trim down to the bare bones. A system without fat is fine if there is no famine. Resilience is all about redundancy though. When the main system fails a secondary system takes the load. If that fails there is another backup. That’s not efficient. Efficiency is fine as long as everything goes to plan and nothing breaks down.

OK. Given my awareness of the dangers have I organised my life so I am safe from these failures? I have candles, I have a newly installed woodburning stove, I have a decent amount of food storage. I feel happy that I could weather a week’s disruption without pain but more than that? Water would be a problem in my urban environment, and a build up of waste. In reality my life can only be resilient in the context of a resilient society and not only do we not have one of those, our society is getting more and more brittle all the time. 

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