Prophets of Doom, Networks
Practically everything we do in our civilization is directly predicated on setting fire to dead stuff." (Bruce Sterling)
As we experience shocks to the global system for production and distribution of oil, people are coming to realize how deeply our current lifestyles depend upon petroleum and natural gas for transportation and power. Our cities and suburbs can be threatened by high prices or by growing restrictions on supply -- both of which are likely to occur. But the threats are not just coming along oil pipelines. We depend on many different networks for transportation, supply, and communication, and those networks too depend on oil. If they are weakened or broken, can life go on as we know it?
American dependence on technologies of transport and communication started early. A colonist newly arrived on the coast of a mysterious continent needed ships to keep crossing the ocean to bring goods that could not be manufactured in the wild. Then, once the early colonies were producing more goods on their own, they began to trade with one another. They built roads and moved products around. As agriculture expanded so did food shipments. As civic awareness grew so did newspapers. Following the English example, people built canals that brought agricultural products from great distances and opened up new land for exploitation. Then they built railroads. Growing cities depended on increasingly remote agricultural areas.
Cities and suburbs today depend upon the technologies that produce food at a distance. Often this involves large farms plus a distribution network and storage, all of which requires oil and electricity. It would be possible, when needed, to replace much of the food imported across long distances with food grown closer by. But it is unlikely that total replacement would be possible, especially in northern or arid climates.
On the local level, expanding transport lines allowed the growth of suburbs. Cities have almost always been surrounded by a penumbra of looser settlements, and when it was safe, the rich had their estates in the countryside. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the first planned American suburbs were built around railroad and streetcar lines, which made it possible to commute into the center city. They also allowed food and goods to be delivered to suburban retail so that local shopping could increase.
We could not maintain today's lifestyles in city or suburb without widespread networks that bring food, clothing, other goods, and mail to scattered points, which could be large distribution centers, or big box stores, or smaller local stores. All of these depend upon something bringing the goods to the markets. In early suburbs goods were brought by train or streetcar. Now we are dependent upon long-distance trucks, though that could change back to railways, with trucks for local distribution.
Some seek to return to the older pattern where denser center cities were surrounded by nodes of development built around public transport stations. That would lessen our dependence on automobile. But while that makes good sense, that nodal pattern still depends upon the larger transport systems for food and products, and those networks demand oil, or an alternate fuel, or a reliable supply of electricity.
In their global interconnections and rivalries, cities and regions also depend upon communication networks. The movement of finance and information links us as firmly as the movement of products. Without the mail, telegraph, radio, television, and the Internet, cities would be turned in upon themselves and scattered suburban living would be more isolating than an old-fashioned small town. Communication technologies have layered one upon the other over the last hundred years; they allow people to widen their horizons, interact over long distances, and form groups not limited by geographic closeness. The communications networks themselves depend on manufacturing located at home and in foreign countries. Day to day communication depends upon the electric power network, plus transport networks that can distribute communication devices, their content, and the knowledge of how to use and repair them.
Other networks provide medical care. What happens if you cannot get all the wonder drugs, and imaging machines can't be run, and if medical care stops finding new technological tools? A breakdown here would deeply affect people's lives and their expectations.
Our ways of life also depend on the technological mediations of the financial system. The financial meltdown of 2008 provides graphic evidence that when the flows of credit are disturbed, suburban and urban development can freeze. This is not directly a dependence upon computers and technology -- the global financial system could function, slowly, by exchanging pieces of paper carried by messengers -- but if the system is to have the velocity and volume required to sustain large numbers of workers in big cities and far-flung suburbs, an advanced technological backbone is required.
As we consider all these dependencies, we see over and over how we depend upon wide flung networks, either for physically transporting food and other goods, or for communication and financial and business connections. The smooth functioning of these networks in turn depends upon threatened technological bases. Without oil would everything grind to a halt, leaving us in the dark? Would life become less desirable and less complex if the rapid movement of information, contacts, and goods were slowed down too much? How important is our rate of communication and consumption?
We might take comfort in the thought that our ways of life began without the Internet and without big box stores and rapid connections. Presumably it could survive with slower networks. But could we continue to live spread out in suburbia?
Just how much are our networks likely to be disturbed? How much may have to change?
(Continue to Prophets of Doom: Disasters)