Monday, October 24, 2005

Vulnerability - Germs, Ice and Terror 

A winter like the 1963 freeze. A probable flu pandemic. Terrorist attacks. All these potential disasters expose the vulnerability of our interdependent society. And the vulnerability is increased by the centralisation we develop in both ‘state planned’ and ‘private market’ institutions.

Take our food distribution system. We no longer have local market and distribution facilities. Supermarkets do not have in-store on-site stocks for more than immediate normal trading. They depend on daily deliveries from a few massive distribution centres with huge lorry traffic lads running on our roads overnight. These centres employ a large number of less well off people working close together and interconnected by the transport movement with other concentrations of people.

So, a freeze on the scale of 1963 ( all Britain snowbound from Boxing Day to late March) would throw the transport system into chaos. The distribution centres are prime terrorist targets for explosive attacks. And if distribution centre workers got infected by flu public health considerations demand they be closed down to prevent huge infection black spots.

Any one of these three perfectly feasible events would mean no food on supermarket shelves within a few days, assuming no panic buying. Lets not think about a combination of two or more.

For local communities to build up islands of safety and make the best use of what actually may be available needs some fail-safe structures and a lot of practice in social initiative. Fail-safe does not mean ‘immune to failure’ It means that if there is a fault in a system, the system can switch to the safest state possible compatible with the existence of that fault. And social initiative means building up the skills of doing things for ourselves not always accepting top-down management.

A Liberal approach to society must include building up local fail-safe institutions and encouraging the skills needed to act when the overall systems break down. Many of our modern developments over the last decade have had the opposite effects. We cannot rely on previous experiences as a guide to how we would cope today.

So should we rethink all this including globalisation?) in terms of national defence?

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