Recently a chorus of voices from various backgrounds have been pointing to the patterns found in nature as holding the keys to the future security and ultimately survival of an increasingly fragile globalized world.
The argument goes something like this: globalization has exponentially increased the complexity of modern civilization and eliminated many of its redundancies (inefficiencies?) based on the pursuit of specialization and comparative advantage. While many praise, and duly so, the various benefits of globalization, few understand or acknowledge the fragile state it has created in its campaign for greater efficiency.
The stripping away of redundancies and growing interconnectedness of nations and markets now makes a “butterfly in Brazil” scenario more likely as the global system has become much more sensitive to change and less robust. To secure ourselves from future doomsday scenarios we should model nature and trade back some of our efficiency for increased redundancy and robustness.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb has been hammering on this theme for years now, adding a new updated section to “The Black Swan” on Robustness and Fragility,
First, Mother Nature likes redundancies, three different types of redundancies. The first, the simplest to understand, is defensive redundancy, the insurance type of redundancy that allows you to survive under adversity, thanks to the availability of spare parts. Look at the human body. We have two eyes, two lungs, two kidneys, even two brains (with the possible exception of corporate executives)—and each has more capacity than needed in ordinary circumstances. So redundancy equals insurance, and the apparent inefficiencies are associated with the costs of maintaining these spare parts and the energy needed to keep them around in spite of their idleness.
The exact opposite of redundancy is naïve optimization. I tell everyone to avoid attending (orthodox) economics classes and say that economics will fail us and blow us up (and, as we will see, we have proofs that it failed us; but, as I kept saying in the original text, we did not need them; all we needed was to look at the lack of scientific rigor—and of ethics). The reason is the following: It is largely based on notions of naïve optimization, mathematized (poorly) by Paul Samuelson—and this mathematics contributed massively to the construction of an error-prone society. An economist would find it inefficient to maintain two lungs and two kidneys: consider the costs involved in transporting these heavy items across the savannah. Such optimization would, eventually, kill you, after the first accident, the first “outlier.” Also, consider that if we gave Mother Nature to economists, it would dispense with individual kidneys: since we do not need them all the time, it would be more “efficient” if we sold ours and used a central kidney on a time-share basis. You could also lend your eyes at night since you do not need them to dream.
In an e-mail discussion with Timothy Thompson he drilled down the objections of many in this growing crowd to a more specific risk,
…the whole globalized economy relies on just one critical element: cheap transportation. And cheap transportation means cheap transoceanic container shipping, which in turn relies on just one critical factor: cheap oil. The world economic system can be disrupted at any time by simply increasing the price of marine fuel.
So, an entire global economic system has become dependent on the price of just a single commodity, crude oil.
From a security standpoint, the anti-globalization crew also write that any terrorist or military threat that stops transoceanic container cargo also stops most of the world economy. So just one big terrorist bomb arriving in just one shipping container in just one port can cripple the whole global economy.
In coming up with solutions, John Robb is making a good go of it with his study and writings on resilient communities, also modeled in Suarez’s “Freedom.” He believes one of the answers to the potential problem of long-distance production and shipping is the use of 3D fabrication technologies to manufacture tools and products locally. In his own words, “Localize Production. Virtualize everything else.”
Concerning food, we can already see a glimpse of this ethos in the rise of urban farming and local farmer’s markets. It’s very possible that this will spill over into manufacturing (See Etsy) as the technology becomes cheaper and more readily available.
So, what to do as an individual? Well, globalization is not going anywhere for now. Rather than fighting its advance or holing up in a cabin in Alaska, the best stance may be to skeptically embrace its benefits, rebuffing naive claims of global utopia, while doing more to safeguard ourselves against its weaknesses. It’s a balance of course.
Here are some links to articles and videos discussing the themes of efficiency, redundancy, nature and security: