Over the last century, our country, and countries across the globe, have made fantastic strides in providing infrastructure. Roads are built by governments; safe potable water is distributed in just about every town across America; refuse is collected and deposited in consolidated landfills; communication is transmitted instantly, worldwide, and electricity is delivered to every household in a modern civilization. This has provided a great deal of comfort in our daily lives.
Without so much as a thought, we can flip a switch, and turn on a light in a dark room, operate this fancy computer I get to use on a daily basis, and charge up the ipod, and all manner of portable appliances we have become dependent upon in our daily lives. When we are thirsty, or need to wash our clothes, the turn of a faucet handle will provide a seemingly unending supply of fresh water, and almost if by magic, the things we find no longer useful in our lives, can be put in the trash bin to go off to who knows where … but it isn’t here, and that is the important part … or is it?
When I began considering the massive integration and collective cooperation we have as a society, the geek in me began to see subtle flaws in its implementation; then the more I dwelt on the issue, the more important these flaws became, until I can no longer take anything for granted; danger, grave danger, lies everywhere, and we as a society are blind to its inherent flaws. Sure, I like a nice hot shower, probably more than most folks; to get that shower though, I have to rely upon lots of other people; people I don’t know, to do things that quite frankly, I don’t understand. The public works people maintain the public water supply, and actually keep the city’s waterline in proper working order; send off water samples for tests, treat waste water, and scope out new well sites among the vast number of other things they are required to do, to actually get water out of the ground, or reservoir, and out to the populous. The electrical workers have to maintain not only the power generation plant, but they also have to install and maintain tens of thousands of miles of high power electrical lines to get the power out to the customer. Power generation facilities across the continent are connected in very complex and highly volatile network, and require tens of thousands of people, on a daily basis, just to keep it working. Our trash is collected and consolidated into huge holes in the ground, designed to hide the excess of our ways. In essence, we just live our daily lives and use these things without a thought about any problem or potential problem that might exist in the system … and that is a very dangerous situation to be in.
Last week when the news broke, about the earthquake in Haiti, we were complacent … oh, another earthquake in a place most of us had never given a second thought to … but when the gravity of the disaster began to become real for us (thanks Anderson Cooper), we realized that this was much more than your run of the mill earthquake; if there even is such a thing. No, this was much worse, this was the complete collapse of an entire society of people; an entire country is in turmoil, and despair is the nicest thing they have going for them. This was devastation like we have never seen before. Outside of collapsed schools, homes, businesses, and government buildings, were throngs of people, hundreds of thousands of people, displaced. There are perhaps, 2 million people or more, whose daily lives are affected to a degree that we can barely fathom, yet here we sit oblivious to the dangers our own highly integrated society has built for itself; oblivious to the havoc we would face if we were to have our own infrastructure-quake.
Consider that you are reading this, likely on a computer, powered by electricity, generated by a power plant, that runs on uranium, coal, oil or gas. What happens when there is a failure at a power plant? Can’t happen? Think again … across this country, there have been numerous catastrophic plant failures, explosions at solar power facilities, core leaks at nuclear plants, massive turbine failures, collapse of steam pipes, and wind and ice damage to transmission lines … and that was only in the last couple of years. It doesn’t seem that bad though, particularly if you were not one of those affected, without power for weeks on end. As any computer expert would tell you, in order to have a secure and reliable system, you must have redundancy … lots of redundancy. Look at how NASA works … there are redundancy protocols, for redundant systems, for redundant protocols, for backup systems, for backup systems… and yet they still have a track record of having catastrophic, irrecoverable, problems.
That hot shower we take for granted, would be of little concern for those who rely upon a public water source, were that source to become contaminated or unavailable. Consider that, in a town my size, as many as 50,000 people could be left without so much as drinking water, much less bathing water, if a single system goes down. The idea that bigger is better, and consolidation for the common good, is of little concern if you are thirsty.
What we can learn here, is that, smaller, more localized handling of the needs of people will provide a much better solution than massive projects to provide for the masses. Multiple, neighborhood water supplies, will ensure that, in the event of a single failure, the least number of people are affected. If one or more wells stop functioning, there may be a lower capacity of the remaining supplies, but the lower supply is a better alternative than no supply. Electricity generation is another very similar situation… If we have more plants, much smaller than the gazillion megawatt plants of today, spread out in more communities, with shorter transmission distances, the failure of one in a huge network, will be much less problematic than the failure of a single plant providing power to an entire quadrant of the country.
The whole point is, when you put all of your proverbial eggs into a single basket, no matter how big and strong that basket might be, there is a flaw in that basket, a flaw you don’t see … and grandma knew that… thats why she always carried two baskets to the hen house, and why she went twice a day. If one of the baskets failed, she didn’t lose all of the eggs. As a populace, it would do us well to remember that … we need to have many baskets in order to have the least collateral damage in the event one fails. If you learn nothing from the plight of the Haitians, learn this one thing … almost always, a little something is better than no something … and right now, the basket that contained the Haitian infrastructure, has been dropped to the ground by an earthquake nobody predicted.