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Of potholes, disasters and collapse

Image: The Local People Photo Archive

One benefit of cycling (rather than driving) along public roads is that I have had a much better view of the slow degeneration of the road surface.  As a regular cyclist, I have been aware for more than a year that my local roads had deteriorated to the point that widespread pot-holing was about to occur.  Small cracks, sags and deformities that would not be visible to a motorist driving by at speed have been easily visible to passing cyclists.  But these days the authorities do not do anything until a pot hole opens up.  Indeed, even after a hole has appeared, little happens beyond someone from the council spray painting a yellow line around it (presumably to stop people phoning in to complain).  Action – usually just throwing some asphalt into the hole – is a temporary fix that often results in even more of the road surface being broken up in the longer term.

Why am I telling you this?

Because local authorities in the UK stopped resurfacing roads in 2010, when the central government began to impose severe austerity cuts to their budgets.  In order to meet their statutory duty to provide services like education and child protection, councils had to cut back on discretionary spending that included road maintenance.  And for the most part, they have got away with it because (who would have guessed?) road surfaces are designed to be resilient – they can take years of pounding from cars, vans, trucks and buses without, apparently, being damaged.

Beneath the surface it is a different story.  Even a small car can weigh more than a ton; a bus can weigh 6-8 tons.  That weight, rolling along the road at 30mph day-in, day-out gradually shifts the foundation beneath the road surface.  This creates the small sags and hairline cracks that a passing cyclist would see, but a driver would not.  It has taken eight years for the potholes to open up; and this winter the proliferation of pot holes is substantial.  We have reached the point – even on our motorways – where passing vehicles are damaged.

The key point here is that there is a long time lag between a budget cut and its impact. And this doesn’t just apply to relatively superficial problems like holes in the road.  The current crisis in England’s health service is not due to funding cuts this year, but to the cumulative impact of annual cuts since 2010.  The Grenfell Tower disaster last summer was – at least in part – the result of the same interaction between central government austerity cuts and local authority cost-saving.  By “saving” on higher-cost non-flammable cladding for the outside of the building, the local council (and its agents) set up the incineration of the building’s inhabitants.

Something similar happened at the end of the 1980s after a similarly austerity-obsessed Tory government pursued public spending cuts and privatisations in an attempt to make the UK economy more “efficient” and “flexible.”  Efficiency, however, is the enemy of resilience – each is only achieved at the expense of the other.  The result was an observable cluster of disasters beginning in 1984 and running through to the mid-1990s.

Rather like financial crashes, disasters tend to be seen as unpredictable.  But, as with Grenfell Tower, the only unpredictable part is which of the hundreds of towers that were clad in inferior materials gets to house the disaster.  Trawl through the inquiry and inquest reports into the disasters between 1984 and 1996 and time and again you find some form of cost cutting – ships crews on 12 hour shifts (Zeebrugge) Electricians working 12 hours, seven days per week for 13 consecutive weeks (Clapham) airlines saving on pilot simulator training (Kegworth) cuts to platform staff (King Cross) removing the drivers assistant from high speed trains (Ladbroke Grove) Failing to maintain points (Hatfield)…

Less well known about these disasters – something I discovered when doing research for the British Home Office in the mid-1990s – was that each of the (non-terrorist) disasters in the cluster was preceded by one or more “near misses.”  However, rather than respond to these incidents of good fortune as a call to action, the very fact that nobody died had, tragically, been taken as proof that existing safety arrangements worked.

Something similar may be playing out in the banking and financial sector today, with each crisis since 1987 growing in size; starting with stock markets bailing out companies, then banks bailing out stock markets, governments bailing out banks, and then…?  At each point everyone assumed that the crisis had been averted until the next – even bigger – storm broke over their heads.

This is how systems break down – not in one dig drop, but in a series of accidents and near misses that become increasingly difficult to recover from.  And this is also how empires and civilisations go down.

The first, Bronze Age, world system in the Eastern Mediterranean came to grief sometime around the year 1177 BCE.  For a long time, references to Rameses III defeating the “Sea People” in a battle in the Nile Delta allowed historians to believe that the collapse was due to invasions similar to the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire centuries later.  However, it now appears that the invasions – insofar as they contributed to collapse at all – came at the end of the process.  Analysis of pollen fragments suggest that the region experienced a period of cooling that caused drought and crop failures; undermining the energetic base of the various empires and kingdoms in the region.  The ruins of Jericho – once believed to have been sacked by the mysterious “Sea People” – bear none of the broken spear points and arrow heads found in Bronze Age invasions. They do, however, have all of the features of a settlement destroyed by an earthquake.

What emerges from the evidence is an interconnected world system of trading relationships that came unhinged as a result of a gradual fall in the energy (food) available to the society.  As hunger set in, the division of labour shrank as more workers were needed to produce food, while fewer were available to mine and manufacture goods for trade.  As trade broke down, key materials (like the copper and tin used to make bronze) became harder to obtain; making tasks that depended upon them impossible to sustain.  Disasters – like earthquakes – and invasions that would previously have been easy to overcome, became increasingly difficult.  Eventually, the cost of providing a military to defend against invasion, together with the ever-increasing cost of recovering from disaster undermined the empires and kingdoms themselves.  The result, as always, was a dark age in which the survivors reverted to more primitive and less energetic living arrangements.

Surely our civilisation is different.

Well, only in the sense that ours is the most efficient and most energy-dependent civilisation to have ever existed on this planet (and possibly in the entire galaxy).  The once-and-for-good gift/curse of fossil fuels has allowed us to develop a division of labour and a suite of technologies that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago.  Because we see the technology, but not the energy that makes it work, we have been lulled into the false assumption that clever people will always be able to come up with technological solutions to save the day.  However, like the decaying foundations beneath an apparently good road surface, the gradual wear and tear of our way of life has been undermining the energetic basis of our high tech world.

This was first manifest (for anyone who was paying attention) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; when it became apparent that the wealthiest country that has ever existed lacked the means to rebuild one of its major cities in the face of a relatively normal weather event by today’s standards.  The slow motion defeat of the US military in the various petrodollar wars it has engaged in since 2001 has all of the hallmarks of an empire whose military has outgrown the economic base that has to support it.  Underpinning this decline – which is far more evident on the fringes of empire – is the modern equivalent of Bronze Age crop failures: the cost of recovering unconventional fossil fuels is greater than the cost that western economies can bear.  The result, however, is not the immediate catastrophic collapse of the energy system to something close to 100 percent renewable, but rather the decline of discretionary economic activities as an increasing part of the wealth of western civilisation is diverted to energy recovery/generation (including deploying solar panels and wind turbines).

As you made it to the end…

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