The Fragility of Complex Societies

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

Thoughts on Japan

There is no more ordered, successful and humane urban society than found in Japan.Like most Americans, these last few days I have been moved as never before by the courage and calm of the Japanese people amid such horrific conditions, as one of the most sophisticated and complex urbanized cultures on the planet in a split second is nearly paralyzed. I confess I do not quite fathom the constant American news blitzes about all sorts of China Syndrome scenarios. Radiation pollution is a serious worry, but right now no one has died from exposure and perhaps 10,000 have perished from the tsunami and earthquake. It seems to me the greater worry right now is not yet a meltdown, but the vast dangers resulting from disruptions in food, water, power, and sewage.

Odder still, it was almost crass to watch American TV heads lead in with shrill, hyped-up mini-dramas about possible radiation clouds descending here on the West Coast, even as their backdrop screens showed biblical disasters of earthquake, flood and human wreckage. Whether we are exposed to a chest-X-ray dose of radiation seems insignificant in comparison to the horrific conditions that millions of Japanese are now enduring.

The Efficiency of Complexity Versus the Flexibility of De-centralization

Japan’s high density, central planning, mass transit, demographic uniformity, and a culture of mutual dependence allow millions to live humanely and successfully in quite crowded conditions (in areas of Tokyo at 6,000 persons and more per square kilometer). And compared to other Asian and African cities (Mumbai or Lagos) even Tokyo is relatively not so dense, though far more successful. Yet such urban societies are extremely vulnerable to the effects of earthquakes, tsunamis, “man-caused disasters” and other assorted catastrophes, analogous in nature perhaps to tightly knit bee colonies that have lost their queens.

I don’t know quite why many of our environmentalists and urban planners wish to emulate such patterns of settlement (OK, I do know), since for us in America it would be a matter of choice, rather than, as in a highly congested Japan, one of necessity. Putting us in apartments and high rises, reliant on buses and trains, and dependent on huge centralized power, water, and sewage grids are recipes not for ecological utopia, but for a level of dependence and vulnerability that could only lead to disaster. Again, I understand that in terms of efficiency of resource utilization, such densities make sense and I grant that culture sparks where people are, but in times of calamity these regimens prove enormously fragile and a fool’s bargain.

The Individualist American

I once wrote about the value of decentralization and local autonomy in The Other GreeksFields without Dreams, and The Land Was Everything — the shared theme being that the self-employed, the rural living (or even the suburbanite), and those who, in extremis, are able to produce their own food and shelter are far more autonomous, and far better able to react to adversity.

I know that there are two issues here — politically planned centralization and a more natural centralization that arises organically due to demography and a dearth of land. But both phenomena share affinities, and politics often in history simply reflects demographic realities.

Jefferson warned about Americans being piled on top of one another in cities of anonymity; and I am reminded of that difference from occasional trips to Manhattan versus a month each year in Hillsdale, Michigan. (Snow paralyzes New York as the mayor pontificates on transfats and second-hand smoke rather than plowing; snow seems not to bother rural and small-town residents of Michigan.)

History is a guide here. Perhaps a few thousand “Sea Peoples” toppled the highly complex, redistributive Mycenaean citadels, in a way that would have been impossible with the later decentralized and far less hierarchical city-states that grew up after the Dark Ages on very different premises from the pyramidal culture of Mycenaean Greece. The former had a palatial script, Linear B, used by a tiny scribal elite to monitor the redistributive economy; the latter developed a very different, far more flexible Greek alphabet, one that led to widespread literacy and true literature. There is no Mycenaean Antigone.

The hydraulic dynasties of the Near East and the pharaohs’ Egypt, despite their centuries of existence, were likewise vulnerable in a way that both Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt was not. Less than 3,000 hidalgos under Cortés decapitated the Aztec Empire in less than three years. In our time, we have seen, with the implosion of the Soviet system, the wages of central planning and a redistributive economy.

Apartment America?

While a disaster comparable to Tokyo is certainly possible here in California, Americans are by nature less prone to rely on centrally provided resources, and are still uneasy with high urban densities. We forget that the suburbanite — ranch house, three cars in the garage, and distance from the urban center — is not just an energy waster in comparison with his Euro apartment-dwelling, single Smart-car-driving, train-commuting counterpart, but a far more independent-minded, free, and self-reliant citizen as well. Again, I hope our technological future is not in grand mass transit projects thought up and operated by a huge federal government, but in cleaner, more fuel-efficient, private cars; not in massive power plants, but smaller, more dispersed local generators, be they powered by nuclear, solar, wind, or fossil fuels; and not in vast agricultural hydraulic regimes, but in family-operated, more intensively worked farms that are the anchors of rural communities — as idealistic and naive as that may sound.

Homo Americanus

In a wider sense, America’s strength has always been found in the self-reliant, highly individualist, even eccentric citizen. We see these profiles still in the independent trucker or the small business person. And I think they were an (unremarked upon) essential ingredient to the Tea Party movement, which is why it terrified the metrosexual media, the government apparatchik, and those dependent on federal largess. We need these cranky independent people, if only as a minority to remind the rest of us who are plugged into huge conglomerations, both private and public, for our wages and sustenance that there are dangers with reliance on hierarchy, centralized government, and high density — which, well beyond fragility, inevitably results in groupthink, fad, and cultural uniformity.

So it is not mindless to resist high speed rail (here in California it would be far wiser and cheaper first to ensure a three-lane, safe north-south freeway 99 or I-5). Our larger corporate farms, given the lack of ground water on the West Side, are dependent on centralized federal water projects, which, when abruptly cut off, can end production altogether — quite a contrast to the eastern side of California where smaller farmers, a shallower water table, and ancestral, local, and gravity-fed, Sierra-sourced water districts, funded by farmers themselves, are more resilient.

Complexity Everywhere — Fragility Too

This fragility of complexity has especially bothered me the last 80 days, well before the tragedy in Japan. Some random experiences: I am teaching one morning a week at Pepperdine for the spring 15-week semester, each week alternating between flying and driving. One week in January, the power at terminal one in LAX just went out — no explanation, no rhyme or reason, no notice when or if it would return. Thousands of travelers were rendered helpless — no running water, bathrooms, overhead lights. All flights delayed or cancelled, as mobs packed flight counters or simply walked out of the darkened halls to the curb. Then abruptly later it went back on — again, no explanation. The attendants at the counter simply shrugged and said “they” must have fixed it. To paraphrase those in the Wild Bunch, who are “they”?

“Free” ways allow freedom not allowed by mass transit. But in our day and age we neglected them, thought them even passé, and now they are beginning to resemble mass transit in their congested fragility. Last week I carefully got off the 405 onto the single 101 freeway exit lane to the west to Ventura (the route has not changed much in 40 years). The traffic was almost stopped, with no margin of error. And then, of course, one pickup truck, with poorly tied down crates and used lumber, scattered his load over the freeway, disrupting the entire flow — and causing complete stasis. Imagine, a single lane from the multilane 405 leads into the 101 west; block it, and thousands are stranded.

The California freeways were brilliantly designed. On good days I can drive 200 miles without incident in three hours; but again there is now, with 37 million people in these dense corridors, no margin of error — given that the freeways were never designed either for the present traffic flows or the sorts of drivers that now use them — mutatis mutandis, so too the airports. Driving in L.A. this semester, I get the sense that there are literally thousands of drivers who, each and individually, have the potential, through their own ignorance of traffic laws, lack of skill, or carelessness about their loads, simply to shut down such a complex system for tens of thousands for hours. I wonder how many drivers that soar by even have licenses, insurance, or registration.

Then on Thursday my old email server from CSU simply went out — a recorded message says they are working on it. But it has now been six days without the reception of a single email, and I get phone calls inquiring whether I retired. (The help desk advised getting a new account from somewhere else. I did, but am curious about such advice that translates into: don’t rely on us for service; try someone else). Again, in a nanosecond one’s entire electronic network is demolished and no one seems to know how to repair it with dispatch — or care too much that hundreds were without service.

I could go on, but all this suggests another danger of complexity — the inability to transmit knowledge and the dire wages of specialization. The original architects of such systems are now mostly dead, and we, their replacements, often lack their education and respect for civilization’s protocols. The result is that millions of Americans are simply enjoying a system built for them by others which they are not quite able to use, repair, expand — or understand.

I am not worried that contemporary elite engineers could not build a high-speed rail network, but I worry that the operators and the mechanics would not be able to ensure that it would run safely and on time. Again, when I drive in Los Angeles, I am amazed at the ingenuity of a long gone generation that crafted such a complex and ingenious system, and appalled at the ignoramuses text messaging and weaving who seem to abuse it by their incompetence or indifference to basic traffic safety and protocol. It is almost as if the drivers were not worthy of their inheritance.

Today’s popular culture knows Facebook well, but does one in a thousand know that a bee is necessary for an almond to set, or what a piston and cylinder are, or the difference between a southern and northern storm? I once asked my students to explain the winter solstice, not just the astronomy of it, but what such a date portended in terms of work, culture, and mindset. It was in the 1990s, and my favorite answer was, “She was a rap singer, Sister Solstice that mouthed off too much.”

Herdsmen Beneath the Lion Gate

Are we becoming like Dark Age Greeks (1100-800 BC) who wandered amid the ruins of the Mycenaean palaces, curious how such “hemi-gods” and “Olympians” were able to build things like the Lion Gate and the tholoi tombs, so far beyond their own competence that they deemed them the work of all-powerful mythological gods? Or maybe we will become 8th-century AD Greeks and Romans who looted the marble from their predecessors’ temples and majestic gravestones to scavenge the lead seals and the iron clamps or to melt down the stones for lime — or simply to seek shelter in abandoned shrines and temples.

The apocalyptic movies have it wrong: we do not need a nuclear holocaust, earthquake, or asteroid to put us back to The Road. We can get there easily with rising ignorance and illiteracy as we drift among an infrastructure we demand, but do not understand or appreciate: Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson


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