Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The swine flu, the heat wave and peak oil

French papers are talking about the swine flu too, even if it is still a distant threat. There are only two suspected cases, no casualty and no local transmission. Of course it is only a matter of time before we have both. At this stage the virus is unlikely to be contained and even seasonal flu kills. At this point, it remains to be seen whether the epidemic is a replay of the 1918 Spanish flu – 50 millions dead – of the 1957 Asian flu – 1 to 4 millions dead worldwide – or something less severe.

It also remains to be seen whether the French health system can handle the crisis, that is if there is a crisis. Authorities tell they can, that they have been readying themselves for an avian flu pandemics for years and that they have a large supply of antivirals. The logistic may prove problematic, however, especially if a big percentage of the population becomes ill. French hospitals are notoriously short of funds and skilled personnel and the situation can only worsen as the disease spreads – nurses and physicians can catch the flu too.

We could very well be overwhelmed by the epidemics.

What happened during the last sanitary emergency is, in that matter, particularly telling. During the summer of 2003 , France was stricken by an unusually long and severe heatwave. Temperature reached 40°C for more than a week and nearly 15,000 persons died as a result. The health administration had never planned for such a situation and since the minister – and the biggest part of the government – was in holiday nothing was done until it was too late.

This may happen again.

What won't happen, however, is the kind of apocalyptic fantasy we see in such movies as Virus – the 1980 Japanese film whose “star” was an “Italian flu” - or Twelve Monkeys. Even though the human race has a dangerously low genetic diversity, it is highly unlikely a single disease could wipe us out or even cause the collapse of the civilization. The swine flu will kill, possibly a lot. It will disturb travel and trade. It will deepen the global depression. If it changes history, however, it will be the way the Spanish Flu did : by killing individuals who could otherwise have made a difference.

Governments will react. They will impose local quarantines, develop a vaccine and distribute antivirals. They might have to resort to extreme measures – even if it is unlikely - declare martial law or a state of emergency. They may even grossly mismanage – the bloated French administration is a prime candidate for that – but at the end it will be back to business as usual.

What is interesting is the stark contrast between the way we, as a society, treat the swine flu crisis and the way we don't treat the potentially far more destructive peak oil crisis. Of course, epidemics are something we are familiar with. Even in our heavily sanitized societies we have all been faced with a potentially deadly disease – I for one lost an eye to herpes and probably nearly died during a stay in Denmark. This has given us a healthy respect for contagious diseases. Peak Oil, on the other end, is something we have never experienced and while we know from history book civilizations can and do collapse because of resource depletion, it is sufficiently removed from our everyday experience for us to forget it.

There is, however, something deeper here. The swine flu is a short term crisis, as is an earthquake, a war or a drought and that is exactly the kind of problem our societies have evolved to solve. As Joseph Tainter, of The Collapse of Complex Societies fame, stated, complex societies are basically problem solving systems and they are generally pretty good at it. What they are notoriously bad at, however, is dealing with chronic conditions.

Contrary to what Hollywood would let us think, Romans, to take an easy example, were not defeated by Germanic invaders, not even in Britain. When there was an invasion, they met it, quite efficiently, and won most of the time. What they couldn't do, however, was get out of the spiral of catabolic collapse and resource depletion which made sure every victory was temporary and every defeat definitive.

We are better than the Romans at identifying deleterious social and economic trends, but only marginally better. Our collective mindset is still mostly stuck in the preindustrial area, when planning ahead too much could be a self-defeating strategy because it tied up much needed resources, which could limit your ability to deal with more immediate crises. If you don't believe me, just have a look at the current batch of disasters movie. They all deal with short-term disasters, in part because it is dramatically more convenient, but only in part – one could, after all imagine a decline soap or a HBO's Rome equivalent set in the fifth century.

The problem is that our culture has a very hard time envisioning a long, protracted struggle to adapt to deteriorating conditions and therefore let the outcome of this struggle be decided by chance and the blind forces of social change.

Peak oil is unfortunately exactly the kind the long term disease we are so ill endowed, culturally speaking, to face, as is global warming, by the way. If we want to come out of it with something even remotely looking like a civilization, we must learn to plan ahead for chronically deteriorating times... hoping we can still do it another way than Hari Seldon's

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