When Complex Systems Fail
By: Tom Chatham – Author of Rebuilding The Republic
When complex systems fail, they almost never fail all at once. They usually suffer from a cascading failure or a series of smaller failures leading up to the complete breakdown of the systems functions. Our social, economic and environmental systems are all breaking down and the end result will be catastrophic for the people, but the breakdown will not happen all at once.
Many people understand that the system is failing but they do not have a clear understanding of how it will affect them. In a cascading failure one part leads to the damage and failure of another part until everything stops. In an automobile, when the oil pump goes bad it stops pumping oil to all of the internal parts that come in contact with one another preventing them from causing excess wear to one another. As the oil flow stops it will not stop the engine or any other parts from working and you will continue down the road unknowing unless a light or gage gives you a warning. As the oil is worn off of the metal parts you begin to get more signs something is wrong. The lifters will start tapping louder as time goes on and the temperature of the engine will start to increase as the parts cause more friction with one another. Eventually the bearings will begin to wear excessively against one another until they seize up and stop the engine completely.
This could happen very rapidly or it could happen over a matter of minutes, but the damage will be the same. Many people feel that the economic problems they see ahead will occur like a car wreck, happening very rapidly and ending suddenly in heavy damage and chaos. With large complex systems, there are many moving parts and they rarely all fail simultaneously. Instead you will more likely see a cascading series of failures that cause increasing damage as they progress. You might think of the coming breakdown more like falling down a long flight of stairs rather than an automobile accident.
As you begin to fall at the top of the stairs you realize you are in trouble but it takes a short period of time before the first damage is done. As you impact the first step you suffer much damage as your body absorbs the initial impact and slows you down a little. Then as you roll and tumble down the stairs you suffer more injury. Some steps you will hit hard and some you may miss entirely along the way. As you fall the injuries will increase until you get to the bottom. One person may fall all the way down and only suffer a few bruises while another may suffer a fractured skull and multiple broken bones. The difference comes in how flexible you are and able you are to absorb the impacts.
As you look at the potential breakdown ahead of you, you must look at your surroundings and consider cause and effect in evaluating the series of failures that will occur. It may take much longer for the breakdown to occur, requiring you to have a plan to carry you through the series of failures over a matter of weeks or months.
Let’s look at one type of breakdown. A hyperinflation situation does not happen overnight. It occurs over a matter of months or years. The systems that the people depend on become more dysfunctional as the inflation continues until they cannot function normally.
As the money becomes worth less the prices of necessities become more expensive. Those that depend on fixed income suffer as their money buys less and less. The workers are able to keep up with inflation for a while due to rising wages but even that becomes a losing battle. As the manufacturers and energy providers raise wages to keep up with inflation they also must raise prices to compensate. This affects fixed income people first then later the average man. As the masses begin to suffer from lack of necessities they sell or trade whatever they have to survive.
If they complain enough, the government may impose price controls to freeze prices. As the inflation continues producers begin to lose money on their products and at some point stop selling the items they are losing money on. This is when large farms will likely be visited by government buyers and will force the farmers to sell their products to the government for the set price which is a losing proposition for the farmers. Many will not continue producing the excess they once did and instead produce only for personal use until the situation changes. This causes real shortages where people cannot get the item even if they have plenty of currency. This is when the real suffering begins.
Those that have money and try to send it out of the affected area to preserve it may find that at some point the government enacts capital controls preventing you from moving your money out of the area. In this type of situation the actions taken by the government almost always cause more problems than they solve but they do them because the people demand action.
The people that get along better than most are the small farmers that operate under the radar and can provide food and items for barter. This is usually referred to as a black market, which operates in the shadows of a failing system to provide those with tradable items with the things they must have.
In a slow decay of support systems, a person must have not only stored items for trade but also be able to create items in a sustainable way to ride out the decay until the situation can stabilize and normal production systems can get back on line.
When the breakdown starts you need to be able to provide basics for your family until it is over. You need to have support systems that are fully owned and will not be lost especially through bankruptcy. You need to have shelter you can depend on. You need to have transportation you can depend on. You need stored food and clothing and a way to replenish those supplies for an indefinite period of time. You need a way to produce the energy you need such as wind, solar or wood gas. You need a place that is relatively safe and a way to protect your family when things become violent. You need resources to grow and store food. You need communications to keep you informed and medical resources to keep you healthy.
A simple plan might be to acquire 2 to 5 acres of land in a rural area, have a large tent, trailer or structure such as a cottage to live in, have some basic tools to produce food and some way to produce your own energy. With these few things you would be able to get by during the worst of the crisis and be able to produce excess to trade for the other things you need. The better you plan for a long series of failures, the more flexible you will be and the more able you will be to absorb the impacts on the way down. When the system fails and you end up at the bottom of the stairs, you want to be in the condition to get up and shake off the few bruises that you have. Those that fail to plan will suffer untold damage as their brittle bodies bounce and roll uncontrollably along the way leaving them unable to function when they reach the bottom.