Resilience in the modern society: Lessons from Japan’s earthquake

Contributor: Joe Mazzarella

As Japan struggled to combat the predations of a massive earthquake and tsunami, the forces of chaos have offered up another sober warning that societies are fragile. The everyday certainty and reliability experienced by citizens and leaders of modernised nations obscure the inherent vulnerabilities attendant to complex economies and societies functioning in a deeply interconnected and interdependent manner. The paradox that the Japan earthquake lays bare is that the very thing that creates a highly efficient and successful economy may well be the same thing that exposes us to catastrophic ruin.

The world witnessed, Japan suffer enormous devastation from a series of compounding events spawned from an initial large-scale natural disaster. These secondary and tertiary events cascaded like a series of invisible dominos spanning outwards in many directions from a single push of a finger. Japan’s emergency response and support infrastructure were stressed beyond its capacity to respond to all needs. From debris fields blocking search and rescue teams, heavy equipment and relief supplies being cut off from communities, to stranded people, trains and impassable roads, limited electricity from rolling blackouts, radiation clouds and evacuations, gas rationing, empty food shelves, insufficient numbers of body bags and decaying corpses due to a lack of refrigeration, the effects have been devastating. The spectre of a mass evacuation of Tokyo was not beyond the realms of possibility and should Japan’s nuclear emergency have continued to worsen, it may have become reality. The impact of evacuating 18 million people and the ensuing panic it would ignite, coupled with overwhelming devastation from the earthquake could have resulted in major collapses in critical sectors of civil society.

Fortunately, Japan has an intangible advantage that may very well be the key to their short and medium-term survival, the inherently cooperative, caring and self-restrained nature of the Japanese society. The culturally engrained resilience of the average Japanese citizen that provided a vast network of local, human support infrastructure that helped them prevail.

One can readily observe how the more sophisticated and complex societies become the more fragile they are in terms of their exposure to large-scale disasters. As societies become more modernised, economic sectors become more specialised and more concentrated, becoming ever more efficient in production and streamlined in the delivery of services and products. Economies of scale are achieved through great volumes, and this has the practical effect of driving consolidation, cost reduction and lower prices and higher profit margins.

Communications and digital information networks drive financial transactions and exchanges set prices and delivery of critical commodities. Electrical and hydrocarbon based energy systems power our communications and information networks as well as our factories, transportation, and nearly every appliance in our households. Food production sources are no longer local, and they crucially depend on transportation and refrigeration. Water and sewage treatment systems depend on power. Medical systems depend on specialised medications and equipment manufactured by a small number of facilities and delivered by transportation systems. Shipping requires fuel and functioning transportation systems and ports, and payment settlement systems. This litany of interlocking dependencies could be continued virtually ad infinitum with increasing granularity, but let the above suffice for sake of argument.

Where the old watchmaker may have made his own parts or bought materials from locally produced resources, the new global watch company assembles much, makes little and consumes even less locally, preferring to depend and upon vast supply chains, special parts makers, and sophisticated just-in-time transportation networks to receive goods and ship them back out to the market. And so it is for a thousand, thousand other niches which make up our vast and complex economy. The same holds true for the individual, where once most households were highly self-sustaining entities, virtually nothing is produced in the household. We are dependent on the delivery of food, electricity, water, and heat to our homes. Whereas at one time nearly all food was produced and sold locally yet a pair of French silk stockings was a rare imported extravagance, today it is just the opposite. One would be more likely to find French made stockings in a grocery store than to find locally produced berries. Modern households are fragile and are deeply dependent on far-reaching, often global, supply chains to perform.

Simply put, a vast web of highly dependent connections produces our increasingly productive, specialised and hyper-efficient world. But when one thread frays and breaks, as in the case of a large-scale power outage, the fabric can quickly unravel especially when pulled and stressed by even the smallest of forces.

Resilience in terms of key infrastructure and critical resources requires more than redundancy. It requires diverse modalities with functional redundancies. By these terms, I mean using many different methods and ways to achieve the same or substantially same functions. On both counts, global economic forces drive in the opposite direction.

Redundancy means necessarily having more of the same thing. By definition, this means having excess capacity. This is squarely at odds with competitive global economic forces that drive the cost of production down by eliminating excess or idle capacity. In the most efficient and productive market ideal, the productive capacity of an asset should be producing at full capacity up to the last marginal profit dollar. At anything less, it is not being used to its highest economic value. So, creating more idle capacity is at odds with market forces even if it is beneficial from a disaster perspective.

However, pure redundancy (or more of the same) is not sufficient to establish high levels of resilience. As was demonstrated in the Japanese nuclear reactor failures, redundant cooling systems constructed the same way may reduce the probability of failure but all are vulnerable to the same type of failure. Across virtually all industries the same or similar parts (and underlying designs) are often used by the same vendors.

So what is to be done? Replacing free market mechanisms with old-style managed economies is unwise, but what is new is that global market forces are operating in ways that are asymmetric to sovereign interests. Once robust and competitive production assets are removed from the fabric of a nation (whether it is energy resources or raw and processed materials production, food production, core manufacturing capabilities, technological know-how), the overall resilience of that nation becomes dependent upon cooperative forces beyond its borders. Nations become subject to global supply chains and the competing interests and decisions of foreign entities and agnostic market forces. The ability to direct policies that create a robust and healthy production capability is greatly diminished. Looking at the United States, a strong case can be made that it has become substantially more vulnerable over the past 30 years as its competitive industrial production and infrastructure has been dismantled and shipped overseas. Many of our critical resources, raw materials and finished materials are produced in foreign markets, and little domestic capability remains.

We must begin to investigate and understand the vulnerabilities that are being created by complex interdependencies through economic globalisation. There is a compelling case to be made that consolidation and elimination of domestic industries create additional vulnerabilities to large-scale disasters and hamper recovery. Resilience requires investment in diversified redundant capabilities with backup capacity in key sectors of our economy. Also, restoring and protecting competitive production capabilities across key sectors within domestic markets is vital to a resilient fabric.

Finally, returning to Japan, perhaps when all else fails the last line of resilience lies in the citizenry itself. Creating a culture of individual preparedness and fostering mutual care among neighbours during times of crisis might very well be the invisible thread that holds us together.

Joe Mazzarella is the Chief Legal Counsel for Mutualink, Inc., manufacturers of affordable emergency communications solutions that enable community-wide emergency preparedness networks to be created. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and has a degree in Chemistry from Hobart College.

The article first appeared on Joe’s blog Emergency Preparedness Today.

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