[ExI] Modes of failure Re: FW: How Electricity Became a Luxury Good

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Thu Sep 12 14:50:38 UTC 2013

On Thu, Sep 12, 2013 at 10:31:55AM -0400, Rafal Smigrodzki wrote:

> ### You are making good points and I do not discount the possibility
> that technological progress could be stopped or reversed due to state
> failures - the only thing I disagree with is that I don't see energy
> supply as a limiting issue. Sure, major failures are likely to

Historically, availability of cheap energy was always closely
correlated with GNP (however biased the metric) growth. No
known cases of decoupling have been known, so far.

> coincide with massive reductions in energy availability - but the
> direction of causation, IMO, would run from social issues to
> technology failures, not the reverse. We do have a handle on the
> technologies of energy generation but we are much less effective at
> social management (interpersonal power, political power, division of
> resources, time preferences, financial management). Rome did not fall
> because of military failure, it fell because of too much bread and

Actually, one of the reasons was insufficient bread.

> circuses (which eventually, after hundreds of years of decay, lead to
> military failure). The US and Europe will not fall because we run out

Europe is one sick puppy, and most of North America is not
any better shape. China is not doing at all well, if you
read between the lines.

> of energy but, here I agree with you, we could fall, for other
> reasons.
> It would be a useful discussion to analyze the modes of failure by
> degree of likelihood. Useful data points: Europe during and after WWII

That would be a good investment. A very good area of inquiry is
analysing modes of degradation to identify key points, and reengineer
the structures towards more resilience so that instead of a
contagious, unmanaged collapse cascade stages the now more resilient
system rolls back into defined states, becoming close to antifragile.

This would not have been necessary, had we acted on time (1970s/1980s).
Now a managed collapse appears a prerequsite for a sustainable
recovery. At this stage, further growth is postponed until we
can tap extraterrestrial resources. We've run out of everything
down here, due to our numbers, and our increased resource use
per capita.

> - no state failures despite insane levels of physical damage to
> resources. What if somebody killed the top 10% of population by IQ (as
> happened in Poland)? Still, no major state failure. Did a modern state

Rebound from war was possible because energy and other resources
were available. UK never really recovered. Poland just raided the
retirement pension funds. Germany is a low-wage country relying
on exports, and will collapse if the exports stop coming.

> ever fail utterly (i.e. disappeared and was replaced by hordes of
> disorganized savages, not just annexed by another modern state)? I

The Eastern block never recovered. Southern Europe never
recovered. UK never recovered (as a thought experiment, remove
The City which is largely ficticious, since running on financial
fumes, and run the numbers on what is left -- oops).

> can't think of an example. Sure, there is a first time for everything
> but the absence of failures despite damage levels far exceeding
> anything happening nowadays does put some constraints on the
> likelihood of such failures.

We don't know the likelihood. There was never a global civilization,
until now. All previous local cultures collapsed, and never recovered
on meaningful time scales.
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