George Walford: Planning Against Disaster

By positing the ideological pyramid systematic ideology raises an apparent difficulty for itself: If only the tiny minority towards the peak can be expected to appreciate the importance of s. i., how can this theory ever exercise any general influence? Physical science offers an illuminating parallel; few of us know much about it, yet it affects all our lives. It does so by providing (via technology) facilities we can all use; we do not need to understand electronics to use television. In a similar way, s.i. is beginning to put forward answers to questions about social affairs, answers which can be applied, without any mention of ideology, through that social equivalent of technology known as practical politics. The piece which follows tackles one such question: How can we best plan to cope with dangers threatening social breakdown?

The Centre for European Studies has called for papers responding to Jean Gimpel’s: An Emergency Plan for our Civilization. Issuing a Press Notice headed An Emergency Plan for Europe it warns that ‘Numerous national institutions and customs are breaking down at the same time as the financial system is assuming global proportions and a dangerous degree of centralisation.’ Claiming that Europe carries a special responsibility, the Centre announces a symposium on the subject The Uncertainty of Civilisation’s Future.

If preparation of a plan for Europe forms part of the project, then one big question has already been answered. We are assuming that civilisation does have a future, and a highly organised one, for otherwise no plan extending over a continent would have any hope of being put into effect. Such plans require a level of cooperation, of willingness to subordinate local interests to the welfare of the whole, that hardly exists even at present except as an aspiration. As yet we have for the new, integrated Europe, little more than a prospect and a group of nations likely to break apart, each of them retreating within its own interests, at the touch of any imminent threat to civilisation.

In the financial crisis of 1929 Britain, like other states, put its own interests first, and if the action taken plunged the world deeper into trouble, then so much the worse for the world. Although international cooperation has strengthened since then, the disputes over Maastricht show the continuing power of national interests. When a cold economic wind blows the tariff barriers start to go up. The USA breathes hints of a trade war and French farmers prod their government to retaliate. Among the early consequences of serious breakdown, however caused, must be reckoned a general retreat behind national frontiers, reduction rather than increase in international cooperation. Nor is that the limit. Events in the former USSR show what can happen when cohesion weakens, it was late in the 19th Century that Germany and Italy attained unity, and as recently as the mid-18th a Scottish army invaded England. Political fragmentation does not have to stop at the level of the present nation states.

Plan for Europe by all means, but recognise that to do so is not to provide a fallback position but to advance towards a more highly organised and integrated civilisation.

Although we commonly speak of ‘the’ financial system, that definite article carries unjustified implications. The world’s financial arrangements do not constitute a unity liable to collapse in the way a building may do, leaving nothing but rubble behind. The overall system comprises a multiplicity of smaller ones, each of them dealing with the internal affairs of a state or (as in North America) a group of states. Less highly organised than the broad international setup, these tend to be also more durable; they were around long before the larger one appeared, and they do not need it in order to function within their limits. Although some of the financial sub-systems would doubtless be destroyed by an international failure, and all of them would suffer, yet we can reasonably expect many to persist, for they have already shown themselves capable of independent life, operating from the first invention of coinage up to quite recent times without anything closely approaching the global, computerised and sensitive structure that now shows instability.

The human race has spent most of its time on earth without using money, a shorter period with currencies of geographically restricted usefulness, and (on the 24-hour clock analogy) only the last second or so with organised international finance. So far as money goes the emergency arrangements, tested over centuries, are already in place and we can fall back on them if we have to, although that ‘we’ would be a good deal smaller than the current one. The presence of five thousand million of us is one consequence of a highly sophisticated society with international finance as a functional part of it; interfere with that and the numbers will drop; most steeply, probably, in the countries farthest removed from peasant life.

This one example illustrates the general principle of social development. The base stands firm, with each advance resting upon the previous one and leading into areas that grow progressively less self- sustaining, requiring increasing care and attention to avoid breakdown and, even so, carrying an increasing risk of it.

Disaster has always been possible; head-on collision with a sizeable asteroid, or a radical change in the sun’s radiation, would have ended humanity and no argument about it. Short of something like that, however, the first human communities were secure. So long as the animal and vegetable worlds continued to produce their modest requirements they could survive; if the natural harvest failed in one area they went elsewhere, for a sparse population left the world open. The agricultural societies that succeeded them were bigger and stronger. Even an early food-growing community might be a thousand times bigger than a foraging one, and a conflict between the two would be no contest. With size, however, came vulnerability. That greater population needed feeding, and if the crops failed it was in trouble. It could hardly migrate, and in any case, as time went by the world filled up; once the Americans reached the Pacific that escape-route was closed. Agriculture brought a vastly increased food supply supporting a much greater population and, with these, the possibility of mass starvation. Social disaster became a grim prospect, all too often realised.

With the arrival of industry, the same pattern appeared again. Greater powers increased the scope of human activity, bringing still greater populations and new possibilities of disaster. Up to around the 15th Century, and even later, large parts of the world remained virtually independent of each other, what happened among the Hindus, the Incas or the Chinese having little effect upon Europe and Europe little to do with them. Since then integration has been increasing, until now we have one civilisation embracing virtually the whole planet. Even though it is more of a unity in some dimensions than in others, showing industrial coherence while still politically fragmented, yet no significant part of the world remains any longer independent. The new techniques enabled the advanced countries to engage in world trade, importing much of what they needed from abroad, and this rendered them more dependent upon each other; the American Civil War, interrupting the flow of supplies, wrecked the Lancashire cotton trade.

International trade has developed together with international finance, recent developments in electronic calculation and communication bringing the capacity for almost instantaneous response and, once again, the new facilities brought an increase in power to support human life. It took from the beginnings till around 1900 for our numbers to reach two billion; now we total nearly six, and the UN predicts eight billion by 2020. Once again greater power and closer integration brought increased vulnerability. Effects of the 1987 collapse in share prices went beyond the stock markets to interfere with production, and one reason for this was that many computerised systems ensured automatic sales when prices dropped below a given figure, producing a rapidly descending spiral. Previous financial systems could not have supported modern commerce and industry, but neither were they liable to that sort of implosion.

Probably the greatest disaster to hit Europe during historical times was the Black Death of the fourteenth century, killing off a third or more of the population; civilization survived. If we think of a disaster worse than that, of some global catastrophe putting an end to civilised life, then we have to accept our inability to prepare in advance to cope with it. We cannot usefully prepare to meet horror- film destruction on a global scale, for plans made in advance are not going to rescue a shattered society; they too would go down in the wreckage. Planning finds its place in eventualities permitting a retreat to prepared positions.

We can reasonably assume that catastrophe of one sort or another will strike sooner or later, for it has done so repeatedly in the past, but its timing, scale, shape and particular consequences will all be unexpected and the unexpected, by definition, cannot be prepared for. Accumulate the resources to meet a fire and suffer a flood, set up bomb-shelters and find you have to fight a more infectious form of AIDS.

If the collapse of the Russian attempt to prescribe in detail does not make the point by itself, then consider some of the ramifications, within existing society, of so slight an adjustment as a change in the price of copper. This entails a number and complexity of compensatory adjustments going beyond possibility of computation. Increase the price of copper and the price of every commodity containing the metal shifts by an amount varying with the quantity of the metal contained. And that is only the beginning, for the change provokes a search for substitute materials, and new designs using less of the metal, each success bringing its train of consequences, including effects upon manufacturing methods, processes and personnel, upon transport, research and education.

The general effect, that less copper would be used, would be predictable with reasonable certainty (though the economists will doubtless be able to show that it’s not as simple as that), but attempting to subject these tangled inter-relationships to detailed purposeful control would be worse than useless; it would constitute a step backwards. Human progress consists, to a great extent, in coming to perform unconsciously actions that once required attention; learning to walk provides the paradigm and planning itself another example. In dealing with any complex situation, effective planning moves on a number of levels, the units of each one ‘chunked’ to form those of the next above, but not even the most detailed of them prescribing exactly the bodily movements to be made. Planning intended to cope with a disaster placing the future of civilisation in jeopardy cannot usefully be carried out in detail, it has to be largely a matter of thinking out the principles, and this gives our first rule of disaster planning: Stay with the generalities.

A civilised society functions less as a collection of parts than as a system, a structure in dynamic equilibrium, any change in one of its constituents bringing compensatory shifts in the others, tending to maintain the stability of the whole. An organism (though a more than biological one) rather than a machine (though it comprises mechanical elements). Natural resources never could support more than a very small number of millions world-wide, and we have damaged the environment’s capacity to do even that; it will need centuries to recover.

Given the level of development of any one major institution of a society we can predict that of the others with a useful degree of accuracy and reliability. Karl Marx relied on the means of production as the fundamental determinant, presenting the politics, government, law, religion, science, art and literature, the whole ‘ideological superstructure,’ as a consequence of this. His insight deepened understanding of the way society functions, but a century of experience has revealed some of its limitations. He failed to recognise, for example, that a system of production is itself an ideological phenomenon, people coming together to make these or those things, or refraining from making things at all, according to the way they think. We have better reason to question Marx’s formulation than he ever had, and in fact it works equally well inverted. That an industrial society has a democratic political system is indeed a useful (though far from invariable) rule, but the converse is equally valid: political democracies have a strong tendency to use industrial methods of production.

Assume a mutation giving a plague of metal-eating bacteria. According to their number and preferences (steel or platinum?) it might no longer be practical to continue with industrial production. Suppose we get forced back to reliance upon animal power; a mass of historical evidence indicates that we shall find ourselves reverting also to rule by a military aristocracy headed by some single figure; a king, emperor or the like. We shall be well advised to get the new system established as quickly as possible, for attempts to cling to the joys of parliamentary democracy will only extend the agony.

Conversely, if some uniquely charismatic dictator should succeed in extinguishing democratic organisation, establishing in its place police rule with close restrictions upon freedom of public speech, of assembly and the press, we should have to accept regression at least to a more elementary industrial level if not farther, for high technology needs open communication, with general freedom of access to information.

Although the nature of the coming catastrophe remains unknown, and its consequences unpredictable in detail, their general shape can be foretold: according to the severity of the damage, society will regress to one or another stage on the path of development it has followed, for the more recent developments are the more vulnerable. In the event of collapse leading to regression, the more sophisticated technology will vanish first, the global interdependence it brought going with it. Fax machines and aircraft come with a level of worldwide integration beyond the scope of steamship and telegraph.

What, beyond bare survival, are we to plan for? The simplest life relies upon gathering supplies that grow naturally, and such communities provide conditions for their people that many an anthropologist has admired. We can no longer count on this. Natural resources never could support more than a very small number of millions world-wide, and we have damaged the environment’s capacity to do even that; it will need centuries to recover. The survivors will have to grow their food, and according to the severity of the disaster, their numbers, and their assumptions about the way life ought to be lived, they will find it best to use one or another of the methods already known. These fall under three main heads (each of them may be combined with herding):

1) By hand, using the hoe. This comes with living in villages under rule by chiefs.

2) By animal power, using the plough. This also comes with life mainly in villages under local rulers, each of them now holding rank in a hierarchy, with a king over all. Walled towns provide markets and services.

3) By mechanical power with chemical fertilizers. This means open cities, general literacy, and at least the beginnings of parliamentary democracy.

These considerations give our second principle of planning to meet large-scale social disaster: Politics has to agree with economics. They have a strong tendency to correlate anyway; trying to keep them out of phase wastes time and energy if it does nothing worse.

The stability of present society, and its ability to maintain the present world population, result from a multiplicity of causes, developments, influences, tendencies and achievements in a multitude of fields, all of them reflecting and interacting. If that breaks down we are not going to build it up again by following any detailed plan, and we have even less chance of replacing it by anything of comparable complexity that we have not already experienced. The Russian collapse almost makes the point by itself, and the consistency with which government schemes, even in stable, familiar societies, produce unexpected results calling for radical revision provides confirmation. That happens with the full range of social resources available for their implementation; the reduction of facilities following catastrophe is hardly going to increase the chance of success. So we come to the third rule of disaster planning: Don’t attempt novelties. (You’ll get enough of those anyway).

To sum up: Rule One: Stay with general principles. Rule Two: Politics has to agree with economics. Rule Three: Don’t attempt novelties.

Here as elsewhere, prevention offers advantages over treatment. The most effective way of coping with disaster is to establish, beforehand, the society best able to ward off its effects, one offering the fullest expression, in theory and in practice, for the tendencies of its members.

from Ideological Commentary 62, November 1993.