Bootstrap World.

Given present trends and recent events, it’s time to revisit and update a few notions basic to the LOTRW blog over the years as well as the book by that title. Today’s focus is on natural hazards and disasters:

  • Extremes of nature are Earth’s way of doing business. By contrast, disasters, that is community disruptions that persist after the extremes have come and gone, and exceed the communities’ ability to recover unaided, are the result of human decisions and societal actions.
  • Since disasters are socially constructed, they tend to aggravate preexisting inequities (that is, the impacts and burdens fall most severely on the already-poor and disadvantaged). Today’s social media coverage of this widening gap between the haves- and have-nots is building awareness that opportunity for advancement in society may no longer be so broadly available has it had once been. The result is diminished sense of community and trust.
  • Disasters are also continually mutating in response to social change and technological advance. One important mutagen is increasing societal dependence on critical infrastructure. Today such infrastructure takes many forms and performs a variety of vital societal functions. Infrastructures maintain energy, food, and water supplies and their non-interuptibility; maintain health care; enable government operations and corporate supply chains; underpin the financial sector; develop and disseminate news, data, and information; and more. Such infrastructures used to be local, or regional, or national; today much such connectivity is global.
  • The resulting trend is toward disasters that are fewer in number but have far greater geographic reach, impact far larger populations.
  • This matters because what has historically been termed disaster recovery is at least a misnomer if not an oxymoron. Those who experience and survive disaster, whether individuals or corporate, never really recover. They are forever changed. Only rarely are they able to “lift themselves up by their bootstraps[1].” What we call recovery is instead more often a matter of a larger unaffected population spreading into the originally impacted area and taking over.
  • As disasters increase in scope and extent, they can reach the point where they impact entire nations or exert a global influence. There are then few (or no) unaffected populations who enjoy the means to rebuild.

As recently as a few years ago, most hazards experts spoke of such worldwide disasters in the abstract – as matters of possible concern, but only in the future. They listed a few potential scenarios: an asteroid strike; nuclear war; climate change; a pandemic. Human experience with such events had been extremely limited. The K-T meteor strike responsible leading to mass extinction of dinosaurs occurred well before human beings arrived on the scene (and in fact accomplished a planetary reset in ways that allowed mammals to take over the scene). The Black Death killed a significant fraction of the world’s population during the mid-14th century AD. Two twentieth-century World Wars engaged many nations and peoples; battle zones popped up across several continents as well as the world’s oceans. This global-disaster-as-future-possibility perspective has been reflected in LOTRW posts throughout the blog’s twelve-year lifetime.

Today, however, global disaster is happening – a present reality. The covid-19 pandemic, though fortunately less lethal at the individual level than the medieval bubonic plague, encountered a global society and healthcare infrastructure unable to cope with the large numbers of people suddenly needing care at the same time. The Black Death killed perhaps as many as a third of the people living between Iceland and India over a span of a year or so, bringing the feudal economy (that had been based on a surplus of labor) to an end. Without serfs to do their work, the nobility lost power to the people, who built an emerging middle class. Though killing a much smaller percentage, the covid-19 pandemic eliminated many service sector-jobs, and led to work from home for large numbers of professionals. The breakdown of supply chains coupled with rising demand for goods following the pandemic’s peak has produced worldwide inflation not seen for 40 years. The world’s economy and labor force will never be the same.

Similarly. the intensity and pervasive extent of the season’s northern hemisphere heat waves are driving home the point that climate change is a present-day reality and not some unlikely or distant future prospect. Intermittent, localized food and water shortages and power outages are triggering massive economic shifts and migration of large populations that will accompany the transition to climate conditions of the 22nd century.

Finally, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, though limited geographically, looks like a new kind of World War – not the nuclear holocaust feared during the Cold War era (though that remains a risk today), but nonetheless global in scope, and directly and profoundly affecting large civilian, nominally non-combatant populations. Russia and the Ukraine together constitute a significant fraction of the world’s grain supply. The conflict has reduced agriculture production and compromised the grain transport, and thus created or exacerbated food shortages and massive price increases on every continent. Russia supplies a significant fraction of European energy; in response to what it sees as European interference with its sovereignty, it has reduced these flows of gas and oil, and threatens further reductions.  The developed world has weaponized its financial infrastructure in response, attempting to bring Russia to heel through a range of economic sanctions. Armament and munitions manufacture are everywhere racing ahead.

None of these measures is, strictly speaking, new. But years of globalization and stresses on food and energy supplies triggered by climate change have combined to make them more potent. Their differing impacts on countries worldwide have led to patchworked (and often inconsistent and conflicted) multinational alignments.

The simultaneous overlay of these three global catastrophes, and the weaponizing of non-military infrastructures, comes at a time when trust in institutions, particularly governments, appears to be at a low ebb. American difficulties need no elaboration here. The British have removed their leader. Italy’s leader is stepping down. Winds of political change are sweeping though South America, with leadership transitions, Chile’s struggles to write a new Constitution, and more. Public unrest is rampant throughout Asia, reaching flashpoints in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Rebel forces challenge governments across Africa. Despots in several countries have taken a different approach. They’ve made it clear they can be trusted – trusted to detect and quickly punish any dissent or criticism.

In cope with all this, eight billion of us are called to lift ourselves by our bootstraps.

(Looking for any glimmer of good news, Bill…).

Good news? Okay. One starting point is that last notion – that despots are punishing dissent and criticism from whatever quarter.

Really. Stop for a moment and contemplate the sheer scale of effort required for unelected leaders, even when supported by police (and in some cases military), to stamp out criticism during troubled times. Moreover, since such suppression is inherently bankrupt, it requires increasing vigilance, energy, and effort with time, until it ends in spectacular or whimpering failure. It’s hard to imagine a more exhausting, debilitating, unsustainable task. Worldwide, time always favors dissatisfied majorities (the element majority being key here).

This is a special instance of a more general reality: stress is responsibility without authority. If despots, with all their (supposed) levers of power, lack the authority and means to keep the lid on change, it makes little sense for the majority of us to keep kicking the barge to move it in our wanted direction. Instead we might lean on it a bit. That requires nothing more than bringing to every action and interaction our own good will (that is, favoring outcomes to the advantage of all), a commitment to keeping our word (not promising any more than we can delivery unilaterally, and keeping those promises), and a predisposition to trust others (barring continuing evidence to the contrary).

Simple. Relaxing. Guaranteed to work in Bootstrap World.

[1] People understood the expression “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” to mean “attempting to do something absurd” until roughly the 1920s, at which point it started to evolve toward the current understanding: to do something without any outside help.

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