September 1, 2007  

Building resilience

Rethinking national security to avoid an economic meltdown

A pair of books build on Jared Diamond’s warning in "Collapse" that rigid social structures and environmental mismanagement combined to destroy a society from within. Both share Diamond’s chilling warning of economic and ecosystem disruption. Both authors realize that our increasingly technologically sophisticated civilization is built upon the fragile fault line of many pending environmental disasters and unsustainable patterns.

"The Upside of Down" lays out a theory about social life cycles, capturing the growth, demise and renewal of societies. The convergence of today’s pressing economic, energy and environmental stresses could produce a global breakdown or just merely a national crisis. The author, Thomas Homer-Dixon, brilliantly mixes the history of Rome’s development and its impressive architectural accomplishments with speculations on how societies rise and fall. This includes his theory of social catastrophe based on a concept called energy return on investment (EROI). Based on some historical sleuthing in the Coliseum, our author contends that societies can die off when their energy consumption patterns outpace the total effort required to acquire the energy. Having to search farther, dig deeper and expend more effort to extract every unit of energy we need to support our fast-paced and inefficient societies can put a strain on EROI. As we approach peak oil in the coming decades, this theory will become apparent.

From the rise and fall of the Roman empire to the tragedy of Sept. 11, from the despair-filled slums of Asian megacities to the SARS outbreak in Toronto, Homer-Dixon argues we are well on the way to collapse. With global population bulges, near-peak energy levels, crumbling environmental defenses and rampant income disparity, a number of tectonic plates are in stress. These forces build up pressure as our transportation, trade and technology networks grow inherently more complex and intertwined.

Ultimately, Homer-Dixon shows that when one link of the precarious chain is broken it causes cascading effects around the planet, what the author calls "synchronous failure."

Our second book, "The Edge of Disaster," is more direct and very much reflects the blunt and relentless personality of its author. Stephen Flynn is a retired Coast Guard officer who has established himself as the nation’s leading homeland security expert. One of the very few analysts who could define vulnerabilities with chilling predictions before Sept. 11, he has been aggressively challenging policymakers in both the executive and legislative branches about the growing dangers the nation faces from an aging infrastructure, misplaced investment priorities and highly interdependent but brittle systems that undergird our daily lives.

Flynn concludes that far too much of our security effort is directed at overseas counterterrorism efforts and campaigns such as Iraq, and that far too little has been devoted to protecting Americans here at home. He challenges the neglect of U.S. critical infrastructure, including chemical plants and ports, and decries the unbalanced investments between traditional military spending and more likely areas of vulnerability.

Although hundreds of billions of dollars have been allocated to the Defense Department to take the fight to the enemy, our critical infrastructure grows older and more brittle each day. "Managing the risk associated with predicable large-scale nature and manmade disaster," Flynn notes, "remains far from the top of our national priorities."

To Flynn, Americans are living on the edge of disaster. "Like reckless teenagers," he argues, "we have been embracing risk while shrugging off the likely consequences."

"The Edge of Disaster" contains numerous potential mechanisms to efficiently allocate resources to the task of upgrading America’s crumbling landscape and shoring up the capacity of emergency responders.

What these books have in common is their express call for increased social and human resilience. Resilience is usually thought of in terms of the ability to bounce back after a major disruption or catastrophic attack. But it can be much more than that — it is a measure of an organization’s or a country’s capacity to anticipate, learn and adapt.

FRANK G. HOFFMAN is a retired Marine Corps officer and national security consultant at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.