Last fall, a water main on the northeast side of campus burst, shutting down water in that area for a few days. It was on one of those days that I went to the dining hall for lunch, and found myself fascinated to see people waiting in long lines to fill their cups with the elixir of life. Just a few moments after I got there, all of the rectangular brown coolers ran dry. Initially there was confusion—which quickly turned to panicked agitation—as those at the front of the lines tipped the coolers upside down to shake out the last remaining drops of water. Everyone behind them had to find something else to drink.
We’re lucky. Even in that situation, there was water to be had nearby. And the crisis was short-lived.
Moments like this provide us with a valuable glimpse into a world where we can no longer take our most vital resources for granted. The boundary between that world and our own, it turns out, is fine and very fragile.
- About 240,000 water mains burst every year in cities and towns across the U.S., mostly due to age. Cast iron pipes from the late 1800s have an average life span of 120 years; pipes installed after 1950 are expected to function for 75 years.1 You do the math.
- In 2011, a public utility worker in Arizona, doing routine maintenance, accidentally shut down electricity to 5 million people in Southern California. This lead to blackouts, gridlocked traffic, school and business closings, and the grounding of air traffic.2
- When Hurricane Sandy hit the U.S. east coast in 2012, more than 8 million Americans across 17 states lost power. Gasoline in New York city was rationed. Food shortages occurred due to disruptions in distribution systems and many tons of frozen and perishable foods rotted in place. New York remains as vulnerable as ever.3
So do the rest of America’s cities.
Whether due to failing infrastructure, human error, volatility in energy prices, or increasingly extreme weather, sudden shocks to our system can strike a serious blow.
In his classic work, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter argues that over-complexity is at the heart of societal collapse. In the attempt to solve problems and meet certain needs, he says, there is a tendency for societies to become ever more complex. At some point, though, there are diminishing returns of all that complexity. In other words, complicated and resource-intensive structures get to be more trouble than they’re worth.
Not only do the costs of propping them up become prohibitive, but large complex structures render a society overly rigid and unable to adapt or withstand sudden changes in circumstances (such as resource scarcity, economic crises, or a shifting climate). The thing is, Tainter reminds us, collapse is not unusual. It has happened throughout history. Think ancient Rome, the Mayan Empire, and Easter Island.
The real anomaly is the extreme degree of complexity our society has reached.
Societal collapse (and subsequent re-structuring) is a popular theme, of late. Growing numbers of books, articles, and films depict visions of what the results of various shocks to our system might look like. Hiram students are among those who are interested.
Students in my First Year Seminar, “Lessons From Dystopia,” are learning about some of the problems currently in the making, especially related to energy, economic, climate, and other systems. Building on their familiarity with stories like The Hunger Games and Divergent, students in this class are thinking carefully about how such changes might impact the shape of our society over the long term, and about how we could change course to avoid disaster and create a better future.
Contemplating the future relates directly to the notion of sustainability—the idea of a society being able to stick around for the long haul, and to maintain a satisfying quality of life. Resilience is a related, though less familiar concept. And it is one which Hiram’s SEED Scholars are particularly interested, as Caroline Georskey explains in the conclusion of her recent post.
As they read in Power From the People, resilience is “the ability of a person or community to adapt to changing and uncertain circumstances.” Simply put, it’s the capacity to bounce back—like a rubber band—after disturbances in the systems meant to satisfy our basic needs.
This isn’t really a new idea. Your grandmother (or perhaps her mother, depending on your age) knew it was dangerous to put all her eggs in one basket. We have mostly forgotten this common sense wisdom. But local and national leaders are making an effort to remember, and to think about resilience in a big way.
There are thousands of organizations devoted to building more resilient communities and to promoting citizen “re-skilling.” The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is moving “from a security focus to a resiliency focus.” The Rockefeller Foundation has funded a global initiative “dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.” Now that’s a lot to think about.
At Hiram College, there are countless opportunities to build greater resilience.
The SEEDS are thinking about energy as just one piece of the resilience puzzle. They’ve discovered the concept of “de-centralized energy.” They’re exploring options for more local and renewable types of energy. And they’re determined to try their hand at creating and demonstrating at least one form of it here on campus (to add to the solar power we already generate).
They’ll be sharing their discoveries and experiences with you here in the coming weeks. It’s sure to be an adventure. Don’t miss it.
1. Craig Childs. 2012. “The Rule of the Phoenix.” Orion Magazine.
2. Julie Watson. 2011. “Major Power Outage Hits CA, AZ, MX.” Huffington Post.
3. Siddhartha Mahanta. 2013. “A Year after Sandy, Food and Fuel Supplies are as Vulnerable as Ever.” Reuters.