How Climate Change is Making Everything 'Brittle'

It's a term futurist Alex Steffen uses to describe how things fall apart.

A truck off the road in Texas
This is Texas?.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

We talk a lot about resilience, defined by Alex Wilson as:

"...the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance. It is the capacity to bounce back after a disturbance or interruption."

As we noted in our discussion of the Texas disaster in the post Why Every Home Should Be a Thermal Battery, our homes and buildings should be resilient, quoting Alex Wilson again: "In achieving resilience, I believe that our single most important priority is to ensure that our dwellings will maintain livable conditions in the event of extended power outages or interruptions in heating fuel."

Alex Steffen

Alex Steffen

But the word that came to mind during the Texas disaster is one that another Alex with the last name Steffen uses: Brittleness. He defined it a few years ago on Twitter:

"Brittleness is the quality of breaking suddenly and catastrophically. Think of a bridge collapsing. A key fact of the climate emergency that still hasn't sunk in is that the hotter it gets, the more places and systems become brittle."

He also noted that it is being ignored, writing in a different set of tweets:

"Brittleness is the condition of being subject to sudden, catastrophic failure. The brittleness bubble is the current over-valuation of assets which are being made brittle by the planetary crisis we're set in motion. Places/systems which are brittle can be 'ruggedized.' That is, they can be protected in a variety of ways that lower their risk of sudden catastrophic failure. The problem is, ruggedization costs money, sometimes a lot."

After another freeze-up in 2011, it was recommended that the Texas electrical and gas distribution systems be ruggedized, but they weren't, because it wasn't a requirement, it is expensive, and how often do these things happen? So nothing was ruggedized. I asked Alex what he thought about the events in Texas and he told Treehugger:

"We're living in a planetary emergency. One of the most severe symptoms of that emergency is the loss of predictability – the need to prepare for a wider variety of foreseeable disasters. To be caught catastrophically unprepared by the unexpected is a failure of leadership."
"The second this is how deeply challenging to current expertise the discontinuity we're moving through has proven. Past experience is no longer a useful guide to future risks. Older expert assessments of "optimal" choices are often unable to assign accurate values to risk management and ruggedization moves."
"In Texas, we're seeing both: a leadership failure to prepare for an unpredictable reality AND institutional professional expertise that has failed to keep pace with change."

These are the multiple challenges we face; we have a climate emergency that most of our leadership doesn't want to deal with. What experts we have are being harassed and ignored. And we are going to have more crises like Texas just had if we don't actually prepare for them.

Read more of Alex Steffen on Medium and he is great on Twitter.