Why interconnectedness makes disaster relief so hard
As Carl Sagan famously said, "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe."
Kevin Kelly gets at a similar point regarding the overwhelmingly complex interconnectedness of modern technology and society:
Let’s take a very sophisticated item: one web page. A web page relies on perhaps a hundred thousand other inventions, all needed for its birth and continued existence. There is no web page anywhere without the inventions of HTML code, without computer programming, without LEDs or cathode ray tubes, without solid state computer chips, without telephone lines, without long-distance signal repeaters, without electrical generators, without high-speed turbines, without stainless steel, iron smelters, and control of fire. None of these concrete inventions would exist without the elemental inventions of writing, of an alphabet, of hypertext links, of indexes, catalogs, archives, libraries and the scientific method itself. To recapitulate a web page you have to re-create all these other functions. You might as well remake modern society.
Kelly goes on to highlight how this interconnectedness makes disaster relief so challenging:
This is why restarting a sophisticated society after a devastating setback is so hard. Without all the adjacent items in a given ecological bundle, a single technology can have no effect; therefore you need them all working to get one working; therefore you have to repair them all at once. When war, earthquake, tsunami, flood or fire destroys a society’s infrastructure indiscriminately, the job of restarting/rediscovering them all at once is impossible. The conundrum of disaster relief is a testimony to this deep interdependency: one needs roads to bring petrol but petrol to clear roads, medicines to heal people, but healthy people to dispense medicines, communications to enable organization but organization to restore communications. We see the interdependent platform of technology primarily when it breaks down.
I find this point particularly important following the devastating tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma.
As we face increasingly extreme weather events due to climate change and struggle to adapt our energy use to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, it is wise to remember the difficulty of responding to these destructive events and the challenge of restructuring entire systems. To think we can simply adapt when things are really bad, is not only naive, it is dangerous.