In the ‘New World Order’ where independence and sovereign rights mean that countries can exploit their own resources, the supply lines are beginning to become less secure, less reliable and therefore less resilient. In turn, this means that the infrastructures supporting us may be somewhat closer to breaking point than we would like. When demand outstrips manageable and available supply, what next for our societies and their structures? Phillip Wood searches for some answers.
We are hyperextended. The networks and structures that have developed over time to support our activities have traditionally – and, it has to be said, fairly effectively – managed to keep pace with demand. When we needed speed, we made trains, then automobiles and then aircraft. When we needed power we had fossil fuels, then nuclear and now natural power generation – with nuclear remaining very much on the scene. When we needed food, we had fruit, grain and meat and then we began to make our own on a synthetic basis.
Generally, supply has met demand. That’s certainly true in the Western World, anyway, and we’ve grown because we have been ably supported with what we need at our fingertips.
How we garnered that support was mainly due to the exploitation of resources, people and materials on a global basis. The empires of the West – in ‘Old Europe’ we had the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal and others, and of course the US in the 20th Century – were powered and fed by the resources they could find, growing fat on those lands conquered.
In the ‘New World Order’ we have an imbalance to both address and redress. First, and primarily, we should consider that we’re absolutely reliant on the provision of resources in abundance and along established and integrated supply routes from origin to consumption. This is but one side of the equation, though. On the other, we have the fluctuations, dynamics and imposed changes that are happening now, whereby the ‘tap’ may be turned off at some juncture.
Of course, the tap can be turned off by human hands or the ‘Hand of God’, whereby our supporting resources – and the lines that bring them to us – may be interdicted by a malicious intent or simply by the fact that the resource isn’t there anymore.
Historically, we have gone to war in the search for resources. We often hear that Western involvement in the Middle East is because of oil. However, we cannot go to war against climate change, natural disaster or environmentally engendered resource shortages. Fuel is fuel. Food is food. The lack of either places us in a very difficult position.
Moreover, we have to consider the lines of support and the infrastructures themselves, and whether – even in times of abundance – they can work effectively to supply us with the resources we need.
Supply chain resilience
Supply chain resilience is often discussed by supply chain specialists, but it’s one of those specialisms that affect us all deeply. On that basis, perhaps we should be a little more aware of the consequences of any breaks in the chain.
Sometimes, the causes can combine to become catastrophic. Take, for example, the New York power blackout experienced in 2003. Old power lines, summer heat, overgrown trees, outdated equipment and human error all combined to realise one of the largest outages in history. 50 million citizens across the US and Canada were without power*.
Our society is precariously supported by a challenged structure, with the relentless pull of consumption and need linked by vulnerable and expansive lines of delivery to the point of origin. When the linkages are broken, the effects upon us can be immediate – and, as is the case for the United States, we can refer to numerous examples of what happens to us here in the UK when we lose that supply.
We’ve had fuel shortages due to strikes that almost caused the nation to grind to a halt. When power fails in our towns and cities, our inability to operate without traffic control becomes immediately evident. When the UK suffers from more than occasional flooding and supply chains of food and fresh water are stopped, our return to the days before technology can be both rapid and damaging.
Luckily, at the moment – and primarily because we’ve so far had the ability to respond and recover within manageable timescales – any descent into mediaeval living hasn’t yet fully materialised. However, let’s imagine such a scenario. Consider a changed world where power isn’t a constant and costs are prohibitive, both to the supplier and the consumer, such that priority is given to some sectors of society or essential Critical National Infrastructure. Many of us will remember that as a constant in the non-technological 1970s, and dread to think what would happen now in a similar scenario.
What about our nuclear power plants, owned and run by China and France? How would businesses communicate – in fact do business at all – without the Internet and its supporting structure? What would happen if we were unable to maintain communication through our telephone networks, many of them owned or heavily invested in by overseas companies?
Where does our food come from, and how are the supply chains guaranteed and managed when interdicted and challenged – not in the short term when delivery trucks are stuck in roadworks, but in the longer term when there’s inadequate flow of consumables to the public? How much do we (and, indeed, should we) trust a ‘system’ that we know so little about?
In the worse case scenario, what happens if, for some reason, we’re compelled to remain indoors and we’re unable to communicate or resupply? What if something triggered that scenario right here and now today?
Generally, and because I’m an optimist, we can be reassured that there are plans in place. Around a decade ago, plans were published in the UK alongside the orchestration of a national campaign to build civil protection. This has appeared to wither on the vine as public disinterest and apathy consigned the leaflets to the letter rack, the bottom drawer, the filing cabinet or, most likely, the waste paper bin. There’s even a dedicated website** (although one suspects that, when it’s needed the most, it will be too late to consult it effectively).
More recently in Germany, the Government’s advice to its citizens to stockpile food and water for civil defence caused some disquiet, with more people asking about the reason why the call was made than about what exactly they might need and for how long. The advice even engendered protest and dissent***, with inferences that Germany was preparing for war.
Acknowledging the fault line
We know, then, that there are plans in place and that, for those whose role it is to protect us (or to advise us to protect ourselves), there’s sufficient concern to invest time, effort and material resource in some sort of process.
That said, there’s a fault line running throughout all of this. It’s one underpinned by complacency and the ‘buffering’ that comes from watching the results of shortage, loss and disaster happening to someone else on the news from the comfort of our armchairs.
The best plans will be confounded by our sheer societal laziness and our endemic reliability on someone else – located either within or running the supply chain – doing all of the necessary preparation work for us or guaranteeing our continuity of service in difficult times. There are no guarantees that we have any societal resilience in depth or that, as individuals or organisations, we in general have the ingenuity or understanding to manage ourselves and our lives when the squeeze on resources is applied.
Part of everyday existence
Out there where the guarantees are less credible and day-to-day life isn’t handed to us on a plate, resilience is a given and a part of everyday existence. I well remember once asking some industry colleagues in the Third World how they managed with intermittent power and food supplies. The answer was simple: they ran their own generators and grew their own food as and when they could.
Perhaps their lives were not what we would aspire to here in the well-fed and well-supported Western World, but to me these people were resilient. They would survive. How many of us could say the same if it were to grow unbearably cold and dark and the consumables dried up? How will our affluent society stack up when the benefits of affluence are no longer within easy reach?
It’s nothing short of an extremely challenging problem that we ignore at our peril.
Phillip Wood MBE MSc is Head of the School for Management and Professional Studies and Head of Department for Security and Resilience at Buckinghamshire New University
*Huffington Post (2013), ‘New York City Blackout 2003: Remembering The Power Outage 10 Years Later’ (https://goo.gl/pwvUlD)
**Cabinet Office (2016), ‘Preparing for Emergencies’ (https://goo.gl/Cqzs8h)
***Global Research (2016), ‘Stop the German Government’s Preparations for War against Russia’ – The Civil Defence Concept (KZV): Measures to Prepare the Population for War (https://goo.gl/wwqPzW)