Friday, December 31, 2010

Cannibalism 3 - The Historical Context

This is the Third of three postings dealing in general with hunger, and starvation (Part 2); cannibalism's history and ineffectiveness as survival strategy (Part 1).  Here I will show that we have unfortunate examples of cannibalism in disaster scenarios, why they occurred, and what happened.
 Much of the following is from Scott and McMurray The Delicate Question:  Cannibalism in Prehistoric and Historic Times,

Given our blogs obsession with ending points, we naturally will focus  cannibalism induced by large scale disasters.  And unfortunately enough, there are examples of this as well.
The first example, by time line, is in Soviet Russia in 1921-1922.   A combination of agricultural confectionery taxes, and poor lead to mass starvation that peaked in 1921.  The Soviets were forced to ask for aid in feeding 10 million starving people.  There are a number of estimates of the death toll, but 5+ million seems to be an agreed on conservative number.  Accounts of cannibalism were common, possibly because by 1921 there had been so many famines in  Russian and the Soviet Union that by 1921 the Russians were becoming desensitized to the practice.  The behavior included the selling of human meat in markets and the practice of corpse-eating by entire families. 

The later Ukrainian famines induced by Stalin was more brutal as it was even more intentional.

Desperate hunger drove people to sell off all of their possessions for any food they could find. At night, an eerie silence fell over the village, where all the livestock and chickens had long since been killed for food and exhausted villagers went to bed early. 
But Communist requisition brigades looking to fulfill the impossibly high grain quotas continued to search even those villages where inhabitants were already dying from starvation. They used metal poles to probe the ground and potential hiding places where they suspected grain could be hidden.
Some of the brigade members, fueled by Soviet hate campaigns against the peasants, acted without mercy, taking away the last crumbs of food from starving families knowing they were condemning even small children to death. Any peasant who resisted was shot. Rape and robbery also took place....
Burtianski said at one point, he avoided buying meat from a vendor because he suspected it was human flesh. When the authorities heard about the incident, he was forced to attend the trial of a man and his two sons who were suspected of murdering people for food. Burtianski says during the trial one of the sons admitted in chilling terms to eating the flesh of his own mother, who had died of starvation. 

"He said, 'Thank you to Father Stalin for depriving us of food. Our mother died of hunger and we ate her, our own dead mother. And after our mother we did not take pity on anyone. We would not have spared Stalin himself'" ....

Naumenko also witnessed instances of cannibalism. He said he first discovered that his neighbors were eating human flesh after one of them, called Tetyana, refused to share her meat with him despite the fact he had just helped bury her father.

"I saw Tetyana eating chicken meat and saw there was a lot of it. I approached her and asked her for some, but she refused to give me any. Because it was human flesh."

Hundreds were executed or killed by other villagers for cannibalism. Soviet records show that around 1,000 people were still serving sentences for cannibalism in prison camps on the White Sea at the end of the 1930s.

"What do you do if there's nothing to eat? We collected birch leaves and toasted them and ate them. What else could we do?"

Many people met their deaths with quiet resignation, praying and comforting their starving children with fairy tales. 

Cannibalisms next well known Russian trip is to the Siege of Leningrad in World War 2.  Under siege for 900-days there were over a thousand cases of cannibalism in the polices' secret records.  What is particularly unusual about the famine is that it did not lead to epidemic decease which is usually the largest killer in long term famines.  The authorities went to particular care to isolate the contagious, and to keep the city as sanitary as possible.

During World War 2 in the Pacific,  Japanese soldiers in New Guinea in 1942-1944, cut off from access to supplies, cannibalized Australian Allied soldiers, Asian POWs, native inhabitants of New Guinea, and other Japanese soldiers.  The soldiers occasionally removed flesh while victims were still alive, perhaps in the hope of maintaining a fresh food supply in the moist jungle environment where decomposition was rapid.  These cannibalistic practices required planning and investment and became almost commonplace.
Our final visit will be to the The Peoples Republic of China during the Great Leap Forward."
“...[C]annibalism was a systematic and organized military strategy, committed by whole squads or by specific soldiers working within the context of a larger squad…The fact that such activities were committed by whole groups, working within the normal military structures, resulted in a situation in which the act of cannibalism ceased to be horrific and became instead a part of everyday life.”  Yuki Tanaka, Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II 1996.
China has had periodic food shortages throughout much of its history, and the near constant threat of famine was one cause of learned cannibalism.  The starvations caused by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward lead to unprecedented number and levels of the practice.  Natural disasters combined with confiscation of the peasants food supplies led  to at least 30 million Chinese people starving to death between 1958 and 1962.  Children were killed and consumed by their parents or sold to another family and human meat was sold in the open marked.  Peasants readily admitted to witnessing cannibalism first hand.

During the famine of the Great Leap Forward, peasants killed and ate their children in many parts of China.  In Wild Flowers Jung Chang recounts the story told to him by a party official:  One day a peasant burst into his room and threw himself on the floor, screaming that he had committed a terrible crime and begging to be punished.  Eventually it came out that he had killed his own baby and eaten it. Hunger had been like an uncontrollable force driving him to take up the knife.  With tears rolling down cheeks, the official ordered the peasant to be arrested. Later he was shot as a warning to baby killers.     Becker, Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine 1996.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cannibalism 2: Effects of Hunger: The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

This is my second part of three.  Previously I went over the history of cannibalism and its limitations as a survival strategy:  the primary limitation being that you will run out of people to eat pretty quickly.  Here I am going to try and give some basline data involving hunger and starvation.  It is not fun stuff, but outside of television shots of starving children in Africa, most of us have limited experience with the particulars.

Daily calorie requirements for adult males varies. For the typical 70 kilogram (154 pound) male:
·         Sedentary               2,400-2,500
·         Light activity          2700-3000
·         Moderate activity   3,000-3.400
·         Hard activity          3,400-4,500
·         Extreme is up to 8,600 for certain occupations such as New England brick masons.

There is the famous Minnesota Starvation Experiment executed in the 1940s to study the effects of a starvation diet on young male adults: potential soldiers if you will.  They were a selected group of motivated, healthy, intelligent, and well-adjusted young men.  In short, not particularly representative of the general population.

The studies baseline diet was 3492 calories; during the semistarvation phase each person was allowed two meals a day that averaged a total intake of 1570 calories.

Body weight dropped 24% within 2 weeks and remained relatively constant throughout the 24-week semi-starvation period.  This weight loss was accompanied by a marked increase in fat content of the body…There was a decrease in spontaneous activity that included intellectual pursuits.  But there was no loss in mental capacity.

It is usually reported that during famines food becomes the central topfic of conversation and writing, and this was true for the Minnesota volunteers.  They tended to become irritated when food service was slow, and were very annoyed if food was not served hot.  During meals they ate slowly and deliberately, devoting total attention to the food and its consumption.  They markedly increased the use of spices and salt, and abandoned any semblance of manner-always licking their dishes to obtain every last bit of food.  Cookbooks, menus, and information bulletins on food production became intensely interesting, even for those who previously had little interest in dietetics or agriculture.   Lewis F. Petrinovich The Cannibal Within.

Among the many conclusions from the study was the confirmation that prolonged semi-starvation produces significant increases in depression, hysteria and hypochondria. Many of the subjects experienced periods of severe emotional distress and depression.

There were extreme reactions to the psychological effects during the experiment including self-mutilation (one subject amputated three fingers of his hand with an axe, though the subject was unsure if he had done so intentionally or accidentally).  Sexual interest was drastically reduced and the volunteers showed signs of social withdrawal and isolation. The participants reported a decline in concentration, comprehension and judgment capabilities, although the standardized tests administered showed no actual signs of diminished capacity.

There were marked declines in physiological processes indicative of decreases in each subject’s basal metabolic rate (the energy required by the body in a state of rest) and reflected in reduced body temperature, respiration and heart rate. Some of the subjects exhibited edema (swelling) in the extremities, presumably due to the massive quantities of water the participants consumed attempting to fill their stomachs during the starvation period. Wiki Report on Study

Of course these are the early stages.  Eventually a tipping point is reached, and lathargia comes into play.  Oddly enough the danger of rioting, and rebellion are more likely with populations that are hungry, but still have some calorie intake.  Once a famine reaches an extended period the population becomes too lethargic.  This can be seen in the early European revolutions where advances in aid and distribution limited the extent of food shortages, but made the State more susceptible to rebellion.

The effects of starvation:

Individuals experiencing starvation lose substantial fat and muscle mass as the body breaks down these tissues for energy and to  keep functioning vital systems such as the nervous system and heart.   Starvation, often leading to anemia, beriberi, pellagra, and scurvy. These diseases collectively can also cause diarrhea, skin rashes, edema, and heart failure.

Atrophy (wasting away) of the stomach weakens the perception of hunger, since the perception is controlled by the percentage of the stomach that is empty. Victims of starvation are often too weak to sense thirst, and therefore become dehydrated.

All movements become painful due to muscle atrophy and functioning. With a weakened body, diseases are commonplace. Fungi, for example, often grow under the esophagus, making swallowing unbearably painful.

The energy deficiency inherent in starvation causes fatigue and renders the victim more apathetic over time. As the starving person becomes too weak to move or even eat, his or her interaction with the surrounding world diminishes.
There is also an inability to fight diseases, and in females, irregular menstruation can occur. Wiki On Starvation [edited]

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Cannibalism as a Survival Strategy

This is the first part of three: three too many for some. 

My intention here is to indicate not only the prevelance of cannibalism from a historical perspective, but also to show its limitations as a viable survivial strategy.

Cannibalism is formally referred to as anthropophagy.  It rears its head in many a post apocalyptic fiction such as the very famous  Soylent Green  in the 1970s, and more recently Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, even the Ubber Christian Warrior Rawls eludes to it.

However, as a sustenance strategy it is a bit dubious.  You would quickly run out of people if it was your major source of protean.  There have been arguments that the Aztecs used it as a way for their elites gain easy access to the required animal protean.   IMO the argument that the Aztecs rulers were a twisted bunch is a more plausible one.

Within the animal kingdom, Laurel Fox in Cannibalism in Natural Populations 1975, found 48 species of herbivores, and 89 species of predators normally engaged in this behavior.  Motivation includes food shortages, population stress, the availability of vulnerable victims, and the elimination of competitors.  Cannibalism has been observed in four species of non-human primates, and in apes it has been seen in both gorillas and chimpanzees.  It is particularly common in chimpanzees with the most common victim being the children of other males.

There is strong evidence in early hominids going back 700,000 years ago of tool cut human bones intermixed with other animal bones, and 100,000 year old Neanderthal remains have been found mixed in with other butchered animal bones.
Recent example from non-literate (prehistoric) are uncommon, but none-the-less practiced in a diversity of times and locations.  The most famous case being that of the American Southwest Hopi.

Cannibalism is not seen pervasively in the historical records, but it is not that hard to find either.   The biggest problem I have with this post  is that there is too many examples to include all of them here.  Only very left leaning archeologists-who wanted to view the indigenous preliterate societies in an earth mother warm glow of fuzziness- would  argue the point.

Cannibalism seems to go out of fashion in most areas with the introduction of more centralized governments.    As the exception Aztecs showed, cannibalism by the central state can very quickly get out of hand, and you are going to make yourself very unpopular with whomever your selected targets are.  However, as a cultural institution it does have some persistance within Chinese culture.  Confucsios in recommending the complete anhiliation of ones enemies included eating them.   Source:  Scott and McMurray The Delicate Question:  Cannibalism in Prehistoric and Historic Times.
One of the key distinctions that would interest us is cannibalism by choice versus necessity.  Necessity in this case meaning starvation situations.  In some cultures certain organs are viewed as having special magical properties and are eaten for their power.  In others there may be a reverence for the dead.  Many of the native North Americans believed that the spirit left for the hereafter in the form of its body: so mutilation your enemies dead bodies was a common practice.
The socialist-anthropologists would generally be the best people to discuss these issues in a systematic way, but the discussions always get into a very Marxist rich eating poor argument that seems more about arguing socialist talking points than about the reality on hand.
When people in the average bring more to civilization than they take away, there cannot be problem with overpopulation, or with funding education and retirement -- people are indeed an asset. When people are all in all more consumptive than productive, then they are a liability indeed, surviving by spending away the capital accumulated by better men; their society is going down the drain and none of the proposed statist remedies can help, whether fostering reproduction or non-reproduction, immigration or emigration, early retirement or euthanasia…
When society collapses, anthropophagy is a poor way to slow down this collapse if it does at all; actually, inasmuch as it would imply murder and/or deception.   Anthropophagy is rather a sign of the collapse accelerating than slowing down.  Live Journal Posting
Continuing to more detailed matters:
The typical human body has a muscle to fat ratio similar to a bear, which is about 770 calories per pound. If the average post-apocalyptic person weighs about 130 lbs and is a bit leaner than a bear (say 600 calories per pound), throw away say 20 lbs of bones and 20 lbs of inedible organs, leaves you with about 54000 calories. Assuming 1200 calories a day for survival, that’s 45 person days per human body. 1200 may be too high; I’ve read concentration camp prisoners survived for months on about 300-500 calories per day, engaged in some degree of hard labor.
Even at a rate of 100 person days per body that would use up 1% of the population per day.  An initial population of 100 million, killed off at this rate, would have only one person left after five years. In the novel [The Road] there were many corpses around that clearly hadn’t been eaten; if only half the bodies were eaten, the population would last half as long. No way a kid lives to be seven when born into a world where the main food is cannibalism.
Even under ideal conditions, people living mainly on cannibalism just couldn’t last that many years. Quoting Zac Gochenour at Overcoming Bias.
As we will see later, canibalism in desperate times is generally practised as a mid-term strategy during lengthy periods of famine, and even then it is not a strategy employed by the majority.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

R/P Values

I have been reading Laurence C. Smith's The World in 2050:  Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future.

He comments on the R/P value of many natural resources important to our current world economy.  The R?P value is the reserve to production ratio.  It is how long, in annual terms, we will use up our current reserves at our current production rate.  He notes that the price of the commodity does not seem to reflect in any way its R/P value.

Coal 133 years
Oil 42 years
Copper 35 years
Zinc 24 years
Lead 22 years
Nickel 21 years
Tin 24 years
Silver 14 years
Gold 17 years
Indium 8 years
While we are certainly not "stuck" with our current reserve levels, it is also important to note that the projected future growth is expected to come from developing countries  who currently have the currently the lowest per capita usage.  The world currently uses 85 million barrels of oil today, even taking into account the current recession,   by 2030 this is projected to reach 106 million barrels.  Other resources in varying proportions will follow suite.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The world will end not in fire, but in ice

Fire and Ice
 Some say the world will end in fire,
 Some say in ice.
 From what I've tasted of desire
 I hold with those who favor fire.
 But if it had to perish twice,
 I think I know enough of hate
 To say that for destruction ice
 Is also great
 And would suffice.
-Robert Frost
The impetus of this post has more to do without current outdoor conditions in Central North Carolina than actual conviction.

However, between the Atlantic Conveyor concerns (plausible) and the ice age-magnetic pole reversal theories (maybe not as plausible), nuclear winter (the cold might be moot), and volcanic activity (low probability- high impact) there are a number of scenarios that would lead us in this direction.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Saint Nicholas and the..............................Cannibal

I made the mistake of starting my Christmas theme too early and was running out of ideas.  A lucky trip to wiki and the real Saint Nicholas (versus Santa) entry saved my bacon.  Cannibalism and famine are popular themes in post appocalyptic speculation and literature, and I am going to be dealing with some of the factual elements in some later posts.

But for now we are going to present the actual legend of Saint Nicolas and the Cannabal with a lot of help from Wiki and the excellent Saint Nicolas Center website.

The story tells how a terrible famine struck the island and a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, where he slaughtered and butchered them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only saw through the butcher's horrific crime but also resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers. (wiki)
And there is a popular song about one version of the tale:
This popular French song, the Légende de Saint Nicolas, dates back to the 16th century and is still sung by French children today. It tells the rather gruesome story of St. Nicholas rescuing three children from an evil butcher. The story, which was originally of three young men—traveling scholars, is told in France of three young children (see illustrations from 1935). Here on this page, they are shown as older children by 19th century artist E. de Liphart. Music and an English text, freely translated by poet James Henry Dixon, follow the original French. (Saint Nicolas Center)
Saint Nicholas and the Cannibal, in the original he raises the "prepared" children back from the dead.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Snow for Christmas…and the 4th of July

 Christmas Mammoth (with snow added by me)

In trying to keep with a holiday season theme, we will look at snow.  Snow in copious amounts.

Although the general concern of the moment is with global warming, a side concern associated with this warming is actually intermediate cold spells that occur within warming trends.
One such cold spell,  that is just prior to the historical period is the extended cold and dry period referred to as the Younger Dryads (primer).  The current theory is that this event was spurred by the breaking of an enormous ice dam in North America and the rushing into the Atlantic of enormous quantities of fresh water.  This fresh water cut off the North Atlantic conveyor belt which helps bring warmer temperatures to Europe, and in general acts as a moderating force on global temperatures.
The speed with which this event can occur is much faster  than the gradual pace of global warming, and is thought to be possible within a decade’s time span.  About a year ago there was concern that the conveyor belt had shut down.   We have been informed that this was a false alarm.  It is a little unclear how they know what the historical basis point is if they have not had good measurements until now:  but never mind.  The general trend has been confirming as far as the theory goes.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The post apocalyptic holiday

The time period after the apocalypse, the post-apocalyptic if you will, is viewed as a potentially nightmarish, mad-max world by most.

Not all are within this camp.  If you are one of those who won’t be left behind, or if you are completely disaffected or out of place with the modern world the potential death of 90%* of the worlds 7 billion or so individuals, may seem a bit theoretical: the death of a child is a tragedy – the death of billions a statistic…and all that.  And sad to say, although I am a very sensitive soul, I must admit that the potential for over 6 billion deaths does not paralyze nearly as frequently as the possibility of losing endless hot shower privileges.

One way Survival Fiction deals with the depressing notion of portraying the death of many people is through the use of the “Convenient Flu”.  Generally somewhere along the lines a flue epidemic will hit the starving numbers to cut down the population in the neighborhood.  This allows the novel to quickly pass into the “living in the ruins” phase without the problem of starving people living in the ruins.  This conceit is found in James Kunstler’s World Made by Hand, Susan Beth Pffeffer’s  Life as We Knew It, and everyone’s better living through acorns survivalist tome, Jean Hegland’s Into the Forest.

This of post-Apocalyptic holiday can be found in the Steely Dan classic Black Friday –with Black Friday referring to the bad luck of Friday the 13th and Apocalyptically associated with the crucifixion occurring on a Friday- not a post-Thanksgiving shopping Holiday.

…When Black Friday comes
I'll collect everything I'm owed
And before my friends find out
I'll be on the road…

Gonna do just what I please
Gonna wear no socks and shoes
With nothing to do but feed
All the kangaroos
When Black Friday comes I'll be on that hill
You know I will

When Black Friday comes
I'm gonna dig myself a hole
Gonna lay down in it 'til
I satisfy my soul

Gonna let the world pass by me
The Archbishop's gonna sanctify me
And if he don't come across
I'm gonna let it roll
When Black Friday comes
I'm gonna stake my claim
I'll guess I'll change my name

It is very odd to be cheering on the collapse of the world, but there is obviously a strain within our society, and certainly the preparedness community, that does.

* exact % of those left behind various with denomination:  please refer to your denominations user manual for specific inclusion/exclusions guidelines.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Surviving the Lunar Eclipse and Solstice

As a coincidence, the eclipse fell on the same date as the 2010 winter solstice. The last lunar eclipse to happen on the day of the winter solstice was in 1638.

And 1638 was the begining of the end for later day feminist heroin Ann Hutchinson.  An independent thinking woman who disagreed with the stifling Utopian thinking of the John Winthrop and the Massachussetts Bay Colony, Anne was bananished on November 8th , 1638 from the colony.  At the time of the last lunar solstice Anne would have been enroute to her newhome on the island of Aquidneck.  A few years later Anne, her servants and 5 of her children were massacred by Mahican Indians in East Chester New York.

For the CNN one minute (plus a short introductory commercial) version link.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Why do ghosts wear clothes?

Arguably this discussion is about something that is past final thoughts...

But my first grader swears that he has seen a ghost.  This having of course nothing to do with watching parts of the rather scary George C. Scott version of Dicken's A Christmas Carol on Youtube (video). This story along with the poem, Twas the Night Before Christmas are credited with ushering in the modern style of celebrating Christmas.

But there has been some serious thoughts on the history of ghost:
One of the recurring riddles in much thinking about ghosts in England was “why do ghosts wear clothes?” If the ghost was an objective reality why should it be wearing clothes, and why should it be wearing the very specific clothes that were associated with a deceased person? If the spiritualistic hypothesis was true, should the soul which has returned to visit the earth not be perfectly nude, ethereal, or at least clothes-less?

from Shane McCorristine's "Spectres of the Self"  with discussion found here.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Socrates on Youth

The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for
authority, they show disrespect to their elders.... They no longer
rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents,
chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their
legs, and are tyrants over their teachers.

Quoted by Plato
This quote is often used to make the point that their elders are always complaining about the youth of the day: “Those old farts are always complaining.”

Light weight modern commentators should be a little more careful around famous classical philosophers.

What is not generally understood is, that at time that the quote was used by Plato, the Peloponnesian War has just ended, and had seriously weakened the Greek States ability to resist outside aggression.

Five years after the death of Plato, Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s Father,  begins his conquest of the Greeks, and ends Greek independent rule.  So the moral decay of youth, and society in general was very much a timely complaint.
·         Socrates                                                    469 B.C - 399 B.C.
·         Plato                                                         428 B.C . - 347 B.C.
·         Peloponnesian War                               431 B.C. – 404 B.C.
·         Philip’s Conquest of Greece                 342 B.C – 352 B. C.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Collapse of Infrastructure

There is an exceptionally good front page article in the Wall Street Journal by Ben Casselman:  Aging Oil Rigs, Pipelines Expose Gulf to Accidents today.
Some Excerpts:
The deadly explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in April set off a fierce battle over deep-sea oil drilling aboard huge, state-of-the art vessels. But that debate has largely ignored what many experts say could be a bigger threat: The troubled state of offshore infrastructure that remains in place long after wells are drilled...
Much of that infrastructure is decades old. Roughly half of the Gulf's more than 3,000 production platforms are 20 years old or more, and a third date back to the 1970s or earlier, long before the development of modern construction standards. More than half have been operating longer than their designers intended, according to federal regulators.
In 2009 there were 133 fires aboard Gulf rigs, 10 oil spills of more than 50 barrels and 17 releases of natural gas that forced facilities to shut down, according to government data. This past April, two weeks before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, an engine-room fire on a shallow-water rig off Louisiana was blamed on a 33-year-old generator that was "prone to failure due to the engine's service life," according to a federal investigation
The extent of the problem was highlighted after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita barreled through the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, leaving behind a tangle of twisted pipelines, toppled platforms and flooded refineries.... Of the 116 fixed platforms destroyed by Katrina and Rita, half were built in the 1960s or earlier and more than 70% were built before 1980.
A 2007 attempt by federal regulators to impose tougher rules for maintaining offshore pipelines was abandoned after opposition from industry groups. In a 232-page rebuttal of the proposed rules, the Offshore Operators Committee argued they were time-consuming, expensive and unnecessary, and questioned the authority of the regulatory agency, the Minerals Management Service, to impose them.
Now the obvious reference here would be to peak oil.  Obviously there is some relevance to that problem.  But a the primary focus here is our inability to maintain infrastructure. 
The inability to maintain our oil transport infrastructure is very much like our inability to repair bridges.  The average American bridge is 48 years old, and 1/4th of them need repair.  The total price tag was estimated at $140 Billion.  Givin that government building project estimates are notoriously optimistic that number could probably be doubled.  And the list can be extended (pdf) to all sorts of projets:  The 50%+ of our gas transmission lines that were installed prior to 1970, the New Orleans Canal Locks, Mississippi River dredging, Alaskan Way Viaduct, the leaky Atlanta water system, Herbert Hoover Dike Wall that holds back Lake Okeechobee, Sacremento Water Levees, Wolf Creek Dam in Kentucky....
One challenge lies in ownership issues. In a book about the infrastructure crisis, Seeds of Disaster, Roots of Response,  Michel-Kerjan points out that less than 20% of the nation's infrastructure is publicly owned. "Conventional wisdom tells you that these systems are the responsibility of the government," he says, "but in America at least, about 80% to 85% is run or operated by the private sector." The 2.5 million miles of pipeline that snake throughout America's cities, for example, are operated by about 3,000 different companies.
Wharton Professor of Public Policy and Management, Howard Kunreuther,  points out that Companies focused on the short term may tend to squeeze profit out of existing systems rather than finance system-wide upgrades. Most people suffer from an "incredible myopia" when it comes to planning for the long term or worst-case scenarios, he notes. When things are "out of sight, out of mind," the tendency is to ignore the problem until a crisis hits.
"There's a general lesson from pipeline explosions or any kind of catastrophic event: When the event occurs, everyone pays great attention ... but then [the problem] disappears."  For private companies, there is also a rational component to favoring periodic maintenance over system-wide upgrades.  Funneling money into upgrading an entire system could strain business in the short term if competitors aren't making the same capital-intensive investments.
To put this within Joseph Tainter terms:  the maintenance costs of our ever increasing complex society are eating up any surplus needed to allow the growth to continue.  Therefore, you must either stop the growth, or start (slowly) cannibalizing your infrastructure.
In summation: We are falling apart.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Social Collapse

Some have explained these historical episodes of collapse as due to a predictable internal tendency of societies to overshoot ecological capacity (Diamond, 2005), or to create top-heavy social structures (Tainter, 1988). Other analysis, however, suggests that most known ancient collapses were initiated by external climate change (Weiss & Bradley, 2001; deMenocal, 2001). The magnitude of the social impact, however, often seems out of proportion to the external disturbance. Similarly in recent years relatively minor external problems often translate into much larger reductions in economic growth (Rodrik, 1999). This disproportionate response is of great concern; what causes it?

…A great deal of social coordination and cooperation is possible today because the future looms large.  We forgo direct personal benefits now for fear that others might learn later of such actions and avoid us as associates. For most of us, the short term benefits of “defection” seem small compared to the long term benefits of continued social “cooperation.”

…But in the context of a severe crisis, the current benefits of defection can loom larger.  So not only should there be more personal grabs, but the expectation of such grabs should reduce social coordination…

Such multiplier effects of social collapse can induce social elites to try to deceive the rest about the magnitude of any given disruption. But the rest of society will anticipate such deception, making it hard for social elites to accurately communicate the magnitude of any given disruption. This will force individuals to attend more to their private clues, and lead to less social coordination in dealing with disruptions.

What Mr. Hanson is arguing is that regardless of the mechanism for collapse, at the point where people begin to feel that the game is not going to be continued forward, there is a lot less incentive to keep playing by established rules that work to an individual’s immediate disadvantage.

A classic, temporary, manifestation would be the urban looting that occurs along with some destabilizing event.  Why would people loot when the lights go out?  If a group of people have no, or very limited interest in the status quo, they are not likely to be interested in the well being of that status quo going forward when the rules are temporarily suspended.  What Mr. Hanson is postulating is this effect on a more global scale. 

Because the urban city centers are not viewed as required core functional areas within our current societal paradigm, it is sufficient to keep a certain amount of orderliness versus actual cooperative effort.  But because we are in a nominally democratic-elective form of government, the greater swath of the working class, and middle class are viewed as being more fundamental to our current system.   Within the system you could call them the supporting group.  It is worthwhile to the elite to lie to the supporting groups.

At the time of severe distress, it is very important to the elites that they are able to project forward a continuity of society.  Just as the Germans who conquered Rome would adopt Roman titles to help continue forward their rule of their new territories, the societal elites will work very hard to keep sufficient security and structure in place to protect their position.  To the extent that they have to change the system to maintain their power, they will continue using the old forms and protocols to lower resistance to changes.  Augustus kept the form of the Senate in place, at the same time as he gutted the institution.

All of which points to “Collapses” being more unpredictable, and if a society is already very near a danger point, it can be much quicker than would otherwise be the case.  Societal groups are very vulnerable to information cascades: a fancy way of saying that people take their cues on how to act from others.   Just as the support needed to maintain a real estate bubble can vanish rapidly, so can the support for a governing system.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chinese Collapse

The idea that China is in a bubble economy has been a back sheet story for some time.  I could go back and dig out an amazing number of very details stories.  Although it is hard to remember it now, Japan also seemed like very much the same type of juggernaut back in the 1980s.  The dystopian movie Blade Runner (trailer) had Los Angelos covered with Japanese signs and people.  Today with and aging and shrinking population they might consider borrowing some of our Latin American emigres.

Although it is not clear that this is the exact dynamic here, the boom and bust cycles are likely to start coming at a much more rapid pace as the multiplier of world populating and consumption intersects with available remaining resources (per capita usage x total population versus existing resources + newly found resources).

Chinese Collapse NYT

For nearly two years, China’s turbocharged economy has raced ahead with the aid of a huge government stimulus program and aggressive lending by state-run banks.
But a growing number of economists now worry that China — the world’s fastest growing economy and a pillar of strength during the global financial crisis — could be stalled next year by soaring inflation, mounting government debt and asset bubbles.
Chinese Unemployed Graduates NYT
BEIJING — Liu Yang, a coal miner’s daughter, arrived in the capital this past summer with a freshly printed diploma from Datong University, $140 in her wallet and an air of invincibility.
Her first taste of reality came later the same day, as she lugged her bags through a ramshackle neighborhood, not far from the Olympic Village, where tens of thousands of other young strivers cram four to a room.
Unable to find a bed and unimpressed by the rabbit warren of slapdash buildings, Ms. Liu scowled as the smell of trash wafted up around her. “Beijing isn’t like this in the movies,” she said.
More Unemployed Graduates World Socialist Web
China has a huge number of unemployed college graduates. In July, China’s ministry of education revealed that over 25 percent, or roughly 1.5 million of the 6.3 million students who had graduated this year, were unemployed. Of those who graduated last year, 800,000 remained unemployed.
These jobless graduates are part of a wider employment crisis. China’s first-ever “White Paper” on employment statistics was released on September 7. Entitled China’s Human Resources, it reported that the number of registered unemployed is 9.2 million or 4.3 percent of the urban labour force.
One example below:
China's High Tech Graduate's Ant Colony
The Chinese Ant Colony Newsweek (Picture Montage):

Monday, December 13, 2010

Civilization and anarchy are only seven meals apart

Civilization and anarchy are only seven meals apart  (Lo que separa la civilización de la anarquía son solo siete comidas. (Civilization and anarchy are only seven meals apart.)—Spanish proverb
Fifty years ago there were roughly a billion people undernourished or starving.  Today, although there are more people overall, there are still a billion people undernourished or starving.  The situation is not improving.  Julian Cribb in The Coming Famine notes all the various problems with ecological deterioration, and global warming and then continues:

Livestock is a major problem: the grain fed to American animals alone is enough to feed those billion hungry people. But what about the next couple of billion? Production, says Mr. Cribb, is headed in the wrong direction. Grain stockpiles shrank in the last decade, and the amount of available water for each human is plummeting. Yet to produce more food, we need more water; to produce more meat, we need much more water.  
We also need more land, as much as “two more North Americas” to produce the fodder needed to meet projected demand. Yet existing land is being degraded by a variety of factors. (Mr. Cribb provides a nicely horrifying quote from some older Chinese farmers: “When we were young, we had trouble seeing the cattle in the grassland. Now we can see the mice.”) …
None of these practices will matter much unless they’re adopted worldwide. “Even if North Americans and Europeans halved their meat and dairy consumption,” Mr. Cribb writes, “the saving could be completely swamped by the demand from six hundred million newly affluent Indian and Chinese consumers.”
Books of The Times
Reviews Julian Cribb’s The Coming Famine

Friday, December 10, 2010

Post Apocolyptic Skirmishing: Lessons from Little Bighorn

Lessons from the fighting at Little Bighorn
As I noted in earlier posts, it can be very difficult to find tactical actions that would apply to a setting where the action does not involve the heavier supporting weapons (machine guns, mortars, rockets) that come from pitched infantry duels.   Cowboy actions usually do not have enough participants.
The imputes for this post came from an interview on the Diane Rehm show of Thomas Power’s who recently wrote The Killing of Crazy Horse.  I have this book, but my sourcing for this post is from an article he wrote at the Smithsonian entitled How the Battle of Little Bighorn Was Won. 
Park Service Map of Little Big Horn Battle Progression:  the green box on left is very close to a mile wide.
Custer’s troops had single action break open breach loaders.  But the speed difference is not particularly that important:  particularly when you have troops who are fighting in formation and will cover each other as they reload.  Many of the Indians were armed with lever action carbines that can often fire faster and with a larger magazine than the latter bolt action rifles.   They come very close to being the equivalent to today’s store-bought semi-automatic carbine. 
I am not going to give a blow-by-blow description of the battle because the link  to the Smithsonian article provides that.  Instead I am going to give a “lessons learned” and some general comments.  I also had a previous post that touched on  Plains Indian tactics:  here.
  • Movement under cover:  The cavalry often took off their hats, and the Indians would wear their feathers flat so as to lower their profile and allow them to keep better cover.
  • In a world without heavy infantry support weapons, the cavalry’s doctrine was to dismount and maintain a skirmish line with the men five yards apart.  Using today's semi-automatics, this distance could probably be opened a little bit (7 yards?), but without support weapons to break up attacks from a distance, you would be very much at risk of getting overwhelmed.
  • The Indians who were not engaged would work to seek there way around their enemies flank.  Eventually the troops would fall back onto defensible, unflankable terrain.  Without heavy weapons, unless the defenders ammunition ran out, the Indians generally had a hard time completely reducing these little knots of firepower.
  • The Indians common tactic was to hold their enemy in place, and wait for an opportunity to charge into close combat with their enemy.  In today’s terms they would wait until they saw that many of their enemy were reloading their magazines.
  • It is very hard to hit a quickly moving object.  There is nothing wrong with the accuracy of the Sharps carbine, but the Indians regularly would taunt and distract the enemy by riding very quickly across their front: probably at around 100 yards distance.
  • Based on the battle details, todays automatic fire weapons would only have been useful when the Indians made their final rush to close combat.  However, this would also have been the time that the defenders where likely to be getting low on ammunition.
  • The combat had a very typical pattern throughout.  The engagement would never completely fall off, but would sputter at times.  There would be rapid movement to engagement, then a close creeping into range, a rapid rush to close  combat (where most of the death and injury occurred), and then a settling down as both sides would regroup, the cycle then starting over.
  • The other reason combat would slow up was because the Indians would stop to loot.  In a battle against forces with limited means this may cause some disruption, and very possibly may give time for a surprised or outnumbered defender to regroup and counter attack.
  • The battle was decided when Crazy Horse got within relatively close range by going (probably walking the horses) up a ravine that went toward the middle of the cavalry’s line.  He stopped, took a few choice shots, and then charged in with his small group before the cavalry skirmish line could recover.  The distraction by Crazy Horse allowed the other Indians to close to the deadly hand-to-hand range.
  • I have said many times before, the casualties, by melee weapon or by firearm, come at close range.  Very few people are good shots in the heat of battle when they are under fire themselves.
On horses/vehicles: 
Obviously there were no internal combustion engines, or even bicycles at Bighorn.  But the some of the usage lessons are the similar. 
·         Transport vehicles and horses tend to draw a lot of fire, and they do not offer particularly good cover.  I have seen online stories where people used the back of a dump truck.  It will not work against the .308 Winchester of 30-06 rounds.  Only the most heavily armored armored-vans are proof against rifle fire. The engine block is generally the only bullet stopping part of a vehicle.  Too many rounds into the engine block and you have yourself a fancy painted rock.

·         Horses and vehicles get you to the battle quicker, but other than as a shock tactic, with a relatively short approach, you are probably going to need to dismount before engagement.  As an aside, I recall the online comments of someone who took a course that included firing from a moving vehicle:  the lesson learned:  don’t expect to hit anything.

·         If you dismount, you will either have to leave people (1/4 in the case of the cavalry) behind to defend them, or risk their loss.

·         If you lose your vehicles, you will lose whatever spare ammunition, or weapons that are carried in them.  In the case of the cavalry they lost their extra 50 rounds of ammunition.

·         If your mount or vehicle is blasted, you will have your tactical mobility greatly reduced, and your means of escape may be greatly reduced.  The Barrett rifles that so many people treat as the modern equivalent to Zeus’ lightning bolts, will likely be the most useful in knocking out enemy vehicles with the minimum expenditure of time.

If you gave the cavalry modern 5.56 (.228) fully selective fire firearms, would they have won?:  Probably not.  Since we are not talking sniper rigs here, the 5.56 may even be slightly less accurate at range.  The ability to carry more ammunition is negated by the heaver usage.  The round fired by the sharps is more deadly than most modern rounds.  The biggest difference, and possibly a deciding factor, is the spray and pray factor at very close ranges.   It is possible that the Indians tactic of closing to close combat would have been stopped by such a high output of rounds at close range.
But there were an awful lot of Indians.