A localised systems collapse in real time

PHOTO: Holidaymakers face delays in coastal communities such as Ulladulla as the bushfire crisis continues. (ABC News: Joh McDiarmid)

The scenes of patient locals and holiday makers lining up for the basics of life on the South Coast and East Gippsland should be recognised for what they are.

We are witnessing a localised collapse, in real time. And that is a rude awakening to the essential fragility of all the complex systems which make our lives possible.

Make no mistake: Australia is a wealthy developed country, and the system will kick back into action quickly, depending on the fire behaviour, of course. Yet we should still look at what happened, and why.

Of course the answer to why is obvious – the bushfires.

But there are also less obvious systemic aspects to this collapse.

The fragility of our systems

Above all, it’s clear that the emergency services and CFA recognised the implications of the remoteness of both East Gippsland at the larger scale, and Mallacoota at the smaller scale . Here I don’t mean remoteness in terms of distance, but in terms of connections to the rest of the region, state or country.

The area is isolated in a systems sense, as there is only really one connection (the Princes Highway for East Gippsland as a whole, and the lone asphalt road into Mallacoota) to allow access to resources to enter and people to arrive or leave. It was obvious that these areas could be cut off extremely easily.

Looking at both scales as systems, it’s clear there is no redundancy at either scale (East Gippsland as a whole, or Mallacoota more locally), and this means fragility. Redundancy, as a formal term, means the existence of ‘excess capacity’, or back up systems, which allow for alternate pathways through a system should one fail.

No food and fuel, no functioning urban life… and it doesn’t need to be disrupted for long for everything to collapse.

When we think about systems, there are two types of redundancy:

The first is alternate systems connections, or more specifically (with regard to East Gippsland and Mallacoota) alternate roads throughout the two areas to enable transport if one is blocked.

The second was that there was no reserve of food or fuel ready and at hand when the fires had passed, and there are very specific reasons for that.

Above all, we have ‘just in time’ food and fuel distribution systems set up across our entire country, and they are fragile as they have no redundancy. There is no store of food, supplies or fuel at hand when the system is disrupted, even for a short time.

It is collapsing because:

  1. there has been an interruption to the flows of energy (whether fuel, food or electricity), water, and transport and communications systems which enable the boring, everyday, ‘This works so I don’t have to think about it‘ functioning of that system.
  2. there was no redundancy in the system to deal with the disruption caused once the fires hit the area, or when the immediate danger had passed.

The first is hard to address, but the second is not.

It just costs money.

The lesson of the Old Phone Booth

The old Telstra boxes in towns elsewhere along the South Coast in NSW provide an analogy for how redundancy works. They also provide a clear example of how such redundancy makes a system (in this case communications) more resilient in the face of a disaster.

PHOTO: Many don’t have access to mobile phone coverage, prompting queues at phone boxes. (ABC News: Joh McDiarmid)

Most people no longer have a landline, as we rely almost entirely on our mobile phones. All well and good, but when the mobile network goes down, the old overlooked Telstra boxes have been providing both a landline connection, and a functioning wifi hotspot.

They are the redundant technology that has been able to serve as a backup when the mobile system went down… and isn’t this a good enough reason to ensure their survival?

To extend the idea a little further, isolated regions like East Gippsland or towns like Mallacoota need reserves of food and water, some sort of generator capacity, and satellite communications during the (increasingly long) fire season.

Yes it costs money – Redundancy is pretty much the opposite of Efficiency, and such reserves are a ‘dead investment’, especially if they are never used.

They make no economic sense, for sure – but they make sense in terms of system resilience, particularly when we can see, playing out in real time, how our ‘just in time’ food distribution networks are dangerously fragile.

And how useful would some underground stores of water and non-perishable food supplies, generators with some fuel, and a few satellite phones be right now?

A final uncomfortable thought

To explore this idea of system collapse, we should shift our focus out to the national or even global scales…

Worryingly, we see the same dynamic at this wider scale – Australia is a relatively isolated country which imports 90% of its oil today, with that rising to 100% by 2030.

Our food distribution is critically dependent on a fuel source, whether diesel or petrol, which has little redundancy in terms of supply lines and of which we keep no reserves.

And Australia’s deal with Trump to access to US oil reserves if there is a disruption to our oil supply?

That’s like proudly announcing we have emergency fuel reserves for Mallacoota in the event of any future disruption – and they are safely stored in Melbourne.

In other words, no meaningful reserves at all.