Comments on the recent bushfire Royal Commission

The Centre of Urban Research (CUR) at RMIT has just released some commentary on the recent Royal Commission into the 2019 bushfire emergency.

Along with commentary from my colleagues Emeritus Professor Environment and Planning, Michael Buxton and Dr Mittul Vahanvati, I really enjoyed the chance to make some comments on the findings of the Royal Commission.

My comments, reflecting my research interests and PhD thesis, were with regard to community education around resilience and the crucial importance of a secure liquid fuel supply for Australia:

Community education

Researcher in the Sustainable Planning Program Dr Anthony Richardson has welcomed the Commission’s call for community education around disaster risk and preparation.

But he says the focus must include “a realistic understanding of what ‘resilience’ in such a context means.

”Too often the common understanding of resilience involves the idea of an environment or community bouncing back,” he notes, but “our vulnerability is rising, and not every aspect of the Australian environment or lifestyle can ‘bounce back’.”

We only have to consider houses built in flood zones along the Brisbane River, or in zones of high bushfire vulnerability, he points out.

“Managing stakeholder expectations, including those of the general public, will be a key element in the process of community education.

“As the report clearly states: ‘In some disasters, it is impossible to protect everyone’. Promoting this more realistic understanding of resilience is where community education will be crucial.”

Essential services

The report’s focus on essential services is commendable, Richardson says, adding “it acknowledges the importance of energy to the interconnected systems that make the Australian lifestyle possible.  

“But, while there is a focus on the global scale in terms of our national supply chains, there still needs to be a clear and central focus on liquid fuel insecurity in this country,” he says.

“Liquid fuels, including petrol and diesel, make possible all the other systems discussed in the report but despite this we are rapidly approaching 100% reliance on imported fuel.”

He points to disruptions to the fuel supply within Gippsland that led to food and fuel shortages, and stranded thousands of holiday makers in a bushfire zone with empty tanks.

“This was serious enough at a regional level, but a fuel supply chain disruption at the national level would have catastrophic consequences.

“Australia is increasingly reliant on uninterrupted supplies of imported liquid fuel.  It’s long past the time we recognise this vulnerability as a risk to the maintenance of all the complex systems that make life in Australia possible.”

The annoying persistence of physical limits

An interesting piece in The Guardian from John Naughton (Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at the Open University) suggests that those pesky physical limits to growth look like they may be claiming another victim…

For decades Moore’s Law has:

for most people working in the computer industry – or at any rate those younger than 40 – [has] provided the kind of bedrock certainty that Newton’s laws of motion did for mechanical engineers.

The technology of the silicon chip as a driver of processing power may finally be reaching it’s limit – and the limit is physical.

The end of Moore’s Law has been predicted for many years, of course – including by Linus Thorvald back in 2013:

“On the five- to 10-year timeframe scale, I’m very interested to see how the industry actually reacts to the fact that soon we will come against some physical limits,” Torvalds said. “People used to be talking about having thousands of cores on one die because it keeps shrinking, and those people clearly have no idea about physics because we won’t be shrinking for much longer.”

Both physical and financial limits could prevent the frequent doubling in transistor density that was observed by Moore’s Law, he said…

…”In five, 10 years it’s going to be tough,” he continued. “That’s going to affect us in kernel land because we are the layer between hardware and software. What happens when hardware doesn’t improve and magically make us faster? That’s going to be interesting. It might not be five or 10 years, it might be 15, but it’s going to happen.”

Given that Moore’s Law states that ‘the number of transistors in a dense circuit doubles every two years‘ we can see it as another expression of exponential growth running into the inescapable reality of physical limits.

What will have to change is the way software is written:

As Moore’s law reaches the end of its dominion… we basically have only two options. Either we moderate our ambitions or we go back to writing leaner, more efficient code. In other words, back to the future.

Speaking as someone who is interested in the limits of social and technological complexity, the approaching Limits to Moore’s Law should be a wake up call…