A mailing from the Royal United Services Institute invites me to a conference in April:
The Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) is both the backbone and the lifeblood of the country. It comprises the assets, services and systems that support the economic, political and social life of the UK. Any disruption, damage or destruction to all or part of the CNI could result in grave consequences for the functioning of government, the economy and society. Clearly the CNI is vital to the country’s well-being but the planning and implementation of its security is a Byzantine process; the CNI is a complex and uneven environment with ownership and responsibility spread across the public and private sector.
The threats it confronts are myriad including terrorist attack, industrial accidents and natural disasters. As demonstrated during the July 7 bombings, the Buncefield Disaster, and the foot and mouth outbreak, the CNI is a labyrinthine web of interdependent vulnerabilities that requires a coordinated and coherent response across its entirety to ensure its effective security and resilience in the face of such threats.
Dangerous rubbish. This is an epitome of the statist miscomprehension of complex systems, of economies and ecologies. ‘It is messy; we must coordinate it,’ they say. There are vital things that can be identified in advance as such, and other things not necessary to the ‘backbone of the country’, they think.
But the connections in a natural web are flexible, or they don’t get established in the first place. “Interdependent vulnerabilities” are what make systems adapt, the source of resilience. In unmanaged, open, systems everything is important and everything is unimportant: all things contribute their part to everything else (and you can’t directly measure their contribution), but competition ensures they are all redundant and replaceable.
The response to 7 July was a demonstration of improvisation by thousands of separate actors – millions if you count all those who took simple decisions to get out and walk, rather than passively waiting to be evacuated by the authorities, which would have been the orderly, planned, way to do it. London was functioning again in a day, despite, not because of, the “strategic interventions” that restricted the recovery of traffic flow, and filled the streets with police.
Livestock farming in Britain almost didn’t survive the Deprtment for Rural Affairs’ “coordinated” response to the last “foot and mouth” outbreak. Fortunately at the time DEFRA lacked the powers to coordinate more farmers out of business. The department didn’t see it like that: Its plans were frustrated, and that’s why things were as bad as they were. The ‘defect’ has been eliminated by the Animal Health Act 2002 and the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.
Nobody in government had to tell Tesco’s dealers to buy up more petroleum in Rotterdam when the Buncefield depot caught fire. The state way is a ‘strategic reserve’ of petrol under armed guard somewhere, distributed eventually by rationing according to who is important enough to get it, after declaration of a suitable emergency. As it was, loss of 20% of the country’s stocks overnight caused scarcely a single car journey to be cancelled – apart from those of the people no longer commuting to the flattened industrial estate.
Those ex-commuters would not be comforted by the thought that distributing tiles or soft drinks is not “critical” and not to be guarded by the state. What they do matters to them and their customers. When I want petrol, petrol matters; when I want tiles, they matter. We are all equally made poorer by the unavailablilty of either, because we can’t predict what we will want. Nor can the state.
How dare the planners decide for me what it is I want, as they do implicitly when they define some workers, some structures, as “key”? Well there’s a confirmation bias at work. What the state can best monitor is important (invisible, uncontrollable processes couldn’t be); so those who work for it are. Chaos is bad. State plans are designed to control chaos; therefore they do, and any unfortunate or unforseen consequences are just the remnants of chaos uncontrolled. Bad things are not in the plan, so not of the plan. They are part of the failure to squeeze out doubt, never caused or exacerbated by wrong or unnecessary decisions by the authorities.
The misunderstanding at the heart of planning is a fundamentalist belief that order and simplicity are public goods. They aren’t. It may be good to have them in your own life – if you want them. It is probably necessary to have them in managing a task, running a business, playing a game; to make any well-defined single goal attainable. Clarity in shared procedural rules is highly desirable. But if we want to live in a world where the goals and threat aren’t well defined, where we have a choice, and where how we live is not vulnerable to simple shocks from unexpected angles, then universal order and simplicity are bad. Conflict and competition, difference and redundancy are good. The more disorder, uneveness, and complexity our society has, the richer our lives, and the better equipped we are collectively to meet disaster by routing around damage.