mardi, octobre 04, 2005

Concentration, efficacity and long term security

Choose about any subject you may think of :
medicine, food safety, architecture, finance ...

Whatever the subject you pick you find some very interesting relations between concentration, efficacity and long term security.

Hospitals provide better tratments than your local doctor, selected crops or animal species have high yelds, large scale food processing units allow for better food safety procedures than your local peasant killing the duck in the courtyard, high buildings can provide shelter too many people on a small area of land, they withstand earthquakes better than small houses, concentration in the finance industry allow entrepreneurs to raise large amounts of cash quickly ...

At the very same time, concentration makes any single accident more visible.
If your local doctor makes an error of practice it will very often go unnoticed. If a major drug treatment has defects, people will be affected simultaneously by the thousands. If an infection is declared in an hospital, many get ill at the same time. If a food processing unit gets infected, thousands of products must be called back.

This process often drives call fore more safety measures. Very often safety measures can be made economically viable only through more concentration. Your local doctor can't respect all the safety rules and learn all the protocals. Your local peasant can't invest the equipment necessary to pasteurise milk or food etc.

The process can go on for a while in a loop. It provides more efficiency and objective safety. Its costs are loss of diversity and increased fear. Indeed even though there are less and less risks of dying, eating unealthy food, seeing a building crash etc. Such events are more visible and therefore create more stress.

Of course, my point is that this process can not go on forever. There is always a risk that the concentration creates risks of its own.
For instance higher buildings allow plane terrorist attacks, concentration of the sickests and the weakest in hospitals is a major driver in the apparition of resistant bacterias and viruses to all known treatments, concentration in the number of species grown in agriculture facilitates the spread of epidemias like the avian flu, philoxera ...

This statement seems contradictory to the precedent. However it is not. As usual, it is very important to differenciate between speed and acceleration.

Indeed Higher buildings are often safer than lower ones, however your engineering science limits the height you can reach.
You may believe that high buildings are better, but the truth is what is better is having a better engineering science. Countries with a better engineering science build higher and safer buildings.
However with a given engineering technique, higher buildings pose more of a risk.

Big banks are safer than small ones, large and liquid financial markets allow more safety and flexibility than small markets. However your finance regulations allow you to manage only a given size of debt. There's a limit to the amount of debt that you can pile on.
With given finance regulations, a higher debt level creates a greater risk.

Ian Illich asked 40 years ago if concentration had not gone too far. At the time huge projects were planned by the governments. Some of those failed. Now concentration is driven by the market forces. However it does not seem on a firmer ground.
Indeed even if we let aside the subjective growing fear and unhappiness with the loss in diversity, it becomes more and more self evident that concentration is reaching its limits in many areas :
for ever growing debt piles, for ever concentrated populations, forever reduced numbers of species grown in agriculture are creating huge risks.

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