The world is probably overdue for a catastrophe. The last war in Europe was 73 years ago. There have been some minor skirmishes like Ukraine and the Balkans, but nothing to alter the political arrangements. It’s been an extraordinary run of peace. Despite the howling by the neocons, there’s little chance of a war breaking out. The rest of the world is unlikely to see a major war anytime soon. Asia is too busy selling stuff to wage war and the Middle East seems to have exhausted itself, at least for a little while.
As far as catastrophes, the best chance for something significant is a plague. The last good disease outbreak was the Spanish Flu, which gets overlooked because of the Great War. That killed three to five percent of the world population. Some would say HIV counts as a pandemic, but that’s a different thing than something like the Spanish Flu. Everyone knows how to not get HIV. There’s no defense against something like an airborne virus or something carried by insects. The normal activities of life spread the disease.
Researchers at John Hopkins University simulated the spread of a new deadly disease, a variant of the flu, using real politicians to “war game” the thing. A doomsday cult releases a genetically engineered virus and the politicians were asked to make decisions based on the rules of the simulation. The result was 150 million dead in less than two years and close a billion dead by the end of the simulation. They modeled the new disease on SARS, just made it more deadly, so the infection pattern was something familiar.
One of the researchers said, “I think we learned that even very knowledgeable, experienced, devoted senior public officials who have lived through many crises still have trouble dealing with something like this.” That’s a very nice way of saying that the people in charge are not very good at this sort of thing. When you dig into the story, the impression is that the result of this simulation was the worst case scenario. Maybe they had their thumb on the scale, hoping to use the result to get research money.
What I did not see in the descriptions of the simulation is the downstream results of a serious plague. For example, the infrastructure of modern life requires a lot of maintenance. Around here, crews are out everyday repairing power lines and communication equipment. If a plague starts, what percentage of that work force has to get sick, scared or die before maintenance falls behind? Just imagine what happens if your power goes out for an extended period. Then imagine it happening during a plague.
Then you have the interconnection of world populations. A serious plague is going to hit a place like India much harder than a country like Canada. The West has come to depend on India for all sorts of services. Imagine a world without Hindu telemarketers and the world’s call centers shut down. In all seriousness, the disruptions to the supply chain would be massive, because so much is outsourced to poor non-white countries with low standards for public health. All of a sudden, outsourcing becomes a liability.
Given the disease rates would inevitably be higher in non-white areas, white intolerance of non-whites would spike. We see signs of this already, as Amerindians bring forgotten diseases like TB and scarlet fever into the US. This would make it impossible for the politicians to continue the white replacement project, at least not without declaring martial law. That assumes the military could or would go along with martial law. A plague would probably hit the military hardest, because everyone is packed onto bases.
That’s another aspect of a plague. Trust in institutions is at an all-time low in the United States. We have a strong economy and the nation is at peace. If all of a sudden food gets scarce and civil unrest is a problem, trust in the state could very well collapse. Decades of stoking hatred among the populace by the current ruling class could easily boil over into chaos. Imagine a dozen Katrina scale breakdowns around the country. The people in charge could not respond sensibly to one city-wide catastrophe. Imagine a dozen of them.
There’s something else. The common argument you hear is that there is a shortage of qualified people in critical areas of the economy. This is the argument for importing slaves from Asia. If an airborne virus starts killing people, those who work in offices will be hit hardest. What if we start to really run out of people able to do important jobs. What if 20% of the medical staff drops dead in the first wave of the infection? The point is, it’s not hard to imagine that a serious plague could cripple some important aspect of the system.
In a lot of ways, the modern society is a house of cards. Everything is dependent on everything else. In the normal course of life, this works as defense in depth, with layers of dependency and redundancy. It’s easy to see how this could be turned into a weakness, due to severe shortages of manpower or one part of the system getting hit particularly hard. The modern economy assumes everything breaks, but only breaks a little and not all at one time. Again, just imagine what happens if the power grid fails for a month.
That’s why the Black Death was so significant. It fractured the feudal system in ways that could not be repaired. Some have argued that the plague made the Renaissance possible, by crippling the old feudal order. That certainly seems plausible. The feudal order was a pyramid scheme of sorts. It required a large peasant population. Once the peasants started dying off, the system became unstable, at least as an economic model. Of course, the plague killed a lot of high-born people too. That changed the ruling classes as well.
The Late Bronze Age collapse is another example of a systemic failure brought on by exogenous forces. The reasons range from diseases, climate change to invasion, but probably a combination of them. The palace system for distributing goods and maintaining order was not able to hold up to these exogenous pressures. Since the relationships between the kingdoms were built around the palace system, one kingdom falling set off a domino effect. The result was a dark age that lasted about 300 years.
That does not mean a modern plague would result in a dark age or the zombie apocalypse, but major resets change the trajectory of human development. All of a sudden, the prevailing orthodoxy is not so strong that no one challenges it. The neo-liberal order of today is fragile and requires enormous resources to maintain. In fact, the cost of maintaining it probably exceeds the benefits. A plague would cause a major reset to the world order and probably force a retreat of the prevailing order, at the minimum.