Inefficiency cascade

I've been thinking about global catastrophes lately, for obvious reasons. An interesting thing to notice is the way that the global machinery of production and trade acts, much like a biological organism, at multiple layers of redundancy.

A common misconception is that hearts tend to fail by stopping, as per the classic hospital flatline scene where the defibrillator magically shocks a dead person back to life. In reality, hearts don't often fail that way (and if they do, zapping them doesn't help). What they tend to do instead is flail uselessly in a way that doesn't pump blood very well.

The reason for this is that literally every part of the heart wants to pump. Normally, that's controlled by a bundle of pacemaker cells near the top of the heart. But if that fails? Another bundle further down takes over. And another, and another. Each level of failure just makes things less efficient and more localised.

Similarly, when a pandemic comes along and screws up all our supply chains, the resources needed to manage and treat it end up being produced more domestically and less efficiently. Issues of supply and distribution have, indeed, been a notable feature of the COVID pandemic, from masks to toilet paper to hand sanitiser.

But when considering climate change, a more sobering thought comes to mind. An easy assumption to make would be that climate change is, in a certain sense, self-limiting: the consequences of fossil fuel consumption will disrupt large-scale production, which will also decrease fossil fuel consumption.

However, another possibility is that the large-scale production will be replaced by less-efficient small-scale production. If global-scale solar panel production falters, the slack will be picked up by national-scale fossil fuel power, which will itself be replaced by local-scale fossil fuel power if it fails. Each contraction comes with a decrease in efficiency.

In that case, the disruptions caused by climate change could lead to even higher emissions, as we increasingly trade efficiency for resilience.