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Finding a new reality

An extreme event may have far-reaching consequences

By Beverly Meyer

The Free Lance-Star

IT’S A FASCINATING concept: Short-term catastrophic events like hurricanes or earthquakes actually can yield long-term positive results.

John Casti’s book, “X–Events: The Collapse of Everything” begins with a sampling of those kinds of extraordinary events that  have changed the course of civilizations. Their  “X-ness” is a combination of rarity, surprise and social damage.

Casti then posits 11 “events” that illustrate—and warn—how  the technological intricacies of the modern world have yielded   fragile and vulnerable societies ripe for widespread collapse.

Casti says:  “Today humans are more vulnerable than ever to X–events. The complex infrastructures we depend upon for everyday life—transportation, communication, food and water supply, electrical power, health care, to name a few—are fragile beyond belief, as we’re reminded when ever a small glitch in the delivery system occurs.”

Residents of coastal New Jersey and New York City were reminded recently of the truth of that statement, with the continuing chaos resulting from Hurricane Sandy  weeks ago. But rising from that destruction may come something good: new attention to ideas of  reinforcing coastal homes against flooding and burying electric lines to preclude wind damage, among many others.

Scenarios that Casti discusses range from easily believable to   (at this point in time) the less likely. The former category  includes  long-term widespread failure of the Internet; a breakdown of the global food-supply system; and a global pandemic, to name a few. Even less likely scenarios include  the overthrow of humanity by  intelligent robots, drying up of world oil supplies or destruction of the Earth through the creation of exotic particles.

In any case, however,  the  premise remains the same:  If we are unprepared for a disruption in our technologically based society (i.e., loss of telephone, Internet, escape routes, medical care, etc.) and do not have backup in place, we will suffer for it.

Societies must build systems (and train individuals) to be  as adaptive as possible to counteract or exploit what  an X–event could  bring. With that comes resilience, wherein we actually benefit from the  punch we have received during an  extraordinary event.  And finally, we must build in redundancy to keep systems running in the face of the unknown.

Casti’s book is the view of someone looking at unpleasant probabilities, but seeing long-term social advantages arising from them.

Beverly Meyer is a copy editor  at The Free Lance–Star.

X–EVENTS:  The Collapse  of Everything

By John Casti

(Wm. Morrow, $26.99,  336 pp.)


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