Urbanization and Recurrence Intervals

9 November 2012

Friday


Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal: The Virgin Mary of Breezy Point, as the sculpture has come to be known after Hurricane Sandy.

Recently, the largest city in the richest country in the world was hit by a storm of considerable strength (14 Stunning Sandy Statistics). Fatalities for the storm’s entire progress, from the Caribbean to New England, numbered a little less than two hundred; property damage is being quoted in the billions of dollars. It is more difficult to measure the disruption to business and individuals lives, but this too was considerable, and will continue for some time.

Cities are the centers of industrial-technological civilization, and they are vulnerable. Of course cities have always been important in the history of civilization; civilization began with cities like Çatal Höyük in present-day Turkey. Some cities are very old. Damascus has been a city for more than four thousand years. And some cities are quite young, like Brasília, which recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.

The city as a center of industrial production, organization, and finance is quite recent, however. Most industrial cities supervene on much older cities, and I have commented elsewhere how the tourist’s introduction to a legendary ancient city often involves a desultory bus trip through uninspiring suburbs and industrial development that seems to have nothing to do with the historical center around which this development took place. The industrial city that lies at the center of industrial-technological civilization almost always consists of those recently built portions of a city of a strictly utilitarian character, not excluding the contemporary research universities where the sciences and technologies that drive industry have their origins.

The cities of industrial-technological civilization are very recent, then, even when they supervene on much older cities, and are the result of the rapid and unprecedented urbanization that began with the industrial revolution and which continues today, even as we have recently passed the threshold of being a majority urbanized species. The oldest industrial cities are only about two hundred years old, many are less than a hundred years old, and many are less than fifty years old. In regions such as East Asia where the industrial revolution only arrived in the second half of the twentieth century, the process of urbanization is still getting underway, and the industrialized cities are very young, even as the cities upon which they supervene are very ancient.

86th Street Subway station flooded – Hurricane Sandy

The industrial revolution interpolated (and is interpolating) a radical historical discontinuity into the lives of industrialized peoples and their communities. As the industrial revolution arrives in a given region, an entire generation leaves en masse the countryside with all its ancestral memories going back to time out of mind, joining the steadily growing urban masses where they have established new lives, new homes, new traditions, and new communities. In the process of urbanization, the local knowledge of an entire people is obliterated in a single generation, and those thrust into a new and unprecedented social milieu find themselves daily discovering or inventing the knowledge of the ordinarily business of life that is necessary of industrial-technological urbanism.

In addition to the perennial human needs for food, water, waste disposal, clothing, and housing — all of which have been raised to a new order of magnitude by contemporary urbanization, and therefore in themselves pose an unprecedented challenge — there are more recent utility infrastructure developments that have become essential to contemporary industrial-technological urbanism: electricity chief among them, but also telephone lines, internet connectivity, cell phone signals, and wifi signals. few if any of these recent infrastructure additions have been robustly tested against natural disasters.

Natural disasters of the greatest scope occur infrequently, say one in one to five hundred years, and so we have a well-known phrase like, “100 year flood,” although hydrologists don’t use this terminology. Instead, hydrologists speak in statistical terms of “recurrence intervals” or “return period.” Similar considerations hold for other natural disasters besides floods: great fires, earthquakes, and the like. Pre-industrial civilization has been around long enough to have been exposed even of long recurrence intervals on the order of five hundred years, and if you see an area recently devastated by a natural disaster, you will often see that the oldest structure that pre-date industrial-technological civilization are still largely standing, even while recent construction has been leveled by the event. There is a reason for this.

Ancient cities were built, and devastated, and built again, and devastated again, and eventually people learned their lesson and figured out how to build cities that would not be leveled by likely local natural disasters. This is not true for industrial cities, as I have described industrial cities above. The whole of industrial-technological civilization has emerged in such a short period of time, and industrialized cities are so young, that many have not experienced a single natural disaster of any scope, because their entire history to date lies within a recurrence interval — just as the whole of human civilization lies within the present interglacial period.

The unparalleled opportunities brought by electricity, telecommunications, and internet connectivity come with associated risks and vulnerabilities. It is likely that at some point in history to come, a catastrophic outage of the internet could result in social unrest, or, at very least, the disruption of commerce sufficiently severe that ordinary people feel in going out the ordinary business of life. Of course, outages are restored, and cities are rebuilt, but it all comes at a cost since industrial-technological civilization is still very young, its learning curve is very steep.

It is also like that in some future war a major urban area will be subjected to an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that will destroy all but the most robust and hardened electrical appliances, and this will be an outage that will not soon be made good. But that is a subject for another post.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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