When Complex Systems Fail, They Never Fail All At Once


When complex systems fail, they almost never fail all at once. They usually suffer from a cascading failure or a series of smaller failures leading up to the complete breakdown of the functions of the system. Our social, economic and environmental systems are all breaking down and the end result will be catastrophic for the people, but the breakdown will not happen all at once.

Many people understand that the system is failing but they do not have a clear understanding of how it will affect them. In a cascading failure, one part leads to the damage and failure of another part until everything stops. In an automobile, when the oil pump goes bad it stops pumping oil to all of the internal parts that come in contact with one another preventing them from causing excess wear to one another. As the oil flow stops it will not stop the engine or any other parts from working and you will continue down the road unknowing unless a light or gage gives you a warning. As the oil is worn off of the metal parts you begin to get more signs something is wrong. The lifters will start tapping louder as time goes on and the temperature of the engine will start to increase as the parts cause more friction with one another. Eventually, the bearings will begin to wear excessively against one another until they seize up and stop the engine completely.

This could happen very rapidly or it could happen over a matter of minutes, but the damage will be the same. Many people feel that the economic problems they see ahead will occur like a car wreck, happening very rapidly and ending suddenly in heavy damage and chaos. With large complex systems, there are many moving parts and they rarely all fail simultaneously. Instead, you will more likely see a cascading series of failures that cause increasing damage as they progress. You might think of the coming breakdown more like falling down a long flight of stairs rather than an automobile accident.

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As you begin to fall at the top of the stairs you realize you are in trouble but it takes a short period of time before the first damage is done. As you impact the first step you suffer much damage as your body absorbs the initial impact and slows you down a little. Then as you roll and tumble down the stairs you suffer more injury. Some steps you will hit hard and some you may miss entirely along the way. As you fall the injuries will increase until you get to the bottom. One person may fall all the way down and only suffer a few bruises while another may suffer a fractured skull and multiple broken bones. The difference comes in how flexible you are and able you are to absorb the impacts.

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As you look at the potential breakdown ahead of you, you must look at your surroundings and consider cause and effect in evaluating the series of failures that will occur. It may take much longer for the breakdown to occur, requiring you to have a plan to carry you through the series of failures over a matter of weeks or months.

Let’s look at one type of breakdown. A hyperinflation situation does not happen overnight. It occurs over a matter of months or years. The systems that the people depend on become more dysfunctional as the inflation continues until they cannot function normally.

As the money becomes worthless the prices of necessities become more expensive. Those that depend on fixed income suffer as their money buys less and less. The workers are able to keep up with inflation for a while due to rising wages but even that becomes a losing battle. As the manufacturers and energy providers raise wages to keep up with inflation they also must raise prices to compensate. This affects fixed income people first then later the average man. As the masses begin to suffer from lack of necessities they sell or trade whatever they have to survive.

If they complain enough, the government may impose price controls to freeze prices. As the inflation continues producers begin to lose money on their products and at some point stop selling the items they are losing money on. This is when large farms will likely be visited by government buyers and will force the farmers to sell their products to the government for the set price which is a losing proposition for the farmers. Many will not continue producing the excess they once did and instead produce only for personal use until the situation changes. This causes real shortages where people cannot get the item even if they have plenty of currency. This is when the real suffering begins.

Those that have money and try to send it out to the affected area to preserve it may find that at some point the government enacts capital controls preventing you from moving your money out of the area. In this type of situation the actions taken by the government almost always cause more problems than they solve but they do them because the people demand action.

The people that get along better than most are the small farmers that operate under the radar and can provide food and items for barter. This is usually referred to as a black market, which operates in the shadows of a failing system to provide those with tradable items with the things they must have.

In a slow decay of support systems, a person must have not only stored items for trade but also be able to create items in a sustainable way to ride out the decay until the situation can stabilize and normal production systems can get back online.

When the breakdown starts you need to be able to provide basics for your family until it is over. You need to have support systems that are fully owned and will not be lost especially through bankruptcy. You need to have shelter you can depend on. You need to have transportation you can depend on. You need stored food and clothing and a way to replenish those supplies for an indefinite period of time. You need a way to produce the energy you need such as wind, solar or wood gas. You need a place that is relatively safe and a way to protect your family when things become violent. You need resources to grow and store food. You need communications to keep you informed and medical resources to keep you healthy.

A simple plan might be to acquire 2 to 5 acres of land in a rural area, have a large tent, trailer or structure such as a cottage to live in, have some basic tools to produce food and some way to produce your own energy. With these few things, you would be able to get by during the worst of the crisis and be able to produce excess to trade for the other things you need. The better you plan for a long series of failures, the more flexible you will be and the abler you will be to absorb the impacts on the way down. When the system fails and you end up at the bottom of the stairs, you want to be in the condition to get up and shake off the few bruises that you have. Those that fail to plan will suffer untold damage as their brittle bodies bounce and roll uncontrollably along the way leaving them unable to function when they reach the bottom.

It is critical to realize when a system is about to fail so you can take the necessary immediate steps to limit the effects of the failure on you. In a cascading series of failures, it is important to think and act proactively to stay ahead of the curve. How the failures occur in your immediate area and what form they take will be to a large degree determined by the type of people there. Those with no preparations or resources to fall back on will likely react in a frightened and violent way. Some that cannot handle the reality when their comfort zone is breached will go into a state of depression, denial or shock and will complicate the situation for others and will become the helpless victims of those that will take advantage of the situation.

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In a cascading series of failures, the first hard jolt will leave many reeling from the sudden and unexpected nature of the situation. Many of these people will not understand that this is only the first of many situations that will build upon one another causing more damage as the failures continue. Those that understand what is happening and maintain some situational awareness can position themselves to mitigate these failures and take preemptive measures prior to each occurrence.

Situational awareness is a key to staying ahead of each failure. Just as you know that when a snowstorm is approaching you may lose power, you must learn to read the subtle signs in society to determine what is happening at any given moment. When you hear that there is a failure of the grain harvests around the world, you know that will increase the prices of many products made from grain. You know that livestock fed with grain will be more expensive and so will the meat. If there is a strike overseas in the primary cocoa-producing regions of the world it will mean higher cocoa and chocolate prices. Assuming that there is a war in the Middle East that may cut off oil shipments in that part of the world, you know that may mean higher gas prices or inability to get any at times if it is severe. If the government enacts import restrictions on certain products, it may mean those things will become scarce or unobtainable in the marketplace.

These are the types of things that you need to concern yourself with to stay ahead of the failures. The ability to predict cause and effect will enable you to be prepared for these jolts to society and allow you to ride out the disruptions. For every action, there is an opposite but equal reaction. One of the things you need to stay aware of is the actions of the government. These are the most immediate and possibly dangerous things to your future and being able to determine how government actions will affect you will determine your actions in response.

If you hear the government is about to set up checkpoints to limit travel between areas, and you have a safe location you are planning to go to if things deteriorate, that may be the only warning you get to leave and go to your safe location. If you wait you may not be allowed to leave later. The warning signs before each situation may be subtle and short-lived. There may be multiple signs indicating several things are about to happen simultaneously. You need to prepare for this and be prepared to multitask and do it quickly.

This is the reason to have several well thought out plans to draw on. Most likely you will have to draw from each plan as the situations develop and construct a new overall plan as you react to situations on the ground. This is where prior planning pays off by allowing you to quickly organize a new plan even while on the move.

When you set down to draw up a plan to deal with several different scenarios, it would be beneficial to include a few plans that deal with radical and unconventional situations to provide you with options if you are confronted with a situation outside of your normal sphere of thinking. In a developing situation, it is critical to be prepared for anything. A plan can help overcome a lack of resources when something unusual happens.

When things start to fall apart on a national or global scale, they can get out of control very quickly. When that happens, you don’t want to be in the wrong place surrounded by the wrong people. If that should happen, you want to have a plan to deal with it. When systems begin to fail a few at a time over a long period, it is easy to become complacent and ignore the signs telling you what to do. It is your job to understand those signs and be prepared to react to them.

If you want to exercise this skill, all you need to do is start reading more and keeping up with current events. Pay attention to these events and watch what effects they have that affect you. This is the best way to learn situational awareness, and soon you will hear of something happening in the world and immediately think about what it will cause and what you should do to limit its’ effects on you. Those that wait for direction from government or media sources will not have the time necessary to react and protect their resources. Ensuring that you stay ahead of any event is up to you. God gave you a brain for a reason. It’s up to you to use it.

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  1. In my bloated opinion, this is a key observation. I have been, for the last few years, attempting to get people to understand this dynamic. It is far too easy to look at the future at a certain point and say, “This is how it will be,” but that tends to lends ones perception that it got that way all n one instant. One example shows how people will stand firm on the grounds that, since the banks and credit cards will eventually fail, People should be charging up their credit cards when they see it beginning to implode with no intention of ever paying it off. After all, the system will completely fail and, safety in numbers… they can’t put us all in jail… Wrong. They can and they will, inasmuch as this is their intention, one way or another, to control the population. In effect, debtors’ prisons are already here, despite what the rhetoric spews. Try getting away with not paying your seatbelt ticket (or any fine to the System) and see how far you can take it without spending some time in the old clinker. The government will side with the banks and credit agencies, first and foremost, even to the point of bailing them out if necessary. My oh my, what short memories we have, which lends itself to our short-sidedness.
    Keep up the good work.

    • Really good point. Most people under 35 have no clue. A little over 50 years ago, I had 2 dresses for school that mother sewed. Dress shoes, 1 pair of sneakers for gym only and a pair of pull on rubber boots that were so cold in the winter! Things kept getting better as I grew until now, as a grandmother, when it seems as if the scales are set to tip the other way again. Try telling these younger to be prepared and they look like a deer in the headlights. Grandmother is crazy. That can’t happen here, not in America. Short memories, indeed.