Earlier this week, I was reading James Howard Kunstler's weekly blog, Clusterfuck Nation, as I do every Monday. Now Kunstler usually manages one or two particularly piquant turns of phrase, but this week he was really in rare form. I was particularly taken by this compactly astute observation on the currently evolving (or devolving) ebola crisis:

Welcome to the diminishing returns of the global economy. They’ve been there all along, but none previously were sufficiently vivid or horrifying as ebola. The Chinese FoxConn workers throwing themselves out the factory windows in despair just seemed like some kind of fraternity prank in comparison. Now something has got loose from the Heart of Darkness like the hissing beastie that burst out of John Hurt’s ribcage in Alien and water-skied out of the sick bay into the bowels of the cargo ship Nostromo. Sometimes a metaphor is just a figure of speech and sometimes it’s liable to set your hair on fire.

Joseph Tainter, Jared Diamond et al are de rigeur reading for most of Kunstler's audience, I suspect, but I wonder how many of his other readers got the neatly packaged Joseph Conrad allusions? Sure, most people have read Heart of Darkness and understand it to be a criticsim of European colonialism in Africa, but far fewer people, I think, are familiar with his longer novel, Nostromo. Nostromo, if not an indictment of imperialism/colonialism in the western hemisphere, is at best pessimistic about the nature and intentions of the ruling classes of Latin America of the late 19th Century and their fealty to North American and European colonial interests. Set in the fictional country of Costaguana, the novel really represents the nation of Colombia and various foreign mining interests there.

Ridley Scott, the director of Alien, in naming the ship Nostromo, was probably commenting on present day culture, as most good sci-fi writers and directors do. At the same time, the film is a cautionary parable for future generations of what can happen if humanity's expansion--to other worlds, in this case--is motivated by profit and greed.

In any case, what Kunstler is getting at here is the historical fate of civilizations and empires vis-a-vis Joseph Tainter's ideas on the diminishing returns of investments in social complexity. In Tainter's view, societies at first adopt patterns of complexity as a way to solve problems, though this ultimately leads to reliance on greater and greater complexity just to maintain the status quo, until that society becomes unable to manage its investment in complexity and collapses. In short, when an asset outstrips its utility to the custodians who manage it, it becomes a liability.

An example that springs to mind is the Roman Empire's investment in roads. At first, roads were a boon, a way to quickly and efficiently project military power and imperial authority to the outlying provinces that constituted the empire, and just as importantly, a way to expedite the flow of goods back to the motherland: "All roads lead to Rome," as the saying goes. While the Roman Empire was in the ascendant, these roads served their purpose of transporting troops and goods to and from the various hinterlands of the empire. When the Roman Empire fell into decline, these roads became a liability, something that had to be maintained, and ultimately a faster route for the Vandals and Visigoths to make their way to the Eternal City, in order to sack, loot,  pillage, and burn.

While commercial air travel in today's world may not be exactly analogous, there are some interesting parallels. The commercial airlines all came into their own during the ascendancy of the American Empire, in the decades following World War II, where many Americans and Europeans reached a level of prosperity that afforded them the luxury of intercontinental air travel, among other things. This level of prosperity, at least in the U.S., has been on the decline since the 1970s and will not likely be seen again, but at any rate, global commercial air travel is a luxury which anyone with the cash for a ticket and a valid passport can for the time being partake of.

Commercial air travel is just one feature of the age of American Empire, which is synonymous with the age of cheap fossil fuels. In fact, the defining characteristic of post-war America may be the notion of mobility, as facilitated by cheap and abundant fossil fuels. These fossil fuels made possible the almost universal ownership of automobiles, the growth of suburbs and the sprawl they entailed, the birth of the Eisenhower interstate system, and of course, the commercial airline industry. Dick Cheney said it best when he said "The American way of life is non-negotiable," in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

The American way of life, after all, is predicated on easy access to relatively cheap supplies of fossil fuels. It's what most Americans take for granted in their daily living arrangement and it represents an investment made in complexity by earlier generations who assumed that fossil fuels would always be cheap and abundant. Future generations will probably view cheap air travel and universal car ownership as an historical anomaly, a pecularity, as it surely will be by the middle of this century. Perhaps it will seem as weird and decadent as the Roman custom of the nomenclator--a slave whose sole purpose was to remember the names of notable citizens his master might meet on the streets of Rome.

Commercial air travel and the complexity it entails, in the final analysis, may hasten the collapse of the American Empire and the so-called civilization that goes with it, to the extent that air travel is no longer an asset but a liability. Initial evidence of this arrived on September 11, 2001 when commercial airliners became the vehicles and weapons for the only foreign attack on American soil since the War of 1812. This attack necessitated a massive increase in complexity in terms of the resources and infrastructure necessary to counter future attacks: namely, the formation of the defense-intelligence-homeland-security-industrial complex, the consequences of which we are currently dealing with.

The world that we live in is one where vast networks of interconnected airlines allow almost anyone to travel anywhere, spending hours at a time in close quarters with hundreds of other travelers. Keeping tabs on the sheer volume of passengers passing through various points of transit before reaching their final destination certainly represents a level of complexity that many governments are already finding extremely difficult to manage. Turning again to sci-fi movies, I can't help but think of Terry Gilliam's film 12 Monkeys,which ends with the harrowing scene of a researcher at an airport, infected with a deadly virus, embarking on an around-the-world trip.

With multiple crises--ISIS, Ukraine, global financial markets, etc--already competing for the attention and resources of governments ill-suited to handle them, it's not difficult to imagine that our investments in complex systems such as the commercial airline industry and their relationship to emergent threats, such as pandemic disease, may soon overwhelm our civilization's resources and willpower to manage them effectively.