Disaster Economies: Is a Sustainable Solution Possible?
Disaster Economies: Is a Sustainable Solution Possible?

It has been a strange and terrifying week on Planet Texas. A little over a week after Trump rolled back the Federal Flood Risk Mitigation Standard, a hurricane named Harvey – administered by a politically indifferent Mother Nature – painfully demonstrated the need for it. While Ted Cruz hypocritically begs for support and receives it from victims of Hurricane Sandy that he and 20 other Texas legislators infamously denied in the same situation, the weird nature of Texas politics only stands to get stranger, as the Southern economy may be forcibly remade by such an impending natural disaster.

I’ve been a Houstonian for about 3 years now, but I fled to Austin on the morning of August 25th. While driving, my music library on shuffle cycled randomly through and landed on Texas Flood by Stevie Ray Vaughn somewhere near San Marcos; I found myself wondering if any of my possessions would be there when I get back. I still don’t know how my worldly possessions faired, but that hardly seems relevant amid the struggle of many people stranded amid the chaos. But in times of despair, something very interesting happens to the social structure, especially in one of America’s most diverse cities.

Welcome to the disaster economy. There is no questioning the impact this storm will have on the future of the Great American South. Oil prices have already been affected as at least (at the time of writing) two of the country’s largest refineries have closed down. A day after Floyd Mayweather demonstrated his dominance in the ring, possibly for the last time, Harvey knocked out 11% of the US’s refining capacity.

The slow-moving storm continues to cause historic flooding in Texas’ most populated puddle, in its third ‘500-year’ flood in 3 years. 14 trillion gallons have been dumped on Houston to take the puddle to a wading pool, with too many parking lots to soak up the water. The timing was almost as inopportune as Trump’s when the Houston Chronicle published an article naming the ridiculous expansion of Houston’s building boom of the last 50 years as a culprit. The reduction of native wetlands that Houston was built on leaves the region prone to flooding. According to an analysis published in March and a study of flooding in Louisiana last year, both reported by NPR, climate change is at least partially responsible for the severity of these tropical storms. Destruction of natural habitat hurts the environment. It’s not much more complicated than that. 

But of course, Harvey is a storm just like any other, right? There can’t possibly be any connection to climate change, especially since in a more severe case of deja vu rages on in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Suffocating monsoon rains in South Asia have already killed over 1,200 and left millions displaced. But I’m not here to argue about climate change, I’m here to argue for a systems upgrade that could better equip us to deal with the inevitable shocks Mother Nature deals to societies all over the world. Think bigger.

Disasters of all denominations demonstrate the modern problem of government. Coupled with a an infrastructure completely unable to handle with any fluidity or efficiency the displacement of entire counties, it means people will suffer–as if they haven’t already. Even if Joel Osteen finds it in the Grace of his God to open his church to those in need, living conditions will still continue to be dismal for the foreseeable future. People will struggle to find supplies and places to sleep, despite the overabundance of both in American homes. No one person can receive blame because the real culprit lurks behind our reactionary society and our refusal as a collective, global community to be proactive against shocks and threats.

A problem such as climate change can only be tackled with a collective global effort, permeating down to the last individual. This is a relatively new idea, imagined by a self-proclaimed “resilience guru” and former architect of a Department of Defense effort to understand humanitarian crises named Vinay Gupta, a stalwart in the crypto community. He has said that such a movement that requires global coordination doesn’t seem to be possible among current world governments, each with their own agendas and powerful lobbies. The modern organizational structure, based on a sick interpretation of merit and hierarchical structure could change – with the implementation of new blockchain-based technologies – into networks of smart contract-aided pure democracy. Bureaucracy creates negative feedback loops in governance that arguably could be responsible for the cycles of power.

So what does a disaster economy look like? Well, I suppose that will depend on the challenges, and I have faith the affected communities will rise to meet them. So how can we help? Send money to the Red Cross? They no doubt contribute to disaster relief, but they also draw genuine criticism because of the bureaucratic paradox that is administrative costs. The numbers vary depending on which activist you consult, but the money essentially hovers around 2-3 cents of every ten that actually makes it to the front lines of a relief effort. As we’ve seen continually in places hit by Mother Nature’s fury, money isn’t always the answer. No recovery happens solely because the President makes a visit and pledges resources and money; it happens because people who care contribute whatever they can afford, whether it’s their time or their resources. Money flows like it always has yet there seems to me more sentiment behind it than usual during such tumultuous times. How do we maximize the sentiment of caring for those in need?

The unconditional level of support ordinary people are willing to provide during a disaster is as heart-warming as it is logistically incredible. There are so many examples. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo dispatched a task force to make the trek across the country to offer support, sympathetically citing how New York needed aid after Hurricane Sandy. AirBnB has announced free lodging for displaced Harvey victims and there are so many thoughts and prayers being sent to East Texas and Louisiana over social media that Anthony Jeselnik is going insane and do-good Christians are doubling down on their Faith. Personally, I can’t thank the young couple whose AirBnB I have been staying in for the past week. These are network affects that allow the absorption of shock, which in this case the shock is the hurricane and the reduced prices in AirBnB for refugees is how a network is used to absorb such a shock. The real story here revolves around the inability of militarized police, rescue forces, and shelters to deal with extenuating circumstances without help of citizens outside their centralized authority.

Per reporting by The Texas Tribune, heroes of the everyman with lifted trucks, gators with snorkel kits, kayaks, and boats flocked to Houston to provide relief. Kiah Collier reported on August 30th that when people either finally chose or were forced to evacuate, “they turned not to law enforcement or government emergency response teams but to neighbors, and citizen volunteers, people who had rallied kayaks, canoes and fishing boats to form informal bureaucracies to organize rescue missions.” Disasters cause people to work together in ways that can’t be explained in terms of cost, but rather concern. A growing list of donors from the $27 Bernie-sized donation to multiple millions from a growing list of celebrities clearly demonstrates the level of concern we all feel for our afflicted brethren.

In a book titled A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit writes, “these are clearly not events to be wished for yet they bring out the best in us and provide common purpose.” The common purpose of providing relief, no matter how well funded, cannot be executed without distributed networks of helping individuals. These helpers create an environment where, Solnit continues:

“Everyday concerns and societal structures vanish. A strange kind of liberation fills the air. People rise to the occasion. Social alienation seems to vanish.”

The ability of humans to rise to any occasion proves our natural origins–it’s called antifragility, and it’s what causes our hands to callous after hard labor, our cardiovascular system to improve after sustained exercise, and it is completely missing from our social, economic, and political systems. Nature is self-correcting to the point of improvement, making it equipped to deal with stressors. Our institutions are fragile, and lack any real viability when stressed.

A disaster economy is nuanced, chaotic, and often a bureaucratic nightmare. A society and economy built under the stress of disaster is much more likely to prosper over the long term because of its ability to absorb shocks. To mitigate the risk that fragile systems pose, we cannot simply take their power. That’s not enough. We must change the nature of power itself.

I promise there is good news. We are approaching a revolutionary era of technological innovation that stands to drastically minimize our level of bureaucratic inefficiencies as a society. Realistically preparing for disasters can create the conditions necessary for true progress by allowing an efficient and sustainable environment to foster and develop. Which means calling Ajit Pai on his shady dweebery, but that’s a story for another day.

The tech-boom of the ‘90s brought better teamwork before it brought better technology. Today the teamwork may come from the technology itself, allowing a level of trustless, yet trustworthy cooperation – based on triple-entry accounting – never before possible.

A blockchain, for practical and simplistic purposes, is a database where the information entered can be verified by the network that has access to it. Smart contracts are lines of code that can automate transactions. There is no universally accepted definition of smart contracts, therefore there is no predictable limit to how they can be utilized by a blockchain. Several countries including Argentina, Honduras, Philippines, the Republic of Georgia and Sweden have all been researching the use of this technology for land registries. It’s attractive because the use and distribution of land can be recorded and verified in one place, however not under a central authority. Similar technologies could be used to limit the destruction of valuable habitat – such as Southern wetlands – and improve what land and resources are allocated for. This same technology could potentially be used to verify safe zones over a disaster stricken area, could use social media – which many Houstonians have thanked for allowing them to contact rescuers, despite being discouraged by HPD – to verify rescues and register land as safe or dangerous on a network where it is transparent and accessible. Again, all future speak, but even in the instance of sending supplies to disaster stricken individuals you could verify transfers of money and tangible supplies over a blockchain to ensure an individual in need receives your contribution and not a non-profit relief effort to pay administrative costs. Further, in the aftermath of Katrina there were reports of massive fraud by contractors hired to repair damages. Smart contracts combined with the distributed, neutral accounting system of the blockchain can set immutable conditions for a transaction’s execution and verification. Money doesn’t change hands until the parameters of the deal, however simple, are met. The uses are innumerable because smart contracts are not bound by any specific task, only by what can be accomplished with code, which is an ever-expanding realm of possibility.

The children of the Cypherpunks have created a new database technology called blockchain that could completely and utterly reconstruct the allocation of land and resources.

We stand at a crossroads now where a network ecosystem (collection of separate but overlapping networks) could potentially include every person on the planet, which could flood the economy with previously excluded and disenfranchised producers and consumers as well as include the current playmakers. A level playing field means everybody makes more money down to the poorest individual and everyone has improved access to goods and services of all kinds, disaster-related or otherwise. A massive, decentralized network of verified human nodes that can act in a collective way not possible (or at least not demonstrated) by existing agencies, corporations, or government institutions in the past. All future speak, of course, but we are staring a future in the face where displacement and impoverishment of free peoples of the world could be dealt with in-stride, both fiscally and logistically by collective groups of interconnected, self-governing people.

The point, I suppose, is that the world is on the verge on a Whole New World Economy. One where Aladdin as a starving and thieving street rat living in a hut somewhere in Arabia could have equal participation in an economy as a Southwest Houston citizen of the same status. All it takes is an internet connection. With recent attempts at providing wi-fi to remote areas through satellites, and old analog radio antennas; there is currently even a Blockstream Satellite system broadcasting the Bitcoin blockchain all over the globe. And if you haven’t connected the dots already, allow me to draw the spider web: this technology may open the world to selfless acts of human compassion like the ones we witness every time there is a major disaster, and most recently in Houston. The people who lined up for hours for a chance to help rescue people they have never met can be so connected that it becomes easier for people to act altruistically. Most people just need an opportunity to be good, and we can provide a medium for that opportunity on an unprecedented scale. Blockchain aficionados will scoff and point out the current problems with the technology, but like many human endeavors, technological progress has proved to be antifragile to roadblocks and exponential in growth.

Good people like those making an impact in affected places like Houston and Beaumont in Southeast Texas and Southern Louisiana don’t need any more incentive than the goodwill and good karma, but all people cannot feasibly be forced to be good-natured, but they can be incentivized. A disaster economy needs currency that is more than money, and disaster economies seem to be popping up faster than we can mitigate them. We have a lot of disasters. The allure of crypto-currencies isn’t that they are money, it’s that they support value distributed over a global network outside the control of the bureaucracies of the world. Participation in these digital ecosystems leads to value, value leads to a network effect, and with both of these things comes widespread incentive.

There may be a way to incentivize the caring nature of the human condition over a sustainable ecosystem without reliance on a higher power other than the creed to ‘love thy neighbor.’ True religion includes us all, and the only omnipotent thing I’ve ever experienced is the internet. By removing desperation we may be able to remove its negative consequences.The technology is there – slowly developing – but very real and just over the horizon.  

However, until our utopia brought about by the Revenge of the Geeks takes a more mainstream root, there are certain realities that we must continue to deal with, but as a first time refugee it’s easy to see the inefficiencies of established systems and even harder to act on them. Let’s revolutionize the way we can work together. Stay safe. We have only the future to worry about now–no matter how much rainfall it takes–and until then I’ll be…

 

High and dry,

Silence Throughput

 

Neighborhood Wreckage image via Adobe Stock

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