Monday, 21 January 2013

The Tyranny of Distance

File:ClipperRoute.pngThe man who coined that phrase, the Australian Historian Geoffrey Blainey, wrote an article a few weeks ago called ‘Tyranny of distance dies hard’ (Financial Review, so it’s not free online). In it he talks, as you can imagine, about the distance that still separates us from continental Asia. ‘Every city in Europe is closer to Continental Asia than are Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. Australia – or the region where most of us live – is not close to china’. And, as he argues, since the world is shrinking, it affects everyone and what matters is relative advantage. Now, Geoffrey Blainey is to the best of my knowledge not overshoot aware and he is using a simplification in the quote above, for fairly simple reasons based on the myth of progress and simplicities sake. Since sea travel is traditionally better than an equivalent land route, we are qualitatively closer to Asia than Europe is, however since in the progress view of the world air-travel is becoming more common and important, distance as the crow flys is more important. While a post overshoot world could still have airships to keep this trend, in an overshooting world the infrastructure necessary won’t be built on anything but a regional scale (if at all). As for Overshoot, well its affects from distance increase can only be seen with time, however, we can look at some of the relevant factors; the fate of the two major canals (Suez and Panama), the clipper route, sea level rise and climate change, the maintenance of docks, and piracy. From this a framework of how the tyranny of distance could play. From there, its affects on life can be guessed, whether it’s how a journey man system could pop up, skill exchanges, pilgrimages to the travel some farmers do after harvest, and so on.

The Canals: The two major canals, the Panama and the Suez, as you can infer from the map above, drastically changed shipping routes. While they are a product of the early industrial age, Napoleon was involved in the initial surveying of the Suez canal and the Panama was finished in the same year that WW1 started, they will not necessarily disappear with the Industrial age. Most of the work has already been done and smaller canals have been built and maintained well before the Industrial age came along, and both sites offer some ability to pursue large projects. The type of labour force that built the pyramids, farmers when the Nile was flooding (provided it starts again), could easily be used to maintain the canal, especially if the level of ingenuity and mechanical aptitude used in the pyramids remains. And the Panama has access to biofuels; Brazilian ethanol has the highest EROEI (10) I have heard of for ethanol, with which to help the labour. What could destroy; or more likely shut them down for periods of time, is a mixture of suppressed maritime trade, increased piracy and rising passage fees; The Caribbean and the Mediterranean have both been homes of pirates throughout history. A sharp and sudden economic/political dislocation could also shut them down, until the freeing up of resources that is part of catabolic collapse allows them to be reopened. Either way, the clipper route is likely to start up again and while it is unlikely to gain its former place, it will once again be an important part of the global economy and maritime travel.

The Clipper Route: The natural sailing route that lies along the far southern hemisphere, courtesy of the roaring forties and furious fifties, the image above is of the route. It was the fastest, most rewarding and dangerous route of its time, chances are it will be again. It goes along the south coast of Australia, which is a blessing because since that’s near where most of Australia’s population lives and it is also the most dangerous route (by nature), which makes any hostile movements using it unwise, or easily defended against, look up the Mongol invasions of Japan (key word: Kamikaze), at least from outside Australia. This route actually makes Perth close enough, qualitatively, that WA could conceivably remain part of some form of federation (I’d say a about even) .The main problem is that climate change could disrupt, change or make it even more dangerous, which would most likely be to Australia’s detriment.

Pirate Zones: Directly north of Australia is likely to be a pirate zone, these pirates would most likely use small boats that range from canoes to small fishing boats. The pirates will be especially thick in the closed (if that’s the right term) waters of the various straits and where the local governments have broken down or are resorting to piracy. This could often cut of continental Asia and some of the northern islands, however its more likely to restrict and suppress travel rather than stop it. The Mediterranean and Persian Gulf will also suffer from a similar pirate infestation, think Somalia or the Barbary pirates (the USA went to war with them), especially when the Suez canal is operational. While the pirates here could (and probably will) use bigger ships, canoes and small sail (possibly some motor as well) boats will work fine here. The Barbary pirates used rowboats to capture merchants and one US warship (idiot captain). This will only affect Australia while the Suez is operational, and the clipper route will alleviate it somewhat. The Caribbean is likely to regain its pirates, and these will be closer to the ones in popular culture, hopefully they’ll also be democratic (with constitutions) like their predecessors (yes pirates back then were democratic, to a degree). These pirates will be a problem for anyone travelling to the East coast of N.America, whether or not the Panama is closed, and unfortunately the East coast is the Wealthier and more hospitable of the N.American coasts. Now, if you think this sounds easy to deal with, remember, I haven’t even mentioned the privateers (state backed pirates) that could easily arise.

Sea level rise and Climate Weirding: Heres a flood map, it’s useful to examine the changes to Australia based on sea level rise. Since we’re a mostly coastal country, even if you don’t live near the coast, these changes will impact you severely in everyday (and not everyday) life. Now as a reference, the last figure I’ve heard on sea level rise is that it’s expected to be between 6 and 13 metres, however that basis was on a continued rise in fossil fuel use. Extrapolate, as you will and research on your own. Now, from my personal experience, most of Australia’s coastline is quite rugged and won’t be largely impacts by sea level rise, however some parts of it will be, especially the port cities were people live. As shown on the map, the impact isn’t going to be the apocalyptic with the current coastline utterly abandoned scenario that most (or at least the ones I hear) climate change activist say it will be. However, we have the second change brought about by global warming, climate Weirding. Since this means that current natural disasters, specifically (in this case) hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes and coastal floods, will become more common and appear in new areas, they will amplify and feed off the impacts of sea level rise, based on the current locations of such disasters (Queensland and NT), this is likely to spread south to NSW and will make Queensland and NT a bit more inhospitable.

Coastal and Supporting Infrastructure: Since container ships are likely to disappear and sails will gradually replace diesel, both the supporting (mostly manufacturing) and direct (docks and such) shipping infrastructure will need to be rebuilt. This section is going to degrade no matter what as one of the consequences of overshoot. Since all the supporting infrastructure, rails, roads, manufacturing, forest (if wooden ships), sheep farms (sails) and so on, is also going to need to be created, replaced or upgraded, and is also going to decline, then the uptake of sailing ships will follow the catabolic collapse pattern. That is, after periods of decline and collapse, things will cycle up before they decline further.

Tyranny of distance: There are two factors to keep in mind when thinking of the impacts distances has on the social, political and economic worlds, the quantitative factor of how far apart and how long the routes are and the qualitative factors;  safety, ease of travel, cultural and economic factors, relative wealth, infrastructure and so on. For the inhabited parts of Australia, Asia will be far away because of both the pirates and the competition from the clipper route allowing quick travel to the Atlantic. Africa and S.America are close because of the clipper route, while N.America and Europe are simply far away. This means we’re removed from the trouble spots of the world, but, we’re also going to be removed from any cultural flowerings, newly prosperous economies and technological innovations. However, since those things are more likely to happen after overshoot and they have major troubles associated with them, its not a bad deal. Once you get past the economic dislocation, political crisis and cultural shocks, this isn’t such a bad trait. 

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