We are living on the brink of the apocalypse, but the world is asleep.
I’m one of the most pessimistic people I know. Yet it’s this same unique trait I exploit while designing High Availability architectures. I expect things to fail, and plan for the worst almost constantly. I’ve based my career on it. Granted, worst case scenarios rarely come to pass, but my motto is and always will be to “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”
To that end, I believe our society has been dealt a mortal blow. One which has instigated a cataclysmic chain reaction that will—and arguably already has—usher in years of Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. The state of our society is so precarious that it may not even survive at all.
A Looming Storm
I’ve explored the abstract concept of Leviathan in the past, likening it to a shambling culmination of society’s machinations. I implied that disrupting it is essentially impossible because the myriad segments tirelessly reinforce each other. Unfortunately, my initial musings considered this an oppressive force for the human spirit, and failed to account for the stability it provides for society. There is room for improvement, but the current state of Leviathan embodies our existing moral and pragmatic frameworks, for better or worse.
“There must be a better way!” I thought.
And there is. But it cannot be prescribed by the fallible representatives of humanity. No, the beast is alive and sentient, and our institutions merely function as its organs. But despite my credentials as a full-time pessimist and part-time cynic, I never really considered that the Leviathan could die. Until we encountered SARS-CoV-2 of Covid-19 fame, that was probably true. It turns out our highly specialized and efficiency-at-all-costs approach isn’t particularly resilient.
There’s a phenomenon within living organisms that, should the immune system overreact to a threat by producing excessive inflammation signals, will result in multiple organ failure leading to death. It’s called a Cytokine Storm. Covid-19 was indeed an extremely virulent disease in the beginning, weighing in with an R0 transmissibility score up to 5x higher than the average flu, and a Case Fatality Rate (CFR) estimated at 10x that of the flu. They were terrifying and sobering numbers in early 2020 and had everybody scrambling.
But were things really that bad? Here’s a data visualization of the CDC data as of March 25th, 2022 grouped by age:
The median life expectancy for an average resident of the United States is 77 years. According to the CDC’s own numbers, this means 51% of all deaths attributed to Covid-19 were from people at or above the median life expectancy in this country. Yet these same age groups only constitute 4.75% of the US population as of the 2019 US Census. This may sound high, but according to the CDC, someone 85 or older has a 96% chance of surviving Covid-19. Younger age groups carry exponentially less risk.
Does the relatively tiny 4% risk of mortality only in the elderly population justify modifying society in a way that could ultimately kill several orders of magnitude more people? Because that’s exactly where we’re heading.
People are not heartless as a rule, and want to protect vulnerable populations. We had a choice to make early in the pandemic:
- Protect vulnerable populations with vaccines, treatment, and other preventative measures.
- Arbitrarily lock down the world in an effort to reduce Covid-19 to zero.
Reducing a disease like Covid-19 to zero is a foolish proposition given its highly transmissible R0 value, yet lockdowns swept the globe. Again, early on this was a logically sound concept for limited engagements. The idea was to prevent spread as much as possible so that Hospitals would not be overwhelmed. But what started as “two weeks to slow the spread” eventually transformed into a new meme:
The lockdowns themselves were misapplied in any case, as they sought to reduce Covid-19 to zero for an indeterminate period with no exit strategy. The point was to avoid overwhelming hospitals and thus reduce excess deaths. Until the Vaccines, there was no reliable treatment protocol, so the area under either curve would be the same. Rather than a huge spike of deaths with possibly more caused by saturated capacity, deaths are spread over a longer period of time. Covid-19 deaths would still occur, just not an excess caused by hospital capacity issues.
For the most part, we had capacity handled. Admittance rates were so low that hospitals felt free to fire unvaccinated staff, despite lauding them as heroes earlier in the pandemic. In fact, many hospitals are now so empty, budget shortfalls may close them for good.
This is the real crux of the matter: every part of the Leviathan is too complicated and intricately linked to other systems for humans to micromanage. Pass laws to ensure Hospitals dedicate all capacity to Covid-19, and areas largely unaffected by the pandemic—or even those that merely see fewer than anticipated patients—suddenly face the Law of Unintended Consequences. Budget shortfalls, idle staff in all other specialties, people missing critical followup care. How many deaths did that cause?
Meanwhile, since 2020 there’s a five-fold increase in preteen suicide attempts, non-Covid deaths are up 40%, and drug overdose deaths are up by 28.5% nationwide. Those are a mere fraction of the ensuing fallout from forcing social isolation upon at-risk groups or developing brains.
Does our reaction to Covid justify losing more people to suicide, drug overdoses, developmental delays, and other psychological maladies that bring decades of uncertain repercussions? We are not prepared or intelligent enough to trace the downstream effects of our actions in this regard, yet we’re doing it anyway. Humans tend to be extremely short-sighted and focus on a single problem without taking the overall scenario and any downstream effects into account.
An intricately balanced system like a globalized trade alliance comprised of nominally compatible governing bodies can’t simply turn on a dime. We stopped a lot more than Covid by locking down our populations.
Things Fall Apart
Which brings us to the amplification of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The worldwide lockdowns set several events in motion. Any single one of these factors could prove catastrophic to the global economy, and we ended up with a perpetually self-fueling cascade consisting of dozens.
Unemployment rose significantly. Travel, hospitality, service, transportation, and several other industries were significantly affected. Over 34% of small businesses permanently closed in the US. Even after two years, these numbers still haven’t recovered.
People who are unemployed, either through lockdown rules or from closed businesses, can’t pay rent or buy food. Thus the US government passed multiple relief bills aimed at solving the problem. The largest of these was the CARES Act at $2.2 Trillion in 2020, followed closely by the Rescue Plan at $1.9 Trillion in 2021. Where was all of this money coming from if so many people were out of work? About that…
Here’s a 10-year graph of the US money supply:
Notice what happened in 2020? Put into perspective, the United States has printed nearly 80% of all US dollars in existence since January 2020. As a result, US inflation reached a new consecutive record high every month. As of February 2022, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) stands at 7.9%, the highest value in 40 years. This is, of course, only part of the story. The calculation used for CPI underwent a revision in the 1990s. Using that older calculation puts the CPI at closer to 15%, the highest it’s been since 1947.
Consider too, that the CPI doesn’t include things like fuel. This alone is also at record highs and has nearly doubled since 2020 ($2.36 March 2020 vs $4.56 March 2022). All industries depend on petroleum in one way or another. Shipping, production, heating, travel, are all influenced directly, and have a cascading effect on dependent prices. Farmers for instance, must use petroleum and byproducts to fertilize, and those prices have skyrocketed since last year.
“Just for instance last year… wheat fertilizer - and I’ve got the same acres this year - last year was $26,000. This year was $106,000,” Smith said.
And no, this isn’t due to the Ukraine conflict, which we’ll get to shortly. Here’s a graph of gas prices over the last two years:
While war between Russia and Ukraine contributed near the end of the chart, prices demonstrate a clear upwards trend long before Russia invaded. Government spending results in increases in the money supply, which raises the price of all commodities. Anyone who received less than an 8% raise in the last year lost money. Any savings in a bank, most of which have negligible interest rates, lost 8% of its buying power in the last year alone.
Many commodities actually increased in cost by far more than this. Winter heating costs increased by 30-54% for gas, heating oil, and propane. For large swaths of the US that need to heat their home during the winter, this is a crippling expense. A recent poll suggests 63% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, it may not even be possible to remain financially solvent under these circumstances.
Of course, rising prices aren’t purely a function of government expenditure. It can also be caused by decreased supply versus demand.
Multiple factors influence how this happens, but 2021 saw a massive pileup in container shipping. A majority of trucking services use owner-operators, and California recently passed AB-5, which essentially makes this illegal. As a result, multiple carriers have simply stopped operating there. There are several hundred fewer dock workers due to Covid restrictions. An additional factor is the sharp increase in diesel costs, which reduce operator margins to levels where they may choose not to carry a load.
The more worrying component of a shipping and transportation disruption is that the US is almost entirely reliant on China for several medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. Relying on a sovereign foreign power for essential industries is risky even in good times, let alone during a pandemic or trade dispute. Here we can see one aspect at how a supply disruption might put lives at risk. And it doesn’t stop there.
One of the huge attention-gathering headlines has been the chip shortage. Many companies rely on a Just-In-Time supply chain system to reduce warehousing and oversupply costs. These systems have minimal (or even no) slack capacity to weather supply disruptions, and even they are realizing that’s a mistake. Yet that is small consolation for all the downstream industries that rely on these broken JIT chains.
New cars for instance, saw manufacturers such as Honda reduce inventory by 83% from last year. The same report shows used car prices are up 44%, possibly to compensate for the shortage in new vehicles. Increased costs and fewer available units make it somewhat difficult to buy an electric car in an attempt to escape high fuel prices. That is, assuming the US electric grid could even withstand a majority of EV usage in its current form.
All of this places a massive strain on an already delicate interactive transportation and supply pipeline. Much of this has led to a staggering global increase in food costs by 20.7%. Most budgets can’t simply absorb a 20% increase in food costs without repercussions, especially in poorer countries. Every kink in the supply chain amplifies the next segment down the line, including associated costs. How many companies can survive these repeated and extended disruptions? What did they produce, transport, or supply before going out of business?
Now we can address how this general instability has affected the global political climate.
When the Bough Breaks
Regardless of Donald Trump’s myriad character flaws, the world refrained from risking his ire. Whether it was because they perceived him as a loose cannon or otherwise, he made conflict with the US or its interests a losing proposition. The Trump administration bombed a Russian regiment in Syria and Putin did nothing in response. Even if it’s a wildly inaccurate claim, Trump said he warned Putin he’d bomb Moscow. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true because it could be. Everyone treated Trump like a potential maniac with all the associated implications.
One side-effect of lockdowns down during the early stages of Covid—which includes the US 2020 presidential election—is that it strongly influenced the outcome in Biden’s favor due to mail in votes. The perception of Biden as a president is a decidedly less fearful one. Biden proved US military competency in decline during the Afghanistan withdrawal. Why not evacuate non-essential personnel first? Why leave so much functional equipment behind? Why not maintain minimal military presence until the supplies, munitions, and personnel were accounted for?
One way or another, Putin likely decided he needn’t fear US response any further. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine is his own, and regardless of international speculation from talking heads, or his stated justifications, the war has begun. While an international outpouring of empathy and aid for displaced Ukrainian citizens has swept the west, it’s still early in the conflict to really know how it will end. The US has refused to impose a no-fly zone to further antagonize Russia, but how long will that last?
The trouble is that Russia is a Nuclear Power, and is perfectly willing to use them in this conflict. As a result, the US and its allies have imposed a series of sanctions. Germany has shut down its Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and the US has banned Russian fuel imports, among other things.
A potential consequence of these sanctions is, as Bidan stated in a recent speech, “Real food shortages”. He’s not wrong, either. Russia and Ukraine supply 30% of wheat globally and a good proportion of necessary ingredients for fertilizer. Already facing high fuel costs for farming equipment, farmers must now add the increased cost and dwindling supply of fertilizer to the equation.
Here are the prices in context, showing a 3.5x increase since March 2020:
Weren’t we already experiencing increased food prices due to supply shortages in the US? Even if Russia only supplies 8% of our fuel, that makes existing supply problems worse. Now the world is also facing a 30% or greater reduction in crop yields due to fertilizer and export restrictions. How many people will end up dying who are not involved with the Russia / Ukraine conflict in any way?
To further complicate matters, Russian banks are switching payment processors to China’s UnionPay, India is continuing to buy oil from Russia, and both countries joined with the UAE to refrain from condemning Russia.
China, India, Russia, and the UAE comprise 37% of the world population and 21% of the GDP, making it exceedingly difficult to collectively sanction them. They could easily form their own trading bloc and largely ignore pressure from Western Nations. Not that we would consider doing so anyway, as the trade deficit between China and the US is totally lopsided in China’s favor. These countries may even threaten the petrodollar itself.
Even if none of this precipitates into open warfare, the economic devastation would be unparalleled. The tenuous alliances we’ve spent decades fostering are quickly unraveling, leaving calamitous international supply shortages in its wake. Few countries and their related industries are self-sufficient due to various elements of offshoring and supply-chain optimization.
Millions of people will starve because of this.
Notice how I never said anything about vaccine efficacy, Hydroxychloroquine, Ivermectin, or anything else related to treating Covid prophylactically. Treating Covid itself is not relevant to our reaction. All of the consequences we’re facing are directly due to our emulation of a Cytokine Storm. Our reaction to a moderately virulent disease has crashed the worldwide economy and supply chain, is currently triggering a worldwide famine that will likely kill far more people than Covid ever could have imagined, and may even lead to a nuclear war.
That’s where we are now. That’s the decision we made as a society. All for a disease that has a maximum 4% mortality rate, and only in people 85 and older. We amplified the risk so much that it became a fully anaphylactic reaction that may immolate the whole of Western society, if not that of the world.
The Leviathan, which I once decried as an oppressive presence forcing everyone into strict roles in order for society to function, suffered a potentially fatal gut shot in late 2019. It has festered and spread, unleashing the collective poisons of human sin within the wound. Our pride that we know better, our avarice to exploit the situation, our lust to revel in the chaos, and more. Our aimless thrashing hastens the death of the Leviathan, and so too our own.
At this point we’re merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic during its slow descent into the icy arctic depths. But remember, I’m a pessimist; pray I’m wrong about all of this, because I sure will.