Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 20, 2014

More, more concentrated, more specialized: More vulnerable?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on February 20, 2014


There are many more of us.

In my lifetime the population of the United States has more than doubled. Over these six decades, the population of the world has grown from a bit less than 3 billion to more than 7 billion.

Growth rates are slowing in many places, even reversing in some affluent corners.  But our historical experience does not avail us many analogies well-suited to the present context.


US Census Bureau Image

We are more densely concentrated than ever before.

In 1870 one out of four Americans lived in urban areas. By 1920 the urban-to-non-urban ratio was 1-to-1. In 2010 four out of five Americans lived in urban areas. Today about 75 percent of Americans are concentrated on about three percent of the nation’s territory.

Demographers believe that — for the first time — since 2008 a majority of humans live in cities. This is a profound transition, but so suddenly achieved the full implications of our new condition cannot be confidently claimed.

For most of human history the vast majority of people have produced their own food or lived very close to where their food and other consumables were produced. The systems on which modern urban concentration depend have mostly emerged in the last four generations.  They continue to emerge.

Whether this is a brave new world or one blithely unaware can be debated. In any case, never before have so many depended on so few so very far away.

For at least 5000 years humans have gathered in cities.  To live in cities was to be civilized.  Athens at its classical peak housed about 140,000 (about 30 percent slaves). In the Third Century Rome exceeded one million inhabitants, the greatest concentration of humans until 18th Century Beijing (when Rome had collapsed to about 100,000).

Only in the last century has technology allowed the vast majority of us to detach ourselves from the task of feeding ourselves and selling the excess of our crop to others.  For most of human history there has not been sufficient excess to support anything like contemporary density.

Crop Concentrations

Map by William Rankin from Census data

To supply these dense concentrations we increasingly specialize.

The map above (click on image for more detail) suggests the kind of crop monocultures that have emerged to supply the intense demand of our cities.  Similar maps can be displayed for other monocultures: pork, chickens, pharmaceuticals, aircraft, micro-chips, financial services and more.  All of which makes sense in terms of rapid exchange of information, availability of expertise, and services for processing, packaging, transport, and such.

High volume, concentrated sources of demand and supply, and specialized production and processing tend to be very efficient… most of the time.

The same efficient networks are just as adept at spreading contamination and disruption. The networks in effect becoming fat targets — much fatter than previously — for hurricanes, earthquakes, drought, pandemic and even just stupid mistakes.

Peter Drucker wrote, demography “is the future that has already happened.”

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Comment by William R. Cumming

February 20, 2014 @ 1:20 am

Excellent post since IMO demography a driver of current events more than anyone seems to know.

Perhaps unusually both Canada and the USA are probably two of the world’s nation-states relatively free of the driver of demographics and that other driver energy.

By the end of the Century the Americas will look very different or maybe not.

But what is now clear is that demographics and energy are the key explosive drivers in Eurasia and Africa.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 20, 2014 @ 1:32 am

Phil! If memory serves there are about 3400 county jurisdictions in the USA! Perhaps it is 4100 but memory fails. Could you possibly come up with a graphic of those with fewer than 25,000 population. I happen to live in one, Northumberland County, Virginia, with under 13,000 full time residents and citizens.

My old county, Arlington, VA, the smallest county by square miles in the USA has over 200,000 citizens and residents. It contains part of the land area of our original SEAT OF GOVERNMENT, Washington, D.C., returned to Virginia as not needed for that SEAT in the 1880s! And it is beginning to resemble YONKERS, N.Y.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 20, 2014 @ 1:38 am

And all should note a large portion of almost $5B passed out in federal DHS grants to the National Capital Region since 9/11/01 has failed to create an effective reponse system for that region despite being the only one with a statutory coordinative and planning Executive.

Can you name that Executive, a non-career SES in DHS? His/her Directorate?

Comment by E. Earhart

February 20, 2014 @ 6:27 am

Is this a bad thing?
From “The Karma of India’s Holy Crowd,” February 2014 National Geographic

“Have Crowds been misunderstood? . . . [There’s an energy coming off this crowd, a sense that it amounts to more than the sum of it’s parts.] . . . a collective effervescence.

“What our research shows is that, actually, crowds are critical to society,” Stephen Reicher of the University of St. Andrews in UK. [even improving health]

Comment by E. Earhart

February 20, 2014 @ 6:33 am

Why should belonging to a crowd improve health?

“[T]he cornerstone of the effect is shared identity. “you think in terms of ‘we’ rather than ‘I'” . . . ” a fundamental shift from seeing people as other to seeing them as intimate. . . . That elicits positive emotions that make them not only more resilient to hardship but also healthier.”

Comment by E. Earhart

February 20, 2014 @ 6:39 am

Why more resilient?

“As the population of a city increases, the degree of social interaction in that city increases too, only faster-with positive effects on the creation of everything from art to knowledge to wealth. ‘There is a 10 to 15 percent extra benefit, on average. So there is a strong social force driving us towards living together.'” Dirk Helbing of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich

So “We’ll always have Paris.” Or New York?

Comment by E. Earhart

February 20, 2014 @ 6:47 am

New York? That resilient city of J.H. Comiskey.

Unlike counties where you and I live Mr. Cumming, where everyone drives a truck, and when it snows, your neighbor straps on the plow, and plows their drive way, then their neighbors, then the street, then the grocery store, Big cities/New York have to be more creative/resilient. Refuge/Garbage trucks are retrofitted as giant snow plows.

The one negative to this is that there are then no garbage trucks and that means garbage is not picked-up. Each day of snow removal and re-purposing, and this year there have been many, 14 TONS of garbage collect on the streets of NYC.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 20, 2014 @ 8:08 am

Thanks for the as always useful comments Double E!

YUP we are social animals US humans. What that may really mean, just as with vaccines, is that the herd more important than the individual. But the ego, hubris, and the stupidity of the individual could destroy the herd!

How do we insure and ensure that does not happen and still allow for individualism in our modern societies?

Comment by Quin

February 20, 2014 @ 8:22 am


The Washington Post just ran a map (courtesy of Reddit) showing where 50% of the nation’s GDP comes from just a handful of cities. Outside of the glancing blow from Superstorm Sandy and near misses from earthquakes in California and hurricanes in the gulf, none of them have seen a major catastrophe since San Francisco in 1906. Someday we’ll have to find out what happens when one (or more) of those cities is significantly disrupted for a substantial period of time.


Comment by William R. Cumming

February 20, 2014 @ 9:17 am

Thanks Quin! Interesting graphic.

And your sentence “Someday we’ll have to find out what happens when one (or more) of those cities is significantly disrupted for a substantial period of time.”

Let’s pick 6 weeks off grid, a federal exercise scenario I personally played a number of times!

An eerie sense of unreality permeated these exercises.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 20, 2014 @ 9:25 am

Each of the cities on the WAPO map should look closely at the threat posed by grid failures, contamination-radiological or otherwise, and of course my favorite Mother Nature’s wrath at human stupidity.

The flood of record for Washington, D.C. 1936 with 9 feet of water on the Ellipse. HWM indicated by two toll houses on Constitution Ave.

Oddly, conditions in the Potomac River watershed today very similar to winter 1936!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 20, 2014 @ 12:41 pm

As Quin suggests, in the brief historical period during which such intense concentration has occurred we have not faced severely acute events. As a result, much of our analysis is based on analogies or different forms of projection.

During this period the United States has faced a series of chronic events: long-term drought during the 30s, severe economic depression in the same decade, hot-and-cold wars since 1941, some of which involved what was widely perceived as an immediate and existential threat. More could be listed.

As E. Earhart suggests, there is evidence and analysis that argues density itself is not necessarily more vulnerable. Much depends on the diversity also involved (which is one of the reasons I think attention to specialization may be important). My own guess is that the outcome of an acute event will depend on exactly when and where and how hard the “punctuation” hits and — especially — if its a one-time hit or persists in waves. I think we are inclined to discount risk, but I am not certain that catastrophic collapse is the most likely result.

As usual, I’m being wishy-washy. For me the evidence is just not sufficient to be sure how our new reality will play out when put to a high consequence test.

What I do find remarkable is how seldom it seems to be recognized that in many ways we are living in a radically different world than that into which I was born. As daily decisions are made, I often perceive the decision-maker is stuck in about 1973. Even when s/he was born a decade or more later.

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