Blowback

As they say, there is no free lunch. However, our illusions easily deceive us that there is. Illusions may stem from the structure of modern systems (don’t worry; we have insurance), or simply from our ignorance of how a system works. If systems work poorly, frustration is “pushback.” If systems completely break down, anger and perhaps even violence is “blowback.”

Blowback need not have a single cause, and some causes rarely make the political news. Water is one of those causes. However, global maps of water short regions correspond to regions in turmoil. One of the hardest hit regions is North Africa all the way across the Middle East, and projections are that that water shortages there over time will get worse, not better. California’s water problems have gotten media attention, but perhaps it’s not total coincidence that Puerto Rico’s crises have boiled up during increasing water problems for the island.

Pushback comes from not dealing with drawbacks. For example, a recent study of buildings using recycled water (gray water) noted a drawback. No matter how it is captured, gray water harbors molds and pathogens, including Legionella (Legionnaires Disease). If you are short of water, you may need gray water, but don’t drink it straight from a rain barrel. There being very few places left where naturally flowing water purifies it to drinking quality, we have to do nature’s work in some artificial way – or at least take precautions. Civilizations are built on water systems.

Ancient Rome was made possible by its water system. Today the de facto boundaries of a town are still defined by the reach of its water system. In the United States, these systems are aging, so we squabble about funding their operation and renewal; otherwise we forget about them until they don’t work. We are deluded that water ought to be effortless and free, or at least cheap.

When a water system fails, pushback is loud protests – no matter who “owns the system.” Confidence goes down the toilet as in Flint, MI now, where the blame game centers on whether clean water is a human right. If it is, who is responsible for assuring that right? And it is a cautionary tale about using lowest cost solutions to do nature’s job of purification. Pushback is similar in less spotlighted cities with water system woes. One is little Crystal City, TX. An error flushing a dirty water tank contaminated the water system of a town nearly leaderless in the wake of a corruption scandal. Responsibility? Scapegoats are in the crosshairs; somebody else should have performed, or should correct the problem. Few system users feel much direct responsibility for it.

Pay bill; get clean water; forget about it. With someone else taking responsibility, we prefer to stay worry free – and ignorant. Few of us bother to learn the basics of how a system works. However, no utility runs indefinitely on automatic. Its operation requires diligent attention, plus constant regeneration of the physical plant. Maintaining a clean water supply takes an understanding public. Users are part of a water system too, and a good many users at the bottom of the economic heap struggle just to pay the bill.

A popular impression of water and sewage systems is that they are low-tech. That is no longer true. Electricity is generated directly from sewage. Portland, OR is generating electricity in gravity flow water mains. With complexity increasing while old systems are taken for granted old, it is easy to foresee complacency-to-pushback scenarios coming, and if these are chronic, violent blowback, possibly in a disguised form.

Maintenance of water systems in the future has to escape the assumption that future climate conditions will be the same as today (called stationarity in the industry). Some of us may experience far more floods; some will have far less water; and some of us may experience both in cycles. But as the situation in Flint foretells, we have to become much smarter providing for our basics, or pushbacks will become blowback.

We could have blowback in another industry we take for granted too, automotive. Cars have become rolling entertainment platforms on digitally controlled wheels, projected to become driverless by 2020. Maintenance to keep these things running depends on the IT system of a vehicle company. Add in the cost and messiness of licensing, insurance, and vehicle payment plans, and one understands vehicle-sharing trends like Zipcar and Uber. Urban youth increasingly forsake car ownership, or even a driver’s license. The current auto business model faces headwinds; the system has to change.

Even the liquid fuels used in vehicles are complex. The varied mixes of oil and gas coming from the ground confound classification in oil statistics, and the blends of final fuels at the pump complicate both refining and distribution. The payment system is complicated too. Few motorists are conscious of “the system” when deciding where and what to buy. They mostly go for low price, ignoring that a credit card adds about 2% to the cost per transaction, and that card use depends on satellite links.

Blowback to automotive complexity is not hard to conjure. For example, if interest rates shot up, revolt against lifelong auto payments is not unthinkable. (For those who never pay off auto loans, is ownership an illusion?) Add objections like environmental deceptions, for which VW is paying the price, and pushback could become blowback.

American health care is another complicated mess. The system mostly addresses disease diagnosis and care, where the money is. The system’s attempts to reduce costs fights its own incentives promoting more advanced technology, identifying new maladies, and economy of scale. Cost control seems stuck at “could be worse.”

Pushback abounds. Most of us experience confusing delays and billings. Third party payment spins a fuzzy cocoon over the whole system. Do we imagine “the best,” but without downsides like drug interactions, and no out of pocket expense?

What would responsible health preservation require of patients, providers, and payers? If health care took this direction, disruption would be traumatic, requiring us, as patients, to adopt a very different concept of quality of life and take responsibility for it; no more illusions of magic overcoming any self-abuse we might administer or alleviating any discomfort we might feel.

Finally, I recently attended a couple of NIMBY meetings, not-in-my-backyard protests against gravel pits. Their very existence decreased nearby property values. Protesters wanted gravel and concrete to come from elsewhere, not nearby. They detested the noise, traffic, environmental degradation, and water consumption. The gravel company’s plans to minimize their disturbances did not allay their future neighbors’ fear that commodity profit margins would motivate the company to abandon any long-term promises made.

Nobody asked a key question: Why do we want such big local growth in use of concrete and asphalt that a commodity gravel pit becomes a controversial operation?

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