DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

David Brin's "off-axis" political suggestions

Suggestion Ten: Enhance our Nation's (and Civilization's) Overall Resilience

By David Brin, Ph.D.

[image from Ready.gov]

Boosting resilience should be a top priority. Restoring our military reserves should be only the beginning. If we are serious about preparing for dangerous times, more should be done to deepen the supply of Americans who are ready to help, rather than be helpless, in future crises.

This principle holds fast to a basic, grassroots spirit that was the hallmark of the Obama Campaign -- and to traditions that go all the way back through American history. It certainly ought to be a basic theme of the new administration. Here are just a few (of many) examples that have critical implications for the nation's defense and (ultimately) survival:

  1. Admit that the post-Vietnam professionalization of the U.S. Armed Forces may have gone a bit too far. Nobody denies that today's military is ultra high tech and few are arguing for a return of the draft. But all previous generations of Americans were called upon, eventually, to augment the "thin blue line" with waves of volunteers, and we ignore this tradition at our peril. The services could be encouraged to re-engage this spirit. Serious attention might be given to shortening recruitment and training ramp-up times, in case of urgent need. A semi-trained corps of "under-reserves" might also be created, with as little experience as a three-month summer camp, especially for people who have badly needed, non-combat skill sets. (Those who disparage the usefulness of such a "reserve" should consider its psychological value, alone. Never under-rate the effect that raw numbers can have, on the calculations of a potential foe. Note also, a pre-vetted pool of high quality and willing volunteers would be better, by far, than hurriedly trying to ramp up to a draft in an emergency. Anyway, the "summer camp" option is already on the table, as a way to give millions of young people exposure to many different paths of public service.)

  2. Civilians matter, especially on the home front, where first responders can be overwhelmed by sudden disasters. Recall that citizens performed every action that proved decisive or effective on 9/11, yet almost nothing has been subsequently spent on augmenting the abilities of average folk to deal with crises. For example, today's modest Citizen Emergency Response Teams (CERT) -- all that is left of Civil Defense -- could be enhanced, preparing millions to be citizen-helpers in an emergency, instead of helpless victims. No investment might have a bigger payoff, if something terrible ever happens. And it will.

  3. Pursue robustness in our communications systems. The Internet was originally designed to network messages around areas of devastation, agilely re-routing them anywhere, under any circumstance. So, why won't our cell phones work when we need them most, if the nearby cell towers fail in a disaster? During Hurricane Katrina a quarter of a million people were cut-off with sophisticated-but-useless cell phones in their pockets. Even worse, almost nothing has been done, since then, to correct a potentially devastating design flaw.

    But let's imagine. What if mobile phones were empowered to simply pass along text messages from one to another, via peer-to-peer packet switching, all the way out of any affected area, until finally reaching an intact cell tower? This simple bypass capability could ensure coast-to-coast messaging, even during substantial nationwide havoc. It would cost little to implement and the cell companies needn't suffer any loss of revenue. (Not if their billing departments have any imagination, at all.) In fact, failure to implement such a simple fix could constitute deliberate sabotage, since its potential benefits, during any disaster, are simply overwhelming.

Lack of time and space requires that I forebear listing many other possible resilience suggestions for how we could better prepare for an uncertain future, at a tiny fraction of what we spend at the Department of Homeland Security. But take my word for it, there are plenty that I've offered in briefings for the CIA, Defense Threat Reduction Agency and other groups. In any event, you may notice a common theme, as several of my other suggestions had to do with enhancing the reserves, or empowering citizens with transparency, or reducing our brittle dependence upon just-in-time industrial practices.

One core lesson emerges from all this: We must rediscover a key role of the state as the principal agent of robustness. Economic sub-units like corporations can afford to make rosy, pollyanna assumptions, in pursuit of squeezing the last drop of current-day profits, risking only the equity of stockholders. It's not their job to plan for just-in-case scenarios of major breakdown. In contrast, national policy should ensure readiness for the inevitable rainy day.

Followup: One vulnerability that I received mail about -- the U.S. appears to be extremely brittle to crippling damage from a single nuclear weapon, exploded in space, above the continental United States, that might fry half or more of our electronics, with an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Some devices held by the military and public agencies have been "hardened" against such an event. But should there not be some incentive for industry to develop simple ways to protect the chips in our cars and homes and phone systems, too? A simple tax of as little as a nickel per unhardened device would both raise funds for research and prod the gradual development of new, cheap and efficient ways to protect against such an absurdly simple and dangerous failure mode.

The overall crux point: President Obama should establish a commission to examine these frailties and recommend simple ways to encourage a society that is more robust against the future's inevitable shocks.

[image from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson]