Nothing To Lose But Our (Supply) Chains (Pt. I)

Nothing To Lose But Our (Supply) Chains (Pt. I)

What does a humane and survivable global logistics look like?

7 minute read

Industrial Ideology

"The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language."

— Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte

Supply chains have become a proxy war for the overall tenability of basically any radical re-imagining of the human project. The global logistical network, a hodgepodge of trade relations amassed ad hoc over centuries owing largely to differences of industrial development, resource availability, and state economic protectionism, has grown so complex that we can no longer imagine what we would do without it.

"How will we get enough food for five billion people?"

"We have six billion people to feed!"

"Good luck feeding seven billion people with good vibes and free association!"

Regardless of whether the economy is "market capitalist" with state repression, or "state capitalist" with billionaire marketeers, the dominant ideology is as follows:

  1. Industrial development is capable of solving every problem humans face in the natural world
  2. A mixed economy guided by a managerial class is the ultimate means of advancing this development
  3. Any convolutions of the global supply network are probably necessary, or at the most should only be incrementally improved upon by the very people who currently manage them

From within this ideology, our mode of production is viewed like a parasitic organism that, out of sheer self-preservation, also preserves its host. But to what degree is that an observed reality and not an act of faith?

The Ecological Contradiction

"In real nature, there's enough diversity to cushion an ecosystem when something catastrophic happens. Nothing that we build, our ships, our stations, has that depth. Now in an artificial ecosystem, when one thing goes wrong, there's only a certain amount of pathways that can compensate for it. Eventually those pathways get overstressed, and then they fail. Which leaves fewer pathways, and then they'll get overstressed and then they fail."

— Dr. Praxidike Meng, The Expanse

In the 1960s, the world was experiencing a revolution in agriculture, using cutting edge science to produce more food than ever believed possible. Around the same time, a revolution in industrial production was happening in Japan. In response to global market pressures, the Toyota Motor Corporation invented the Toyota Production System, eliminating waste and streamlining production so well that its core lessons have become the backbone of lean manufacturing. Hydraulic fracture drilling and mountaintop removal mining were also developed at this time, as stakeholders in the energy supply chain yielded to economic forces such as rising labor costs and an impending scarcity of accessible natural gas reserves. The post-war capital injection into global industrial production seemed to penetrate every facet of production and find new, highly efficient ways of achieving the goals of its managers and shareholders.

Looking back at those developments, we see that the trade-offs were great, especially for people who lived at the points of resource extraction and the production of goods. Even the sacrosanct supply chain wisdom of lean manufacturing has been called into question, as covid has caused demand bullwhips in everything from toilet paper to microprocessors. In February of last year, Texans discovered just how fragile these supply chains are becoming when millions of us went without power during an unprecedented winter storm. According to ERCOT themselves, we were mere minutes away from losing power for months.

Put bluntly, the ubiquitous narrative of industrial development as a linearly and uniformly liberating force in society bears no resemblance to the reality in which we live, nor has it ever. Nowhere is that more apparent than the latest IPCC report, which the video below does an excellent job summarizing.

It is impossible to overstate the impact of climate change. Conservative estimates show casualties in this century will eclipse every famine and plague the world has ever known, and the death toll is already here and rising. On top of this, we are facing interrelated crises of fossil fuel scarcity, chemical fertilizer depletion, soil erosion, global-spread PFAS pollution, and an ongoing mass extinction event so extreme that it has earned humanity a place among epoch-defining phenomena like major asteroid impacts.

In light of what we know about the effects of the last two centuries on the global ecology, industrial development looks less like a gift from the gods and more like a short-lived Faustian bargain. On the receiving end, we have an abundance of corn, unevenly distributed, lasting about one century. In exchange for that, we have given everything - the forests, the oceans, the air that we breathe, the stars that guided us for millennia and filled us with wonder, and now even the corn itself. At this point, a persistent commitment to industrial ideology is not an empirical certainty, but a leap of faith.

The Conquest of Insulin

"“The Girondists are starving us!” was the cry in the workmen’s quarters in 1793, and thereupon the Girondists were guillotined, and full powers were given to “the Mountain” and to the Commune. The Commune indeed concerned itself with the question of bread, and made heroic efforts to feed Paris. At Lyons, Fouché and Collot d’Herbois established city granaries, but the sums spent on filling them were woefully insufficient. The town councils made great efforts to procure corn; the bakers who hoarded flour were hanged — and still the people lacked bread."

— Pyotr Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread

The insulin supply chain has become a lighting rod for conjecture about the survivability of post-capitalist and/or post-industrialist supply chains. Buried within this neverending battle of the ideologies are points worth pausing over.

WHO graphic representing the barriers to insulin access. (Source)

First, there is the critical issue of imagining a world where the outputs of complex global supply chains are produced by non-coercive, ecological alternatives. Things that we in the United States might take for granted, such as quality control, waste reduction, brand reliability, and timely delivery intervals are largely the purview of managerial decision-making. These managers are generally responding to market signals and state regulations in complex relationships that form a kind of negative space around those pressures. In order to achieve the same or better results in spaces such as pharmaceutical production, there must be some kind of signal to prevent under- or overproduction, or else a means of handling shortages and surpluses that does not result in unmanageable externalities (more on this in part II).

Diabetes case rates are seven times what they were 70 years ago.

Secondly, there is the need to accurately assess capitalism's role in the state of public health. After 300 millennia of presumably stable prevalence, diabetes cases as a percentage of the population have grown sevenfold in the U.S. and ninefold globally in just the past century. On the other hand, a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes once meant that you had two to three years left to live, whereas a present-day sufferer with access to insulin lives a decade shy of the general population. While there is no way to ethically calculate the trade-off of a saving the lives of 1% of the population and reducing the lives of 6-10% of the population by 5-10 years, I think people invested in the survivability of a revolutionary movement should concern themselves with three questions:

  1. Is the invention and production of insulin impossible without capitalism or industrial production?
  2. Is capitalism a primary cause of obesity, and the primary driver of the massive increase in diabetes?
  3. Can we produce a geopolitics that solves both of these problems?
A mechanistic model of the relationship of capitalism to under- and overnutrition. (Source)

To put it another way, we can come out of this analysis with perhaps a better idea of the necessary components of any humane global logistics:

  1. It must discover and solve the essential problems that the current supply chains currently solve. (This includes the capacity to discover and signal to productive forces that something is, in fact, essential.)
  2. It must make those solutions available in sufficient quantities to all who need it.
  3. It must not generate unmanageable positive feedback loops of crisis and maladaptation.

Okay, But...How?

How should a revolution led by obscure social ecological values like "don't destroy the planet," and, "don't enslave people," actually work? Stay tuned for next time, where we'll discuss exactly that. For now, we'll give a morsel to chew on:

spicy discourse