The intense rains of last Friday found me in Dublin, waiting for the aviation schedule to sort itself out. My plane eventually left around three hours late, but what was interesting was the pilot’s explanation.
The rain had fallen in the morning, and Heathrow had had to close for an hour as a result. His explanation was that Heathrow was so busy, and typically operating so close to capacity, that once it closed even for a short time it took a long time to work through the backlog. There just isn’t enough redundancy or slack in its system.
This is a theme of Thomas Homer-Dixon’s recently published book, The Upside of Down, which I have just started reading: that the combination of high connectivity, increased speed, and acute stresses (resources, climate, population etc) could bring our society down just through a series of critical events leading to cascading collapse, simply because there is no slack in the system. The metaphor of flooding is a good one; a flood plain or water meadow may be enough to relieve pressure for long enough to allow the situation to stabilise.
More on the book, I imagine, as I read more of it.